Saturday, June 28, 2014

How to Write a Murder Mystery

by Duelpad on DeviantART
One of my Beta Readers suggested that I include a scene summing up the story, as do many mystery writers. She is very well-read, quite bright, loves books, and has a library background including choosing which books to include in the libraries she worked for. So I have good reason to take her suggestion seriously.

Mystery writers have had long and illustrious careers producing just such summing up scenes. Agatha Christie comes immediately to mind. Her Hercule Poirot was forever gathering everyone into the parlor to explain who done it. And this is not a hidebound tradition abandoned to the dead-and-buried writers’ club. J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith employed it in The Cuckoo’s Calling. So it is still legitimate and still in good standing.

So I thought about it. Initially I had chosen not to have just such an explanation of the story. My favorite living, American author is John Irving. Yes, I know he doesn’t write murder mysteries, but aren’t all novels mysteries? If you know who done it and what they done in the first few pages, why would you read the whole thing?

What I like about Irving is that he trusts his readers to know what happens without spoon feeding it to them. Admittedly there have been times when I went back to see ‘When did that happen?’ only to find that he didn’t actually say that’s what happened, but obviously it did!

To me it’s like explaining a painting or a ballet or a poem or a joke. If the work is well-done, the audience will get it.

And my whole point in writing Murder on Ceres has been to write a book like I want to read. A murder mystery. A science fiction murder mystery.

Well, I’ve discovered that I want Murder on Ceres to be the kind of book other people will want to read. So traditions must be considered.

After having read The Cuckoo’s Calling, I decided it would be a good idea. The author’s summing up scene in no way offended me or interfered with my satisfaction at the end of my reading it.

I thought of two different scenes in which to do it, one of which would lead into my next book. But, I don’t want to do it. I added bits and pieces to the manuscript toward the end of the book that are pretty specific and will, I hope, take the place of a summing up scene.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Elizabeth  2000 - 2014
    Our good Bess. We got her as a pup in August 2000. Her people had taken her to a pet shop in Louisiana for sale along with several of her siblings. Lucky for us, she didn't sell and they gave her to us.
    Her working title was Scrunch, no doubt because of all that wrinkledy skin. Basset Hounds, in addition to being a full dog long and half a dog high, have enough extra skin to make an extra little dog. In honor of her breed's English heritage, we named her for Good Queen Bess. And the fact that Elizabeth the First had no offspring went right along with our plans for our Bess.
   She had the traditional Basset sad face, but she was the most cheerful dog we've ever had. She was completely oblivious to the vagaries of weather. Be it cold or hot, sun, rain, or snow, she loved the outdoors. She bayed 'possums until they passed out from fright and treed 'coons standing watch at the base of the tree until one of her humans could persuade her to come inside for the night.
    She was born in Arkansas, moved to Oklahoma, and then to Colorado. She didn't mind the moves as long as she had her family. Over the years, that family included cats and dogs and birds. And her humans -- a mom and dad and grandpa, two brothers and two sisters, a niece, and two nephews.
    We miss our Bess.

Friday, June 13, 2014

This is not a Review, but a Confession

     I confess, I do not often read those short synopses on the back cover of books or in the descriptions on Amazon or Barnes and Noble websites. I read books that someone I know recommends or if I hear an interview with the author on NPR or if I've read everything an author has written and finally they come out with a new book. Consequently I usually read books without any foreknowledge of their specific content. And, if I've never read that author before, I'm a complete innocent.

     Another confession -- I have recently learned that I don't have to finish a book just because I start one. There are may other things that have always been extreme guilt producers. Forgetting to use coupons I take to the store, not brushing my teeth at night, damaging a book whether accidentally or intentionally, leaving the laundry in the washing machine long enough that it smells spoiled, etc., etc.

     My husband recently recommended The Art of Racing in the Rain. He reads voraciously but recommends books to me sparingly. Mostly nonfiction – narrative histories, popular science, that sort of thing. Our tastes in literature are as different from each other as are our politics.

     So when he said he thought I would like The Art of Racing in the Rain, I started it right away, completely unaware of its story line. Early on I began to think the story was written from the dog’s point of view, but my husband hates movies with talking animals, so I thought surely this book takes a twist and changes to a human’s point of view. And surely it would be in the next few pages.

     Finally, too many pages into the book, I hesitantly asked my husband (whom I want to continue to recommend books to me) if the whole book is written from the dog’s point of view. And he, equally hesitant (because he likes me to like things he likes even though he knows that is not always going to happen) told me “yes, pretty much.”

      So I confessed that I was stopping reading it right there. I explained that I have problems with the willing suspention of disbelief. That’s why I don’t like stories with vampires and ghosts and books from any animal’s point of view.

      He smirked at me and said, “Like that 300 page plus book you just finished writing about a murder that takes place on an asteroid with women who are pregnant for thirteen months and it only takes 40 days to travel from Ceres to Earth?”



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Longitude -- a review

In this day and age with our GPS and our smart phones and our Google Maps, it's hard to imagine a time when the world was being explored and travelled by people who literally didn't know where they were and had no dependable way to find out.

Longitude is well-written and follows a straight-forward path from need to discovery and implementation. Why longitude? Because in the middle of the ocean without knowing what your longitude is, you were lost. And being lost most likely meant death. You could misjudge the nearness of land and like Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell who, on a foggy night in October of 1707, ran his flag ship and three more of his five warships aground on the Scilly Isles, "dooming almost two thousand" of his troops. Or too often a captain misjudged the distance and the direction of land and "missed his mark -- searching in vain for the island where he had hoped to find fresh water, or even the continent."

They knew about longitude, but could not track it at sea. Latitude could be deduced "by the length of the day or by the height of the sun or known guide stars above the horizon." Longitude does not lend itself to these easily recognized and readily available markers. Scientists and mathematicians devised methods to tell where a ship was in relation to its longitude. Their methods like them reflected deep thinking and cumbersome equations, not easily implemented by the general sailing public. Nor were their equations all that dependable when a navigator was able to follow the instructions.

What they needed was a reliable clock. And this is the story of the self-educated English common man who developed just such a clock. For want of just such an instrument, countless lives and fortunes were lost.

The story of John Harrison's development of a clock that would keep time dependably during the rough and tumble of a sea voyage is a cautionary tale for those societies that  circumscribe their people's talents based on class. Or, though not applied in this clockmaker's case, based on race or religion or gender or sexual orientation or any other arbitrary measure of a human's value.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Reviews and Ratings

When are the Ratings Stars Over-Rated?
     Mysteries and Science Fiction are the two fiction genres I read most often. And that is true of movies I watch, too. I have not standardly rated books I've read or movies I've watched. Doing so has always seemed a little too close to being a critic. Generally speaking, I hold critics in the same high disregard as Emergency Room docs.
    Having recently been exposed to some excellent ER docs, and preparing to publish my first novel, I guess it's time to mend my pretentious ways and join the ranks of the amateur critics. All the experts say I need to get my name before the public. Those experts ask me what platforms I'm on. Pinterest? Twitter? Facebook? And I say that most of the time my platform of choice is Earth. They are not amused.
    So now -- Netflix, I will rate the shows I see, and I will review them so my name and opinions will be out there. (I'm not sure Netflix is what they mean by 'platform.' But the opportunity pops up every time I watch a show and I watch quite a few shows. Where else would I get my fix of British crime mysteries?)
    And Goodreads, if I can figure out how or get my daughter to show me, I'll rate and review the books I read.
    Twitter and Pinterest? I don't think so. (You should read that last sentence in the familiar sing-song of disdain.) Who knows, maybe someday I'll see the error of my ways and join those 'platforms,' too.
    That brings us to the Ratings Stars. How to do this. How? Easy -- right? Right, if I didn't like or hated the book or show, it's one or two stars. Then things get sticky.
    The African Queen, Downton Abbey, and  Prime Suspect are five stars. A Prayer for Owen Meany and the Wheel of Time series are five stars. I will watch and read them again and again. And there are many titles out there that I would rate five stars.
    But the vast majority of books I read and shows I watch are three stars. When you hover over the
3 Stars rating it says "I liked it." So why do I feel as though I'm dissing the work by rating it only three stars? Maybe it's from my public school days when a C was not good enough. B's were a little more acceptable, but anything less than an A was suspect.
     I thoroughly enjoy Diana Mott Davidson's mysteries and those by Nevada Barr. Michael Connelly and John Lescroart get good solid 3 Stars from me and I will always come back to them. With this in mind, when you see I've rated something three stars, that means I liked it. And I will seek out more work by that writer or actor or director.

    If I give something four stars that means there is something outstanding about it, but I doubt I will watch or read it again -- maybe like Boston Legal or Dan Brown's  Da Vinci Code it's well-done and incorporates surprise or maybe even shock, but by virtue of having watched or read it that surprise is lost. As great as they are, my 4 Stars will not bring me back with the same degree of passion and wonder as those magnificent 5 Stars.


Monday, June 2, 2014

F. Scott Fitzgerald -- A Review of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald

     On the word of Ernest Hemingway I read The Great Gatsby and started to read Tender Is the Night. In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway's memoir of his time in Paris during the early 1920's, he describes Fitzgerald as having written a great novel referring to Gatsby.

     So I read it.

     Hemingway touts the "mot juste -- the one and only correct word to use." He says he learned "to distrust adjectives" as he would later "learn to distrust certain people in certain situations."

     As frustrated as I get with Hemingway's lusterless and often unnecessary dialog attributions, I do like his clean, strong prose. He did use adjectives. Adjectives that infused his prose with life and passion. He wrote of what he called "false spring." After the trees had leafed out and he would feel joy at Spring's arrival then would sometimes come a return of winter. "When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason." Simple, strong adjectives.

     Then came Gatsby. 
     Her front lawn seems the most active thing about Daisy. "The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens -- finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of it run."
     And there's Daisy and Jordan Baker. "We ought to plan something," yawned Miss Baker, sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.
     "All right," said Daisy. "What'll we plan?" She turned to me helplessly: "What do people plan?"

     If it is ennui which I miss, I can stream an emo music performance on You Tube. My attitude about both emo music and bored rich folk is the same. If they're bored with themselves, why would I be interested?

     But surely I must be missing something in Gatsby so I read on.
     Then came this gem from Daisy's husband.
     "Have you read 'The Rise of the Colored Empres' by this man Goddard?"
     "Why, no," I answered, rather surprised by his tone. (This from our narrator.)
     "The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be -- will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved."
     "Tom's getting very profound," said Daisy, with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. "He reads deep books with long words in them."

     Throw in a little anti-Semitism and disparage the lower classes with whom it is all right to screw around. Bring in Gatsby, whose wealth is on a par with (or greater than) Daisy's crowd, but its source is unknown and his antecedents are even murkier. And you have a thoroughly disagreeable book.

     The plot is slow to develop. When it did, I immediately thought of Thomas Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, which describes an equally amoral money-centric life-style. But does it better.

    I went back to Hemingway's A Moveable Feast and reread what he said about Fitzgerald. He said Fitzgerald produced better work after his wife's first mental break down. So I was back on the hunt.

     I found Tender Is the Night. I got to page 8. "The woman who had recognized her was not a Jewess, despite her name."

     It didn't seem to matter how many more pages I read. Same song, second verse. Could get better... but I gave up trying to find where exactly the 'better' began.

     So, if you're tempted to read Fitzgerald, I would humbly recommend that you read Thomas Wolfe instead.

     And disregarding what I can only describe as his overly generous praise for Fitzgerald's work, I can recommend Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. Now I shall have to check out some of the other writers he talks about in that little book. Surely I cannot be so disappointed in them.