Writing Tip — Attending a Mystery Writers’ Conference

police-w3284258_1920If you want to write crime fiction, you should investigate the possibilities of attending a writers’ conference for that genre. I attended my first crime writers conference in August. Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference covers crime fiction in all its subgenres – suspense, cozy mysteries, whodunits, police procedurals, even YA and middle grade mysteries. Attendees ran the gamut from people who haven’t published anything to authors with multiple novels. The experience was so rewarding for a number of reasons.

1. It was small. At most there were 200 people at the conference. It was held in an Embassy Suites hotel in Franklin, just outside of Nashville. The conference rooms were a short walk from the hotel rooms. I didn’t have to navigate a huge conference complex to find my sessions. And with that number of people, it was easy to bump into the same ones over and over again and strike up conversations.

2. The variety of sessions. Each time slot offered six different sessions. I went to ones focused on writing, like what makes a mystery a cozy, writing mysteries for teens, and adding humor to your writing, Then they were the informational sessions. One was led by a recently elected sheriff from Tennessee, another by a retired officer in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and another by a retired FBI agent. They provided us with the kind of information you can only get by talking to a person.

3. The professionalism and support. Since I’ve decided to purse mysteries with main characters who are police officers, I’ve been shy about approaching law enforcement professionals. After all, I’m just a writer. Clay Stafford, the conference director, encouraged all of us to feel free to ask the professionals any questions we needed to. He said they are flattered that writers with little or nor law enforcement experience have made an effort to learn about their profession so they can write accurately.

Most of the writers I talked to were published with several books or short stories to their names. Not one of them made me feel less of a writer because I only had one short story published. I thought I might be a fish out of water because I write Christian fiction. But there was a session on writing faith and fiction with five writers leading it.

4. I didn’t pitch. I know many writers attend conferences for the access to agents. At Killer Nashville, I didn’t think there was an agent who would be interested in my YA novel, and I was debating whether to scrap it and start on a new project. Without the pressure to land an agent, I was free to relax and enjoy learning. Maybe that should have been my attitude toward all the conferences I’ve gone to: go to learn and if I pitch and get an agent, that’s a bonus.

What writers’ conferences have you attended and would recommend?

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Writing Tips — Clues and Red Herrings

hand-251701969_1920A lot of the fun of writing mysteries is devising clues and red herrings and then figuring out how to insert them so the reader has a fair chance of solving the mystery but not a cake walk. For those who are new to the mystery genre, red herrings are the false clues that are designed to mislead the reader and the detective or sometimes, just the detective.

At the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference, I attended a panel with authors Jill Orr, Mariah Fredericks, Rich Zahradnik, and Saralyn Richard, who represented a variety of subgenres. With their advice and my own experience, here are some points to keep in mind when using clues and red herrings

Give clues and red herrings the same emphasis.

By that, I mean each should have close to the same amount of space on the page. If the detective finds three clues but only thinks about one in depth, the reader knows it has significance and the two others not as much. Giving almost equal space to all three will make it harder for the reader to determine which are the real clues and which are red herrings.

In “A Rose from the Ashes,” my teen detective Rae Riley must find out which one of three men is her father and the person who tried to murder her mother. One man could be both. To prevent myself from telegraphing the ending, I had share Rae two scenes with each suspect, creating interactions that might point to their guilt or innocence.

A problem with this approach is that I could waste a lot of space, and the reader’s time, on a red herring. So…

The red herring should reveal something important to the story.

To the story, not necessarily the mystery. The red herring can enhance a character, revealing some aspect of their personality or history. For example, the detective is sure an elderly woman is guilty when associates think she’s wrong. Later in the story, it’s shown that the grandmother of the detective abused her. Now the reader understands the detective saw similarity between the suspect and her grandmother and let her past sway her judgement.

This kind of red herring provides depth and fallibility to the main character. It’s difficult for some mystery writers to let their detective makes mistakes. No one wants to follow a detective who’s a blithering idiot. But by allowing the detective to fall for a red herring based on who he is makes the mistake more realistic and understandable.

Red herrings should mislead readers. Not trick them.

Above all else, writers must play fair with the readers of a mystery. Here is the way for me to check if I’m playing fair. This approach was recommended by the panel at Killer Nashville. Once the reader has discovered the solution, she should be able to go back through the story and see how the clues pointed to the solution. If she can’t, she has been tricked.

For example, the solution to the mystery hinges on knowing the Etruscan language. But the reader doesn’t know this is the key until the detective says so during the climax, adding that he’s studied Etruscan for years.

If a mystery offers that kind of solution, the reader has every right to throw the book across the room. If it’s an ebook, I hope she can restrain herself.

What mysteries have you read that used clues and red herrings particularly well? Or ones that tricked you?

If you’d like to win a copy of either anthology I’ve had stories published in, along with others prizes, check out my giveaway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Tip — Cozy Mysteries

candlew-2400240_1920When I wrote my Christmas mystery, “A Rose from the Ashes,” I thought it might qualify as a cozy mystery. What makes a mystery a cozy? At Killer Nashville, a writers’ conference, I attended a session hosted by authors Debra H. Goldstein, Phyllis Gobbell, Maggie Toussaint, Alexia Gordon, Linda Thorne, and J.C. Kenney to find out

Cozy mysteries always have amateur sleuths.

The amateur sleuth can come in many flavors, but she should have some talent or ability or quirk that helps her be successful as an investigator. He could have an insatiable curiosity, or be just plain nosy. She can have a desire for justice or to protect those less fortunate than herself.

My teen detective Rae Riley possesses great determination and persistence. She knows if she uncovers the person who tried to murder her mother twenty years before, she may also discover who her father is.

Secondary characters are important.

Many cozy mysteries are in series, and readers derive a lot of enjoyment from spending time with characters they regard as old friends. It’s important to develop secondary characters, who add a family feel to the stories.

There are three men Rae suspects of being either her mother’s attacker or her father. I introduce each man with his family connections: the professor and his wife, the rich business man and his kids and brother, the sheriff and his kids and mother. The family connections make all the characters seem more real and also give them a history. Readers feel like they’ve entered into lives that have both pasts and futures. Plus I have a lot of fun creating quirky characters.

The crime takes place in an insulated community.

For many cozies, this translates into a small town, like St. Mary Mead where Miss Marple lives, or Three Pines, the hometown of Inspector Armand Gamache. But the setting can be any small, tightly knit community. The members of a community theater, a sorority, or a carnival would all fit in a cozy mystery. In fact, the amateur sleuth’s membership in this community may give her an edge. Such as the teen who is investigating threats at her high school. She would be able to questions suspects in a much different way from the police.

Rae Riley is a newcomer to rural Marlin County, Ohio. It’s the kind of county where a newcomer stands out, and several generations of a family live within its borders. One of Rae’s advantages in such a community is that she can judge people without any preconceptions that might come from knowing someone for twenty years. Her other advantage is that no one in the county knows who her mother was.

No graphic sex or violence, please.

Readers of cozies do not want heads rolling down the stairs or couples rolling around in beds. That doesn’t mean they expect a G-rated story. They know someone will be murdered. They know adultery or other plots revolving around sex are likely.  They just don’t want every grisly detail of the murder described or told exactly what the two-timing wife did in the bedroom with her boyfriend. Those details are not essential to solving the mystery.

What are some of your favorite cozy mysteries?

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Writing Tip — Why I love Mysteries, Part 2

mortalityw2-401222_1920.jpgIn my post on Tuesday, I discussed two parts of what makes mysteries so compelling for me, the puzzle and the investigation. Today, I’ll cover the other two.

The Detective

The detective character is what people remember and the reason they return to a series. Few people know the details of Sherlock Holmes’s cases, beyond, maybe, The Hound of the Baskervilles. But almost every human on the planet knows who Sherlock Holmes is. The same is true for Agatha Christiie’s Hercule Poiroit. Readers know the detective, but the only case they can name, if any, is Murder on the Orient Express.

The detective should be someone I want to be with as I follow her investigation. She can be admirable or likable or relatable, but she must have some quality that makes the reader want to spend time with her.

The Solution

Locked RoomSitting by my bed was The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries. When my youngest saw it, he asked, “Why do you read all those books about blood and murder? You must like murder.”

I said that, no, I didn’t like murder. I read those stories because I want to see justice done and the guilty caught. Or, as several authors said at the Killer Nashville International Writers’ Conference, readers want to see the world made right again and order restored.

As I said in my last post, the stakes of the puzzle should be high to involve the reader emotionally as well as intellectually. That doesn’t mean it must be gory or sordid. Just high enough for readers to care. The solution is the pay off, satisfying again both the intellectual and the emotional parts of the story.

Puzzle + Investigation + Detective + Solution = Great Mystery

When those four components come together in a meaningful or surprising or fun way, then that’s a mystery I will read again and again.

Those components are also what I kept in mind when I wrote “A Rose from the Ashes,” a short story that is my first true whodunit. As I wrote it last December, I wanted a puzzle that grabbed readers’ minds and hearts, an investigation with lots of twists that will reward readers for spending their time with it, a likable detective whom readers can root for, and a solution that leaves them feeling satisfied.

I hope I pulled it off. If you read my story in the anthology Christmas fiction off the beaten path, let me know if you think I succeeded.

Writing Tip — Why I Love Mysteries, Part 1

mortalityw1-401222_1920Since this month’s theme is mysteries, I thought I should write about why it’s my favorite genre. But when I came to write this post, I quickly got stumped. I’ve been in love with mysteries for so long that I find it hard to step back and explain why. But after some serious, deep thinking — I’ll take an aspirin later — I’ve discovered four reasons.

The Puzzle

I love puzzles that challenge my intellect. The mystery starts with something that is wrong in the lives of the characters. A series of robberies have occurred, and the police must stop them. The obnoxious newcomer to town gets killed. A high school senior receives threatening texts from an anonymous source. The puzzle must be solved in order to put life right again.

Sometimes, I just like a puzzle, like the stories by Agatha Christie. But if the puzzle can have some kind of emotional stake tied to it, that’s even better. The detective faces dire consequences if he doesn’t solve it. If the detective is in a series, it may stretch believability to the breaking point if ever mystery is high stakes for him. But it can be high stakes for some character the detective it trying to help.

The Investigation

How the detective solves the puzzle determines how much readers will enjoy it. Agatha Christie is still the gold standard for whodunits because the process for uncovering clues and drawing conclusions made sense in most of her stories.

I’ve read mysteries that were entertaining but the detective’s explanation of how she pierced together clues to reach her solution didn’t make sense to me. So while it was a good story, it wasn’t a good mystery.

In the novella Kill Now—Pay Later by Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe accepts as a client the daughter of the man who shined his shoes for three years. A man at the business where the daughter worked as a secretary was murdered. The police think her father did it because the man seduced the daughter. When the father is found dead, the police believe it was suicide. Case closed.

The daughter tells Wolfe that she was not seduced, and her father would never have believed that about her. She offers Wolfe all the tips her father collected from Wolfe over the three years. Her father wanted to save the money for something special.

Wolfe later tells the police he believed the daughter’s story because if the story of the seduction was true, she had no reason to make up her tale and offer what was for her an exorbitant amount of money. Therefore he knew both deaths were murders.

It’s those kind of deductions, ones that ring true to life, that I love to come across in a mystery.

It must be the librarian in me, but I also love when the detective has to conduct serious research into a mystery, especially a cold case. In the 1973 TV movie, The Night Strangler, reporter Carl Kolchak is investigating the strangulation murders of several women. He visits the newspaper’s librarian, or what used to be called the “morgue attendant”. The librarian remembers a similar set of strangulation murders from some time in the 1950’s. They haul out the huge books that have the old editions for the paper pasted in them. The librarian was right. A set of strangulations murders occurred in 1952, all women.

The librarian and Kolchak dig more and discover that six women have been strangled every twenty-one years from 1889 to 1973. The scenes for these discoveries is the dark basement of the newspaper building. Eerie musical cues screech each time Kolchak opens up an old book to discover yet another newspaper article on the murders.

Unexpected discoveries that a detective unearths during his investigation thrill me as a reader, or viewer, and makes mysteries so intriguing.

I’ll have the other two reason I love mysteries in my next post.

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