Mysteries That Influenced My Writing

Since I began my blog, I’ve written about the mysteries that influenced my writing. Although I’m still on the hunt for good mysteries, I find the ones I discovered in my teens and twenties have had the most impact and not just because I was more impressionable when I first discovered them. When I reread my favorites, I still learn techniques I can use in my storytelling.

My First Mysteries

In the seventies, my mystery education started with Scooby Doo and continued with Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, and the Three Investigators. In seventh grade, I read my first adult book, which was a mystery written in 1975 by Dorothy Gilman, entitled A Nun in the Closet. Balancing mystery and humor, the novel relates the investigation of Sister John and Sister Hyacinth into a mysterious bequest to their abbey.

It had to be shortly after that that I plowed my way through every Agatha Christie story I could get my hands on. Now I reread her books first, for fun, and second, to learn plotting techniques. That was always Mrs. Christie’s strength. Although her detectives Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple have achieved immortality, in many books, her other characters aren’t as well-developed. Death on the Nile and A Holiday for Murder are my favorite novels because the rest of the characters are more complicated and more human, and therefore, more interesting.

At seventeen, I discovered Sherlock Holmes and there was no stopping me. I read all 60 of Sir Arthur’s stories and have read a huge amount of pastiches written by contemporary authors. The lesson I learned: my detective must be a character people want to spend time with. For more about my love for the Sherlock Holmes canon, click here.

When I was in college, I took a class called “Detective Film and Fiction.” (When you’re an English major, you can take classes like that and earn credit). I was assigned to read Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout and couldn’t get enough of the world Mr. Stout created for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Although Nero Wolfe is the detective, it was Archie’s unique voice that hooked me. The lesson I learned: the Watson character can be as interesting and more relatable than the detective character. For more on Archie Goodwin, click here.

Mysteries in Middle Age

I was twenty-one when I tried a collection of Father Brown short stories and didn’t like them at all. They weren’t fair-play mysteries. In some cases, they didn’t seem like mysteries at all. Fast forward twenty years. I tried them again, and they lit up my mind like few stories ever have. I realized that Mr. Chesterton wasn’t trying to write realistic fiction, although his stories highlight realities of life.

His favorite device is paradox, like in the short story, “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois.” When Sir Claude Champion is found stabbed to death, the police assume the killer is John Boulnois because Sir Claude was pursuing his wife. But Mrs. Boulnois insists her husband is innocent. He was never jealous of Sir Claude, a childhood friend, although Sir Claude was wealthy, aristocratic, accomplished, and celebrated. Father Brown understands and quotes from the book of Esther. “And Haman began to tell them … of all the things wherein the king had honored him; and he said: ‘All these things profit me nothing while I see Mordecait the Jew sitting in the gate.”

I learned that if I can make a character, clue, or plot point appear one way but then reveal that it indicates the exact opposite, it surprises the reader and gives that part of my story greater weight.

Around this same point in my life, I dove into the mysteries featuring the detective Uncle Abner. These short stories, set in West Virginia before the Civil War, have some of the best descriptions of settings I’ve read. I feel like I’ve entered the world that existed in the Appalachian mountains more than 150 years ago. For more on the Uncle Abner mysteries, click here. I learned not to overlook my setting. Settings can perform certain literary tasks, like setting the mood, much more easily than character or plot.

Now it’s your turn. What stories have influenced your writing? Or what stories have stayed with your through the years?

Collaborative Mystery, Part 1

Welcome to Mystery Month on JPC Allen Writes! All the prompts and tips relate to mysteries. This October is especially exciting for me because I’ll be revealing the cover and promoting the pre-release of my debut YA mystery, A Shadow on the Snow! As part of the celebration, I’m trying something new with my prompts for Monday Sparks. All the photos this month will be prompts for a collaborative mystery.

What is a collaborative mystery? Collaborative fiction is when multiple authors write different parts of one story. Here’s how it will work on my blog:

  • I’ll write two or three sentences in the comments to start the mystery.
  • Anyone who wants to may write two or three more sentences.
  • Please no graphic content.
  • Next week, I’ll take the last sentences in the comments from this week and repeat them as the lead sentence for the next photo prompt.
  • By the end of the month, we’ll have a story!

Who wants to be part of a collaborative mystery, part 1?

Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations

I’m reposting “Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations” from two years ago as I get ready for my cover reveal and pre-order promotion for “A Shadow on the Snow” on October 15. I can’t believe I wrote that! When I tell people I’m a writer and they ask what do I write, I can now say, “Novels.” Seems like it’s still a dream. Keep watching for more details as October 15. approaches!

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Idiot Plot. I learned about this plot contrivance while reading a book of film critic Roger Ebert’s film reviews. An idiot plot is a plot that can only advance as long as most or all the characters are idiots.

These are the kinds of plots where I find myself yelling advice to the characters in the pages or on the screen. Horror movies leap to mind.

Dumb teen: Just because every person who has ever entered the old Van Buren place has disappeared doesn’t mean it will happen to me.

Dumber teen: I’ll go with you.

Below are two variations that come under the Idiot Plot.

GLINDA THE GOOD WITCH CONTRIVANCE

My mom can not stand Glinda the Good Witch. In The Wizard of OzDorothy could have avoided all the trouble with the Wicked Witch if Glinda had just told her in Munchkin Land to click the red shoes together to go home. I know Glinda says Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her, but she could have told her. If Dorothy rejected the advice and got into all sorts of difficulties because of it, at least Glinda had done her due diligence and wouldn’t be in danger of getting smacked by my mother.

Stories where a key character withholds information for no good reason are so frustrating. In Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout, a character is killed because she doesn’t immediately tell the detectives that the man claiming to be her late friend’s husband is an imposter. No convincing reason is given why she withholds that information.

This contrivance seems to happen when the revelation of the information would end the story then and there. But if that’s the case, then there’s something wrong with the plot’s construction.

RUBE GOLDBERG METHOD OF PLOTTING

Mystery and thriller writers are very susceptible to this problem. In an effort to keep surprising their audience, they string together plot points that don’t feed naturally into each other.

Years ago, my husband watched a season of the show 24 because he’d read that terrorists hack into computers in order to make every nuclear reactor in the U.S. meltdown. As a nuclear engineer, my husband thought the premise was a hoot.

Although there a number of subplots, the main thread concerned the meltdowns. These endanger the president, so he takes off in Air Force One. The terrorists plan for this and have a pilot on their payroll steal a military jet and shoot down Air Force One. When it crashes, the terrorists recover the briefcase with the president’s codes to set off missiles and use it to steal one missile.

They have the ability to meltdown every reactor in the country but that’s only a step to getting what they really want: a missile. I’m still scratching my head over this one.

But, Sometimes, Characters Can Be Convincing Idiots

People do stupid things. People say stupid things. Unfortunately, I know this first hand and wish I could take back some of the things I’ve done and said.

In fiction, I have to make the stupid behavior convincing. That can take a lot of work, but if I want to reflect real life, and if it’s truly important to my story, I have to put in the time to pull it off.

In 1947 film noir Out of the PastKirk Douglas plays a realistic, stupid character. He is a professional gambler, whose girlfriend shoots and wounds him while stealing $40,000. He hires a detective to find her. He seems more interested in her than the money.

The detective finds the girlfriend. They have an affair and try to hide from the gambler. But another detective finds them. The girlfriend shoots him and runs. Our hero discovers years later that the girlfriend pleaded with the gambler to taker her back, and he did.

Why would the gambler do this when she shot him? The character of the gambler makes this stupid behavior believable. He’s arrogant, rich, and ruthless. He gets what he wants, when he wants it. It feeds his ego to take back a woman who begs him to reconcile with her. But his arrogance blinds him to how clever his girlfriend is. Eventually, he finds out but not in a way he likes.

For more advice on plot, click here. For a different view on plotting, check out this article “Puzzling Away at Plotting” from the site Seekerville.

What are some plots that make you want to scream? Or at least say, “Huh?”

What’s the Plot Behind This Face?

The county fair wrapped up recently in my part of the Buckeye State, so when I scrolled onto this photo, I was intrigued. The young man is upset and thinking something over. What’s the plot behind this face?

The music blaring from the speakers on the midway grows faint as I watch them. Tyler is almost a coat for Addie. He’s hanging all over her. She seems to like it. I think.

She sets aside the BB gun, and smiling, moves away from the game, weaving through a group of middle school kids.

Tyler drapes his thick arm across her thin shoulders. Addie giggles.

But is it because she likes it or because she doesn’t? How can a guy tell?

They stroll behind the Ferris wheel.

“Andy.” My little sister tugs on my arm. “We want more money for tickets.”

“Here.” I pull every bill from my wallet. “When you and Mark are done, wait by the bumper cars for me.”

“Where are you going?” asks Mark.

I point at the Ferris wheel and head for it, breaking into a jog.

For more plot prompts to inspire your writing, click here. Over at Writer’s Digest, find 25 plot twists and prompts.

Mixing in History to Thicken the Plot

Author Anne Clare is back with a new novel, releasing Nov. 1, set during the WWII Italian campaign. So happy to have her guest blog, “Mixing in History to Thicken the Plot”. Take it away, Anne!

Thank you so much for inviting me to stop by, and for the opportunity to write on the theme of plot. It was good for me to take a step back and think about how I formulate mine! 

I write fiction set during World War II, and I find that my research tends to drive the formation of my stories. While a good plot is much more than a series of events, the true events from history often direct the paths my stories take. 

Perhaps the easiest way to describe this is to use my upcoming release’s plot as an example. 

I knew that I wanted to write a story set in WWII Italy. I also thought that I’d like to set it on or around the Allied beachhead on Anzio. For those of you unfamiliar with the Anzio campaign, in brief, the Allied advance up Italy had stalled, so Allied planners decided to send a force by sea up behind the German lines to land near the town of Anzio. The idea was that with the beach landings from behind and an assault from the main force in the south, the Allies would break through and march on to Rome. It didn’t work. The 70,000 or so troops and personnel who landed on Anzio were stuck on the beachhead from January until May, taking punishing German fire from the heights.

 I hadn’t really gotten beyond planning the setting when I came across an off-hand comment in one of my research sources. As the Germans and Allied lines were so close on the Anzio beachhead, it was not uncommon for soldiers on both sides to be taken prisoner, escape, and just walk back to their own lines. 

This caught my attention and imagination. What would this look like? Surely the escapes wouldn’t be quite as easy as these couple of sentences made them sound. 

Now I had a setting and the start of a plot—the story would deal with a POW escape. I’d most likely need to include a capture which might be a good place to put the story’s “hook.” Imprisonment and an escape with some obstacles would fit naturally during the “rising action.” I still had to decide how the climax of the story would look, and if the escape plans would be successful—but sharing more of that would include spoilers! 

Now, while my imagination took over, filling in the characters and details, I still needed to study the history to make sure that my fledgling plot would be plausible. (While my books are fictional, I try my utmost to make certain that the events could have happened.) A couple of other real events were major influences on my writing.

In mid-February, about a month into the Anzio campaign, the Germans launched a major offensive which cut deeply into the Allied beachhead and threatened to push them back into the sea. The offensive lasted for almost a week. It occurred to me that this would be a prime time for taking prisoners. And what if, with the offensive keeping the German man-power busy, some of the prisoners couldn’t be transported further back to POW camps immediately but were temporarily held closer to their lines. That could work…

Another piece of the plot fell into place. 

Characters also influence the plot, and history provides a wide and varied selection of fascinating characters. Some of the names associated with the Anzio area that might be familiar are Audie Murphy, (the most highly decorated American soldier of WWII) cartoonist Bill Mauldin, and the Tuskegee Airmen.  

Not all of the people serving on Anzio were involved in combat. Generally, the chain of evacuation for wounded soldiers was quite long with the field hospitals far behind the front line. On Anzio, the beachhead was so narrow that the front line was only about ten miles from the sea. Huddled together by the coast at Nettuno, just south of Anzio, the hospital area was well within German firing range. Unfortunately, although the hospital tents were marked with large red crosses in white circles and off-limits to attack according to the Geneva Convention, the area was hit often and badly to earn the nickname “Hell’s Half Acre.” Six nurses and many other medical staff and recovering patients lost their lives there. While their names might not be as familiar as some, their service and sacrifice must be remembered. 

While I do not include real people in my fiction except in off-hand references, learning about the real people who served and sacrificed in these areas helped direct my story and enrich my characters. 

For a final example of history influencing plot, one—somewhat lighter—story about the nurses’ experiences caught my eye as I was reading Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee and Evelyn M. Monohan’s fantastic book, And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II. (On a side note, I’d highly recommend this book to people interested in this era. The stories of the courage of the women who served in often appalling conditions are inspiring.)

The anecdote went something like this: When some of the first nurses landed on the beachhead, they were to be transported to their hospital area to set up. However, their driver must have gotten turned around and the further he went, the more anxious he became, especially as German shells began falling. Finally, he stopped the vehicle, told the nurses to get out, and drove away, promising that someone would come for them. 

The nurses took shelter in a small chicken house, and eventually saw men crawling toward them from two directions. Recognizing them as British and American soldiers, they approached. The soldiers were astonished to see the women and informed them, “We’re the front line, and you’re in front of us. That puts you in no-man’s land.” (Page 252.) 

Eventually, the nurses did make it to their hospital. I’m not sure what happened to the driver. And the incident solidified some ideas I’d already had for where my work of fiction might go. 

Writers, what real things influence your stories and their plots? Incidents from history? Things that happened in your own lives? 

Readers, do you enjoy reading stories with plots based in real events? Are there eras or places that you find particularly compelling? 

Again, many thanks to JPC Allen for hosting me today, and to you for stopping by! 

Thank you for explaining how you use mixing in history to thicken the plot. Best wishes with your latest release!

If you’d like to read Anne’s previous guest blogs, click here.

*****

Wonderful cover!

When she had signed up, she’d thought she was ready. Ready for a combat zone. Ready to prove that she could be brave. The sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, stronger and longer lasting than any bout of seasickness, foreboded that maybe she had been wrong.

1944

Lieutenant Jean Hoff of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps and infantryman Corporal George Novak have never met, but they have three things in common.

They are both driven by a past they’d rather leave behind.

They have both been sent to the embattled beachhead of Anzio, Italy.

And when they both wind up on the wrong side of the German lines, they must choose whether to resign themselves to captivity or risk a dangerous escape.

Where Shall I Flee? follows their journey through the dangers of World War II Italy, where faith vies with fear and forgiveness may be necessary for survival.


Anne Clare is a native of Minnesota’s cornfields and dairy country. She graduated with a BS in Education in 2005 and set out to teach in the gorgeous green Pacific Northwest, where she and her husband still live. She also serves as a church musician, singing in and occasionally directing choirs, playing piano, organ, and coronet (the last only occasionally, when she forgets how bad she is at it.) After the birth of her second child, she became a stay-at-home mom, and after the birth of the third she became reconciled to the fact that her house would never be clean again, which allowed her to find time to pursue her passion for history and writing while the little people napped. Although she’s back to teaching part-time, she continues to write historical fiction and to blog about WWII history, writing, and other odds and ends at thenaptimeauthor.wordpress.com. You can also follow her on her FB page.

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