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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Mysteries

Writing Tip — Favorite Author

PoirotThe opening of Murder on the Orient Express in theaters tomorrow reminded me of a time when I inhaled Agatha Christie mysteries. In high school, I read almost all of them. Over the years, when I wanted a comfort food book, I often returned to my favorite novels and short stories. As I’ve grown older, I find more flaws in the storytelling than I did as a teenager, but some of the novels still can’t be beat for plotting in a mystery.

That was Mrs. Christie’s strength, mystery plots. Her characters were often one-dimensional but characters, unless they were the detectives, were not why people made Mrs. Christie the best-selling author after Shakespeare. They loved her plot twists and the opportunity to solve a puzzle along with her detectives.

Of her two main detectives, I like Miss Marple better. I like the idea of this elderly spinster being so good at reading people from her experiences in a small English village that she could apply her knowledge to just about any person she met. Like in Pocket Full Of Rye, she becomes suspicious of woman’s husband when she realizes the woman is the nice kind who always falls for troubled men.

If you want to write cozy mysteries, you must read some of Mrs. Christie’s novels and short stories. If she didn’t invent many of the conventions for cozies, she at least made them popular, such as the nosy amateur detective and gathering all the suspects together so the detective can reveal the identity of the murderer.

Recommended Reading

Breaking with conventions. In the 1930’s, certain rules had been developed about how to write crime fiction. Mrs. Christie “murdered” those in Murder on the Orient ExpressThe Murder of Roger Ackroydand And Then There Were None.

Hercule Poirot. Two of my favorite novels with the Belgian detective, Christie’s busiest creation, are Death on the Nilewhich was turned into a very good movie, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which is my favorite Christmas murder mystery. It has everything you expect: a large country house, a toxic family, and a clever murder with a murderer, who also breaks with conventions.

Miss Marple. Even though I like this character, I think  her novels aren’t as successful as Poirot’s. But try The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger.

Short Stories. If you like short stories, like me, read Thirteen Problems with Miss Marple and The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, who certainly lives up to his adjective.

If you like cozy mysteries, what are your favorites?

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Author — Lessons from Melville Davisson Post

new-river-gorge-1286064What I learned from reading the Uncle Abner mysteries by Melville Davisson Post is how the setting establishes the mood of the story. Mr. Post’s description of the weather and Appalachian mountains in West Virginia pulls me into the story so completely that I experience the setting with the narrator Martin, Abner’s nephew.

From “The House of the Dead Man“: “It was a morning out of Paradise. crisp and bright. The spiderwebs glistened on the fence rails. The timber cracked. The ragweed was dusted with silver. The sun was moving upward from behind the world. I could have whistled out of sheer joy in being alive on this October morning and the horse under me danced.”

From “A Twilight Adventure”: “There is a long twilight in these hills. The sun departs, but the day remains. A sort of weird, dim, elfin day, that dawns at sunset and envelops and possesses the world.”

From “The Riddle“: “That deadly stillness of the day remained, but the snow was now beginning to appear. It fell like no other snow that I have ever seen — not a gust of speck or a shower of tiny flakes, but now and then, out of the dirty putty-colored sky, a flake as big as a man’s thumb-nail winged dow and lighted on the earth like some living creature.”

In each case, describing the weather sets the mood. Martin’s exaltation of the October morning reveals his mood, just as his description of the snow shows his unease. I really like the words chosen to describe the snow because in current times, when people see snow, they get excited or grumble, but they usually don’t dread it.

post_abner_des_cov_cmykTwilight is the perfect setting for “A Twilight Adventure” and not just because of the title. Abner and Martin come across a lynching party. The men responsible think they have the culprits, but just like the twilight can make objects appear different from what they look like in full daylight, Abner shows that the evidence the men believe is conclusive actually has several interpretations.

In my novel, when I wanted a peaceful scene, I chose a summer evening bathed in golden light. Mellow light for a mellow mood. For a tense scene, I can write about the stillness before a storm.

Or I can use the weather to contradict the action or the characters. In “The House of the Dead Man”, the glorious fall morning is the back drop for a confrontation in a cemetery. I can write about a storm, but instead of describing it in terms of fear, I write about kids playing in it.

Is weather important to your style of writing? How do you use it to set the mood of your story?

 

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Authors — Melville Davisson Post

post_abner_des_cov_cmykI only discovered the mysteries written by Melville Davisson Post in recent years. Mr. Post (1869 -1930) was born in Harrison County, West Virginia and was a trained lawyer practicing in Wheeling, West Virginia, the nearest city to my hometown. He eventually gave up the law and became a prolific writer.

The only stories I have read by Mr. Post are the twenty-two mystery short stories featuring his detective Uncle Abner. Set in the pre-Civil War days when West Virginia was still western Virginia, Uncle Abner is a landowner who raises cattle and has a thorough understanding of the law. We never learn his last name. He has a brother Rufus, whose son Martin, about ten-years-old, narrates the stories.

Uncle Abner is a fierce Christian, strong and righteous like the prophet Elijah. He uses this strength and righteousness and his ability to solve mysteries to help others, usually people who are the victims of loopholes in the law. Abner believes in abiding by the law but knows the law should serve justice, and if it doesn’t, he will.

I have no legal background, but I assume the loopholes and points of law, so pivotal to the plots, were once actual laws, and these add a layer of reality to the stories.

detective-1039883_1280Of the twenty-two stories, the first ones are the best because Mr. Post tends to repeat some of his plots in the later ones. My favorites are “The Angel of the Lord”, “The Wrong Hand”, “The Tenth Commandment”, and “The Mystery of Chance”. “The Doomdorf Mystery” is the most well-known story in the series and contains one of the most original solutions to a locked-room murder you will ever read. “A Twilight Adventure” has an interesting plot.  Abner and Martin happen upon a lynching party. Abner demonstrates how the evidence the party has uncovered points to more than one person, and they may be set to kill the wrong man.

I would love to rewrite “Naboth’s Vineyard” in a contemporary setting. Abner is convinced the judge presiding over a murder trial is actually the murderer. When he demands the judge to step down, he calls on the law to back him. But the law is not words written on a page or the local authorities. Abner calls on the true law, the people who vote for it.

Next time, I will write about how Melville Davisson’s Post’s stories have inspired my writing.

Warning!

If you are interested in trying the Uncle Abner stories, they are hard to find in a hard copy. I don’t know about their availability in digital form. The book I have, Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries, was reprinted recently by West Virginia University press and is so riddled with typos I would not recommend a first-time reader of the stories using it. I like the stories so well that I put up with the errors.

Writing Tip

detective-1039883_1280Favorite Author — Rex Stout

When I was in college, I majored in English and took a course called “Detective Film and Fiction”.   Yes, it was a real course, and yes, it was a lot of fun because I was a mystery fan and a film buff.

I was introduced to the world of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin when I was assigned Too Many Cooks, which opens with how Archie feels about getting his employer, Nero Wolfe, onto a train when Wolfe rarely ever leaves his New York City brownstone.

“Walking up and down the platform alongside the train in the Pennsylvania Station, having wiped the sweat from my brow, I lit a cigarette with the feeling that after it had calmed my nerves a little I would be prepared to submit bids for a contract to move the Pyramid of Cheops from Egypt to the top of the Empire State Building with my bare hands, in a swimming suit; after what I had just gone through.”

Archie’s sarcastic narration hooked me, and I went on to read the whole series.  Rex Stout began the Wolfe mysteries in 1934 and wrote them until his death in 1975.

As William G. Tapply writes in an introductions to The Second Confession, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are paired like “Sherlock Holmes meets Sam Spade”, British whodunit meets hard-boiled detective.

Weighing a seventh of a ton, Nero Wolfe is the brains of the pair, indulging his gourmet tastes as he sits in his custom-made desk chair in his brownstone and solves mysteries

agent-1294795_1280Archie Goodwin is his employee, acting as legman, secretary, bodyguard, and nuisance.  As the last, it’s Archie’s job to annoy Wolfe into working because the man has a lazy streak as big as his custom-made chair.

I never liked Wolfe.  He may have Holmes’s brains but none of his eccentric appeal.  I read the series because Archie’s first-person narration is so engagingly entertaining.

The character I found most intriguing is Saul Panzer, a free-lance P.I. who often works with Archie for Wolfe.  We only pick up tidbits about his personal life but those little facts and Archie’s unqualified admiration for his professional skills makes me wish Stout had written at least one book showcasing Saul.

Next time, I will write about what I learned from the series.

Writing Tip

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Digging Deeper into History

I have always liked mysteries of history.  Was King Arthur and his knights based on real people?  Were there really Amazons living near Ancient Greece?  What happened to the settlers o Roanoke?

The mystery that has inspired my own writing is the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower in England, 1483-1485.

The Princes were Edward V, King of England, twelve years old at the time he came to the throne, and his younger brother Richard.  Before Edward V could be officially crowned, a priest declared his father’s marriage illegal and all his children illegitimate.  So Edward V and his brother and five sisters were no longer eligible for the throne.  His father’s brother, Richard, became king, Richard III.  The last sighting of Edward V and his brother Richard is in the summer of 1483.

The royal family at this time was broken into two factions, the York branch and the Lancaster branch, who were warring with each other for the throne.  Richard III was a York.  In 1485, Henry Tudor, a Lancaster, killed Richard III in battle, declared himself king, and married Edward V’s sister.  He said Richard III murdered his nephews to tighten his hold on the throne.  Of course, if Henry Tudor had found the boys alive and well when he took over, he would have a good reason for making them disappear and blaming their disappearance on a dead man.  Both men had motive, means, and opportunity.  Other people have also been suggested as the possible murderer.  No bodies were found until nearly two hundred years after the crime.  Skeletons have been unearthed near where the boys were living, but no modern examination of the bones has been conducted.

I became interested in this crime when I read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.  Ms. Tey believed the Tudors used Richard III as a scapegoat for Henry Tudor’s crime.  She uses fictional characters to conduct research on the real crime and it becomes an exploration of how history is recorded and how accurate it is.

I am working on a mystery where my main character is a seventeen-year-old history buff and is reading about the Princes out of curiosity.  When a series of murders strikes the leading family in his county, he sees a pattern with a murder from over fifty years ago.  Using The Daughter of Time as a guideline on how to do research, he discovers parallels between the current crimes and the disappearance of the Princes, specifically that a dead man makes the perfect fall guy.

If you are interested in the Princes, many books have been written about them, but I have discovered a very unusual aspect about them.  Many of them are very pro-Richard III — he couldn’t have possibly killed his nephew — or very anti-Richard III — he is the only one who could have committed the crime.  For a crime over 500 years old, it stirs strong feelings in people like it was committed last week.  So you have to read a lot of books to get a balanced understanding

Side note:  Many tales revolved around what happened to Richard III’s body after he was killed in battle.  It was recently discovered and reburied with a service in 2015.  For more on Richard III, click here. Here is the Wikipedia article on the Princes.

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