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Rex Stout

Writing Tip — Show, Don’t Tell

narrativew-794978_1280If you’ve been writing for more than a week, I’m sure you’ve heard or read the advice “show, don’t tell”. I’d heard it so much, it had lost almost any meaning. I only understood it to mean “be descriptive”. But at the Ohio Christian Writers Conference in Cincinnati, I learned what agents and publishers actually expect.

In her session on the subject, Tessa Emily Hall said that “show, don’t tell” means I can only write what the point-of-view (POV ) character experiences or thinks in that precise instance in the story. I call it virtual-reality POV. The writer is limited to what the POV character can take in through his or her senses and his or her knowledge and thoughts at the “present” moment.

If you write in first-person POV or third-person POV from a single character per chapter, this concept makes sense. If you use third POV, omniscient, I am not sure how this works.

Once I grasped the concept, I realized why it has been so hard for me to master.

The Friendly Narrator

My favorite stories, from Dr. Watson to Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders are told in first-person POV, but the story is related as a past event.

For example, Dr. Watson often begins a story by describing how he’s been reviewing his notes of his recent adventures with Sherlock Holmes and has decided to describe in detail this particular tale.

Readers discover at the end of The Outsiders that the novel is Ponyboy’s English assignment, so he comments on the story with hindsight. Archie Goodwin often finishes a Nero Wolfe story by stating that a few days ago, the verdict came in on the case they solved.

This style makes me feel like the narrator is a friend I am sitting down with for a private chat. I also love how the style lets the narrator directly address the reader.

From Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout: 

Nero Wolfe is investigating cases of plagiarism and realizes all three cases are the work of one person because of how the copycat uses paragraphs. His right-hand man Archie Goodwin says, at the end of a long paragraph: “The next sentence is to be, ‘But the table-load of paper, being in the office, was clearly up to me,’ and I have to decide whether to put it here or start a new paragraph with it. You see how subtle it is. Paragraph it yourself.”

From The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton:

Ponyboy Curtis, who is called a greaser because he lives on the wrong side of the tracks, says, “Incidentally, we don’t mind being called greaser by another greaser. It’s kind of playful then.”

From “The Killer Christian” by Andrew Klavan:

“If ever you see a man put his fingers in his ears and whistle Dixie to keep from hearing the truth, you may assume he’s a fool, but if he put his fingers in your ears and starts whistling, then you know you are dealing with a journalist.”

This was the style I was using in my novel. My main character Junior was telling the story as if it was something that happened in the recent past. Writers can still use this style — Mr. Klavan wrote his story in 2007 — but in YA, it seems like not only are more stories written in first-person POV, but also in present tense. You can’t get more immediate and in the moment than that.

So I have been reviewing my manuscript under a microscope, seeing if I can master this technique. In my next tip, I’ll recommend two books that have helped me understand all the intricacies of”show, don’t tell.”

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories

bookw-1076196_1280For some reason, mysteries and Christmas seem like a natural fit. Perhaps it’s because Christmas celebrates one of histories greatest mysteries, God becoming fully human.

Christmas mysteries have a long tradition. Christmas Eve, before TV and radio, was the time to tell ghost stories. In 1892, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “The Blue Carbuncle”, in which Sherlock Holmes solves a mystery just a few days after Christmas, all due to an acquaintance finding a stolen jewel in the crop of his Christmas goose. The ending works in very naturally a demonstration of the Christmas spirit

619tzntvatl-_sx380_bo1204203200_If you are in the mood to mix mysteries with your holiday cheer, check out The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler. This wonderful book has mystery short stories for any taste — funny, supernatural, hard-boiled, or classic. Here are some of my favorites.

“The Blue Carbuncle” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A clever mystery and a lot of fun.

“The Flying Stars” by G.K. Chesterton. Father Brown confronts a jewel thief.

“Christmas Party” by Rex Stout. Archie Goodwin witnesses a murder at a party, and his boss, genius Nero Wolfe, must avoid becoming a suspect. This is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe stories because, in his peculiar way, Wolfe shows how much he values Archie.

“A Scandal in Winter” by Gillian Linscott. A young girl involves herself in an investigation conducted by an elderly Sherlock Holmes and Watson. I don’t like romance, but the romantic reason Sherlock Holmes is trying to clear a recent widow of suspicion of murder hooked me.

“The Killer Christian” by Andrew Klavan. A hit man finds salvation in a very moving and funny story with an ending that always makes me smile. I mentioned this story in my post about the author.

“Dancing Dan’s Christmas” by Damon Runyon. How Dancing Dan unloads some hot gems and avoids a nasty fate in 1930’s New York.

Bonus Stories

“Three Wise Guys” in Guys and Dolls by Damon Runyon Some crooks travel to rural Pennsylvania to recover stolen money. In another post, I wrote how much I love Damon Runyon’s Broadway short stories and to appreciate his writing style, you need to imagine the story being told with a thick New Yawk accent.

51s7yianu4l-_sx328_bo1204203200_Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha ChristieFormerly entitled Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder. I wrote in my post about Agatha Christie that this is one of my favorites among her novels. It captures my idea of a holiday family reunion going as badly as you can imagine.

What are your favorite Christmas reads, mysterious or not?

 

 

Writing Tip

crime-999066_1280Favorite Author — What I Learned from Rex Stout

I learned that an engaging narrator, once he or she grabs the reader’s attention, can lead a reader anywhere.

Mr. Stout wrote 46 books in the Wolfe-Goodwin series, many of them collections of short stories or novellas.  The mysteries are decent, some better than others.  My personal favorites are the novellas “Black Orchids”, “Die Like a Dog”, and “Kill Now – Pay Later”, the seasonal short stories in And Four to Go, and the first novel I read Too Many Cooks.  But I didn’t work my way through the series for the plots.  I forget a lot of them and can reread the stories, trying to figure out the clues like it was my first time through.  What I loved was being carried away with Archie’s wry narration of events.  He’s like a an old friend I can rely on for an entertaining visit.

Here are a few lines I enjoy:

“When I feel superior to someone, which I frequently do, I need a better reason than the color of my skin.”

Describing a fight he and fellow P.I. Saul Panzer get in with a suspect: “He kicked Saul where it hurt, and knocked a lamp over, and bumped my nose with his skull.  When he sank his teeth in my arm I thought, That will do for you, mister, and jerked the Marley from my pocket and slapped him above the ear, and he went down.”   From “Fourth of July Picnic”

In Too Many Cooks, he calls one woman, “the swamp-woman — the kind who can move her eyelids slowly three times and you’re stuck in a marsh and might as well give up”.

Since I write in first-person, I need to give my narrator a distinct personality, with a unique way of describing people and events.  Giving him or her strong opinions also makes the narrator interesting.  Archie has an opinion on everything.  Because my narrator is a teenager, it’s easy to give him strong opinions, such as he hates country music, which makes him stand out in rural West Virginia.

Another of my favorite authors P.G. Wodehouse said, “Stout’s supreme triumph was the creation of Archie Goodwin.”  Millions of readers would agree.

Here is a chronological list of the series.  If you do find you like it, you don’t have to read it in order, except do not read A Family Affair until you have read them all.  It has a plot twist unlike any other in the series and you don’t want to ruin it.

 

 

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.

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