Saturday, November 11, 2017

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

After watching all 70 episodes of British ITV's Agatha Christie's Poirot, I thought no one else could ever do the character of detective Hercule Poirot as well as actor David Suchet did. I was mistaken.

For my birthday, I treated myself to an opening day viewing of Twentieth Century Fox's Murder on the Orient Express. About the movie in general, I'd say its only weakness is that for many of us, the reveal of the murderer is no surprise because we already know the story. Otherwise, this was a remake worth doing and seeing. The acting is all-around as first class as the accommodations on the eponymous train, which is no surprise considering the A-list cast.

But let me focus on the portrayal of detective Hercule Poirot by also-director Kenneth Branagh. My introduction to Branagh was as Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I didn't again encounter him until I started watching the British TV series Wallander, where he plays Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander. In Chamber, he played a foppish buffoon. Wallander was where I first got to see him in a strictly dramatic role. In that show, he plays a police detective who is deeply affected by the suffering he encounters in his work. He is tired, and from time to time his beliefs are challenged.

Branagh is on the mark when he brings both those traits of Wallander to his version of Poirot. At the start of Orient Express, Poirot is already weary from all the evil and injustice he has encountered through his work and is on a much needed holiday. Poirot, too, will see his beliefs challenged by the case.

But Poirot is not a totally dramatic role. He is far more than persnickety and an outright pompous ass. Even author Christie came to dislike the character (but since fans adored him, she continued to write stories with him). Branagh brings wonderful comic acting to the role. Like Suchet, his Poirot is deserving of both respect and derision.

One detail I feel compelled to mention is the vast difference between the mustaches of Branagh's and Suchet's Poirots. Suchet's has a slim, almost dainty one, while Branagh's is a wide, thick, handlebar of one. But both Poirots are proud of their mustaches and groom them obsessively. Branagh's Poirot even sleeps with a protective guard on his upper-lip hair. When I first saw Branagh's mustache in a trailer, I thought it was wrong for the role, but when watching the film, I quickly changed my mind.

So, even if you thought Suchet was the only one who could do proper justice to the role of Poirot, I think you, like me, will be pleasantly disabused of the notion.

I look forward to the eventual DVD/Blu-Ray release of this movie because I will want to watch it over again. Oh, and some brief dialog at the end of Orient Express suggests Branagh may follow up with a film version of Death on the Nile.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Onset": A Short Story

I've finally gotten through the first draft of the first act of my mystery novel. It's been slow going. I'm continuing to develop the character of Evelyn Malsage, a schizophrenic woman who becomes the amateur sleuth of my story. Here's just a little bit of backstory on Evelyn. Enjoy.


It was the fifth of July in Denver and Evelyn was twelve. It was only morning but the sky was cloudless and the temperature was at least eighty. Her denim shorts, Broncos t-shirt, and sneakers were about right, and better than the sundress her mother had suggested, at least to Evelyn's thinking.

The night of the fourth had been filled with the sounds and flashes of illegal fireworks, so, like many other children in the area, she was scouring the neighborhood for dud firecrackers. One by one, while the others watched, a kid would open a dud and pour the gunpowder on the ground in the alley. Whoosh! would go the uncontained powder when lit. Some kids were more ambitious and amassed the powder from two, three, even four crackers to get a bigger whoosh and flash. The lucky ones had found crackers with fuses. Those, they would set off with a Bang!

Then it happened.

One boy—Evelyn didn't know his name—rushed over, holding out something pinched between his thumb and index finger. It was small and cylindrical, with a dull gray, rounded nose atop a tarnished, almost golden shaft. It had a flat head—what Evelyn might later call a flange—at the end opposite the gray nose. They all knew what it was. A bullet.

Along with oohs and ahhs came calls to get rid of it, maybe bury it. Others disagreed but couldn't settle on what to do with it.

Evelyn then demonstrated both the judgment and imagination of a twelve-year-old, suggesting, "Let's make a gunpowder fuse and launch it straight up like a rocket. That way it won't hit anybody."

Three camps formed immediately, all sides offering thoughtful arguments for their positions, such as "No!" and "Yeah!" and "I think it's cool but they're gonna hear it." All during the exchanges Evelyn and the boy traded glances. After long debate with no side gaining or losing much strength, it seemed that no agreement was possible. They had, after all, been at it for at least a minute.

The boy—whose name Evelyn never did learn—interrupted with a point of order. "I found it, and I wanna launch it." Majority rule had been trumped by individual property rights. He handed the bullet to Evelyn.

She waved for everyone to follow. "We need a gunpowder fuse. If you want to watch, you have to share your firecrackers."

Even some of the naysayers gave in and handed their firecrackers over to the boy as Evelyn led them all to the back of her house. She tapped a garbage can lid. "Here."

Evelyn watched as the boy, joined by two others, opened up firecrackers and poured out the silvery gray powder in a line. Once they had emptied all the firecrackers, the boys stepped back. Evelyn moved forward and placed the bullet atop one end of the gunpowder trail, which reached at least nine inches long. "Somebody, give me a match," she said. A boy gave her a forbidden baby Bic instead. She waved her hands. "Now everybody duck." Evelyn lit the fuse and ran for cover. She heard the Bang! as she bent down.

Something tapped the back of her left shoulder.

Turning her gaze down toward a gentle metallic clatter, she saw something almost golden. It was the shell casing of the bullet. It had found her. It went after her, on purpose, telling her, "That was stupid. Do you understand? I kill people. Don't you ever do this again!" She didn't hear the words, but those were the words it said as she looked at it. She was guilty, and the bullet chose with its dying effort to teach her better.

She bent down to pick up the casing before anyone else saw it. She didn't say anything about it, not at the time nor ever after, but she never forgot. She put the casing in her pocket.

Evelyn would later learn the word "serendipity," which means, "meaningful coincidence." She would also come to understand the difference between literal and figurative. And she would learn what a metaphor was.

The shell casing tapping her shoulder was not serendipity. That it sought her out to teach her a lesson was neither figurative thinking nor a metaphor. It was real.

Evelyn Malsage had formed her first delusion.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Research: But I Don't Know Any Reporters!

Last time I gave a review of Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton. This post will be the first of what I expect to be many postings on research I've needed to do to successfully write my first murder mystery.

As I've posted previously, one of the major characters I plan to use is a crime reporter for The Denver Post. This was a challenge because I've never been a reporter, haven't taken any journalism classes, and didn't know any reporters personally. With this lack, how could I write credibly about my reporter?

Research, helped by a bit of luck.

In April, I attended an author networking function at the studios of KRMA, Denver's Channel 6, one of two PBS stations in town. My principal reason for attending was to further promote my website of Colorado authors and their books, I made the rounds of the booths at the event, which included author and publisher organizations and service providers. I handed out pens with the website URL printed on them at just about every booth and let them know I was providing a free service helpful to their members or clients.

At the booth for the Denver Women's Press Club, one of the event sponsors, I spoke to the president of the club. I mentioned in passing my challenge with writing credibly about a crime reporter for The Denver Post. Well, right there she flipped open the member directory and found an entry for former Post reporter Valerie Mass.

I emailed Ms. Mass with two of my broad questions about the character. One question was about how a reporter would handle receiving an anonymous email making a claim that the writer observed person A kill person B, where A is a current election candidate. The other question was about how a reporter would learn about someone who went to the police to make a subsequently unsubstantiated confession that she shot someone. A few days later, Mass wrote back to me.

It turned out that years ago Mass had been a crime reporter for the Post. She corrected some of my misassumptions, such as that a reporter would immediately let the police know about the email. Since I had said there was no immediate proof that B was dead or even missing, she pointed out two things: First was that since the claim was unsubstantiated, it was premature to go to the police or write about the accusation. Second was that revealing the message to the police would make the information available to other news outlets, not something a reporter hoping for an exclusive would do.

As for the other question, Mass told me that reporters sometimes get chummy with the police and might learn about things from off-hand remarks made over drinks at a local bar.

Mass also recommended that I watch the movie Spotlight. She claimed the movie gave an accurate portrayal of investigative reporting by a major newspaper (in this case, the Boston Globe). I immediately set about acquiring a DVD of the movie. Valerie Mass has earned a spot in the acknowledgments of my book.

Another lead came from crime fiction author M.L. Grider (whose debut thriller, Bitter Vintage, my company, Thursday Night Press, is publishing). Grider told me about L.A. crime reporter turned award-winning mystery writer Michael Connelly. I researched Connelly and discovered that in his 1996 novel The Poet, the sleuth is a crime reporter for the now-defunct in print Rocky Mountain News. I decided I wanted to see how a former crime reporter portrayed the activities of a crime reporter as he investigates a suspicious suicide. I am currently reading The Poet before I continue writing my mystery.

What I learned so far from this round of research was the value of trade organizations, author networking events, and reading within your intended genre.

That's it for this post. May you find it useful if you are writing your first murder mystery.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: Writing Mysteries, A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of Amerca

Last time I wrote about how I selected the point of view for my murder mystery, and why I did not use the first-person point of view loved by many mystery writers and their readers. This time, I'm providing a book review relevant to mystery writing.

As I've said before, I like to read and learn from books on writing craft. I was pleased to discover a book specifically about writing mysteries, Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by award-winning mystery writer Sue Grafton.

The book consists of 35 chapters written by A-list mystery writers, each chapter on a different element of writing mysteries. My biggest takeaways from this book were

  • show telling details of character
  • maintain conflict throughout the book
  • details are important

Telling details of character are small things that say a lot about a character. Michael Connelly uses as an example a homicide detective who always takes off his glasses and sticks an earpiece in his mouth to hold them while examining a corpse at the crime scene. The telling detail is the indentations in the earpiece caused by biting down hard. Upon learning this detail it becomes immediately clear that not only does the detective work on cases, the cases work on him. A telling detail of my protagonist, Evelyn Malsage, is that there is always a bit of truth in any of her paranoid beliefs.

As for maintaining conflict throughout the book, advice from Kurt Vonnegut is offered. This master said that each character on each page of a book must want something--even if it's only a glass of water. The ultimate advice introduced through Vonnegut's proverb is that in a mystery every page should have conflict of some kind and that from conflict comes suspense.

In a mystery, details are important because readers of the genre enjoy hunting for answers and many of them will sift every word in the search for clues to the solution. So, even more than is so for other genres of fiction, details must be precise and accurate.

There are other things I learned from this book, such as that many mystery authors are discovery writers (also called pantsers, as in "by the seat of the pants") who work out what a story is about by the process of writing the first draft. This in contrast to outliners, who determine their story, sometimes to great detail, by advance planning. Many authors are, like me, somewhere between the two, doing some planning of story before writing but also working out important details of plot and character by writing the first draft.

I will probably reread this book, or at least select chapters, from time-to-time. I found the lessons valuable enough that I can recommend this book to other beginning mystery writers.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Point of View, or Through Whose Eyes Do I Present My Murder Mystery?

Last time I reviewed the writing guide Don't Murder Your Mystery. The time before that I wrote about the advice to "write what you know" and why I found the advice less limiting than it first sounded. This time, I'm going to talk about point of view options for a murder mystery and how I settled on the one I would use in writing my first murder mystery.

Any story is written from one or more points of view (see the movie Vantage Point). The term point of view means pretty much what it sounds like: from where one sees (or more broadly, experiences) a story. The most common ones are

  • first person
  • third person limited
  • third person multiple
  • third person omniscient

I'll describe these options only briefly. In depth explanations of various points of view and their advantages and disadvantages can be found in many writers' guides, such as Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.

First person point of view is written through the eyes of a character. It is written using words such as "I" and "me" and "we" and "my." Many detective stories are written in first person. You see things through the senses and thoughts of a character who is personally telling you the story. With writing in this point of view, the reader gets to know only what the character knows and experiences. It is perhaps the most intimate point of view. Usually, only one character is the point of view, but not always, such as in The Judas Line by Mark Everett Stone, where two characters are used for point of view, but only one in any chapter.

Third person point of view is written through the voice of a third-party narrator. It is written using words such as "he" and "she" and "they" and "their."

With third person limited point of view, the reader still knows what the character knows and experiences, but a (perhaps anonymous) narrator is telling the story and that narrator is free to tell the reader things a little more truthfully than the character might admit. Only one character is used for point of view. This point of view can be nearly as intimate as first person.

Third person multiple is like third person limited, but more than one character may be used for point of view, but usually only one character per scene.

With third person omniscient point of view, the narrator is an all-knowing being that can enter the mind of any character and even share with the reader what no one is present to witness.

When considering which point of view to use for my story, the biggest thing I had to consider was the schizophrenia of the main character, Evelyn Malsage. She hallucinates voices, believes odd things that are mostly untrue, and is mildly paranoid. Her self-awareness is poor.

When I tried to imagine first person narration by Evelyn, I quickly found it wouldn't work. I wanted readers to hear the voices she heard, and that presented a problem. I don't hear voices now that I've found the right regimen of medications, but when I did, it was so disturbing and confusing that the last thing I wanted to do--that I don't think I was even capable of doing--was try to repeat the stream of voices I heard as they spoke. I could not use first person narration if I wanted to be authentic about the voices she hears. Also, Evelyn, like many schizophrenics who don't have their symptoms under control, has impaired self awareness. That would make use of first person problematic. Topping things off, I think being inside Evelyn's hallucinating, confused head all the time would exhaust readers and turn them away.

So first person was out for Evelyn but it didn't necessarily mean first person was completely out of the question. The Sherlock Holmes stories were mostly if not all written in first person using Dr. John Watson's point of view. I wondered if I could Michael's point of view in first person. No good. I definitely want to enter Evelyn's head part of the time, so a Dr. Watson approach wouldn't work.

So third person multiple seemed to fit the bill.

Multiple meant more than one point of view, but how many?

Well, who was my story about? Sure, many people: victim, suspects, witnesses, sleuths. But when I decided on a conflicted partnership between Evelyn and her brother-in-law crime reporter Michael Lawson, I knew the focus had to be on those protagonists. So, for now, I'm trying to limit point of view to just those characters, getting as close to the characters as I can get with third person. (Now I'm a big fan of British TV mystery shows, so I may cheat and use fly-on-the-wall point of view, variouslycalled cinematic or objective point of view, occasionally to show some suspicious (and red herring) behaviors, as I often see in shows such as Broadchurch and Midsomer Murders.)

So now I was settled: I would use third person multiple almost exclusively, through the vantage points of Evelyn and Michael. I have written three chapters so far using these points of view, and so far it has worked acceptably.

I hope you found this an interesting journey into the mind of a first time mystery writer and maybe even got some ideas for your own mystery.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Review: Don't Murder Your Mystery

I like to read books on writing craft, so it was an instinct of mine to find some books on writing mysteries since I am new to writing the genre. One of them I just read was excellent but, I think, misnamed. The Agatha award-winning Don't Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden could have been titled Don't Murder Your Prose. (Roerden went on to publish Don't Sabotage Your Submission, which has much the same content but is written for fiction writers of any genre. Roerden advises people to not bother buying both books.)

Roerden's stated goal is to help you, the writer of a mystery novel, reduce the odds of a literary agent or advance-paying publisher throwing your manuscript onto the rejection pile after reading only the first few pages. She draws upon her forty-plus-years experience as an editor to identify twenty-four areas of writing where she has seen most writers she has edited demonstrate "average" writing. She advises that average means amateur.

I think she exceeds her goal. This book is also for the indie writer who doesn't necessarily care about agents and publishers because it is about how to make your writing decidedly better than that of the hordes of other indie writers you are competing with. People are going to read only so much of your book when they see it in a bookstore or on Amazon, often only the first page. Wouldn't you like them to want more rather than see reasons to put your work down?

In each of the twenty-four areas of writing she discusses, she offers plenty of specific examples from award-winning and bestselling mystery novels to demonstrate what she means by "good" in that area. She also offers bad examples, some contrived and some real but unattributed, to explain by contrast.

She also explains why common mistakes in these areas matter. Bad mechanics in your writing are distracting and pull readers out of your story. Why let something under your control--your writing--undermine your storytelling?

What this book is not is a book on storytelling. It is not about how to plot a mystery or how to develop the character of your sleuth. It's about writing prose that it is heads above the crowd and more on par with successful authors.

Roerden mentions a few things specific to mystery but far and away her clearly explained and backed up advice applies broadly to genre fiction. One of my takeaways from this book about writing mysteries is that details matter. She does a marvelous job explaining how to embed details in your prose without it sounding stilted or stopping action. She also makes clear you should be prudent about the details you add, avoiding detail that means nothing to the rest of the story.

I am glad I read this book. I know that applying its lessons will improve my craft both at writing and at editing. If you are a fiction writer, I recommend you read this book.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Why Writing What You Know is Not the Same as Playing it Safe

I last wrote about deciding the sub-genre of my story and deciding whether my sleuth had a Watson. In this post, I will talk a bit on what it means to "Write what you know."

Advice I've read countless times, as I'm sure most writers have, is "Write what you know."

I think some writers take this to mean "Write about your experiences." My cousin James Carroll certainly did that in his semi-autobiographical novels, such as Memorial Bridge, and his biographical book American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. But I believe writing about your experiences has a broader meaning.

If you're not an arachnophobe yourself, it may seem tough to write about someone terrified by a spider hanging over them by a slender thread. But if you have ever been deeply frightened, you do know how to write about your heart pounding in your chest and finding it hard to catch your breath. If you can recall how you felt nauseous and shaky after the fear began to subside, you know how to write how someone felt after getting away from that spider. If you've ever imagined some terrible possibility you panicked over, only to have it not come to pass, you can describe a phobia. These, at least to me, are all about writing what you know.

I've started drafting initial chapters of my mystery, which has a working title of The Voices Cried Deception. In the first chapter, I described how disembodied voices spoke from behind Evelyn Malsage, narrating her life to her ears only. That I've experienced, and its anywhere from annoying to deeply disturbing. But I had to use my imagination to give her delusions that I've never had. Since I have believed things in that past that turned out to be true, I knew how to write some of her delusions. All I had to do was think of something a little absurd that involved an assumption of malicious intent. Evelyn, for example, keeps the television that was a recent Christmas present turned to the wall because she knows Google and others watch people through their televisions. That makes this a great delusion is that I've read stories about Web-connected smart TVs with cameras being hacked to observe people without their knowing. A good delusion has a grain of plausibility to it.

In case I'm not making my point clear, it's this: Writing what you know does not mean safely sticking to your experience and direct knowledge. It means using your experience and knowledge to help you imagine a circumstance well enough to vividly and credibly describe it, even though you've never experienced that circumstance.

When I catch cases of it while writing my murder mystery, I will write about when I describe experiences that were new to me while still writing what I know.

Well, back to writing more of my first draft. I hope I've said something that helps you write your own mystery.