Rules for Writers

The following is a guest post I wrote for the Bullet Books Speed Readsblog. In it I explain what an author does when she discovers she doesn’t have a clue about what she’s writing about. I also include a link to a book trailer, but you have to read to the end of the post to find that.

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There are many rules for writers. Two of the major ones: Write what you know and write what you love.

I was pleased that Stabbed, which I co-wrote with Manning Wolfe, was set in Vermont. I love vacationing there: mountains and trees, summer wildflowers and narrow, winding roads, rainstorms and starry nights, white frame churches and village greens.

In Chapter 1, Dr. Blair Cassidy, professor of English, arrives home one dark and stormy night, walks onto her front porch, and trips and falls over the body of her boss, Dr. Justin Capaldi. She jumps back into her car and calls the sheriff. The sheriff arrives and . . .

What happens next? Who takes charge of the investigation? The sheriff? Or the state police? What do their uniforms look like? Where do rail lines run? What’s the size of a typical university town? And a typical university? And several other details not gathered during a typical vacation.

I didn’t know, so, new rule: Write what you learn. Research. Research. Research. The best mystery authors have been avid researchers.

Agatha Christie, for example, is known for her extensive knowledge of poisons. As a pharmacy technician during World War I, she did most of her research on the job before she became a novelist. Later she dispatched victims with arsenic, strychnine, cyanide, digitalis, belladonna, morphine, phosphorus, veronal (sleeping pills), hemlock, and ricin (never before used in a murder mystery). In The Pale Horse, she used the less commonly known thallium. Christie’s accurate treatment of strychnine was mentioned in a review in the Pharmaceutical Journal.

Francis Iles’ use of a bacterium was integral to the plot in Malice Aforethought. His character, Dr. Bickleigh, serves guests sandwiches of meat paste laced with Clostridium botulinum and waits for them to develop botulism. If Dr. Bickleigh had been as knowledgeable about poisons as his creator, he wouldn’t have been so surprised with the consequences.

Among modern authors, P.D. James is known for accuracy. Colleague Ruth Rendell said that James “always took enormous pains to be accurate and research her work with the greatest attention.” Before setting Devices and Desires near a nuclear power station, she visited power plants in England; she even wore a protective suit to stand over a nuclear reactor. Like Christie, James used information acquired on the job—she wrote her early works during her nineteen years with the National Health Service—for mysteries set in hospitals.

Most authors don’t go as far as standing over nuclear reactors in an attempt to get it right, but sometimes even the simplest research is time-consuming. And, even the most meticulous researchers make errors.

Dorothy L. Sayers was as careful in her fiction as she was in her scholarly writing. But she confessed in a magazine article that The Documents in the Case contained a “first-class howler”: A character dies from eating the mushroom Amanita muscaria, which contains the toxin muscarine. Describing the chemical properties of muscarine, Sayers said it can twist a ray of polarized light. But only the synthetic form can do that—the poison contained in the mushroom can’t.

Most readers don’t forgive big mistakes. And why should they? Thorough research is a mark of respect for readers. And sometimes, getting the facts straight in fiction has consequences the author can’t predict. Christie’s The Pale Horse is credited with saving two lives: In one case, a reader recognized the symptoms of thallium poisoning Christie had described and saved a woman whose husband was slowly poisoning her; in the second, a nurse who’d read the book diagnosed thallium poisoning in an infant. The novel also credited with the apprehension of one would-be poisoner.

As to Stabbed—Well, we don’t expect it to save lives or help catch criminals. I knew Vermont, but I didn’t know Vermont criminal procedure. Now, readers will come out knowing what the uniform of the Vermont State Police looks like and what happens at a courtroom arraignment.

And choosing the murder weapon was easy. We considered the book’s title and – well, d’oh – no more research was required.

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More about Stabbed: http://bulletbooksspeedreads.com/book/stabbed/

Book trailer for Stabbed: https://youtu.be/URDtnyRvfq0

 

Repost: Review of Kaye George’s CHOKE

I’m reposting this review in honor of Kaye George, author of the Agatha-nominated mystery, CHOKE.

Agatha Christie's signature
Agatha Christie's signature (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kaye is currently in Washington, D. C. , where the Agatha Awards will be announced tomorrow at the annual Malice Domestic “fun fan” convention. Malice Domestic salutes “the traditional mystery—books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie,” and “loosely defined as mysteries which contain no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence.”

Austin Mystery Writers send congratulations and best wishes to all Agatha nominees.

To Kaye and her heroine, Immy Duckworthy, we add an orange pickup load of harmonious vibrations and a plea to get back to Texas as soon as possible.

*****

Question: If you combined Lucille Ball with Inspector Clouseau, what would you get?

Answer: Imogene Duckworthy, amateur PI and main character of Kaye George’s new mystery, CHOKE.

Immy is a delight–the 22-year-old unwed mother of 3-year-old Nancy Drew Duckworthy (Drew), she lives with her retired-librarian mother, Hortense, in Saltlick, Texas; slings hash at her Uncle Huey’s cafe; and wants with all her heart to be a detective like her “dead sainted father.”

When Immy up and quits her job (Huey wants her to work double shifts again), and then explains her sudden unemployment by telling Hortense that Huey pinched her bottom (well, he DID pinch the other waitress’s bottom), Hortense heads to the cafe to give Huey what-for. Then Huey is murdered, the police take Hortense to the station, and Immy has her very first case. Guided by the Moron’s Compleat PI Guidebook, she sets out to find the perp.

The Moron’s Compleat PI Guidebook says nothing about staging a jailbreak, holing up in a Cowtail motel, or color-coding her list of suspects. But it does mention disguises, just what Immy needs to investigate on her home turf. An outfit that combines “Buns of Foam” with “Boobs and Belly,” however, leaves the amateur PI in need of the Jaws of Life, and the reader in stitches.

Kaye George’s CHOKE is a different kind of mystery. In most detective novels, the reader watches the sleuth-protagonist work his way through chapter after chapter, picking up clues and discarding red herrings, until he finally comes up with the answer. In CHOKE, however, the reader picks up clues while watching the gullible, ultra-literal, but enthusiastic Immy charge through to the solution while remaining blissfully clueless.

With CHOKE, first-timer Kaye George has accomplished something special: an original mystery, an original Immy, and a novel that leaves readers laughing and wanting more.

FTC Disclaimer: No one gave me this book. I bought it with my own money. Kaye George is one of my critique partners, but our relationship did not influence my review. I did not tell her how to write CHOKE, and she did not tell me what to write in my review. In fact, I never even critiqued the manuscript, and my introduction to the novel came when my copy arrived in the mail. I wish I had critiqued it, because I would like to take credit for “Boobs and Belly,” and the part about the letter opener, and the chicken. But the whole thing was Kaye’s idea. Even the orange pickup on the cover.