“Mary Higgins Clark and the Debut Authoresses of A Certain Age” (by Kevin Mims)

At the end of January, readers and fans received the news that Mary Higgins Clark had died at the age of ninety-two. Along with her status as best-selling author, Clark was counted as a teacher and inspirational figure to many in the mystery community and beyond. In this post, avid reader, essayist, and short-story writer Kevin Mims (who often writes for us here) discusses Clark’s career in the context of publishing trends and changing social dynamics for women writers in the 1970s.—Janet Hutchings

The recent death of legendary crime writer Mary Higgins Clark inspired long appraisals of the woman and her work in numerous journalistic forums such as the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, National Public Radio, Buzzfeed, and the Guardian. These pieces rightly praised her productivity and her work ethic. They noted the many obstacles she had to overcome in life. Her father died young, when Mary was eleven, having worked himself to death during the Great Depression. Her mother had to take in boarders in order to keep her children fed. A few years later, a beloved brother of Mary’s died. Mary Higgins married Warren Clark in 1949 and the couple proceeded to produce five children. But after fourteen years of marriage Warren died suddenly, leaving Mary a widow. Undaunted, Mary set out to become a writer in order to support her family. Her first novel, Aspire to the Heavens, about the love affair of George and Martha Washington, was not a financial success. It wasn’t until 1978, at the age of 51 that Mary Higgins Clark found her true calling—writing suspense novels. Her debut thriller was Where Are The Children?, a book that became a monster bestseller and has been through dozens and dozens of printings. Her next few books were so successful that, in 1988, according to the New York Times, her publisher signed her to “what was believed to be the first-ever eight-figure agreement involving a single author. The multi-book contract guaranteed her at least $10.1 million.” The investment paid off big time. In 1989, her novel While My Pretty One Sleeps was the tenth best-selling novel of the year. Loves Music, Loves to Dance was the tenth best-selling novel of 1991. All Around the Town was the tenth best-selling novel of 1992 (she seems to have had a fondness for the Number-Ten spot). She went on to hit the year-end bestseller list again and again.

All of the biographical info that appeared in the obituaries published by the New York Times and others was not only fascinating but also a testament to what a powerhouse Clark was, both as an author and as a woman. But none of the obits I read mentioned that, by essentially beginning her writing career in late middle-age during the 1970s, Mary Higgins Clark was not alone, but rather in the vanguard of an interesting trend. The 1970s and 1980s were, for some reason, an era rich in novels by women who got a late start in the writing game. The fifth best-selling novel of 1978 was Scruples, a first novel by Judith Krantz, who was born just sixteen days after Mary Higgins Clark. The sixth best-selling novel of 1978 was Evergreen, a debut novel written by Belva Plain, who turned sixty-three in October of that year. Two years later, in 1980, they would meet on the bestseller list again, when Krantz’s novel, Princess Daisy finished the year at number four and Plain’s novel Random Wind finished at number seven. In 1977, one year before Krantz and Plain got their start, sixty-year-old British writer Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel, The Golden Child. The eighth best-selling novel of 1974 was I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a first novel by Margaret Craven, who would turn seventy-three that year (she was the only woman on the year-end list of the ten best-selling novels in 1974). In 1981, Canadian author Valerie Fitzgerald, born in the same year as Judith Krantz, published her first (and only) novel, Zemindar, a massive, award-winning historical romance that is often compared with M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and has remained in print for nearly forty years now. In 1983, Mary Wesley, another Brit, published her first novel, Jumping the Queue, at the age of seventy-one. A year later, American Harriet Doer won a National Book Award for her first novel Stones for Ibarra, published when she was seventy-four. The fifteenth best-selling novel of 1979 was Ruth Beebe Hill’s massive (and controversial) book about American Indian life Hanta Yo. The author was sixty-six at the time and never published another novel, despite living to the age of 102. Romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford published the first of her many bestsellers, A Woman of Substance, in 1979, the year she turned forty-six. V.C. Andrews, whose trademark was gothic horror mixed with incest, published Flowers in the Attic, her first and most famous best-selling novel in 1979, when she was fifty-six. Cynthia Freeman first hit the year-end bestseller list in 1980, when her novel Come Pour the Wine was the eleventh best-selling book of the year. She made her literary debut in 1975, the year she turned sixty, with the novel A World Full of Strangers. One of the most interesting literary stories of the era was the publication of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s novel . . . And Ladies of the Club, which was the sixth best-selling novel of 1984, the year in which the author turned eighty-nine. It wasn’t her first book. The author wrote three novels between 1922 and 1930 but managed to get only two of them published at the time. Neither of them sold well or drew much attention. She then remained almost entirely off the literary radar until, very late in life, when she published the massive (approximately 1,400 pages) bestseller that made her famous. Another literary oddity of the era was The Life and Times of Heidi Abromowitz, a first novel by Joan Rivers, which was the ninth bestselling novel of 1984, the year that the author turned fifty-one.

On the younger side of this trend were Toni Morrison, who published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970 at the age of forty, and Colleen McCullough, who published her second (and best known) novel The Thorn Birds in 1977 when she was forty (it finished the year at number two on the New York Times bestseller list, behind only The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein was dead by then, so McCullough outsold every other living novelist that year). The following year, 1978, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey made her literary debut when her first novel A Woman of Independent Means was published. She was in her fortieth year. In 1980, at the age of forty-two, Jean Auel practically invented a new genre with the publication of her novel The Clan of the Cave Bear, an epic tale about prehistoric humans. Auel and Krantz would meet on the year-end bestsellers list in 1982, when Krantz’s Mistral’s Daughter captured the number-five spot and Auel’s The Valley of Horses captured the sixth spot. Auel’s novel The Mammoth Hunters was the best-selling novel of 1985, and her The Plains of Passage was the best-selling novel of 1990.

Plenty of women came late to the writing game prior to the 1970s and 1980s, and plenty of women have come late to the game since then. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for instance, published her first novel, Little House in the Big Woods, in 1932, the year she turned fifty-five. Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout published her first novel Amy and Isabelle, in 1998, when she was forty-two. But I don’t know of any other era in American literature when women in middle age or older published as many debut novels as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. I can’t really explain this trend, and I’ve never seen anyone else even comment on it before. My best guess is that the phenomenon arose as a result of several converging trends. The rise of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s probably helped make some publishers a bit more conscientious when it came to considering novels by and about women. And the publishing industry, though it was certainly never a bastion of gender equality, opened its doors to female executives a bit earlier than did many other professions, such as law, or medicine, or architecture, or engineering (the list is too long and depressing to complete). As documented in Rona Jaffe’s semiautobiographical 1958 debut novel, The Best of Everything, the New York publishing industry snapped up a lot of bright young women when they were fresh out of prestigious colleges such as Swarthmore, Vassar, and Radcliffe (Jaffe’s own alma mater), putting them to work as readers of slush-pile manuscripts, copyeditors, and executive secretaries. Of course, as Jaffe’s novel also illustrated, these women were overworked, underpaid, and often harassed, sexually and otherwise, by their male colleagues and supervisors. Nonetheless, by 1970 there were plenty of women ensconced in the world of commercial publishing. And whereas the male editors and publishers who dominated the industry during the earlier decades of the century might have been disinclined to even consider a novel from a fifty-year-old housewife with no previous books in print, female editors and publishers didn’t seem to share that prejudice.

Many of the abovementioned authors, such as Belva Plain, learned their craft while writing short stories for women’s magazines, which were generally edited by other women. Many of these authors found their work first championed by their female agents. That’s what happened with Mary Higgins Clark, whose career didn’t flourish until she was taken on by literary agent Patricia Schartle Myrer (wife of best-selling novelist Anton Myrer), who represented her for the first twenty years of her career. And some of these women were housewives who, after their children were old enough to go off to school all day, found themselves with a bit of time on their hands and an eagerness to fill it with something more than doing the laundry and fixing dinner. That was the case with best-selling author Jacqueline Briskin. In 1964, the Bel Air housewife enrolled in a night class at UCLA called “The Craft of Fiction.” She thought the class would simply explore the works of famous writers. It turned out to be a class about writing fiction, not reading it. She had three children and a husband to look after, but the course ended up inspiring her to take up the writing trade. “I don’t know how it happened,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1982, “but suddenly I found myself absolutely fascinated with writing. Maybe I was at the time of life when I needed to do something else.” She was thirty-six at the time. Six years later, in 1970, she published California Generation, the first of her twelve novels. According to the Los Angeles Times her novels sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and frequently found their way onto bestsellers lists.

We may never see another twenty-year period when so many older female writers are publishing debut novels, but that is actually a good thing. Writers like Krantz and Clark and Plain would probably have begun their careers as novelists much earlier had the publishing industry and the academic writing workshops been as welcoming to women writers as they are now (which isn’t to say that the publishing industry doesn’t still have a long way to go before women attain complete parity with male writers). Highly educated women like Judith Krantz (Wellesley, Class of ’48) and Belva Plain (Barnard College, Class of ’39) grew up in an era when even the graduates of prestigious universities and colleges had limited professional options. Most of them were still expected to focus their time and attention on raising children and running a household. Plain, Krantz, Clark, and their ilk didn’t really flourish professionally until their children were fully grown and out of the house. Obviously, child-rearing wasn’t a big obstacle for the likes of Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and other male writers, who let their wives handle most of those chores. Sadly, there were probably plenty of older women producing pop fictions as entertaining as Belva Plain’s or Mary Higgins Clark’s in earlier decades, but many of them probably never managed to make it into print. The 1970s and 1980s were a watershed era for women authors of a certain age making their debuts as novelists.

Of all the late-starting female novelists mentioned in this essay, only Judith Krantz managed to rack up more impressive sales figures than Mary Higgins Clark. According to Wikipedia’s list of the all-time best-selling fiction authors, it appears that the two women sold roughly the same number of books (around 100 million), but Krantz did it while producing only twelve titles, whereas Clark did it while producing an impressive fifty-six novels (to date, that is; there may be a few books still to be released posthumously). (It also should be noted that novels by V.C. Andrews have also sold roughly 100 million copies, but many of them were ghostwritten by Andrew Neiderman after Andrews’s death). In many ways the books these two women wrote were polar opposites. Clark was proud of the fact that she never included sex scenes in her work. Krantz’s novels were the first to be dubbed “bonkbusters” because of all the sex, rape, and incest they included (“bonking” was 70s slang for what nowadays is sometimes called “hooking up.”). Krantz’s novels haven’t aged particularly well, and they belong to a literary tradition of softcore sleaze whose other practitioners include the likes of Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, and E.L. James. Clark didn’t write classic detective novels in the mode of Agatha Christie, but in many ways she is America’s answer to Christie. Her books are free of graphic sex and obscene language. Both writers were incredibly prolific (Christie produced sixty-six novels). Both lived long lives; Christie died at eighty-five, Clark at ninety-two. Few people still read the works of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. When works are popular only because they are salacious, they are bound to be eclipsed when even more salacious books come along. To the best of my knowledge no one has made a film from a Robbins or Susann novel in decades, and probably never will again, but new Christie adaptations for the big screen and the small screen come out all the time, and will probably never end. Clark didn’t produce any characters that have entered the popular imagination in the way that Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple have. I’ve read probably a dozen Clark thrillers and can’t recall the names of any of her characters (I haven’t read the series of books that focus on recurring characters Alvirah and Willy Meehan). But her puzzles were good and her cliffhanger chapter endings are unmatched by anything in Christie’s oeuvre. I have a feeling that her work will live as long or longer than almost any of her peers among that group of fascinating women who published their debut novels after the age of forty sometime in the 1970s or 1980s. May she rest in peace.

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“Ditch the Ballerinas (and Other Lessons)” (by Bonnie Hearn Hill)

Bonnie Hearn Hill is the author of sixteen suspense novels. The most recent of them, The River Below (Severn House, 2018), was praised by both Booklist and Publishers Weekly, with PW calling it “emotionally involving.”  The California author, who once worked in radio, is also a short-story writer. Her first story for EQMM, “Feliz Navidead,” appeared in our January/February 2020 issue. Like the novel she is just finishing up, it deals with the world of  rock radio of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In this post we learn a little about the books that helped shape Bonnie as a writer.—Janet Hutchings

Ditch the Ballerinas:
And other lessons these early writers taught me about suspense

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”—William Faulkner

A good book grabs you, and an early book never really lets go. Our first stories are guided by only our ideas and what we’ve learned from reading. Those of us who begin at a young age don’t yet know enough to doubt ourselves, to second-guess, or to discuss the finer points of dialogue tags or first versus third person with our writer friends. Our teachers are those early books, and they are magic. Here’s my list.

Carolyn Keene

I’m grateful to Carolyn Keene, even though she never existed. Long before I learned the term, ghostwriter, I took my dollar bills down to the local stationers and bought the latest Nancy Drew mystery. For many girls, Nancy, with her roadster, her doting wealthy father, and her freedom, epitomized the perfect life. To me, Carolyn Keene did.

Encouraged by her success, I wrote my first mystery in a notebook while I was still in elementary school. Then, I mailed those handwritten pages to Grosset & Dunlap, the publishers. Yes, I actually checked the book jacket for the company’s address. I never heard back. That disappointment led me to question my plot, which as I recall, dealt with ballerinas. Also, I realized, I’d failed to put a Nancy in my story. I didn’t have a main character. Next time, I’d do better, maybe even ditch the ballerinas. That first effort would not be my last.

So, thank you, Carolyn Keene. You might have been fictional, but your lesson was not. You taught me that girls could write mysteries.

Edgar Allan Poe

I outgrew The Secret Of The Old Clock and flew straight into the pages of Edgar Allan Poe. Thank you, Poe, for teaching me that a story can grab you and not let go. Although he is known for creating the detective genre, Poe’s stories, “The Black Cat,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” haunted me much longer than “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or “The Purloined Letter.” For my tenth birthday, I requested a bicycle and Poe’s collected works. I don’t know which one I enjoyed more, but I still have that collection.

Although I would learn about the unreliable narrator years later, I learned it first from Poe. I also learned the power of narrative voice to keep the reader turning pages.


Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote as H.H. Munro and Saki, followed Poe in my reading life. Like many, I was introduced to his short story “The Interlopers” in a high school English class.

Thank you, Saki, for introducing me to the surprise ending. I still get chills thinking about “The Interlopers,” when the two former enemies, now united, hear what they think are their men coming for them. The blinded one asks his now-friend whose men these rescuers are, and the other answers with one word. “Wolves.”

“Sredni Vashtar,” which was later adapted for radio and television, is the story of Conradin, a sickly boy, who secretly keeps, worships, and prays to a polecat, the story’s title character. Conradin’s oppressive, nasty guardian (based on a maiden aunt who raised Munro after his mother’s death)  is determined to find out what the boy is keeping in the garden shed. She does just that in a bloody yet humorous finale.

Shirley Jackson

In her short life, Shirley Jackson wrote more than 200 short stories. I encountered “The Lottery” in a high school English text. Long after the story ends, the horror of it still lingers. So does the idea that people will commit terrible acts if they can justify those acts by calling them tradition.

Thank you, Shirley Jackson, for demonstrating the importance of foreshadowing. At the beginning of the story, the children are stacking stones in the town square and putting them in their pockets. Only later do we realize what the children are going to do with those stones.

Erle Stanley Gardner

Perry. Della. Paul Drake. Hamilton Burger. Lieutenant Tragg. Thank you, Erle Stanley Gardner, for showing the enduring quality of a series protagonist as well as a series cast of characters. Gardner created Perry Mason to last, which he did through something like 300 million books and a nine-year television series.

Another important lesson from Gardner is this: Take the least likely character in the story, and find a way to make that person the killer. Gardner excelled in the red herring. Just when you thought you knew who the killer was, Perry presented the evidence to expose the true killer.

Furthermore, Perry possessed two qualities that made him the perfect series protagonist.

One, he was single. Yes, Della was always by his side, but she never got more than taken out for a steak. She and Perry were more romantic in the books than on the television series, but even then, they did not marry. Perry Mason, married man, would have lacked the appeal of Perry Mason, head of the team that included Della and Paul Drake.

Two, Perry was proactive. He solved his own crimes. Later, I would learn the rule “The protagonist must protag.” All I knew then was that nothing could deter Perry from his goal.

Mary Higgins Clark

Before I found Mary Higgins Clark, I was on a noir-detective roll. These voice-driven, sometimes hardboiled books, were full of place, internal monologue, vivid prose, and (male) character angst. Some are memorable; others, not so much.

Then, I picked up Where Are the Children? and discovered the world of woman-in-jeopardy and woman-and-child-in jeopardy. Mary Higgins Clark could move from the point of view to the woman innocently preparing dinner to the head of the evil man across the street.

The protagonist of Where Are the Children? was found guilty and sentenced to the gas chamber over the murder of her two young children. After her attorney gets her conviction overturned, she changes her name and her appearance and moves away. Ultimately, she remarries, has two more children, and her life improves until one day seven years after the death of the first children, these two go missing.

A Stranger is Watching begins in a hotel room while a stranger watches a television interview with a man and woman arguing about capital punishment and the impending execution of the convicted killer of the man’s wife. As the stranger in the room continues to watch and plan, becoming more interested in the woman on the television, we already guess that the wrong person is being executed, and that the woman is in danger.

Mary Higgins Clark not only bonded with her readers, but she bonded with other writers. I remember taking heart as a hopeful beginning novelist when I read that how, as a widow with five children, she got up each morning before they did to write. She spoke at numerous events and inspired authors with her achievements and her kindness. Each time we met was in a group of people, and she treated each us as if we were the only one she was addressing.

Thank you, Mary Higgins Clark. Like Carolyn Keene, you taught me that women could write mysteries. Unlike her, you were real.

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“From the Short Story to the Big Screen” (by Mark SaFranko)

Mark SaFranko is the author of a number of novels, including Hating Olivia (Harper Perennial) and No Strings (Thomas & Mercer). His books have been published widely abroad, especially in French-speaking countries and in the U.K., with his latest novel,  Odiondo Olivia published this month in Italy. Yet short fiction has a powerful attraction for the author too. His stories have appeared previously in EQMM and in many other publications, winning the Frank O’Connor Award from Descant magazine in 2005. In this post he talks about the relative ease with which short stories (as opposed to novels) can be adapted for film.—Janet Hutchings

Not long ago while I was having my annual conversation with one of my former American publishers, she let drop the following statement: “Whenever a short story collection crosses a desk here at __________, there’s a collective groan.”

We both laughed. It was her way of telling me not to even think of trying to send one in her direction, but beneath our shared humor I was disappointed. Of course it’s well known that for book publishers story collections are viewed as something of an economic liability—it’s a miracle that a few are published in any given year—and I happen to be, and have been for long time, a serious practitioner of the form.

But I had to wonder at the shortsightedness of my former publisher, who, I thought, should know better. While the short story will never be able to compete with the doorstop novel in the perception of the reading public (in America, I believe, we actually think that in investing in the big fat novel we’re getting more bang for our bucks), we do so at the risk of losing sight of the story as an invaluable source of feature-film material. While conventional wisdom nudges the powers that be in the film world to best-selling novels as a source of material (whenever we see one of those ubiquitous lists heralding the new year’s books-to-film offerings, there’s never a story collection or standalone story on that list), I can’t help but think of the many great movies that were grown from the short form.

Some classic movie titles are well known to most of us who are on the lookout for such connections: It Happened One Night (adapted from the short story “Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams); the many screen iterations of The Killers, based on the Hemingway story; Hitchcock’s The Birds and Rear Window, based on the Daphne Du Maurier and Cornell Woolrich stories respectively; All About Eve, from the Mary Orr’s “The Wisdom Of Eve”; Blow Up, from the story of the same name by Julio Cortázar. But those are merely the tip of the iceberg.

I have my own set of favorites. For a variety of reasons space and time won’t allow me to go into, at the top of that list is probably Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece, Don’t Look Now, based another story by Du Maurier, frame by frame a perfect piece of cinematic art, a movie whose influence has only grown since it was released in 1973. And Todd Field’s In The Bedroom, based on short story master Andre Dubus’s seventeen-page piece titled “Killings.” Lucchino Visconti had a crack at it with one of his masterworks, Death In Venice. So did Stanley Kubrick, with Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel,” which was turned into 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps my most recent favorite was the critically acclaimed 45 Years by Andrew Haigh, which was culled from British writer David Constantine’s twelve-page story, “In Another Country.”

Anyway, you get the idea. If you’re not already aware of it, the short story is a great provenance for equally great films. And we’re not even talking about the stories that are adapted and fail to garner the attention of the above-mentioned titles.

So what is it that makes the short story perfect fodder for cinema? Aside from providing the basic idea, the blueprint—and all filmmakers, like writers and painters and composers, need an idea—let’s think about the difference between it and its principal literary rival for notice by the movie folks, the novel.

When it comes to the novel, the adaptation process is by necessity completely different (making exceptions, of course, for the length and breadth of the TV series using novels as source material—the upcoming Showtime series featuring all five of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripliad leaps to mind). Aside from the very rare example—a film like Lord Of The Flies occurs—that is able to faithfully include the entirety of a novel, the screenwriter is saddled with the tasks of excising and compressing, cutting and deciding what and who to leave out. The results are often lacking. We only have to summon the titles of such bombs as The Bonfire Of The Vanities . . . Dune . . . andThe Great Gatsby to conjure up the disasters that these efforts resulted in. In some cases—Lord Jim, Ulysses, Tropic Of Cancer—the literature was too great to be wrestled successfully onto celluloid.

But not always. For instance, Anthony Minghella’s version of The Talented Mister Ripley—taking nothing away from René Clément’s first movie of the book, Purple Noon, which is chock full of its own merits, to be sure—is the perfect example of what I call “excavation.” This is the process by which the adaptor (in this case Minghella as both screenwriter and director) brings into daylight layers of implied but unspoken aspects of the original work and in some ways actually improveson it. I believe this is the case with Minghella’s film, the haters and naysayers notwithstanding. Highsmith would presumably have loved his version; she famously once said that she expected any director utilizing her work to impose his or her own unique vision over her original.

Which brings me to my central point about the short-story-to-film dynamic. The reason that the story is perfect provender for the screen is its sheer adaptability. Why? It allows for a real collaboration between the writer and screenwriter. What “lies below” the surface of the literature can be filled out, imagined, and “excavated,” as it were, as it was in the case of RipleyIn essence, the short-story writer has presented the filmmaking team with a ready-made treatment that can be stretched this way and that, manipulated and molded.

One interesting example of this phenomenon was the 2006 Australian film Jindabyne. The Ray Lawrence-directed movie starred Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney and transplanted Raymond Carver’s classic story “So Much Water So Close To Home”—already adapted in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts—to Australia. Nearly every sentence of Carver’s original was given a different kind of life. The personalities of the main characters are deepened and filled out, the secondary characters are granted a fuller existence, and situations and scenes merely hinted at in the nine-page original piece are fully developed. Add to that the change of landscape and you have an utterly unique creation.

Annie Proulx, who wrote the original story for the award-winning and critically praised Brokeback Mountain—which totaled all of eleven pages in its original New Yorker appearance—said, after evaluating all of the advantages her story provided for cinematic treatment: “I began to wonder why movie people didn’t prefer short stories to novels, since the opportunity for original work is built in.”

I’m not at all certain that the fault in this regard lies with the movie people. Perhaps the problem lies with the major houses, like my publisher at one of the Big Five, who look down their noses at the short story and thus limit their accessibility in book form. I’ve always liked to say that one great short story is worth ten bad novels, and while that may be an exaggeration, I believe it to be true. Perhaps the film community doesn’t always know exactly where to look for all the wonderful material generated by the practitioners of the short form.

But the bizarre, unfathomable prejudice against the form can extend even further. Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana’s screenwriting partner on Brokeback Mountain, had to be forced to read the story in the first place. “No,” he objected when she tried to corner him with it. “You know I don’t read short fiction anymore.”

She went on to point out in her essay accompanying the published screenplay, “. . . . in my mind it was an excellent blueprint for a screenplay . . . We did not have to streamline or condense. We had the luxury of using our own imaginations to expand and build upon that blueprint, rounding out characters, creating new scenes, fleshing out existing ones. It was such an enjoyable experience, it made me wonder why more short stories weren’t adapted into films.”

She added that the Proulx story condensed twenty years of time into just a few pages and that she and her partner were able to option it with their own money—both obvious advantages over the novel form.

I’m not suggesting that you’ll find a movie when you read the next story you pick up. But I’m convinced that there is plenty of great material floating around out there just waiting to be discovered.

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“Shake It Up” (by Kieran Shea)

EQMM published Kieran Shea’s first fiction in August of 2009, in the Black Mask department rather than the usual placement for a debut, in the Department of First Stories. Since then, his writing has mostly been in the field of science fiction, where he has four well-reviewed novels to his credit. He has not given up on the crime genre, however, as Booklist’s description of his novel Off Rock makes clear: “A great tale that is part space thriller and part classic gold heist.” In this post, the author takes up a topic we’ve not often seen addressed on this site: To what extent is it appropriate for a writer’s views about our society (political and sociological observations, for example) to enter into their fiction—especially entertainment fiction.—Janet Hutchings

Ah, these days of deranged, suggestive spectacle—what a time to be alive, no?

A few years ago, I was invited to appear on a panel at a genre-fiction conference. I can’t recall what the panel was about; however, during my panel’s post-presentation Q&A an attendee stood up and, without warning, proceeded to lambast the lot of us. This included the panel’s gracious moderator, a kind soul who looked as if someone had just stuffed a dead rat down her blouse.

The gist of this boor’s sucker-punch was that, as authors, we ought to stick to “churning out” entertaining thrillers, whodunits, and whatnots and leave subjects like politics, religion, and sex the hell alone. You’d think the uncomfortable silence that then suffused the room would be enough to send the interjecting attendee sheepishly on their way, but you’d be wrong. Things then got very interesting. After the silence reached its fail-safe point, one of the more devilish gadflies on my panel retorted, with the laser-locked glare of an angry badger, “I’m sorry you feel that way, friend, but other than general despair and violence, what else is there?”

This rejoinder was received by the antendee about as well as the blouse-stuffing rat.

But I ask you . . . should fiction writers overtly indulge in polemics?

Outside of cave drawings, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when storytellers have not expressed their opinions or sought out argument. Even successful practitioners of romance yarns and plot-disciplined, baked-crumpet cozies fondle this forbidden fruit time and again, sometimes even brazenly. Yes, all of us acknowledge that what we create is a form of entertainment, and, yes, we all hope what we create sells, but what the grouchy accuser failed to grasp was that in order to invent such amusements, authors must build believable worlds and populate those worlds with credible characters. Stories kosherized of all sociological postulation and sex to boot would, I feel, read like a Soviet-era field manual on cheese.

As much as I believe in political self-expression, though, whenever I’m asked to submit a blog post, review, or piece of nonfiction, before tendering any material I always make an effort to clear everything I write with my agent first.

As a ferocious shield-maiden of her trade, one who negotiates, sells, and champions her roster of wordsmiths with indefatigable nerve and pluck, my agent deserves this courtesy, I believe. Most may assume I offer her this consideration because of the modest two-way fiscal relationship that exists between us, and to some extent that is true. But the real reason I defer to my agent’s critical capacities is because, on more than one occasion, she has saved me from dynamiting all my bridges and making a total horse’s patoot of myself.

Ask anyone close to me and they will readily tell you: I am more than mildly off as human beings go. No doubt these “anyones” may dither with other descriptive modifiers, some of which may even be flattering, but on balance I think I prefer the mild pejorative of off because it suggests a certain amusing unpredictability.  I like to think I’m an acquired taste, along the lines of a strange cocktail made with kümmel or a Lars von Trier movie marathon with squeaky helium voiceovers.

Unfortunately, there are consequences to sporting iconoclastic spots in a world of rigid stripes, the foremost being that, in instances when my bell gets tolled by something particularly sinister or vicious, my repulsion and anger manifests in words which at times overflow the bounds of decorum.

Thus enter my mighty shield-maiden agent, the keeper of the sacred pumped brakes. Gosh, how lucky am I that she’s always there for me before my worst impulses get the better of me.

In addition to her efforts, there’s also a personal temper maxim when I see my spleen venting permeating my nonfictional work; basically, if some thought or revelation has occurred to me, then chances are, even if it’s horrific and outrageous, it’s likely to have occurred to others as well. Being both brave enough and tactful enough to affirm these thoughts eloquently is the real trick of the craft.

But maybe not too tactful. I’m reminded of what a wise editor once told me after something of mine she published upset one of her publication’s readers. The reader was so offended that they drafted one of the longest, angriest letters the editor had ever received in her tenure at the publication. Brushing aside my profuse apology, she cannily said with a conspiratorial wink, “Trust me, Kieran, if you’re not pissing people off you’re not doing it right.”

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“A Book to Remember” (by Merrilee Robson)

We’re always pleased to see a post on this site from a reader’s perspective. Although Merrilee Robson is the author of both short stories and a first novel (2016’s Murder Is Uncooperative), she addresses here the question of what makes certain novels (or stories) stick in our minds. There are some spoilers in what follows, so beware, but we think you’ll find the post enlightening. Merrilee’s first short story for EQMM, “Edie,” is in our current issue (January/February 2020). Don’t miss it!—Janet Hutchings

I’m not a horse person.

I’m allergic. Not drop-dead allergic, but the kind of allergy that leaves me sneezing, wheezing, coughing, with runny eyes and nose after half an hour near any horse.

An encounter with a grumpy Shetland pony when I was a child left me with a bloody nose, a scar that didn’t fade until well into my adult years, and an aversion to riding.

So why, when we were planning a recent trip to Vienna, did I tell my husband that the one thing I really wanted to see while we were there were the Lipizzaner stallions, the famous white horses from the Spanish Riding School?

Well, it was because of a book.

Airs Above the Ground is a novel of romantic suspense by the late British author Mary Stewart, published in 1965. I read it a few years after its publication, but it was a book that affected me some fifty years after I read it.

Some writers are able to do that.

What makes a book have that kind of impact? During that trip, I tried to analyze what the author had done that captured my imagination so that I wanted to see those horses, despite the allergies?


I discovered Mary Stewart’s novels through The Moon-Spinners, a Walt Disney movie starring Hayley Mills. The movie had all the mystery and thrills of those childhood books, but with a hint of romance.

I was hooked. Although the main character in that movie was a teenager, the heroines in Mary Stewart’s novels are adults, but with the same sense of adventure I found with a teenage Nancy Drew or the English children in my favorite Enid Blyton books.

In Airs Above the Ground, Vanessa is a veterinarian. One who quit work when she got married, of course (it was the 1960s) but a character with training and skills that helped her worm her way into a community in a foreign country and solve the mystery.

She has a husband but he is part of the mystery, so Vanessa needs to be pretty self-sufficient, aided only by her sidekick, Timothy, a teenager she is chaperoning on a European visit and whose dreams of working at the Spanish Riding School provide much of the background on the horses.

Opening Lines

“Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal.” One of my favorite opening lines. For me, the opening captures the protagonist perfectly. She is wry, a bit frustrated with her mother’s friend, but willing to help her out. In the space of time it takes to have tea at Harrod’s, the reader learns that Vanessa has argued with her new husband, that he is supposed to be in Stockholm but has been seen in Austria, and that Vanessa has suddenly agreed to a flying trip to Vienna.


In an interview later in her career, Mary Stewart described how she usually set her novels in places she had visited and loved. In Airs Above the Ground, she made a trip to Vienna specifically to research the horses and the Spanish Riding School. In rereading it, I found the “information dumps” a little obvious, but at the time, when travel to Europe was just a distant dream for me, I found it impossibly exotic.


Mary Stewart said that she wrote that kind of stories she wanted to read. Her Wikipedia entry claims she “developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations.” While developing the genre seems a bit of a stretch (there are earlier examples, but perhaps without such take-charge protagonists), she certainly wrote best-selling novels that captivated a generation of postwar readers who were ready for independent heroines and travel to locations, such as Greece, Lebanon, France, and Spain, that were now more accessible to middle-class tourists.

But that’s not it!

While all of these make the novel enjoyable, I think I remember this book because of a single scene that packs an emotional wallop.

In my memory, the moment when Vanessa is alone in a mountain meadow, caring for an old circus horse that was injured in a fire, is the climax of the novel.

In fact, it’s near the middle, but it’s both a pivotal moment in the plot and the moment when (spoiler alert) Vanessa realizes that the old horse was stolen many years ago from the Spanish Riding School.

Stewart describes the distant music from the circus in the valley below, how the horse raises his head and pricks up his ears at the sound, then starts to move in the precise, disciplined figures practiced by the stallions.

It was a travesty, a sick old horse’s travesty of the standing trot which the Lipizzaner had performed with such precision and fire, but you could see it was a memory in him, still burning and alive, of the real thing perfectly executed. In the distance the music changed. . . . And in the high Alpine meadow, with only me for an audience, old Piebald settled his hind hooves, arched his crest and tail, and, lame forefoot clear of the ground, lifted into and held the same royal and beautiful levade.

And that was it. I had tears in my eyes. The description of the old, injured horse remembering his glory days hit me like a sledgehammer and left an impression that lasted for decades.

Amazingly, it’s a true story, sort of. In an interview on a Scottish television program, Stewart described someone at work stopping by the side of the road and an old horse in a nearby field dancing to the music from her car radio.

That story affected Stewart so much that she asked if she could use it in a book. And she recreated it so vividly, that it led me, years later, to watch white horses going through their moves in Vienna.

I believe that it’s an emotional connection between the reader and a book that makes that book memorable. It’s tough to do but worth aiming for.

Writers are always happy when a reader tells them they love their book. But the best compliment is, “That was a story that will stay with me.”

Posted in Adventure, Books, Characters, Fiction, Genre, Guest, Readers, Setting, Story | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

“Die Laughing” (by Mike McHone)

Mike McHone is a relative newcomer to the mystery field, but his short fiction and poetry have previously appeared in such publications as Neo-Opsis Science Fiction and The Onion. He makes his EQMM debut in our current issue (January/February 2020) with the humorous tale “A Drive-by on Chalmer’s Road?”. The Detroit author currently has other short stories forthcoming in Mystery Tribune and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. In this interesting post, he discusses the art of blending humor, mystery, and suspense in a fictional setting.—Janet Hutchings

You’ve probably heard the oft-repeated and sometimes misappropriated line, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Over the years, it’s been attributed to actors Edmund Keane, Edmund Gwenn, and Donald Crisp. There are a couple of variations such as, “Dying is easy, comedy is difficult,” or “Dying isn’t as nearly as difficult as playing comedy.” Regardless of the variation and whomever supposedly said it, there’s a reason why this line keeps hanging around after all these years. All of us understand that dying is indeed easy (so easy anyone can do it!), but not everyone can be funny. You either are or you aren’t. And telling an original joke, crafting a comedic bit, or knowing how to pace a humorous routine, book, story, or film, is an artform. Each word and syllable of the joke should be as close to flawless as possible, and the entire process, from beginning to end, needs to be executed with such precision timing it would make a Swiss watch jealous.

In this regard, the plotting of a mystery, crime, or suspense story (three genres that have a great dependence on that easy business of death and dying), means the tale must go through a very similar process. Pacing is crucial. Don’t tell or reveal too much in the beginning. Don’t overstay your welcome after the climax. Know when to pause. Know when to smirk. Whether you’re making them laugh or making them scared, both depend not just on knowing what to say, but when, where, and how to say it.

But what if a writer can do both?

Ah, yes . . . If a writer can tiptoe between the funny and the mystery, weave together the light and the shadow, wrangle up the goosebumps and the gut-laughs in a single story, then they’re on to something special. If words are fading from funny moments into suspenseful ones and vice versa, then the flow of the narrative can speak to a deeper part of us where we understand, in our bones, that laughing is the best way to ease tension. Since we were kids, most of us have giggled ourselves stupid right after a friend or sibling jumped from seemingly out of nowhere and scared the bejesus out of us, or after we’ve completed that victorious jaunt through a haunted house in October. And what’s the go-to line that people sometimes utter months or years after a car wreck or some kind of personal disaster? “We can laugh about it now.” Sharing amusing stories at a funeral makes the process easier to deal with, if only for a little while. A fart in school is already funny, but a fart while everyone’s in the middle of taking a final exam? Well, that’s like a mini USO Tour during wartime. If laughter is the best medicine, then comedy during a tense moment is a baptism. And in fiction, it can certainly bring balance to a story.

Consider the scene inThe Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo, that swaggering smartass, is about to be lowered into the carbonite chamber and to his potential death. Leia finally comes to terms with her feelings and tells Han, “I love you.” And how does he respond?

“I know.”

In the original script Han was supposed to reply with the obligatory, “I love you, too.” It was intended to be an earth-shattering moment, but considering twenty minutes later we hear Darth Vader shed some light onto the darker branches of Luke Skywalker’s family tree (not to spoil a forty-year-old movie, but he’s Luke’s dad—sorry for the shocker), it was a great decision by director Irvin Kershner to allow actor Harrison Ford to break the other way and give us a laugh before we see Han become frozen and sent off with the bounty hunter Boba Fett. Apparently after a long day of shooting the scene, sticking with the original line wasn’t working, so Kershner told Ford to just say whatever the hell came to mind after Leia confesses her love. Ford went with his instinct, stayed true to Han’s attitude and blessed us with that wonderful moment.

“I know.”


However, the funny thing about tension (or the frightful thing about comedy) is that sometimes the distinctions between the two in a fictional setting are so razor thin you could shave with them. Here’s a scenario: A main character is irritated at someone in a scene and he can no longer hold back his anger. The character grabs a blunt object and hits the other person upside the head with it. If the person receiving the hit gets knocked out or dies, and there’s a realistic sound effect at the time of the impact, then you’re watching, or reading, a suspenseful scene.

Now let’s take a very similar situation: Person A gets pissed at Person B. Person A grabs a blunt object and thumps Person B on the head. If Person B is in pain but still standing and the sound effect during the hit was something like a Boink! sound, then you have yourself a comedy. For proof of this, please see the infamous baseball bat scene with Robert De Niro in The Untouchables, versus the Three Stooges’ A Plumbing We Will Go wherein Moe bashes Curly in the head with a pipe wrench.

Of course, there’s an alternative to this wherein the violence is ramped up so greatly that a story could fall either into a relentlessly suspenseful horror story or a borderline slapstick comedy. Compare Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs to Tim Dorsey’s Florida Roadkill (but if you read the latter, trust me, you’ll never look at a pair of blue jeans or a can of Fix-a-Flat the same way again).

One thing we must also understand about comedy is that getting a laugh has very little to do with the joke itself and more to do with whomever is telling it. George Carlin’s material in the mouth of another performer doesn’t work, because there was only one George Carlin and no one could do George Carlin’s jokes better than George friggin’ Carlin. Characters in fiction must function the same. If jokes or observations can be interchanged between characters, then the writer isn’t allowing the character to tell the joke on their own. This is what we call lazy-ass writing. Characters have to have their own way of speaking, thinking, acting, reacting, living, breathing, and, yep, dying. When they’re allowed to be themselves, without interchangeable jokes or dialogue, or a bunch of narratively intrusive situations scuttling them along from scene to scene, their own life shines through and the reader or viewer is allowed to get acquainted with them. It’s because of this that, in the realm of mystery or crime fiction, we’re drawn to main characters instead of the mysteries they’re trying to solve.

We’ve seen dozens of medical dramas on TV, but we like Dr. Greg House because he’s a sarcastic curmudgeon with a heart. We adore Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch because he reminds us of the class clown that never studied but somehow always managed to get straight As and irritate the teacher in the process. Sara Peretsky’s V.I. Warshawski can out-think, out-drink, and do just about anything better than any of us, always with a smirk on her face. And when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, we stand in awe of his supreme intellect.


As Dr. Watson points out in particularly funny scene in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes’ “ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.” In the scene, Watson speaks of the Copernican Theory of the Earth revolving around the sun and Holmes literally does not know what Watson is talking about. Watson is gobsmacked. Holmes doesn’t possess even a child’s basic understanding of the universe! “What the deuce is it to me?” Sherlock asks. Watson replies because it’s “the solar system!” Holmes shrugs, says that it has nothing to do with his work, and that he will force himself to forget such nonsense.

Arthur Conan Doyle was wise to put this scene in A Study in Scarlet. Its usage shows that Mr. Holmes, for all his brilliance, certainly has his flaws. Normally, it would be cruel to laugh at someone’s lack of understanding regarding any subject, but if it came to solving a murder or navigating the streets of London blindfolded, Sherlock would absolutely embarrass us with his insight, and therefore Doyle is giving us the okay to titter at him for not knowing anything about Mars or Saturn. For replications of this type of humor at the genius’s expense, think Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, or Spock from Star Trek (and, fun fact, according to the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Sherlock is Spock’s ancestor).

And let us not forget that some of the greatest comedies have at least a semblance of a crime or mystery plot that propel them along. The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona is nothing without its central element: a kidnapping. The Big Lebowski, also by the Coen Brothers, is an homage to the works of Raymond Chandler. Smokey and the Bandit is a cat and mouse story about bootlegging. The Naked Gun, based on their far-too-short-lived television show Police Squad!, is a sendup of police procedurals of the ’50s and ’60s. The sitcom Barney Miller managed to blend workplace humor with the day-to-day nonsense of trying to solve crimes in Greenwich Village (and because of this many critics, actors, fans, and police officers said the show is one of the most realistic portrayals of what it’s like to work in a police station). And yes, when you think about it, every incarnation of Scooby-Doo was in fact a mystery series. Zoinks, indeed!

Yes, the crime elements can be muted at times, well behind the visual gags or lines of witty dialogue, but without the crimes or mysteries, the main characters have nothing to play around in. In other words, there’s no story. And without a story, we can’t connect to the character, and what better way to connect with someone (fictional or otherwise) than sharing a laugh?

After all, a story without good characterization is just a joke. And a joke told poorly by the wrong character is simply a crime.

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“How Local Can You Go?” (by Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

EQMM’s current issue (January/February 2020) contains the story “Home for the Holidays,” the EQMM debut of Andrew Welsh-Huggins, an editor and reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus, Ohio. Andrew is the author of six novels featuring Andy Hayes (the central character of his first EQMM story), a former Ohio State and Cleveland Browns quarterback turned private eye. The most recent book in the series is Fatal Judgment, which Publishers Weekly called “intriguing,” commenting that “fans of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone books will be pleased.” Andrew is also the editor of Columbus Noir, upcoming in March from Akashic Books and recently named one of CrimeReads’ most anticipated 2020 crime books. Location plays an especially vivid role in this author’s novels and stories, and in this post he discusses some ways in which it can be effectively used.—Janet Hutchings

A few years back I was driving one Sunday through the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, a tony town of big houses and leafy streets that Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas once called home and where golfing great Jack Nicklaus grew up. Passing the Chef-o-Nette, a longtime local eatery, I glanced over and did a double take. The restaurant was closed for the day. My stomach fell. The previous year, I set a scene there in my first novel, Fourth Down And Out, in which my character, private eye Andy Hayes, stops in between assignments for their signature Hangover Plate. Researching the book, I’d dropped by a couple times to be sure I got everything right. And I did, except for that pesky detail that got away: the Chef-o-Nette is never open on Sundays. It’s an error I won’t forget anytime soon, thanks to the readers who have pointed it out along the way.

At least I was in good company, since populating crime fiction with recognizable locations is a time-honored tradition. In The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade buys “two sacks of Bull Durham” at a cigar store at the corner of Kearny and Sutter streets, recognized as the real-life Otto’s Corner Store. Later he makes a phone call from the Hotel Sutter across the street, still standing today as the Galleria Park Hotel. Fast forward a few decades and Robert B. Parker paid homage to Massachusetts eateries such as the Agawam Diner in Rowley, Mass., which his Boston-based private eye, Spenser, described as “the world’s greatest restaurant” in Back Story.

More recently, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has eaten his way across Los Angeles via some of L.A.’s most iconic restaurants and diners, including Hollywood’s century-old Musso & Frank Grill where Bosch orders sand dabs and sourdough bread with detective Renee Ballard in The Night Fire. (The same restaurant makes an appearance in L.A. writer Paul Marks’s novella Vortex.) Laura Lippman references so many favorite Baltimore locales in her Tess Monaghan series—begging for a slice of Matthew’s Pizza in The Girl In The Green Raincoat, for examplethat when the annual Bouchercon mystery convention was held in Baltimore in 2008 it included a self-guided tour of Lippman’s Baltimore. In Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh crime novels, Detective Inspector John Rebus is a regular at Edinburgh’s Oxford Bar “with an IPA in his hand and his feet resting on the rail.” (In a case of art imitating life imitating art, Rankin had misremembered the setting, as the bar didn’t have such a rail. No problem: landlord Harry Cullen installed one to keep the bar consistent with its appearance in the novels.)

Such references lend authenticity to a writer’s work and turn towns and cities into characters themselves. But incorporating them successfully is a literary balancing act. Too heavy-handed a reference can come across as travelogue-like shilling. The appearance of businesses can date a book if they close after publication. And authors run the risk of angering owners if the book includes a negative comment, or especially if something bad happening on the premises. “If you’re showing the location or its proprietors in a bad light, then I would make up something,” Marks recommends. Generally speaking, the exception to that rule is public places, since no one’s going to stand for a political thriller in which the body shows up in the Oval Office in the cleverly renamed Beige House. But even that choice carries its risks, as New York writer Con Lehane discovered when he published Murder at the 42nd Street Library after a winter doing research at the branch to get a feel for the place. On learning the nature of the book, the library pulled his research credentials and canceled a planned book event. “The PR department at the library took umbrage that I would be blaring out the idea the folks got murdered at the library,” Lehane said.

For some writers, the inclusion of real places is a natural way to lend credibility to their fiction. In Three Can Keep a Secret, the second book in Judy Clemens’s Stella Crown series, she included a scene set in Zoto’s Diner in Line Lexington, Pennsylvania. They loved the reference and framed the page for display. “They were used in a positive sense, and I guess they felt it gave them a little free advertising!” Clemens said.

Other writers focus more on capturing the feel of a place rather than specific details, an objective familiar to anyone trying to craft realistic dialogue rather than regurgitate realconversation with all its “ums” and “ers” and “you knows.” Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher series, tells the story of doing his best to get the streetscape of New York down correctly in Tripwire, until he realized his description “was like reading a MapQuest page on acid.” Instead, as he recalled in a 2015 Harvard Book Store interview with Stephen King, he stuck with the real streets but had his characters do things that made sense to the plot if not the realities of New York traffic, like turning left off the West Side Highway onto Houston Street. “So that to me became an absolute example of how actually you’ve got to get things wrong to get them right,” Child said.

Similarly, Bruce DeSilva, in his series about Providence, Rhode Island investigative reporter—and later private investigator—Liam Mulligan, chose to change the name the of the city’s longtime paper, The Providence Journal, to The Providence Dispatch, so he could “be free to talk about the paper’s failing business without having access to accurate proprietary financial information.” DeSilva is upfront with readers about his approach, explaining in editor’s notes why he chooses to mix facts with fiction. Nevertheless, DeSilva learned the hard way how closely residents pay attention to details when he did include a real locale. He received an e-mail from a reader “so angry that I could almost feel the sender’s spittle flying out of my computer screen.” The author’s sin? He had used an authentic Providence restaurant, Caserta Pizzeria, but had his character eat an item, a three cheese and meatball pizza, not actually on the menu.

For the most part, three rules seem to apply when deciding whether to use real-world locations in your fiction.

  • Despite Lehane’s experience, putting bodies in public places—parks, government buildings, stadiums—is kosher. Putting them in private institutions such as restaurants is another matter. “I always use fictional locations for the actual crime scenes,” says Kristen Lepionka, author of the Columbus-based Roxane Weary private eye series.
  • If you’re going to use someplace real, get the details right and consider working with the proprietors ahead of time. “It takes time and effort to get to know the nuances of a place. Readers who are familiar with the setting will expect you to capture it well,” said Kathleen Ernst, author of the Chloe Ellefson series, which features many actual museums and historic sites.
  • Fudging some details about a town or city is fine, especially if it helps better capture the spirit, if not the letter, of your location. “I wind up changing real places to a fictionalized amalgamation based on that part of town,” said Tennessee teacher and writer Robert Mangeot.

In the end, truth—the essence of a place—is what’s most important in geographic descriptions. After all, our allegiance should be to our readers and their entertainment, not the eagle-eyed residents of whatever place we’re writing about.

Although if my private eye ever gets hungry on a Sunday again, I assure you he won’t be going to the Chef-o-Nette.

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“Ten Rules from a Reader” (by Kevin Mims)

Previously, most of the posts we’ve had on this site pertaining to writing have been from a writer’s point of view. Kevin Mims—an essayist, short-story writer, and prolific reader whose posts have appeared here a number of times before—has decided to turn that around and give us a post about writing from a reader’s perspective. Here is his list of ten tips from a dedicated reader! —Janet Hutchings

Elmore Leonard famously laid down ten helpful rules of writing. They are as follows:

  1. Never open a book with weather
  2. Avoid prologues
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialog
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip

Elmore Leonard was a great crime writer, and so you have every reason to heed his advice on writing. I am not a great writer of any variety, but I am pretty darn good reader. I’ve been hooked on fiction—high-, low-, and middlebrow—since I first learned how to read it, and I have written about it prolifically (some might say promiscuously) for a wide variety of venues, from this very blog you are reading to the New York Times Book Review. For ten years I wrote a monthly column for a now-defunct online magazine called The Vocabula Review, the brainchild of Robert Hartwell Fiske, the late great author of such excellent style guides as The Dictionary of Concise Writing and The Dictionary of Unendurable English. Most of the columns I wrote for Robert were deep dives into various aspects of reading fiction. If our culture celebrated individual readers as lavishly as it does individual writers, I might not be able to walk down a public street without being besieged by adoring fans pleading for my autograph. Alas, we don’t live in such a fantasyland, and so I remain unmolested whenever I walk down a public street. C’est la vie. Undaunted by my complete lack of cultural prominence, I have come up with my own list of ten rules for writing. I offer these not as a celebrated practitioner of the writer’s trade, but as lifelong consumer of fiction, primarily good, solid works of popular fiction such as the kind produced by the late Mr. Leonard. You have no doubt seen most, if not all, of these rules before in various handbooks of the writer’s craft and other how-to tomes. I don’t claim that my list is highly original. Rather, it is a distillation of hundreds of other lists, culled down to what I think are the ten most important things a writer of popular fiction ought to consider when writing for avid consumers of said fiction.

  1. No dreams, please. Supposedly it was Henry James who first said: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” Billy Collins once wrote a poem called “On Reading In The Morning Paper That Dreams May Be Only Nonsense.” “You hit the pillow and moments later,” he wrote, “your mother appears to you as a llama, shouting at you in another language.” That’s pretty typical of the kind of nonsense I dream. There may actually be people whose dreams provide brilliant insights into their character or provide clever solutions to problems that eluded them during their waking hours. But I’ve never met anyone like that. Any time a friend of mine begins recalling a dream for me, I begin mentally scrolling through my Netflix queue trying to decide what I’ll watch on TV after dinner that evening. My wife and I have been married for thirty-nine years, and during that time we’ve each shaken the other person to waken him/her from a dream that was causing shouting or wailing or thrashing of the bedsheets a fair number of times. Invariably, once awakened, the dreamer will either not recall the dream that had caused such turbulence or, more often, report that the dream was about something completely absurd. One night, about twenty-five years ago, my wife began howling so terrifyingly in her sleep that I feared she must be reliving some horrible childhood tragedy in a nightmare. She thrashed and screamed like someone in a movie about exorcism. When I shook her awake and asked what was wrong, she told me, “I dreamt that a squirrel ran up the leg of my pants.” I have never encountered a dream sequence in a novel that struck me as anything other than a literary contrivance. Fiction-writing is a specific kind of imaginative act and dreaming is an entirely different kind of imaginative act. No dreamer ever dreams a great novel and no writer ever writes a great dream. Writing about dreams is like dancing about architecture. The two artistic forms are too distinct to be successfully blended. Leave your characters’ dreams in their heads and off your pages. Describe their characteristics and actions thoroughly enough, and we’ll probably be able to intuit their dreams. And mostly those dreams will be nonsense, just like all dreams are.
  2. Throw out most of your research. Please. I appreciate the fact that it takes a great deal of research to write believably from the point of view of an archeologist or a trader on the Tokyo stock exchange. But I have known both archeologists and traders on the Tokyo stock exchange for years and I’ve never learned much about either of those professions from them. People are not their professions. I have a friend who owns a company that sells high-end automobile wheels to businesses and individuals all over the world. I’ve known this friend for fifteen years. We are members of the same pub-trivia team and we sit together convivially once a week in a pub and talk for hours on end. Yesterday, I met this friend at a Sacramento pub called Old Ironsides and had lunch with him. Five hours later we met at another pub, The Fox & Goose, for the weekly trivia quiz. I probably exchange thousands of words with him every week, both in person and via text messages. I know that he loves The Great British Baking Show. I know that he is a Taiwanese American who loathes the Chinese government. I even know that when he was a little boy his mother caught him eating Hostess Sno Balls when he wasn’t supposed to and forced him to consume an entire package of them, after which he vomited and, as a result, to this day, he loathes both marshmallows and coconut flakes. I know a million facts about this friend but I have learned almost nothing about high-end automobile wheels from him. Recently he mentioned that President Trump’s trade war with China has been pinching his company’s bottom line. But that’s about all he’s ever said to me about the wheel business. In novels, archeologists seem to talk about nothing but archeology. They can’t sit down to a cup of coffee and a croissant in a French bistro without musing on the history of human food consumption. This type of monomania allows an author to shoehorn every last bit of archeology research he has uncovered into his novel. But when I encounter that kind of character in a novel, my mind generally starts to wander. I know that what I am reading is not the musings of a flesh-and-blood archeologist but rather some clever novelist’s contrived notion of what an archeologist must be like. Some authors can get away with this. Michael Crichton’s bestsellers are full of regurgitated research. I, like millions of other pop-fiction junkies, am a big fan of Crichton’s oeuvre. But in Crichton’s novels the research is the star. He goes out and accumulates fascinating facts about, say, cloning or nanotechnology or airplane crashes and then he puts these facts into the mouths of characters who are little more than cardboard cutouts. Nobody turns to Crichton for the depth of his characters or the deftness of his prose. We want to read about dinosaurs running amok at a contemporary island amusement park. Another fact about Crichton’s novels that fans like me hate to admit is that, because of all this research, they don’t age well. I recently reread his 1992 thriller Rising Sun, an alarmist screed about how the Japanese economy is on the verge of overtaking America’s economy as the biggest and most powerful in all the world (in reality, in 1992 Japan was on the verge of a decades-long financial lull and currently accounts for 5.7 percent of global economic activity, well behind the U.S., which accounts for about a quarter of the global economy). Not only is Crichton’s economic research now largely worthless (and thus boring to read), he also spends a lot of pages describing once-cutting-edge technologies that are now dead or dying (a loooong description of how an image on a VHS tape can be digitally manipulated is excruciating to read in this day and age, when anyone with access to Photoshop can do things a thousand times more interesting with video imagery than the stuff Crichton’s cardboard characters were doing with VHS tape). By all means, dear fiction writer, do all the research that you must in order to write believably about neurosurgery or hydraulic dam construction. But throw most of it out and use only that which is absolutely essential to your novel’s plot.
  3. Be wary of using addiction as a plot device. Sadly, dangerous addictions—to drugs, to gambling, to alcohol, to sex, etc.—are a fact of human life. It would be nearly impossible to write about contemporary life in America without writing about someone who has an opioid addiction or a hoarding problem or who spends hours a day staring at a smartphone screen. Sometimes it seems as if everyone in America is addicted to something. Writers shouldn’t try to avoid this fact. But they need to be aware of a fact about addiction that often goes unacknowledged in the media: it’s excruciatingly dull to the outsider. If you know someone who is addicted to his smartphone, you’re probably aware of just how boring it is to be around him. If you go to Las Vegas with a gambling addict, you are not likely to have a good time. If you want to take in a show or dine at a fancy restaurant, you’ll probably have to do it alone. Your “companion” is likely to spend all his time at the craps tables giving his money away to strangers. Drug addiction and alcohol addiction are terrible problems, but they also tend to make the addict’s life an excruciatingly dull quest for the next injection or the next shot of vodka. In movies and popular fiction this fact about addiction is generally ignored or glossed over. Instead we are shown the alcoholic having a great time at a nightclub as he imbibes shot after shot of whiskey, engages in witty banter with the bartender, flirts with beautiful women, and buys several rounds for everyone in his orbit. Next we see him waking up in a cheap hotel room at noon. He is hungover and there is a naked person in bed with him whose name he can’t remember. This type of storytelling tends to depict addiction as a series of highs and lows. And that may be how it feels to the alcoholic. But to those living with the alcoholic, it’s mainly just a long tedious slog as he repeatedly surrenders to his addiction and then suffers the consequences. Rarely does it involve witty banter and wild sex. The old Thin Man movies are difficult for me to watch because they romanticize reckless alcohol consumption and gloss over the wages of such activity. The films, of course, are redeemed by the sparkling performances by William Powell and Myrna Loy, but no one would consider them realistic portraits of recognizable human beings. The man whose literary works inspired the films was a serious alcoholic whose career and personal life suffered greatly because of it. To write about addiction honestly requires acknowledging just how tedious it is, something only extremely gifted writers are able to do in a way that is interesting or compelling. To write about addiction dishonestly is to exacerbate the problem by romanticizing something that isn’t in the least bit romantic. How often have we seen movies in which the alcoholic or drug addict or gambling addict kicks his habit and turns his life around simply because his thirteen-year-old daughter or his wife or his teammates have come to him and said some version of, “Please, we need you sober tonight. You’ve got to come through for us. We know you can do it if you try.” At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s drunken Uncle Billy, whose alcoholism precipitated George’s downfall as a building-and-loan operator, is welcomed back into the fold and is singing “Auld Lang Syne” with the rest of the family, leaving the viewer to intuit that all is now well with old Uncle Billy. In reality, Uncle Billy would go on being a huge burden to his family until he received serious medical attention for what is in fact not a quirk of character but an actual illness. Addiction is an extremely difficult thing to write about honestly and accurately. Unless you are truly up to the challenge, you shouldn’t attempt it.
  4. Writing about psychopaths can be as tricky as writing about addicts. Crime fiction is awash in psychopaths whose crimes are aggressively thematic—i.e., they kill every year on the anniversary of the high-school prom at which they were humiliated, or they kill only recently divorced women with one child who remind them of their own mothers, or they leave behind some unusual calling card at the crime scene (an ancient Roman coin, say, or a leopard’s tooth). This stuff can be interesting and entertaining, of course, but it has also been done to death. When Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon was published in late 1981, the Kirkus Review’s assessment of the novel began with these words: “It seems as if two out of every three suspense novels in recent years have featured psychopathic mass murderers . . .” That was nearly forty years ago, and the trend has yet to abate. In fact, it was ignited by Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho and its 1960 film adaptation from director Alfred Hitchcock. In 1959, plenty of science-fiction writers were still producing novels that featured little green men on the planet Mars. Nowadays no serious sci-fi novelist would produce a novel about little green Martians. Science has shown us that they don’t exist. While psychopaths do, alas, exist, real-life psychopaths almost never take the form that they assume in most novels. How many times have you picked up a newspaper and seen a headline that read “Arbor Day Killer Strikes Again! Tree Fetishist Claims 16th Victim in 16 years, all of them Killed on the Last Friday of April. Police Still Stumped!” How many times have you read about a serial killer who leaves small jade elephants at the site of all of his murders? How many times have you read about a killer who is mowing down, one by one, all the surviving cast members of a cult 1970s TV series? Yes, there is the odd Zodiac Killer or Son of Sam, who captures the public’s attention because of the cinematic nature of his crime spree. But the vast majority of murders are still committed for old-fashioned reasons. One spouse kills another in a flash of anger. A convenience-store clerk is shot in a botched holdup. A lone female hitchhiker is raped and murdered by an opportunistic motorist with an evil heart. Even our psychopaths are generally lazy misanthropes who don’t kill 16 people over the course of 16 Arbor Days but rather walk into a crowded theatre with an assault weapon and kill 20 people in ten seconds. I’m not arguing that crime fiction always needs to be brutally realistic. I’m just pointing out that the rigidly thematic and disciplined serial killer who targets only a certain type of victim (female volleyball players, say) on only a certain type of day (full moon, Arbor Day, the victim’s 18th birthday, etc) employing an unusual weapon (an ancient Etruscan broadsword) and actually signs his handiwork with a signature (“The Etruscan Volleyball Killer!”) that he affixes to the numerous notes he taunts the police with is very nearly as nonexistent as the little green Martian. Science-fiction writers have moved on since 1959, but too many crime writers seem to be stuck in the 1960s and 1970s when it seemed as if attention-seeking nutjobs such as Charles Manson, the Zodiac Killer, and David Berkowitz might be the wave of the future. But that kind of killer remains largely the stuff of preposterous fictions. During my many years as a bookstore clerk, I met a lot of crime-fiction fans who devoured serial-killer novels of the Arbor-Day variety and who congratulated themselves on their love of gritty realistic crime dramas while looking down their noses at the kind of mystery fans who read “cozy mysteries” about little old ladies who solve murders with the help of their knitting-circle buddies and their preternaturally sensitive cats. I was too polite (and too concerned about keeping my job) to point out that Arbor-Day-style serial killers are about as rare as crime-busting knitting circles. But it’s the truth. (My wife has been a member of a Sacramento knitting group for years and they have yet to solve their first murder; I don’t know what’s wrong with those ladies.) If you were watching a crime drama on TV back in the 1970s and a character was introduced as a Vietnam War veteran, you could bet your life savings that he would turn out to be the killer. Service in Vietnam was the lazy TV scriptwriter’s explanation for all kinds of antisocial behavior. While it’s true that plenty of Vietnam veterans suffered physical, mental, and emotional damage as a result of their service, few of them came back to the states and went on a killing spree. If you have a background in mental health and you know the difference between pscychopathy, sociopathy, and all the other pathies, feel free to create a complex killer whose mental-health issues are at the root of his crimes. But if you’re just a lazy writer who uses mental-health issues as a convenient pretext for explaining your murderer’s behavior, much as many lazy TV writers of the 1970s used service in Vietnam to explain their murderers’ behavior, please cease and desist immediately.
  5. A word of advice about stream-of-consciousness writing—just don’t do it. Stream-of-consciousness writing never sounds like any consciousness that I’m familiar with. It isn’t daring and edgy and experimental, and it hasn’t been since about 1927. It is a tired and hackneyed literary device. I can tolerate a few italicized sentence fragments connected by ellipses: Gotta reach the campsite before dark . . . gotta warn Mary and the kids . . . legs growing tired . . . cold . . . cold . . . why is it so cold . . . I can barely feel my feet any more. . . . But that’s about it. If you give me paragraph upon paragraph of stream-of-consciousness writing (or, even worse, page upon page of the stuff) I’m going to fling your book aside and look for someone who knows how to write in full sentences. Just . . . don’t . . . do . . . it. . . .
  6. I’m not a prude. I want my fictional characters to have healthy sex lives. Hell, I want them to commit adultery, meet in sleazy hotels, and plot to kill each other’s spouses. I’m okay with all of that—and more. But, please, just don’t give me all the anatomical details. That kind of stuff hasn’t titillated me since I was about thirteen (and thought the word “titillate” was hilariously racy). Even the masters of the genre fall down on this score. Back in the Swinging Sixties serious literary writers like John Updike (see Couples) began trying to infuse their fictions with accurate depictions of, well, coupling. Most of these, including Updike’s, were embarrassing to read. Inspired by the likes of Updike and Mailer, genre writers like John D. MacDonald began including graphic depictions of very athletic sexual shenanigans in their books. I don’t blame them for this. It makes sense that a man like Travis McGee—a tall, good-looking ex-NFL player-turned-beach-bum/private-detective—would have a very active sex life. He lived on a boat in South Florida, for godsakes. A man like that was bound to be awash with hot babes. I get it. I like it. I want it to happen. But when Travis takes one of these sultry stewardesses or pouty paralegals or naughty nurses into the bedroom, I’d prefer that he slam the door shut on old John D. and his typewriter. John D. was a master at describing booze, broads, boats, beaches, and beatings, but bedsheet Twister really wasn’t his specialty. You’re lucky that I can’t find my copy of The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper just now or else I would expose you to some of MacDonald’s cringe-worthy sex writing. Mind you, I am not singling out MacDonald. Almost no writer does this stuff well. The smart ones don’t even try. In an introduction to his novel Kahawa, Donald E. Westlake wrote, “If a word, one single word, distracts the reader from the story I’m trying to tell, out with it. Since both sex and violence can be distracting, I usually depict them sparingly, trying mostly to get my effects by allusion and implication.” To which I say, “Amen, brother!” There are certain human bodily functions (defecation, urination, menstruation, farting, nose-picking) that don’t require a great deal of detail in a work of fiction. We know that our fictional characters have to defecate about once a day or so, but we don’t need our noses rubbed in the fact (sorry). I enjoy erotic thrillers. I like to watch the mating dance, the call-and-response of two lusty people trying to make a physical connection with one another. I like the sexy banter, the foreplay, the innuendo. When they finally do it, I want to know if it happened on her yacht or in his law office. I want to know who was the aggressor and who played coy. I want to know if they were mutually satisfied or if one of them felt used afterwards. All of this, and much more, can be very interesting and helpful in filling out our understanding of the characters and their relationship. But, unless it’s going to serve as a clue later on, I don’t need to know exactly where the bodily fluids ended up, what odd parts of his anatomy she left her lipstick on, every last word she cried out as she experienced her climax, the condition of his phallus as he walked to the shower afterwards, and so forth. If you are a writer and you find yourself about to describe a sexual encounter in detail, ask yourself, “When was the last time I read a really great graphic sex scene?” It probably happened back around the time you saw that newspaper headline that screamed: “Arbor Day Killer Strikes Again!” That should tell you something about how difficult it is to write a sex scene that isn’t laughably awful.
  7. Illogical wealth. If your protagonist is an unmarried preschool teacher who lives in a Pasadena mansion, you’ve got some ’splaining to do. This might sound obvious to you, but apparently it wasn’t obvious to writer/director Gary David Goldberg when he made the film Must Love Dogs, in which Diane Lane portrays an unmarried preschool teacher who lives by herself in a massive Pasadena home. We know she didn’t inherit wealth from her family, because we meet her family and they are not rich. She didn’t win a big divorce settlement from her ex-husband because he is a fireman not a hedge-fund manager. This same problem crops up in the 1998 crime drama A Perfect Murder (a remake of Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder), in which Viggo Mortensen plays a struggling artist living in a massive Manhattan loft reachable by its own private service elevator. Digs like that would probably have rented for about $50,000 a month even back in 1998. Anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Friends has probably asked herself, “How do an unemployed actor [Joey] and a midlevel office worker [Chandler] afford such a commodious New York apartment? And for that matter, how does Phoebe, a masseuse and coffeehouse chanteuse, afford her lovely apartment? In the early seasons, Monica was a restaurant chef and Rachel was a waitress. How the hell did they afford a massive apartment with a romantic balcony?” In real life, the house that Michael Connelly’s fictional LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch lives in is probably worth somewhere around $10 million. Connelly, to his credit, has provided a (not entirely satisfactory) explanation of this fact: A Hollywood studio paid Bosch a massive amount of money for the film rights to one of his investigative exploits (yeah, right, whatever). And how does Adrian Monk, who works as a seldom-paid consultant to the San Francisco Police Department, afford a beautiful home and beautiful full-time assistant in one of the nation’s most expensive cities? If you are producing pleasant lightweight fluff like Must Love Dogs, Monk, or Friends, I suppose you should feel as free to ignore the laws of economics as the makers of The Flying Nun felt to ignore the laws of gravity (or, for that matter, as the makers of the film Gravity did). If you are aspiring to produce the kind of grittily realistic crime dramas that Michael Connelly writes, I think you should resist the urge to give your LAPD detective a ten-million-dollar pad. At the very least it suggests that he might be on the take. Having been a freelance writer for my entire adult life, I am always bemused whenever I see a freelance writer portrayed on television or film or in a novel. “How can he afford that Cape Cod beach house?” I’ll scream at my long-suffering wife. I know a ton of freelance writers and almost none of them survive on their freelance work. They work in bookstores. They teach at community colleges. They drive for Uber or Lyft. They have working spouses. And none of them live in expensive lofts in Brooklyn or Manhattan the way that so many freelancers on TV do. This may seem like sour grapes or petty nitpicking, but I advise serious writers to take it seriously. If you don’t want to destroy your credibility as a chronicler of real American life, don’t give your coffeehouse waitress a nice little bungalow in Palo Alto or a beach house in Malibu. I’ve read crime novels in which the forensic details seemed fairly well researched and believable, and yet I had to wonder if they were trustworthy because the private detective who is combing over these details charges $400 a day for his services and lives in a detached house in the Marina District of San Francisco. I may not be an expert in forensics or anthropology, but, like most pop-fiction fans (I would imagine), I know what working-class life in America is like. If your small-town cop goes off to his cabin on the Marin County coast for his vacations, you need to explain to me how he happens to own such an extravagance. Otherwise, I’m not going to believe a word you write.
  8. Dumb luck. Intuitive leaps. Yeah, I know that these things happen in real life, but they come across as either laziness or a failure of the imagination (or perhaps both) in a work of mystery fiction. Few things are more annoying in a mystery novel (or film, TV series, etc.) than wading through scene after scene of detection and investigation only to have the big break come as the result of someone’s preternaturally insightful dream (see Rule No. 1 above), or the result of a conversation one accidentally overhears in a bus or a restaurant, or a scrap of evidence that just sort of falls into the detective’s lap rather than something he earns with hard work and lots of shoe leather. If the detective was destined to get a huge lucky break at the end of the investigation that cracks the case wide open, why bother showing us all the procedural steps that precede the lucky break? All of that procedural work wasn’t what led to the capture of the perpetrator, so why bother with it? I don’t know why Aaron Sorkin had Tom Cruise and Demi Moore do so much detective work over the course of A Few Good Men if he was just planning on having the culprit take to the witness stand at the end of the film and shout out “You’re goddamn right I did it!” It’s like reading a story about a couple that work hard and make numerous sacrifices in order to try to buy a home of their own only to win a big lottery jackpot at the end rendering their hard work unnecessary. Even if this is a happy outcome it’s a frustrating ending for the reader. In a realistic story, we want things to proceed logically from scene to scene. We don’t want a deus ex machina to show up in the final act and render everything that preceded that final act largely a waste of time.
  9. Unbelievably convenient skills. Last night at the abovementioned meeting of my pub-trivia team, several of us were talking about pocketknives (I brought up the subject because when reporting for jury duty recently I forgot to remove the tiny pocketknife from my keychain and the security guards at the entrance to the courthouse relieved me of it). One of my teammates, a thirty-something woman named Alison reached into her pocket and said, “I don’t carry a pocketknife, but I carry this,” whereupon she withdrew a set of lock-picking tools from her jeans (I swear I’m not making this up). The other five members of the team, myself included, were amused by this. Alison is not a professional locksmith. By day she works as a waitress in the very pub where we compete at trivia. She is also a semiprofessional roller-derby competitor (again, not making this up). She explained to us that she had a neighbor who was forever locking herself out of her apartment, so Alison went online and ordered a perfectly legal set of lock-picking tools, after which she watched YouTube videos and read websites about lock picking until she had taught herself how to pick fairly simple door locks. If this scene had taken place in a novel or a film, you could be fairly certain that Alison’s lock-picking skills would come in handy before the end of the story. But I have lost track of how many times I have encountered a fictional scene wherein our main characters are locked in or out of some room and, voila, one of them pulls a paperclip or hairpin out of her pocket and picks the lock. This simply beggars belief. I doubt if one in 100,000 people have the skills necessary to pick a door lock even with actual lock-picking tools like Alison’s. Even a professional locksmith would probably have trouble opening most locks with a hairpin. So why are so many fictional characters able to lock-pick their way out of trouble? The answer, of course, is that they shouldn’t be able to. But if you are planning to have a character in your novel demonstrate the ability to pick a lock in chapter twenty-five, you had better establish the fact that she possesses this skill somewhere around chapter five. I can’t stand it when, during some critical scene of a novel, the protagonist finds himself in need of someone who can (take your pick) read lips or perform an emergency tracheotomy or understand a clue written in ancient Sanskrit or hotwire a snowplow and, sure enough, as if by magic, someone in the scene will announce that he possesses just that particular skill. This is lazy writing. If you insist on having a character possess an improbably convenient skill just when said skill is needed, you should at least give us this information from the outset. Otherwise it’s just another deus ex machina.
  10. Don’t have your protagonist constantly searching the internet for answers. Yes, the internet is a marvelous invention. But it has also become a crutch for lazy writers. Recently I was reading a delightfully cheesy romantic thriller from the 1970s called Always, by Trevor Meldal-Johnsen. The book’s protagonist becomes infatuated with a beautiful Hollywood starlet who died in a mysterious house fire back in 1949 just as her acting career was taking flight. Our protagonist, a young screenwriter named Gregory Thomas, longs to know more about Brooke Ashley, the starlet. The story takes place in 1979, so Gregory can’t just Google Brooke Ashley. To find out more about her he actually has to get off his ass and do some detective work. Here’s how Meldal-Johnsen begins the scene in which Gregory goes out searching for information about Brooke:

     The Larry Edmonds Cinema and Theatre Book Shop on Hollywood Boulevard has a well-deserved reputation as a reliable source for anything written on the film industry. From the outside, the bookshop looks slightly decrepit, but inside is collected the written history of America’s most glamorous business. The shelves are stuffed to the ceilings with books, some long out of print; books running the gamut from glossy photographic paeans to dry sociological studies. Something for everyone.

A page later, he writes:

     Gregory climbed up an ancient foot ladder that creaked below him, and thumbed the titles. Harlow, Cukor, Leslie Howard, Carole Lombard, Swanson . . . the glory that once was Hollywood in a musty corner . . . there! Brooke Ashley.

If you share my love of musty old bookshops and out-of-print manuscripts, a scene like that probably draws you in like a barker at a carnival, just as it drew me in. If Meldal-Johnsen were writing that book today, he might be tempted to have Gregory simply do a Google search for information about Brooke. But that would be a shame. The internet can be a fascinating place, but computers are rather cold and sterile devices and incapable of summoning up the same kind of heart-thrilling excitement a book lover finds in an old bookstore. If you are writing a mystery novel (or screenplay) I advise you to do your level best not to have your characters rely too heavily on the internet for information. These days, if Ted wants information about Sarah, the cute girl who sits next to him in his college English class, he can probably find her Facebook page, her Instagram account, her Twitter account, and learn nearly everything he wants to know about her: her political opinions, the size of her family, the names of her pets, what she looks like in a bikini. It’s an inescapable fact of modern life than many people are willing to give away every ounce of their privacy on internet social-networking sites. This may make things easy for real-life detectives, but, at the very least, it complicates things for crime and mystery writers. Nobody wants to sit and read about a detective who spends all day at his desk, Googling suspects on his computer. The internet is the ultimate deus ex machina. Can’t remember the name of that old movie in which Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh spend Christmas together? Do what I just did and Google “Robert Mitchum Janet Leigh Christmas movie” and you’ll instantly have your answer (Holiday Affair, 1949). This is great for old men like me with bad memories. But it presents real challenges for the crime writer. And you need to rise to that challenge. Do what you have to do to prevent your detective character from learning all he needs to know on the internet. Have him discover that the clue he needs is buried in an old trunk in the basement of an abandoned train station outside of a small town in southern England. Sure, in Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey’s detective Alan Grant is able to solve a centuries-old mystery without leaving his hospital bed, and the novel still manages to be gripping. But Daughter of Time is the exception to the rule. For the most part we want our characters to get up and out of bed, to step away from their computers and go out into the world and delve into the messy world of nonvirtual crime-solving. If our detective gets his nose punched in along the way, so much the better. Every time a character in a mystery novel sits down at his computer, I’m reminded of the smartphone in my pocket, and I’m tempted to take it out and look up the latest news headlines or play a game of solitaire. It’s never a good thing for a writer to remind the reader of a device that might be able to compete with a book for the reader’s attention. Get your detective off the internet and out into the world. Otherwise I might just choose to play solitaire.

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Very best wishes and a spark of mystery to our readers and contributors for 2020.

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