“Shelly Dickson Carr’s Bag of Tricks”

In the current issue of EQMM (May/June 2020) author Shelly Dickson Carr makes a very welcome EQMM debut! Shelly is the author of the novel Ripped, which won three Benjamin Franklin awards, and of a number of short stories, published in our sister magazine, AHMM, and elsewhere. What makes her EQMM debut particularly notable is that she belongs to the third generation of her family to contribute to EQMM. Sons and daughters have followed parents into print in our pages before, but I cannot recall a previous third-generation appearance. Shelly Dickson Carr is the granddaughter of the illustrious John Dickson Carr (dozens of whose tales appeared in EQMM), and the daughter of Julia McNiven, who had a story in EQMM in 1974. In this post she shares some writing tips, some gleaned from her grandfather and from another master of the genre, Colin Dexter, and some learned from personal experience. The writers among our readers should find them all useful.—Janet Hutchings

In this trying time of social distancing and scarcity and isolation and lack of direct contact with our loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems a bit odd to be talking about a bag-of-tricks. But so many writer friends have been reaching out, needing to stay connected, that when Janet Hutchings asked me to contribute to this blog, I thought I’d dig into my writer’s bag of tricks and share some tips. And because many of us are sheltering in place, here’s hoping this will be a bit of a distraction—it certainly is for me. Thanks, Janet.

As a starter, and because mystery writing is in my DNA, I shall share one of grandfather’s tricks and end with one that Colin Dexter shared with me in Oxford, England over tea at the Randolph Hotel.

 Bag of Tricks # 1—Blood on a Bandage: A John Dickson Carr Trick  

We all know that a detective story has red herrings and clues and must always play fair with the reader—all tropes familiar to crime writers. But have you ever heard of a BOB? A BOB is a trick my grandfather taught me: Blood On A Bandage. Simply put, if you plant a clue, especially an important one, it’s always best to have a visual image such as “red blood on a white bandage” immediately following the all-important clue. A BOB is a metaphor for something graphic or startling that will tug the reader’s mind away from the tip-off that you want the reader to forget. Nine times out of ten, the reader will remember the visual image of red blood splattered on a white gauzy bandage and forget the information proceeding it.

Next time you read a spy thriller, and a sudden bomb or startling explosion goes off,  reread the sentences or paragraphs right before the bomb exploded and you will likely find an important piece of information the author wanted to hide in plain sight.

Setting off a bomb is a wee bit heavy-handed in a short story where a visual but subtle image, given directly after a clue, is the best weapon in one’s arsenal of obfuscation. As an example, I randomly tugged out several old Ellery Queen Mystery Mags off my shelf and, thumbing through the top one, I’ve just found a short story by a favorite writer, Edward D. Hoch—missed by all who knew and loved him.

In Ed Hoch’s short story “The Theft of the Legal Eagle,” it is important that the protagonist/thief, Nick Velvet, remembers later in the story that a beautiful young woman named Silke has had an idyllic childhood, replete with midnight swimming and moonlight treasure hunts. Immediately after we learn about Silke’s treasure hunts, the author gives us: “She tossed her long silken hair, and he (Nick) wondered if her name or the hair had come first.” We are then given a sensual and visual image of Silke’s long, red-gold hair juxtaposed with her name. A subtle image to be sure. But our mind’s eye conjures up this beautiful young woman’s hair (as it relates to her name) and we forget about the treasure hunts of her youth—important to the conclusion of the mystery. Subtle, but in Hoch’s expert hands, pitch perfect.

The BOB trick is nothing more than a conjurer’s obfuscation, the legerdemain of a magician. Stock in trade for card sharks, con artists, and mystery writers everywhere. 

Bag of Tricks #2—Active Verbs

Always, always, always use active verbs. When I finish a manuscript, I check every page and substitute active verbs for inactive verbs. I also hunt out and eliminate every put, got, or was. He got into the car becomes: He climbed into the BMW; He slid behind the wheel of the Ford Truck; He lowered himself onto the front seat of the Jeep. Ditto every put. Sheput the key in the lock, becomes: She shoved the key in the lock; twisted the key in the lock; wriggled the key in the lock. The same goes for was and were. In short fiction, stagnant verbs must go. I keep an “active verb folder” with lists and lists of active verbs for those times when my mind gets stuck.

Settings are important in my stories, almost as important as my characters. If I don’t use active verbs my descriptions will ring flat. We are taught in MFA programs (at least I was) to eliminate or tighten our prose when writing settings because these descriptive paragraphs are what a reader will skip over. But if you read Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing or anything by Tana French or J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith you know how important descriptions are and how place and setting matters. How do these mega-talented writers make their settings jump off the page? A certain lyricism, to be sure, but also by using a plethora of active verbs.

When describing, let’s say, a wall in a room, inactive verbs will make that wall bland and boring, but active verbs will make that wall memorable. The use of active verbs such as: bracketed or wedged against the wall; dangling or expanding from the wall; partitioned by the wall; looping, skirting, anchored into the wall; perched upon a shelf on the wall; balancedfastened, set into, strewn against, flush to the wall. Looming large against the wall . . . stood a grandfather clock . . . or a towering statue of Aphrodite.

And if there are books on a shelf on that wall, make sure to have those books wedged, crammed, resting on the shelf. When a dish in that room falls to the floor, make sure the dish doesn’t just fall, but clatters, smashes or shatters against the floor; skitters across, clunks upon, crashes, thumps on that floor. And if your character puts a coffee mug on a table in that room, instead let him slam the coffee mug on the table or slide it across the table. Anything but put. Writers often feel hesitant about using active verbs, believing their prose will come across as forced, but trust me, the more active the verbs the more memorable the setting.

Bag of Tricks # 3—The Five Senses

This trick or technique is so simple, and yet we all forget to do it. I go over every page to see if I’ve used the five senses on every page. What my characters smell, taste, touch, see and hear grounds the reader in the all-important fictional reality.

The olfactory sense is my favorite because it packs the most punch. I know writers who try to have a sense of smell on every page. It’s difficult to do, but so important. The smell of mildew, laundry detergent, a wet dog, fresh paint, burnt popcorn; the taste of green apples, pumpkin pie, butterscotch toffee, dill pickles places the reader squarely in the fictional world we are building. I’ve had students ask me if I truly want them to go page by page and insert what their characters tasted, smelled, touched, and heard; and I say: yes, yes, and yes. It can’t be arbitrary, it has to be germane and organic to your story, but yes. She staggered into the haunted house and heard . . . a creaky floorboard, the yowl of a cat, the hiss of a radiator; and smelled mildew or cigarette smoke or . . . baby powder? Just remember there must be three out of the five senses on every page and lots of active verbs.

In a scene I was writing set in the nineteenth century, my first-person narrator is sitting on a train. It was a bland scene. However, an important clue needed to be presented in this train scene. I asked the same simple questions I ask my students when workshopping a piece: What is my character smelling? Tasting? Seeing? Touching? And how many inactive verbs can I substitute for active ones? Here’s what I struggled with, but finally came up with:

A sulfurous smell hangs in the air, and there’s a metallic taste in my mouth as if I’ve been sucking on copper pennies. Listening to the melodious chug of the train, feeling the bowstring vibration of its forward movement beneath my seat, the sun outside the train’s window hangs low across the horizon.

At the end of the page (I’ve italicized the active verbs) as my protagonist is glancing out the window: “A watermill flashes into view as the river snakes closer to the train. A deer jumps out of a thicket and scampers away at the blast from the train whistle. And there, swooping close to my window, a hawk hunts its prey in the scrubby brush next to the train.”

Active verbs: hangs, sucking, chug, vibration, flashes, snakes, jumps, scampers, blast, swooping, hunts.

And here’s another example: A student was writing a mystery set in present day amongst the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, Rhode Island. He had his heroine “walk past a statue of Trident in a circular fountain.” The heroine had just had a shock, so simply walking past the fountain in front of Rosecliff Mansion made for a bland scene. What active verbs could this writer enlist? How many of the five senses? We brainstormed the scene and he came up with:

“Bailey’s flipflops crunched over pea-stone gravel as she approached the front courtyard where a statue of Trident rose out of a circular fountain. Water gushed from Trident’s marble head, splashed from his curved fish tail, and shot up in a high arc out of the conch shell he was trumpeting. The roaring, gurgling sounds of water gave Bailey goosebumps, bringing home once again the reality that her best friend had just drowned in the waves off Sashuest Beach.”

Now, admittedly, that may be a bit over the top. But when brainstorming or workshopping a piece, the more over the top the better. You then pull back and weave it into a tighter scene. The point is, Bailey walking past a statue of Trident needs to come alive. We hear the crunch of Bailey’s feet on the gravel; we hear water gush; see it splash; get a sense of Trident’s conch shell trumpeting, and we hear the roar and gurgle of the fountain. We feel Bailey’s goosebumps. The way to make writing come alive is through the use of active verbs and the five senses. Easy peasy. But we as writers often forget those all-important five senses, the ones our fifth-grade teachers drummed into our heads.

I have many trick’s in my writer’s hobo bag. But I’ll end by relaying a bit of sage advice given to me by Colin Dexter who was mentioned in a previous blog post here by Paul Charles.

Before embarking upon a research trip to Oxford, I asked Rebecca Eaton, producer of Masterpiece Mystery, to introduce me to Colin Dexter—one of my favorite writers and the creator of Inspector Morse. This was two years before he passed away. We had tea, along with my brother (also a rabid fan) at the Randolph hotel. The three of us had a delightful afternoon, made especially so as Colin Dexter loved our grandfather’s books and said they had inspired him to write his own. Dexter’s memorable advice to me on writing: “Love your people and then do devilishly nasty things to them.” To which he meant: Take your most beloved characters and throw your worst at them. Be mean to your most cherished characters.

In this unprecedented pandemic when kindness and compassion and empathy are needed most in the world, our outlet for sheltering in place can be this: we can be awful to our protagonists. And then we can be even more devilishly nasty. They and we will come out of it. We shall collectively survive. And just as I am now sending you virtual elbow bumps, you can, in good conscience, send virtual elbow blows to your characters. Be safe and well my friends.

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17 Responses to “Shelly Dickson Carr’s Bag of Tricks”

  1. V.S. Kemanis says:

    Such fun reading the vivid writing in this post! Proof in itself of the value of these tips. Very useful, thank you. I also greatly enjoyed your story, “Nantucket Undertow,” in the current issue of EQMM.

    • Shelly Dickson Carr says:

      Thank you V.S. I haven’t met you but I read a book of yours Zero . . . Deep Zero. Keep up the great writing!!!!

  2. I greatly enjoyed this post. Excellent tips, presented in such a fashion that I won’t forget them. I haven’t received my copy of EQMM yet, but I’m looking forward to Shelly’s story already.

  3. Josh Pachter says:

    I’m delighted to see you extend the family’s EQMM streak to three generations, Shelly! Any chance we might see a fourth-gen story at some point?….

  4. Shelly Dickson Carr says:

    Josh! Thanks. As we just had our first grandbaby maybe, maybe . . . Fifth gen! Congrats again on winning Derringer and Edward Hoch Golden Derringer!!! Love you stories

  5. bchukran says:

    Great post, Shelly, with lots of useful tips! I’m a bit envious–tea with Colin Dexter! 🙂

  6. Kaye George says:

    I’ve been preaching most of this myself for a few years, but the very first one is an eye opener! Thanks so much for emptying your trick bag for us. Stay safe.

    • Shelly Dickson Carr says:

      Hi Kaye! Thanks. It’s fun to read a mystery and look for hidden clues and knowing where to look is always a thrill. Though we haven’t met, I’m soooooo looking forward to reading Mid-Century Murder. I saw it posted on short mystery fiction website. Lots of great writers in it. Congrats.

  7. I very much enjoyed reading your blog and found it instructive. Congrats on your success!

  8. Schuster Mark S. says:

    Great writer! Love her style!!

  9. Bob Ackerman says:

    Your tips for more engaging and descriptive writing are relevant far beyond the realm of the creative story teller. In academia and commerce as well, I believe written communications by authors who take your advice to heart will be more effective and longer remembered. Well done. I’m looking forward to your next adventure in mystery.

  10. Bill Karol says:

    I really enjoyed your “Bag of Tricks” post. Particularly using “The Five Senses”. It seems like that would definitely make touring the page quite enjoyable.

  11. BillM says:

    Shelly – I long suspected you had a bag of tricks! Thanks for sharing them. I hope Covid-19 and the loss of the sense of smell some infected experience doesn’t dampen interest in the use of the olfactory😊

  12. Cordt says:

    Shelly,
    What a great experience comes flying across the ocean. I literally can smell the salty sea water, feel the ghastly winds in the face of the protagonist, her long beautiful hair twirling around the blue eyes.
    In fact for me , reading a mystery story / thriller will never be the same after this exceptional introduction into PROPER AND ENLIGHTENED DISCOVERY.
    Thanks a million for that. Can t wait for your next story book.
    Herbert Cordt

  13. Pingback: Short walk #106 – A short walk down a dark street

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