Writing Your Way Out of a Hole

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Corpus delicti, the main object of a crime. It’s proof that a crime has taken place. In the case of murder, the body is the corpus delicti, a detail that’s often the focus of mystery and crime fiction.

Writers go to great lengths to help the enthusiastic reader leave the comfort of their homes to accompany the protagonist as he or she embarks on a quest to solve a carefully plotted crime. And, during the writing process, writers sometimes travel a few feet past the expected “extra mile.” A step that sometimes lands them at the bottom of a freshly dug hole.

So let’s examine the dreaded “hole” and how not to write yourself into one. To begin, we’ll ask the feds to assist. Keep in mind that the hole mentioned below is the overwritten scene in your current WIP, the one your critique partners want you to revisit but you think is fine as is.

Ready? Okay, let’s take a brief walk into the woods where we see…

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Now we must ask ourselves, how many federal agents does it take to look into a hole?

Easy answer – Six.

One to do the official looking.

One to observe the looker to be sure the civil rights of nearby squirrels aren’t violated.

One to video the event, confirming that no rights were violated and that the opening in the earth is indeed a hole.

One to collect samples of the void for laboratory analysis (eight scientists will later conduct tests that will confirm nothing was there).

One Assistant Agent in Charge to supervise the operation, call in air support and ground teams that include two dozen agents who’ll scour the forest for clues and to sample the surrounding air for possible matches to air found in the hole. The ASAC will also bring in a few number-crunchers who’ll begin a 12-year study about holes and their role in climate change and the fluctuation of the violent crime rate. A parallel study will examine holes and their significance in the extinction of the wooly mammoth. Homeland Security will also be called in to provide perimeter security and to install video and audio surveillance equipment to record any movement or increase in size of the hole, an act that could be related to terrorism. Seven heavily-armed drones are on standby.

Finally, the last team member is the Special Agent in Charge whose duty is to supervise the ASAC. The SAC will also appear on camera as the official spokesperson at all news conferences. The appearances will serve as a lead-up to running for political office.

Media sources catch wind of the investigation and run stories with headlines such as:

FEDS UNCOVER MASSIVE HOLE IN EARTH CONTAINING SUSPICIOUS INVISIBLE REMAINS: END OF TIMES COVER UP?

And:

#HOLESLIVESMATTER GROUP TO MARCH AT LOCATION OF RIGHTS-VIOLATED HOLE IN GROUND

The president orders the Justice Department to investigate. The hole is invited to the White House for a beer and a private concert by Courtney Love and her former band, HOLE. The local police department is disbanded. Two senators are impeached. A no-fly zone is established over the area. Segregated safe spaces are created for all woodland creatures. An executive order was issued requiring all animals to pee behind the same tree. No one is permitted to say “Trump” or “Hillary.” The speech restriction is so stringent that one agent was suspended for two weeks without pay for saying,” This place is hilly.” Of course, the press ran with it, turning the phrase into, “FEDERAL AGENT BLAMES HILLARY FOR HOLE COVER UP.” A second headline read, “TRUMP TO BUILD WALL AROUND HOLE.”

All local universities and other schools are placed on indefinite lockdown. California residents, although 2,000 miles away, are ordered to shut off all water. CVS stores across the country are immediately evacuated in preparation for imminent destruction by fire. The National Guard surrounds all bird sanctuaries to prevent hostile takeovers. Bernie continues to promise free everything and Ted Cruz removes his Grandpa Munster mask and goes into hiding. Sarah Palin is speechless. It’s total and complete CHAOS!

Total cost for Operation Hole in the Ground – $242 million. Official finding = It’s a hole.

Finally…

Moral of the story? A hole is just a hole and it doesn’t take two pages of unnecessary words to describe it, unless you’re an employee of the federal government, in which case a 1,200 page report is acceptable as a first draft.

So write only what’s needed to further the story. Trim the excess and cut the fat. For example, a shortened version of the “hole” story:

Ralph Bumberner took a walk in the woods behind his house, searching for a place to bury his wife’s body. He came across a hole—six feet by four—but decided it was too close to the house and would be easy for police to find, especially the FBI agent who lived down the road, so he continued walking. He made a mental note of the location, though, so he wouldn’t stumble into the shallow pit while dragging Myrtle to her final resting place.

Elmore Leonard had this to say in 10 Rules of Writing.  – “My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”

*No federal agents were harmed during the writing of this article. References to those brave law enforcement officials were purely tongue-in-cheek. Myrtle, however, didn’t make it.

 

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Winky Newton’s Law of Writing Good Bad Guys

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Readers want to become invested in the characters in their favorite books, and it’s the job and duty of writers to make that happen. Therefore, to prevent taking their fans down the wrong road, most writers spend a great deal of their time developing the people in their stories.

The hard-earned fruits of an author’s labor during this development stage often results in straight-shootin’, tall-in-the-saddle fictional characters who come with intriguing backstories and interesting current personal lives. They love, they hate, and they’re flawed in ways that make our hearts go pitter-patter. Yes, we love reading about drug-using, cursing alcoholics who smoke, regularly use violence, and who can shoot the hair off a gnat’s rear end. And those are those are the good guys.

But to read an entire book that’s solely about a super-cool man or woman who meanders about town smiling and helping old people cross main street each time Geritol and Depends go on sale at Happy Jack’s Corner Drugstore would be, well, boring. So, to transform unimaginative into exciting and interesting, it’s important that writers turn to Isaac Newton’s first cousin, Jerome “Winky” Newton, for a bit of advice.

Remember, it was Isaac said, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Well, Isaac sort of stole part of his law from cousin Winky who, after reading a tale featuring the aforementioned meandering, smiling street-crosser, made his own profound statement of, “For every action there’s an opposite reaction that’s not quite as equal, but it’s pretty doggone close to it and it’s one the hero of a book must overcome. It’s what makes the story interesting.”

Yes, that’s a direct quote.

Here’s a bit of trivia for you – Newton family rumors have it that it was Winky who was struck on the head by the falling apple, an act that caused him to spontaneously utter his own statement, words that Isaac promptly stole and turned into his third law. Until that day, he’d only written two and had been suffering from a terrible bout of writer’s block.

Anyway, back to Winky Newton’s Law and how it applies to today’s writer. For a tall tale to work properly there must be, of course, a totally compelling protagonist. AND, there must be a compelling antagonist, so sayeth the great and powerful Winky Newton. And Winky is right, writers should spend equal amounts of time creating both the hero and the bad guy (remember, an antagonist does not have to be an evil villain – see The Secrets to Creating and Writing Compelling Villains).

After Winky passed away, the family discovered his journal, a small book that included a list of rules further explaining his profound Law. Here are three relevant points to ponder.

  • Being crazy is not enough to make a good bad guy a good character. The author must show the reader WHY the evil one sees Elvis in his freezer. Maybe as a child his mother locked him in the freezer while she sat on the floor outside playing “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog” on the ukulele. Backstory is important, even for the major bad guys.
  • Writers should take time to view the world through the eyes of the antagonist. Place yourself on their street. Talk to their neighbors. Playing fetch on the front lawn with their dog. Step down into their rat-infested basement where they keep the butcher knives and body parts. How would they think? What would they see? What do they eat? What odors do you detect inside their homes? Do they walk with a limp? Do they smoke?
  • At some point during the writing process, take a moment to join the antagonist as he sits waiting for the hero to come walking along the path that leads to the end of the story. While the two of you are sitting together on that log, park bench, or inside the final victim’s home, the two of you can watch and see where it is the hero must travel to reach you. You can discuss the hurdles he’d need to overcome, and you can experience the emotions felt when you see the hero approaching. You’ll feel the anxiety levels increase and it is this moment when you’ll know what you must do to create that much-needed midpoint tension and what needs to be done in order to prepare for the finale.

*By the way, Isaac Newton has a solid place in today’s crime fiction. Remember his third law, the one he sort of stole from Winky – “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Well, keep this one in mind when you write about people shooting guns. If the blast is enough to send a victim flying backward through a door, then the same force is there in reverse and your shooter would also fly backward through the opposite door. Therefore, when the police arrive at the scene they’d find two unconscious people, one in the backyard and one in the front.

Typically, when people are shot they simply fall down and bleed.

For fun, here are some additional things writers often get wrong about police, crime, and criminals.

 

 

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The Winners of the 2016 Edgar Awards Are…
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Congratulations to the winners of the 2016 Edgar Allan Poe Awards!

 
BEST NOVEL 

Let Me Die in His Footsteps by Lori Roy (Penguin Random House – Dutton)
 

BEST FIRST NOVEL BY AN AMERICAN AUTHOR

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Atlantic – Grove Press)
 

BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney (HarperCollins Publishers – William Morrow)
 
BEST FACT CRIME

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully by Allen Kurzweil (HarperCollins Publishers – Harper)
 

BEST CRITICAL/BIOGRAPHICAL

The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (HarperCollins Publishers – HarperCollins)
 

BEST SHORT STORY

“Obits” – Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King (Simon & Schuster – Scribner)
 

BEST JUVENILE

Footer Davis Probably is Crazy by Susan Vaught (Simon & Schuster – Paula Wiseman Books)
 

BEST YOUNG ADULT

A Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis (HarperCollins Publishers – Katherine Tegen Books)
 

BEST TELEVISION EPISODE TELEPLAY

“Gently with the Women” – George Gently, Teleplay by Peter Flannery (Acorn TV)
 

ROBERT L. FISH MEMORIAL AWARD

“Chung Ling Soo’s Greatest Trick” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Russell W. Johnson (Dell Magazines)
 

GRAND MASTER

Walter Mosley
 

RAVEN AWARDS

Margaret Kinsman
Sisters in Crime
 

ELLERY QUEEN AWARD

Janet Rudolph, Founder of Mystery Readers International
 

* * * * * *
 

THE SIMON & SCHUSTER – MARY HIGGINS CLARK AWARDLittle Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day (Prometheus Books – Seventh Street Books)
 

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*The EDGAR (and logo) are Registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by the Mystery Writers of America, Inc.
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Detectives v. Patrol: Point Your Tale In the Right Direction

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Why does almost every crime novel feature a muscle-bound, sharpshooting, fast-driving, marathon-running, cool-as-a-fresh-cucumber detective? What is it about the suit-wearing investigators that attracts a writer’s attention? After all, detectives are often the last officers to see any real action.

Police investigators are rarely in shootouts. They hardly ever chase fleeing suspects. In fact, their job is pretty mundane—see a body, collect some evidence, send evidence to a lab, talk to a few people, evidence results return from the lab, get a warrant, arrest the suspect (or have a uniform pick him up), testify in court, and then start all over again.

Many detectives have been on the job for years and years, doing not much more than the above, and it’s this lack of activity that sometimes takes its toll in the form of flabby muscles, poor shooting skills, slow reaction times, couldn’t run if they wanted to (and they don’t), and yes, as more time passes by, even hot flashes, crappy eyesight and hearing, and bad knees and hips.

Writers are actually going about this thing all wrong. Bass-ackward, as some of the old-timers on my old beat used to say.

Patrol officers are the guys and gals who see all the excitement—going toe-to-toe with 350 lb. musclebound crooks who refuse to be handcuffed, shooting it out with armed robbers, 110 mph vehicle pursuits, chasing armed robbers through dark alleys, getting bitten by dogs, removing unwanted 20-foot-long snakes from beneath mobile homes, rescuing people from burning cars and buildings, performing CPR on unconscious and unresponsive drug addicts, climbing in windows after burglary suspects, capturing prison escapees, wading into a street filled with drug dealers, gang members, and prostitutes, and rescuing tiny puppies and kittens. Now there’s the complete package—excitement and action along with a tender side. And who doesn’t love puppies and kittens, right?

So let’s explore this concept a bit further. Lots of people are attracted to fit men and women in uniform, right?

But how many people could possibly be attracted to detectives who wear rumpled, out-of-style suits and scruffy facial hair? For example…

Ridiculous to even consider, right?

Patrol officers hit the gym regularly. They have to so they can match muscle-for-muscle with the thugs they arrest on a daily basis. Detectives, well, they do ride by a gym or two while on the way to their colorectal pre-surgery appointments.

Patrol officers hone their skills every single day. They’re out there in the trenches, staying sharp, looking sharp, and acting sharp.

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Investigators start their day in their offices, drinking a cup of coffee while solving the daily Jumble, using a pencil crudely sharpened with the pocketknives they carry for peeling apples and cutting loose threads from their suit jackets.

Uniformed officers are the front line officers, the “faces of the department.” Therefore, their hair is neatly trimmed, clothing neatly pressed, and shoes shined to glossy perfection.

Detectives are often seen wearing t-shirts, old jeans, and sneakers. And the last time they saw a set of hair clippers was the day they spent an entire morning grooming the family Lhasa Apso.

Patrol officers stare into the face of danger. Detectives work “undercover.”

Patrol officers fight crime. Detectives wait until everything is over before “going in.”

Patrol officers rush into active crime scenes to save the victims. Detectives serve search warrants in the middle of the night, hoping to catch the bad guys while they’re sleeping.

So give this a little thought when you sit down to dream up a character for your next thriller. Do you go with bass-ackward tradition, or will your tale be facing a new direction?

Besides, who do you want saving your puppies, a super-fit, handsome patrol officer…

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Or an out-of-shape, poorly-dressed detective who adores puppies, rainbows, and long walks on the beach at sunset?

*No puppies were harmed during the research portion of this article. I cannot say the same for turkey legs, donuts, and chocolate cake.

 

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