In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice, December 21, 2020, will happen at the same instant for all of us, ushering in the longest night of the year. Therefore, it is appropriate that December celebrates so many festivals and religious holidays, using lights and candles in their traditions to illuminate the darkness. Depending on where one looks, there are many festivals in various cultures. Still, the three most recognized December celebrations in North America are Kwanzaa, Hannakuh, and Christmas. Each of them lights the cold, dark days of December with warmth, love, unity, family, and spirituality.
Kwanzaa was introduced in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga for African-Americans. This holiday’s seven principles are self-determination, collective work, responsibility, unity, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Candles are lit to represent each of these principles, and gifts are exchanged on December 31, with banquets of food, often from various African countries. May peace, love, and unity bring a happy Kwanzaa to all and blessings on your families.
The oldest of these three holidays is the eight-day celebration of Hannukah, the Festival of Lights. It will begin on December 10 and end on December 18, commemorating the rededication in Jerusalem of the second Temple, which was fought for and won back from Greek-Syrian oppressors. Historically, Israel’s land fell to Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria. He permitted the Jews to continue practicing their religion, but his son Antiochus IV was not as benevolent. He ordered Jews to worship the Greek gods, and when they resisted, Antiochus IV massacred thousands of them and desecrated the city’s holy Second Temple by building an altar to Zeus, upon which they sacrificed pigs.
According to the Talmud, it was the Maccabee Revolt, in 168 B.C. that won back the temple. Following a three-year war and eventual victory, they cleaned the Temple, destroyed the defiled altar, and built a new one. When the Maccabees held the rededication celebration and rekindled the menorah, they found they only had and enough untainted oil to light the menorah for one night. Miraculously, the flickering flames continued to burn for eight nights, giving them enough time to find a fresh supply.
There are other interpretations of the Hannukah story. Still, no matter which one a person ascribes to, Hannukah is celebrated for eight nights, with ritual blessings recited upon lighting each candle of the prominently displayed menorah. There are particular foods prepared to celebrate the Hannukah tradition including potato latkes and jam-filled donuts, and children delight in playing with the four-sided spinning tops called Dreidels—Chag Hannukah Sameach or Happy Hannukah to all, and blessings on your families.
Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that after Herod Archelaus, a Roman client king, converted his territory, Judea, into a Roman province, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, the newly-appointed governor, was assigned to carry out a tax census.
According to Christian scripture, Joseph and his wife, Maryam, devout Jews, went from Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because Joseph was descended from the house of David. When they arrived, Maryam began her labor and there was no room for them at the inns. Without lodgings, they found shelter in a nearby cave, which was also a stable, and there Jesus was born. Mary placed her sleeping baby in an animal trough filled with clean hay.
Out in the cold, dark night, in the countryside near Bethlehem, angels appeared and announced the good news to the shepherds, watching their flocks. The Messiah had been born. The shepherds listened to the angels and found the baby Jesus, sleeping in the manger in Bethlehem.
Traveling for days, following a brilliant star shining over the stable where Jesus was born, the Magi, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar came from distant eastern countries, arriving days later with gifts for the newborn king. Gold to honor his kingship, Frankincense to recognize his deity, and Myrrh a particular anointing oil.
Over centuries, the gift-giving ritual commemorating the gifts brought by the three wise men devolved into a fully commercialized event. It pays less attention to the significance of Christ’s birth but is still a celebration of light and joy. Whether celebrating Christmas as a gift-giving holiday tradition or commemorating it as the birth of Jesus, it is a time of joy, hope, and love.
And so, the dark days and long nights of December are lit by traditions and celebrations of light, love, and the blessings of family and friends.
Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hannukah, and Happy Christmas!
Try to imagine a mystery without its setting. What? You’re having trouble?
Open a mystery and be denied the setting. What? You’re getting irritated? Why?
We use our senses to smell, to see, to hear, to feel a setting. We LIVE in our own settings, with their dimensions of sight, smell, sound, touch, with plants to see and smell and touch, other humans to love or fear. We use all our senses to apprehend a setting, and we imagine with those senses when we engage in a mystery setting. A mystery without a setting? Our imaginations would feel so deprived.
And if we’re talking about a “regional” mystery without a setting—what’s the point? I read about Venice because I want to feel I’m there as well as follow Guido Brunetti around his favorite canals. If it’s one of Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie mysteries I want to ride with Bernie in his beat-up Porsche, with Chet in the front seat (his tongue hanging out of course), cruising through the Arizona desert.
Texas mysteries? Local color, please. Note that term “color,” that appeal to our senses! The color of eyes and landscapes, the sound of accents and music, the feel of dry wind or thunderstorms, the scent of salsa and barbecue, saddles and blankets, cedar and limestone, creek water and cypress trees. We want it all.
We mystery writers face so many decisions. Protagonist? Characters? Point(s) of view? Tenses? Oh yeah, the plot? But perhaps paramount? Setting.
At last year’s Bouchercon conference in Dallas, Elizabeth George told a rapt audience (including me) that in her Lynley series she begins with the setting. She described visiting various settings and how the characters emerged in her imagination—from the place.
Alexander McCall Smith agrees that in his novels, location is as important as the characters. “Place is often terribly important to us,” he said. “And to describe it is to describe our feelings for the world.” Our feelings for the world! Or at least, for the world of that setting.
Smith describes how he begins a book: “I mentally write the first paragraph and, on occasion, the last paragraph. With these two elements in place, all that remains is to write the bits in-between. The first sentence is very important. For me, that can set the whole tone of the book, and once I have the first sentence the task of writing proves relatively easy.”
“Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, doyenne of private investigators in Botswana (not that there were any others, apart from her assistant, Grace Makutsi), wife of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (garagiste and past chairman of the Botswana Motor Trades Association, citizen of Botswana)—that same Precious Ramotswe was sitting in the second row of chairs at the open-air wedding of Mr. Seemo Outule to Ms. Thato Kgwadi.”
The paragraph continues: “It was a hot day in October, a month of heat and unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks, creatures whose very names had been forgotten now. They were all waiting for the rains…”
We know we’re in Botswana at an open-air wedding where we’ve learned of the sleuth, her partner, and her husband, but the rest of the paragraph tells us even more: it’s hot and dry October, a time of “unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks…”
We’ve felt how the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, lives and breathes awareness of her country, where all creatures—human and otherwise, even the invisible creatures whose names have been forgotten—are waiting for the rains. What an appeal to imagination! Maybe this setting has extra appeal for readers in central Texas who know all too well the unforgiving heat of August, its crunchy dry grass, cracks in the soil, and desperate deer, waiting for a rousing thunderstorm to refill dry water tanks and refresh even the “small, almost invisible creatures” that surround us.
So a mystery setting is much more than a GPS setting. Accuracy’s important, as Rhys Bowen emphasized in her presentation to HOTXSINC (Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime): the writer risks losing all credibility with mistakes in location or description. But the mystery setting must include how the characters feel about the setting—which reveals more about the characters.
Here’s the beginning of Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise (copyright 1951; Scribner Paperback Fiction 1998), with her series protagonist, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard:
“Grant paused with his foot on the lowest step, and listened to the shrieking from the floor above. As well as the shrieks there was a dull continuous roar; an elemental sound, like a forest fire or a river in spate. As his reluctant legs bore him upwards he arrived at the inevitable deduction: the party was being a success.
“He was not going to the party. Literary sherry parties, even distinguished ones, were not Grant’s cup of tea. He was going to collect Marta Hallard and take her out to dinner…The roar of the party’s success came flooding out through the open doors on to the landing, and Grant paused to look at the yelling crowd asparagus-packed into the long Georgian room and to wonder how he was going to pry Marta out of it.”
Ever felt like that, dear reader? Ever dreaded having to walk into a “roaring success” of a party with a “yelling crowd asparagus-packed”? I’m betting most of us (with our share of introversion) have “reluctant legs” in such situations. On Tey’s first page we learn Grant’s a “presentable escort,” a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, and can “afford to dine at Laurent’s.” But his “reluctant legs” indicate how this privileged character feels about even a “distinguished” literary sherry party. By dropping us into this particular London setting Tey helps us identify with her protagonist by his reaction to that setting. We walk with his “reluctant legs” up those steps. We understand that he (probably like us) is there because he feels an obligation, and, despite his feelings, he’s a man who meets his obligations.
Texas writer Tex Thompson pointed out in her recent presentation to HOTXSINC that one way to dial up the conflict in our mysteries is to dial up the contrast between the character and the setting. For example, is the protagonist a fish out of water? In my Ghost Cat, the protagonist Alice practices law in a small Texas town but fears any firearm other than a flare gun and feels like a complete impostor on a horse.
One engaging archeological mystery dive is Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway Series set on the marshes of Norfolk, England. Ruth, a forensic archeologist, is often called to help local police when bones are found at construction sites. She feels many disconnects—unmarried mother of a daughter, slightly overweight, harassed by her university department head––but takes pride in her competence as a sharp-eyed and professional archeologist. She lives on a lonely road by the coastal saltmarsh, where water meets land, a liminal area with Bronze Age artifacts buried deep. Her love for this location drives the plot and enriches her character:
“Her favourite place. Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, sported with stunted gorsebushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams…Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.”
I wonder if archeology offers a challenge to our own imaginations. Just north of Austin is an archeological site including the “Gault Assemblage.” Very careful long-term excavation and documentation of the site now reveal human occupancy up to 20,000 years ago—much earlier than traditionally thought. The dates for human habitation in North and South America keep moving further and further back. And why wouldn’t early people have chosen this area? It’s on water…there’s chert available to chip into powerful tools…the nearby plains furnished buffalo. Similarly, recent breakthroughs in dating Neanderthal tools have pushed back dates for their culture by several hundred thousand years. Most artifacts of that age are lithic (rock points, rock knapping), and it takes sustained imagination and examination to understand what our ancestors were up to. It takes human imagination, staring at a biface point, looking at a reassembled cobble, to see the chipping techniques our ancestors developed, to begin to grasp the complex reality of their daily lives—their setting. Rebecca Wragg Sykes,Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.
In a way mystery-writing is archeological. In our imaginations we excavate clues from the past—perhaps an imagined past—to recreate what happened, or could have happened. We recreate in our imaginations what our characters saw, smelled, heard, felt…and did. Maybe the more richly we imagine the setting, the more the characters can come alive.
Okay, trowels up. Back to the trenches. Well, not archeological—but fingers on keyboards, pens on paper.
Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series, her latest, Ghost Cat, was published in April 2020. She is also author of TheBloody Bead, a Bullet Book Speed Read, co-written with Manning Wolfe.
As writers, we often contend with voices inside our heads.
It’s not just me, is it?
As much as I love these characters who demand to be heard, there are moments when I need a break. I need someone else’s voice inside my head. Someone to inspire me or to teach me something interesting that could also prove useful in a future scene or novel.
I enjoy listening to other creatives discuss their process. I think, early on in my writing career, I hoped to glean that ONE RIGHT WAY to outline/plot/write a novel, but after so many years, I have come to learn that there is no single right way. And that each book may be different. A process that worked for one book no longer seems to bring results on the next project. Still, there’s something inspiring and interesting about listening to others talk about how they take their ideas and turn them into a story, how they wrestle with the demands of work/family/life obligations while working on a project. So, when I want to remain in the creative space but need a little distance from my own work, I turn to others to better understand how they manage their creative lives.
Here are a few of my favorites:
(Night Vale Presents) Start With This(Podcast): This podcast, from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale, tackle all aspects of writing from dialogue and pacing to creative crises and dealing with feedback. Each episode is in the half hour range, perfect for a listen as you walk your dog or work around the house. If you’re struggling with some aspect of your writing, take a break and tune in. It might be just what you need to get back on track.
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Netflix): Jerry Seinfeld is known for his intense discipline to the craft of writing, for the daily dedication he still has in improving his skill at one-man storytelling, even though his Seinfeld show fame means he would never need to work again. This passion for creating and writing is on full display as he interviews other comedians to discuss all aspects of storytelling, writing and entertaining an audience. It’s a quirky show that speaks to my quirky heart. And the episode with Mel Brooks is pure gold.
Ten Minute Writers Workshop (NPR Podcast): Although this podcast wrapped last year, there are sixty ten-minute episodes with writers such as Louise Penny, Ian Rankin, Tana French, and Tom Perrotta. This remains one of my favorite podcasts because Virginia Prescott gives us a peak into the habits of some of today’s most talented writers, and her interview format is designed to help other writers in their own pursuits.
Here’s the Thing (NPR Podcast): Alex Baldwin’s personal antics can be up for debate, but you can’t argue with the man’s interviewing skills. This one surprised me in all the best ways. He’s interviewed everyone from Billy Joel and Carly Simon to Cameron Crowe and Kyle MacLachlan. Alec’s questions dig down deep into the topic of the creation of art of all kinds and how those pursuits impact personal relationships. For those who want to listen to the inside-baseball elements of writing, acting, and other creative endeavors, this public radio podcast pulls strong.
I recently appeared on a “Writing Humor in Mysteries” panel at the Pflugerville, Texas, Library along with fellow authors Kelly Cochran and Nancy West. My first reaction was the old adage, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Unless you’re talking about the Pink Panther and Inspector Clouseau, one doesn’t usually think that humor and death work well as a pair.
Although the mysteries I write are serious, I find that interjecting comedy into the either the character or plot (or both) really moves the action along. It picks up the pacing, gives more depth to characters, and sometimes you just have to lighten the moment for the reader as the plot turns darker and darker.
I once read a blog by Zia Westfield (www.ziawestfield.com) and she outlined five elements that often appear in comedic mysteries.
The Screwball Heroine (think “I Love Lucy”)
The Wacky Secondary Character (obviously Ethel Mertz comes to mind)
The Snowball Effect (Events become more and more out of control)
Whatever Can Go Wrong, Make it a Hundred Times Worse (back to Lucille Ball)
Snappy Dialogue and Word Choice (Here pacing is everything)
In more serious murder mysteries, however, to me its all about the characters. For example, its possible to have a series of homicides and a very serious detective, but a side character can provide the comedic relief. In The Preacher’s First Murder, an elderly woman has gone missing and is considered to be in danger. Very scary stuff for the family. Enter an idiot rookie “hunter” who didn’t know a rifle from a shotgun. His exploits provided the needed chuckle to break up the intense drama.
I’ve also found that putting my hero in a foreign place presents lots of opportunity for the hero’s inner dialogue to ponder this “new world.” Again, in The Preacher’s First Murder, the hero, originally from Miami, has moved to small town Texas. The first time someone says “She makes a hornet look cuddly” he realizes he’s not in…well, you know.
For me, the easiest way to write humor is in first person, and I’ve found it to be a lot of fun. Most stories come from experiences I’ve had, a belly laugh all over. “Write What You Know”, as they say. Perhaps it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway. It really helps to write humorous mysteries if you have a sense of humor yourself. Odds are that what makes you laugh will make others laugh too.
All Hallows Eve approaches, and it’s not just the children who love this holiday, with its ghost stories and the trick-or-treat traditions. According to the National Retail Federation, “more than 148 million U.S. adults plan to participate in Halloween-related activities,” [[i]] despite the restrictions of COVID-19! What is it that we love so much about Halloween?
According to a Purdue University professor, Halloween lets us experience a good scare without being in real danger. It is within human nature to seek out and suffer unpleasant feelings – but in small doses, allowing us to flirt with danger and experience the emotional rush— free of real consequences.[[ii]]
Historically, Halloween is believed to have originated with the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. This ancient community, which lived 2,000 years ago, celebrated their new year on November 1 and believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead collided.
On October 31, the Celts believed the spirits of the dead returned to earth to cause trouble and damage their crops. They built huge sacred bonfires, where they burned crops and sacrificed animals to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. Before the festivities began, they extinguished their hearth fires at home. When the celebration was over, they re-lit them with flames from the sacred, ceremonial bonfire to help protect themselves during the coming winter.
By the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands and blended Christian ceremonies with older pagan rites. In 1,000 A.D., the Catholic church designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, or All-hallows/All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day), absorbing the Celtic traditions of Samhain, with bonfires and masquerades. This became All-Hallows Eve, and the word eventually compressed into Halloween.[[iii]]During this time, new rituals sprang up and were theforerunners to trick-or-treat, a custom not loved universally by parents in today’s world.
In Medieval England, on All Hallows Eve, poor people would visit the homes of wealthy families to receive soul cakes. The custom was called souling because “Little pastries were given in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the dead relatives.” [[iv]] In Scotland and Ireland, young people disguised themselves by dressing in costume, and accepting offerings from households in return for singing, reciting poetry, telling jokes, or performing a trick before receiving their treat.[[v]]
In the U.S., the custom of trick-or-treating became a staple of the American Halloween celebrations after WW II, when sugar rationing ended. In 1952, Walt Disney released the first Trick-or-Treat cartoon movie, starring Donald Duck, which helped solidify Halloween’s celebration in American culture.
Whatever one feels about the practice of trick-or-treating, there is another tradition that almost everyone looks forward to. Halloween is a fine time to revisit our beloved and deliciously scary, creepy stories and find new ones. Who can resist the urge to vicariously experience, without consequence, the chills, thrills, and fright of ghost stories and strange happenings?
Among thousands of spooky tales are Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories, ranging from the unnerving appearance of ghosts in All Souls’, who appear at Sara Clayburn’s house to wreak havoc for one night. There is a spirit in TheLady’s Maid’s Bell, leaving the reader to wonder if the bell rang to warn of something terrible happening, or was it the narrator’s imagination?
Then there’s the frightful notion of not recognizing a being from the afterlife in Afterwards when a husband disappears – and only at the end does the bereft wife understand that the ghost of someone dead had visited.
Often, the tales of crime by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imply something supernatural, as in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, about a mysterious death and a young woman’s fear that her own was approaching. And, of course, his classic The Hound of the Baskervilles can be read repeatedly and still maintain its emotional impact. Just the thought of the hound braying on the moor raises goosebumps.
There is hardly room to mention every author whose work has become a Halloween special. Among the scariest are Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which an occult scholar and his searchers seek evidence of hauntings and get more than they bargained for.
And the scariest, ever, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Again, the author creates a terrifying picture of two dead servants returning and possessing the bodies of two young children, a brother, and sister. Again, the author leaves the reader questioning whether or not the events and their interpretations are from the nanny’s imagination, or are they real? Only Henry James knew for sure—or did he?
So, on All Hallow’s Eve, when you’re done with your traditions, trick-or-treating – whether ringing doorbells or handing out safely wrapped candies set the mood. Darken the house, keep a reading lamp bright to illuminate the pages and curl up with a hot chocolate or something more robust and let yourself be immersed in the netherworld and allow yourself to be scared.
Mystery readers are tetchy. We want an interesting plot with a fair shot at noting each clue—but don’t want to guess whodunnit too soon. We’re prepared to care about the protagonist, the sleuth, perhaps the victim. We hope some characters will intrigue us; others should do their part and get offstage.
Of course, setting is key. We may want a mystery set in our own state––or on the far side of the world. We demand accurate detail; we’re slow to forgive mistakes. We want to feel we’re actually in the setting: riding the Cornwall train with an exhausted Cormoran Strike, in the basement of the Russian Club with Peter Wimsey, escaping from a southside Chicago industrial complex with V.I. Warshawski.
So for setting, how much description is too much? Do you find yourself sometimes turning the page, skipping the paragraph describing the view from the ski-lift, the row of shops in the village, the squalor of the factory yard?
Recall Oliver Strunk’s Rule 6, Do Not Overwrite (Section V, “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders”): “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”
Yes, but sometimes a writer stops us in our tracks with beauty. Take Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places (my favorite, describing hikes in Britain), or The Old Ways, or Landmarks. Contrary to habit I scribbled many quotes in the back of my copy of The Wild Places. He describes moonlight on a freezing night atop a mountain: “trillions of lunar photons pelting on to my face and the snow about me, giving me an eyeful of silver…”
An eyeful of silver! He writes of hiking an eroded old seabed, “We moved through dozens of weathers.” Of a frozen waterfall: “A hard portcullis of ice, beautifully mottled by dark figures of thaw.” Can’t you see it? Feel it? He quotes Stephen Graham on the rare moment when we feel part of nature: “‘As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.’”
The great door, that does not look like a door!
Maybe our sleuth lacks the time, is in too much peril, to describe moonlight “giving me an eyeful of silver,” or the moment when she or he, lying beneath a tree, momentarily sensed “the great door, that does not look like a door…” Too contemplative, when the sleuth has no time to contemplate.
A mystery setting has additional jobs besides painting the landscape. Ideally it draws us straight into the plot, shaping our view of the characters. Here’s the beginning of Sayer’s Strong Poison:
“There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.
The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses. He had sat for three days in the stuffy court, but he showed no signs of fatigue.
He did not look at the prisoner as he gathered his notes into a neat sheaf and turned to address the jury, but the prisoner looked at him. Her eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows, seemed equally without fear and without hope. They waited.”
Already we’re caught, sensing the prisoner’s peril. Immediately we must turn to the next page.
Or Tony Hillerman’s first paragraphs in The Ghostway:
“Hosteen Joseph Joe remembered it like this.
He’d noticed the green car just as he came out of the Shiprock Economy Wash-O-Mat. The red light of sundown reflected from its windshield. Above the line of yellow cottonwoods along the San Juan River the shape of Shiprock was blue-black and ragged against the glow. The car looked brand new and it was rolling slowly across the gravel, the driver leaning out the window just a little. The driver had yelled at Joseph Joe.
“Hey!” he’d yelled. “Come here a minute.”
Joseph Joe remembered that very clearly. The driver looked like a Navajo, but yelling at him like that was not a Navajo thing to do because Joseph Joe was eighty-one years old, and the people around Shiprock and up in the Chuska Moutains called him Hosteen, which means “old man” and is a term of great respect.”
Hillerman has us. Shiprock silhouetted against a sunset, the Chuska Mountains, Navajo tradition being violated––we’re hooked by this authoritative voice placing us where we wanted to be, in Navajo country.
Strunk has other words for us writers as well. His Rule 14, Avoid Fancy Words: “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” I checked: “word” itself is Anglo-Saxon. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=word
This instruction helps mystery writers follow several other rules, such as not overwriting, and choosing powerful verbs and specific nouns. See page two of Hillerman’s The Dark Wind:
Lomatewa glanced past the rabbit brush at the second boot. It matched. Beyond the second boot, the path curved sharply around a weathered granite boulder. Lomatewa sucked in his breath. Jutting from behind the boulder he could see the bottom of a foot. The foot was bare and even from where Lomatewa stood he could see there was something terribly wrong with it.”
Here he uses mainly (not all) Anglo-Saxon words, though some traveled from Latin through old French.
When I’m writing I’m always aware of Strunk’s strictures (uh-oh, late Latin). Indeed, I should probably reread him every week. But in working on this seventh mystery I also hope to discover “an eyeful of silver”, or “the smell of charred stone”, or move through “dozens of weathers,” or more.
When it comes to writing riveting police procedurals, M.E. Browning has all the credentials. As a retired police captain and an award-winning author, she follows her Agatha-nominated series featuring amateur sleuth Mer Cavallo with Colorado police detective Jo Wyatt in her latest novel, SHADOW RIDGE. Readers and reviewers alike have praised Browning’s meticulous plotting and storytelling prowess as she brings us into the Colorado town of Echo Valley and the case that plunges Detective Jo Wyatt into the dangerous underworld of online gaming. Browning shares how SHADOW RIDGE came to be and what’s next for both her and Jo Wyatt.
SHADOW RIDGE was just released this week. Congratulations! What would you like readers to know about your latest novel?
I think every author has a story that they are afraid to write–not because the content is necessarily frightening, but because it means so much to the author. For me, that book was Shadow Ridge. When I first started writing, I knew I hadn’t yet developed the skill to write this story—at least not the way I wanted. I’d tried. Despite being my third published book, Shadow Ridge is my first police procedural. It’s also my first novel to earn a starred review. In hindsight, I think it’s good to be a little scared of your story. It kept me digging until I found the emotional core of each character.
What drew you to writing SHADOW RIDGE? How did the story idea come about?
I’d read an article that detailed the misogyny that female gamers faced online. Sadly, when it comes to online abuse, women are overwhelmingly the target. In the gaming industry, that abuse flared into coordinated mob attacks. Typically, online abuse manifests in three ways: trolling, doxxing, or SWATting. We’ve all probably experienced a troll—someone who hijacks a thread and makes racist or abusive comments. In some cases, trolls escalate their behavior into doxxing, which occurs when they post a victim’s personal information online. Armed with doxxed information, a harasser can morph from an online threat into a physical one and confront the woman personally or report a phony emergency that requires a SWAT response. Obviously, when a tactical team surrounds a house because someone inside reportedly has a gun and is threatening to kill another occupant, tensions are high and the danger is real—even if the emergency isn’t.
From a law enforcement perspective, cybercrimes are difficult to investigate. Harassers hide behind firewalls and phony accounts, and while they may be as close as your neighbor, they could also live on the other side of the globe. Many smaller jurisdictions don’t have the training or resources to investigate the crime and end up referring the case to a state agency.
From a story perspective, I saw an opportunity to bring these two worlds together. The game designer runs afoul of online abuse which brings her in contact with Detective Jo Wyatt and parallels issues Jo’s’s facing within the department. And as authors like to say in an effort to avoid spoilers, shenanigans ensued.
Tell us about Jo Wyatt and her life in Echo Valley.
Jo is a second-generation cop in a small southwestern Colorado city. She’s been on the force for a dozen years, and the last two have been as a detective. I had a NetGalley reviewer describe Jo as “Smart enough to know her limitations, confident enough to trust her gut, and determined enough to unravel the threads in any case.” I almost wept reading that description because that was exactly the character I wanted to portray.
Echo Valley is urban enough to have a craft brewery, but rural enough that the bears still rummage through the trash at night. Working in a small community has its pros and cons. Jo frequently knows the people she deals with, but they often expect her to let them get away with murder.
Your past career in law enforcement has been highlighted in early reviews, with readers praising your experience coming through in a way that is masterful without being dominant. How did you decide how much of that expertise to use in SHADOW RIDGE?
The short answer is trial and error.
My earlier unpublished manuscripts proved that writing what you know isn’t always the best approach to a compelling story if you include too much extraneous detail. Instead, I discovered I needed to learn how to let law enforcement informa story. So instead of a law enforcement professional, an amateur sleuth stars in my first two books. With each novel, my understanding of the value of specific details increased. It was also important to me to portray Jo as human. She makes mistakes, but she owns them. It was a lot of fun for me to bring her to life through the other two point-of-view characters.
This is the first in the Jo Wyatt series, correct? Can you give us any insight on what is coming next for you? And for Jo?
That is correct. I’m currently working on the second Jo Wyatt Mystery. In it, Jo investigates a missing child, but as she digs into their fractured family life, she unearths a trove of secrets and half-lies that paint a different picture of the two parents she’s known since high school.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Part of the joy I discover when reading a book is what lies hidden between the lines—and everyone’s experiences determine how they will interpret the same event. In Shadow Ridge, I explore the complexity of family, the meaning of promises, and the danger of secrets. But in the end, when the last word is read and the book is closed, I hope readers believe that Jo is exactly the cop they’d want to respond if they ever need to call for help.
M.E. BROWNING served twenty-two years in law enforcement and retired as a captain before turning to a life of crime fiction. Writing as Micki Browning, she penned the Agatha-nominated and award-winning Mer Cavallo mysteries, and her short stories and nonfiction have appeared in anthologies, mystery and diving magazines, and textbooks. As M.E. Browning, she recently began a new series of Jo Wyatt mysteries with Shadow Ridge.
Micki is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime—where she served as a former president of the Guppy Chapter. A professional divemaster, she resides in Florida with her partner in crime and a vast array of scuba equipment she uses for “research.” Visit mebrowning.comto learn more.
You can find SHADOW RIDGE at your favorite bookstore or online here.
Ninety years ago the first Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Old Clock, was published. Since then, over 70 million copies of that series have been sold. The fictional female teenage sleuth was originally conceived by publisher Edward Stratemeyer, whose other brainstorms included The Hardy Boys, and my personal favorite as a five-year-old, The Bobbsey Twins. (Okay, I’m old. Get over it.)
Believe it or not, Stratemeyer firmly believed in traditional roles for women, but his mostly female ghostwriters under the shared pseudonym of Caroline Keene, had different plans. Mildred Wirt, who wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books, turned Nancy into a fierce, fearless, feminist heroine that inspired young girls to be the same ever since the books hit the shelves. Many prominent and glass-ceiling-shattering women count Nancy Drew as an inspiration in their youth including First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush and Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor and the recently departed and dearly loved Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Oddly enough, critics panned the series when it first came out. Nancy broke too many stereotypes, being frequently outspoken and authoritative. Librarians, educators and parents also considered the books too “formulaic” and feared they would negatively impact young readers and their future book choices.
As you may recall, they said the same thing about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.
The Secret of the Old Clock is the mystery that began it all for America’s controversial female teenage sleuth. In this story, sixteen-year-old Nancy wishes to help the Turners, who are struggling relatives of the recently deceased Josiah Crowley, find the missing will would give them claim to the Crowely’s estate. She becomes interested in the case because she disliked Crowley’s snobbish nouveau-riche social-climbing heirs.
Justice for the downtrodden? Fighting for the underdog? Outspoken? Authoritative?
Sounds familiar. Rest in Peace, RGB.
K.P. Gresham is the author of the Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days At Wrigley Field.
Perfectly poetic, iambic hexameter: Last nightI dreamt I went to Manderley again.
Says Sarah Perry in the Irish Times, “Every novelist since has ground their teeth in envy: here is all the enchantment of a child’s story, with an irresistible melancholy hung about it.”
The rest of the novel isn’t bad either.
But so much depends on that first line.
Can you identify the books that begin with the lines below? And the authors who composed them?
Show what you know in a comment. (Searching the Internet is acceptable.)
Some may be a snap. Others, not so much. But each comes from a book by a major mystery author.
All will be revealed in a later post. Or, as they used to say, stay tuned.
On November the twenty-first, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon, and there in a consulting room designed, it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death.
In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times.
Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.
When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.
My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.
There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.
It was as black in the closet as old blood.
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.
It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria.
I feel compelled to report that at the moment of death, my entire life did not pass before my eyes in a flash.
I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.
Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all around.
There are two disadvantages to being a minor royal.
It was a mob, but not yet a full-fledged riot. Over a dozen retirees, dressed in housecoats and robes, had taken to the streets, demanding action at eight in the morning.
I took my grandson to Barnes and Noble yesterday. When we got there, I realized I’d forgotten to take his mask.
“Uh, oh,” he said, looking forlorn. “Do we have to go back, YaYa?”
I reached into the bottomless pit, called my purse, and pulled out the extra mask I always carry. “No problem, darling. I always have extra.” But it was precisely the same as the one I wear. Hmmm. What to do? I smoothed the masks out on my lap.
“See that little mark?” I asked, pointing to one.
“Yes. Is that one for me?” he asked, hopefully.
“No, my dear. That mark is from my lipstick. You’ll wear the other.”
So, into B & N we went. He had a great time looking through toys (educational only—YaYa’s policy) and books for Kindergarteners.
I, on the other hand, puffed into my mask, fogged my glasses, and whenever I felt no one could see me, I cheated. I lifted the thing off my face for a couple of breaths of fresh air! After all, I’d rather not be treated worse than a murderer or rapist because I need some oxygen along with the C02 I’m breathing by wearing the mask.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the reason and basically agree that wearing masks is at least some help against ALL viruses, not just COVID. It’s not a bad policy if uncomfortable and lipstick-smearing. I learned during the great toilet-paper chase, not to wear lipstick under the mask.
While I am not an environmental warrior, I was the first in my family to question the wisdom of the public using disposables. Those should be reserved for our courageous nurses, doctors, and workers who actually need them to preserve their own health while on the job. Thus, by the end of March, everyone in my family, kids, kids-by-marriage, and grandkids have switched to washable masks. We disinfect and launder them at the end of each day. Kudos to me!!! LOL
Of course, I can’t take much credit, since I have also developed some bad habits in this new masked and locked down society. As an example, here I am, today, awake, writing, and taking care of business since four a.m.—no praise here – just my body clock- I haven’t yet bothered to comb my hair, wash my face, or get into street clothes. Sitting in front of a computer screen absolves me of the responsibility to present a decent face to the world – or does it? Or should it? I say no, but do it anyway, except for Zoom meetings, when I’m forced to at least wear some makeup.
So, as my grandson browsed, I looked around at all the masked people. Some wore ear-loop face masks, others wore the type with elastic bands that wrap around the head, while others wore the pull-up masks.
How different from our pre-COVID lives. We would have reacted quite differently to anyone walking into high-value targets for robbery like banks, restaurants, jewelry stores, and movie theaters with face coverings. Also in our pre-COVID life, we were encouraged to be environmentally responsible and bring our own reusable bags to stores and supermarkets. Now, if we do, the cashiers tell us before beginning to scan that we must pack the bags ourselves. This suits me anyway. I prefer doing it myself. I want ‘like items’ bagged together, which makes unpacking faster and more efficient.
And now, the social distancing. No more hugs for friends and relatives. That stinks, and I refuse not to hug and kiss my grandchildren, but I have learned to kiss their heads on top, not their faces. Can’t live without my hugs, but we hug with our faces turned away from one another—well, it’s better than nothing!
So, while I complain, grouse, have hissy fits over the whole thing, I remember how fortunate we are as history repeats itself. One-hundred-and-two years ago, the world suffered a pandemic called the “Spanish Flu, or the Spanish Lady,” even though it did not originate in Spain. 500-million people worldwide fell ill with this early variety of H1N1 and Avian Flu combined (as per CDC). In the U.S., 675,000 died, including those who are always most susceptible: young children and the elderly. The surprise in that pandemic was men and women in their primes became ill and died at alarming rates. At least we can be grateful that the young children and young adults seem to weather this COVID thing much better.
A-hundred years ago, there were no antibiotics, no pharmaceuticals to treat the virus, and they knew less about better hygiene. Although state and federal governments did close some schools and some businesses, most people had to leave their homes to earn a living or leave their family’s to starve.
So what have I learned from all of this? First off, back to good hygiene, people. For years domestic chores like house cleaning weren’t high on the intellectual list of essential tasks. How much better might people have fared in 1918 if they’d had the cleaning products we have today? Perhaps we should resurrect the saying, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”
And of course, masks. They are not foolproof, but they are valuable tools and if wearing them was good enough for my great-grandparents, I guess it’s more than good enough for me.
As for my bad habits, when COVID-19 ends, I will once again learn to groom early, get my face on, and leave sufficient travel time for appointments. Meanwhile, I can jump on to virtual meetings without contending with traffic, or worrying about what I’m wearing. While all of this lasts, I’ll spend less on lipsticks and face powder, less on clothes, but have more to spend on books, and I’ll also pay attention to many of the unique ways we’ve learned to cope with this stinking virus. Stay safe, and stay masked!