Sunday, October 16, 2011

What’s more important, plot or character?

This post is part of a Rolling Blog Tour--check out the other entries at the end

Actually, I hate this question—which is why I chose to write about it today. Plot or character?  Both. They are intertwined and you can’t have a good mystery story without both. The events of the plot fuel reactions from the characters, and these reactions reveal human strengths and flaws that engage the reader. For example, in my first mystery, Bound for Eternity, Lisa Donahue finds a body in her museum’s mummy case at night. She keeps her cool long enough to get her daughter out of the way and call the police and, and then discovers her legs feel like cold linguini. She’s a good enough mom to want to protect her daughter, but she trembles with fear and horror when she realizes the dead body is that of a friend and colleague. Why is she messing around with a mummy after 5 pm? Because she’s just taken it for a CT scan at a local hospital. The mummy is the star of the plot, because everything revolves around it.

Just to make the question more complicated, one of the other “characters” is a also the setting: a creepy old attic museum with pigeons flying in and out of broken windows, no air conditioning, and an archaic security system. This attic museum, just like the one where I worked as a curator early in my career, inspired the story in the first place: it is such an delightful setting for a murder.

One of the villains in my third mystery, The Fall of Augustus, is The Boss Everyone Loves to Hate—a domineering woman who enjoys manipulating the emotions and actions of her primarily female staff. The sound of her high heels clack-clacking down the hall makes Lisa and her fellow employees flinch and shiver as they wonder what new public humiliation is in store. This character, like many obvious obnoxious people, fuels the plot because she generates hatred and fear—and the reader immediately wonders if she will be a murder victim.

The best villains are the ones who are not cardboard characters, but flesh-and-blood people with some redeeming characteristics as well as flaws. Their complicated pasts provide plot twists for the writer to explore, making the mystery a many-layered treat for the reader.

Visit the other writers and blogs at:

Mollie Bryan http://www.molliecoxbryan.comKathleen Kaska,

Saturday, August 6, 2011


This post is part of a rolling blog--see the list at the end for other writers who have posted on the same topic.
Conferences?  Exhilarating, expensive, exhausting, but never a waste of time. At each one I’ve been to, I’ve made new friends and connections. And at one, Love is Murder in Chicago (every February) I connected with two of my current small press editors. Love is Murder celebrates the entire mystery genre from hard-boiled to cozy, with all things in between. We have the Poison Lady (a.k.a. Luci Zahray , a pharmacist in her day job) who teaches us how to poison our characters, and cops-turned-writers teaching us about crime scenes and guns. When these guys set up a mock crime scene, they give two prizes for interpretation: 1) most accurate, and 2) most creative…Other favorite conferences are Magna cum Murder , a lively weekend conference in Indiana in October, and Malice Domestic , a medium sized house party in Maryland/D.C. every late April. Unlike LIM, Malice attracts the writers of cozies and traditional whodunit mysteries, a la Agatha Christie (not surprisingly, the coveted Agatha award is a teapot).

The only conference I’ve attended in my pajamas, though, was an online mystery con sponsored by Poisoned Pen Press a few years ago. It was great fun—we had podcasts, chat rooms, video conferencing, and asynchronous posts on all the usual topics. People I met online later showed up in person at other cons.

What all of this conferences have in common is camaraderie and the joy of interacting with people. Since writing is a lonely business most of the time, writers love to mingle and swap experiences as well as meet fans, potential readers, editors, and agents. There’s another advantage: some editors and agents are so overwhelmed with submissions that they are choosing to accept manuscripts only from people they’ve met at conferences. And doing a pitch session (speed-dating for writers) is a great way to make that crucial connection.

Best of all, I come home happy and energized and convinced that I want to keep writing as long as I can hold a pen or tap on a keyboard.

Check out the next blog in this roll by Kathleen Kaska.

And also: KT Wagner
Mollie Bryan
Ryder Islington

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Different kinds of writing feed into each other. On our recent trip to Alaska, our naturalist leaders suggested we use a “word of the day” to help collect our impressions. These words and phrases were supplemented with photos and sketches. I found this helpful, especially since the scenery was so stunning that I was initially at a loss for words. I enjoyed using words such as “frozen water,” “trail,” and the seemingly contradictory “wild quiet.” Some examples:

"Turrets, crenelations, spy holes, a castle of frozen water. Listen: she looses her chains (crack!  Pop!) and lowers her drawbridge" (Hubbard glacier calving).

After whale-watching, during which I wore every layer I had against the rain and cold: "Tired tourists trail back to the Great Mother, who sucks them in through her great maw, filters them through her baleen, and spits on their hands."  As anyone who has been on a cruise ship since 9-11 knows, filtering is the belt-removing, metal object-dumping security getting onto the cruise ship, spitting on the hands is the required hand sanitation.

A hike in Denali national park yielded few wild animal sightings but nice wildflowers until we came upon a chewed up aspen tree (moose tooth marks at about 8 feet above the round, surrounded by moose-trimmed bushes and a steaming pile of scat. After I got over my racing heart at the idea of being that close to an immense moose, I wrote: "Poor aspen, pale flesh exposed by a moose's love-bites. She shivers in the wild quiet."

I haven’t found words yet for the excursion we took flying over glaciers, mountains, and rounded foothills in a small plane.

Another unusual tip Susan gave us is paint chip poetry: you go into your favorite hardware store, wander over to the paint department as if you were choosing paint colors, and look at the labels on those little free cards you can take home. What great names to use in writing: “harvest brown,” “moon-glow silver, ” “southwest orange,” or perhaps “glacier blue.” A good place to go when you have writer’s block on some descriptive scene.

I feel a need to visit a hardware store…

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ebooks Rise (again)

I recently attended the wonderful "Love is Murder" con in Chicago, and was struck all over again by how publishing is changing. I sat in on several panels with publishers, editors, and agents representing such companies as Murder Ink, Five Star Mysteries, and the brand new Ampicellis Ebooks.

The theme of the conference seemed to be that despite the closing of brick and mortar stores, authors have more options than ever before. We heard Joe Konrath (The Kindle King) talk about his publishing model, now entirely electronic after having a traditional publisher and NY agent. True, we have more choices, but each one of us must think carefully about where she wants to be in the general scheme of things. Do you want to be a NY author with a NY agent and publishing company? Then the traditional route (hobnob at conferences, find an agent, hold out for a good deal) is probably the way to go. For many of us, though, it makes sense to explore smaller publishing companies that offer both trade paperback and ebook editions and a focus on online marketing.

It is an exciting time to be an author, and I am willing to try new roads to publication. Launching what I hope will be a new series (historical mysteries set in central Illinois), I plan to explore all the options. I sure hope my books can still be available in some kind of print--I definitely love the feel and heft of the physical book. and the smell of the paper...