writing storytelling mystery novels

Posting a Parting

Posting a Parting

Today is the day I've had to let go. It's not easy because for the next few weeks I'll be second-guessing myself. Does everything make sense? Did I miss a great story opportunity? Could I squeeze in one more revision?

Yes, the manuscript for my new mystery,
A Specter of Justice, has received the Seal of Approval from my editor at Poisoned Pen Press and gone to final copy editing.

Postpartum? I wouldn't trivialize real postpartum with my little anxieties, but I'll argue there are similarities. I've lived with and developed this new story for almost a year. Suddenly, I have to stop thinking about it in terms of what it will be and accept what it is. And what it is will be determined by each individual reader who either connects with it or doesn't. It's out of my hands and into their hands (or ears in the audio version) and I can't be there to defend my "child" if they don't like what I've created.

After fifteen books, one would think I'd be over this feeling by now. I'm not. So, it must be caused more by the void of the moment than the loss of the particular manuscript now with my publisher. This form of postpartum isn't exclusive with writers, but anyone who has lived and breathed a major project.

The process of creation lies at the heart of the matter. That little voice in your head asks, "What's next?" and it won't stop asking until the process begins again – the subconscious demanding to have its say, its new task, its creative expression.

I read an interview with Lee Child in which he says he immediately starts writing a new Jack Reacher novel as soon as he finishes his current one. No down time, no recharging of batteries. He wants to carry the rhythm and energy culminating in one book into the beginning of the next.

That's a great approach, but I'm not wired that way. Some transition has to take place as I say goodbye to one set of characters and their actions. I believe that transition might be the anxiety itself, the psychological angst that tunes your ears and eyes to story possibilities in what you hear, you see, and you read.

If that's the case, then what I label as writer's postpartum is really writer's propellent – the fuel that drives one to seek out the next project, the next story. If there comes a time when I'm not anxious, then that's the time of the real parting. It's the Muses telling me, "Mark, It was fun, but you're done."

When Real People Become Real Characters

This blog originally appeared as a guest post for FictionZeal

When Real People Become Real Characters

Writing class 101 encourages you to “write what you know.” But over the years, I’ve migrated from “write what you know” to “write whom you know.” For the “write what you know,” I set my books in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, the region where I grew up. The protagonist for my first series was a funeral director in a fictitious small mountain town, a job held by my father. We lived above the funeral home. It was quiet, very quiet.

But my father wasn’t my character, Barry Clayton. Barry comes from my imagination and is a composite of the traits I wanted him to have. The “writing whom you know” grew out of research, that discovery process when you have a story idea and begin to delve into its possibilities.

My second mystery series features P.I. Sam Blackman and takes place in the real town of Asheville, North Carolina. A real town brings real people and a real history. One of Asheville’s favorite sons is Thomas Wolfe, and I wanted him to play a role in my story. I wasn’t interested in having him appear as a character like in novels where an historical person assumes the role of detective or client. I wanted him to have done something in his life that had an impact on my detective’s present-day case.

I contacted an historian at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial in Asheville. During our conversation, it dawned on me that my detective would likely be doing the same thing as part of his murder investigation. Why invent a Wolfe historian when a real one was sitting right in front of me? With permission to use his name and to his delight, my research source, Ted Mitchell, became an integral part of the novel.

My real people becoming real characters hit a snag, however, in my most recent Barry Clayton book,
Risky Undertaking. Set on the Cherokee Reservation in western North Carolina, the plot centers on a contentious issue splitting the tribe: the decision to build a second gaming casino on the edge of the reservation solely to attract more players from Atlanta. Huge amounts of money are at stake and the anti-casino proponents fear their native culture and traditions will be undermined by increased dependence on casino profits. The issue isn’t my fictional creation but an actual divisive event so highly charged that most of my sources didn’t want their names mentioned in the Acknowledgments. I had real characters with real information who shared real insights and perspectives, but only under the promise of anonymity.

Fortunately, such an aversion to public acknowledgment is the exception and not the rule. After writing the novel involving Thomas Wolfe, I followed the same pattern in two subsequent mysteries, one involving F. Scott Fitzgerald and the other, Carl Sandburg. Sandburg moved from Michigan to my hometown of Flat Rock, North Carolina, in 1945, and between then and his death in 1967, he wrote nearly a third of his literary canon. Two people with Sandburg ties were long time friends of my family.

For a time, Louise Bailey had been Sandburg’s personal secretary.  She shared stories and reflections about her relationship with him as both an employer and a neighbor.  These are incidents I couldn’t make up. Like the time Sandburg stayed for dinner and enjoyed her green beans and salt pork so much, he finished them all and then picked up the serving bowl and drank the liquid.  I wanted these stories to come from my friend, a marvelous storyteller and preserver of our mountain lore.  One couldn’t invent a better character.

My second Sandburg source was Donald Lee Moore, a local funeral director, musician and composer.  At one time, he had published more sacred music than anyone else in North Carolina.  He would sit in his funeral home’s storage room, surrounded by caskets, and pull together harmonies of the Eternal while constantly reminded of his existence in the Temporal.  He told me of taking his two brothers, their instruments, and ample lubrication from a friendly mountaineer’s still to Sandburg’s farm, Connemara, where they swapped songs and a jug of moonshine with the famous poet.  He let me listen to the audiotapes they made for their personal enjoyment as they meandered from one song to another with Sandburg’s distinctive baritone voice woven throughout.

These are the real characters I enjoy sharing with my readers. They are not the rich and famous, but folks grounded in the time and place of my stories. Unfortunately, both of these friends have past away, and I lost two great pillars of my mountain heritage. The book they helped infuse with life,
The Sandburg Connection, is dedicated “In Memory of Storyteller Louise Bailey and Songcatcher Donald Lee Moore, Two Treasures of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

Separating these stories from the storytellers would have taken some of the life out of them for me and thereby sapped some of the life out of them for the reader.  I’ve come to realize that people are stories - and, at times, rather than create “composite” characters, my fictional tales are better served by letting interesting people be themselves.  If Shakespeare was right and all the world’s a stage, then the fun for me is setting that stage and letting others play their roles upon it.  Not the famous of today or yesterday, but those who have been a part of my life and a part of my story.

Writing whom you know provides me with companions as I explore the “what if” questions of fiction, and, more importantly, gives me the chance to share with others the people I appreciate and admire.

Look for the Money

This blog originally appeared as a guest post for Mythical Books

Look for the Money

In the great political scandal that was Watergate, reporters Woodward and Bernstein were advised to pursue their investigation based upon one cardinal principle: Follow the Money. Although the abuse of power lay at the heart of Richard Nixon's downfall, money was the lifeblood that linked cover-ups and lies in a network of deceit.

Money might not be the motive of every crime, but, more often than not, money plays a major role and can be the easiest entry point for an investigation to gain traction. "Look for the Money" because, like the adage "where there's smoke there's fire," where there's money, there's crime -- or at least the fertile possibility.

Mystery writers, like law enforcement, know well that looking for the money will be a top priority for any detective. So, in constructing a story, money needs to be consciously factored in or out. However, in my newest Buryin' Barry novel,
Risky Undertaking, I didn't have to look for the money. It found me.

The series is set in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina and over the course of the stories, I've tried to work in details and plots that give the reader a feel for the area in which I grew up. I realized I hadn't written a story that incorporates a significant component of the region -- the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Without any particular idea, I checked the tribe's web site for background on what might be of current importance on the reservation. The headline that greeted me stated a tribal council meeting the night before had postponed a vote on building a second casino because the vote promised to be too contentious. Here were money and conflict staring me right in the face. At stake were millions of dollars on the one hand and the perceived threat to tribal culture and ancient traditions on the other. The money wasn't linked solely to casino operators or lucrative construction contracts; it was tied to all 14,000-plus enrolled members of the tribe, every man, woman, and child who share 50% of the net profits each year. Look for the money? I couldn't overlook it.

The conflict within the tribe became the conflict within the novel. What I found particularly fascinating was creating my fictional story while the casino expansion played out in real life. The issue became even more complicated when a South Carolina tribe, the Catawba, sought to purchase land in North Carolina where the gaming laws are less restrictive. Suddenly an internal tribal debate mushroomed into conflict between two tribes because the Cherokee wanted no competition to their gaming monopoly.

Unlike real life, my story had a publishing deadline while the "battle" between the Cherokee and Catawba continues. And with the multiple paths the money could flow, I looked for a way that I hope surprises the reader.

Will I ever again encounter such a plot where I don't have to look for the money? In the language of the casino, don't bet on it.

Just Whose Story Is It?

(This blog first appeared as a Guest Post for Elizabeth A. White's Blog

I'd like to reflect upon what sounds like a simple question one I ask myself with every novel: Just whose story is it?

When I started my first series, I had a character and setting Barry Clayton, funeral director in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Since my father had been a funeral director, I used some of his stories and my own imaginings of what it would be like to be in that profession to blend the "what was" and "what might have been" into a family story.

But as the writing process evolved and fictional events unfolded, the characters' paths diverged from my original intentions and characters became whom they needed to become, distinct and individual entities. A friend of mine, writer Robert Inman, remarks that he knows he's in his most productive zone when his characters start talking to him. I need to take it a step farther. I know my story has grown beyond me when my characters start talking to each other. It is no longer my story; it is my characters' story.

Sometimes a story creates a new cast because the premise isn't right for the ensemble of characters who have already come into being. My first experience with this change of "ownership" occurred when an elderly friend told me about his journey through the Jim Crow South transporting a body from Asheville to North Georgia. When he was ten, he and his father, both white, aided an African-American funeral director who had only a horse and wagon. My friend's boyhood adventure sparked a mystery requiring a genesis of characters unfettered by the "history" established in four prior novels. And with this project, the new characters quickly assumed command and took me in unanticipated directions. I've come to think I am not so much writing a story as discovering a story waiting to be found.

Now that observation could be a suitable ending. Except it's not.

In the final analysis, the story is neither mine nor my characters. Too many readers have told me how certain scenes, events, or characters touched them in very personal ways, whether dealing with Alzheimer's, racial discrimination, or, in one case, a young woman who had undergone not one but two heart transplants and wanted me to know how accurately my character's experience mirrored her own.

Just whose story is it? If my characters and I can claim any success, it is when the story is no longer ours. It is when a story becomes the reader's story, a creation interpreted in a unique way with meaning each discovers for her or himself.

And maybe because of that ownership, they will read the story again, even after knowing how it ends.