Monday, January 25, 2010

Settings for Mysteries

Peg: How do you feel about setting in mystery novels? Certain settings are an automatic draw for me—almost any book set in England starts my mouth watering. Or a European city. Or certain American cities or regions—Cape Cod, NYC, Chicago, New Orleans. But some places leave me cold for some reason. Arizona. Vast portions of the Midwest. Florida. That’s not to say I wouldn’t ever read a book set in those areas…it would have to have a plot that really resonated though. How about you? Do you have favorite settings? Do they guide what you pick up to read?
Marilyn: For me, the setting of a mystery is like a principal character. Setting affects the mood and even the voice of a novel. Like you, I love English mysteries, but more recently I've been reading mysteries that take place all over the United States and in Europe. I'm not drawn to books set in the great outdoors. The mysteries I've been writing all take place on Long Island, as that's the area I know best.
Peg: My mysteries have been set in NYC where I lived for ten years and worked for another twenty. Another one was set on Cape Cod where I spent many summers, and then several were set in New Jersey where I grew up. When I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan (at first I didn't even know what state it was in!), I thought I could never write about this place. There's no atmosphere. Boy, was I wrong. The longer I live here (eight years now), the more I understand about the various factors that make up Grand Rapids. No, the place isn't beautiful or even particularly attractive. But there are lots of interesting sectors that make up the city--the staunch Christian Dutch, the young people who flirt with the various gangs that are active here, the Mexicans and Vietnamese who are slowly moving in bringing new customs and different languages. Very interesting! I'm incubating a story that I hope to write someday.
Marilyn: I'm getting the impression we both set our novels in locales we know well, settings that have an emotional component for us. While my characters often go into Manhattan, they live in towns or villages that I've created.
Peg: I’ve done that, too, Marilyn. My latest work-in-progress—a cozy—features a Connecticut town that I’ve created. I had great fun inventing the perfect village for my story and populating it with buildings, restaurants, shops, etc.—not to mention people! I have a fictional New Jersey town in another manuscript—but one that is based on the town I was living in. I just changed the street names to protect the innocent!

Marilyn: Ah, the perfect village! Writing fiction gives us the opportunity to create settings and characters as they exist in our minds. I love reading and writing cozies because the setting is a small, contained world in which the characters -- who love or hate one another -- interrelate and occasionally commit murder.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Does Length Matter?

Does Length Matter?

KAYE: I admire writers who can keep a series going, and going, and going. Sue Grafton is on U IS FOR UNDERTOW in her alphabet series. So that's, um, 21? If my counting is correct? And she's doing it well. Others who have kept series fresh through the years were Tony Hillerman, with both the Jim Chee and the Joe Leaphorn, then later the blend of the two (18 in all); Sara Paretsky, who is on lucky (for her) number 13, HARDBALL (which I'm listening to in my car), in her VI Warshawsky series after taking time out for her second stand-alone. M. C. Beaton, in the cozy camp, has put out an astounding 26 Hamish Macbeth novels and 20 Agatha Raisins.

K D, who can you think of that has successfully done long serieses? Serii? Lots of books with the same sleuth?

K D: Two lesser-known people who are writing now are Cleo Coyle and Sarah Andrews. Cleo Coyle has eight Coffee House Mysteries, about the owner of a New York coffee emporium. Sarah Andrews isn’t well known, but she wrote series of mysteries featuring geologist Em Hansen. The first book was TenSleep. I absolutely loved it, with the geologist protagonist teased by the good old boys on the drill rig, and lots of drilling lore. Not all the books in the series were equally successful.

The old writers, mostly, were indefatigable with their series. Agatha Christie got a lot of mileage out of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Rex Stout. My goodness he was prolific. Does anybody actually OWN all the Nero Wolfe books? Can we count Rumpole of the Bailey? The books of short stories by John Mortimer usually had Rumpole solving a crime in every story.

KAYE: ME! I own all of Rex Stout (even a terrible early novel under a pen name). I still reread them and never tire of Nero and Archie. But, I must admit, I do sometimes get tired of a series after three or four books. The characters don't hold me if I've already read the same stuff about them several times. Unless--there's another compelling reason for me to read on. Setting or theme of the new book, for instance.

K D: Even the writers get bored, I think. Sherlock Holmes was sent over the falls in a death grip with Moriarty, right? I think the problem is whether they are writing the same book over and over, or expanding their worldview and craft in each book. I mean, writing is an art, and artists grow and develop or they become hacks (my opinion). I think it isn’t about the setting, it’s about the growth. Sometimes, the writer is just phoning it in.

KAYE: One writer I enjoyed reading, not exactly a series author, was Dick Francis. While his books were considered a standalones and each had a new protagonist, except for a few Sid Halleys and two Kit Fieldings, I swear all those protags were the same person. Almost always an orphan, a lone guy with no family, and they all had the same basic personality. The thing is, I like that guy, the one who kept reappearing in different books with different names and professions. So I read every single Dick Francis that ever came out and still own them all.

K D: I think Dick Francis kept growing. Another thing, he accepted suffering. If his protag got injured, his protag limped for a while, had crutches, worried about the fact he was still in pursuit of the bad guys but less able to pursue them. Francis absolutely never phoned one in.

I think the issue is beyond theme and setting, and something deeper about the author’s process. If you want the same story over again, you can read Miss Marple. If you want people to grow, Dick Francis and Cleo Coyle keep their characters growing.

Kaye, why do you like Nero Wolfe? The characters are completely stagnant. I simply can't stand those books.

KAYE: True confession time. I can't help it, I'm in love with Archie Goodwin. I never want him to change. And I envy Nero's lifestyle. I imagine that I live in his brownstone and tend orchids all morning (I love orchids), have a private chef, and have free rein to eat enormous amounts of food. (But maybe this is a subject for another blog post!)

BTW, I used this site for research for this If, as a reader, you're looking for the complete books of an author, or the order in which they were printed, have a look. You can also pull up mysteries by character's job descriptions, protagonist's names, and several other criteria.

Happy reading, whether you're just starting a new series, or continuing an old one!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Size Matters?

K D Fortune asked:

How long should a book be? Well, how long should a dog's legs be? One answer is "long enough to touch the ground." Or in other words, it depends on the kind of dog. Or the kind of book.

Kaye George commented:

Hm, I'm trying to picture legs on a book. But a great question to ask.

K D:

We aspiring mystery writers are often told to size our mysteries at about 70,000 words, while thrillers should come in at 90,000 to 100,000 words. Why these numbers? Is it intrinsic to the type of book or is it customary it even the case? Are actual mysteries really short and thrillers longer?

I pulled a couple of paperbacks out of my library, and sat down to count the words. Luckily, all the paperbacks had about the same number of words per page, so I just counted the pages and multiplied.

The two thrillers were longer:

Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle, 105K words

Lee Child, Persuader, 133K words

But the mysteries weren't all short:

Cleo Coyle, French Pressed, 75K words

Louise Penny, A Rule Against Murder, 105K words

Kaye replied:

But those books aren't first novels. They're by established authors. Once you've gotten a few books under your belt (or on the shelf), you're given more leeway.

Could it be that the limits/guidelines are meant for first-time authors? Even though the lengths of some thrillers and mysteries don't fall within the guidelines, I think it's still a good idea for unpublished authors to stick pretty close to them.

K. D. answered, still doing calculations:

The mysteries tend to run shorter than the thrillers, but some mysteries are as long as thrillers, and some thrillers are seriously long. What is going on?

Maybe having several viewpoint characters adds to the length? Most thrillers have several viewpoint characters. Ken Follett and Louise Penny have many viewpoint characters in books of 105K words (though Louise Penny's book is a mystery). But Lee Child sticks to first person throughout the book, and comes in with the biggest word count, while Cleo Coyle sticks close to first person and has the shortest book.


OK, but I think there's more to it than the number of viewpoint characters. Thrillers often flit around in exotic locales and mysteries, especially at the cozy end, take place in little towns with a limited cast of characters. Even though thrillers contain a lot of action, well maybe mostly action sometimes, they need to give the reader a sense of a place they've never been. Mysteries are meant to evoke a comfortable setting, one the reader is perhaps very familiar with. Thrillers can get global and involve shadowy organizations, corrupt governments, secret societies, casts of many.

K D commented:

You are at least partially right here. A thriller rarely takes place next door. Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle visits a huge number of places, all over the map during WWII. Each scene requires a descriptive passage. He describes a lonely Scottish island. Then he's right there with Rommel in the desert. Next, we stop in at British High Command. All that description makes a book longer.

But Lee Child and Louise Penny stick mostly to one location, and have long books. Cleo Coyle has her protagonists dashing around to all sorts of places in New York City, and has the shortest book of all. I don't think scene-setting is the complete explanation for the length of the books.

Kaye commented:

Maybe it's something else about the books they wrote? Something you can't count?

K D answered:

What a concept! Something you can't count? Not possible!

Kaye replied:

Think about it, okay?

Kaye and K D finally agree:

Unpublished authors should probably stick to the guidelines, to make life easier for themselves and their agents.

For published authors, since all the books are enjoyable, does size matter?

Monday, January 18, 2010

We Love Mysteries!

Peg, Ever since I could read, I've loved reading mysteries. As a child I devoured every book in the Judy Bolton, Trixie Belden, and Nancy Drew series. I started writing a mystery in second grade, but couldn't get beyond Chapter Two. Even then I found plotting to be a challenge. Recently, I've read three mysteries I heartily recommend: THE BODY IN THE SLEIGH by Katherine Hall Page, U IS FOR UNDERTOW by Sue Grafton, and BOOKPLATE SPECIAL by Lorna Barrett.


Well, we have something in common, Marilyn. I was an avid Nancy Drew fan as a child as well! I also loved Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately the book in our public library was entitled A BOY’S SHERLOCK HOLMES and I was sure the librarian wasn't going to let me take it out! But she did, and I'd read a story every night--something I looked forward to all day long. (I still love to read in bed at night!)

I thought it would be fun to write my own mystery. There was a huge, old house down the street--built around 1850. Two enormous stone pillars flanked the driveway and I thought either of them would make a great place to hide a dead body! Rather ghoulish for an eight year old, don't you think??

I must admit I've been going through a non-reading period lately -- something that happens to me every once in awhile. I've been trying to finish Stieg Larsson’s GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO I find it very slow going although it's had rave reviews and is on the NY Times bestseller list. Have you read it?


I LOVED THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO but there was one slow section of back story I had to get past. I look forward to seeing the movie, which is coming to the U.S. in mid March. I also enjoyed the sequel, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE and can't wait to read the third and last book of the series. Though I write cozies, I find I often enjoy reading grittier books. And the Larsson books sure are gritty in places!

Though I read stand alone mystery novels, I often read series. I've read all of Katherine Hall Page's Faith Fairchild books and thought the last one was especially good. Why do you think we enjoy reading mystery series? Why do you think we write them?


Looks like I'll have to give the book a second chance! Perhaps when I started it I wasn't in the right mood for the story--know what I mean?

I love mystery series as well--especially Deborah Crombie, Cynthia Harrod Eagles (she writes wonderfully witty dialogue), Jill McGown (who has sadly passed away), P.D. James, Peter Robinson. I guess I gravitate toward English writers or writers who write about England!

I love writing mysteries because ultimately murder comes about because of human emotion, and I think exploring emotion is fascinating.


I love mysteries because when you've finished the final chapter you come away with a sense of completion and justice served -- at least in most cases. And mystery series have given us some of our favorite heroes and heroines-- Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, Hercules Poirot, and Nero Wolfe to name only a few.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Last But Hopefully Not Least...

You know all those “getting to know you” quizzes that people forward back and forth to their friends? What’s your favorite color. What’s the last thing you ate, etc. Well, here’s my take on a “getting to know you” quiz.

Name: Peg Cochran
Home: On exile in Michigan (really, I’m a “Jersey” girl at heart having spent my whole life before now in either the Garden State or NYC.
Greatest Ambition: To be a published author (it’s too late to become a live-saving heart surgeon unfortunately.)
Favorite authors: Tess Gerritsen, Deborah Crombie, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Krista Davis, Jane Austen, Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson
Favorite TV show: Don’t watch much. Too busy writing (see above)
Marital Status: Second marriage to Fletcher (I was widowed in 1997)
Family: Very supportive, fortunately! Two beautiful daughters named Francesca and Annabelle (nothing ordinary for me!), a splendid Westhighland Terrier named Reggie and a schizophrenic cat aptly named Frazzle.
What I’m writing: mysteries which I love along with some young adult
Why I Love Mysteries: Because things HAPPEN in them!
Hobbies: None unless you count cooking which I adore because I LOVE to eat.
Favorite Food: Do I have to pick just one? Lobster, roast chicken, a great steak, really crispy pommes frites, shepherd’s pie on Sunday nights, NJ pizza for lunch, “Sloppy Joes” from the Towne Deli—sandwiches between three pieces of rye bread with ham or turkey, swiss cheese, cole slaw and dressing (Thousand Island or Russian—I’m not sure and they’re not saying).

Friday, January 8, 2010

Who's on third?

I'm next! Kaye George, resident of TX for over twenty years. Before that I meandered through CA, IL, SC, MT, OH, MN, and MI. (I prefer serial commas, as you can see.) Our family toured the states the hard way, by living each place two or three years.

While wandering, I've working secretarial and bookkeeping jobs (and tax prep for H&R Block), ending up as a computer programmer, which I loved. When we moved out of Dallas to the hinterlands of Texas, I considered myself retired and began to write full time.

Along the way we raised three of the most incredible children, and now have four grands who are also excellent kids, superior in every way. Hubbie and I were either good parents, or lucky ones. I don't kid myself about that.

My journeys have given me much grist for my writing mills. I began to get short stories published a few years ago and continue to work on them, time permitting. (I didn't know you could be this busy while "not working.") I consider myself a full-time writer and my main focus is on getting a mystery novel or two (or three) published. I've completed one or two novels on each of three projects and have about a zillion more lined up in my head.

My hobbies are the grandkids, reading (which is no longer exactly a hobby, I guess), playing the violin, composing music, travel and hiking, and, if I ever live somewhere without clay soil again, gardening.

I hope you'll enjoy the blog we're putting together. We'll try to give readers something interesting to read!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Hello from K. D.

Hi everyone. I'm K. D. Fortune, except that I'm not.

K. D. Fortune is a pen name.

I'm an independent contractor with rather conservative clients, and I decided that a pen name would give me more freedom to write about murder, sex and mayhem. A pen name can also give me aliases, alibis, and the other attributes of a (vicarious) life of crime. I have one non-fiction book to my credit, and a couple of fantasy stories in small magazines. For most of my working life, I was a research chemist.

I currently live in Vermont. We are on the East Coast to be close to our two kids, but my heart is probably always going to be in California. We lived there for thirty years. My husband is a mathematician. I met him in physics class in college, which is exactly where a chemist would meet a mathematician. We have a son and a daughter and a grandson and a granddaughter. A surprisingly balanced family.

I love reading mysteries and non-fiction, watching Teaching Company videos, and plinking around on the piano. I can't sew, cook pretty well, and do a certain amount of volunteering.

I look forward to blogging with this group.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Welcome to our new blog!

Welcome to our new blog, Dialog for Murder. We are four mystery writers who have started a blog about mysteries: the mysteries we're writing, the mysteries we're reading, the mystery writing process, and other aspects of our mystery lives -- mostly done via dialog. We're here to have fun, to entertain, and, of course to hear from you, our readers.

My name is Marilyn Levinson and I live on Long Island with my husband and red cat, Sammy. Bernie and I have two grown sons, and we're preparing for Michael's wedding to Amy in May. In what now seems like a past life, I taught high school Spanish and writing courses. I'm multi-published as a children's book author. My first novel, AND DON'T BRING JEREMY, came out in 1985. Another book, NO BOYS ALLOWED, came out in 1993 and is still going strong. While I still write for children, these last few years I've been concentrating on writing adult mysteries. I love to read mysteries as well, and look forward to many discussions of my favorites. I also knit and love to travel.