Oh what a three weeks it’s been. I’ve been back from Mykonos
hiding out at my farm for the month of August. The place looks greener and
lusher than I can ever remember, though my impression is largely based on what
I can glean of it through the lone window in my third floor garret—where I sit
fingers glued to the keyboard.
It’s been weeks of fifteen-hour days (a) finishing the
latest draft of the new book, (b) reducing a full-length manuscript to a 750-word
synopsis (i.e., think in terms of taking a chainsaw to key plot points,
characters and scenes), and (c) going back to rewriting that same manuscript.
But I shall return to Mykonos in ten days. AHHHH.
Hopefully that introduction summons up sufficient sympathy for
my plight to justify my running a post I wrote several years ago for a
different blogsite. It’s based on the mystery writing course I taught at
Washington & Jefferson College for pour souls out there looking to get into
this glamorous, wild, and carefree writing life.
So, here is my “brief but spectacular take” on the inherently
controversial subject of mystery writing’s basic building blocks, with
observations borrowed from true experts on the craft whose names I no longer
I look forward to enduring the slings and arrows of
outrageous fortune…along with the strong opinions of those of you who may
As you no doubt will recall, Snow White had seven dwarfs helping
her create her story. I’m no Snow White,
and I’ve only got six to rely upon, but to me they’re just as dependable, even
if not as cuddly. Permit me to introduce you to Characters, Dialog, POV, Plot, Setting, and Tension.
drive the engine of your story. They
convey what you want the world to know. They are the product of your innermost
thoughts, your views of life, but to really get to know them you must spend a
lot of time earning their trust. It’s an investment well worth it, for your
characters are who will make you famous.
Readers remember characters far after the plot has faded, e.g., Dirty
Harry, Harry Potter, Hamlet, Pudgy Wombat.
As for where to find those characters, I’d say look into the
very core of your being for their essence. I know, that sounds all
artsy-fartsy, but think of your heart as a storehouse of emotions and subliminal
impressions collected over a lifetime of encounters. As for character traits and appearances, I tend
to pick those up through direct observation of passersby and jotting down notes.
Accept that you’re a body snatcher, storing up parts and gestures to flesh out
the souls of those characters you’ve found lurking about in shadowy places
within yourself…and enjoy.
2. As to how we bring our characters to
life, my favorite building block on that score is dialog. Good dialog is like eavesdropping. Read your dialog aloud. Does it sound
natural, does it fit into the setting, and most importantly, does your dialog bring
your character to life consistent with your vision of that character’s unique
voice? To grasp what I mean, I recommend
reading poetry and great plays, as you’ll gain an appreciation of how cadences
and rhythms bring dialog to life. For
those of you adventuresome enough to attempt the most difficult of all dialog—dialects—I
recommend you read Peter Matthiessen’s Far
Tortuga. Once you’ve made it through
its first 50 pages you no longer need dialog tags, for he’s masterfully caught
your ear with a unique dialect for each of his characters—including the
3. With that mention of narrators, we
arrive at POV, more formally known
as Point of View. POV is what holds
all the other building blocks together.
Indeed, how could any of us have made it through Moby-Dick without Ishmael telling us the story from his POV? One should never underestimate the value of a
Most writers choose
between first person and third person points of view. First person is harder to pull off because the
reader knows no more than does the protagonist, and that can lead to some
awkward devices straining to get information before a reader that the protagonist
could not otherwise be expected to possess. Third person POV allows for greater
flexibility, but lacks the immediacy of first person telling. And of course,
there are some notable POV shifting authors.
Ultimately, it’s your book, expressing your POV on POV.
3. Which brings us to Plot. Everyone struggles with plot.
Stephen King suggests tossing your characters into situational conflicts
and letting them figure their own way out, advice consistent with the classic
admonition that you should never try to fit your characters into your plot. Once you have a basic story line in mind, let
the plot evolve through your characters.
Yes, I’ve drawn a difference
between plot and story.
Story is a narrative based on time, a series of events
flowing chronologically (The King died, and then the Queen died.). Plot is a
narrative based on what caused
events to happen, a series of events deliberately arranged to create dramatic
significance (The King died, and then the Queen died of grief.).
The same story can be told using different plots. Queen died
because she too was murdered, or because she partied too hard celebrating the
King’s death, or her horse threw her and kicked her to death on the way to the King’s
Plot is what makes your way of telling the story come to
life, so make certain your plots are vivid and continuous, and don’t leave any
loose ends hanging out there to frustrate the reader—unless you mean to.
is my personal favorite of the six elements, which makes sense since my books
are named for places all across Greece.
Still, that’s not in any way inconsistent with my belief that characters
are what drive a mystery. I say that
because, in my books, settings are characters. For some, setting is of little concern beyond
serving as a generic venue for telling the story, so a particular location
doesn’t matter beyond being a city of a certain size, a farm, an ocean, a manor
house, or a boxcar.
But no matter the
level of importance you attach to the setting for your work, always bear in
mind that nothing turns off a reader’s faith in an author more quickly than a
story setting Chicago on the ocean—barring a tale set in post-apocalyptical
climate change America.
6. And now we’ve arrived at tension, the emotional roller coater
ride element so beloved by readers of our genre. Tension heightens interest by
relying upon the same basic three-step process used by comedians in telling a
joke: setup, buildup, payoff. One
simple way of achieving tension is to reverse the polarity of a scene. If a scene starts out positive for the
protagonist, have it end on a negative note. That keeps your reader turning the pages, which after all, is our
Here’s an example. At
the beginning of the scene it’s dusk, and we find our hero racing his super-charged
police cruiser across an empty, two-lane, West Texas badland blacktop highway
headed for the kidnappers’ hideout; a place he’s discovered through two days of
knuckle-busting, call-in-every-favor, no-time-for-sleep police work. Our hero’s thoughts are focused on how he’s
going to rescue poor Nell without any back-up, and we, his readership, have no
doubt he’s going to do it. At least not
until three mule deer dart out of the brush directly in front of him doing
nowhere near his cruiser’s 90 MPH.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, my garret calls.
When my father passed away, my mother wanted to give
something to the church to commemorate his life. He had always run the annual flower
show, so a donation of a silver trophy for best gladioli or best carrot was an
All categories had been taken, trophies already covered.
Except the photography section.
So the winner of the photographic section is
now awarded The David Mitchell Cup.
For various reasons ( maybe the fact Dad is not running the show with his draughtsman's precision ) the numbers of entries for
all categories have plummeted. Last year's show was woeful - a couple of spuds and a knitted scarf. They relaxed the regulations so families and friends could enter. Mum asked me to put in some photographs. Alan put in some too, so did Mathilda the
The categories were;
My favourite place.
A Scottish building.
Weather ( in Scotland???)
Flora and Fauna.
I am not a photographer. I take pictures of things I like.
I have a glass cabinet where the cameras of the family are
displayed. My gran's box brownie, my sister's Diana flash, my first point and
click and my Dad’s camera that was brought back from the days of his national service
in Hong Kong. You need to do a lot of
stuff with light meters and hand held flashes to get it to do anything but it is a lovely piece of engineering.
Now I have a Canon body and two basic lens. A patient of mine, in her 90’s, decided she no longer needed the majority of her lenses, and filters, bags
and things I don’t know the name of, so she gave them all to me as it's l compatible with my Canon and I now set off with a different lens and try to work out what is going on.
She was a member of Paisley Photographic Society but got
disillusioned by pictures being photoshopped
and digitally altered. I think there is now a breakaway faction, of
It was this society who judged the competition. And I had noticed that there was a lot of other entries, their alterations obvious.
However, on the day, by the time my mother got back to the table where the
photographs were post judging, the cards had been moved. So we had no idea what picture had won what. ( Would never have happened in my dad’s
I had won overall, but did I win a 'best photo' in any category?
No idea. I did find out that I didn’t win best photo overall.
But I did win my dad's cup.
Here are the pics put in by Ramsay Incorporated.
A South African crime writer told me this was a Black Hooded Night Heron.
Taken in a nature reserve in Florida.
Some flowers from the botanical gardens in St Petersburg.
Nice crew members on a barge in Stratford upon Avon.
A prince and a pigeon.
The river Avon.
Kilchurn Castle, I know NOW that this is a very famous castle to capture on camera.
A boat cruising past us on the beach at Indian Rocks, Florida.
And, the only one I have had made into wall art. Loch Lomond.
The Florida sky while a hurricane was a blowing a hoolie a few miles to the north.
Stanley - Thursday
Going to a convention which Yrsa Sigurdardottir is attending always bring the possibility of surprise - culinary surprise. I remember a few years ago when we were at Crimefest in Bristol, UK. We were enjoying a pleasant evening drink on the patio outside the bar. Then Yrsa arrived with an Icelandic delicacy - hákarl or fermented shark. It is sometimes called rotten shark in English. As she opened the package, people at surrounding tables began to leave. Within a few minutes, even people inside at the bar had gone to find less odorous pastures.
I have to admit, hákarl had a terrible smell. Fortunately, the taste wasn't as disgusting as it smelled. It was merely awful.
But Yrsa had anticipated the reaction to her surprise. She then opened a bottle of brennivín, a Nordic drink, known as jet fuel elsewhere in the world. Its purpose? To cauterize the tastebuds that were struggling to survive the scourge of the fermented shark.
On another occasion, Yrsa produce flattened sheep heads and on another, sheep-testicle paté.
All these episodes reminded me of a common disdain amongst my friends in the USA of offal. I grew up eating liver, kidneys, and sweetbreads. 'Ugh!' my American friends would say.
Now I have another food source for my friends to avoid: bugs.
At a recent mystery conference, Michael retaliated against Yrsa's onslaught by producing mopani worms - a common food in Southern Africa. They are actually caterpillars from a species of emperor moth. They are an important source of protein for millions of people.
A mopane worm
Fried mopane worms with spring onions
I read recently of a South African company, Gourmet Grubb, that operates a pop-up food outlet in Cape Town called The Insect Experience, where dishes feature insects as the main ingredient. Amongst its offerings is an ice cream made from an insect-based dairy alternative they've named EntoMilk. The insect in question is Hermetia illucens, the black soldier fly.
"We sort of wanted to try and create a viable protein alternative that is sustainable and ethical and could really create quite a positive change going into the future," said food scientist, Leah Bessa, one of the owners of Gourmet Grubb. "Edible insects are incredibly healthy. They're high in protein, for one -- a quality protein that has the right amino-acid profile for human consumption. They're also high in iron and zinc, high in fibre, and they have a healthy fat profile."
Chef Mario Barnard wants to produce tasty food that looks so good that people's mental blocks don't get in the way of trying it. Some photos are below. I can't wait to get back to Cape Town.
Pasta with black soldier fly larvae, garnished with mealworms
Polenta fries made from mopane worm flour
Mopane worms more elegantly presented
Deep fried dark chocolate black fly larvae ice cream sprinkled with black fly larvae protein balls. Photo Jay Caboz
There are more than 1,900 known edible insect species consumed around the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And about 2 billion people globally consume insects, primarily in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
So, if you're looking for something for your kids to study, perhaps you should consider entomophagy -- the consumption of insects by humans. It is a field that is growing quickly as the global demand for food strains traditional resources.