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Writing a mystery novel? Observe the new conventions but don’t get carried away

Conventional ways of writing style for any given year in the mystery novel can be as follows: tone, (richly sepulchral, as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde,) descriptional method (light on scenery or heavy), conversational expression, organization of plot sequence, or use of inner dialogue or not (stream of consciousness). Conditioned to fast-moving life and visuality on screens, we no longer appreciate the plodding, brilliant heaviness of Stevenson or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The conventions of the 19th century mystery seem like a movie proceeding in slow-motion to us.

Since we live in a world of cultural changes which proceed at the speed of a tweet or text, conventions in mystery stories particularly can change over a period of a couple of years.

An exceptionally well written mystery, a “cozy,” that is, a Victorian novel set in England, my favorite genre, is Canadian Steven Price’s By Gaslight. I’m aware of the changing conventions in the book by this prize-winning author. Not the small stylistic things he chooses—God isn’t capitalized in this book, for instance, to emphasize the humanistic world the author wishes to portray, devoid of meaning without an overall good creator. The book also observes the popular rapid shifts in time—we are in South Africa, then the Civil War, and turning quickly, in the 1880s with Allan Pinkerton’s son William, trying to find a ghost-like villain his dad pursued unsuccessfully to his dying day. Or even the symbolic character naming; the villain is called “Shade” and in another incarnation “Foole.”

What I’m really aware of is a definite departure from a hundred years of fictional story-telling: doing away with the setting off, and use of, conversational quotation marks to mark who is speaking and what that person is saying.

It’s odd and it takes some getting used to. The speeches are incorporated in indirect dialogue, just this way:

The sky turned black; the wind came up. Jonas I don’t’ believe you, he said. Still that is what I think. You can’t prove it. Their coat-tails flew behind them and it was difficult to hear. He is dead. You don’t know that.

And so forth.

This is major. What does it accomplish, other than showing that this author is very trendy, on top of “the latest” in writing or even inventing new conventions? Sublimating the conversation into the narrative description without any waypoints adds to the tone of darkness, of sinister foreboding, dullness, and fear supposed to be conveyed by the general plot. We don’t have any lively exchanges or clever repartee;  just murmured questions and answers.

The effect in general is to highlight, to emphasize something beyond what the characters are saying; the description of period scenery, the background so essential to the “Cozy.” It comes forward. All of these Victorian novels seem to be flowing rivers of scenery. Every author has done prodigious research in the way living rooms looked, (fire screen and cabinet of curiosities), the way breakfast was prepared (toast over the fire), type of dogs, women’s bustles etc. etc. etc. And so we get every detail in every living room. Lots of times we don’t need all of that.

In the case of the Price book we are well aware of the research done to create a scene from a Pinkerton raid on the outlaws out west, the Battle of Malvern Hill in the Civil War, a séance in an Indian lady’s parlor. He is a master of this type of full rendering, from all sides, of a scene.

But at times we believe we are being taken on a ride in a roller coaster through the Haunted Mansion. The author is joy-riding through hundreds (I do not exaggerate) of details of a battle in the Peninsular campaign: surgeon’s tent’s pile of legs, lethargic aides and sentries, flies on blood buckets, dangers of limbering up, collapsing espionage balloons, groaning and stinking of dying men, gray clouds overhead with Confederates advancing, death everywhere. Of course it was that way but scene after scene of grim details with slow-moving action and no interesting conversation leaves us yawning at times. All the detail and incorporated, limited conversation makes for slow reading. And we can draw a wrong impression, to say nothing of the author’s chance of making a mistake drawn from observing only the scenery. “No man returning from that conflict [the Civil War] can ever leave all that horror behind.” Now he is in my side yard as a long-time student of our Civil War, and he is wrong about that. Of course the returning men never did forget the horrors, but what came to predominate in most cases was something else: the honor and bonding of camaraderie in a large and important cause, satisfaction, really.  You can miss the woods for the ragweed on the path if you allow yourself, as an author, to be carried along by a sea of details, muting human conversation.

It does not mar the superb story-telling in this good novel. Still, it does diminish its impact a bit.  We need to be careful about letting story-telling conventions take over from us when what we are really doing is telling a human story.

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor, Hawthorne Publishing.

Discover  Nancy Niblack Baxter’s books about the Civil War by clicking back to the website.

 

 

 

Posted in Writing Fiction |

Blog Publishers’ Rejections: Learning to succeed instead of getting a dismal “no.”

One of the things publishers like least in their business day is having to reject a  writer’s pride and joy:  a manuscript submitted for review towards publication. At least this publisher does. We reject fifteen out of sixteen books or queries that come to us.  But there are points to be made in this situation. You can learn how to approach a publisher and find success. If you have an agent, of course, that agent will do the approaching. But since 40% of all books are now author owned projects, more and more people are learning to approach publishers themselves.

  • Manuscripts or query letters should be aimed at the exact publishing focus of the company to which the submission is directed. Hint: Carefully research the publisher’s holdings and latest releases. What are they putting out and selling? In our case at Hawthorne, books we publish books about Indiana history pure and simple with a second, small spiritual book line recently expanding. We aren’t looking for anything else at all and won’t consider your poetry, mystery novel or memoir from an Alaskan childhood.
  • Once you are aiming within the publisher’s focus limits, read pertinent books on how to craft a query or proposal letter and follow them carefully. A book like Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents in America tells would-be authors exactly how to draft a proposal. Develop a writing resume by writing for small or larger publications and list your credentials and expertise in the book’s subject first in your approach letter.
  • Realize that what publishers are really looking for are quality books to enhance their line and books that will sell to what is usually a niche market they have cultivated. In our case, Indiana history has been our marketplace for thirty years and we are familiar with it, have lived through its ups and downs and know its readers. So craft your letter or proposal to tell what you will do to market this book to this audience. Authors today are expected to go out and appear, read for groups, mine their own contact groups, utilize blogs and social media, and generally grind out publicity for their book. Google “Dan Wakefield at the Red Key tavern” to see master marketing by an author His Under the Apple Tree is one of our Hawthorne books and it has about sold out.
  • As you describe your marketing plan for the publisher you approach, ponder what your reading audience is and how you “get at them.” Are you part of a church group, a club, a professional organization? Do you know the librarians in your area personally? Do you have friends who have book clubs? Women’s or men’s groups? Can you think how the subject of your book might have interest groups which would want to hear you? Can you send press releases to the outlets who would be interested in publicizing your book?  Let the publisher you approach know you will be appearing, reading from your book, tooting its horn at every opportunity and then—convey that enthusiasm in your query or proposal.

Good luck in approaching a publishing company.  Keep at it and you will be published! May you never have to be rejected! And if you get one of these letters or contacts—a “no”— try again!

Nancy Niblack Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing. See Baxter’s books by clicking back to the Hawthorne website.

Posted in Book Publishing, Books on Indiana, Writing a Blog |

One of Indiana’s best-loved authors— Nelson Price— shares advice on telling human stories

IndianaLegendsIntriguing stories of real men and women, not fictional people, have captivated me since boyhood. I also aspired to be an author once I read my first books as an elementary school student.

So the process of writing my book Indiana Legends: Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman – which features profiles of more than 160 public figures – usually hasn’t felt like a series of events that changed my life. Instead, I’ve thought of the book as a wonderful fulfillment, kind of my version of catching a dream.

Recently, though, the life-changing aspects have been clarified.

Several of the notable Hoosiers from all walks of life who are included in Indiana Legends – men and women I interviewed, often several times — have passed away.  Florence Henderson, the vivacious singer-actress from Dale, Ind., died suddenly in November at age 82. Earlier in the year, a distinguished astronaut who grew up on a farm near tiny Otterbein, Ind., died. More than 25 years ago, Donald Williams had described to me the journey that took him from milking cows to commanding the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis.

For a long time, I regarded just the frontier characters as well as other Hoosiers from bygone eras – like Civil War Col. Eli Lilly, entrepreneur Madam Walker and composer Cole Porter – as the only “historic” figures featured in my book. The contemporary people – including Florence and the astronaut – were “non-historic”.

It’s more nuanced than that, I now realize.

Doing the oral interviews with them – then putting together the profiles and vignettes that told their stories – involved capturing slices of history. I’ll never be extracting more details from the astronaut about what it’s like look down at the Earth from outer space.  (Another Hoosier astronaut put it to me this way: “Think of the most awesome, breathtaking sights of your life. Rainbows, sunrises, sunsets, twilights, stars, blue sky. Now glue those scenes end to end and run them as fast as you can right after each other, as if through a viewfinder.”)

At the end of every day, each of us has made some history: good, bad, colorful, quiet, impactful or inconsequential. Or we have made personal history of some other stripe.  I realize now that doing the book expanded my definition of history. Because all of us are living through history, isn’t it important to take notes to preserve it? For this reason among others, I encourage everyone to do oral interviews with their relatives and friends.

Most of us don’t enjoy high-profile, low-running careers like Florence Henderson, whose TV series The Brady Bunch was broadcast in reruns for more than 30 years. (She even appeared on the current hit Dancing With the Stars a few days before she died.) But everyone’s life has stories that illuminate a corner of our social history.

So, keep on writing. Unexpected consequences of your writing can please you or others years down the pike.

Nelson Price’s book Indiana Legends” Famous Hoosiers from Johnny Appleseed to David Letterman is available from the Hawthornepub.ordering site. Just click back to the site to get it!

 

Posted in Books on Indiana |

How Writing a Book Changed My Life

ChasingGodI was maybe ten years old and reading Judy Blume’s Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great when I decided to become an author.  But the idea of making that dream a reality never seemed possible to me.  It wasn’t until I quit my day job at age thirty that I actually took pen to paper.

Fast forward twenty years and I’d accumulated around 100 publishing credits in newspapers, magazines and websites.  I learned a lot in those years, but everything changed when I wrote and published my first book.

Becoming a published book author has: 

1-Made me busier.  Once I learned I was getting published, my to-do list immediately doubled.  Not only did I add meetings and editing sessions with my publisher to my schedule, but I also had to freshen up my social media presence, put together a marketing plan and arrange author appearances.  Once my book came out, I was busy attending those events and working to promote my book in any way possible. It was all great fun, but if I hadn’t been organized, I’d have been overwhelmed. Writing the book is only half the job.

2-Taught me a ton.  Working with an editor taught me so much about the importance of story and book structure.  In addition, going through the process of selling books helped me see things through the eyes of an editor, publisher or bookstore owner.  I’ve also realized the importance of publicizing your book. Having the support of the media, encouraging readers to post reviews and motivating people to come to your events takes work.  And since you are learning as you go, it’s important to realize failure is an inevitable part of the process.

3-Allowed me to expand my career.  Once my book was published, I was asked to speak to various groups and to lead a writing workshop. I readily accepted and enjoyed these events so much that I’ve since sought out additional opportunities.  Since we all know authors don’t get rich quick (or at all), the supplemental work and income are great.  Even greater is expanding your circle of readers, writers and like-minded friends.

4-Given me a reverence for other authors.  I’m an avid reader and now that I’ve written a book, I can’t read one without my editor glasses on.  I’m constantly in awe of a writer’s style, word choice and the way in which he’s organized a book.  Whereas I once felt some authors just got lucky or were born with a gift, I know understand all successful authors work hard at their craft.

5-Brought me great joy.  Writing itself brings me great joy, but having others read your words has also brought great satisfaction. I was completely humbled that people took time out of their lives to read my book.  Another great outcome was hearing and reading positive comments from readers.  Their words have brought me a great sense of contentment and inspire me to continue writing.

By Tracy Line

Posted in Book Publishing |