Tag: #mysteries

#mysteries

Popcorn and Mysteries

Okay, I admit it. This blog is not about writing or reading. It is, however, about something critical to the creative process: what you eat while you watch your favorite mystery. My taste in mysteries and suspense runs the gamut. I have a special place in my heart for the BBC. I’ve watched all 19 seasons of Midsomer Murders. I love Endeavor, Shetland, Loch Ness, Luther, Inspector Lewis, Foyle’s Wars, Wallander, Agatha Raisin, Inspector Lynley, Father Brown, Jonathan Creek, Zen and anything Agatha Christie old or new. I also happily watch Winter and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries for a taste of Australia. New Zealand has The Brokenwood Mysteries.  Then there’s Elementary, Psych, Longmire and Bosch for something with an American accent. I could go on, but I won’t. While the shows may change, my snack of choice does not. It’s always popcorn. If I’m watching by myself, the topping will be whatever strikes my fancy. If I’m curling up to watch a mystery with my daughter, we tend to top our popcorn with truffle butter and parmesan. If I’m watching with my son, it’s frequently butter mixed with hot sauce from Belize. (My sister-in-law is Belizean and introduced the family to Mary Sharps. Our lives have never been the same.) If I’m making popcorn for the entire family, I usually stick to the classic butter and salt. I find high-fat, cultured butter is best because it has, to my taste buds, the right ratio of fat to milk solids. Vermont Creamery Cultured Butter is one of life’s true pleasures. My salt of choice is Baleine coarse salt ground in a salt grinder, but I’ve had great results with black salt from Maui and pink Himalayan salt, as well. I use an old air popper, carefully drizzling the  melted butter on the popcorn as it drops into the bowl. When all the popcorn is popped, I add eight to ten turns of ground salt and place another bowl on top so that I can shake the popcorn until the butter and salt (or parmesan) are evenly distributed. For me, there’s nothing better. It can be a meal in itself…and has been more times than I should confess. Having said that, I’m always on the prowl for both new mysteries and new snacks. So, what do you watch, and what do you eat while watching it?   

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What's in a name?

I teach novel-writing for Gotham Writers in New York City. My classroom is in an office building that looks right out on to Times Square. So from my window, I see something like this picture. Even when my class gets out, at 10 pm, it still looks like that.  Sometimes it’s a little scary. The other night I left work and walked by two people, arms folded across their chests, sleeping in a box shaped to look like a coffin. But for the most part working in Times Square is exhilarating, and I feel like I’m tapping into the energy that makes New York City so vital. My classes tend to reflect that vitality. My students come from all over the world–from Haiti and Dubai and London and Pakistan and of course, from the United States too. Their names are often unfamiliar to me. I grew up in a suburban part of Long Island, in a time and place where most of my friends were named Betty or Marcy or Patty. So it’s always a worry for me that I am either going to forget or mispronounce one of my student’s names. So I’ve hit on this writing exercise I do at the start of each class, in which I have each student write about how she came to have her name. The stories are always fascinating. Some students are named after a relative. A surprising number are named after characters in TV shows. Others have names that are completely made up, which is fun too. For example, one of my students has a name that has a syllable from each of her mother’s best friends. When I hear the stories behind the names, it becomes much easier for me to remember who the people are. I spend a lot of time thinking about the names of the characters in my mysteries. Usually I have a pretty good idea, but one character gave me a really hard time in my new book, Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency. She’s the person who comes to hire Maggie. She’s rich, proud, a bit distant, of French descent. She’s also a devoted caretaker to her mother. She’s essentially a good person in a prickly package. Originally I was going to call her Augusta, and have people in the village call her Gussie. But the more I wrote the name Gussie, the less it felt like her. I spent hours going through directories of French names. Jacqueline? Too fancy. Claudette? Too sexy. On and on, until finally I found the name Racine. Not a name that has a nickname. Just a slicing sort of name. It fit perfectly, and that’s how Racine Stern came to be in my book. Where does your name come from?      

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The Readers in My Head

I write for me. But editing that way would be too selfish.  At night, when I pour over whatever I penned earlier in the day, I try to wrest myself from my characters’ heads and my own mind and place myself in the heads of three people: my dad, my closest friend from elementary school, and my agent. Each person is very different. And, if I can please these imagined readers, I feel good about continuing my story.  My father is the critic. A sixty-six-year-old, soon-to-be retired accountant, my father scrutinizes stories like a balance sheet, searching for mistakes and plot failings. He wants to point out that something didn’t make sense or that a character’s actions were “unbelievable.” He refuses to allow well-crafted sentences to seduce him into an easy suspension of disbelief. Reading with my father in mind forces me to constantly ask myself whether or not I’ve done enough work to make my characters’ actions natural. If my fiction doesn’t feel truthful, my dad’s voice will accuse me of lying with all the venom of a parent thinking of a punishment for breaking curfew. I’ll need to go back to the drawing board.  My closest friend from elementary school is probably the person in this world most similar to me. She reads often. She likes stories. She enjoys being entertained. However, she’s a super busy working mother with a ton of responsibility. She doesn’t have time for tales that don’t keep the pages turning. If my story is not exciting and the characters are not compelling, she’s going to put it down–even though it was written by her best friend. There are just too many other pressing things demanding her attention. When I’m editing, I imagine her reading my book after putting the children to sleep. Does she place it on the nightstand because she’s tired or can she not help herself even though she knows her kids will wake up early the next morning and she’ll have to get them all ready for camp before heading to the office? If I can still have her imagined attention, then I’m telling an exciting story.  My agent is the seasoned professional. She’s read so many thrillers that few plots seem original and few stories aren’t predictable. She is my barometer for genre aficionados. If I can surprise her with a twist–or at least delay the inevitable guessing until the third act–then I may have something that will please serious mystery readers.  If, in my head, I’ve kept these three people interested in my story, then I’ve done a good job writing something that I can take pride in. If not, I need to write something better the next day when I’m back to being me.   

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