The Truth About Writing Murder

Earlier this month, I attended the Brisbane Writers Festival which is always a great opportunity for like-minded people to connect and discuss what they are passionate about. This year’s theme was The Big Issue (the big stories and the little ones in between) – exploring how writers create fictional and real worlds through their voices and stories.

As a mystery writer, I checked out the Morbid Minds session with award-winning thriller writer, James Phelan, and Sarah Schmidt, author of one of my favourite books of 2017, See What I Have Done. James and Sarah were interviewed by Paul Barclay from ABC Radio National about the fascination people have with murder and gruesome crimes.

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James Phelan and Sarah Schmidt are interviewed by Paul Barclay at the Brisbane Writers Festival, 9 September 2017

 

I’ve always been interested in murder mysteries – for me it’s the puzzle and the challenge of trying to work out ‘whodunit’. I need to know the truth. What really happened?

As James said, “… through fiction you can get to a truth you can’t get though any other medium.” The role of fiction is writing about the world around us and making sense of it; using writing to figure something out. For most, murder is an incomprehensible act. Writers can use fiction as a way of providing possible answers to questions beyond the realm of our understanding. What drives a person to kill? What was going through their mind at the time of the murder?

For others, the fascination may be purely voyeuristic – revealing a person’s secrets and seeing things you wouldn’t normally be ‘allowed’ to see. In Emily Maguire’s 2016 novel, An Isolated Incident, crime reporter May Norman contemplates how a murder opens up private lives in an extreme way. The respect usually given to a person who died of natural causes is often disregarded when someone is murdered, and it is deemed almost helpful or necessary to make public the private life of the victim and those close to them.

“The squishy, reeking black truth of it was that reading about murder thrilled her in the exact same way, she supposed, that it thrilled the masses who snapped up true-crime books in the millions and watched cheesy crime re-enactment shows and moody, gritty cable dramas. It was just so intimate.”

As part of the discussion, Paul Barclay noted that recent studies have shown more women are reading and writing crime fiction. He posed the question to Sarah, who agreed that yes, “women do things”. (Amazing, but true). Sarah said part of the reason Lizzie Borden was acquitted was because the jury could not fathom a woman, let alone one who was white, wealthy and a Sunday school teacher, being capable of such a violent act. Sarah also raises an interesting point in this interview with Sisters in Crime – why are violent women often viewed as worse than violent men? How much have things changed since Lizzie Borden’s trial in 1892?

In her historical fiction workshop, Sarah asked – what is your story really about? For example, See What I Have Done is much more than a novel about the Borden axe-murders. Although Sarah speculates upon what really may have happened that fateful day, the truth she is really exploring is – what happens in a family where there is no more love? For this particular family, the consequences are horrifyingly violent.

It’s not a nice thing to think about. But as Sarah said: “If you can make your reader feel uncomfortable then I think you’ve done a good job.”

Many people are fascinated by murder, but the main message, or the ‘big issue’, that I’ve taken away from attending these sessions is writing to get to the truth, to make sense of the world. This is something that doesn’t only apply to crime fiction or stories about murder and violent crimes, but to all stories, across all genres of fiction.

So, what is your story really about? What truth are you trying to make sense of?

Buy See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt here.

Learn more about and buy copies of James Phelan’s books here.

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Brisbane Writers Festival, State Library of Queensland

Mystery of the Month – Crossing the Lines

Madeleine d’Leon is a crime fiction writer who is taking a break from her successful series of mystery novels to write a whodunit with a brand new character – Edward McGinnity, a literary author who has found himself embroiled in the murder of art critic Geoffrey Vogel.

Edward McGinnity is writing a story about Madeleine d’Leon, lawyer and crime fiction writer whose marriage to doctor Hugh Lamond is waning after several miscarriages.

While this may sound confusing, Crossing the Lines cleverly explores how a writer’s obsession with her fictional character evolves to a point where he literally comes to life. And although there is a whodunit, this is much more than just a mystery novel.  In fact, the identity of who killed Geoffrey Vogel is deliberately not as compelling as the developing relationship between Madeleine and Edward and the concept of a writer completely absorbed by her fictional story.

The pair begin by simply observing each other – Edward envisages Madeleine in cloud print pyjamas, tapping away at her laptop, and ordering takeaway for dinner. Madeline imagines Edward writing long hand in his expensive beach house; a typical crime fiction hero with a troubling backstory – his family was killed in a car accident. He’s in love with best friend Willow who is married and cannot return his love; deliberately written so Madeleine doesn’t have to write a sex scene, and of whom she becomes envious as her passion for Edward intensifies. The viewpoints alternate seamlessly, as it appears both simultaneously occupy the same space, leading the reader to doubt who is really real.

They are startled to discover they can converse with one another – bantering about the conventions of their differing writing styles – crime fiction and literary fiction. Madeleine tells Edward something has to “actually happen” in the stuff she writes and Edward accuses her of being obsessed with “guns and masked bandits.” When Madeleine tells her father she could never be a literary writer as the women must be stick thin, Edward realises he cannot think of any fat female literary writer of note. Before long, their relationship crosses imaginary lines, progressing to physical contact, with Madeleine preferring Edward’s company to Hugh’s.

Crossing the Lines is an intricate metanarrative with Gentill, also a crime fiction author and former attorney, using “a familiar baseline” from which to develop the character of Madeleine. In April, I attended a seminar at Supanova where Sulari Gentill said she writes her mysteries without necessarily knowing where they will lead. And like Gentill, Madeline is also a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘plotter’ – writing plot points without knowing where they will lead, including a sudden and brutal attack on Edward and a frantic car chase. And the reader of Crossing the Lines will wonder at Madeleine’s inevitable fate as she allows herself to sink deeper into her own imagination, separating herself from reality and descending into delusion.

Crossing the Lines is a must read novel, especially for writers who will relate to the concept of feeling real emotions for fictional characters and the consequences of what they make happen to them. As Madeleine’s psychiatrist asks her: “Do you like that, Madeleine, deciding questions of life and death, having the power to take or give such things?” In this case, the authorial power is in the able hands of Sulari Gentill, who has crafted an intelligent and insightful story that will leave you contemplating the bounds of your own imagination.

Crossing the Lines by Sulari Gentill is published in Australia by Pantera Press.

Standout Simile

Lillian laughed. But scorn was cut into the mirth like some bitter essence folded into whipped cream.

7 Similes to Inspire Your Writing

If you’ve been reading my blog or following me on Twitter, you’ll know I love a good simile. For most people, a simile will blend into the writing and they may not even notice they’ve read one.  Or they may be more apparent in a song, for example Elton John’s famous lyric: “And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind.” Or ‘Like a Rock’ by Bob Seger, who is not technically a rock.

However, for some people, probably lots of writers, and particularly ‘simile-obsessed’ me – once you start noticing them, you’ll keep noticing them. This is a good thing, because there are so many beautifully written similes making the story come alive on the page, revealing information about characters and even foreshadowing what’s to come!

Here are seven similes I’ve read and enjoyed recently.

  1. “One lion had pink balloons tied to his paw, bobbing in the breeze like a cluster of airborne haemorrhoids.” – Those Pleasant Girls by Lia Weston

Lia Weston’s hilarious novel about a mother and daughter trying to fit into a town of quirky characters is filled with delicious similes, making it hard to choose only one for this blog post. This simile hints at how thrilled they are to be attending a bridal shower for a pink-obsessed, Buble-loving real estate agent.

2. “The gun slid out of Whitt’s hands as he hit the floor of the boat shed, the weight of the kayak that had been slung across the ceiling knocking him into the ground like a nail bent beneath an enormous hammer.”  – Fifty Fifty by James Patterson and Candice Fox

The next instalment in the Harriet Blue series is all fast-paced action and suspense, with visual writing that drives the story forward. In this scene, Harry’s former partner confronts a serial killer.

3. “Behind us Rodney is playing basketball again. The sound of the ball hitting the wet concrete is like a hand smacking against bare skin.” – The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

Simple but active descriptions such as these set the scene as protagonist Gemma questions potential suspect Rodney over the death of his beautiful schoolteacher, creating a feeling of unease about what’s to come.

4. “She ran straight into Leo’s open arms, unable to stop the tears from falling, feeling at last defended, like a single musical note that had finally found the symphony to which it belonged.” – Her Mother’s Secret by Natasha Lester

I won’t say too much in case I spoil the surprises in this beautiful story, but this simile perfectly encapsulates an emotional scene between two of the main characters.

5. “I didn’t cry or feel anger or anything, but I shook and shook so much that it made me giggle, which made Matt look at me like I’d screamed. Honestly, it was like I was on one of those vibrating chairs in the shopping centre. Like I was a vibrating chair.” – An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

Main character Chris narrates the story and her voice is captivating from the first few words. Her grief at identifying her dead sister is almost palpable in this scene.

6. “He advances like a floating Dracula. The menace is ruined by the sporting-goods-store bag loudly crinkling against his leg.” – The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

Sally Thorne’s tale about co-workers who love to hate each other is a laugh-a-minute ride. Language like this shows how Lucinda really feels about Josh when he catches her lurking near his desk.

7. “She pulls her pad from her bag and starts to sketch the scene: the long bridge, a small figure straddling the railings, clinging on, her dress whipping around her as though desperate to pull her back from fate, her hair lifted like kite tails in the breeze.” – The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster

It’s similes such as these that make me wonder – did this just pop into the author’s head? If so, I’m very envious. You can really see the woman and feel the wind when you read this vivid description of main character Eleanor’s troubled mind.

What are you reading at the moment? Have you noticed any similes? Or have you included a few in your own work in progress? If so, please share them in the comments below.

 

Mystery of the Month – Friend Request

Warning. Do not accept Facebook friend requests that come from beyond the grave. Especially not when the request is from someone you’ve wronged. But of course, if single mother Louise Williams had taken this advice, we wouldn’t have the page-turner that is Friend Request.

Curiosity gets the better of Louise one night and she accepts a Facebook request from Maria Weston – a girl from high school she hasn’t seen in 25 years. Seems fair enough – loads of people reconnect with old schoolmates on social media, right? Including people they thought they’d never see again. But Maria disappeared forever on the night of the leaver’s party, presumed drowned. Louise thinks Maria’s death was all her fault, due to the part she played in a vicious bullying scheme.

But what really happened that night?

Is Maria still alive? If she has been alive all this time, why has she waited until now to make contact with Louise? And if she’s not alive, then who else knows what really happened, and how far are they prepared to go to avenge Maria?

I first became aware of Laura Marshall’s gripping domestic thriller when it was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2016. After reading the excerpt, I had to know the real reasons behind Maria’s mysterious request, and was pleased to see the novel was being published this year.

The narrative alternates between the present day and Louise’s last year of high school in 1989. Louise is so desperate to be liked by cool girl Sophie Hannigan, and her crush, Sam Parker that she is willing to do whatever it takes to be popular, including rebuking Maria’s friendship and taking illicit drugs. Laura Marshall adeptly conveys the desire to fit-in and the loneliness of being on the outside, describing the unpopular girls sitting alone at lunch with their untouched food, staring unseeing at the book in front of them.

The suspense increases when Maria’s messages turn ominous and Louise becomes paranoid that someone is following her, playing on her guilt about her involvement in Maria’s demise. She’s prepared to go to great lengths to stop the truth from coming out, focused on protecting her much-loved young son, Henry. But this becomes increasingly difficult when someone is murdered at the high school reunion and the police start asking questions.

As a fan of traditional whodunit mysteries, I sometimes mourn how modern technology has made mystery writing more challenging. Secret, lost letters are now easy-to-find emails. Mobile phones make it less difficult for characters to get themselves out of danger and trickier for writers to think of ways to put their protagonist into suspenseful, inescapable situations. However, Laura Marshall has used this to her advantage by crafting a mystery that explores how these advancements, particularly social media, have presented predators with new and inventive ways to target victims – terrifying possibilities that could never have been explored in an Agatha Christie novel.

Friend Request is also a reminder that people’s lives on social media are not necessarily an accurate representation of reality. At one point in the story, Louise reflects on a school mother using Facebook to share too much personal information about her relationship break up.

I’m amazed by the extent to which some people live out their lives on here. This woman doesn’t even say hello to me on the rare occasions I see her at the school gate, yet I know all the gory intimacies of her love life.

And even more dangerously, sometimes people are not at all who they say they are.

Friend Request by Laura Marshall is published in Australia by Hachette. I won an advanced reader copy from Hachette Australia, which forms the basis of this review.

 

First thoughts reading my first draft

On 31 May, I wrote ‘The End’ on my work in progress. Since then, I’ve been ‘letting it breathe’ like a wine, but unlike some wines which improve with age, my story is just the way I left it.

This week, I commenced the ‘First Official Edit’ which can be abbreviated as FOE because editing is the Enemy. (Not really, just a humorous acronym).

I’ve been doing as editor Nicola O’Shea suggests on writer Allison Tait’s blog:

Put your manuscript completely away from a month, then read it through in one go – preferably on hard copy and resisting the temptation to tweak.

However, I documented some thoughts I had while reading through my manuscript. For posterity.

I’d like to share some of those thoughts with you:

  • I’ve read the beginning so many times that it no longer holds any interest for me.
  • Too much dialogue and not enough ‘in between’ information.
  • Amateur hour.
  • Clumsy sentences galore.
  • I wish I could erase my brain so that I could see the story with fresh eyes.
  • I hate it.
  • Why is there a chapter break there?
  • Some of this is okay.
  • Why is everyone so sweaty?
  • I seem to be able to read this faster than I would a published book. Why?
  • Why is this character tooting his car horn when there is literally no one else in the street?
  • Ooh, I did some good foreshadowing. Give myself three points.
  • I thought I was bad at scene setting but it’s not as terrible as I thought.
  • There’s a decent sentence on this page.
  • Cliché city.
  • Points for using the word ‘festooned’.
  • I think if I didn’t already know what was going to happen, I’d be curious here.
  • My main character is a buffoon.
  • Why isn’t there a chapter break there?
  • It’s weird to describe a magpie as sturdy.
  • Boring.
  • Too much Story B.
  • Why is everyone placing their hands gently on main character’s shoulder?
  • Two characters are supposed to be fighting, yet a few scenes later they are friendly again with no explanation.
  • I thought I was good at sentence structuring but lots of backwards words seem.
  • The middle isn’t saggy, but it is daggy.
  • Should this be in first person?
  • In an attempt not to laden story with too much backstory, there is now no backstory and it doesn’t make any sense.
  • The chapter I thought I would delete, is actually my favourite.
  • I counted and there are ELEVEN similes in my work in progress. I thought there was only one. One terrible one. But there are eleven. Eleven terrible ones.

Side note: My husband did an impression of the face I was making while I was doing my read through, and apparently it looked a bit like this:

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In summary

I’m proud to announce that my first draft is pretty crap.

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Although I remain unconvinced that Stephen King’s first drafts are crap, it is more likely than not that most published authors don’t churn out beautiful pieces of prose on their first attempt.

Allison Tait shares what she learnt after participating in a writing webinar:

 …even the crappiest piece of writing, there was always one line or underlying concept that was an absolute cracker. And how a whole new piece could be written around that line or concept. And that’s when I came to appreciate the magic of the horrible first draft. That sometimes you can’t get to the cracker concept until all the crappy words have been poured out first.

The next steps

On her blog This Itch of Writing, writer Emma Darwin calls what I’m currently doing ‘revising’ rather than ‘editing’. Editing is what editors do, and I’m a writer. According to Emma, whatever you call it, editing or revising is where the hard work really starts:

Now that you know what the story’s really about, did you ask yourself if you’ve told it through the right pairs of eyes? In the right tense? Started and finished it in the right place? When did you open your ears and ask yourself if the voices are voices that a reader is willing to listen to, and for a whole novel?

The next step is to uncap the red pen and ask myself those questions. This baby is going to be littered with comments in my pursuit of ‘cracker concepts’.

What did you think of my first impression of my work in progress? Have you had similar thoughts when reading your own manuscript? Please let me know in the comments below.

 

Mystery of the Month – The Dark Lake

It’s a sweltering summer in the town of Smithson when popular schoolteacher, Rosalind Ryan, is found dead in the lake. Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock remembers Rosalind from high school, but is unwilling to divulge just how well she knew her. One thing is for sure – this murder will dredge up memories from a past summer Gemma has tried in vain to forget.

I was hooked after reading the first few pages of The Dark Lake using the ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon and immediately purchased the novel. It’s hard to believe this is the debut novel from Sarah Bailey as she writes like a seasoned author. She has turned the ‘small town, big secrets’ trope into a fresh and original story, due largely to her resilient yet fallible main character, Gemma.

Raised by her father after her mother’s death, Gemma now dotes on her little boy, Ben. She has an uneasy relationship with Ben’s father, Scott, who loves her and wants to marry her – but Gemma is too busy engaging in secret rendezvous with her partner, Felix, a married man with three daughters. An astute and driven detective, Gemma is no stranger to grisly scenes, having proved her worth early in her career when she uncovered a serial killer. However, Gemma is unsettled by the death of Rosalind, the enigmatic ‘Disney princess beauty’ who has always been lurking in the depths of her memory.

As Gemma and Felix work to find Rosalind’s killer, they interview her wealthy father, three older brothers, and Smithson High’s principal, who definitely has something to hide. Then there are Rosalind’s adoring students, many of whom were in the vicinity of the lake on the night she died after participating in a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, which Rosalind wrote and produced. Felix suspects Rodney – the play’s ‘Romeo’ – but Gemma is not convinced. Could it be because Rodney is the younger brother and spitting image of Gemma’s first love, Jacob?

The mystery poses intriguing questions about Rosalind’s parentage, her reputation with her younger male students and her reclusive lifestyle in a ‘modest cottage’ on the highway, where the walls are covered with movie posters. Links between characters are slowly revealed, with devastating consequences. Gemma doggedly pursues the killer, despite the many hurdles she encounters on the way, including suffering the pain of a miscarriage early in the novel, receiving ominous threats and navigating her tumultuous relationships with Felix and Scott. She’s got a tough exterior, but also demonstrates moments of great vulnerability as she laments past mistakes still weighing on her conscience, and makes questionable choices.

The Dark Lake is the page-turner I was hoping Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water would be. The narrative deftly weaves between the present day investigations into Rosalind’s death and key moments from Gemma’s past involving her relationship with Jacob. The present tense writing style and occasional changes in POV creates a sense of movement and increases the suspense, as does a gripping scene where Gemma is faced with a mother’s worst nightmare. The solution to the mystery is tangled up in illicit student/teacher relationships, adultery, family values, guilt and the power of a parent’s love.

Rounding out the cast of characters is Chief Superintendent Ken ‘Jonesy’ Jones who has a soft spot for Gemma, pushy ‘pocket-rocket reporter’ Candy Fyfe, sunny forensic pathologist Anna, and Gemma’s caring father – all of whom will hopefully become series regulars as Sarah Bailey is currently penning the follow-up novel.

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey is published by Allen & Unwin.

Are your similes as fresh as a daisy?

I’m currently involved in a Twitter thread with fellow writer and blogger, Sarah Fiddelaers, which began when we were lamenting the difficulty of writing vivid and original similes.

It seemed to me that writing similes came easily to other authors. All the novels I’ve read recently, many of them by Australian writers, include similes that wouldn’t be out of place in a classic poem.

Sarah suggested we come up with 100 similes during May and tweet them, using the apt hashtag – #searchforasimile.

We soon realised that wasn’t going to work, as it’s now mid-June and I still haven’t thought of one (Sarah has written a few fantastic ones – follow her on Twitter to check them out). Instead, we’ve been using the hashtag to tweet some of our favourite similes from books and lyrics, as part of our mission to find out what makes a good simile.

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And Sarah included a few favourites from her dad.

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A simile compares two things that are usually not alike, often using ‘like’ or ‘as’, and uses their interplay to enrich what is being described, whether it be a characteristic, object, action, emotion, moment, or otherwise.

Here are some examples of similes from literary greats:

“Butlers can creep about as soft footed as cats.” – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

“Mrs. Reed was rather a stout woman; but, on hearing this strange and audacious declaration, she ran nimbly up the stair, swept me like a whirlwind into the nursery, and crushing me down on the edge of my crib, dared me in an emphatic voice to rise from that place, or utter one syllable during the remainder of the day.” – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

“Emma bit her wan lips, and rolling between her fingers a piece of coral that she had broken, fixed on Charles the burning glance of her eyes like two arrows of fire about to dart forth.” – Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

These examples evoke much more feeling than simply stating that butlers can move quietly, or “Mrs. Reed ran up the stairs, picked me up and hurried me into the nursery.” A well-written simile can reveal information about character, setting and the themes of your story.

Refusing to be perplexed any further by the elusive simile, I’ve researched far and wide (i.e. I’ve done a few Google searches) and have devised a list of things to consider when composing your simile

1. Similes should enrich your story

Like other figures of speech, similes should conjure vivid imagery in the reader’s mind, lifting otherwise simple descriptions from the page and making them come to life. That’s why it’s so important to get it right. Take time to think about the idea you want to express and make sure it’s clear. If the simile isn’t serving your story in any way, leave it out.

2. Beware the cliché!

Clichés are as dull as dishwater and they stand out like a sore thumb. In some situations, clichés may be appropriate, such as in a humorous story (or blog post). One or two will probably go unnoticed, but if your story is drowning in clichés, you run the risk of losing your reader’s interest. Think of ways you can say it differently and be creative, and original.

3. Use sparingly

Speaking of clichés, less is more when it comes to similes. A few subtle similes peppered throughout the story will add colour. A story littered with similes and metaphor is like asking all of your friends to bring cheesecake to the party. Cheesecake is great but after a few slices, you’ll be getting sick of it. Save some of those similes for the rest of us (or for your next manuscript).

4. Sometimes metaphor is stronger

A metaphor is an implied comparison of two things that are usually unrelated. Where a simile is ‘like’ something else, a metaphor ‘is’ something else. Consider the following metaphor:

“I was staring directly in front of me, at the back of the driver’s neck, which was a relief map of boil scars.” – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Another popular example is Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage”. The suggestion that something ‘is’ something, is often more powerful than saying something is ‘like’ something. Imagine if Shakespeare had said “all the world is like a stage”. Consider which has more impact.

5. Stealthy similes for the win

A simile shouldn’t break the illusion created by the story world. This may happens if the writer is comparing two ideas that are too dissimilar for the reader to understand, or where the simile is too elaborate. In both examples, the meaning is lost and the reader is knocked out of the story. So if you’ve spent two days crafting a simile and the reader passes over it unnoticed, then congratulate yourself for blending beautiful imagery with the world of your story.

With these tips in mind, you should be able to keep your publishers as happy as a clam. Of course, the actual crafting of the simile is up to you. While it might not be as easy as pie, with practice you’ll soon be churning out similes as quick as a wink.

Clearly, I still need to do some work.

Do you have a favourite simile from literature? Or perhaps some proud prose from your own work in progress? Please share in the comments, or tweet them and use the hashtag #searchforasimile.