Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why Do We Love Mysteries?

          One of my former students, who is an intelligent and voracious reader, asked me this question when I announced on Facebook that I'd like to hear questions about writing.

          I have a couple of theories. My first would be that we love to figure out and solve problems. Often I read and read to get to the end of a mystery because I haven't figured it out and I'm dying to know how it ends. An effective writer can hide those clues so they are in plain sight, but we don't catch them because of the writer's craft. Actually it is important that the writer leave clues in plain sight because readers become very unhappy when the clues are left until the last ten pages of the book. It doesn't give them a fair chance.

          I just finished an amazing book by Thomas H. Cook called The Chatham School Affair. His writing style is gorgeous and lyrical. His story is told first person by an elderly lawyer who, earlier in life, was the son of the school's head master and a student at the school. The tale is dark. It is about a terrible event at this private school, an event beyond imagining.

          But Cook is clever in giving the reader pieces of the jigsaw puzzle here and there. He flawlessly combines past, present, and future in his narrative and he does it so seamlessly that the reader is constantly left guessing the details of this terrible event. Suspense is everywhere--the reader knows something terrible happened from the first pages, but she doesn't know what it was. Only when the reader comes to the end does she see how it all fits together. It is a perfect example of why we can't put mysteries down.

          I believe a second reason we love mysteries is because they show us a darker side of human nature, a side that many believe we all have but keep in check--unless, perhaps, we are serial killers or sociopaths. The idea of a "good person" coming in contact with someone who has unleashed that darker side is an intriguing combination.
    I was reading another blog today--"At First Glance" by Sandra Parshall at the blog, Poe's Deadly Daughters. It referred to a recent article in Psychology Today called "What's In a Face?" that discusses whether our first impressions of people are accurate. Can we spot criminals when we first see them? I believe our curiosity about these people and situations is one of the reasons we read mysteries. We could have brushed past a killer on the street and not have known it. But we can read about these killers in mysteries and we can do so in the safety of our arm chairs. Whew! That's a relief.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An Author in Search of a Title

You may have noticed that recently I've been absent from this blog. The answer is easy to explain: I've had a lot of deadlines as well as editing for my work in progress (WIP).  Those problems have taken up every nook and cranny of my brain. Seriously.
          For the last three weeks I have been thinking about titles. I am terrible at figuring out titles. An author needs to have a title she can live with...forever. She also needs a title that could be the beginning of a series so it must have continuing possibilities.
          This has been a terrible question in my mind, disturbing my sleep and interfering with my brain during every minute of my waking hours...and sleeping hours...for weeks.
          I played bridge and thought of titles (I think it improved my bridge.) I paced the kitchen floor and thought about titles. I watched the presidential returns--and thought about titles. I talked to my children across the country and thought about titles. Nada.
          I played word games and wrote down dozens of words that might remind me of possible phrases for titles. Nothing.

          You get the picture.

          When Daylight Savings Time occurred I couldn't quite adjust for the first time ever. At first I thought it was because I'm now officially a senior citizen. Now I wonder if it was simply my fixation on titles, even in my dreams.


          The working title for my book is A Silent Place to Die. It is a phrase I used in the prologue to the book. It's perfect, I thought. However, my traditional mystery isn't quite as gruesome as this title. Even one of my former students questioned why my title was so gruesome. It didn't sound like the Me he knew. That, of course, made that Me start thinking. 
          Other writers have titles in a series that have a theme. For example, Julia Spencer-Fleming uses titles that are religious in nature like I Shall Not Want or In the Bleak Midwinter. Her main character, Clare, is an Episcopal priest. Makes sense. Wow, what a great thing she has going. Since many writers use Christian symbolism in their stories figuring their readers will "get it," Spencer-Fleming has a whole layer of reader understanding working for her. She also has endless possibilities for titles.
          So is there some kind of "teacher culture" that readers will know about that I could use since my Grace is a teacher?
          Sheila Connolly's Orchard series uses apples in every title. Her main character owns an apple orchard and all the stories revolve around the small town, her house, and the orchard. Julie Hyzy's manor house mysteries--with a main character named "Grace"--have "Grace" in every title. Grace Under Pressure or Grace Among Thieves. My main character is a Grace and it would be so easy to connect her name with various ideas for my titles. Too bad Hyzy got there first.

          So I looked through many, many pieces of literature by American writers. After all, "my" Grace taught American Literature for twenty-five years and her story does have literary allusions. The books in her library are by her old favs: Fitzgerald, Poe, Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow, and others.

          And then I remembered.

          Ben Franklin. He was an American original, discussed in many American Literature classes, and broadly taught across the country. Like Spencer-Fleming's layer of Christianity, Ben Franklin's aphorisms are part of American culture. Here, you finish his thoughts:

"A penny saved is..."
"God helps those..."
"Early to bed and early to rise..."

          See, I'm still giving quizzes.

          Of course people know these sayings. If I write the first part, readers can finish the second part.
          Ah ha! I may be on to something.

          How about one saying that's a little more obscure? 

          "Three May Keep a Secret..."?

Would you automatically finish that with "if two of them are dead?"
          If so, I think I have a title.