Sunday, November 29, 2009

Birth Order—by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Lunchtime--1914--Zinaida Serebriakova It was a great Thanksgiving. Our family enjoyed a trip to South Carolina to visit my parents.

My sister stayed in the Charlotte area to have dinner with her husband’s family there. I’ll be catching up with her in a couple of days.

My sister and I, although we get along really well together, are absolutely nothing alike.

I’m very introverted; she’s very extroverted. She chose a job in the financial sector where she deals with numbers daily. I chose to work with words, instead. She claims she has no creativity at all; I got more than my fair share. She is extremely coordinated and was a serious ballet and modern dancer in college. I have a hard time walking and chewing gum at the same time and staircases remain a major challenge for me.

Most of those things are just genetic flukes. But there are definitely some behavioral differences that I believe result from the fact that I’m first-born and she’s second.

Birth order has always interested me. I read a book on it a few years ago and was surprised at some of the book’s claims. It stated that we frequently befriend people who share our birth order—we may not know their birth order, but we’re attracted to our common traits.

But, stated the book, we usually marry partners who don’t share our birth order. Opposites can attract, when it comes to romance.

I thought it was a load of hooey---but it just so happens that all my closest friends are first borns. My husband is a second-born.

I’m always interested in gaining a little insight into my characters or making them stronger. Birth order isn’t something I mention in my books, but the traits can be useful when inventing characters and studying personality traits.

(Oh, am I stirring up trouble! Now y’all….there are exceptions. And this isn’t necessarily scientific. But here goes. This is from the British paper, The Guardian.):


Oldest children

Typically responsible, confident and conscientious, they are more likely to mirror their parents' beliefs and attitudes, and often choose to spend more time with adults. Oldest children are often natural leaders, and their role at work may reflect this.

Because they are more likely to have authority over younger siblings, or take on the role of surrogate parent, they have a tendency to be bossy and want things to be done their way. Oldest children can be perfectionists and worriers, and may put pressure on themselves to succeed.

Middle children

Likely to be adaptable, diplomatic and good at bringing people together, middle children are often popular and patient. However, because their role in the family changes from youngest to middle, it is thought that they often struggle to establish a clear role for themselves, and many go through a period of rebellion.

Middle children can be competitive: they do not have the time on their own with their parents that oldest children enjoy, and their role as the baby of the family is supplanted, so they have to find other ways of getting their parents' attention.

Youngest children

Charming, impulsive and good at getting their own way, the youngest child's role as baby of the family means that he or she is likely to be indulged. This may mean fewer responsibilities and more opportunities for fun, but youngest children often find that they aren't taken as seriously or given the independence they crave. Youngest children often rebel as a way of distinguishing themselves from older brothers and sisters. They are more likely to take risks, and often choose a career that is different from other members of their family.

Only children

Only children enjoy the same parental attention as first-borns and are often confident, conscientious and socially mature, due to the amount of time they spend in a largely adult world. They may have a tendency to assume that others know how they are feeling, or think the same way as they do, without question. They may be dependent on their parents for longer than other children, spending more time at home and delaying decisions about their future.


These results, obviously, change in very large families, or if there is a large gap between children.

I will say that a lot of the above is related to family dynamics and how the parents treat each individual child.

But it’s interesting. And, for me, it’s fun to find perspectives on what motivates and drives my characters.

On a separate note, please pop over and see my fun interview at the Book Resort today. Thanks!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

My Thanksgiving

It’s turkey day and I’m not cooking! Well, that is nothing except the green beans. My daughter is supplying everything else. It feels great not to be chained to the stove today. Of course that might be easier than what I have to do.

The movers will be here at nine o’clock in the morning. I still have boxes to pack and things to put aside for Good Will. And I have to keep my cat, seventeen year old Jefferson, from going nuts in all these boxes. (See Jefferson above) But I'm sure he and I will make it. I hope.

Downsizing is not easy. My cat and I moved last January and thought I’d gotten rid of a lot of things, but I think they’ve somehow reproduced. When I moved from a fifteen hundred square foot condo to a twelve hundred square foot one, I thought I’d never be able to fit what I kept in. Now I’m moving to a 1 bedroom apartment (I had 3) and I’m stuck in a quandary about what to keep and what to give away.

In case you’re wondering why I’m moving down so drastically, let me explain. My son-in-law was a big builder and was in the process of constructing 3 developments, one which was to have 250 houses. After sinking a huge amount in these land deals, the crunch hit. Things were going great and suddenly he was bankrupt. My daughter hadn’t worked outside the home in ten years. She’s now back teaching school. To top it all off, my son-in-law suffers from Crone’s Disease and with all the stress it came back with a vengeance. I decided that they could use my help and I could use theirs because the stock market crash hit me hard, too.

They live in a big house and there are three rooms off to the side where he had his office and the activity room. Now the activity room is going to be my living room. His office is now my bedroom. There is also a bathroom. The area has its own private entrance. All this leads into the kitchen (which we’ll have to share), but that’s going to be easy to work out. She loves to cook and I don’t live the same hours they do. (For me getting up at six o’clock would be worse than torture.)

My two grandchildren – ages six and thirteen – are excited about me moving in. For some reason I have the reputation as the fun grandmother who they say is younger than their mother. (My daughter doesn’t like this comparison at all, but I love it.) They have been told that they have to knock on my door when they want to visit my part of the house. It remains to be seen if they’ll abide by this.

I know we all have a lot of adjusting to do, and this move may not be a permanent one. But it is an adventure that I’m looking forward to. At least it will be more feed for the writing appetite.
A mystery where the mother-in-law is knocked off with everyone at home and nobody finding her for a couple of days and ….

With all this, I'm still thankful for the many blessings in my life.

Wish me luck in this transition!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Giving the Reader What They Want--by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Alexander Deineka---Young woman-- 1934

I was putting my daughter to bed the other night and she said, “I want to stay with you forever!”

Of course I told her she was sweet, and continued tucking her in. But she held onto my hand and said, “I really, really do, Mama. Can’t I always live here, even when I’m a grown-up?”

I smiled at her and gave her a hug. “I know you think that now. But you’ll be a teenager and won’t want to spend as much time with Mama. And then you’ll grow up and want to have a family and a house of your own.”

I kissed her goodnight.

The next night was a determined repeat of the last. “Can’t I always live here with you, Mama?”

I opened my mouth to give The Truth of the Matter, Part II, when it finally occurred to me that that was not the ending she wanted to hear. I wasn’t giving her what she wanted. She was going to keep trying for the alternate, better ending.

“You can always live here. Even when you’re a grown-up. You’ll always have a home here with Daddy and me, if you want it.”

Big smile and she was happily off to sleep.

Critics and movie goers frequently like different things. Critics see movies all the time and are bored stiff by formulaic movies. Movie goers are frequently happy with comfortable familiarity. Critics wouldn’t mind some really tragic endings to films. Movie goers are less tolerant of unhappy endings.

Are readers really any different?

What does a reader want? Frequently:

Unambiguous endings

Tied up sub-plots

No cliff-hanging endings

And….for many readers….happy endings.

I’ll admit that I try to plug into what readers want. I really want to make a career of this writing gig. I get emails from readers and read what readers have to say in comments on book blogs. I’m taking it all in. For me, satisfying a reader is priority #1. If I’ve satisfied readers, my editor is usually pretty happy, too.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Clues: Planning and Planting Clues for Your Mystery—by Elizabeth Spann Craig

blog8 To me, one of the most fun things about reading a mystery is the puzzle. I love finding the clues along with my sleuth...and being misdirected by the author's red herrings.

I also have fun writing in clues and distracting my readers from them in my own book. But I admit that planting clues is the hardest part of writing a mystery for me. I want them to point to the killer, but I also want to make sure the reader doesn't have a neon sign blinking "CLUE! CLUE!" whenever I plant a clue.

Agatha Christie did a great job writing in her clues. She frequently slipped in an important clue among some useless information that seemed more important than the actual clue. Or she would plant a clue, draw the reader's attention to it, then have two characters suddenly burst into the room in the midst of an argument that completely shifted the reader's attention.

There are some good websites out there that can help writers learn more about writing effective clues and red herrings:

Don't Drop Clues: Plant them Carefully! by Stephen Rogers does a great job covering the types of clues, how to misdirect your reader, and mistakes to avoid.

Suite 101 covers planting clues in different ways: tucking them in a paragraph, heightening the drama, clues of omission, missing weapons, and clues from real life.

Author Sandra Parshall's website explains how "Clues Drive the Mystery Plot."

The Christie Mystery website demonstrates how Agatha Christie used clues and other plot devices.

Stephen Rogers writes a different article on red herrings and how to use them effectively.

With a little thought, you can create an interesting puzzle for your reader to try to decipher. And have a lot of fun in the process!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

That Awful Query Letter

Unfortunately, unless you're a Stephen King or Mary Higgins Clark, or one of the other best selling authors, you'll have to write and mail that awful query letter someday. Let me assure you, seasoned writers hate them as much as you do. I know I do. Sometimes I think it's easier to write the book than the query letter. And then when you've sweated blood and think it's the best you can do, you send it off only to be ignored or worse still, they write you back and criticize what you suffered to write.

It happened to me this week and believe it on not I had to laugh. I admit that when I sweat and cry and work and finally produce a query, I send it to more than one editor or publisher. I do change the name to who it goes to and I make sure I have the right company named in the body of the letter.

I sent the same query letter to two different publishers a few weeks ago and both had asked for the manuscript with the query. I got a reply from both of them this week.

The first one said, we liked the way you presented your story in your query and we read the entire manuscript. On the basis of this, we would like to offer you a contract, if you would be interested. (Duh! I'm not crazy. I emailed them right back and said I'd be thrilled to get the contract. They emailed it and had me download a copy. I signed it and mailed it back today.)

From the second publisher I got a note that said to the effect that they couldn't get past the bad query and they would not be interested in publishing my book. (Oh, how I wanted to send them a copy of the email from the other publisher. Of course, I didn't. I might want to query them again sometime, maybe, someday, in the future, when I run out of other places to query.)

So it goes in the publishing world.

Write that query to the best of your ability, address it to a specific editor, and take your chances. And expect that some editors will like it and others won't like it at all. It all goes back to that age old saying - 'One man's junk, is another man's treasure.'


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sleuths--by Elizabeth Spann Craig

One of the most important elements in your mystery novel is your detective. Depending on the type of book you're writing (police procedural, thriller, cozy), your detective might be a member of the police department or a gifted amateur who unwittingly becomes involved in your case.

If you plan on writing a series, your detective's personality needs to be one that you can explore over the course of several books. There are many wonderful mystery series featuring the same detectives that you can read. It's nice to have a sense of how other authors create interesting characters for their readers to enjoy book after book. Interesting sleuths include: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock, Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, P.D. James' Adam Dalgleish, Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Anne George's Southern Sisters, and Nancy Atherton's Aunt Dimity.

M.C. Beaton's series feature two intriguing detectives: Hamish McBeth (a police constable in a Scottish village) and Agatha Raisin (formerly a busybody, currently a private investigator.) Hamish is a lovable officer--a gangling man who loves his village and desperately tries to prevent his own promotion (which would mean he'd have to leave the place he loves.) The readers tune in each book to check in with the recurring characters, see what's happening with Hamish's disastrous love life, and see how he plays down the fact that he has solved another case. Agatha Raisin, on the other hand, sometimes causes as many problems for the police department as she solves. It's fun to pick up a new Agatha Raisin book and see what trouble Agatha is in this time.

If you do choose to have an amateur detective, make sure that he or she is involved in the case in a natural and believable way. It's a stretch to believe that the sleuth just decides to play detective one day, for example. It makes a lot more sense that they would become involved if they or someone close to them is a suspect (and they want to clear their name) or if the victim was someone important to them.

It's nice for the detectives, amateur or professional, to have their own foibles to deal with. I loved it when even Christie's brilliant Hercule Poirot had faulty reasoning or made an error. Of course, he always figured it out in the end, but when he took us along on a red herring it was always fun.

Some publishers and agents are looking for books with specific hooks for the readers (this is especially true in the cozy mystery genre.) Does your sleuth also do crosswords? Quilt? Scrapbook? Hobbies can be tools to reel in readers.

In Christie's books, Poirot usually explained his reasoning and unveiled the murderer in a room full of suspects. That's less common today in mysteries. The reader is more likely to find the detective locked into a dangerous confrontation with the killer at the book's denouement. In a police procedural, you might find a similar situation--perhaps the police are desperately trying to locate the murderer (once they discover his identity) before he kills someone else. Or maybe the police have realized who the killer is at the same time they're recognized that a particular person close to him will be in danger.

Whatever personality and foibles you create for your detective, remember that they can help to make or break your mystery novel.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Everything changes

Well, it's official. Our long-time agent, Jacky Sach, is leaving Bookends. We've known for a while already. All those telephone messages and emails assuring us that everything would be all right.

We raced up to Jersey last weekend, in the middle of a terrible storm, to meet with her partner, Kim Lionetti, about representing us. The irony is that Kim was our first editor at Berkley. We've joked for years about Jessica and Jacky stealing her.

This was the second surprise this year for us. In May, our long-time editor at Berkley, Sandy Harding, moved on. In that case, our editor, Faith Black, from Avalon, where we first started writing mysteries, came onboard to take her place.

And while we are reassured that everything will be fine, there is also a certain melancholy in the changes. No matter how wonderful both these changes may be for us, there is always a reluctance to go on, a part of ourselves we leave behind in the passing.

A wise man once said that there is no stability in life, only a chance to change for the better.

This will have to be our change for the better.