Mystery conference: things learned

On my first day at Bouchercon, the huge conference for mystery writers and readers, I was taken by the fact that everyone was talking about books, which I thought was strange.

By “book” we now mean a codex rather than a scroll or an oral tradition. Since medieval times, reading silently to oneself has become the norm for experiencing a book.

                                           Photo by Matias North on Unsplash

From the 18th century at least, this has meant that reading is often a private activity requiring concentration and a less distracted environment. When one reads, the mind of the author feels closest to one’s own, even if someone else is sitting nearby. This puts reading alongside other usually private or semi-private activities, such as putting on clothes, kneading bread, or deadheading roses. They can be done in a group, but typically are solitary activities.

To hear others talk about books felt like being admitted into everyone’s boudoir to discuss private thoughts. [It struck me that this is why it’s so hard to get good readers to leave reviews: we are asking them to share in a public forum something that would normally be more private. To share impressions of a book means using a whisper, not a bull-horn.]

Among these thoughts, I gleaned a number of tips and perspectives:

  1. Ambient story: this is the story behind the plot or experience that’s up front and obvious. Examples might be an immersive ride like the Haunted Mansion, a video game, or a Lady Gaga dress — all of these have an ambient narrative that you know is there even if it isn’t explicit. When you set a novel in a creaky old house, or a lunatic asylum, or a manicured suburb, the ambience is obvious.
  2. Dialogue is key. Writers tend to be listening learners. This is why getting dialogue right is so important. Each character must have their own way of speaking, and their unique ways mustn’t slow down the reader. Dialogue also should be realistic — not everyone speaks formally or finishes their sentences, and a character’s inner dialogue may contradict what they say aloud. 
  3. Head-hopping is not forbidden. In the only short course I ever took on mystery writing, my assignment was dinged for first considering one character’s thoughts from their point of view, then the other’s. This was “head-hopping”, writing from two points of view. I tried learning the rules (it’s ok in the same book, but not the same scene or chapter), and yet I had read so many good books that did this. At the conference, J.D. Robb, Louise Penney, and Scott Turow were lauded for being especially good at it. Sneakers poster
  4. Crime or mystery novels are about community; thrillers are about the individual. This was the most helpful thing I’ve heard distinguishing the two genres. Midsomer Murders? Mystery. The Bourne Identity? Thriller.That doesn’t mean there aren’t thrillers about groups (I’m thinking Sneakers, one of my favorite films), but that the individuals in the group are spotlighted as much as the mystery. The few “thriller-like” scenes in my books all focus on what an individual is experiencing.
  5. It’s about secrets. In mystery, usually someone wants to discover someone else’s secrets. As a reader, I love figuring out what the character is hiding. I realized my books should have more secrets.
  6. It’s easy to lose your own voice. One of the panelists (it may have been Jacqueline Winspear) said the worst school exercise she ever had was an assignment to read a page of a famous author, then close the book and write. The tendency was to adopt the cadence and style of the author one had just read. That, she said, is how easy it is to lose your own voice.

No, that isn’t all I learned at the conference. But these points were the most significant to me, the ones I intend to do something about. I noticed awhile back, for example, that my nightly writing was getting worse. The language was too simple, with little metaphor or color. Every sentence later needed editing. At the conference, I realized this was because I had been reading, very quickly, lighter-side books rather than literary fiction during those weeks.

This may be why many of us haven’t read, or don’t read while writing, a lot of the works in our preferred writing genre. No one wants to sound like someone else.

Despite the large number of attendees (1700 people, by one count) I still felt like I was at the campfire listening to the gossip and the wisdom. Now, back to writing!

A mystery writer writes romance

Having never done it, I was nervous about writing a romance. So before I began, I did some reading about how to write romance fiction, and concluded that there are some other challenges with a mystery writer doing romance:

1. The typical tendency to start with a dead body

When you write semi-cozy historical murder mysteries, starting with* a dead body is de rigueur. In a romance, not so much, and I did try to avoid a corpse. For about ten minutes. So, yes, I have a dead body, but only because he died without a designated heir and that’s part of the romance. Nobody gets murdered. So far as we know.

2. The intense desire to have an underlying puzzle

I could not for the life of me figure out what two people could do while falling in love that would be remotely interesting to an outsider. But if they solve a mystery together — aha! So I cheated and created a mystery to guide the plot, involving a lost miniature and some family papers. Such things aren’t huge stakes because I needed the focus to be on the relationship.

3. The nagging feeling that there must be an antagonist

I learned that the romance couple must experience not only the opportunity to be together, but also face obstacles that make the relationship unlikely or tricky. This adds an element of suspense. In mysteries, this obstacle would be an antagonist trying to stop them. Yeah, he’s in there, not trying to stop them from falling in love, but from getting what they want. I also found ways to keep the lovers separate, especially so they could imagine the worst of each other.

4. The perpetual confusion of goals

Each main character was supposed to have a goal, and in a romance it should be a goal other than to fall in love and have a romance. See why I ended up with a mystery back story? They must both want something for which love would get in the way. Love is inconvenient when you’re trying to do something else. It tends to overcome intentions, plans, and motivations. We want to be rooting for the lovers to both get what they want and fall in love.

5. The unbearable burden of not being a romantic myself

I’m unfortunately not a “romantic”, although I’m certainly not averse to candlelight and chocolates (the latter being more important, of course). Love can make people unsure of themselves and too daring at the same time. They do things they’d never do, experiencing a transformation of self that may be overly attached to the other person’s actions. I prefer motives like jealousy, money, revenge, hatred. So it was more difficult for me to understand my characters, even as they wrote their own stories. Making them likable, and adding a bit of screwball comedy, made this a pleasure rather than a burden.

I am very happy with the result. Amanda is a young, swearing, intelligent woman. Jack is a charming, clever, secretive man. It’s a Victorian romance with both serious intents and light-heartedness, as our main characters balk at the things society expects of them. There is no sappiness, sexual explicitness, or background trauma. If you haven’t read it, give it a try. 

More thoughts posted while I was writing the book are here.

 

*ok, maybe by Chapter 4 — I like to set the stage and characters

You've Got Romance

Writing my first romance was a challenge, literally. Some of my author friends were deciding whether to participate in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) last November, and two of us who usually write historical fiction decided to write historical romances.

There were no worries getting up to speed on the genre. In younger days, I read historical romances all the time: Amanda Quick, Johanna Lindsay, etc. I was charmed by the strong heroines and the handsome rogue heroes, and the way the characters spoke to each other. I could not resist, however, creating an underlying mystery, problems they had to solve, things they had to find. So the novel does have a “caper” aspect to it as well.

The research part was pleasant, too, because the focus was on the characters and their relationship. I couldn’t let the setting go entirely; to me setting is always a character in the story. I chose a part of England with which I am somewhat familiar: West Sussex. I know this area because I’ve been there for other work. For most of the last several years I have been researching H. G. Wells for non-fiction, and the estate of Uppark is in West Sussex. Wells’s mother worked at Uppark, first as maid and later as housekeeper, and young Wells frequently stayed there. I’ve visited, and was even invited to be a docent.

I used Uppark’s location as Lady Brandon’s house, where my heroine, Amanda, works as a companion. Everything else that happens is measured from there, to the surrounding towns (especially Petersborough, where there’s a pub that claims Wells wrote there at the tables) and south to Portsmouth. Portsmouth I visited many years ago on another historical quest, for the first Duke of Buckingham, who was murdered there in 1628. I even found the room where he was taken, which in the 1980s was an architect’s office, and they were so nice about letting me in to absorb the atmosphere.

Writing about places one has visited or lived is always enjoyable. But the story was another challenge. The standard pattern for a heterosexual couple romance is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But I wanted my heroine, Amanda, to be unusual as well as strong, not conventionally attractive but attractive to the hero, and unfailingly honest. I’ve known women who are tough and swear like truck drivers, like Amanda, and men who lie through their teeth as a matter of habit, like Jack. Their innate truthfulness (or lack thereof) plays a major role in the story.

But I didn’t want this to be another tale of a woman falling for a man, like so many romances. Although told from Amanda’s point of view much of the time, I wanted Jack to fall harder. Why? Because in so many romantic stories it is the female character who has to sacrifice something–leave her home, end her associations–to be with the man. I wanted the man to make the sacrifices, and give up things, and change more than she did.

Only recently did it occur to me that this impulse may have come from my feelings about the movie You’ve Got Mail.

<Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen You’ve Got Mail, stop now, see the movie, and come back!>

I’m a huge fan of Nora Ephron, including her movie romances. But the ending of You’ve Got Mail has always bothered me. The female protagonist loses her business and her associations (with the neighborhood, the customers, and her family memories) because of the man’s actions (in a predatory business), and she gets together with him anyway. Although it’s based on Shop Around the Corner, this takeover aspect is not part of the original story nor any of its variants (the movie In the Good Old Summertime, the show She Loves Me). It wasn’t right; it wasn’t fair. I wanted him to make some sacrifice to be with her. So in my book, it’s different.

For that reason, perhaps, like You’ve Got Mail, my novel A Heart Purloined ended up being a “clean” romance, where physical attraction is there but not explicit sexuality. The emotional connection, the changes to each as a result of knowing the other, were simply more important.

But the reader should in no way feel there is a “message”– it’s a fun, light-hearted story with delightful characters, not a treatise on loving sacrifice. The book is doing well in its first month, and I hope even more readers enjoy it.

New Year's update from Grousable Books

Hello, and a happy New Year to all my subscribers!

It’s been a crazy time here preparing multiple books, but I think I have a handle on it. Murder at an Exhibition was recently released. It’s an art history mystery, with illustrator Jo Harris and her friend Bridget helping to solve the murder of a photographer. Photography, while not exactly brand new in 1863, was at a stage where it was being used for record-keeping, artistic endeavor, and more nefarious activities, just as the internet is today.

So I will reveal more soon about the context of the story, art, and London in 1863. For now, check out the map:

You’ll see the house of Dante Gabriel Rossetti way over in Chelsea, on Cheyne Walk. Rossetti will help Jo with the case, and I love it when real historical people and fictional characters team up!

Murder on the Pneumatic Railway, the third Tommy Jones Mystery and the one featuring Tommy as one of the friends who solve a murder, is in the editing stage and will be released in spring. Before that, Grousable Books is pushing for a Valentine’s Day release of Lydia Greenwood’s historical romance, A Heart Purloined. It’s a light-hearted romance with plenty of history and mystery, so look for that soon.

The best New Year to everyone. I have seen some people saying good riddance to 2022, but for me it was a heck of a lot better than 2021 in a number of ways. Looking forward to seeing what’s next!

 

5 best books on Victorian medicine

Looking for what to read as background for my mystery Murder at Old St. Thomas’s? Take a look at my recommended book list on Victorian medicine, written for Shepherd Books.

The challenge was to narrow this to five books that would related to my novel, Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, without directly referencing my book. It was fun!

At Old St. Thomas's -- December 8

In anticipation of my Conversation to benefit the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret in London, which will take place in Zoom on December 8 at 7pm British time, I am posting here about the history of the old hospital and its time in Surrey Gardens. I will be talking about some of this during my presentation. This is a re-post from March of 2020, as I was starting to write the book. Enjoy!


St. Thomas’s Hospital at the Zoo

The cholera ward, of course, was in the giraffe house…

In my recent researches of St. Thomas’s Hospital, Southwark, I have discovered an unusual episode, a time when the hospital went to the zoo.

St. Thomas’s Hospital was located on Borough Street in Southwark from the medieval period until 1862. (What remains of it, the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, is my all-time favourite museum in London.) At that time, the railway was forcing itself through the area as companies competed with each other. The proposed railway went right through the heart of the hospital grounds. So in 1862 the hospital was sold to the railway company, for £296,000, according to this.

 

Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals shown on “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace”

‘St Thomas’s Hospital 1860’, aerial view. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Roberts, G.Q., A brief history of St Thomas’s Hospital (1920)

 

A new hospital site was arranged to be built where most of it still stands, in Lambeth, across from the Houses of Parliament. But this site wasn’t complete until 1871.

 

View of St Thomas’s Hospital with plan taken from Henry Currey’s, St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. [London] : [Royal Institute of British Architects], 1871 [St Thomas’s Historical Books Collection PAMPH. BOX RA988.L8 T1 CUR]

Most sources skip over this gap. Where did the hospital go in the meantime, for nine years?

 

It went to Surrey Gardens, in Newington, Walworth, in September 1862. Surrey Gardens had been a pleasure garden, like Vauxhall. It had a zoo. But as business declined, the animals were sold off to build a huge music hall. The hall was gutted by fire in 1861, which coincidentally led to a court case that determined you cannot hold someone to a contract when it’s impossible to fulfill it (in this case, a concert reserved for a burnt-out hall).

St. Thomas’s Hospital decided to lease the whole property, repaired the building, and repurposed some of the zoo.

I’ve been looking for histories and records of St. Thomas’ Hospital to learn more about the situation at Surrey Gardens. The St Thomas’s Hospital Report of 1867 is available, for some reason, at Google Books. Amputation fatalities, I discovered, were lower at the new location.

[Aside: there were also some figures in the Report tables that seem odd to me. How could the average stay in hospital for an ankle sprain be 11 days (p602)? This made me wonder whether one had to stay in hospital to be allowed off work, or whether people really had no one at home to take care of them (or no home — quite possible in a poor neighborhood), or whether ankle sprains were for some reason more serious then? Four men and four women had sprained their ankle that year, and the average stay was 11 days? Perhaps they had more wrong with them than a sprained ankle.]

The giraffe house really was the cholera ward, and the old elephant house was used for dissections. That piece of information comes from a book about Florence Nightingale, who was a big part of all this. She had opened her first nursing school at Old St. Thomas’ only two years before the move, and helped provide for room and board for nurses at the hospital. She also helped design the new Lambeth hospital for maximum light, ventilation, and separation of patients into pavilions. [And she promoted hand-washing as the best anti-infective, as true now as it was in 1860.]

The Illustrated London News of December 1862 (copy available at HathiTrust) features a quick column on how the facilities at Surrey Gardens boasted the “rapid and complete conversion of the old buildings to their new and beneficent uses”, and imagined the gardens would provide a unique opportunity for medical students to stroll and contemplate. Nightingale, who believed in patient access to the outdoors, would have approved this. She wrote a letter to Henry Bonham Carter (her cousin and the Secretary of the Nightingale Fund) on the advantages of temporary buildings for hospitals, but it isn’t available online.

The 9-year relocation gets only a single-sentence mention in Wikipedia. That’s a shame. It seems like such an interesting interlude.

Interview on George Cramer's blog

I was delighted to be interviewed by fellow author George Cramer for his blog!

LISA M. LANE -Author and Historian – Author George Cramer 

It’s so fun to get to answer questions about what I do, since I so love doing it.

What the Dickens?

Funny the things that happen when you’re a historian just trying to read a book, and the ways in which being a historian can get in the way of a good read. I recently joined the Victorians! forum on Goodreads. People there read Victorian-era books.

I’ve read some of those myself, including a few by Charles Dickens. I’ve read The Old Curiosity Shop (which someone spoiled for me, thinking everyone knows the ending), A Christmas Carol (of course), and Hard Times (ok, so I listened to the audiobook). The rest await me, eight or so volumes on the shelf. I figured Oliver Twist would be next. Then I saw that the Victorian group would be reading Nicholas Nickleby.

I’m not much of a joiner, but I thought it might be fun. I’ve never read with a group, never been in a book group or anything. The closest I get is reading the “book group questions” at the back of  novels.

But I didn’t have a copy of Nicholas Nickleby. I could have downloaded it from Internet Archive, but I don’t like reading things on a screen. Ironic, isn’t it? Backlit screens are for work, but reading for pleasure is different. I want a book in my hand, turning its pages, absorbing its history.

One site for second-hand books is abebooks.com. But I’m very choosy, because to me books are historical objects. My first preference is for a book published during the author’s lifetime, so “publication date ascending” is my go-to sort. Ending 1870, when he died. Whoa! the prices! How could Dickens be fetching such prices? OK, maybe not 1870. . . But even with an edition from 1920, we’re talking some money.

I knew Mr. Dickens was not getting a cut from my purchase, but I’m not a huge fan of him as a person, despite Simon Callow’s brilliant portrayal in Dr Who. As a historian, I try very hard to separate the creator from his creation. Where would I be with Rousseau if I cared about how he gave up his own children to foundling hospitals? Or if I ignored the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson because I was busy judging how he lived? People are not their ideas. We are all flawed. Good ideas survive long past the person’s lifetime.

Dickens is somewhat different because I went to his house. Not while he was there, of course, but several years ago. It’s a shrine to him.  I found this bizarre, because it was really her house. His wife, Catherine. She raised his ten (!) children. She wrote the best-selling menu book What Shall We Have for Dinner?

Since 2016, the museum has made a huge effort to include her in the house’s story. The problem is that Mr. Dickens, who was having an affair with young actress Ellen Ternan, didn’t want his wife anymore. After she discovered the affair in 1858, he turned the situation on her, separated from her, and dissed her all over London. He even tried to get her committed to an asylum. (I’ve begun reading Lillian Nayder’s 2011 biography rehabilitating her reputation. I feel I must.)

I’ve learned that you cannot be a Victorianist without enjoying, or even reveling in, Charles Dickens. Certainly I admire his detailed portrayal of the era, the wonderful characterizations, the turns of phrase that make you chuckle aloud. He wrote so fast, and so much, that I know I haven’t even scratched the surface of his talent. But the hagiographic approach to him annoys me anyway.

So I clicked past the volume of Nicholas Nickleby that said “Works by Charles Dickens” on the spine, because it was part of a collection. I scrolled beyond the $1,000 matched sets of his work. I searched for the small 8vo versions I prefer, but there aren’t any because the novel is too long. I finally found one I liked and ordered it. I do not hold it against Dickens that I spent so much time looking for a book I hadn’t wanted to read, by an author I personally dislike, just to join a discussion with a group I do not know. It’s just another case of a historian making things more complicated than they need to be.

Mystery tropes

I watch quite a few British/Canadian/Australian mysteries on television, so much so that I’ve been keeping a list of tropes. A lot of mystery programs (Midsomer Murders, Death in Paradise, Father Brown, Murder She Hoped, even the Kiwi series Brokenwood Mysteries) have similar settings for murder.

For example, there’s the one at the flying school, the one at the dance competition, the one with chefs in a restaurant, the one with the amateur theatre group. People get murdered when checking into health spas, joining hunting parties, and (gulp) attending author book signings. Sometimes there’s an unusual arrangement assumed to be a motive: the breakup of the band, the tontine (where whoever hasn’t died inherits everything), the dinner to which everyone was invited individually.

Back in the fourth grade, I gave up cursive writing and pens, only using either when it was required. I am trying now to revive both, with a fountain pen, a lovely journal given me by a friend, and mystery plots and ideas. Here’s the first page of tropes (please bear with my handwriting, obviously):

What this creates is a treasure trove of settings and/or a list of what to either imitate or avoid when writing a story. For me, it’s helpful to see the patterns. Many of these seem designed to limit the number of possible suspects. For example, if you have a murder at a music festival, there could be thousands of suspects. How does your detective narrow down? If one of the organizers is killed, they will tend to cast their gaze on the other organizers rather than attendees. This may or may not work, but it allows a lot of people to go home.

Since this is not how I write my mysteries, which sort of grow organically, it’s interesting to see how mysteries can be mass-produced through the recycling of settings.

Luckily, I don’t think that boarded-up operating theatre, the National Gallery, or pneumatic railway are likely to appear on the list any time soon. But about those 19th century health spas . . .

Interview with Paper Lantern Writers

So excited to have an interview with Paper Lantern Writers!

https://www.paperlanternwriters.com/blog/words-with-a-wordsmith-lisa-m-lane