Tag Archives: mystery

Five Influential Authors

I was supposed to be writing a book review for today’s post, but with everything else happening this week, I didn’t have a chance to finish reading one. Okay, that’s not exactly true. I could have. I got about 100 pages into a book. But then I made the not-unmomentous decision to stop reading it. (This isn’t the first book I’ve stopped reading, as I mentioned here, but it’s still not something I do lightly.)

This book, which will remain nameless, suffered from my largest pet peeve of a first person narrative: the reticent host. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re a first person narrator, and you’re experiencing something that you understand, then you should explain it to the reader. You don’t keep it to yourself in order to have a “grand reveal” midway through the book. Anyway, enough of that.

I uhmmmed and ahhhed about what to put in today’s post. I even considered not writing one today. (Shock! Horror!) But then something that had been percolating around in my brain for a while floated to the surface.

Whenever you read an interview with a new-ish band, one of the questions they’re asked is something along the lines of “Who are your influences?” And every musician can (and is allowed to) name a few other musicians who have influenced their style. But it’s not something you often hear asked of an author. Surely an author has just as many influences as a musician, though. I know I do.

As a child, I wrote a lot. Sadly, none of the stories I wrote survived to this day. But I remember some of the “best” ones.

There was the amazing tale of Basketballhead the Monster. He was a monster with a basketball for a head. He went around terrorising villagers and living in a smelly cave, but was soundly defeated by a troupe of travelling basketball players.

There was an alien abduction, where the protagonist had to complete a series of three missions in order to be allowed to return to Earth. He won by relying on his superior intelligence to navigate his way through a maze with the use of only a super-large piece of string. And then, in classic fashion, he woke up and discovered it was all a dream. BUT – shock twist – he still had some string in his pocket. So… where did it come from???

Those early stories were, by and large, horrendous. But they taught me how to string sentences together to form a basic narrative structure. Then I read books, and my writing world expanded. So, without further adieu (or any more general waffling), here are the top 5 authors who have influenced my writing style.

Douglas Adams

When I read H2G2 as a young teenager, I had a revelation. Books could be funny. And not just joke books – actual, real, story-oriented books, with characters and a plot, could be funny. You were allowed to take perfectly normal, serious, and stand-up words and use them in a funny way. All of a sudden, Basketballhead developed one-liners, and the description of his cave became less earnest and more sarcastic.

 

Clive Barker 

I was first introduced to Clive Barker through Weaveworld, which I read when I was about 12. I fell in love with his style, and the idea of an entire world contained within the threads of a carpet, and promptly asked my parents to buy me a Clive Barker book for Christmas. They bought me Imajica, which is the single most amazing book I’ve ever read. Of course, if they’d known how much (often gratuitous) sex and violence is in there, they never would have let me get anywhere near it. This book is…. I don’t even have the words. It is master storytelling at its best. It’s a beautifully crafted world full of interesting and odd characters that inspired me to feel emotions that I’d never before experienced at the tender age of 12. And even now, when I reread my old, dog-eared copy of Imajica (being careful not to turn the pages too quickly and risk more of them coming unglued from the spine), I feel those same senses of wonder, enticement, fear, sadness, and the ultimate tragedy that permeate the very pages. Clive Barker taught me that there is beauty in horror, horror in beauty, sadness in joy, happiness in death, and tragedy in a happy ending. He taught me that wholly unlikeable characters have redeeming features, that wholly likeable characters are probably trying to sell you something, and that the interaction between those characters is what makes them both loveable and memorable.

Terry Pratchett

Much like Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett taught me that stories could be funny. Even not-funny plots could be funny. His early books were straight parodies of fantasy clichés, but in his later books, there was often a serious storyline. If you look at books like The Fifth Elephant, or Thud! you’ve got serious situations that mirror, in some way, situations in the real world. They deal with serious issues like war, racism, and tradition. But when you’re reading these books, you barely notice all that serious stuff, because you’re so wrapped up in the characters and the humour. Characters who are clearly written as jokes (possibly as punes or plays on words) have a serious role to play in the unfolding story, and characters who are part of the serious side of the novel are written irreverently. What I learned from this was that humour doesn’t have to be used as a battering ram. It can be the chocolate topping on a ice cream sundae. You can still have dessert without it, but it adds a delicious, irresistible sweetness.

Raymond Chandler

I don’t write mystery stories, but I firmly believe that, much as all good tales have some romantic element, all good stories have a sense of mystery about them. Raymond Chandler is a master mystery storyteller. What I learned from him is that you can take a boring, dark, seedy, or dangerous situation and still write about it with beauty. He’s renowned for his use of metaphor, and there isn’t a single page of his writing that isn’t dripping with them. He was a man who loved the english language, and could spin words into gold. Without the need to trade favours with a bad-tempered dwarf.

Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files were the first urban fantasy books I ever read. They have humour, magic, mystery, and characters that are real enough you could invite them to sleep on your couch. But these books taught me two things. (1) Urban fantasy rocks, and is the genre I want to write in. Before this, I was struggling to write high fantasy. I loved the setting and plot options, but hate extensive world building. Urban fantasy gives me everything I need. (2) First person is not a dirty word. Two words. Whatever. These were the first books that I read and enjoyed that were written in first person, and I found myself wanting to practice and emulate that style.

 

 

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Crafting Characters – Where Did I Come From?

Last week I talked about the importance of having authentic characters, and shared an example of how to interview characters to get a better understanding of their personalities. I’ll continue talking about crafting characters this week, but this time from the perspective of a character’s backstory.

Much like real people, characters don’t spring fully formed out of the ether as heroes, villains, or something in between. There’s a reason they have the personalities that they do. For example:

Was your hero an underpriveleged child? Was his beloved father a cop? Did his horrible aunt and uncle force him to live in a cupboard?

Was your villain tormented as a child? Was he a spoiled rich kid? Was his innocent father shot by a crooked cop? Was his father a villain?

These are important details to know, and it can be worth writing a brief summary of your character’s life before you start writing. That way you can also make sure that it doesn’t end up like this:

  • Bob grew up with loving parents. He had 3 siblings – all sisters, and all older than him. He was always his mother’s “little boy” and was spoiled by her and his sisters for most of his childhood. He had a great relationship with his father, and they spent a lot of time fishing and throwing a football around.
  • It was really hard for Bob to leave his family home and go off to college, but he really wanted to be a lawyer. He spent every break with his parents, and one or another of his sisters would often visit as well.
  • When Bob graduated, he went to work at a law firm, and was incredibly successful.
  • Bob decided to become a serial killer, and started hunting down and killing prostitutes.

Hands up if you think that makes sense.

Hands up if you think it’s ridiculous.

You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand that a well-adjusted guy with a Supportive family, no childhood trauma, and great prospects is highly unlikely to turn into a serial killer for no reason. (Please don’t give me real life examples of where this has happened. Real life doesn’t have to make sense – fiction does.)  If you were writing this summary of Bob’s life, no doubt you’d either change some of the details of his upbringing, or add an instigating event that triggered this psychopathic/sociopathic behaviour.

On the other hand, have you ever read or written a story where the story/character arc goes something like this:

  • A serial killer is targeting prostitutes. The cops/FBI/PI/random hero has a limited amount of time to figure out whodunnit and stop the next murder.
  • Clues left at the murder scenes lead the investigators to believe that the crimes are being committed by someone with a background in law. Further investigation leads the investigators to realise that each of the killings happens in the 24 hours after a prominent criminal lawyer (Bob) loses a case. And he’s just lost another one.
  • They investigate Bob, and he goes into hiding. The investigators know that, despite the danger, he’ll kill again. (That’s what serial killers do.)
  • The investigators talk to Bob’s family, who tell them Bob was a normal kid who loved his sisters, and played football with his father. They’re horrified to think that he could be involved in the killings, and try to convince the investigators of his innocence.
  • The investigators eventually track Bob down and catch him just in time – while he’s torturing his latest victim. They manage to save the girl, but have to shoot Bob in the process. He dies crying for his mother, which is even more poignant/disturbing when juxtaposed with the near-dead body of the prostitute.

This seems like a fairly reasonable (if cliche) crime story, but the question remains: Why did Bob turn into a serial killer? And why prostitutes?

Even if you don’t explain the reasons why your hero is a hero, or your villain is a villain, make sure you know what they are. No one does anything without a motive, and everyone eventually asks, “Where did I come from?” Don’t let poor Bob take the fall without an explanation.

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Book Review: The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep is Raymond Chandler’s first novel, published in 1939, and adapted into movie format in 1946 and 1978. It is the first book to introduce detective Phillip Marlowe, who then appeared in a number of Chandler’s later works.

I wanted to read this book because I’ve long been enamoured with Raymond Chandler. He was one of the first writers to introduce a smart-talking “tough guy with a heart of gold” written in first person narrative. Chandler’s quotes on writing, and his writing itself, have long been an inspiration for me as a writer, and I often see parallels between him and some of my other favourite authors (such as Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files). Chandler’s writing influenced, directly or indirectly, a huge number of modern authors.

The Big Sleep has Phillip Marlowe hired by the elderly and infirm General Sternwood to deal with a blackmailer, who claims to be a purveyor of rare books. The subsequent investigation leads Marlowe to a pornography ring, multiple murders, a potential kidnapping, and a missing gangster. The story is fast-paced, complicated, and exciting, and Chandler delivers it with strong characterisation and an obvious love for language.

Reading The Big Sleep was like being immersed into the seedy underside of 1930s LA. Chandler’s writing style is both descriptive and inclusive. Not only does he paint a picture of people, places and events, he welcomes the reader into the picture and suggests that they make themselves comfortable. The opening paragraph of the novel is a perfect example of this.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

There are so many evocative sections of prose in this novel that quoting them all would be tantamount to posting the entire novel online. There is barely a page without an inspired moment of brilliance. To illustrate this, I open the book at random and the first paragraph my eyes alight on is:

The black candles guttered in the draught from the open door. Drops of black wax crawled down their sides. The air of the room was poisonous and unreal.

I highly recommend anyone with an interest in language, reading, writing, or detective stories read The Big Sleep, and any other of Raymond Chandler’s novels. Although Chandler was quoted as saying that there’s no such thing as a ‘classic’ when it comes to detective fiction, I’d have to say that his books come close enough that the difference is negligible.

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