I hope you’ll join me and the Sisters in Crime–Central Virginia to celebrate the publication of Virginia is for Mysteries: Volume II on February 27, 2:00-3:30 p.m. We’ll begin with an author panel, “Paths to Getting Published–Mystery Authors Tell Their Tales.” A book signing and celebration will follow.
If you have evidence—or opinions to the contrary, I want to hear from you!
Yes, there are offbeat animal detectives. In Three Bags Full: a sheep detective story by Leonie Swann, the shepherd is murdered and the sheep, led by the ewe Miss Marple, set out to discover the murderer. In Anonymous Rex, by Eric Garcia, dinosaurs continue to live among us, disguised in latex masks and tail girdles. Otherwise, Rubio is the classic hard-boiled detective. Freddy the Detective by Walter R. Brooks features a pig detective. Bernd Heinrich writes ravens, by far the smartest of birds. And Elmore Leonard, in his first children’s novel, created Antwan, a hip-talking coyote living in the Hollywood Hills, for A Coyote’s in the House.
Dogs are poorly represented in the mystery genre. In Hank the Cowdog, Hank is the inept “Head of Security” for a ranch, and setting out to find who’s stealing the corn, he sets clever traps that consistently trap him. Play Dead by Leslie O’Kane features a dog behaviorist/therapist and an “ugly collie” rescue dog.
Cats, on the other hand, are everywhere. There are whole series featuring cats. Think the Mrs. Murphy series by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown, or The Cat Who… series by Lilian Jackson Braun. Perhaps less well known is the Joe Grey Cat Mystery series by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, in which Joe is a cat from the Catswold that can speak and understand English, among other talents. And then there is the series in which the point of view shifts between a big black cat named Midnight Louie and his person, Temple Barr.
Why cats? Well, for one thing, they are notoriously independent and sneaky. They were domesticated tens of thousands of years after dogs—or maybe not yet, even. Cats are confounding creatures, for centuries associated with death cults, witches, Satan, black magic, and so forth. So creating fictional cats with paranormal abilities—talking, shape shifting, psychic reasoning or implausible acts of physical derring-do, invisibility, tele-transportation—is much less jarring than similar traits in a dog—or sheep, goat, pig. A monkey, now . . .
Like so many other people affected by the recent extreme weather, I had plenty of time to consider snow. And as with so many other things that I consider, I started reading about it. Yes, Elmore Leonard is adamant that you never start a book with the weather—but that is not to say weather is taboo in your story. Your task as a writer is to make weather interesting. As an exercise, consider the following snow-related facts, and how you might fit them into a story in a way that seems natural, preferably relevant to the plot!
Chionophobia is a persistent fear of snow, especially being trapped by snow. Winter cold kills more than twice as many Americans as summer heat does. Maybe your character has a reason to move to Key West!
Some parts of Antarctica have had no rain or snow for two million years. Also, snow has never been reported in Key West, FL.
On average, an inch of rain makes 10 inches of snow.
Skiing was introduced to Switzerland by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1893.
Handschuhschneeballwerfer is German slang for “coward.” It means someone who wears gloves to throw snowballs.
A snowflake that falls on glacier in central Greenland can take 200,000 years to reach the sea.
Conventional wisdom holds that all snowflakes have 6 sides. But according to the Huffington Post, there are triangles, hourglasses, spools of thread, needles, hollow columns, dendrites, prisms, and flat plates as well. Asymmetrical snowflakes are more common than symmetrical ones. Shapes vary by temperature and moisture in the clouds. What sort of person would care about the shape of snowflakes?
It’s a myth that no two snowflakes are exactly the same; in 1988, two identical snow crystals came from a storm in Wisconsin. But according to physicists, complex snowflakes are indeed unique.
According to The Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s largest snowflake was reported to be 15 inches across and 8 inches thick. While witnesses said the flakes were “larger than milk pans,” these claims have not been substantiated.
Snow isn’t white; it’s actually clear and colorless. The appearance of white results from absorbing sunlight uniformly over the wavelengths of visible light.
Sometimes snow doesn’t appear white. Orange snow fell over Siberia in 2007. Deep snow can appear blue. Snow can also appear pink (watermelon snow). Snow in high alpine areas and the coastal polar regions contains fresh-water algae that have a red pigment that tints the surrounding snow. Perhaps your character made snowcream with pink snow and all who ate it got sick from the algae.
Each winter in the US, at least 1 septillion ice crystals fall from the sky—that’s 1 with 24 zeros. The average snowflake falls at a speed of 3.1 mph.
An average snowflake is made up of 180 billion molecules of water.
Besides snowflakes, frozen precipitation can take the form of hail, graupel (snow pellets), or sleet.
The most snow ever recorded in a 24-hour period in the US was 75.8 inches (Silver Lake, CO, 1921). The second most fell in one calendar day, 63 inches, in Georgetown, CO, 1913. In 1959, a single snowstorm in Mt. Shasta dropped as much as 15.75 feet of snow in that California region.
Mt. Baker ski area in Washington State has the world record for snowfall: 1,140 inches in the 1998-99 winter season (about 95 feet). Who would be happy about that?
80% of the freshwater on earth is frozen as ice or snow, accounting for 12% of the earth’s surface.
A blizzard is when you can’t see for 1/4 mile, the winds are 35 mph or more, and the storm lasts at least 3 hours.
People buy more cakes, cookies, and candies than any other food when a blizzard is forecast. And I thought it was bread and milk! What would your character stock up? Wine? Beans? Oatmeal? Dog biscuits? Toilet paper?
The US averages 105 snow storms per year, typically lasting 2-5 days and affecting multiple states.
An igloo can be more than 100 degrees warmer inside than outside—and they’re warmed entirely by body heat.
According to wikipedia, the Eskimo-Aleut languages have about the same number of distinct word roots referring to snow as English does, but these languages allow more variety as to how those roots can be modified in forming a single word. This issue is still debated.
Snowboarders and skiers often distinguish different types of snow by labels such as mashed potatoes, pow pow, champagne, cauliflower, sticky, or dust on crust.
Nova Scotia holds the record for the most snow angels ever made simultaneously in multiple locations: 22,022 in 130 locations in 2011. Bismarck, North Dakota holds the record for the most snow angels made simultaneously in one place: 8,962 in 2007.
The largest snowball fight on record involved 5,834 fighters in Seattle on January 12, 2013.
The largest snowman ever recorded was 113 feet 7 inches, in Bethel, ME. Perhaps your character wants to break that record.
Rochester, NY, is the snowiest city in the US, averaging 94 inches of snow a year.
In 1992, the Common Council of Syracuse, NY, passed a decree that any more snow before Christmas Eve was illegal. Just two days later, they had more snow. But what’s the story there?
This is Great-aunt Mary. She and her husband lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, over the bar they owned and operated. Her mother was a strict Southern Baptist and disapproved so strongly that she refused to visit them.
But Mary was definitely a free spirit. Given that, you might not be surprised to hear that besides riding a motorcycle, she flew a small plane. She once went canoeing alone on the Ohio River when it was at flood stage.The unexpected thing about Aunt Mary is that she always said she was “too nervous” to drive a car! Interesting as she was anyway, this last adds another layer of richness.
And so it is with your fictional characters: if everything is consistent and predictable, why would anyone read to learn more?
Takeaway for writers
Always try to include something surprising or unexpected.
Poe was a writer, literary critic, and editor, the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living exclusively through writing. In spite of his prolific output, he didn’t earn enough to support himself, let alone live comfortably.
Although Poe died at the age of forty, this book contains 119 short stories and poems and one novel. His literary criticism isn’t represented at all in this volume, nor are his essays on writing, such as “The Philosophy of Composition,” “The Poetic Principle,” and “The Rationale of Verse.” His first publications were poetry, and he published 53 of them, but his work covers a much broader spectrum: 27 tales of mystery and horror; 25 stories of humor and satire; 14 that veer toward fantasy and science fiction. His novel is an adventure yarn. “Eureka” is a disquisition on the nature of the universe, and his vision has been largely confirmed by science, for example the Big Bang Theory.
Despite the breadth of his writing, he is best known for poetry and suspense/horror. He is often called the father of detective fiction—preceding Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins by decades—while his contributions to cosmology and cryptography are known to relatively few. Besides being brilliant, Poe was a fine athlete. (He once set a broad jump record of 21’6″.) But he is most remembered as a man who suffered bouts of depression, whose career and life were burdened if not destroyed by gambling and alcohol, and who was plagued by scandals ranging from his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin to courting multiple women simultaneously.
To this day his death is shrouded in mystery. Where had he been for the previous several days? What was he doing? Why was he wearing someone else’s clothes? And who was the “Randal” he called out for from his deathbed?
This post also appears on the Virginia is for Mysteries blog. Click here to read it and more stories from Virginia is for Mysteries, Volume II.
In high school, I hated Ohio and American history. I didn’t want to memorize the dates of battles, the names of generals, the placement of Ohio’s 88 counties and their county seats. In college, I avoided taking a history course of any sort. But after graduate school, historical fiction, biographies, and memoirs ignited my interest. I find social history, and the civilian parallels to military history, fascinating. Thus, I am more interested in sex during the Civil War than in mapping troop movements at Gettysburg, what was happening in medicine and sources of corruption than who was in charge of which part of the armies. Thus my story for Virginia Is For Mysteries,“Death Comes to Hollywood Cemetery” was born, with the amateur detective being Clara, a good-natured prostitute who specialized in serving men with benign fetishes in and around Richmond during the Civil War.
I enjoyed writing Clara, and readers seemed to enjoy the story, so for Virginia is for Mysteries, Volume II, I decided to take Clara from Richmond to the West. But why Nimrod Hall? For one thing, it’s historic, the property established as a farm in 1783. For another, I’ve enjoyed summer writing workshops at the modern (but rustic) Nimrod Hall of today for more than 10 years. It still stands near the Cowpasture River, and has the original fieldstone fireplace.
I’m familiar with Bath County, Millboro and Millboro Springs, and Warm Springs. In addition, the Bath County Historical Society is the baby of Richard L. Armstrong, the man who wrote a booklet titled, The Civil War in Bath County, Virginia. He was very helpful and willingly shared his thoughts. If you are ever in Warm Springs, stop by—and then enjoy the waters at what are now called the Jefferson Pools.
Ultimately, I was able to weave local war history and the names of its actors with the Civil War railroad system, the history of Nimrod Hall and its public scandals into a story in which Clara arrives at the farm to become enmeshed in murder and intrigue that never happened—but could have!
Learn more about Virginia is for Mysteries, Volume IIhere.
Some things seldom if ever appear on the page because they are just taken for granted. If your characters leave the house—unless you specifically say otherwise—the reader assumes they are wearing shoes and street clothes appropriate to the season, have combed their hair, had breakfast, brushed their teeth. . . If you’ve established quirks for your characters—e.g., Sue Grafton’s detective Kinsey Millhone works out twice a day—even these individual habits or routines aren’t mentioned every time they happen. The reader assumes those actions as part of the background.
Consider the power of not doing the usual. Under what circumstances might a character wear the same clothes for a solid 48 hours? Does it make a difference if those clothes are pajamas? What are the implications of skipping showers, hair washing, and tooth brushing? Why might a character eat sardines and Great Northern beans straight from the can? All of these possibilities imply powerful motivation or situational constraints. Is your character held captive? Lost in Alaska? Deeply depressed?
Even if your characters aren’t doing what’s expected, they’re doing something. Maybe it’s computer solitaire, or a jigsaw puzzle; reading trashy novels and eating bonbons; getting knee-walking drunk; or maybe it’s only sleeping, or staring into space—but it’s something. What that something is—and the feelings that accompany it—say a great deal about your character. Is your character in survival mode? Overwhelmed? Feeling rebellious? Guilty? Ashamed? Weak?
TAKEAWAY FOR WRITERS
Sometimes what a character doesn’t do is as telling as what s/he does do. Use it!
Should you want to add an animal to your story, here’s the First Rule of Thumb: the more important the fictional animal is to your story/plot/series, the more you need to know about the actual one. That being said, here are some snippets that floated through my brain while thinking about fictional animals
Second Rule of Thumb: if you want your readers to identify with the animal, consider a dog or cat. In most Western countries, the two most popular pets are dogs and cats. There are approximately 75.5 million pet dogs and 93.6 million pet cats in the United States—compared to 5.3 million house rabbits. On the other hand, more households own dogs than cats—45.6 million households vs. 38.2 million households, respectively. Among college students, 60% identified themselves as dog lovers compared to 11% cat lovers (everyone else being both or neither). (And just a fun fact: in 2013, pets outnumbered children four to one in the U.S.)
Sticking to dogs and cats for a bit: dog owners report seeking companionship, while cat owners sought affection.
If you do go with a dog or a cat, consider how the profile of the typical owner matches your character. Overall, dog lovers are more energetic and outgoing, and are more likely to follow rules closely. Cat lovers are more introverted, open-minded, sensitive, non-conformist, and intelligent. As most people know, dogs and cats of various species have identifiable personalities and behaviors, so consider how compatible or incompatible your character and pet need to be to support your storyline. Which is your dog?
Third Rule of Thumb: the more unusual the animal you choose, the more you might have to work for reader affection but the easier it might be to grab reader attention. Consider the red-footed tortoise.
Only 4.7 million U.S. households own reptiles, and many of those are lizards, snakes, etc. Chances are a red-footed tortoise would be pretty unfamiliar. Few readers would know that they can grow to more than 18 inches, and live more than 30 years. Some readers would be interested to learn that they are omnivorous, rest 50% of the time, and prefer temperatures around 86 F, not below 68 F or over 95 F. What sort of character would choose such an animal companion? What sort of household might own four dogs, six cats, one parrot, and a tortoise?
BIG TAKE-AWAY FOR WRITERS
Think carefully before you throw one or more animals into your story. Consider the role of the animal(s), and the fit between your character and the fictional animal(s). And then have fun with it!
P.S. FYI,January 14th is Dress Up Your Pet Day. Work that tidbit into your story!
The fact that it really happened doesn’t mean it’s good story material.
Writers often use details and specifics to weave in richness and a sense of reality. So you might be tempted to mention Richmond, Virginia’s recent weather–Japanese cherry trees and hyacinths blooming in December–
–a temperature in the upper 70s on Christmas Eve, a rosebud or daffodil sprouts in January.
But unless unseasonably warm weather is part of your plot line, DON’T DO IT.
Details that are atypical but irrelevant are likely to take readers out of the story while they stop to think it over. Even worse, they might conclude that you don’t know what you are talking about–thus accomplishing the opposite of your intent!