Monday, April 25, 2011

Putting the Crime in Crime Fiction

Often in crime novels, particularly in mysteries, the reader never witnesses the actual crime that is the subject of the story. Of course, there’s often good reason: showing the crime may very well remove most, if not all, of the mystery. Some mystery writers get around this by writing a prologue and keeping the details of the crime just vague enough to keep readers guessing. But there is a trend in crime fiction toward eliminating prologues – many editors prefer their authors to jump into their story by introducing the main character, usually a professional or amateur investigator.

The fact that the criminal act in crime fiction – usually a murder – takes place off screen may lead some aspiring writers to dive into their stories without first giving much thought to the villain and his villainous deeds. In my experience as both a writer and reader of crime fiction, this is a mistake. The crime itself – what James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Mystery calls “the plot behind the plot” – is one of the most important events in any mystery. Whether you use an outline or write by the seat of your pants, the subject crime of your story should be vivid in your mind before you draft the first sentence of Chapter One.

I recommend writing the scene in which the crime takes place, even if you don’t intend to use it in your story. Why? Well, for one, it’ll help you play fair with the reader. While creating your mystery, you’ll need to insert clues throughout, evidence clever readers will pick up on, even if they don’t figure out the ending. By writing the crime scene beforehand, you’ll be in a better position to map out your story and insert clues in just the right places. The same goes for the all-important red herrings. Misdirection in mysteries is every bit as important as truth.

The crime in my second novel NIGHT ON FIRE is the murder of a newlywed named Trevor Simms. The prime suspect is his new wife Erin. The killer in my novel attempted to cover his or her tracks by setting the crime scene – the honeymoon suite at a popular Hawaiian beach resort – on fire. The fire spread and left eleven innocents dead. The crime of arson complicated my novel more than I ever expected, because arson investigation is extremely difficult. Arson is a crime that destroys its own clues, and arsonists are rarely caught and convicted. Had I not planned the murder and arson in great detail prior to writing my novel, I’m certain I would have run into insurmountable obstacles midway through.

By conducting research and drafting the murder scene beforehand, I was able to plant invaluable clues throughout my story – the fire’s point of origin, the charcoal starter fluid used as an accelerant, and a dozen coins found in the hotel hallway, to name a few. Remember, the method of the crime is every bit as important as the investigation that follows. Save yourself some time and panic, and plan your crime in detail beforehand. (As an author and former defense attorney, I assure you, that advice works as well for crime writers as it does for criminals).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Earlier this year, I learned about the best-preserved mummy in the world for a talk I was giving. Surprise: it’s not Egyptian, but Chinese. The Lady of Dai, or “Diva” mummy of the Western Han Dynasty was prepared and buried over 2,000 years ago and is so well preserved that type A blood still runs in her veins and physicians can autopsy her body as if she died yesterday.

How did the Chinese undertakers do it? First, they swaddled her body in 20 layers of silk, then they immersed her in a salt solution that was mildly acidic with some magnesium in it, they encased her in four separate coffins. Finally, they sealed her in a cold chamber under many layers of charcoal and coal.

Who was she? Her name was Xin Zhui, and she was the wife of the ruler of Dai near the city of Changsha. Researchers have discovered that the woman was middle-aged and obese, with clogged arteries and a damaged heart. Seems like heart disease is not unique to modern American society—this lady overate the wrong stuff. She also showed evidence of several parasites and probably lower back pain at the time of her death.

The Diva starred in a National Geographic special in 2004. She continues to be a person of fascination for mummy enthusiasts, and I expect to hear more about her at the World Mummy Congress in San Diego in June.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pace Robbers

In our rush to write our stories, we focus on getting words on the page. The events in the story unfold. The characters face their challenges and overcome them. We've written a fantastic story, rich with details, humor, sexual tension and sensory details. Yeah!

Then, when we re-read or when beloved crit partners, agents or editors take a look, they flag certain sections and comment "the pace drags here". What to do? Become the pace police and hunt down those sneaky pace robbers. The ones that slow down the pace of your story like rush hour traffic. Let's profile a few of these nasty pace criminals.

Pace Robber #1 – Dilly-dallying Description

Description should have a purpose for the character. If it has a purpose for the character, it will have a purpose for the reader. I’m talking about more than just a line or two of description to set the scene. Pace-robbing description is whole paragraphs of scenery, landscapes, description of the architecture of a building or the d├ęcor of a room, or its occupants.

Even if you are using description as a way of slowing the pace, you can’t expect most readers to enjoy long paragraphs of description (even though some do). Many readers skim or skip description, but this doesn’t mean you should leave it in. Keep it trim, give it a purpose, or break it up and present it a little at a time as the characters interact.

Pace Robber #2 – Exhibitionist Exposition

Exposition is information. Usually it’s information you need your reader to know in order to understand the story. The trouble with exposition is that the characters in the book typically already know this information. It’s a bit silly to have your character, Jane, think: “I think I’ll call my Aunt Sally, the only aunt on my mother’s side who lives too far away for me to visit and who always has the best advice for me when I’m in trouble.” Not only is this “telling” rather than “showing” but it can jar the reader right out of the story when what you really want is for the reader to get lost in the story.

Exposition often equals “author intrusion” which means that the reader can sense the presence of the author, rather than the characters. You can treat exposition the same way you treat description by giving the characters a reason for talking about it or giving it a little at a time so the reader doesn’t notice your author intrusion.

Another exposition pace robber is the blow-by-blow form of exposition:

Joe got up and brushed his teeth, then showered. He dressed in his best blue suit. He left the house around eight and got into his silver Hummer. Driving the forty miles along Highway 17, he reached the city in about thirty minutes. He parked in the VIP spot in the Allied United underground lot and got into the elevator, pressing the button for the 9th floor. He stepped out of the elevator and walked the empty hallway to the corner office.

Um…I’m bored. Not only is this uninteresting, most of it is unnecessary. We don’t need to know how he gets ready for his day or how he gets to work unless these things are critical to the plot. Oh, that was just characterization, you say? Right, so um you wanted a cardboard character?

Pace Robber #3 – Dopey Dialogue

A partner to blow-by-blow exposition is bland dialogue. "Whudda you wanna do? Dunno, whudda you wanna do?"

What you wanna do is get to the meat of the conversation. Unless there is some special tension about these words for the characters, just cut to the point of the conversation and leave the rest out. The same goes for people greeting each other, thanking each other, ending a conversation, introducing themselves, and all those other polite social things we do every day. If it’s not crucial to the story, just leave it out.

Pace Robber #4 – Rogue Scenes

Rogue Scenes are scenes in which readers learn nothing new. Suppose your character Sally has just had an encounter at the bank with a handsome stranger who mysteriously gave her roses and kissed her hand. She gets home and repeats the experience to her mother, then phones a friend and tells her all about it. It’s a very realistic scenario, because that’s exactly what someone would probably do.

But this is not reality, this is fiction.

Each scene should have a purpose and the reader should learn something new in each scene. Sure, Sally is going to talk about it to other people, but let most of that happen “off screen”. For example, assuming she’s had her “off screen” conversation with her friend, she could have an “on screen” scene with her friend and say, “I’m going to meet that guy, you know, the one I told you about. The guy who gave me roses at the bank.”

It's fine to do a little recap now and then by giving readers reminders in the form of quick, small details, but don't let a great scene turn into a rogue later on.

Pace Robber #5 – Intrepid Introspection

Introspection happens when a character shares his thinking process. Character introspection is important for the reader to fully understand what your characters are thinking. Beware of overusing introspection to get your point across or simply using it to run through a list of possibilities as your characters think things over. Too many questions quickly throw the scene out of focus and rob you of the pace you set. It’s tempting to put in the questions that your character has and present a number of avenues for them to pursue because this can add to the tension, but don’t give the reader too many things to focus on at once.

There's no point in ranting a character's internal questions at your readers. They don’t know the answers, only you do. Your job is to pose a question and then reveal answers in a way that makes them want to know more.

That's my top 5 Most Wanted list of Pace Robbers. Am I saying you should never slow down the pace? No, you should slow down the pace from time to time and make sure the reader has a chance to breathe. But make the pace work for you by keeping these rotten pace robbers in the clink!

Interested in learning more about pacing? Join me for a year-long novel writing course at Savvy Authors where you can immerse yourself in craft and emerge with a completed, polished novel. Where do you want to be with your writing a year from now? Or stop by my blog for more great craft articles.

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Saturday, April 2, 2011


A wrapped body from antiquity is the ultimate mystery. We don’t know who is inside, how he or she lived or died, what the story is behind it. Unwrapping it, either with a surgical knife or virtually using a computer, is like Christmas for archaeologists and physical anthropologists.

Twenty years ago, we CT scanned an Egyptian mummy from our University of Illinois museum. Using medical imaging is wonderful because it doesn’t harm the artifact—you can obtain a lot of information without cutting the mummy open to look inside the wrappings. In 1990, we used a huge, expensive university supercomputer to do a “virtual autopsy.” Now the software is so accessible that you can download it and “unwrap” the mummy on a personal laptop. Then you can trim the images, change colors and densities, and rotate them in three-dimensions.

The first time around, X-rays and CT scans revealed that our mummy was a child, maybe 8 years old at the time of death. Physical anthropologists can age bodies by looking at growth plates at the end of the long bones and the teeth: our child showed adult teeth coming in right behind baby teeth and open growth plates. Here are some of the early pictures:

My husband calls this little mummy Lazarus because it keeps coming back. After our real-life adventure 20 years ago, I wrote my first mystery, Bound for Eternity, based on the mummy investigation. It will take us weeks of work to go through the hundreds of images and actually understand the new data. Since I am crazy about mummies and love computer toys, I am in heaven.

Here are some pictures of the trip to the hospital:


Sarah U. Wisseman, Ph.D
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