How my characters spend time over the holidays

Last week on Twitter, mystery reader JayeL wrote:

Then she named some authors including me, and said: “Challenge issued.”

Well, if it’s a challenge…

This was fun — short fiction, 140 characters at a time. It also says something about how readers perceive characters, and how writers structure suspense novels.

Readers love vivid characters. Especially series characters, who come back time after time to face new challenges and adventures. But when those characters feature in crime fiction — mystery, suspense, thrillers — the challenges they face involve mayhem, danger, and death. The characters must face those challenges, or it’s not a crime novel.

Readers have asked me why the pace in my novels is fast. Why must the characters race to solve mysteries under time pressure? Why can’t they enjoy a leisurely lunch, or spend a week on the beach, or take a painting class?

Because that’s not even a story.

Here’s a secret. My characters all live full, rounded lives. They throw New Year’s Eve parties and deliver Meals on Wheels and spend long weekends reading Sue Grafton and binge watching The Sopranos. But the portion of their lives that makes it to my thrillers involves danger and daring.

A couple of years ago, a forensic psychiatrist wrote a journal article about how that specialty is portrayed in popular fiction. I was thrilled that she included Jo Beckett. And I was amused that she noted, somewhat skeptically, that in all the Beckett novels, Jo solves the case. Of course she does. The only cases I write about in the Beckett novels are the ones Jo solves. The cases her colleagues solve aren’t part of the story.

But just for the holidays, I’ll let you imagine Evan Delaney, Jesse Blackburn, Jo Beckett, and Gabe Quintana chilling on the beach in Santa Barbara. Ho ho ho and Happy New Year.

Surprising yet inevitable: Here’s the story

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When I took a creative writing course in college, the instructor, Ron Hansen, told us that the ending of a story should be surprising yet inevitable. We all stared at him like, Huh? How is that possible? But this advice is perfect. In any story — short story, novel, play, or movie — the seeds of the ending should be set up as the story builds. Though character traits, decisions characters make, hints the author gives… and when the ending hits, readers will think, Wow, I didn’t see that coming. And, after reflection, But now it all makes sense. 

And now when I teach creative writing, I always tell my students that endings should be surprising yet inevitable. My favorite example is the ending of The Empire Strikes Back. Remember the first time you saw it? Thinking: What the hell? Not possible! No! Nooooo! And then: Ohhhhh, I see it now. Of course.

That’s why I love the text message above. I wrote, “How was it?” to my youngest son just after he saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. His reaction made me incredibly happy. First, because “AMAZING” is what I’ve been hoping to hear about the movie. Second, because “Not what I expected, but exactly what I expected,” is another way of saying surprising yet inevitable.

Perfect.

SPECIAL NOTE: NO STAR WARS SPOILERS. VIOLATORS GO ON THE NAUGHTY LIST.

My favorite books, movies & TV of 2015

December is zooming like a rocket sled toward the end of the year. So how about a few Best-Of lists?

My favorite movies of 2015:

Mad Max: Fury Road
Ex Machina
Bridge of Spies
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The Martian

Note that I still have a few movies to see this year, including Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m going to add Star Wars to the list.

Favorite TV shows:

The Jinx
Fargo
Better Call Saul
Game of Thrones
House of Cards

Again, I still have to catch up on Mad Men, and am just getting into some shows like Mr. Robot and The Americans.

Favorite books outside of crime/suspense/thrillers:

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Brendan I. Koerner
A Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, Tim Weiner
Underworld, Don DeLillo
Abaddon’s Gate, James S.A. Corey
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

I read a wealth of amazing crime and suspense novels this year. So many, in fact, that I need to sort through them and post those later.

How about everybody else?

January 13: Writing workshop in Crockett, Texas

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January 2016 is getting a running start. On Wednesday, January 13th, I’ll be teaching a free writing workshop at the Crockett Public Library in Crockett, Texas. My co-presenter will be mystery novelist Reavis Wortham.

Let me repeat: This workshop is free. It’s offered by Texas Writes, the fantastic nonprofit organization that brings writing classes to rural Texas libraries. So check it out.

Crockett, Texas Writes
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
1:00 PM
J.H. Wooters Crockett Public Library
709 East Houston, Crockett, TX 75835
If you’re interested in attending, please contact the library to pre-register at 936-544-3089. For more information, you can contact the Writers’ League of Texas: texaswrites@writersleague.org.

Sunday December 13: KAZI FM Austin

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This Sunday, December 13th, I’ll be on 88.7 KAZI FM Austin, talking about Mystery People’s Top 100 Crime and Suspense Novels. I’m joining host Hopeton Hay and Book People’s Scott Montgomery on the KAZI Book Review. 12:30 PM Central. If you’re in Austin you can tune in to 88.7 FM. Everybody else can listen online at KAZIFM.org.

We’ll try to start a few fights over our top choices. It should be fun.

EDIT: The show’s on at 12:30 Central. Tune in!

One draft is never enough

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I cleaned off my desk today. These are a few pages I pulled from a stack of paper two inches tall. They’re what lawyers call work product. Drafts, edits, notes. I type all my novels and stories on a computer. But at some point, I always print out what I’m working on and attack it with a pen or pencil.

What you see here is the interior of my mind, spilled onto letter-size paper. Maybe that’s why I’m holding onto it so firmly.

Writers I’m thankful for

Bookshelf

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. It’s time to give a shout out to some writers I’m thankful for.

A.A. Milne, for taking me on lovely expotitions with Pooh and Piglet when I was a child. And for giving me the Winnie-the-Pooh stories to read to my own children when I was grown.

Walter Farley, for pulling me and my nine-year-old friends back to the library again and again to check out the Black Stallion novels.

Carolyn Keene — every damn version of her — for Nancy Drew.

Ray Bradbury, for introducing me to the world of science fiction and dark fantasy when I was twelve.

Ron Hansen, for teaching me that stories need a beginning, a muddle, and an end. And for encouraging me to send out a story I wrote in his college creative writing class. That validation gave me courage.

Sue Grafton, for opening my eyes to the possibilities available for women writing mysteries. And for Kinsey Millhone.

Stephen King, for making me love and cry for the characters in The Stand, all the while scaring me to death.

Stephen King, for everything he’s done for me.

And my everlasting thanks to the teachers who imparted their love of literature to me: JoEllen Hansen in fifth grade, Peg Harris in tenth, and, of course, my dad, Frank Gardiner, from the day I was born.

I’m lucky, and grateful.