Thursday, January 27, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: Bad by Circumstance

We often hear about "victim mentality," which is blamed for keeping people in bad situations/relationships/circumstances. As a writer, I have used this kind of thinking in characters. In my current work in progress, the wife of the murder victim has been abused for years. Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, it wasn't uncommon to see women like her. I have known several women who remained in abusive relationships because they either accepted the abuse as being their fault or because they couldn't see a way out. I have even known a few who reached the breaking point and struck back against the abuser. Under ordinary circumstances, these people would not kill: they truly believed they had to do something.

I am sure anyone reading this blog could give me examples of good people who turned to violence because they saw no other way out. My favorite fictional account is in Susan Glaspell's classic mystery story "A Jury of Her Peers." I love the way that all through the story the menfolk are stumbling over clues the women piece together while talking about quilts, preserves, and other womanly occupations. The solution to what happened and the decision of the women not to reveal the circumstances that led to murder shocked readers at the time.

Perhaps Glaspell's conclusion was so shocking to Victorian sensibilities because the story is loosely based on the real life murder of John Hossack. The sad saga played out in court, where interestingly enough the prosecution raised the issue of abuse in the home as motive rather than a mitigating factor in the crime. We may never know if Hossack's wife actually killed him. Sentiment at the time was that if she didn't commit the murder she knew who did. She was convicted of first degree murder, a year later the Iowa Supreme Court overturned her conviction, a second trial led to a hung jury.

Does the "bad by circumstance" story still work today?

I believe it does. A few years ago I used this type of plot from a male perspective. I had a construction worker lose his job because a busybody accused him of indecent exposure. His wife died because he could not afford her medical care without insurance. He murdered the woman who cost him his wife. These circumstances won't be repeated. I ended the story when his boss figured it out, but decided not to tell the police.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Weekend Writer: Writing with a Partner

This weekend I began working on a story with my spouse on a new short story. For those of you worrying about when my next novel is coming out, don't. I didn't take any of my usually writing time to work on the short story. I was just working extra hard (grin). You do believe me, don't you?

Sarah and I teamed up to do one other short story a couple of years ago. Working together tested our egos, but the result was a story we really like. So, here we go again.

I don't know how other people approach writing with a partner, but for us it works best for us when Sarah takes the lead. We pick a story that has two lead characters with different backgrounds. Before we start working we toss around ideas until we hit upon one that both of us would be comfortable with writing. Then we work out plot details and character backgrounds together. After that Sarah, who has a stronger grasp of the mechanics of writing, takes over for a while. When she is ready, I come in and write my character, tweaking hers when necessary. After that, there's a lot of tweaking each other's work until it becomes hard to tell who wrote a particular line.

Does that sound confusing? Sometimes it is confusing. There are also times when we disagree about how something should be written. The key to doing a collaboration successfully is to keep the disagreements from becoming fights. Writing together means leaving your ego at the door. It comes down to remembering that the overall story is more important than the line a writing partner thinks should be cut. We did this successfully once. I think we can do it again.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: When Good Guys Turn out Bad

How do you feel when the people you expect to heroic turn out to be the thugs? We've all seen it done in real life and fiction. It isn't hard for me to believe in rogue cops. After all, I live in Lexington, home of the Bluegrass Conspiracy. Freewheeling practices with undercover police in the 1970's drug trade did a lot of damage to the reputation of the Lexington-Fayette County Police. In the era when I write, the Lexington Police were up to their eyeballs in graft and corruption. Many officers and city officials were members of the Klan. Still, there are times when I just hate what a writer does with their heroes.

One of the most disappointing turns in a story involved Thomas Harris' character Clarice stopped chasing Hannibal and joined him in cannibalism. Really? After all she had done to stop Hannibal, Harris has them join forces? What was he thinking?

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against the tarnished badge as a plot line. Some of the best thugs have been wearing a uniform. L.A. Confidential did a wonderful job with bad cops as the villains. What I hate is when the good guys turn bad. For me, taking someone who has done years of fighting crime and turning them to the "dark side" is a disappointment I won't forgive. Write your plot that way if you must, but as a reader, you've lost me.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Weekend Writer: Two Minds are Better than One

My spouse's birthday was this weekend, so writing time took a back seat. This doesn't mean that I spent the weekend ignoring my book. Two more chapters went through the editing process, and since this is a holiday weekend, writing is on the agenda for tomorrow. Birthdays and holidays don't change the fact that there's lots of work to do and never enough time to complete every task on my list.

Even when we take a break from our respective computer screens, we aren't quite taking a break from writing. Over lunch, we discussed her work in progress and mine.

These discussions are important. The writing process is often a solitary effort, but too much alone time can lead to tunnel vision. Having someone to bounce ideas off of is a tremendous asset to me in developing my project. Putting ideas of how a character should feel or act into words forces me to clarify what I have in mind. Questions make me flesh out the character, adding depth and richness to my original idea.

My skills character building, world building, and plot building have all been helped by having Sarah here to listen and question my ideas. I would like to think that she finds my suggestions, comments, and questions equally helpful. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: What makes a "good" bad guy?

There are a lot of mystery readers who think that a mystery is only as good as the villain. With that in mind, what makes a good bad guy? For me, the villains that stand out are the ones that come alive on the page, they are unique in their skulduggery.  In comic books you can get away with the evil genius, but mysteries require something a bit closer to real life. Give me a villain that is a hero in his own mind. I want someone who has lost something of value, someone smart and capable. Give me a villain who gave in to a moment of weakness, and now is trying to keep others from finding out at any cost.

Heroes are important. In the end, I want the hero to win, but victory should come at a price. Heap trouble on the hero.

A good villain will find the smallest openings, drive the knife deep, and twist it hard. A writer worth their salt can give me a scoundrel that is one step ahead of the hero and the reader right up to the very end.Why? Because the best villains not only vex the hero to the limits of endurance they surprise and misdirect the reader with unexpected turns and twists of the plot.

In a good mystery the bad guy makes the story. It is on the shoulders of villainy to carry us into darkness so the hero can bring us light. So give a round of applause to those hard working scoundrels. Where would mystery be without them?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Weekend Writer: Popcorn and PJ's

Weekend writers don't have the luxury of sitting at their computers for hours on end. Our day jobs eat up the weekdays. Writing has to be worked into a schedule that includes household chores, errands that can't be accomplished during the workweek, and a never ending list of commitments outside of  the house. I am hoping one day to be a full time writer, but for now I battle through days at the office and leave the writing to an occasional hour in the evening and every chunk of the weekend I can grab.

This weekend has been an exception to the normal craziness of trying to make everything else in my life work in a way that leaves me time to write. The snow outside keeps would-be visitors at home. Hobbling around on crutches with a locked brace on my left leg prevents much housework. This weekend, I get to devote most of my time to writing.

My spouse kindly read a couple chapters aloud for me this morning. I love it when I can just sit there and listen to the flow of words, pausing only when something strikes my ear wrong. Together, we marked corrections and talked about possible changes.

It is wonderful when I get to sit around in my PJ's with my feet up and plot, write, edit, or attack any of those other tasks that make ideas into books. Today, a bowl of popcorn, a mug of hot chocolate, and a stack of chapters to edit will soon be waiting by my recliner. This is a day to remember.

I wish every weekend could be this relaxed and this productive, though I could do without the injured leg. Unfortunately, in the life of a weekend writer this is the exception to the rule. There are a dozen other demands on my time lurking in the background: promotional events for my current book are on the calendar, as are important family obligations. The chores I'm putting off until I recover from my little surfing accident will catch up with me. It isn't all working in my PJ's, but I am going to make the most out of today.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Thursday's Thugs: Knights of the Golden Circle

A group of five men met in Lexington, Kentucky on Independence Day of 1854 and took the first steps toward organizing the Knights of the Golden Circle. They placed a compass on a map of the Americas, with its center point being Havana, Cuba and drew a circle that encompassed the entire Southern United States, portions of Mexico, Central and South America. These men claimed they would unite in a Golden Circle and take over the production of cotton, coffee, sugar, chocolate, rice and tobacco. Through controlling these New World crops they believed they could control the world.

Dr. George Washington Lafayette Bickley was the moving force behind organizing the Knights of the Golden Circle. He and his friends supported the reopening  and expanding of the slave trade, buying up huge tracts of land in the countries he wished to control, and most of all, building a Southern-controlled empire around the plantation model.

A lot of Southerners would take exception to the Knights of the Golden Circle being called thugs, but the bad guys in Circle of Dishonor deserve the name. The KGC was behind a rash of payroll robberies in Kentucky and Ohio. These robberies probably led to the rumors of a secret stash of Confederate gold that the KGC was charged with protecting. They were also behind the reported 5th column of the Confederacy. John Hunt Morgan believed that the KGC would rise up and take arms when he led his command into Kentucky and Indiana.

Counting on thieves, profiteers, and assassins to form an army was a mistake that cost Morgan dearly. The KGC plot to burn New York City was closer to their type of rebellion. The one Castle that did take action, by stealing a train and attempting to invade Mexico, gave up without firing a shot before their train got out of Kansas.

The KGC appeared on the scene with a plot to assassinate Lincoln before his inaugural train could reach Washington. Nobody knows if the story is accurate or if it was the invention of Alan Pinkerton to establish himself as the newly elected president's bodyguard. Certainly there were members of the KGC in Maryland, but how effective they were at that stage of their growth is impossible to know.

By the end of the Civil War, the KGC had established Castles (local chapters of the Knights) in every Southern state. At their peak, there were 20 Castles in Texas alone. Kentucky is estimated to have produced 400,000 members of the KGC. The population of the state and the pro-Union factions active in Kentucky make me believe that the actual number of members was far lower.

One of the problems I have run into when researching the KGC is the "Golden Ticket." A group of New York con men managed to travel through most of Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois selling gold/yellow tickets that could be presented to General Morgan and his men to would keep them from stealing horses and other livestock from Confederate sympathizers. But as one parses through fact and fiction, the pieces clearly form a picture of men intent upon ruling the world at any cost.