Saturday, December 27, 2014

Bright Lights, Big City, Black Orchids: Part Two

Okay, so I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of mysteries in my time. And I’ve also read a lot of ‘how to write a mystery’ manuals. It’s what we writers do, after all. We’re either writing, or reading about writing, or reading to see how other writers write, or of course reading for fun. Because, after all, the reason anyone wants to become a writer is because she loves reading so much, so thinks writing must be even more fun. 

And writing is fun. Writing is also hard work. And writing takes self-confidence. And practice. Lots of practice. It’s incredibly difficult to do anything well the first time you attempt it, after all. Sadly, as Mark Twain pointed out, ‘give a man a pencil and he thinks he’s a writer.’ I’ve been practicing my craft for a few years now, mostly in fantasy, science fiction, horror and pulp, but other than a couple of attempts at mystery short stories, I didn’t feel confident that I could come up with a clever plot.  

But I did feel confident that I could come up with interesting characters. And I would also need a setting that, hopefully, would feel fresh and new. Where, oh where, would my characters do their detecting? There are mysteries set in villages and cities, in ancient Egypt and in space, in the Middle Ages and in the 1930s…and every place and time period you can think of, with more coming out every day.  

So I looked around me. I live in a small town in South Carolina that used to be—before the textile industry vacated the premises and headed for other greener hills in other countries—the site of a cotton mill. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever thought much about cotton mills, ever said, perhaps while eating breakfast, “Wonder how those cotton balls in the medicine cabinet ever became the shirt I’m wearing?” Probably not, huh? But in this area of the state, there are—or there used to be—more cotton mills than almost any other industry. Back in the day, say from after the War of Northern Aggression to near the end of the 20th century, you couldn’t swing a cat—not that I have ever had any interest in rotating felines about the head—without hitting a cotton mill. They were so abundant that the owners gave up on conjuring clever names for them and settled on Mill #1, #2 and #3.  

But one of the many cool things about cotton mills is that the owners would build houses around the mills for the workers to live in, and not just houses but entire towns, with stores and churches and everything necessary for the employees, just so those employees would hang around to work and keep the mills running. Rent on these houses, and stuff bought in the company stores, would go in a ledger and often by the end of the week, the mill workers would not see a penny in wages, as those wages had already been spent on food and shelter and candy. Hence the song lyric: ‘I owe my soul to the company store.’  

As a kid, I had relatives who’d worked in the mills. My great aunt met all three of her husbands there, and my grandmother went to work in one at thirteen. Her brother, my Great-Uncle Guy, was a good baseball player, and Granny told me stories about how he was lured from mill to mill to play on the mill teams.  

Now if this doesn’t sound like a cozy village wherein a murder or two could quite profitably be set, then you’re not thinking ‘mystery’ is all I can say. So more next time on how the cotton mill village became the scene of my crime.
Cotton Mill Worker circa 1900


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Bright Lights, Big City, Black Orchids--Part One

The usual apologies for not blogging lately. But...

Back in early May, I read about a contest for Rex Stout fans called the Black Orchid Novella Award. Being a Stout fan from way back—and yes, you can read that any way you like, and I’m sure you will—I decided to try my hand at a Stout-ish novella.

The brief was clear: a novella, under 17K words, original, unpublished, that conforms to the tradition of the Nero Wolfe series, as in: ‘no overt sex or violence; emphasizes the deductive skills of the sleuth; does not include characters from the original series’.

Easy-peasy, right? Sure. Nothing to it. Uh huh.
Do you KNOW how many mysteries have been written? Series, stand-alones, noir, cozy, hard-boiled, classic, historical, and so on? Mystery series have been set in medieval England—I’m talking to you, Brother Cadfael—late 19th century Egypt—I love me some Amelia Peabody—and every other time period you can imagine. And the classic sleuths have ranged from the Eddie Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, Doyle’s Holmes, Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Allingham’s Campion, Marsh’s Alleyn, Chesterton’s Brown, Hammett’s N&N Charles….and that just covers a mere hundred years or so. Since the 1930s—when FER DE LANCE, the first Nero Wolfe, was published…well, whoa. The idea was staggering that I could add something new and original to a genre so vast. 

But nothing ventured and all that. Living as I do in the South, near a small town that started out as a cotton mill village, I thought a mystery set in a mill village might be a workable concept. After all, I’ve read—obviously—a lot of mysteries and I couldn’t recall any of them set there. Also, a mill village has always seemed to me much like the small English villages where Miss Marple roamed: everyone had his or her place and position in the hierarchy, from the lowliest mill workers, up through the supervisors, and the owner of the mill being something along the lines of the local lord.  

So, venue decided upon. But then I ran into another difficulty. A clever plot. Look at Christie; all her plots are twisty-turny-complex. Could I do something like that? 

I reread some Nero Wolfe’s—never a chore, as all Stout’s books are eminently re-readable—and some of my other favorite mystery writers, plus some new ones I’d never read, and I discovered an interesting point: popular mystery series aren’t about the plot, but the characters. I can’t always remember who done it in my favorites, but I’m always glad to spend time with folks like Wolfe and Archie and Nick and Nora and Albert and Roderick. 
Hmmm. I appeared to be onto something. More about that in part two....and I promise it'll be soon.