Everyone who reads Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, inevitably finds themselves wondering how the story would have concluded had the author lived to complete it. Did John Jasper, the sinister choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral, strangle Edwin, his rival for the hand of the delightful Rosa Bud, dump the body in the Sapsea Family Tomb and dose it with quicklime to hide his crime? Did the ruby-and diamond engagement ring in Edwin’s breast pocket survive the power of the corrosive and lead to the decomposed body’s identification and Jasper’s capture?
Dickens steers the reader towards believing that the answer to both questions is ‘yes’. Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, however, someone who should know what he’s talking about, claimed that the mystery writer’s task is to conceal the key idea and emphasize everything which makes for a different explanation. Was Dickens, then, ladening his text with red herrings to put the reader off the scent, so to speak? Did he have in mind an ending that would turn everything on its head?
Of course, we’ll never know. Dickens died and the novel was never finished. That, though, has not stopped the speculation. Quite the opposite, in fact. The number of attempts in the one hundred and fifty years since his death to discover the ‘true’ ending is mind-boggling. A 600-page bibliography published in 1998 lists almost two thousand articles and books seeking to unearth clues in the text, decipher how the plot might evolve, and, of course, discover Edwin’s fate.
And it was not just Dickensian scholars who were consumed with finding the Drood Holy Grail. A PBS Masterpiece production, airing in 2012 and featuring Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as John Jasper, presented its own ending to the novel, while the Robert Holmes Broadway musical, Drood, which began its second run in 2012, invited the audience to choose the ending. Most surprising of all, though, was the mock trial of John Jasper for the murder of Edwin Drood held in King’s Hall, Covent Garden, in 1914. The jury, under the foremanship of George Bernard Shaw, returned a spineless verdict of manslaughter, at which point the judge (G. K. Chesterton of Father Brown fame) promptly fined everyone, except himself, for contempt of court!
The half-finished story enticed, begged almost, anyone who read it to come up with their own ending, and I was no exception. I donned my deerstalker, lit my meerschaum pipe and settled down to see what I could discover in the completed half of the novel. Nothing probably. After all, this vein of Drood gold had surely been panned to extinction by this point. But hold on! What was that on page 151? My blood racing, I reread the passage.
In a touching scene, Edwin and Rosa decide to separate, and the engagement ring, intended for Rosa’s finger, remains in Edwin’s breast pocket. And that is the problem. The young man would never leave such a priceless treasure in his coat pocket. He’d lock it away in his lodgings for safekeeping. How then, could the gold and precious stones – that weren’t in Edwin’s pocket – be found on his body and cause the murderer’s downfall? Suddenly, the vast majority of proposed continuations collapsed to dust! I’d struck gold!
Once the euphoria of spotting this flaw in the plot had worn off, I had to decide what to do next. Publish it. That’s what I would do. To my delight, my finding was published. To my despair, it appeared as a two-page comment deep inside a periodical where I knew it would be lost and forgotten as soon as the type was set. It deserved more. But what?
The shift in location of the ring from pocket to lodgings opened up a raft of new possibilities for the ending to Dickens’s novel. I determined to find the most plausible. The one I finally fastened on is fully consistent with the first half of the Drood story (a must for any continuation), avoids the unconvincing placement of the ring in Edwin’s pocket, and reflects Dickens’s approach to storytelling as evidenced by his other novels. A promising start, perhaps, but was this enough?
Having never written a novel before, the idea of transforming my continuation into a fill-blooded work of fiction seemed far fetched. But the thought prayed on my mind, and at two o’clock one morning, I had my Eureka moment. Dickens didn’t just die before completing the Drood story; he was killed to prevent him from completing it. An intriguing premise, but now I needed a motive for the author’s murder and a protagonist clever enough to find something in the Drood continuation to expose Dickens’s killer.
The more I read about Dickens, the more I became aware of a darker side to his life. In the space of a year, he met Ellen Ternan, a London stage actress, half his age; made her his mistress; and separated from his wife of fourteen years and ten live births. It’s even rumored that he fathered an illegitimate child with his young paramour. Fertile ground here, then, for secrets and motives, more than enough for me to embed my Drood continuation in a broader mystery surrounding Dickens himself.
As for my protagonist, I wanted someone who was far from fiction’s stereotypical detectives, neither a Sherlock Holmes nor a Sam Spade. I settled on a diffident, middle-aged, retired bookkeeper (think of a latter-day Mr Pickwick). Dunston Burnett, as I named him, does, however, have two sleuthing talents. He has the uncanny ability to join the dots in new ways, and even conjure up as yet unseen dots to create a picture invisible to everyone else. Unlike Sherlock’s always-correct deductions, Dunston’s ‘pre-ductions’, as his policeman friend calls them, are usually wrong but on the odd occasion when they are right, they are breath-takingly so. And he can be determinedly stubborn. Once he gets his teeth into something, he has the perseverance of King Bruce’s spider.
The Drood continuation, the motive behind Dickens’s murder, and my amateur sleuth are the building blocks that underpin my debut novel, Immortalised to Death. The glue holding them together is the tension running throughout the story between Dunston’s limited detective skills – pre-ductions and tenacity – and the apparently perfect crimes confronting him. How does he fare? It’s mixed. His envisioned conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood takes him a long way to solving the bigger mystery surrounding the death of Dickens, but not all the way. It’s not until the very last chapter that an unexpected event reveals to Dunston who really took the life of England’s foremost novelist.
Immortalised to Death was released on September 26, 2023, and is available on Amazon.com and Bookshop.org. To learn more about Immortalised to Death and the other two books comprising The Dunston Burnett Trilogy (Fatally Inferior, forthcoming September 2024, and The Séance of Murder, forthcoming September 2025) please visit my website: lynsquiremysteries.com.
Lyn Squire was born in the UK and educated at Cambridge University. He now lives in Springfield, Virginia. During his career as a development specialist, he served as Director of the World Bank’s Research Department and was the founding president of the Global Development Network, an organization dedicated to promoting scholars from developing countries. He now writes mysteries.
by Cathi Stoler
When I wrote “Nick Of Time,” a Nick Donahue Adventure, I created my character as an intelligent, suave, and good-looking guy who works as an International Blackjack player. If it sounds sexy and a little bit risky, it is. Nick, a good guy, often finds himself caught up in circumstances that have more to do with danger than with Blackjack—like coming to the aid of a beautiful woman in distress, Marina DiPietro, and getting kidnapped for his trouble, or helping his brother, Alex, a banker at Suissebank, avenge the death of a co-worker, or taking on the New York mob, and it’s capo, Tommy B Bonnanniao. As I said, professional gambler, not an action hero. And the settings, Venice, Zurich, and Monte Carlo, make things more exotic and intriguing.
Hmmm, I thought like so many authors before me, with all this swirling around Nick, this story would make a great movie. I believed these characters could jump right off the page and onto big screens, and small ones, everywhere. What director or producer would want to pass up such an opportunity?
With that in mind, I decided to make it effortless for any one of them to just pick up “Nick Of Time,” and go with it. And, to make it even easier, I did my own pre-casting for the main characters.
--Tom Hiddleston as Nick Donahue, a professional Blackjack player who travels the world playing the game. Nick is tall, dark, and handsome, as well as a little bit quirky, which is part of his charm. Impeccably dressed in a black tuxedo and bowtie, Nick brings a sense of humor to the table, until that is, he has to go all in in a high-stakes game to save Marina’s life.
If Tom isn’t available, although I can’t imagine he’d turn down the role, there’s always Luke Evans who could fill in nicely.
--Gal Gadot as Marina DiPietro, a tall, willowy knockout, and an insurance recovery agent, Marina entices Nick to help her to retrieve a package of gems stolen by an infamous gang of jewel thieves. As you might imagine, things don’t go as planned, and after a worldwind of missteps, Nick winds up having to rescue Marina. If Gal is otherwise engaged, Elizabeth Debicki could step in. And, she has a history working with Tom Hiddleston.
--Chris Pratt as Alex Donahue, Nick’s younger, handsome brother. Alex, a banker working for Suissebank in Zurich is at a loss as to what has happened to his former boss and colleague who has disappeared. He believes the bank has had him killed and not transferred as they claim. When Alex asks Nick for help, things spiral out of control as Nick blows the whistle on the bank and its money-laundering scheme for its biggest client, the New York mob. Chris Pine would do nicely in this role, as well.
--Kevin Costner as Tommy “B” Bonnanniao, Capo of the New York mob, Tommy B expects Nick to win at a high-stakes Baccarat game in Monte Carlo and make good on the money he lost in a money-laundering scheme because of Suissbank’s downfall. If Nick doesn’t come through, Marina could lose her life. Rough around the edges and used to getting his way, this character could also be played by Stephen Baldwin or Arian Moayed.
The option is open, so if you’re interested in a high-octane project, let me know.
Cathi Stoler, a native New Yorker, drew on her travels to interesting and exotic places to write two new mystery suspense novels, Out of Time and Nick of Time, The Nick Donahue Adventures.
Her suspense novels, Bar None, Last Call, Straight Up, and With A Twist, The Murder on the Rocks Mysteries, are set in New York City and feature The Corner Lounge owner, Jude Dillane. She is also the author of the three-volume Laurel & Helen New York Mystery series, which includes Telling Lies, Keeping Secrets, and The Hard Way.
Stoler is a three-time finalist and the winner of the Derringer for Best Short Story “The Kaluki Kings of Queens.” She is a board member of Sisters in Crime New York/Tri-State, and a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers. She lives in New York City with her husband. You can find her at www.cathistoler.com.
By Kathleen Marple Kalb
When life gives you lemons…
Turns out there’s a lot more to lemonade than juice and sugar, which is part of the reason historian Christian Shaw likes a glass after doing yard work in The Stuff of Murder. Christian, the director of the Unity, Connecticut, Historical Society, finds herself in the middle of a murder case when a fading movie star drops dead on a shoot in town – and ends up tracking the killer with her knowledge of historic household items. And the occasional break for lawn mowing and lemonade.
It’s a good choice for this household historian.
While people have been enjoying cold citrusy drinks since at least the tenth century, lemonade has picked up surprising resonance for a simple beverage.
Starting with the lemons. First, life hasn’t been giving us actual lemons all that long. We know there were citrons, and other kinds of citrus in Greek and Roman times…but there’s nothing that’s verifiably a lemon until the 12th century. The treat from the tenth-century, enjoyed by the Jewish community in Egypt, was probably a citron slushie. Yum.
There’s no record of the person who actually took lemons and made lemonade, but we can verify that it was first sold as a soft drink in Paris on August 20th, 1630. It was made with sparkling water, sweetened with honey (the New World cane sugar industry wasn’t in full swing yet) and sold from tanks on the vendors’ backs. It was such a hot property that the vendors unionized into the Guild of Limonadiers!
Peak Lemonade came in 19th century America. The first U.S. recipe for lemonade was published in 1824, in the Virginia Housewife, and included egg whites. Egg whites or no, for most people it was an exotic treat. Remember, in most places, the lemons had to be shipped in or grown in a hothouse, so it was expensive and exciting.
That might add a little context to the whole temperance lemonade frenzy.
As hard as it is to imagine anyone seriously thinking a workingman would give up his nightly snort for a soft drink, it might be slightly less off the wall if the substitute were something seen as a treat. Maybe.
Still, by the late 19th century, the temperance movement was doing its best to make the case, pushing the slogan: “Goodbye to liquor, here’s lemonade!” It may not have worked for the guys at the corner bar, but it was the rule at the White House, where First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes (inevitably known as Lemonade Lucy) poured out the soft stuff. When she and husband Rutherford B. left, temperance went with them, until Prohibition made it mandatory.
By the end of the 19th century, just plain lemonade wasn’t all that exotic any more. Fortunately, there were new variations. “Portable lemonade” was what we recognize as drink mix: powdered lemon juice, sugar, and citric acid, useful for the frontier and even the military.
And then there’s pink lemonade.
There are two origin stories: one is fun and one is icky. The fun one is that someone at a circus accidentally dropped red cinnamon candies in the vat of lemonade and eureka, a cool new drink was born. The icky one? One of the trapeze girls accidentally rinsed out her red tights in the water meant for lemonade, and nobody had time to go get more water…so they made it into lemonade and sold it anyway. Another version of that story is even worse: it’s the clown’s socks!
However we ended up with pink lemonade, it still fits perfectly with the idea of making the best of a setback. So, when life gives you lemons – and wet clown socks! – make lemonade!
Kathleen Marple Kalb likes to describe herself as an Author/Anchor/Mom…not in that order. An award-winning radio journalist, she currently anchors on the weekend morning show at New York's #1 news station, 1010 WINS. She’s the author of several mysteries, historical and contemporary. Her short stories appear in anthologies and online and have been short-listed for Derringer and Black Orchid Novella Awards. She grew up in front of a microphone and a keyboard, working as an overnight DJ as a teenager in her hometown of Brookville, Pennsylvania…and writing her first (thankfully unpublished) novel at sixteen. When her son started kindergarten, she returned to fiction, and after two failed projects, some 200 rejections, and a family health crisis, found an agent for the third book—leading to a pandemic debut. In hopes of sharing what she’s learned the hard way, she’s active in writers’ groups, including Sisters in Crime and the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and keeps a weekly writing survival tips blog. She, her husband, and their son live in Connecticut in a house owned by their cat.
by Charles Philipp Martin
I do not know you. But if you’re attempting to write a novel in 30 days, I know a couple of things about you. One is, you’re insane. The other is you love books, writing, and words. And for this I think you’re a good person, and worth a bit of my time.
But I won’t kid you. What you’re trying to do is very difficult. Especially if you want to create something good. Perhaps these few hints of mine will help.
Sure, it’s a big responsibility. But if you’re not up to it, the porta potties are filling up fast.
Charles Philipp Martin grew up in New York City's Greenwich Village. His father was an opera conductor and both his parents well-known opera translators and librettists who never uttered the word "parenting" but knew enough to steep their family in music and literature. After attending Columbia University and Manhattan School of Music, Martin took off for a six-year paid vacation in the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.
While in Hong Kong he hung up his bow and turned to writing, spending four years as a Sunday Magazine columnist for the South China Morning Post, and writing for magazines all over Southeast Asia. His weekly jazz radio show 3 O'Clock Jump was heard every Saturday on Hong Kong’s Radio 3 for some two decades.
Neon Panic, his first novel featuring Hong Kong policeman Inspector Herman Lok, was published in 2011. The second Inspector Lok novel, Rented Grave, will be coming out from Level Best Books in the summer of 2024. Martin now lives in Seattle with his wife Catherine.
Photo: Lincoln Potter
By Heather Weidner
Writing is a business. You, as a writer, need to treat your work that way. Also, writers need to understand that publishing is a business.
Book stores get hundreds of requests for signings. They have to outlay time and money for events for staffing, stocking books, and promotion. Many are choosy or reluctant to host unknown authors. Some will not host authors whose unsold books are not returnable. Find ways to sell your proposed signing (e.g. book talk on a subject that their shoppers would be interested in, providing a group of authors who can bring readers to the store, a marketing campaign for publicizing the event). Find out if they will let you provide the books on consignment.
Agents, editors, and publishers sign authors that they think they can sell their work. Sometimes, it’s not your writing. It could be that the topic/subject has been done before, and it will be hard to sell in your genre. Do your research of what is out there before you write the next bookshop or knitting mystery.
Publishers are looking several years ahead to fill their slots, and there are not a lot of openings on the dockets. It takes months/years sometimes for a book to be published traditionally. Make your manuscript the best it can be before you start querying.
Always be professional. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you want to be easy to work with. People tend to avoid the whiners, divas, and complainers.
Make sure that you are polished and that your marketing materials look professional.
Writing is a tough business. Everyone has feedback, and there are a lot of rejections. But there are things you can do to be prepared. Professionalism is key.
Through the years, Heather Weidner has been a cop’s kid, technical writer, editor, college professor, software tester, and IT manager. She writes the Delanie Fitzgerald Mysteries, The Jules Keene Glamping Mysteries, and The Mermaid Bay Christmas Shoppe Mysteries.She is a member of Sisters in Crime – Central Virginia, Sisters in Crime – Chessie, Guppies, International Thriller Writers, and James River Writers.
Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather has been a mystery fan since Scooby-Doo and Nancy Drew. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.
by Alan Orloff
Writer’s Block. Such ugly words. Funny how the mere mention of it strikes terror into the hearts of writers. I have to say, I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Get in the chair, turn on your computer, and start typing. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, do they? (At least I don’t think they do…)
Anyway, there certainly are times when the words don’t seem to flow very well. And sometimes, even when the words are appearing on your computer screen, they seem dull and lifeless.
How do you get past “stuck?”
Try these tips:
Work on a different section of your manuscript. Jump to the end, or skip to a scene where you know exactly what’s going to happen. The words might flow more freely.
Do something else. Stop banging your head against the wall and trust your subconscious to sneak up on the problem from a different angle. Watch TV, go to the movies, lace up your jogging shoes and get some exercise. If you’re looking for something a little more torturous, clean your house. After an hour of scrubbing floors, I’m ready to get back to writing.
Re-read some of your other work. Pull out some polished examples of your writing and give them another read. You did it once, you can do it again.
Read someone else’s work. Find a book by an author you admire. Read it to absorb the flow and energy of something you connect with.
Type another author’s work. If just reading a book isn't enough, try typing a few pages of someone else’s work, just to get the creative juices flowing. When you’re done, be sure to delete it all. I’m not coming to visit you in prison.
Write something in a different genre. If you are a crime writer, try writing something that’s humorous or autobiographical or features talking goldfish.
Write in a different style or voice. Switch from first person to third (or vice versa) to shake things up. Note: Never attempt to write in second person. That’s just weird.
Write in a different form. If you write prose, try poetry. If you write novels, try a short story (or a cell phone novel). Or log some serious time on Twitter.
Read a book on writing. Stephen King's On Writing or Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird are a couple of my favorites.
Mix up your routine. Try listening to music (or a different kind of music) or try writing at a different time of day than usual. Try varying your locations, too. A park, coffeehouse, or deserted alley may get those juices flowing (especially a deserted alley at night!).
Bribe your muse. Promise your muse you'll do something nice for him/her after you get a few scenes written. Lunch with a friend, a round of golf, or a box of chocolates have been known to work. (So I've heard.)
If these don’t work, I have one more suggestion. Tell yourself that you’re on a tight deadline and your draft is due tomorrow.
That’ll get you writing. (So I’ve heard.)
Alan Orloff has published ten novels and more than forty-five short stories. His work has won an Anthony, an Agatha, a Derringer, and two ITW Thriller Awards. His latest novel is SANCTUARY MOTEL, from Level Best Books. He loves cake and arugula, but not together. Never together. He lives and writes in South Florida, where the examples of hijinks are endless. www.alanorloff.com
By Marlie Parker Wasserman
How do authors select the names of their characters? Some look to lists of popular names. Some hold contests among their fans. Some try to emulate Charles Dickens by selecting names that describe their characters. Readers may assume that writers of historical fiction have an easier time because they pluck their characters’ names from the historical record. Not always.
For my first historical novel, The Murderess Must Die, I established a guiding principle that I continue to use—or I should write aim to use—as I write historical fiction. When a fact is known, I stick to it. When a fact is unknown, I invent. To figure out the known, I research for months, then I start writing. For that first novel, only well into my writing did I realize I had naming problems. Many of my characters, the real people who are part of the story, had the same names, or confusing names. If I could barely keep the characters straight, how could readers?
In finishing my third novel, I’ve come to sort my naming problems into two categories: characters in the historical record who have the same name, usually common names for the Gilded Age and the Progressive Age, and characters with names too common to research.
Let me start with the second category, which always produces chuckles. For my newest novel, Inferno on Fifth, I needed to research New York City’s Buildings Commissioner in 1899, a real person named Thomas Brady. Googling him turns up thousands of useless leads to a football player. I’ve also had to research Alfred Pope, an industrialist from Cleveland. I cannot google his full name successfully because newspapers reporters often didn’t know it. During the week that Mr. Pope figures in my novel, American newspapers reported on the serious illness of Pope Leo XIII. You can imagine the results from googling Pope.
The more common problem I face is common names. They drive me crazy. Were all men who lived around the year 1900 named William or Frank? Two policemen who witnessed the crime scene at the center of my first novel had the name William Maher. I had to give one a nickname. In my second novel, Path of Peril, set in Panama in 1906, I encountered two historical figures with similar names—Elliott Roosevelt, brother of Teddy, and R.B. Elliott, a little-known labor leader. I chose to minimize the role of the labor leader. I encountered two James—valet James Amos and secret service agent James Sloan. I opted to call the valet by his last name.
In writing my third novel, Inferno on Fifth, women’s names become the issue. Two women named Ida figure in my story—Ida McClusky, sister of a detective, and Ida McKinley, wife of a president. I chose to refer to the former as, simply, the sister. I also manipulate three Helens. I allow only Helen Gould, the daughter of Jay Gould, to keep her name. And I grapple with two Alices, a mother and daughter. I’m still pondering how to keep them straight for the reader.
Even less common names cause problems. For The Murderess Must Die, I researched details about the brother of my primary character, a young man with the seemingly distinctive name of Garrett Terhune Garretson, who fought in the Civil War. I found two men with the exact same name, living at about the same time. I spent weeks going down rabbit holes with the wrong man. With that book I also encountered a problem with nicknames. I thought Penelope, my primary character’s mother, was nicknamed Ellen, then it appeared that whether that was right or not, another Ellen was my character’s sister.
In each of my novels I erase the correct names of some of my characters for, as the phrase goes, the good of the story. I choose readability over accuracy. Sadly, and cowardly, I let my more well-known characters keep their names as I weigh how likely readers are to notice errors. In every case, I provide explanations and apologies in my author’s notes. I want to offer a call for action at the end of this little essay—please, parents, chose distinctive names for your children or we will have generations of novelists trying to sort out Rachels, Emmas, Noahs, and Olivers.
Marlie Parker Wasserman writes historical crime fiction. Her previous books are The Murderess
Must Die and Path of Peril. Her latest book, Inferno on Fifth, is inspired by the true story of the shocking fire that leveled one of Manhattan’s elegant hotels twelve years before the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. When not writing, Marlie travels throughout the world and tries to remember how to sketch. She lives with her husband in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
By Jason Monaghan
One challenge of writing a thriller set in a historic period is that we know what happened. Even if most of your readers are not history experts, they will be aware of the big picture and can quickly dive into Wikipedia to flesh out the facts. We know which US Presidents were assassinated, who won WW2 and are sure the Titanic sank. A reader can anticipate what is going to happen.
Even if we know our history, tension can be created against a historic backdrop that is fixed, for example in the Phillip Kerr books set in 1930s and 1940s Germany. Innumerable crimes and misdemeanours and cunning plots can be fitted into this ‘Golden Age’ with only passing nods to the historic timeline. Much happened that is not in the history books. Even if writing a thriller faithful to a well-known event such as Robert Harris’ Munich a great deal of the dialogue, plot and behind-the-scenes action needs to be made up.
Crucially, although modern readers know how it all turned out, the characters don’t. The writer needs to convey their hopes and fears and plans when the future is unknown. To them the end is not inevitable, and even the historic outcome need not pre-determine their fate as individuals. Characters should not be granted too much foreknowledge and so take actions that in hindsight we know are mistakes; they may invest in the stock market in 1928 because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Even if the reader is not surprised by the outcome of events, they are rewarded by how the protagonists react.
Historic thriller plots are made easier if the lead characters are minor players in the great game; a soldier not a general, a highwayman not a king. Major historical figures are given only walk-on parts, perhaps spouting lines they actually used. Only a little license is needed for our hero to be one of Columbus’ crewman or a Lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn. Take a little more license and one of our characters can play a pivotal role, such as being one of the senators who sticks a dagger into Julius Caesar.
Writing alternative history such as Phillip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a bolder step still. It opens up possibilities but requires a suspension of disbelief by the reader. The altered timeline needs to be explained and the bigger the departure from reality, the more thought the writer must put into world-building. Fantastic elements need to be minimised so that once over the initial hurdle everything about this changed world feels logical. The more recognisable elements of the real historic period that are included, the less of a jump it will be for the reader. The history is ‘wrong’, but it should feel plausible.
We are not writing history books so much of the research that underpins a thriller must be set aside, keeping only the nuggets that add richness to the story and provide the context. However, some facts can prove to be inconvenient and box the plot in if not derailing it entirely. Changing just a few of those inconvenient facts raises the reader’s doubts whether we will see history unfold as it should. Perhaps Hitler will be assassinated by our hero, or perhaps JFK will be saved. The character’s uncertainty about what could happen becomes more real if the reader also becomes uncertain. It’s a thriller, and we expect the unexpected.
Jason Monaghan is an author and archaeologist. Blackshirt Masquerade by is set in 1935 in a Britain under the rising threat of fascism. The fascist bid for power accelerates during the ‘Abdication Crisis’ of 1936 in Blackshirt Conspiracy. Both are published by the Historia Imprint of Level Best Books.
By Erica Miner
When it comes to old adages, “Write what you know” ranks right up there with, “Practice makes perfect” and, “Have no fear of perfection, you'll never reach it.”
In a recent webinar, Level Best Books author James L’Etoile discussed how our writers’ life experiences influence what we write. His background of many years working in the criminal justice system infuses his murder mysteries with compelling authenticity. I am able to relate to that concept, as my own life experiences have proved to be a goldmine of material for my fiction.
My 21 years as a violinist with New York’s Metropolitan Opera have provided a sharp-edged realism to my Julia Kogan “Opera Mystery” series. The first in the series, Aria for Murder, takes place at the Met. My protagonist, Julia Kogan, is a direct clone of myself when I first started out at the company: a gifted young violinist debuting with the Met Opera Orchestra, trying to make her way in a difficult, demanding profession that is in many ways still dominated by men.
The people Julia encounters—fellow musicians, conductors, chorus members, stagehands, stage managers and the like—populate this story as reflections of my own relationships with company members. The real-world personality traits of people who were an integral part of my daily life at this home-away-from-home that was the Met Opera formed the basis of many of the characters I created in Aria for Murder.
But I also witnessed actual situations that initially inspired me to write this series: a number of nefarious goings-on that sparked my imagination and caused me to embroider and escalate the possibilities of these circumstances into behind-the-scenes murder and intrigue at this venerable institution. Writing this story also gave me a unique opportunity to kill off the people who made my life miserable! (Not all of them…I had to save a few for the sequels, which will thrust Julia into heaps of trouble at different opera houses across the country.)
The Met Opera is a unique world: the most prestigious opera company on the planet, where superstars like Caruso, Pavarotti and Domingo have been entertaining the cream-of-the-crop of opera aficionados for centuries. Standards are the highest on the planet; so are the stakes.
These elite audiences, however, have no idea what goes on behind all the glamour and glitz. Ultimately, revealing the dark side of the opera world is my rationale for creating these operatic whodunits. Under those crystal chandeliers, behind that “Golden Curtain,” hundreds of people are working in different jobs simultaneously, and always at odds with each other: opera superstars, comprimarios (lesser solo singers), directors, conductors, orchestra, chorus, ballet, stagehands, wardrobe, make up, wigmakers and more. Egos clash, tempers flare. There’s no love lost between any of them.
Take the orchestra, for example: 100 neurotic musicians thrown together in a hole in the ground with no air and no light, 7 days a week, days, nights, weekends. You see more of these people than your own families. Sooner or later, someone’s going to want to kill somebody.
Aria for Murder.
In Julia, however, I have created a protagonist who, unlike myself, is capable of rising above her fears to plunge herself into a murder investigation. I could never be that brave. That is where the beauty of writing fiction can transform “Write what you know” into “Create a character who is the kind of person you’d like to be.”
And what could be better than that?
Former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner is an award-wining author, screenwriter, arts journalist, and lecturer. Her debut novel, Travels with my Lovers, won the Fiction Prize in the Direct from the Author Book Awards, and her screenplays have won awards in the WinFemme, Santa Fe and Writers Digest competitions. Based in the Pacific Northwest, Erica continues to balance her reviews and interviews of real-world musical artists with her fanciful plot fabrications that reveal the dark side of the fascinating world of opera. Aria for Murder, published by Level Best in Oct. 2022, is the first in her Julia Kogan Opera Mystery series. Prelude to Murder, the sequel set at the Sante Fe Opera, was released September 2023. Book three,taking place at the San Francisco Opera is due for release in 2024. https://www.ericaminer.com
By Katherine Ramsland
Most of us enjoy a sense of the familiar. It’s predictable, comforting, and often preferable, even if lacking in thrill. It allows us to relax and gather ourselves. That’s why adding consistent rituals throughout your series can deepen your readers’ connection to your characters. They experience repeated rituals as an element of series consistency.
When I planned my “Nut Cracker Investigations” for Level Best Books, I wanted to develop ways to cohere my PI team. I have three primary and several secondary members, but I wanted the primaries to participate most clearly in closure and commitment. All for one, and one for all, that type of thing.
Annie Hunter, a forensic psychologist, manages the investigation agency; Ayden Scott is her PI, and Natra Gawani her data manager and confidante. My secondary team features a digital expert, a forensic meteorologist, and an attorney. They’re in and out as needed.
One ritual I use runs in the background: Annie likes red wine, so whenever the team has an opportunity to brainstorm over wine, they pick a label that matches the situation. Stormy Weather during a tornado, for example. Readers recognize this display of character (and sometimes they buy wine for book club signings).
A more important ritual is the case debriefing. Although there are plenty of times when the team brainstorms, it’s the post-case gathering that really unites them. No one else is allowed, no matter what part they might have played. This is a solemn Nut Crackers ritual. Here, they patch holes, lick wounds, plan improvements, and show how much the work means to them. They might tease or toast each other, or even mourn together. For them, it’s the best part of the case.
I include a debrief scene in every novel because I want readers to expect it, appreciate it, and watch how Annie responds to their own lingering questions. She might even use the time to set up the next case, whetting readers’ appetites.
Like Annie’s wine, rituals pair well with our sense of anticipation and connection. Here are three psychological reasons to develop some rituals for your series:
It’s worth considering rituals that put your characters in motion or reveal their qualities. Thus, you’ll get an added benefit, and readers will likely look forward to how these rituals play out.
Katherine Ramsland has played chess with serial killers, dug up the dead, worked with profilers, and camped out in haunted crime scenes. As a professor of forensic psychology and a death investigation consultant, she seeks unique angles. The author of 71 books, she’s been a forensic consultant for CSI, Bones and The Alienist and an executive producer on Murder House Flip and A&E’s Confession of a Serial Killer. She’s become a go-to expert for the most deviant forms of criminal behavior, which provides background for her Nut Cracker Investigations. Her second novel in the serial, In the Damage Path, is now available.