Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

Guest Blog: M. Ruth Myers



M. Ruth Myers

A mystery writer has to juggle a few more elements than the regular novelist. Set it in the past, and the writer needs to keep even more in the air to avoid painful goose eggs on the head. Here’s what goes up and how to keep it aloft. (Feel free to blow smoke in my face and tell me my story doesn’t check out. I’ve been grilled before)

Any good novel needs certain basics — plot, pacing, character, dialog – skillfully done and in a balance to keep the reader reading. A mystery, in addition, must have clues and red herrings woven through those basics, sometimes sliding by unnoticed, other times producing an “Ah-hah! I’ll bet I know whodunit!” reaction. Writing a historical mystery calls for an additional set of elements which, like clues, must be worked in without slowing the story.

Some of those elements are ones found in any historical novel. If you’re thinking clothing styles, technology and jargon of the era, as well as actual historical events and personages, give yourself a gold star. Then consider additional ones which are particularly important to a historical MYSTERY where people are followed, eliminating a suspect may hinge on the time required to get from Point A to Point B, detectives interface with police and life-or-death chases are known to occur. For starters:

* Streets. Which have vanished or appeared or changed direction between your time period and the present? Certain types of mystery, such as private eye yarns and noir, characteristically tell the route the detective is taking when following someone or being followed — or thinking through the fastest way to get somewhere. A writer can locate a business or house on a fictitious street, or better still, refer to it as “just off” (fill in name of actual street), but keep it anchored to real places in order to give the historical authenticity readers expect.

* When unincorporated areas around a city were incorporated as separate towns or villages. If a suspect lives there, and your detective is going to follow or question him, best know how to refer to the area. Also, differences in jurisdiction might come into play.   Believe me, someone who has lived in the area or is a history buff will point it out if you slip.

* Changes in locations of government buildings, jails and police stations. Even an amateur sleuth may have occasion to visit such a place, so make sure buildings haven’t wandered.

* Changes in laws and speed limits. Some race cars of the late 1930s, when my Maggie Sullivan series opens, could go 100 mph or more. However the speed limit, even on U.S. highways, was 35 mph in most states.

* The attitudes and world-view of people in your chosen time period. This is far too often violated. It seems to me that writers are especially likely to attribute overly modern attitudes to female characters, presumably to make them more appealing to contemporary readers.

What forensic methods were available at the time? Were they widely used?

You may recall I said this information needs to be threaded through the mystery itself. If you periodically dump in paragraph upon paragraph, you stop the action cold. A historical MYSTERY is first and foremost a mystery. Maintaining pace is crucial.

Here are some ways I’ve approached it.

Tough Cookie, the second Maggie Sullivan mystery, opens with the PI in her office. She’s playing jacks with spare slugs for her .38 because: It beat trudging through slush and ice from Dayton’s last snowfall to spend three cents on the Daily News only to learn Herr Hitler was still bamboozling leaders in Europe. We get a sense of time (which becomes more specific later), of the media of the day, and of prices. Just as a new case walks in.

Later in the same book, as the case is starting to break, she waylays a photographer pal from the evening paper to ask him the fastest route to a town between Dayton and Cincinnati:

“Scenic or speed?”


“State route, then. The national’s better in places, but it swings west so far you lose time cutting back over. Speed limit’s thirty-five on both, so there’s nothing to even out the extra distance.”

“It entered my mind I might risk forty if I took the US route.”

“Adds lots of time if you get a ticket. Or blow a gasket.”

It sounded like the voice of experience.

In Don’t Dare a Dame, Maggie wants to call her client to warn her to expect the police: Going back to the office was faster than finding a pay phone.

Historical details need to become mere threads in the mystery itself. What’s the fast food of the detective’s time? What kind of lodgings does he or she have? Does he walk to appointments like Anna Castle’s Tom Clarady? Hire a horse cab like Susanne Alleyn’s Aristide Ravel? Or does she drive a DeSoto like Maggie Sullivan?

If you’re a mystery fan who hasn’t tried any with a historical setting, try some. You might enjoy them. If you favor historical novels, sample a few that are mysteries as well. You might discover new treats. Those of us who write them think the combination is as satisfying as tea and crumpets… or gin and tonic.


Guest Blog: Robert J. Ray

Robert J. Rayweekend novelist

“Keys to a Dramatic Scene”

The key to the dramatic scene is an intruder penetrating a closed circle. In society, we form a closed circle when we have coffee with a friend, or invite people to lunch, or gang up on the schoolyard. There can be violence—a burglar with a Glock Nine breaking down a door—but the intruder can also be an unwelcome wedding guest crashing the party.

A good example in the mystery game is the Sleuth’s Reward Scene in The Body in the Library, by Agatha Christie—the classical mystery used by Jack Remick and me when we wrote The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, for Dell. Sleuth’s Reward is a modular scene. The word “modular” tags a scene that crosses sub-genres. In hard-boiled fiction, the sleuth’s reward is money or a kiss blown by an out-of-reach dame. In a Christie tea-cozy, the Sleuth’s Reward is admitting that the killer should die.

Jack Remick and I honed our scene-writing skills teaching in the screen-writing program at the University of Washington, where we developed tools for quick scene-building. One of those tools appears below, the Scene Profile. There, we display a template for creating your own scene profile.

Example: The Scene


Name: Sleuth’s Reward (The Body in the Library)

Character and Stage: Miss Marple recreates the crime for the last time in Conway Jefferson’s sumptuous suite at the Majestic Hotel.

In attendance: Colonel Melchett, Chief Superintendent Harper, Conway Jefferson, and Sir Henry Clithering.

Closed Circle: Upper World hotel suite.

Intruder: Miss Marple, invited inside because she’s the sleuth who solved the case.

Object onstage: Miss Marple’s best evening gown.

Dialogue‑Monologue: Motive (money, the scarce resource base) and method (knockout drug, strangulation, blow to the head, burning) and luring the victim into the trap.

Action: Using words as building blocks, Miss Marple erects a triumphant rhetorical edifice.

Climax: Miss Marple admits she’ll enjoy seeing Mark Gaskell hang.

Symbol/Theme/Ritual: Restoration of order by a proper recreation of the crime.

Summary of the Scene (Useful for submitting your novel to a publisher):

The place of this Sleuth’s Reward scene is Conway Jefferson’s suite at the Majestic, a room with an ocean view. The time is evening, a day or so after the apprehension and incarceration of the killers, Josie Turner and Mark Gaskell. The sleuth wears her best evening gown. The main dramatic device is a series of connected Marpelian monologues ‑‑ facts, motive, the marriage connection coverup ‑‑ climaxed by a ten step recreation of the crime and the sleuth’s admission that she wants to see Gaskell hang.


In this scene, Miss Marple is rewarded by her position in society as sleuth triumphant. She solved the case. She saved Basil Blake from becoming a scapegoat. With shrewd sleuth magic, she saved the Bantrys from losing their social position in high society. The scene drips with a proper restoration of order.

Robert J. Ray is the author of seven novels: Cage of Mirrors, The Heart of the Game, Bloody Murdock, Murdock for Hire, The Hitman Cometh, Dial “M” for Murdock, and Merry Christmas, Murdock. A sixth Matt Murdock mystery—Murdock Tackles Taos—in process.  Ray is also the author of a popular non-fiction series on writing, The Weekend Novelist and he shares writing techniques on writing on his blog co-authored with long time writing partner, Jack Remick. Ray is a native of Texas and holds a PhD from the University of Texas, Austin. Tuesdays and Fridays, he and Jack write at Louisa’s Bakery and Café in Seattle.


Guest Blog: Jack Remick, author of TRIO OF LOST SOULS

trio of lost souls coverJack Remick photo

“The Sentence and Me”

When I wrote my first novel, like most writers, I thought books were made up of chapters and chapters were made up of paragraphs. Somewhere between book one and book two, it dawned on me that both chapters and paragraphs are just constructions built with sentences.

Big insight, right? One that everyone except me already knew but it changed the way I thought about writing. The sentence is the basic unit of everything. If you get the sentence right, you get the paragraph right and you get the chapter right.

So after I got the sentence I ran into trouble because the average sentence length in English is 14 words. Boring as hell. Am I doomed to write 14 word sentences for the rest of my life? Being a rebel, I said what happens if you do stuff to the sentence?

You rip it into fragments.

You run it out to a couple of hundred words.

You chop it up into short bursts.

You drop in a few rhetorical devices to make it dance.

The sentence is malleable.

After I buried the 14 word sentence in the cemetery of Useless Averages, I played around with this idea—what if you wrote an entire novel in sentence bursts and then worked the sentence bursts into “paragraphs?” What if you wrote sentences focused on Action and Image? Nobody will know what you’ve done because you’ve got your story in paragraphs. So I took a run at it in a short novel called Pacific Coast Highway. Here are a few “sentences” from that first writing, just as I put them down:

Palos Verdes Estates                                                                                              everything LA is supposed to be
jacaranda in bloom
eucalyptus lined streets that curve up                                                                           and away to white Spanish Neo houses
red tile roofs and wrought iron fences
Peacocks dance their fan dance for you
the smell of the eucalyptus is good for what ails your bank account
Later she tells me about the peacocks
How they were let loose                                                                                                       and took over                                                                                                                      and now perch on rooftops
and how they breed
and how much she loves them
and if anyone killed one of them                                                                                    she’d have him skinned alive
58 Via Campesina is exactly what it should be
A winding, palm-tree lined road
at the edge of a golf course there is a bridle path                                                     where Arabian horses are stabled
and just off the bridle path                                                                                                    a white Moorish castle towers right out of a fairy tale
its own shade of red tile and yard lights that turn the evening yellow

Here is that writing after a dozen rewrites, but now cast into fictional “paragraphs.”

Palos Verdes Estates is everything LA should be—winding hill-side streets lined with eucalyptus trees and jacaranda and on the slopes, neo-Spanish castles built of white brick and red tile roofs that glisten in the sunset melting down over the Pacific Ocean.

When you turn a close curve, peacocks with their rainbow fans screech at you like they own the place.

Later Bea tells me about the peacocks—How someone let them loose and how they took over and now perch on rooftops and how they breed and how much she loves them and how if anyone killed one of them, she’d skin him alive.

I pull into the drive at 58 Via Campesina, a curved drive big enough to hold a herd of German cars. I shut down the mill of the 850 CSi. I hear the birds chittering and the peacocks call and I hear the long slow whine of swimming pool pumps and somewhere, in another universe, a crow caws and for a second I forget who I am and where I am and what I am doing because for just that second I wonder how it would feel to come to a place like that every day with its peacocks on the roof and a swimming pool that hums and inside a woman who wears black and white and drives a big fast powerful rich German machine.

This is a technique I use now in every novel. Forget about writing in paragraphs. Write in sentences with all the variations in rhythm and cadence. Explore the infinite possibilities of the line, then construct those paragraphs using rhetorical devices, or tropes, and your writing will both sing and dance for you. And your readers will be love you for being the genius you are.

Jack Remick believes that writing is like method acting. The writer has to be all the characters. The story isn’t the writer’s creation, but something the characters create through the writer who becomes the chosen instrument for the stream of words. Remick also lives by the principles that the art is in the rewrite and that discipline is the writer’s obligation to the gift. He is a poet, short story writer, and a novelist. He is the father of several critically-acclaimed/award-winning novels and collections of poetry. He’s taught memoir, screenplay and understands Greek rhetoric like nobody’s business.