What are the ingredients of a good mystery? And what is their perfect proportion?
There are many ingredients to a good mystery, but in my opinion the one super important element is plot. Plot is structure and that’s the thing that everything else hangs on – character, settings, descriptions, emotions – everything. It’s like building a house. First comes the plan and then the framing. Once that’s secure, everything will find its place.
My very first editor required an outline, long before the book itself was submitted. At the time, I groaned at the thought of all that detailed work, but actually it was a great lesson. Having a solid structure, which is what an outline forces you to create, allows you to catch any sagging parts, any missing clues, any problems with timelines, any subplots that need to be woven into the story. Once that structure is in place, it’s a road map. Not to mention that it saves an amazing amount of re-structuring or re-writing time. Pacing will take care of itself too if you’ve done a good job with the outline. I like books that offer danger and threats and CONFLICT. Essential! And just as important, rest stops where a reader can take a deep breath and say, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over.”
Readers need to identify with characters and root for them. If a reader doesn’t like a character, can’t connect with her or him, then that reader won’t really care what struggles a protagonist contends with in pursuit of a murderer.
Mysteries, whether traditional or hard boiled or noir, have a certain format, certain requirements that the reader expects. First of all, the puzzle, the whodunnit aspect and of course red herrings. A good mystery must be fair to the reader, giving him or her just enough that it’s possible to solve the puzzle. It can be as simple as a small clue dropped early in the story, or an inconsistent fact that doesn’t jump off the page immediately. It’s only later when the reader says, “Ah, ha! I didn’t see that coming. I should have caught that!” That’s a phrase that warms the cockles of a mystery writer’s heart.
What do Julia and Connie have in common?
Well, we both find astrology fascinating, but Julia’s a professional, I’m not. We both love San Francisco and think it’s a great place to set a mystery – as have many, many other writers. We’re both very outgoing and compassionate people, at least I like to think I am. Julia, I know, definitely has those qualities. We’re both insightful and analytical and spend a lot of time wondering what makes people tick. We’re both terribly suspicious but I guess that’s a plus when solving a mystery. Those are the similarities. But the differences? She’s a free spirit. No day job, no kids, no chores or cooking. She’s younger than I. She’s 36 at the start of the series. I didn’t want an ingenue. Julia’s old enough to know who she is, has gained some wisdom, but young enough that she’s not afraid of walking into dangerous situations. And she puts herself in danger in every book. She’s much more physically courageous than I and I envy her that.
I’ve been asked what Julia eats and if she has any recipes to offer. The answer is ‘no.’ She doesn’t cook. Her grandmother’s a wonderful cook and sends her delicious care packages, like boeuf Bourguignon or homemade lasagna. Julia’s idea of a meal is a can of soup or a sliced tomato in a taco shell. Nothing fancier than that.
How do you keep the freshness of the stories of Zodiac Mysteries series?
I do hope I’m keeping things fresh. Each book can be read as a standalone, even though Julia evolves a bit more after every adventure. And with every book, I try to send Julia to a new place and a new set of circumstances based upon the crime. In The Madness of Mercury, Julia unwittingly becomes the target of an evil cult because of her outspoken opinions in her astrological advice column (Ask Zodia) in the Chronicle. In All Signs Point to Murder, she’s the unwilling witness to a murder within a tight family dynamic. And in this book, Tail of the Dragon, she’s pulled into investigating death threats at a law firm for her client.
There are so many books…What do you do when you find out that your very personal and new idea was already used by another author? Or what do think you’ll do?
It’s been said there’s nothing new under the sun and the motives for murder are fairly obvious – hatred, jealousy, fear, greed, survival. If you boil down every plot you can find it comes down to something as basic as that. So even if another writer came up with the same plot, another book could tell that story in a totally different way. With this series, I thought I had come up with a completely unique character in Julia. So I was taken aback when I learned of Sunny Frazier’s Christie Bristol astrology series. Fools Rush In is her first book. I thought, oh no, someone’s already doing this. Then (online) I met Karen Christino, a New York astrologer, who also has a wonderful book, The Precious Pachyderm, an historical mystery featuring the famous Evangeline Adams. So, I guess there’s plenty of room for all of us in this genre. And then by a complete coincidence, I “met” Sunny via Kings River Life magazine where she’s a regular contributor. I was so excited to connect and share ideas with another astrologer! Astrology is a lonely occupation, as is writing, and happily we decided to hold an online conversation – “Two Astrologers Chatting.” This links to KRL for our whole conversation. I think it would be great if we could all meet in person some day and share notes!
What are the genres that you will never write and, of course, why?
I can’t see myself writing romance. Although I’ve used romantic elements in the Soup Lovers’ Mysteries (written as Connie Archer) and may use them in the Zodiac Mysteries, but all in all, romance really isn’t my thing. There’s a certain trope: “I’m so into you I can’t wait for this case/crime/story to be over and we can get married and live happily ever after.” I’m more of a Girl on the Train aficionado. Now, I’m not criticizing the craft of those writers, I admire that very much. They have the ability to tease and delay and drag a romantic thread through one book or several books without boring the reader. It’s a real skill. Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight series (which is a mystery series) is a wonderful example. Her characters are attracted to each other from the beginning but the first real kiss doesn’t happen until probably (I’m not exactly sure here) the tenth book. Oh, and literary fiction. Also not my thing. I need bodies – preferably dead ones.
This interview first appeared at Mythical Books on July 18, 2018.
Release day for Tail of the Dragon was August 8, 2018 and I was thrilled to be interviewed by Fran Lewis at Blog Talk Radio. It was early in the morning for me, but armed with a cup of coffee, I managed to muddle through. We chatted about the Zodiac Mysteries, mysteries and thrillers of all sorts, writing and of course astrology. You can listen here.
Whaat, you say? A lawyer? Why? Well, a long time ago, I worked for a lawyer who was loud, abusive, critical and just downright mean. That’s when I first started to ponder how I was going to do away with him. Don’t be shocked. Tell the truth now. Haven’t you ever considered killing your boss? Maybe not all of your bosses over the years, but surely there must have been one that irritated you more than any other. Well, perhaps irritated isn’t a strong enough word. How about infuriated you until you saw red and you were tempted to throttle him with your bare hands. Damn the consequences!
It was Shakespeare who said in Henry V, “Let’s kill all the lawyers.” So it’s definitely not a new idea. And then of course, Vlad the Impaler invited all the local lawyers to dinner and beheaded them. So I’m not alone. Am I a monster? Certainly not! I was just an overworked, underpaid, harassed legal peon.
I used to wonder if there was a way I could electrocute him using the cord to his hard drive. I thought of poison – poison chocolates maybe. After all, the chocolates could have been delivered by anyone. Even a client. Not me. Certainly not me! Several years ago, a secretary in a New York City law firm arrived at the office toting a gun and shot her boss dead as he sat in his executive chair. See? I wasn’t alone in my deathly fantasies. I had a lot of sympathy for her!
Did I do it? Nope. That’s why I’m still here. That’s why I decided to kill some lawyers in Tail of the Dragon. What else is an evil-thinking author to do but create such a story? Julia Bonatti, my San Francisco astrologer, has no such lethal leanings. She just wants to do good. That’s why she agrees to sniff around her client’s law firm and try to find out who’s sending death threats.
And worst of all, even though she’s sure of the astrological clues, no one will listen. What’s a well-meaning astrologer to do except get to the root of the problem and bring down a murderer?
Now tell me the truth. Have you ever considered murder? Even if it was just a fantasy?
Be honest now!
This post first appeared on July 26, 2018 at Lori’s Reading Corner.
Remember Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show singing that song? He, in his wig, bustier and boots, is the image that comes to mind when I think about TIME — that annoying dimension that trips me up and causes me to tear out my hair. Most of all when I’m writing!
I personally believe (and please don’t laugh) that we humans actually bend time and space, like those creatures in Dune, even when we’re not aware we’re doing it. Haven’t you noticed there are times when TIME lags, and other times, when TIME speeds up? I like to think I can warp it, like when I’m running late for an appointment, I can rush like a maniac, and mentally crunch and slow TIME itself. I used to have a watch with a melting Dali-like face. I liked it a lot because that’s exactly how I perceive TIME.
I am one of those people who really struggles to be on time. For some, it’s automatic, they start paying attention hours before they’re supposed to be somewhere. I do too, but I never seem to get it right. It’s not something I’m proud of, it’s just a fact. And it’s not that I want to make my friends/doctors/dentists wait for me. Not at all, I like them very much, but for whatever reason, my natural tendency is to leave for a place when I should be arriving. I don’t like it. I fight it – all the TIME!
I so look forward to the invention of the teleportation machine. How wonderful it will be when we can pop into a little booth a few seconds before we’re supposed to arrive and voilà, our atoms and molecules are rearranged in another spot. Perfect! That should solve my problem . . . maybe. If you’re one of those people who is never late, always on time, would never dream of not allowing enough TIME to arrive somewhere, you’re thinking, what an idiot she must be. All she has to do is look at a damn clock. It couldn’t be easier. I wish it were that simple.
Did you know that Albert Einstein was working on time travel before his death? He had some very interesting theories about TIME. One was his Swiss cheese thought model. He theorized that TIME is like the hole inside a hunk of Swiss cheese. We perceive TIME in a linear fashion as we cut slices through the cheese and the hole expands, but TIME was there inside the cheese all the time. We just can’t perceive it because we’re programmed to view it as a linear reality. Seven days ago, I cut my hair and tomorrow I’ll feed the cat. See?
And what about those times when TIME bends upon itself. When an old memory arises as fresh and alive as the day it happened, and brings colors and words and smells back to us, more vividly than a recent event?
Hang with me here. There’s a point to my ramblings.
I’ve been reminded of my trouble with TIME in several areas of life, but nowhere more forcefully than when plotting a story. I get lost – a lot! But how can I be expected to keep track of that invisible nothingness inside the Swiss cheese as I mentally flit through a fictional universe? How can I be expected to remember my character just climbed out of bed two chapters ago and now she’s creeping through the woods at night? Uh oh. How did that happen? I got lost again. And I can foresee my editor’s comment box: “DIDN’T SHE JUST WAKE UP? HOW CAN IT BE MIDNIGHT SO SOON? WHAT HAPPENED?” I cringe, knowing my editor’s right. I goofed. Then there are the questions like, “DIDN’T THIS HAPPEN ON SUNDAY? WOULD THE OFFICE BE OPEN ON A SUNDAY?” Uh oh, goofed again!
So now, in an effort not to embarrass myself, I am very diligent. I make charts and outlines to keep focused in this linear physical reality, even though my mind is wandering through a fictional town. It’s day three of my story and it’s ten o’clock in the morning and so on. And I have to discipline myself to keep my chart up because I know if I don’t I’ll be in big trouble. And I’ll have to answer (make excuses for) those bloopers to my editor again.
Now if only my protagonist would do the same and not go creeping through the woods two chapters after she got out of bed. Einstein isn’t around to help me out anymore. Just where did I put that Dali melting face watch? I’ll have to find it. Not sure I’m enjoying this linear physical reality right now.
Thanks to the wonderful Jane Beebe, this dinner and mystery author panel was a fabulous event! I was in great company with Ellison Cooper, Paddy Hirsch, Paul D. Marks and Patricia Smiley, and last but certainly not least, our moderator Carlene O’Neil. My only concern was navigating the fire I spotted from the freeway, but all was well. We all made it, the library was safe and the fire was extinguished quickly. We had a very enthusiastic crowd at our dinner and I fell in love with the masks on display. You can see all my photos right here on Facebook!
My interview at Mystery Rat’s Maze is up today at King’s River Life!
Jenn McKinlay has graciously invited me to visit Jungle Red Writers.
You can read about my journey to becoming a mystery writer here!
And the next day I visited Amy Metz at A Blue Million Books to chat more about the latest release in the Zodiac Mysteries.
My interview at Archeolibrarian posted on August 8, 2018. I gave up lots of secrets about the Zodiac Mysteries and my San Francisco astrologer Julia Bonatti who always finds answers in the stars!