Saturday, April 14, 2018

Kendall & Cooper v. Siger


Today I’m blogging about a topic somewhat off my usual Saturday beat.  It’s all about the craft of writing, and is triggered by a good time experience I had on Thursday.  I don’t know how many of you are aware the Kendall & Cooper Talk Mysteries podcast series, co-hosted by writers Julie Cooper and Wendy Kendall. I met Julie last January at a book signing in Seattle, and she kindly asked if I’d be willing to participate in one of their podcasts. Having heard good things about the dynamic duo, I immediately said yes. 

The earliest date we could schedule was April 12th and so I put it out of my mind and went off to the land of shoulder surgery.  A week ago I received their proposed questions.

Little had I realized how thorough would be the grilling I’d receive at their hands.:) Or how I’d best be prepared to bring my A-game to the party.  Kendall & Cooper had thoroughly prepared, and their attention to detail made me do the same, leading me to think about our craft in a way I hadn’t since my “teaching days.”

Though much of our interview focused on my books I shall spare you those portions, and only repeat what I think would be of more general interest.  But for those of you interested in hearing the podcast, or any of their many others, here are links:  YOUTUBE,

Now on to Showtime.

K&C QUESTION: You’ve also taught mystery writing, a topic near and dear to both Wendy and my hearts, at Washington & Jefferson College. Any tips you’d offer to listeners who want to get started on mystery writing?

JMS ANSWER:  There are technical elements to mystery writing, such as creating an inciting incident that grabs the reader early on, and there are many fine texts out there touching on those points.  But to me, above all else, success depends on one thing: sitting in the chair and doing the writing day in and day out. Period. It doesn’t matter if it’s a carefully thought out email, a blog or a letter, but it has to be something that gets your creative juices flowing. 

You’re not going to write the Great American novel in one sitting, not in a week, a month or even a year. You’re most likely not to even going to do it in one book or two. But if you sit down every day and write, you’ll find your unique voice, and once you do, a bit of alchemy takes over and you’ll magically find words turning into stories, and you into a mystery writer.   As to whether you’ll make a living at it, that’s another story.

K & C QUESTION: Your villainous characters live their lives through their own sort of moral code that they’ve twisted from their personal histories.  Often their thoughts on their moral codes sound so innocent, but when their correlating actions are shown, the reader sees a darker side…What is your purpose as an author in showing the inner thoughts that make up a villain?

JMS ANSWER:  People aren’t ciphers, one interchangeable with another.  They have mindsets and reasoning which may make no sense to us, but makes absolute sense to them. Decades ago I served as special counsel to the New York City Board of Correction, and in that capacity I interacted with a host of inmates accused of horrific crimes, of which many seemed perfectly logical and reasonable people. I also have a friend who was essentially in charge of psychiatric services for a major US state, and he once told me that 30% of the people out there walking the streets should be institutionalized, another 30% are in need of serious medication, and of the remaining 40%, half of them aren’t going to like you anyway. 

Even assuming my friend’s figures are somewhat overstated, you still have a world filled with minds thinking in ways foreign to what we consider societal norms, and getting into their heads I see as far more interesting and instructive than simply offering an empirical presentation of their observable conduct. 

K & C QUESTION: You write your mysteries through several different characters’ points of view. What are the challenges of switching points of view through your books, and what are the advantages?

JMS ANSWER:  The obvious cop-out answer is that it’s all a matter of what you’re trying to achieve. If it’s a full-fledged, first person, one character point of view, everything must be experienced directly by that character in real time.  That heightens immediacy, but limits perspective. If several characters get into the act with their points of view, you broaden the base of the story and increase the complexities, but run the risk of distracting the reader from the primary plot line.

Capable writers can handle both scenarios quite well, and I frankly see no real downside to either method—with one exception: It drives me crazy when points of view shift within the same scene.  To me that’s a no-no. It simply puts readers off their game. 

K & C QUESTION: Portraying a diversity of families without confusing the reader and without weakening the pacing of the story is a real strength in writing.  Can you talk a little about how you reveal in your writing the strengths and weaknesses in different family relationships?

JMS ANSWER:  I’m tempted to say it’s simply a matter of accepting Tolstoy’s observation that, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but I shall resist that temptation.  Frankly, I think writing about familial strengths and weaknesses—something I consider very important in my work—is actually a matter of allowing your characters to express themselves about their relationships. After all, they write my books, I’m just along for the typing. Yes, they surely know I have some broad concept in mind for how I’d like them to behave, but often they just push my thoughts aside and take charge of their own lives.  For sure, what develops comes from some deep dark mysterious part of my own being, but my characters are the ones tapping into that place, not me. 

Now for the big finish…

K & C QUESTION:  Jeff, can you tell us about the “Murder is Everywhere” blogsite that you share with 9 other diverse mystery writers spread across the world?

JMS ANSWER: Murder is Everywhere came into existence out of Bouchercon 2009, when the late great Leighton Gage brought together six renowned mystery writers from around the world in a blog site dedicated to international mystery writing. I later joined as the seventh member.  Every day MIE offers fresh, thoughtful, eclectic, posts—often with insider info—about the international venues where we place our work. Rarely, though, do we write about our books. That would get very old very quickly. Our current crew includes original MIE members Cara Black (Paris) and Michael Stanley (Michael Sears and Stan Trollip—Southern Africa), plus Leye Adenle (Nigeria and London), Annamaria Alfieri (South America and Southern Africa), Sujata Massey (India and Japan), Caro Ramsay (Scotland), Zoë Sharp (no fixed abode), and Susan Spann (Japan).

That’s all folks!



  1. Thanks, Jeff. Interesting perspectives, and I'll certainly watch the YouTube also. As you know, Murder Is Everywehere just passed 3.5 million hits. That can't all be the ten of us! And it's great fun to write and read this group of characters.
    Based on your statistics, I should only like two of you. But mystery writers are obviously the exception.

  2. It's amazing, isn't it Michael, how much the reach of Murder is Everywhere has increased since its "early days." In part that may be because even the "sixty-percenters" have found kindred content here.

    Hmm, that gets me to thinking of a new parlor game. If we count you and Stan as two, where would the ten of us fall within my friend's mental health statistical profile? On second thought, sticking to cribbage might be a better idea. :)

  3. My brother, I the resident cockeyed optimist must take exception to those dreary statistics. My reading of this post suggests that your friend's worldview may very well be skewed by the kinds of people he necessarily meets on a daily basis in his job. And you were used to hang about in prisons as part of your job. These are situations that would profoundly influence the sample of humanity you both encountered, giving you a rather pessimistic picture of humanity.

    If I were to base my assessment of human intelligence going by my blogmates here on MIE, I would imagine that the mean IQ of the world population was at least 130. But that is two standard deviations above the mean. Not even my rosiest colored glasses would convince me that all the world is as intelligent as my friends.

    LUCKY me!

  4. Sis, I'm really impressed at how you've been able to put your feelings about recent elections results behind you, and now have a more positive view of those out there about you. :)

    1. Bro, I have not put them behind me. I merely look beyond today, especially at the splendid younger generation coming along. Wretched as I might feel about where we are and how we look to the world at this moment, I have hope. Lots of it. My life has taught me to be incredibly hopeful--personally and politically.

      If you had asked me twenty years ago if I would live to see the first black president, I would have said no, not a chance. If you had asked me if I would live to see gay marriage legal all over the US, even in Alabama, I would have laughed at your asking the question. Yet these things have happened. To my joy!
      Or am I being too political for you?

    2. You're being ZEN, not political. :)

  5. Thanks very much, Jeff. I enjoy your books so much, and am continuing with reading your newest An Aegean April. Recording your episode was a delight and I learned things I can apply as I'm writing my own mystery. Discovering this Murder Is Everywhere blog was my unexpected delight and I'm now an avid fan. Best wishes

    1. Thank you, Wendy. It was a delight, and I'm only happy that I was able to return your graciously introducing me to K&C Talk Mysteries, by bringing you and Julie into our MIE family!

  6. Great interview Jeff! I absolutely agree with you about the importance of keeping the butt in the chair - and I loved your perspective on villains too. It's always great to hear how other writers approach the craft. (I'm going to go listen to the podcast too!)

    Also, thanks for the shout-out about MIE!

    1. Thanks, Susan. They truly asked me questions that made me think...a novel experience these days. :)

  7. Very interesting.

    This post reminded me how much I miss Leighton Gage's illuminating posts about Brazil, things I would never have known otherwise. Such a contribution!

    I also am optimistic due to the movement of young people on so many issues all over the country. And now the movement of underpaid teachers in vastly unsupported school systems.

    Even lawyers with Legal Aid who represent immigrants have staged protests against deportations. Women activists out there, too.

    So there's where my optimism comes from.

    1. There’s no reason not to be optimistic— just as long as it doesn’t lead to complacency.

    2. Don't worry. No warning needed. The optimists who are weighing in here are anything but complacent. In fact, as Kathy said, it's the activism of the young that encourages optimism these days. If mine ever lags, all I will have to do is look to them.

  8. Most enjoyable read and good words of advice for all of us who sit at the keyboard regularly painting word pictures.

    1. Thanks, Jackie. Much appreciated coming from you who paints such lovely word images of so many picture perfect places!

  9. Don't worry. Everyone I know is not complacent. Even those who can't be activists any more are railing at the TV news, making donations, talking to people.

    I'm in a state of shock as I found out a nice neighbor voted for the current White House resident. Why? I asked. She thought he'd stand up to the NRA. However, she ended up taking her family to the March for our Lives march in NYC upon realizing that wouldn't happen.

    Now, another Trump voter moved in above me. I took out my pro-immigration button and started wearing it again. And I found other button I'll wear.

    Meanwhile, I watch the political comedians who are on target and TV news all day and support friends who can march and contribute by writing and donating.

  10. Go for it, Kathy! Stand up for what you believe in. Bravo.