April 13, 2007

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Characters: Developed...or Stolen? As the Mystery Maven of the Minuteman (Massachusetts) Library Network, I am expected to Know My Stuff about authors, books, plots, characters, and reviews. As a founder of The Write Stuff group at our library (Lincoln Public), I'm expected to Know My Stuff about creating plots, characters, dialog, and the like. Sometimes these expectations catch up with me, big time. Like this year. Since September the Mystery Monday Book Group at the library (guess who leads it?) has been reading books where current authors have used famous historic people as sleuths. I thought it would be interesting to read books about real people who have been taken captive, more or less, by authors writing mysteries today. I also wanted to explore why an author would take on all the extra research required to write plausibly about protagonists who are pretty well known already. What I didn't anticipate was the amount of work I, as leader of the group and somewhat of a literary Philistine, would have to do to foster interesting yet accurate discussions about the characters and the books. Over the couple of years that this group has been in existence, I have had to admit that I haven't read Moby Dick, Jane Austen, or a host of other famous books and authors from English lit classes. I always excused myself by announcing that, as a German major, I'd read Faust in the original. As long as nobody asked me how long ago that was or, heaven forbid, what I remember of it, I was good. This year it has proven more difficult to explain away my ignorance. We started off with Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor, the first in Stephanie Barron's series with Jane Austen as sleuth. I was wary of it and therefore pleasantly surprised that I liked it. I didn't know if that was because I had an audiobook to "read" in the car or if the narrator added some interest for me. The only Jane Austen I ever read was Northanger Abbey, in preparation for a trip to Bath with a group of mystery loving patrons. I listened to that in audio format, too, and I still remember, more than a decade later, thinking over and over, "Yes, but does anything ever happen?" (Answer, at least for action-loving mystery fans: No.) I suppose Jane Austen makes as good a sleuth as anyone else, but I also admit that I tried to read Barron's next book in the series and realized halfway through I simply didn't care enough to finish it. Our next book was Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club, with Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and other 19th century Bostonians laboring to translate Dante's Divine Comedia into English against the wishes of powerful forces like Harvard College. I liked that one better, but I did find myself having to look up background information on the characters as well as the plot outline of Divine Comedy, which of course I have not read. I was luckier with Elliott Roosevelt's Murder at the Palace, featuring his mother Eleanor and an actual visit to Buckingham Palace in the dark days of World War II. The group enjoyed reading about the era including the appearance of Elliott Roosevelt in his own book, and I was happy because there wasn't any Great Literature mentioned that I hadn't read. The subsequent choice was quite fortunate, since the author was the prolific and talented Peter Lovesey. Among his many series, he has several books featuring Bertie, Queen Victoria's son, the Prince of Wales. Most of my preparation time for that discussion was spent untangling the relationships among the Royals of that era and sorting out which one had been fingered by some experts as Jack the Ripper. (Not Bertie, who was the future Edward VII, but his son Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, known as Eddie. Got that?) From Victorian England we moved to America of the same era with Peter J. Heck's The Prince and the Prosecutor. We were bemused to note that the author photo looks a heck (sorry) of a lot like a portrait of Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain himself. I was forced to admit that I had not read The Prince and the Pauper, but luckily that classic didn't figure a lot in Heck's story. I chose that one because it took place aboard a ship, a subgenre of the "locked door" mystery type that I particularly enjoy. Clemens, Rudyard Kipling and a handful of other characters were based on real people and the ship voyage was based in reality, but overall the book didn't live up to my expectations--and besides, the cover had little to do with the plot. And we all agreed that the victim was so unpleasant that if nobody else had done so, we would have gladly bumped him off. Most recently we read Simon Hawke's A Mystery of Errors, featuring none other than Will Shakespeare as protagonist. Lo and behold, we all liked it. Of course, I had to admit I've never read A Comedy of Errors and when I read the details of the play's implausible plot, I have to say I was glad. But the group also agreed we wanted to read more in Hawke's series--the plot was interesting, the characters more so, and the era well represented in the book. But it still puzzles me: don't these authors have annoying neighbors, relatives or colleagues they're aching to knock off, at least in print? Irritating Great Uncle Willie? The cop who gave them a speeding ticket? Wouldn't it be easier to make up their own characters, rather than digging around in libraries gathering tidbits? Historical fiction is a hot genre, and rightly so, but these "character snatchers" go one step farther, setting themselves up for even more research. And if it isn't extra work for them, it certainly is for ignorant group leaders like me, who haven't read those classics. But hey! I read Faust in the...
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A Cozy Armchair Guest blogger, Pamela Sue James I love spring weather because it brings out a peaceful passion in me. I can sit in my swing and read. Of course what I’m really doing is people watching. One of my neighbors argues with the lawn mower. Another neighbor decorates her mailbox. As a writer, these are behaviors I could add to my list of quirky character traits. I felt a little guilty about spying on my neighbors (I mean people watching) until one day my neighbor called me over to chat. During the course of the conversation she said, "Oh, Pamela, you've really been up writing late, but I love the new robe." Suddenly I realized she could see into my office from her living room. Needless to say that was a little freaky, but then I thought that this information might be useful. That, too, went directly into my character file. Yes the quirky one. As a writer, I also love people watching on the Internet, and especially reading groups on the Internet. I love owning, joining, and moderating several of these groups. They’ve allowed me to become friends with so many wonderful people; people who enjoy reading as much as I do. A group close to my heart, cozyarmchairgroup, is a melting pot of readers, authors, wanna-be authors, editors, and downright nice people. The readers on the group are savvy and have high standards about what mysteries they do and don't like to read. They enjoy discovering new authors and exchanging information and ideas daily. On cozyarmchair, we have a question of the day (for the fun of it) and a writing prompt for those who want to kick-start their day and their creative juices over that first cup of tea, bottle of water, cup of java, or whatever flips their pancake. We also showcase an author every month. We read one of their books, have a book discussion, and place the book cover on our homepage. We interview the author and the group is encouraged to ask her all the questions they want. For the month of April our showcase author is Nancy Martin and we will be discussing the third book in her Blackbird Sisters series, SOME LIKE IT LETHAL. Nancy is witty and charming and I for one love her characters. The emails on our group reflect the times we live in, how much we appreciate escaping into a good cozy mystery, etc. Not only does it bring us entertainment and comfort, but we discover very savvy authors writing in the genre...many of whom are members of the group. For instance, Leann Sweeney's mystery PICK YOUR POISON, the first book in her Yellow Rose series (where her protagonist Abby Rose finds the gardener dead), is a prime example of a book I can get lost in. I am right there with Abby, one clue at a time. I also find myself wishing Abby was a real person, maybe a neighbor. I love my groups because they help me discover new authors and subgenres within the mystery genre. If you’d like to join, send an e-mail to: cozyarmchairgroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.com Pamela Sue James is the author of The Crossed Stitcher, available on Amazon.

Lorraine Bartlett

Five women, five weekdays, many surprises.

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