10 Commandments of Detective Fiction

The other day, I cam across the 10 Commandments of Detective fiction by Ronald Knox. He was a mystery writer who belonged to the Detection Club, a society that included Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. Admittedly, I haven’t read Knox’s books but I found his commandments intriguing. I’m not going to include all of them in their entirety – Knox had a LOT to say. But I will include all of one or two. You’ll see why. My comments are in italics.

I. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. . .

Contemporary authors have found a work-around to the second part with the unreliable narrator. But, Knox has a point. It is hard to do well. And really? This still avoids the “criminal plopped into the story in the final moments” problem.

II. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course. To solve a detective problem by such means would be like winning a race on the river by the use of a concealed motor – engine. And here I venture to think there is a limitation about Mr. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. He nearly always tries to put us off the scent by suggesting that the crime must have been done by magic. . .

Scooby Doo endings reveal that the ghost was really Farmer Brown.

III. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable. I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in the kind of house where such devices might be expected. . .

Maybe this was more of a temptation for Knox and his friends. Me? I can’t admit that I’ve been noodling over where to place the secret door in my character’s 1960s suburban home.

IV. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end…

V. No Chinaman must figure in the story. Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over – equipped in the matter of brains, and under – equipped in the matter of morals…

I lied. I cut a small part of this one as well but I did leave it almost entirely intact. Why? Because most people quote only the first sentence and wonder afterwards about Knox’s racism. Um, no. He’s saying avoid racist stereotypes. Do the work to create a solid character. Don’t take racist short cuts.

VI. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right. That is perhaps too strongly stated; it is legitimate for the detective to have inspirations which he afterwards verifies, before he acts on them, by genuine investigation. And again, he will naturally have moments of clear vision…

I ended up feeling like this was a problem in the first draft of my mystery. My character seemed to blunder into clues and then off she’s go and blunder into another. “Why this seems to be the direction I should go…”

VII. The detective must not himself commit the crime…

I would say that if the ‘detective’ does commit the crime, it isn’t a cozy mystery.

VIII. The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader… The skill of the detective author consists in being able to produce his clues and flourish them defiantly in our faces: ‘There!’ he says, ‘what do you make of that?’ and we make nothing.

And this would be another area in which I must improve! Hmm. Why am I sounding as if I’ve ingested a dictionary. I seem to be emulating Mr. Knox.

IX. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader…

I’m going to disagree with Knox on this one. I loathe when Watson comes off as someone only slightly more intelligent than wall paper. Loathe.

X. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them…

Again, this one feels like ‘do your work and avoid lazy writing!

Sue again, sans italics. I’m not saying that every mystery has to abide by every one of these rules. But a mystery is a tricky balancing act. Short cuts are going to make it come across like a cheap parlor trick and really? What editor or agent wants to sign on something like that? Do your legwork. Create well-rounded believable character who realize when they see clues that just don’t immediately seem important to your readers.

Boy oh boy do I have a lot of work to do.


Tormenting Your Characters

Pick one way or three to torment your characters
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Last week, I wrote about 4 Ways to Create Story Tension. As writers, we know that the key to creating tension is to put obstacles in our character’s paths. Or, as I like to call it, we can resort to tormenting our characters. There are so many ways to do this:

Create Limitations

One way to make things difficult is to limit your character’s movements. A character with a broken leg may not be able to make it up the stairs to find out what that noise is. A character who is grounded is going to be cut off from her friends. A character on a space craft is trapped within the confines of the ship.

You can also create a ticking clock as another limitation. These limitations can be concrete and grim such as a literal ticking time bomb or a limited air supply. Or it could be a contest deadline or a big move. Whichever one you chose, time is an excellent way to limit your character.

Fatal Flaw

Another way to torment your character is to give her a flaw. And I don’t mean something easy like she won’t eat peas. That’s why I call it a fatal flaw. Make it something big that it going to make her life more difficult. Maybe she’s a gossip or she is too trusting. Maybe your character lies to seem more important.

But there’s something else you can try.

Character Strengths

Have your character’s difficulties come not from her weaknesses but from her strengths.  How much more tension would it create if your loyal law-abiding character must confront an immoral law?

And the beauty of it is that you don’t have to pick one way to up the tension. You can use all three. I really enjoyed this video by Jessica Brody where she demonstrates how she made Amelia Gray’s life complicated in her latest novel.


Historical Fiction vs Alternate History

Last week, someone on a Facebook writing group asked about a story he is writing. He wants to fictionalize the sinking of the Lusitania. The name of the ship will be changed as will the names of everyone on board. The date the ship sinks will be changed. His question was…

Is this alternate history? In short, no. But understanding why requires a full understanding of historic fiction.

Let’s say that you want to write a story about a disaster involving a passenger ship. You don’t want to be constrained by the facts surrounding specific disasters that occurred in the past. So you create a fictional ship. And then (blurb, blurb, slurp), you sink it. That’s historical fiction.

Or you have a character you’ve created that you insert into an existing disaster. This character interacts with people who literally walked the decks of the actual ship. That’s also historical fiction.

Or you decide to fictionalize a real person. You can make some assumptions about what this survivor was thinking as the disaster unfolded but you don’t know what this person said to this other person or that other person. So the dialogue you write as well as specific motivations are fictional. I’m sure you see this last line coming – this is also historical fiction.

What then is alternate history? In an alternate history your story is still set in a clearly recognizable past but you alter this past in some big way. The Lusitania does not sink.

Doesn’t sound big enough? That’s okay because that is not where you stop. The Lusitania does not sink and someone who was on the ship goes on to make big changes in the world. Perhaps this person invents something monumental. Or they could break or destroy something that has cataclysmic repercussions. Or they are sick at the time the ship goes down and they are infected with the plague that then spreads to. . .

Alternate histories can be science fiction or they can contain magic. But the vital element is that the author speculates. “This is what would have happened if…”

Sometimes the results are chilling. What is the Nazi’s and Japan hadn’t lost World War II? See The Man in the High Castle.

What if the South had firearms that allowed them to win the Civil War? See Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove.

Like historical fiction, alternate histories start with historic fact. The author then adds a big change. Then the speculation begins.

Both are fiction steeped in fact. But one takes that fact and weaves a reality that is recognizable but in some telling way deeply different. It is up to the author to create that reality and to explain and justify the reasons behind it.


4 Things to Know about Sidebars

Back when I was writing about the Ancient Maya, I had to work in a wide variety of information about their history, culture, and science. The problem was that with so much to cover, not everything could fit into each chapter. That’s how I ended up with this sidebar about jade.

Behold: The humble sidebar

Not familiar with sidebars? Read on and find out what they are and how to work them into your project.

What’s a Sidebar?

See the photo on the right? The text in the green text box is a sidebar. Generally it is located at the side of a page of text. Get it? Side bar. But sometimes it is at the bottom of the page.  It is essentially a mini-article about a topic that is related to the main text.

The sidebar in the graphic is in my Ancient Maya book. The main text included information about a jade artifact. The sidebar explained the importance of jade in Mayan culture.

Where to Locate It?

So where do you include the sidebars in your manuscript? That depends. When I write books with chapters, the sidebar goes at the end of the chapter in which is belongs. Then I include notes throughout the chapter to show where they belong. They have to be spaced throughout the chapter which means spacing out where you mention the sidebar topics. Then I paste in the insertion point.

So after the paragraph that mentioned the jade artifact, you would see something like this:

[insert SB 1.1]

That stands for “insert first sidebar in chapter one.”

What if I Can’t Mention It?

It depends. Ninety percent of the time my editors want a topic mentioned in the main text to be included in a sidebar. But that isn’t the case with every imprint and every publisher. Read books by your target publisher and see how they handle it.

Is it Part of the Word Count?

Most often, my editors want me to count the sidebars as part of the word count, so that’s what I do. But when I submit my own work to an agent, I generally include two word counts in the header on page 1 – one that counts the sidebar text nd one that does not.

Sidebars are a great way to include extra information in a manuscript. They provide bite-sized chunks to tempt reluctant readers. And they are a great way to practice writing short and tight. You don’t have to include them but if you are writing nonfiction you may want to give them a try.


4 Ways to Create Story Tension

Tension is essential even if your characters don’t always appreciate that fact!
Photo by cottonbro studio on Pexels.com

A story needs to have tension. It is one thing to know that and another to take advantage of the various ways that you can add necessary tension. Where to start?

Start with a Simple Seeming Problem

The very first place to start creating tension for your story and trouble for your character is a simple seeming problem. What is it that your character wants? Luke wants off Tatooine. The mouse wants a cookie. Harry wants relief from the Dursleys.

Next Have Your Character Realize that They Want Something More

One way to do this is by giving your character what they thought they wanted. Luke has a way off Tatooine but it comes at the expense of his family. When the mouse gets a cookie, it is going to want a glass of milk. Harry escapes the Dursleys by going to Hogwarts and realizing that he wants to truly belong.

But There Are Obstacles and Complications

Don’t make it easy for your character. Obstacles and complications get in the way. Each time they achieve one thing, they find themselves struggling for something else. On and on they fight! This is how you keep the tension coming. But make the reader feel like the character is going to succeed or they may quit reading.

Find Ways to Let the Reader Know Trouble Is Coming

When you do this, you aren’t creating tension for your character but you are leaking the tension to your audience. “Hey, look! Things are going to happen.” Writers do this in a variety of ways. Sometimes they use the setting as a whole and specific setting details to add a feeling of dread. Think about the number of stories set in old houses, drafty inns, and cemeteries. I’ve read stories set in asylums turned into resorts, wastelands, and arid deserts. None of these are places that you expect light cheery things to happen.

Even if your setting as a whole doesn’t create tension, setting details can. You might write about tree branches like grasping fingers, rooms that are cold as a crypt, or tables set with funerial lilies. Yes, those are all heavy handed but they are one way to foreshadow negative events before they happen.

Keep your reader engaged by letting them know that something is coming if they just turn the page.


Why You Need a Google Alert

Do you have a Google Alert set up to scan the wilds of the Internet for your work?  If not, you should.

I use this basic Google function to search for my name.  Because I sign blog posts as SueBE and use Sue Bradford Edwards as my byline on print and non-blog electronic materials, I search for both.  Each day that Google finds something new, an alert pops into my inbox.

My most recent findings were great news. Google found that the Yankton Community Library just added Women in History and Women in Science to their collection. You can see the actual post here.

I’m especially jazzed about this announcement because these books are about 7 years old. It’s good to see that they are still fresh enough to interest librarians who are expanding their collections.

Google alerts aren’t always good news. I’ve also found various pirated copies of my books. Ebooks may have been incredibly beneficial to young readers, especially during the pandemic, but they make pirating a book especially easy.

So what do you do if you do find someone has pirated your work?  One writer I know sends a cease and desist letter and a bill.  It works every time.

I’m not saying that she gets a nice fat check, but they do remove her work from their site.  They know she means business which isn’t to say that they are always polite.  But, like my friend, I can handle rude as long as they quit stealing from me.

When I find a pirated copy of one of my work-for-hire books, I notify Red Line. Because it is work-for-hire, I send the completed manuscript to them and they send it on the publisher. Once I get paid, that’s that. The publisher owns the copy right and is the one suffering financial losses. Once I notify Red Line, they notify the appropriate publisher.

If you don’t have an alert set up, I’d suggest that you click on the link above (in the second paragraph).  You can have Google search for your name, the title of your book or simply a subject. You may discover your work has been pirated. You may find that a journal has printed your work but forgot to pay you. Or you may simply get to see the cover of your brand new book. So glad I have set these alerts.


Making New Plans

Freelancers must be prepared to pivot.
Photo by Caleb Oquendo on Pexels.com

As a freelance writer, you need to be able to pivot. This week was supposed to be Spring Break. We’d make a run to the lake, come back for a birthday party, and then do fun things around town. I planned to do a little work but not much.

And the universe laughed. Let’s just say that a virulent stomach bug is moving through the family. I was victim number one. Everyone else is still sick so I’m sitting down to work.

It isn’t what I’d planned, but that’s okay. Then I got my editor’s feedback on my next book.

Thank goodness this was feedback on an outline and not a full manuscript. Why? Because I need to replace a full chapter. It isn’t that she didn’t like my chapter topic. The problem came in that she couldn’t find any photos which is strange. This was a high profile situation. But no photos means no photos. Fortunately, she suggested a new chapter topic that fits in nicely.

That’s one of the about working on series books. You need to be willing to make changes to your outline and to your book. Sometimes the issue is that they can’t find a good illustration for something. I’m not sure how they source the images but I do know that when national governments get involved, especially outside of the US, you can find yourself in a world of zero photos. The more controversial the situation, the tighter the clamp.

Me? I wanted to write about it because it was controversial! And that alone wouldn’t dissuade my editors but illustrations, especially photos, are a must for the books in this series.

Other times you will find yourself having to make a change because topic is covered in another book in the series. If the other book has a chapter on the topic, you might be able to include a sidebar but that’s that.

For the book I am currently working on, this will not be a problem. For my Pearl Harbor book, it was a huge issue. The series was on World War II and, although I had to provide background to what occurred in Pearl Harbor, I had to avoid spending a great deal of time on topics covered in other books.

Freelancing definitely requires flexibility both in planning when to write but also in planning what to include in an individual piece of writing.


How to Condense a Vast Topic

When Red Line contacted me and asked me to do two books in their new Essential Library of Countries series, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Little did I know what a study in contrasts I was setting myself up to experience.

The Australia book was relatively easy to research. The Australian government has a wealth of information online for its citizenry and anyone else who might be interested.

The Russian government? Not so much. And I likely couldn’t access much of what is available because I don’t speak the language. I’ve got a few words and I can sound things out but all that was good for was photo research. Train stations and many other buildings have the city name emblazoned on the side of the building. Granted its in Cyrillic but I could usually find what I needed.

The hardest part was to condense everything you ever wanted to know about a country into one 15,000 word book. History, culture, wildlife, natural resources, government, arts, and technology had to fit into each book. So how do you tell what to include?

First things first, look at where the country is today. Australia is part of the British Commonwealth. Why is that? How did this happen? Russia has, at best, a contentious relationship with its neighbors. What led to this? This was particular tricky since Russia invaded Ukraine the week after I accepted this assignment. But don’t feel for me. Feel for the author who was writing about Ukraine without knowing what would still be in existence in two weeks let alone by the time the book came out.

Next look at what makes the country unique. For Australia this is the fact it was a colony, the wildlife, and the Aboriginal and Trobriand Island cultures. Russia is just so big and so blasted cold much of the year. I know, Australia is big too but combine cold weather with frigid temperatures and you have a country that is tough to traverse. You can’t just build roads and off-roading is often out of the question. Both school systems are unique and there are so many Australian islands! So many.

When you have so much information to wedge into a single book, you don’t have a word to spare. The taiga is “vast” and Russian winters are “frigid.” Australia summers are “scorching.” Still a certain amount of detail is essential and I’d love to say I was spot on in my first attempt. I actually got my editorial feedback on one book while I was starting the other. I asked if I could turn the second book in a bit late so that I could rewrite the first. It was definitely the right things to do because I had to make very few changes in the second book.

Even at 15,000 words, books like these are introductions to a topic. Do a good job and your reader will go in search of additional information.


Quickly Catalogue Your Books

A portion of my library.

Just last week, I was about 30 minutes into an audiobook when I paused it to look the series up on Fantastic Fiction. It just seemed so familiar and for a very good reason. I had read not only the first book but they first several.

Then there are those times that I’m standing in front of a bookstore shelf wondering. Have I bought that one yet or did I just think about it? If only I had a list.

My husband has attempted creating lists on his phone. Unfortunately he has trouble finding it when he’s at the library or bookstore. Yes, we have that many books.

The thought of keying everything in to a database just did not appeal to me. If only there was an easier way.

Fortunately there is and I’m equally fortunate that I fussed about this to my son. “Mom, if you scan the ISBN, the rest of the information should be able to auto-populate.”

“You mean gathering the data online?”

“Yes, Mom.”

I Googled how to set up a library catalogue and found Library Thing. The site’s instructions are iffy at best but in about 45 minutes I had set up an account and discovered that no I do not need to buy a scanner (pfft! instructions!). There is an app which I quickly downloaded from Google Aps. It took my about 30 minutes to figure out how to use the app and then scan 35 books.

My biggest complaint is that they have misplaced faith in my ability to use a scanner. More than once I accidentally scanned a book two or three times. Fortunately they’re ready for that. I got a message to the effect of “we can find this ISBN.” At one point, it also scanned the ISBN and decided that it was a book by another author on Cesar Chavez. I started with the shelf of my books, so I know this was some sort of goofball error since I haven’t a book on Cesar Chavez let alone that book on Cesar Chavez. It only took me a minute to figure out how to delete the erroneous title.

I spent a few minutes on the site trying to figure out how to share my catalogue. Then an obvious answer came to me and I popped over to Google and searched for the info. The search directed me to the information on Library Thing.

So if you would like to check out a tiny portion of my catalog you can click through here. I’ll be adding to this here and there, going far beyond the books that I’ve written to include the various books we own.

If you have a Library Thing catalogue, share your info below. The form should be: http://www.librarything.com/catalog/YourUserName .


Recharge by Doing Something Creative

The St. Louis County Library System has been hosting a March drawing challenge with lessons from Creative Bug. Naturally, with three book deadlines this month, I’ve been taking part.

This is something that I do for just a few minutes each day. Some images turn out a whole lot better than others. But the point is to take a few minutes to create by doing something other than writing.

What you chose to do depends on you. In addition to drawing, I’m making a point of getting back into knitting and crochet. I did so much handwork before I hurt a tendon in my left wrist. It is back in good form but I just haven’t gotten back into the habit. I’ll be finishing up a shawl that I started quite some time ago.

As the weather warms, I’m also going to be doing some light weight landscaping. I say lightweight because it involves pulling weeds, shifting gravel, laying vapor barrier, and then doing some rock work. Back where the gravel has been removed, I’ll be sewing nasturtiums. And I’m working on an old sewing machine.

It sounds like a lot but I do a bit here and a bit there. I’ve got a contracted book to finish by the end of the month and then two projects of my own to get back into.

One of the ways that I get the writing done is by recharging and that involves getting up and away from my desk. How do you recharge?