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A Weekend at Crime Bake (by AHMM’s Editor Linda Landrigan)

I’ve just returned from a lovely weekend spent among mystery writers in Woburn, MA, at the New England Crime Bake convention. Sponsored by the New England chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, the regional convention takes place every Veterans Day weekend.

Among the convention’s highlights were the friendly presences of Walter Mosley, the keynote speaker, and Kate Flora, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award. Gayle Lynds, Hank Phillippi Ryan, and Hallie Ephron are a few of the luminaries of the genre on hand to teach master classes and share insights on writing, research, and publicity. But it’s the congenial atmosphere that made the mystery convention special. Here, unpublished writers and established authors are equal peers, supporting one another and always striving to hone their craft.

In fact, I got to be a panelist with Kate to discus short stories. There I met up with prolific Stephen Rogers and met Lorraine Nelson, both of whom have published in multiple genres. The panel was rounded out with Kate Flora, who in addition to her fiction and non-fiction writing, co-founded and edited Level Best Books, acclaimed publisher of short story anthologies. AH author Ruth McCarty moderated.

I was also asked to help facilitate a few of the roundtables where authors could read their pitches and query letters and receive constructive feedback before approaching the agents attending the convention. What impressed me were the new ideas and projects in the works and the quality of the writing I heard at my First Page roundtable and the Flashwords finalists readings.

While there, Susan Oleksiw recorded a reading of her story “Variable Winds” from our October 2016 issue for our podcast series.

Many thanks to co-chairs Edith Maxwell and Michele Dorsey and to agent & editor coordinator Ray Daniel for inviting me to the 2018 conference, and kudos to all the volunteers who made this convention a success.

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“Write What You Don’t Know” by Matthew Wilson

Matthew Wilson’s first short story appeared in EQMM in January 2018. Here he talks about his story “The Cook Off” from the current issue and his approach to writing in settings he both knows and doesn’t.

Right now I’m trying to write a mystery story set in Las Vegas. My only problem is I’ve only been to Las Vegas once. I stayed overnight in a Motel 6 on a cross-country move—me, my wife, two cats, and a U-Haul. Needless to say, we didn’t have a lot of time to do Vegas. I remember my wife emptying a jar full of quarters into a slot machine. That was about the extent of our Vegas adventure. But lately I’ve gotten this idea for a story set there, so I found myself facing the dilemma of “write what you know” when I don’t know much at all.

In his book How to Not Write Bad, Ben Yagoda takes on the old adage of “write what you know.” Yagoda says writers too often interpret “write what you know” to mean “write what you already know.” But what would that look like? A lot stories with writers as protagonists? A murder mystery involving paper cuts, query letters, and rejections? No, of course not. “Write what you know,” Yagoda argues, should mean that if we “read, research, investigate, and learn,” we can write beyond our immediate personal experience, and ultimately we will be writing what we know.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because as I try to write mystery stories, I find myself attracted to characters and situations that come from both what I know and what I don’t know. My story “The Cook Off” is just such an example. I started out with what I already knew. The tiny American village not far from the Iron Curtain border that split Germany for forty years—that was home to me as a young teenager when my father was stationed near the spa town of Bad Kissingen. The gymnasium full of soldiers where my story culminates—that was a kind of home for me too—I spent many hours there trying to become a basketball player and not succeeding. The late 70s GIs who inhabit this gym in the story—in their Pumas and tube socks—they are inspired by the real GIs I met in all my sweat and hopeless effort.

What I didn’t know much about was Grafenwöhr, the training area where accidents could kill men rehearsing for war. But I had heard about it, from the same young GIs I shared that gym with, and from my father, who would disappear from our family for weeks at a time to go to Graf, as everyone called it. What I already knew about Graf was that it was cold and miserable, that every GI griped about it, and that when it was a man’s turn to go, he dreaded it. Who could blame him—Bad Kissingen was a resort, and the beer was good. I think it was this not knowing much about Graf that made me want to write about it. I had also heard about a strange thing called a “cook off” from my father, and of a man killed by one. A dangerous place no one wanted to be and an unusual way to die—it sounded like a good mystery story to me.

Since Graf was mostly outside of what I already knew, I did what Ben Yagoda suggests—read, research, investigate, learn. There are a lot of ways to start such research. First person accounts are always the best place to start, and I had my father. I also wanted to know more about armored cavalry units, live fire exercises, training accidents, the history of Grafenwöhr, and that thing called a “cook off.”

Tom Clancy wrote a series of military reference books, and his Armored Cav edition taught me much. From this book, I learned what an armored cavalry unit actually does (the dangerous job of reconnaissance, often behind enemy lines), and what a live fire exercise is like (with all of its noise and destruction, there are also plenty of safety precautions and stationary plywood targets).

I learned much about Graf through a deep graze of the web. Back in 1910 the Kaiser requisitioned eighty-three square miles of Bavaria near the town of Grafenwöhr to train a military that would fight the next two world wars, only to see it all carpet bombed and then re-requisitioned by a new tenant, the U.S. Army. Graf became the home especially for what was called Reforger, an enormous annual exercise meant to simulate a NATO response to a Soviet invasion. I also learned that Graf, with all of its tanks and guns and bombs, had been the setting for more than a few fatal training accidents. The most tragic occurred in 1960, when a 200 pound artillery shell overshot its target and killed 15 men billeted in tents. All of this was good background for Graf, but part of me also wanted to sense the place, and although I could not feel the cold or smell the fumes, I could at least see the place. Absent a time machine, I would have to rely on other means, mostly photos and videos collected from books and web sources. Here is one of my favorites. Yes, that’s Elvis Presley in Grafenwöhr. It’s cold and you can tell—he’s got his field jacket on, and his Elvis hair is hiding under the standard issue cold weather MQ1 pile cap.

The “cook off” was another investigation. I had heard my father’s story of a man accidently killed when a belt-fed .50 caliber kept firing even after the gunner took his finger off the trigger. This is due to the intense heat in the firing chamber, which literally cooks any remaining rounds unless the gunner clears the belt from the chamber. A cook off is not uncommon, although a fatal one is.

In my search for background on Daley Barracks, the American garrison adjacent to Bad Kissingen, I often visited Eaglehorse, a site dedicated to the history of the armored cavalry unit stationed at Daley Barracks for many years. There is a lot to look at on the site, with a great collection of photos and first-person accounts going far back. And here is the story memorializing a man killed by a cook off, the same soldier my father had told me of. I can tell because the date is perfect for when we lived there in the late 1970s. I printed this memorial out and sent it to my father, who is close to eighty now. For years, I have often wondered how much of my father’s army stories were factual and how much were more akin to legend. When he received the printout, we had a good talk on the phone, and he said, “Yes, that was the man I told you about. It was a cook off, and it was a shame because it should have never happened.” After we hung up, I felt the sensation of traveling in a circle. I had come back to a story my father mentioned years before, a story I already knew.

This is one of the joys I get from writing—uncovering real mysteries of places and people and times both close to me, and also quite remote. It is a bit of detective work I like to do on the way to imagining a story of detection. What I already know and what I come to know—I hope it all adds up into a good piece of mystery fiction.

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“‘Coolbrook Twp’ and Other Characters” by Dennis McFadden

Upstate New York writer Dennis McFadden is the writer of the collection Jimtown Road, which won the 2016 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. Here he talks about his story in the current issue and writing vivid characters.

My stories all start with character. There’s a very good reason for that: When you’re as lousy at plotting as I am, they almost have to. I’d love to be able to craft a pristine Rubik’s Cube of a tale that leaves readers nodding in admiration at the sleight-of-hand they should have been able to detect along the way, but Agatha I certainly ain’t. Memorable characters are my best hope to connect with a reader.

The smallest seed can blossom into a good character. The characters I come up with originate in different ways, but primarily they fall into one of two categories: those based on real people I’ve known, and those I essentially invent—people I wish I had known? Well, maybe. Except for the psychopaths.

I’m not sure what it says that my most successful stories seem to be based on a character, Terrance Lafferty, who falls into the latter category, a complete product of my imagination. Maybe my real friends and acquaintances are too bland to compete with him? Or maybe this invented guy couldn’t be my real-life friend, because he might be somebody I wouldn’t want to be seen hanging around with in public? Naw—I’d love to go on a pub crawl with him. Of course, I’d have to buy. Lafferty is an Irish rapscallion, an antihero, fond of the horses and allergic to labor, whose fight or flight instinct came minus the fight part, and whose dimple just below his smile seems irresistible to most members of the opposite gender. I like him so much he’s starred in multiple stories, many of which have found fine homes, such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and The Best American Mystery Stories, a couple of times. Colorful—that’s the word. Maybe to achieve real memorability, a character has to be bigger-than-life colorful, more colorful than the real folks we know.

Or maybe not. Jimmy Plotner and Buster Clover (our heroes in “Coolbrook Twp,” who transform before our very eyes into James and Russell) are not bigger-than-life colorful. Maybe everyday, run-of-the-mill colorful, tops. And maybe that’s because they’re based on me and my lifelong best friend.

“Coolbrook Twp,” for those of you who haven’t yet read it (and what are you waiting for?), is constructed of alternating sections set in 1994 and 1954. This much, from the earlier sections, is true: My friend—we’ll stick with his fictional nickname, “Buster”—and I attended a four-room country schoolhouse, we competed climbing the tilting flagpole in the yard, we had a severe teacher much like “Mr. Fenstemaker,” famous for his huge paddle and readiness to use it, and we devised the brilliant scheme of hiding in the playroom cubby hole one afternoon after school so we could have the place all to ourselves. And we peed on the furnace, casting an unholy stench over the rest of the school. Or one of us did. We’ll stick with his fictional nickname too, “Jimmy.” Oh, and the first-ever orgasm “Jimmy” experiences at the top of the flagpole? Yep. True. Can’t make this stuff up. Stranger than fiction and all that.

What didn’t happen? Pretty much all the rest of it. We didn’t get caught, our teachers weren’t carrying on (that we know about), “Mr. Fenstemaker” was not murdered forty years later.

But the bits that did happen were enough to make me want to mine them for a story years later when I started writing fiction. The whole sexual awakening theme was already there, so, to enhance that theme, I invented the teachers’ affair, the boys getting caught, Buster getting a beating, the “Man, are we in for it now,” and there the story sat, contained in 1954, for years. Recently, I brought it out and dusted it off, looked at it with older, fresher eyes. I’d learned by then that a good way to give depth and resonance to a story, to make a story better, is to tell two stories at once; and so the 1994 plotline fell into place—you see, by then too, the mysteries of everyday life, the utter unknowability of exactly what the hell’s going on around us as we live out our years, had become my main preoccupation in story-telling, the underlying theme in nearly all my stuff.

One of the most rewarding things about writing “Coolbrook Twp” was the chance to play with the perspective offered by the distance of time—that wider, wiser perspective, the way lifetimes fall into focus, patterns and destinations become revealed, is one of the nifty things about getting older. (And there aren’t all that many nifty things about it.) Over forty years is a long time for a friendship to endure, and “James” and “Russell” are every bit as grounded in reality as are “Jimmy” and “Buster.” And, then again, maybe the 1994 plotline was motivated in part by the desire to extract a bit of revenge on “Mr. Fenstemaker” for the real-life beatings he inflicted on many a poor boy, “Buster” included.

And “Jimmy”? No. He was far too angelic and well-behaved to ever have encountered that fearsome and legendary paddle.

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“Pulling Off a Heist Story” by Rebecca Cantrell

USA Today and New York Times bestselling author Rebecca Cantrell is the author of the Joe Tesla thrillers and the Hannah Vogel mysteries, among several other series. Her work has won the Thriller, Macavity, and Bruce Alexander awards. Here she talks about “Homework,”  her story in the current July/August issue of AHMM.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine requested a piece about writing heist stories, presumably because I have one in this month’s magazine. Or maybe they’ve discovered my plans for Fort Knox.  I’m going to play it straight and pretend it’s about writing. No spoilers. So, here’s the skinny.

A good heist takes planning. Everyone needs to know their role. Character expertise is crucial. The execution needs to be solid. And a little misdirection doesn’t hurt either. Those are the elements of a heist, and a short story isn’t so different.

First, I had to figure out what to steal.  The story started with a writing prompt from my teenaged son. The first line had to be “Flames licked the ceiling.” Max is a fantastic writer, and I wanted to have fun with his prompt,  to write about flames and licking and ceilings and not have a fire.

So, it started with the dog, Flames, and her owner, Ada. I followed Flames along, as surprised as she was by how things unfolded. If the story had been a real heist, I’d say that by the end of the first draft I knew what I wanted to steal.

Now I knew the crime, but like a good heist, this story took some planning.  In the second draft I tightened up the action and descriptions. I made sure every character in the caper was properly trained. Training wasn’t enough though because characters are more than their training. Everyone had secrets, too.  I wanted the reader to sense that all wasn’t quite well, but still be surprised at the ending. I slipped in shiny little nuggets of misdirection for the reader, for the characters, even for the dog as the heist was executed.

As a person, you live life in one direction, today gives way to tomorrow. But that’s not true for a writer. As a writer, you can go back and forth in a story like a crazy person with a time machine, changing the future and the past. Nobody knows if it took one draft or twenty. This is handy in writing, and I imagine it would be useful in pulling of a heist, too. Luckily, writers have some advantages over thieves. They get one chance.

The last thing to arrive was the title.  I wanted a title that didn’t make sense until the very last line. It slipped into my head like that ring slipped on Ada’s finger. Then, hopefully, the meaning of the title and the aftermath of the heist became clear. Or maybe you’re just left with a dog and a handful of . . . pumpkin pie.

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Thomas Pluck on Crime Fiction

Last week, the Dell mystery fiction editors were proud to be featured in short interviews over at SleuthSayers. Today, we have the pleasure and honor of welcoming a SleuthSayer to Trace Evidence. New Jersey author Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and the short-story collection Life During Wartime—among other titles. He was also the editor of Protectors 2: Heroes, which was nominated for an Anthony Award.

For growing up in a family that always had one leg outside the law, it took me a long time to fully embrace crime fiction. My first entry was Miss Marple, perhaps surprising for a writer often pegged as noir. I was raised by my grandmother since I was six, so I felt comfortable around a table of old ladies at tea. And as a kid, I didn’t know how crooked we were.

The house I grew up in was a marker for a gambling debt, filled every Sunday with bikers, truck drivers, disgraced cops, managers of mob-owned bars, and cocktail waitresses. I didn’t find anyone like my family in the books we read in school, but I did find them in crime fiction. My mom and I traded authors like baseball cards. Have you read this one yet? You’ve got to read this. . . .

Crime fiction is a diverse carnival, from the gritty carnies operating rickety rides to the wholesome side where bakers peddle tasty treats, where murder is more shocking but no less likely. Marks come from the farm or the inner city, all have a place here. When I browse the mystery section or flip through AHMM or EQMM to hear the sweet rasp of the pages, I may find myself in the suburbs of ancient Rome, in a gilded drawing room with a locked door, or in a rough spot in a country where I can’t speak the language but I know the music, because the human heart is the same wherever you go.

And that’s why the kid who grew up next to a Superfund site and managed to snag a degree in English Lit writes crime fiction, and is proud to be part of the carnival of crime.

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“On the Edge: A Writer’s Take on Vertigo and Alfred Hitchcock” by Paul D. Marks

Paul D. Marks is the Shamus Award winning author of White Heat. His story “Windward” is currently nominated for the Shamus and and Macavity Awards, and he is the coeditor of the Anthony-nominated anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining SeaHe is a former Hollywood scrip doctor, and his film-industry experience as well as his role as a writer of novels and stories of the thriller and noir persuasion are at play in this post, which he put together for us on the occasion of Vertigo‘s sixtieth anniversary this year. Read on to hear about the history and symbolism of the film, the traits and tools that have come to be known as “Hitchockian,” and how they relate to crime fiction (and vice versa).

Recently, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo played in theaters in honor of its sixtieth anniversary. Many people think it’s Hitchcock’s masterpiece, including me, though there are some dissenters who find it less than stellar. When Vertigo came out in 1958 it wasn’t a huge success. In fact, it bombed, both with the critics and at the box office. But in 1998 The American Film Institute named Vertigo one of America’s 100 best movies. I like a lot of Hitchcock’s movies. I love many of them. And though I always say that Vertigo and The Lady Vanishes are my two favorites, Vertigo is by far the superior film, the culmination of his art. Watching it again reminded me of what a terrific movie it is and why Hitchcock is the master of suspense.

So when Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, asked me to write a piece about it I jumped at the chance. Linda asked what I see and love about the movie, and wondered what things writers might glean vis a vis Hitchcock and our writing. To that end, I’ve expanded the scope of this piece to talk both about Vertigo and Hitchcock in general and how his techniques can help us as mystery/thriller writers.

The term “Hitchcockian” was invented to describe certain qualities that he exemplified. He may not have invented all of them, but he certainly made them his own. Things like innocent people being accused or caught up in a series of events they don’t really understand, but have to figure a way out of. Average, normal people getting thrust into those situations, feeling a sense of vertigo (no Hitchcock pun intended) until they can get their bearings and get back to some semblance of their normal lives.

There is, of course, a different “syntax” for films and prose. Movies are a visual medium, they appeal to the senses, while novels and stories are more of an intellectual exercise and appeal to the imagination. Screenplays are blueprints, whereas novels/stories are the finished products. Movies mostly don’t contain interior thoughts or monologues, though on occasion they do have voice over narratives. And if you’ve ever seen a screenplay, descriptions are brief and to the point: a beach is a beach and described with a “slugline,” like this: EXT. BEACH – DAY (SUNSET). And the description of that beach is sparse. The sunset isn’t described in flowery terms of glorious purples and pinks and surging waves . . . unless you’re writing “50 Shades of the Beach.”

But in terms of narrative, there is a lot in common between movies and prose. So first, let’s talk a bit about Vertigo and then how Hitchcock’s techniques can be applied to prose writing.

Vertigo

Possible spoilers ahead.

On the surface, Vertigo is the story of former San Francisco cop (detective) John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), who suffered a traumatic event that led to his retirement from the force, as well as causing his acrophobia and vertigo. Later, Scottie is approached by old friend Gavin Elster to follow Elster’s stunning wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). He claims Madeleine is acting strange and wants Scottie to keep an eye on her, find out what she’s doing and protect her from something bad happening. Scottie takes the gig and, in the process, he not only falls in love with Madeleine, he becomes fanatically obsessed with her.

Put simply, Vertigo is a story about obsession. Of course, it’s also about many other things. But Scottie is obsessed with Madeleine. Later, he’s obsessed with Judy (also Kim Novak). Madeleine is obsessed with the past and with Carlotta Valdez, a distant relative. The film is obsessed with life and death, love and obsession, if that’s not redundant.

Scottie’s obsession drives the film. He’s the Everyman that we can all relate to on one level or another. Vulnerable and flawed, but virtuous at the same time. He falls into a trap and spirals down from there.

So what makes Vertigo Hitchcock’s masterpiece? It’s not just one thing, but a coalescing of all the elements of the film so that it becomes the culmination of his art. The plot is very complicated on one level, but also very simple in terms of mysteries and thrillers. In fact, Hitchcock said of it, “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again.” But then it’s not so simple because Scottie’s obsession takes it to a deeper level of meaning.

On top of the plot and story, two separate things, and the characters, you have the visual style of the movie, rich colors, great cinematography and tracking shots. Beautiful images, like in a dream. The music comes into play bringing a haunting, intense quality to the film.

The film is rich with symbolism and motifs that add to the layers of intrigue. Hitchcock uses the symbol of a spiral in many places. The opening credits begin with an extreme close up of a woman’s face and then zooms into her eyes where we first see the spiral symbol. The spiral staircase of the mission. The spiral swirl of the hairstyle worn by Carlotta Valdez in the portrait and Kim Novak’s copycat style of hair pulled into a swirl. The rings of a redwood tree. The round bouquet of flowers that Carlotta/Madeleine holds. All of this reinforces the sense of vertigo, both physical and symbolic.

He also uses colors to convey ideas. The colors of red and green—one symbolizing life, reality. The other death, the unreal, fantasy. Another thing is the use of mirrors. We don’t know if what we’re seeing is the real person or a mirror image until the camera pulls back.

There’s always something more to understand. Something you might not quite understand the first time you see the movie but you’ll discover the next time. There are layers to everything.

On the negative side, some people complain about Kim Novak not being the best actress for the part. I would have probably been one of them a few years ago but I’ve learned to appreciate her more over time. I’ve come to admire the way she’s able to morph from being the cool object of Scottie’s obsession to an ordinary, almost plain woman, who is now desperate to keep Scottie.

The main screenwriter, Samuel A. Taylor, said Hitchcock wasn’t happy with Novak’s performance. But Taylor had just the opposite view and was perfectly satisfied with her because, “If we’d had a brilliant and famous actress who’d created two roles, it might not have been as good. I am completely satisfied with her performance–because she seemed so completely naïve–and therefore it was right. There was a quality about the girl, but no self-conscious art, and it worked well.” (from “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,” by Donald Spoto.)

Another thing some people complain about is the long, silent sequence in which Scottie follows Madeleine. I think it’s because they have short attention spans and want more “action”. But it builds the sense of danger and suspense as we wonder what Madeleine is doing and what’s going to happen. It’s lyrical and we watch Scottie as his fascination with Madeleine begins and grows.

So, that said, what can writers learn from cinema’s master of suspense? Might as well start at ground level:

The MacGuffin

One of the first things one thinks of in regard to Alfred Hitchcock is the MacGuffin. And, while it sounds like something you might be able to order for a snap breakfast at McDonald’s it isn’t. . . . What the MacGuffin in a story is doesn’t really matter. It’s simply a device to get the plot moving. It’s the people/characters and how they react to the MacGuffin that matter. But an interesting MacGuffin and what people will do as a result of it makes for an interesting story.

In Rope, Hitchcock’s Nietzschien exploration inspired by Loeb and Leopold, the MacGuffin is the dead boy’s body in the trunk—the trunk that Brandon and Phillip are serving dinner off of. It’s also the rope used to murder the victim and tie a stack of books together.

In Strangers on a Train, tennis player Guy (Farley Granger) must retrieve the MacGuffin, his cigarette lighter, that’s fallen into Bruno’s (Robert Walker’s) hands and that would implicate him in murder.

In Psycho it’s the money Janet Leigh stole, thus forcing her to make a getaway and ultimately land at the Bates Motel, all the while unaware of approaching danger.

On the surface the MacGuffin in North by Northwest is spies and microfilm, but the story is really about Cary Grant, an innocent victim caught up in a deadly game, trying to clear his name and extricate himself from the sticky wicket in which he finds himself.

Vertigo is more complicated; there’s more than one MacGuffin: Scottie’s vertigo, and the “idea” of Carlotta Valdes (she really is unimportant in terms of us knowing much about her but supposedly Madeleine is “possessed” by her or thinks she is). Or is Madeleine the MacGuffin—the elusive dream woman that Scottie pursues and tries to possess, even to the point of trying to resurrect her from the dead by reshaping Judy into Madeleine?

Hitchcock said this of the MacGuffin in François Truffaut’s interview with him:

The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others. My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?” The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and exporter.” “But what does he sell?” “Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!”

So, you need something to kickstart the plot, jam it motion, get the characters moving. The MacGuffin is that thing, but what it is isn’t necessarily the most important element.

Entertain

Hitchcock never forgot the real reason people go to see movies—to be entertained and have fun. To step outside of their ordinary lives and experience something thrilling and exciting, but still go back to the safety of their homes. Writers can learn from this too. We need to keep in mind what our readers want. What will entertain and thrill them. They might want to be scared out of their wits, nervous, uptight, but also know that (in most cases) the hero will get out alive in the end. We should try to give our readers an entertaining experience.

Close-ups intensify emotion

As mentioned, film is a visual medium and the drama of a close-up or an interesting angle can make a huge impact on a movie audience. Hitchcock used close-ups as a way to evoke emotion or startle the audience into feeling what the character is feeling. In the opening of Vertigo, Scottie, the SFPD detective, and a uniformed cop chase a bad guy across San Francisco rooftops, with the city and bridge in the background. Scottie slips, grabs onto a rain gutter, and hangs on for dear life. We see the terror in his face, in his eyes, the panic as he looks to the ground. The camera zooms out from his point of view to give us a sense of his fear. How he feels, his sense of “vertigo.” This sets up the whole film—Scottie’s character, his flaws, and his vertigo, which come into play later.

But what can writers learn from this? The close up in a movie is somewhat the equivalent of going inside a character’s head—which movies don’t often do. Sometimes in prose it’s a quiet moment where we learn something personal about a character. These things can draw a reader in and make them empathize with a character. It’s also similar to what I call the Quiet Scene where characters reveal more intimate details and maybe some backstory about themselves.

Dialogue and Reaction Shots

Hitchcock knew that people don’t always say what they mean. Hitch believed you could have people talking about one thing while really saying something else. Writers can use this by infusing their dialogue with subtext. It adds intrigue to a scene if characters are talking about the weather, but the reader might know that one of the characters is worried about the rain washing away the dirt covering the body they just hid behind the garden shed.

In Vertigo Gavin tells Scottie how he misses the old San Francisco and a time when men had all the power and freedom. A little foreshadowing and subtext. But also in Vertigo, there is very little conversation. Scottie and Madeleine or Scottie and Judy don’t talk a lot, and when they do talk the dialogue is meaningful. But the intense emotions aren’t expressed in dialogue but mostly in visual close-ups. As writers it’s tempting to have our characters express all their emotions through dialogue “I’m sad,” “I’m angry!” etc. Use dialogue along with actions to convey emotions instead of just relying on dialogue alone.

Working in film, one of the things I learned is that reaction shots can determine how the audience interprets a scene. For example if you have a scene of someone slipping on a banana peel and cut to the crowd or an individual laughing the audience will have a much different take on what happened than if you cut to those same people concerned and distressed. In prose writing we can do this by seeing how others, or even the narrator, react to certain actions by various characters.

Less is more in terms of violence

Writers love to write graphic descriptions, but sometimes it’s too much. Hitchcock knew how to pull back from a scene and only show a hint of violence. And that hint would carry more weight than showing all the gory details. Think of the classic shower scene from Psycho and how that’s still shocking even though we don’t see a single sliced tendon or Janet Leigh actually getting stabbed. So the lesson for writers is—sometimes less is more. Think about a small slice of violence instead of showing us every gory detail. Let the reader’s imagination take them there. One of the things Hitchcock said about suspense is, “The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement.”

I had written the previous paragraph before I watched David Baldacci on In Depth on Book TV. And he pretty much said the same thing, so a little moral support for this position. He said: “I like to leave it to the imagination. The scariest scene I have ever seen in film is the shower scene from Psycho and there is no violence. It’s all in your imagination. You let the mind go and you are good.”

And think about what I said above about reaction shots. The way other characters react to something can be as powerful, or more so, than showing explicit details.

In Vertigo there’s very little actual violence. We see Elster’s wife fall from the tower and the cop falling at the head of the movie. But nothing is very graphic. Still, we know how traumatic it is by what happens to Scottie, how he reacts and how devastated he is.

The Unseen Story

Another thing that strikes me about Vertigo is the “unseen” story. I won’t give away any spoilers but we mostly see the movie through the eyes of Scottie and his perception of reality, but later the curtain is pulled back and we see everything that happened that he didn’t initially see. Sometimes I find myself trying to write a short story and I realize I’m trying to write about everything both in front of and behind the curtain. A good book or story doesn’t always reveal everything at the start or may reveal one person’s truth and not another’s.

In Vertigo the first half of the movie is from Scottie’s perspective and then we meet Judy and see her perspective and it gives us a totally different story from what Scottie’s POV told us. This is one way to build suspense in a novel—the reader knows something that the protagonist doesn’t. That builds suspense as the reader watches and worries about what will happen to the protagonist.

Sometimes the story is in what we don’t see and what we don’t know.

Past is Present

In many of Hitchcock’s movies the past influences the present. Scottie is afraid of heights because of an accident that’s left him acrophobic and paralyzed by fear. And we know his fear of heights is foreshadowing and will come into play later. The past is always with us. It influences the present. Madeleine becomes obsessed with the story of Carlotta Valdez and seems to be possessed by her. Carlotta’s story also mirrors Madeleine’s and Judy’s stories. She is a kept woman who has no freedom or power and this gives us an insight into the three different women portrayed in the story: Midge, Madeleine, and Judy. As writers we can use the past to foreshadow and give depth to our stories. What happened in our characters’ pasts that has made them choose certain paths? As the saying goes, Past is Prologue (which just happens to be the name of a story of mine to appear in a future issue of AHMM).

The Twist Ending

Hitchcock was also a master of the twist ending. Again, I think of Vertigo, or The Lady Vanishes, another great story. Both have terrific twists. The story is going in one direction and the reader is caught off-guard when things go in a totally opposite direction from where they thought they were going. I think the lesson for writers is obvious—try to not be predictable, look for ways to surprise readers, but still be believable and have events grow out of the story. Don’t pull rabbits out of a hat or bring in a deus ex machina to solve your problems. Set up the solution early on with hints, foreshadowing, etc.

Suspense: The Bomb Under the Table

Hopefully I’ve kept you in suspense waiting till the end to write about this topic. Hitchcock said if you have two people sitting, talking across a table, then boom, a bomb goes off, you’re scared for a few seconds. But if you have those two people talking and the camera reveals a bomb under the table and you cut back and forth to the bomb, you build suspense and the audience (or in our case the reader) is on the edge of their seat the whole time. They’re scared and nervous for a much longer time, plus they’re rooting for your characters, almost like the cliché of kids shouting at the screen to the cowboy to beware of the baddie behind the door. Try to do that, to build suspense in that way, but with prose. To keep it simmering and lingering until it finally explodes and you get the maximum bang for your buck. A lot of filmmakers and crime/mystery writers have used that technique. But Hitchcock was the master.

Now, in a movie it’s easy to cut back and forth between the bomb under the table and the people sitting there talking. In a story or book you can do this by switching characters so we see the same scene from different characters’ points of views, something like what happens in the film Rashomon. Generally you’d do this at a chapter or section break like in Robert Crais’ The Promise, where one chapter or section might focus on PI Elvis Cole, another on LAPD K-9 officer Scott James, another on bad guy Mr. Rollins, etc., and we see the same action unfolding from all of their points of views. And from each we glean a new or different piece of information.

In Vertigo we have two “bombs.” The first is Madeleine—we don’t know what she will do. Is she going to kill herself? Then in the second half Scottie becomes the bomb. Will his obsession destroy him? Also in the second half the audience now knows something that Scottie doesn’t and that makes us more tense as we wonder when and if he will discover the truth.

Hitchcock’s relationship to writers

With Hitchcock it’s sort of a symbiotic relationship. While, as writers, we may be influenced by him on a conscious or subconscious level—he would like that, us being influenced subconsciously—many of his movies were based on books, Vertigo and Strangers on a Train, were based on novels, and Rear Window was based on a short story by prolific writer Cornell Woolrich. So while we draw inspiration from him, he drew inspiration from us.

And though Hitchcock didn’t often get screen credit for writing, he was very hands-on in terms of working with his writers. I knew Ernest Lehman a little—the writer of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest—and he verified that. Hitchcock planned everything meticulously, working out stories and characters well ahead of time, well ahead of the screenplay stage, and often even before a writer was brought on board. He’s famously noted for his detailed storyboarding of every scene and often every shot in a scene.

One writer who definitely comes to mind as being heavily influenced by Hitchcock isn’t a prose writer but a screenwriter and director, Brian de Palma. Many of his works, such as Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double, are very obviously influenced by Hitchcock—some people would say too much. I’m not one of them.

As for prose writers, many of Harlan Coben’s stand-alone novels such as Tell No One and Stay Close are very Hitchcockian but with a modern sensibility. I would put Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island in the influenced-by-Hitchcock class. And Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, with its tale of revenge and payback, and a terrific twist ending, is definitely a contemporary child of Hitchcock. Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, with the hapless drunk caught up in something she doesn’t quite understand is also a Hitchcock descendant. And, of course, A.J. Finn’s Woman in the Window, which is basically Hitchcock’s Rear Window meets The Girl on the Train.

But even writers who may not seem directly influenced by Hitchcock, such as Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, or Michael Connelly, are probably subliminally influenced by him and most have heard of the MacGuffin and the suspense techniques he pioneered.

Hitchcock is in us as crime writers and informs all of our work by osmosis if not directly. And if you haven’t seen Vertigo or haven’t seen it in a while, check it out and see if it inspires you and your writing.

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“Stagecoach Mary” by Leslie Budewitz

Leslie Budewitz is the author of the Spice Shop and Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. She was the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction (for Death al Dente and Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure). The fifth book in her Food Lovers’ Village mysteries, As the Christmas Cookie Crumbles, is out this week from Midnight Ink. Here she talks about the inspiration for her story “All God’s Sparrows” from the current issue of AHMM.

In “All God’s Sparrow’s” (AHMM May/Jume 2018), we meet Mary Fields, a historical figure also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary. Born in slavery in Tennessee in 1832, Mary worked after the Civil War as a domestic servant in Ohio, where she met Ursuline Sister Amadeus Dunne.

In 1884, Amadeus—by then the Mother Superior—took a small group of nuns to St. Labre, in Montana Territory, to start a school. The next year, the Jesuits asked her to start a school serving Blackfeet Indian girls and white settlers’ daughters at St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade.

In 1885, Amadeus became ill with pneumonia, and Mary traveled west to nurse her. Amadeus recovered, and Mary remained to work at the Mission. Legend says she created more than a bit of trouble, and eventually, the bishop forced Amadeus to fire her. Amadeus helped her get the postal delivery route in Cascade, leading to the nickname “Stagecoach Mary.” Later, she became postmistress, the second woman and first black woman in the country to do so. She was known for her love of baseball, children, and flowers. Mary Fields died in Great Falls, Montana in 1914.

I’d long heard of Mary and wanted to write about her, but had no idea what kind of story I could tell. Though literate, she left no written record, although extensive archives at the state historical society and Ursuline Center document the mission and her life.

Writing in Montana 1889: Indians, Cowboys, and Miners in the Year of Statehood, historian Ken Egan, Jr., notes that racial and ethnic minorities played a greater role in territorial Montana than one might think from the monolithic appearance of the present-day state. The war displaced many people, white and black; the vast lands of the West beckoned.

But as statehood approached, pressures increased. Native peoples were forcibly moved onto reservations. National events, such as the Exclusion Act of 1882, devastated the Chinese community, which had grown up around railroad construction. The lands were harsh, and many early settlers moved on.

Mary stayed. Why? Clearly her bond with Amadeus was strong. But difficult as life here was, I think the West gave her a freedom she lacked in Ohio. In the last few years, I’ve fallen in love with historical mysteries. Finally, I realized, I’d found a format that would allow me to explore the life and times of this astonishing woman. I hope you enjoy taking the trip back in time with me.

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