Writing a Collaborative Mystery Serial

I’m collaborating with several other Second Wind Publishing authors to write a series of mystery novels online. We are posting the chapters on a blog so everyone who wants to can follow the serial as we write it. Actually, collaboration is a bit of an over-statement. Rubicon Ranch is more of a cross between a role-playing game and round robin or campfire tale, with each of us authors taking turns adding to the story without knowing where we are going except toward the solution of the murder. We each create and control a POV character, show who s/he is, what relationship s/he has with the deceased, and why s/he might want the victim dead.

I have it easy — my character, Melanie Gray, is a photographer/writer who wanders the desert taking photos for the coffee table books she used to write with her dead husband. (He wasn’t dead when they were working together, of course.) He died in a one-car accident while texting his mistress, though there are suspicious circumstances leading investigators to think that perhaps he was killed. Melanie has a talent for finding strange things in the desert, such as the child’s body stuffed in an abandoned television console in the first book, Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story, and the scattered body parts that were found in the second book, Rubicon Ranch: Necropieces. Her presence at these crime scenes is all that leads the sheriff to suspect her, though I do try to add a bit of intrigue to make it seem as if she could be guilty.

The other authors, however, have to simultaneously prove that their characters are the murderer, yet also have a plausible explanation for why the characters acted guilty if they weren’t the murderer. (That’s because we don’t know whodunit until all the end of the book. So not only do readers of the ongoing story not know who the villain is, neither do we.)

In the first book, the authors solved the problem of simultaneously setting their characters up to be murderers while allowing for the possibility that they were innocent by giving their characters strange characteristics, such as sleepwalking, to keep the characters themselves from knowing if they were the killer.

In the second book, there was no way the killer could be unaware of having killed the victim. Even if by chance the character killed in some sort of fugue state, the character was still faced with a dead body, which he or she cut in small pieces and distributed around the area. The authors created some wonderfully devious characters with strong motives for killing the evil man who damaged them for no reason other than because he could. Any of them could be the murderer. And any of them could simply be innocent (or not so innocent) red herrings.

We are through with the second book and are in the process of organizing the third installment of the series. In this one, Melanie won’t find a body in the desert since understandably she’s a bit leery of walking in such a deadly place, so she will have to find it elsewhere, perhaps beneath the wheels of a blow up figure of a Santa Claus on a motorcycle.

We have a victim — a real estate agent, the same one who found the disembodied head of the victim of the second book inside the house where the victim of the first book once lived. Apparently she likes to snoop, and since so many residents of Rubicon Ranch have a secret they are willing to kill to protect, it sounds like the potential for a lot of mayhem!

I’m looking forward to seeing what the other authors come up with. I hope you will follow along with us as we continue this innovative crime serial.

Meantime, if you haven’t checked out Rubicon Ranch, and wish do so, click here: Rubicon Ranch.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Rubicon Ranch ~~ Prepare for Mayhem!

Rubicon Ranch: NecropiecesI enjoy finding out how other writers approach their craft, and especially how they develop their characters. J J Dare, author of False Positive and False World, delights in creating evil characters. As a fellow collaborator in the Second Wind serialization, Rubicon Ranch, J J Dare created the monstrous victim in Rubicon Ranch: Necropieces, the second book of the series, along with a couple of his offspring.  In her blog post Bad Wasps, J J Dare said of her two POV characters:

They’re bad. Bad to the bone. Bad in ninety-five percent of their molecular makeup. If an ice-cream flavor was named after them, it would be “Vinegar and Vinegar” and it would taste just as sour as it sounds.

They are evil, narcissistic, self-centered, selfish and plain mean. Both characters think nothing of climbing over the living and dying bodies of anyone in their way. They are Bad Wasps.

So, why did I write them this way? It’s not a reflection of me. I’m fairly mild, with only a bit of flair once in a while. And I’ve never wanted to murder my parents.

I’m glad she added those last two sentences. Someday J J and I will meet, and I’d hate to have to go to the meeting prepared for mayhem.

Seeing how much fun J J Dare has with her evil characters, I’d considered exchanging my character for a bad wasp (or perhaps revealing a waspish side, which I might someday do), but my character, Melanie Gray still has so much work to do that I can’t just dump the poor woman. She needs to find out who killed her husband and why, and she needs to resolve her feelings for the misogynist sheriff.

J J’s characters might not reflect her, but Melanie Gray is a lot like me. She’s a writer dealing with grief, she wanders in the desert, she’s fairly calm and passive though she can be riled. Even though she started as an alter ego (but younger) she turned out to be a world traveler, which I am not, and she has a penchant for finding dead bodies, which I don’t. Thank heavens for that! Being some sort of human cadaver dog has never been an aspiration of mine.

If you have not yet checked out Rubicon Ranch, now would be a good time. You can download the first book free in the ebook format of your choice here: Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story and you can follow the second book as we finish writing it here:  Rubicon Ranch: Necropieces. And you will have to prepare for mayhem!

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

Putting the “Who” in Whodunit

I’m collaborating with several other Second Wind Publishing authors to write a series of novels online on a blog. The first novel is about the death of a little girl. Her body was found in the desert outside a bedroom community that once had been a working ranch, hence the name of the series, Rubicon Ranch.

Collaboration is a bit of an over-statement. Rubicon Ranch is more of a cross between a round robin or campfire tale, with each author taking turns adding to the story, and a role-playing game. We each create and control a POV character, show who s/he is, what relationship s/he has with the deceased, and why s/he might want him dead.

I have it easy — my character, Melanie Gray, is a photographer/writer who wanders the desert taking photos for the coffee table books she used to write with her dead husband. (He wasn’t dead when they were working together, of course.) He died in a one-car accident while texting his mistress, though there are suspicious circumstances leading investigators to think that perhaps he was killed. Melanie has a talent for finding strange things in the desert, such as the child’s body stuffed in an abandoned television console in the first book, and the scattered body parts that will be found in the second book. This is all that leads the sheriff to suspect her.

The other characters, however, have to simultaneously prove that they are the murderer, yet also have a plausible explanation for why they acted guilty if they weren’t the murderer. (That’s because we don’t know whodunit until all the end of the book. So not only do readers of the ongoing story not know who the villain is, neither do we.)

In the first book, the authors solved the problem of simultaneously setting their characters up to be murderers while allowing for the possibility that they were innocent by giving their characters strange characteristics, such as sleepwalking, to keep the characters themselves from knowing if they were the killer.

In the second book that we are in the process of organizing, there is no way the killer can be unaware of having killed the victim. Even if by chance the character killed in some sort of fugue state, the character will still be faced with a dead body, which he or she will cut in small pieces and distribute it around the desert.

So how do you write a character from a strict third person limited point of view, from inside the character’s head, proving that your character is the killer, while at the same time giving yourself an out if the character turns out to be innocent?

Well . . . If your character has killed before, you can have him/her worrying about if the sheriff will find out what s/he did, without being specific as to which crime s/he is wondering about. You can have your character act guilty — perhaps desperately trying to cover something up. You can have him/her try to pin the murder on someone else, offering assistance to the sheriff, which would make your character seem guilty, but in the end (if your character is not the killer) have an alternate explanation. You can be hiding something in your house that can be construed as your having Morris’s body that you’re cutting up bit by bit. I’m sure you can come up with better ideas than these, but you get the idea.

I’m looking forward to seeing what the other authors come up with.

Meantime, if you haven’t checked out Rubicon Ranch, and wish do so, click here: Rubicon Ranch.

Heroes, Heroics, and Heroism

Writers generally use the word hero to mean main character, though often that main character is not particularly heroic. So what makes a hero heroic?

Note: For the purpose of this discussion, hero refers to both men and women for no other reason than that I don’t like the word heroine. For one thing, it’s too close to heroin, which is how many people misspell it; for another, it reminds me of intellectually lightweight females more given to heroics than heroism. (Heroics meaning “ostentatious and overly dramatic conduct.”)

The other day I watched the movie Lone Hero (an older movie starring Lou Diamond Phillips), and it struck me it had the same basic premise as Hero (an even older movie) starring Dustin Hoffman. A character instinctively does something heroic, (meaning, in this case, “marked by courage and daring; noble”) and at the end of the movie, he consciously chooses to do another heroic act. (I know movies aren’t books, but they are the result of writing, and as such fall within the purview of this group’s discussions.)

So, which was the true heroic act — the instinctual one or the calculated one? I got the impression from those movies that both writers thought the second one was more heroic since the characters chose the action, but to me that was merely bravery — true heroism comes from within, the instinct.

So, are your heroes heroic (in any sense of the word)? Do they act instinctively or calculatingly? What do they do that is so heroic? Does it change them? Does it change those around them?

And, on the opposite side of the spectrum, to be worthy of note by the hero, does the villain also have to behave heroically? All too often, writers give their villains heroics (overly dramatic bad conduct) but not heroism.

The group No Whine, Just Champagne will exchange ideas about heroes, heroics, and heroism during our live discussion on January 15, 2009 at 9:00pm ET. Hope to see you there! (Or you can discuss this matter here.)

(Could I have used more parentheses?)

Sports As Story

The one thing that separates humans from other animals is not our ability to communicate; most (perhaps all) creatures possess that ability to some degree. What separates us from animals is how we communicate: by words, by stories.

We all have stories to tell. At work, we tell colleagues, “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night.” At home, we tell our families, “You know what Sally did today? She . . .” Out with friends, we top each other’s jokes.

Stories. That’s what we’re about.

We love to hear other people’s stories, we love to tell stories, and we love to read stories, both real and imagined. “I don’t like stories,” you might say; “I like sports.” Ah, but sports is all about story. The hero, the villain, the conflict, the passion, the suspense, the unexpected or the hoped-for ending. We identify with the characters; we empathize with their plight; we feel as if we have a stake in the outcome of the game. All elements of story. No wonder so many sports movies have been made, so many sports novels have been written. The story of a game within the story of a character. Heady stuff.

Conflict keeps us reading a story, conflict keeps us watching a game. When a character or a player with whom we identify runs up against an obstacle, we want to find out how things will turn out. That conflict forces us to pay attention. When a book is too slow or too predictable, we will toss it aside. When a clear winner of a game is indicated, we will leave the ballpark or turn off the television. When a game is desultorily played, neither team giving that fabled one hundred and ten percent, we lose interest.

We might try to avoid conflict in our lives, but when in comes to story, we need conflict. We need characters, we need to care, we need the contrast and the conflict between the hero and the villain, and we like to see characters change. We love when underdogs win, when they pull out the best in themselves and change from loser to champion. Doesn’t matter whether we hear an anecdote, tell a joke, read a book, or watch sports. It’s all the same.

We are human. We are story.