Category Archives: Mystery

Under Water

On July 30, 2016 a thousand-year rainfall event triggered flash flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland, demolishing businesses, wrecking cars, and killing two people. A historic strip situated along the bottom of a valley, the town is no stranger to flooding. Major floods occurred in 1868, 1923, 1952, 1972, and 2006 before this latest event.

Rising waters in the nearby Patapsco River produced most of these floods, although the culprit behind the 1972 flood was the remnants of hurricane Agnes, and this most recent flood came top-down rather than bottom-up, due to runoff from higher ground that had nowhere to go but into the historic district.

Flooding being a tragic but inevitable part of the Ellicott City’s history, sooner or later it probably has to figure into some kind of story set in the area. So I say to myself, “Self, it might as well figure into your next Howard County mystery.”

Thus,  the plot wheels are turning in my head. Please bear in mind that this is all very preliminary.

It occurs to me that the flood waters, which gouged out the sidewalks in front of area businesses, exposing the undersides of buildings, might simultaneously reveal something more sinister. The remains of a murder victim? A valuable artifact stolen in the past and never recovered? Documents testifying to some dark and hitherto unrevealed event?

It further occurs to me that a flood might provide cover for a crime. If someone goes missing just then, it might be assumed they fell victim to the deluge.

And finally, it occurs to me that given the number of times Ellicott City has faced down floods, a crime committed and obscured in one flood event could be uncovered as a result of another. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

These being preliminary ruminations, nothing here counts as a spoiler. But I’m pretty sure Rick Peller and crew will find themselves wading into treacherous waters before too long.

It’s the End

In my last two posts I explored two parts of a story’s structure:

  • The beginning, where we encounter main characters, the setting, and the challenges the characters face.
  • The middle, where things become complicated for the characters and tension mounts.

Now we’ve reached the end.

Like the beginning, the end is a relatively short, but for a different reason. Whereas the beginning hooks readers and draws them in, the end resolves the conflicts that carried the reader along. Actually, let’s qualify that. Some conflicts may be resolved in the middle. But the primary conflict can only be resolved at the end. Often a few lesser conflicts stick around until then, too, particularly in a novel. Short stories may only present a single conflict, but longer works will have more.

By definition, the resolution of the primary conflict is a story’s climax, it’s most important and exciting moment. All the tension built up through the middle is released in the climax. In action/adventure stories, this moment is the point when the threat posed by the primary antagonist becomes overwhelming. If the protagonist doesn’t succeed right here and right now, an irreversible catastrophe will result. The terrorists will blow up the building or the aliens will take over the world or the meteorite will crash into the Earth, triggering a mass extinction. In a mystery, the climax often pairs the resolution of the principal crime with mortal danger for the detective or for someone close to them. In a drama, the climax could even be triggered by the protagonist’s own flaws; if they fall victim to their failings, they will loose something important or others will be hurt. In all cases, the climax is the biggest, baddest, most danger-fraught moment in the whole story.

The story’s lesser conflicts can trigger moments like this, too, but generally they are less critical, less intense, and therefore not climactic. They can therefore be resolved in the middle of the story, but if so are usually replaced by larger conflicts or an intensification of the main conflict. The author can give the reader a moment to breath, but only a moment. Tension can’t decline for long, or the reader will wander off in search of a sandwich. But what happens when a lesser conflict persists right up to the climactic moment? Must it be resolved before the main conflict, or can it wait?

In some cases it can and indeed should wait, but order is important. Bear in mind that once the tension is gone, the reader has no reason to keep reading. Conflicts that persist beyond the climax have an inglorious name: “loose ends.” They must be tied up, but because the principal source of tension is gone, they must be tied up quickly. When the business of tying up loose ends drags on, readers rightly get bored and feel that the book should have ended sooner. In the worst case, they may suspect the book was “padded” to make them pay more for it–a feeling that also arises from middles where too little happens for too many pages. Conversely, a book that suddenly ends after a strong climax may leave readers feeling like they were dropped off of an emotional cliff. The less intense resolution to a loose end or two affords¬† us time to “come down” gracefully rather than plummet. On the other hand, the author of a series might leave something unresolved as a “cliffhanger,” a way of inviting you to the next book in the series where, one hopes, the remaining conflict will eventually be resolved.

You may sense a theme here: writers play on your emotions through story structure. The good ones do it so well that you’re left clamoring for their next book!

By way of illustrating these concepts, I’ll invoke my novel The Fibonacci Murders. Therein, a series of murders takes place, with tension ratched up through an increasing body count, the cryptic nature of the killer’s notes to the police, a mathematical switch he pulls mid-stream, and the discovery that his final crime must be one of horrific proportions. Along the way, a second series of crimes occurs. Less severe than the murders, it nevertheless causes a PR nightmare for the police and is resolved only when the murderer kills its perpetrator. That’s one conflict removed, but it hardly decreases the tension–just the opposite. And then a new wrinkle develops: Tom Kaneko, the mathematician who has been assisting the police, privately devises a plan to find the killer and strikes out on his own, unwittingly placing himself in mortal danger. The killer captures him but must execute his final crime, so he trusses Kaneko up and dumps him in the woods, planning on dealing with him later. Now the climax arrives: the killer is stopped mere seconds before committing a mass murder.

End of story? Not quite. Kaneko is still out there in the woods, injured, bound, and gagged. That’s a loose end: I couldn’t leave him there. Moreover, the detectives had a couple of loose ends of their own to tie up. Keeping Kaneko in hot water until after the killer is foiled allows the tension to drop somewhat less than precipitously and transitions towards resolution of the other, lesser, loose ends. The result, I hope, is that when you’ve read the final sentence, you feel that order has been restored and all is right with the world.

The end.

An “Ice on the Bay” Milestone

A couple of days ago, I completed the first draft of Ice on the Bay, my third Howard County mystery. Its completion coincides with another change in my life: a job change. For the past 10 months I’ve been making a two hour commute by car, train, light rail, and foot from my home in Baltimore County to northern Virginia. Today is my last day there. On Monday, I assume a new position much closer to home.

Both changes impact my writing. The completion of a first draft is a time to sit back, relax, and recharge. Not that I don’t continue writing. I currently have two other projects in the works: my SF/humor novel Space Operatic, which is about two thirds complete, and the rewrite of a manuscript my father left behind. But now I need to get some distance from Ice on the Bay, so that I can evaluate and revise it.

The job change means I won’t have writing time on board the commuter train anymore. Much of Ice on the Bay was written while riding the rails. I won’t know how my writing life will be arranged until I see what the new position is like in terms of schedule, commute, and work load. In previous positions, I often wrote on my lunch break. That may or may not be possible this time.

Either way, change provides new inputs for writing: new people, new experiences, new settings. All parts of life are interconnected, even if only in subtle ways, and any of it could be fodder for the next story.