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Star Trekin’

I may have mentioned that I watched the third season of Star Trek this week and then having actually finished watching the show bought the movies. I noticed something about Star Trek while watching. Fully half the women in the federation are either doctors or have important jobs. The other half are relegated to the “Lieutenant Upskirt” position, but then NBC had executives and guys in suits can only understand things on so many levels. It was 1968 after all and if they didn’t get to look up girl’s skirts the guys in suits got terribly depressed and threatened to cancel the show, which they did anyway.

My point was though that there are a lot of women who were intelligent on that show. Not only were they smart, but they had short skirts to show of their simply smashing legs. Hot babes with brains! The Avengers was quite popular when Mrs. Peel was around too for some strange reason that I can’t manage to put my finger on at the moment. Something about brains and boots I think.

I also noticed that Star Trek had a boat load of women writers. This even included Sheri Lewis, yes that Sheri Lewis of Lamb Chop fame. As a side note the episode she wrote is where I actually coined “Lieutenant Upskirt” comment while trying to explain to Holly what had happened in the first 40 minutes and why the camera seemed to be aimed directly up her skirt (She was laying down on a sickbay bed). Phrases like “Well, Lieutenant Upskirt here is beset by the naughty photo element of the week” came all too easily. Despite the unfortunate camera angles, it’s actually a pretty good episode.

I don’t have enough TV shows from the sixties to compare, but it seems like there were a lot of women working on Star Trek. Since the rest of entertainment was pretty dominated by men I assume that writing generally was as well. It does make me wonder about how other shows, more modern shows to be precise, compare in terms of their writing staff. Highlander had a few women writing, but it’s really hard to get numbers down because of how credited writing works within a TV show.

May 8, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

20 simple rules for writing my mystery.

Every once in a while I go back and check on S.S. Van Dine’s 20 rules for writing detective stories, just to see if I can get away with breaking any. At the time he wrote these rules, they were good rules, and as I understand it stemmed from his frustration with many bad stories. Most of the rules are still useful, for the most part anyway. The problem is that some of them have become cliché and trying to hold to them can be damaging for a good story.

Let’s see how I feel about them, shall we?

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
I sort of agree. I like the idea of the detective not really solving the case though. I like the idea of having the solution fall in his lap because he didn’t really solve it. As a writer, I’m perverse in that way. I like things that work out while the main character doesn’t really understand why or how they worked out.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
I’ll grant this one for the most part. You’ve got to give the reader at least the appearance of a chance.

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
Blah! I like a love story now and then. With some of my favorite mystery books, the use of a love interest as a distraction or a foil elevates the story greatly.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.
I’m on the fence about this one. I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it done VERY badly. Probably, on balance, I would say you should stick to this one. The only way you can manage is if none of the main investigators for your story are the culprit. A cop, or fellow detective can do it, but they should be more on the sidelines. Even then, a good portion of the story should really be dedicated to proving it and the unmasking should come early.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
It depends on how real you want to be. In real life, murderers are often caught by accident and happenstance. People do confess at odd times, when they think they’re more trapped than they really are or because they aren’t thinking about what they’re saying. You can do it, but you need skill.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
I’m going to give this one two thumbs and one big toe up. While I believe in accidents (see above) I also believe that a lot of work still needs to be done after that.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
To be honest, murders are cliché. If one looks at Agatha Christie’s work, it’s amazing there are any occupants of country manor homes left for Bertie Wooster to go visit. The constant deaths get boring after a while and just every once in a while I like an investigation over a stolen necklace or something.

8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
I am in agreement! Unless you’re going to base the entire story around magic, which brings everyone back to a level playing field and still requires the reader to put information into a cogent collection or something. But then what you’ve got is more a fantasy than a full blow mystery story.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
I like Nero Wolfe’s team of guys actually. While those stories are told first person by Archie, they still have a team feel and I like that. You should be careful, but you can do it.

10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.
I agree here too. You need time to get to know the culprit, if only a little bit.

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.
Oh screw this! What is this – 1842? Let the butler do it once in a while! Stop claiming that just because someone works for their money that they aren’t a worth-while person.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
If you’re doing a simple story, maybe. Me? I like things to get a little more complex once in a while. It can lead to a more interesting story.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.
While I don’t disagree 100%, I do disagree a little. I’ve seen the secret cabal things work a few times, and I’ve seen it fail a few times.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
I see no problem with a Fantasy mystery story, so long as everyone is more or less equally fantastic. See my answer for 8.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.
I’ll go with this one.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.
Oh I don’t know, Raymond Chandler thinks he did quite well with all that flowery talk. Robert B. Parker seems to not be going broke with his descriptive passages.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
Actually, by now it’s fairly interesting and may I say unexpected if the killer ISN’T a church pillar or something. That’s my problem, these rules have become the cliché in many ways.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.
Oh go on! Just once, for a novelty. No one will EVER see it coming.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
I see no reason why a person can’t kill for political reasons. Once could argue that the idea of person is different for each person.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic se’ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.
Kind of hedging to make a list of 20 here aren’t we? I’ll grant most of these are cheats, but any of them could be suggested as a bit of business for the hero to work through. The red herring possibilities are great fun.

May 8, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment