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About The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

This is the second in our member-written series: My Favorite Golden Age Mystery.

Like many good stories, Dame Agatha Christie's novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd developed from an idea tossed off playfully by two of her friends. The novel was published in 1926, early in her career, and was merely the third time Hercule Poirot, her Belgian private investigator, had been called upon to use his little grey cells. (To me that's a curiosity, because in this story he’d already retired to the country.)

The story's startling ending gained for her novel inclusion into Howard Haycraft's list of important and/or groundbreaking detective stories (from Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story).

In the rare case that the reader has not read this novel, I won't reveal the ending. But I advise writers to read the book twice, first without knowledge, and another time while knowing its secret. The pacing may feel slow compared to today's need for speed, but you'll find Ms. Christie's word choices were immaculately spare. Short story writers know and follow this habit of making each word able to work hard, because of low word count requirements. In this novel, she crafted her story with word choices that could fairly be read two ways, with the character both innocent, and then revealed as guilty. She succeeds masterfully.

Four years later, Ms. Christie and other famed crime-writers formed The Detection Club, which exists today. It served as a model and inspiration for Mystery Writers of America. The club members swore an oath to adhere to a code of ethics in their writing to grant the reader a fair-play chance to guess who did it before the end. Whether The Murder of Roger Ackroyd incited the formation of the fair-play oath is unknown, but the furor over her use of that particular literary device continues today.

Fast forward to a nation riveted to their black-and-white television screens wide-eyed with anticipation as Alfred Hitchcock unfolds yet another story with a surprise ending. The surprise was inevitable, yet he still fooled many of his audience. The Twilight Zone, presented by Rod Serling, again played with viewers’ expectations, mixing oddities with surprise. As Dame Agatha well knew, readers love surprises. The unexpected sells.

What writer has not spent valuable time twisting and weighing his words in a story? No matter the format: feature film to short story to seven volumes of an epic, the aim is to make the story good! Readers are eager to suspend their disbelief. Every word in a story should be crafted to achieve that suspension of disbelief. Readers love the tension, and by extension: twists. The twist at the end that fools us. Or not, which makes us feel clever. Whatever creates a good story . . . works!

Ms. Christie’s novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd lives still in the minds of this reader . . . because of the twist!

Angela Zeman

Angela Zeman's writing spans cozy to suspense. She's the author of The Witch and the Borscht Pearland Tales of the Witch, both featuring Mrs. Risk. Her stories can be found in several anthologies. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine featured “The First Tale of Roxanne” on their cover, the first in a new series.

The Shadow Knows: The Secret of Chiaroscuro Writing

Way back in 1930 the biggest show on the air — the radio air that is — was a show that started with the chilling refrain, “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The shadow knows . . . ”

Secrets are the dark side of our portraits. First, the Dutch Masters created this nuance in oil, and later photographers recreated it on film. What they discovered was that showing less light on one side of the face or subject, brings out depth and dimension. It’s how they created the realism of a three-dimensional image when, as you know, the paintings or film were two-dimensional rectangles. They call it “modeling.” It makes a picture more interesting, less flat.

In writing, characters need shadow too. And for the same reason: to make them more interesting. Only in this case,  the shadow must come from within the character, not from external shading. The source of this darkness is usually the secrets a human shares with no one but themselves, the kinds of awful internal things that only self-love can abide. Call it the darker side of our humanity. Since without dark there can be no light, then it follows that there can be no enlightened humanity without the penumbra of our darkest inner thoughts. The literary opportunity here is that these very same secrets could also generate self-loathing.

Characters can be defined not only from what they love, admire, and respect, but also from what they fear, loathe, and hate. The most intimate of these are self-doubt, self-loathing or even self-hate. Often when a character conquers, masters, or gives in to this most personal fault, it becomes the climax of the character’s internal struggle. I believe this makes a character more human, memorable, and ultimately real.

In photography, contrast ratio is defined as how much light is employed against how much dark. In literary characters, how much light they emit is also a ratio between their secrets, baggage and internal weight – against their lighter natures. This is a very essential tool in deep character analysis. That analysis, by the way, is always best done after the character has taken form. In my opinion, these character elements should be discovered as you are writing your story and not pre-engineered into their DNA before you start to write. That way these foibles become more organic to the flow of the story and don’t stick out like —  “And now a word from the character building department.”

So, shading a character in prose is akin to utilizing “Rembrandt Lighting” in art, film, or photography. The ten-dollar word for this technique is “chiaroscuro,” which Merriam-Webster defines as: the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow. How many of us live behind a veil or know folks who are hiding some deep dark secret that is bending or shaping their personality. As an author, you may choose to reveal the secret(s) to the reader or not, but as a tool for having the character act and behave in a certain way, knowing this part of your character’s make up will guide you in SHADING or COLORING your character’s actions, reactions, and observations at any point in your story.

As in all things, too heavy a hand, too much obvious contrast, and our work, and our characters, start to look stagey, overdone. But the right balance of contrast and dimension, brought on by the shadow of secrets, will make our character’s inner struggle fit seamlessly into the canvas of the story.

—Tom Avitabile

Tom Avitabile is a senior v.p. in advertising, as well as a writer, director, and producer with numerous film and television credits. His recent trilogy of novels chronicle the exploits of Science Advisor to the President “Wild” Bill Hiccock. The first of this series, The Eighth Day, became a Barnes and Noble #1 bestseller. His latest hardcover novel, Give Us This Day, also became a number one best seller. 

How to Write When the World Is Too Much With You

Worried young woman at computer

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
—William Wordsworth

For me, the past few years have been tough ones on the writing front. I lost my editor and then my publisher. Lost my agent. My family had crisis after crisis and the political situation in the world today is not helping my mental state.  If that sounds familiar to you, maybe you, too, have struggled with how to write at all when your brain is “otherwise occupied” and how to imbue your characters with emotion when your own are wrung out.

Bad news: I don’t have all the answers.

Good news: I have a few suggestions that might help.

1) Consider how long the problem you’re facing will continue and whether there’s anything you can do about it. In the case of losing my publisher and agent, I sat down and considered what it meant. It was permanent, which was pretty chilling, but it also meant that I had the ability to try some new things. The family crises were more debilitating and there was nothing I could do about their emotional toll, but I managed to figure out a way to alleviate their physical toll.

2) If it's going to be a long road and you can’t fix it (major health crises in your family, politics, etc), see if you can schedule your way around stuff. For example, maybe you only write 3 days a week and give the others over to dealing with whatever is pressing on you. Think about what’s realistic for you in the situation and plan around it.

3) If the problem comes from the world around you, like politics, etc, download a program (I use Freedom) to block access to the internet to allow you to shut it out on the days you need to work. It’s okay. I promise. The good and the bad will both still be there  when you get back. If you’re the kind of person who can write half a day and concentrate on the things that worry you half a day, set up that kind of schedule. I can’t do it. I have to focus on one thing per day. (But I do allow myself to focus back on the distractions in the evening.)

4) Get out. Literally and figuratively. Walk outside for at least fifteen minutes. Come back inside, write for an hour, and go back out. You’ll feel better and you’ll give yourself time to process what’s going on in your manuscript while you walk.

5) Sometimes, even when the words just won’t come, you can still outline. Not a plotter? I recommend Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley. I have a brief review here. Can’t even plot? Try journaling or other forms of writing not related to your current work just to keep the habit of writing fluid.

How about you? Do you have any tips for writing when your brain won’t cooperate?

—Laura K. Curtis

Laura K. Curtis is the president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. She has written romance, romantic suspense, and crime fiction. She is currently working on a contemporary Gothic-style ghost story.

Mug Shot: Nancy A. Hughes

Nancy A. Hughes earned a Bachelor of Science in English with emphasis in journalism and advertising at Penn State, and a certification in corporate community relations at Boston College. Living in rural Pennsylvania, she started her own public relations business, followed by corporate work in media, public, and community relations. All of which she later abandoned for murder and mayhem.

Tell us about your latest work.
I’m thrilled by the enthusiastic response to my mystery novel, The Dying Hour, which was published last fall. The timing was perfect to showcase the excellent work of our VA hospitals and to introduce the mindset of a typical Vietnam hero. In the novel, hospice patient Charlie Alderfer survives a medical catastrophe, only to discover that he faces three final battles — an inoperable aneurysm; a mute and despondent five-year-old visitor; and an intruder who is murdering Charlie’s roommates.

In 2017, the first in my series of romantic suspense novels, A Matter of Trust, will be published in late spring this year. Two more Trust novels will follow. Finally, a sequel to The Dying Hour, titled The Innocent Hour, will follow the Trust series in 2018.

When and how do you find time to work?
Very early retirement gave me the time, but that time must be fiercely guarded from well-meaning people. There's a sense that writing is a hobby that can be fit into spare moments, which makes me the perfect candidate for others' projects. I chose the volunteer work that called to me and schedule it. Self-discipline is key — there's always a plant that needs a bigger pot. I write in sweeps of time, in isolation, to retain my story's continuity. I love the creative process and hate being dragged from it. My husband jokes that in the morning he leaves me home in my bathrobe, coffee on my desk, and finds me still writing when he returns for dinner.

How much and what kinds of marketing do you personally do?
Personally, the Internet is my friend! A professionally designed website; Facebook, both private and public; Twitter; email. Using the latter, I contacted family, friends, associates, and acquaintances who aren't on social media. I generated buzz six months before launch.Book signings are great fun, the most important benefit being the advance advertising the venue. I should blog and write a newsletter — they're on my 2017 to-do list.

My local newspaper, The Reading Eagle, published a story about my book and me in January. I highly recommend finding which of your local paper editors handle local author stories and pitch them. I'm also considering newspaper ads.

And word of mouth! I work the news of publishing a novel into conversations, even with strangers, who eagerly accepted my bookmark which I’ve shamelessly shared. I do not and will not sell books myself.

I owe the MWA so much and urge writers, regardless of genre, to join professional organizations. MWA-NY's meetings, programs, and friendships have surfaced opportunities and expanded my knowledge of mystery writing. I also joined Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers, which have many opportunities for promoting.

Finally, assuming my book is worthy, word has spread word-of-mouth to strangers, book clubs, and out-of-state readers. What joy!

What authors have inspired you?
Nancy Drew authors, Daphne duMaurier, Harper Lee, Sue Grafton, Lisa Scottoline, Jack Bickham (The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes and How To Avoid Them), John Grisham, Stephen King, countless others, especially mystery writers. On craft: the Howdunit series, Zinsser, Strunk and White, D.P. Lyle, M.D, and Elizabeth Lyon.

In five words or less, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Never give up! Keep learning!

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