Gorilla Girl enjoyed interviewing Ann as August’s Author of the Month and learning how she weaves together mystery and memoir from faraway places. Meditating Murder is the first book in her series featuring David Markam, a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department. It is set on California’s Mendocino Coast in an isolated mansion filled with artifacts and secrets.
– On your website, you say you write mystery and memoir. Are parts of your mystery based on your life?
Many things in my stories did happen to me. I grew up in a military family and then married a man whose work took us to places overseas. As well as several states, I lived in Bermuda, England, Libya, India, Saudi Arabia and Greece before I was forty.
– Your David Markam mystery series is set in the late 1980s. Why did you choose that time? What problems come up when you set a story in the recent past?
The 1980s was the last decade before our lives became focused around computers and cell phones. While I can’t imagine living without that technology now, I think of those as sort of halcyon days, when we had a broader scope and a different perspective.
That decade was also closer to my experiences in time. And I really enjoyed parts of the 1980s.
In writing fiction about another time, the same factors apply whether you’re setting stories in 1980 or in 1680. You still have to get details and dates right. That becomes especially important when readers can remember the time period themselves.
You also have to walk the line between what existed then and how those things are viewed now. A hero doing Disco dancing in a white suit doesn’t have the same cool factor now that he might have had in the 1970s. If my character wonders who shot JR, will my current audience remember Dallas in the 1980s? How will it affect his credibility if he spends an hour looking for a phone booth?
– Readers who love traditional mysteries expect a complex plot. What method do you use to plot your stories?
I love the stories of writers like P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers. They all write traditional mysteries in which the murderer is not revealed until the end, and carefully concealed clues make the hunt a challenge.
I’ve experimented with many plot schemes, but the structure I keep coming back to is the basic 2-body plot. John P. Murphy has a good article on the Four-Act, Two-Body plot here.
Essentially, in the first part of the book, the victim, possible suspects, and the sleuth are introduced. Clues and Red Herrings are planted. Tension rises until the first body is discovered and the investigation gets under way.
If the sleuth is a police person, she or he is obligated to investigate. But solving murders is not in most Foreign Service Officers’ job descriptions, so David Markam, my sleuth, has to have a reason to commit himself to the task. That’s why I always put somebody into the story he really cares about.
In the next phase of the plot, we get to know the suspects better, and they all begin to look pretty capable of murder. When the second body is found, the sleuth takes control of the situation. He begins to find the truth behind the shadows and moves closer to the final drama of revealing the villain.
This kind of plot appeals to me both as a writer and a reader. I love to lay out a logical plan, plant clues, and devise misdirection. As a reader, I enjoy the challenge and surprise as well as the comfort of knowing order has been restored!
– Your second book is set in India. What kinds of research are you doing for it?
It really helps to know the culture first hand. Living in different countries while I was growing up made me a “noticer” of things. The ways people gesture to each other, the flick of a hand, the sound of monsoon rain, the scent of jasmine on a hot, humid night.
No matter how vivid my memories, there’s no escaping research. Like most writers, I can easily fall down a rabbit hole and spend an entire day following one fascinating trail after another. But some sources are more useful than others.
I look at the pictures tourists post on travel-related sites like Yelp. Their informal snapshots give me a feeling of being there and of watching people moving around. Occasionally, I see some small, insignificant thing in a picture that becomes a wonderful detail in my story.
I make a rough diagram to identify where things in the book will happen. Then, I use Google Earth to get roads, distances, locations, and physical terrain right. If I want Character A to be walking on a lonely path from the market to her home, I see exactly where she’ll be most isolated and how long it might take before someone else comes along. Not all of these details end up in the book, but knowing them gives me a vivid sense of place when I’m writing.
I guess I’m a little obsessive about checking details. I start with Wikipedia and go on to articles and images. If my character walks through a forest or sees a huge spider on the wall in his bedroom, I find out what kinds of trees and spiders live in that town.
Books and articles written by people who know the country are great resources. For Dead or in India, I’ve read on topics as diverse as goddess-worshiping traditions, tribal societies, monsoon seasons, and relationships between masters and servants during the British Raj.
– How do you overcome the challenges of creating characters from another culture?
Unfortunately, it’s easy to stereotype ethnicity or create generic foreigners whose speech, actions, and attitudes echo our own.
While I’m researching, I think about the values reflected in what I’m learning, and I’ve read a number of books and articles about the culture’s history, myths, and beliefs.
To create authentic dialog, I use an altered syntax for the character’s speech to suggest its rhythms and accents. I add phrases from the language sparingly. For help, I watch U-Tube clips made by people in that country and video feed from their local news sources.
Most importantly, I try to keep the uniqueness of the character’s mind and spirit at the center of all I write.
For more on Ann Saxton Reh, see https://www.annsaxtonreh.com/