Muse Wednesday: Laura Benedict

The third Muse blog in the lead up to the “Maintaining Pace in Mystery” panel set for October 10th, at 1 pm, in Raleigh, Bouchercon 2015, is panelist Laura Benedict.  Her muse is a classic — if you haven’t read the book, I’m sure you might have seen the movie. If you have no experience with either, you must try.  Both the book and movie are super.

*****

highsmithstrangersIn the summer of 1990, I spent the five weeks leading up to my wedding living with my future in-laws. My soon-to-be husband slept in his old bedroom, which seemed about a half-mile away from where I was quartered in his sister’s childhood bedroom. What did I do during those long, lonely nights in my room? Why, I read like a madwoman, of course. The house—way out in the West Virginia countryside—was stuffed full of books; my husband’s father is a big non-fiction reader and loves history, and his mother is mad for mystery and suspense novels.

While I’d been writing for a couple of years, and had taken a few post-grad writing classes, I hadn’t yet found my material. That sounds a bit presumptuous, doesn’t it? Found my material. But it’s an important step for a writer. There are so many avenues to explore, and, truthfully, unless a novice writer already has a passion for one type of material, she should try her hand at several different ones before committing.

My temporary bedroom was full of mystery and crime novels by established writers: P.D. James, Ellis Peters, Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Tony Hillerman, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George. I could’ve read a new writer every night for weeks. But once I discovered a Patricia Highsmith compendium on a bedroom shelf, I was completely smitten. I spent a scandalous day and a half tethered to my room with that book.

Have you seen the 1951 Hitchcock suspense film Strangers on a Train? That was all I’d heard of Highsmith back then. The film follows her novel up to a point, but I recommend both.

Two men, Guy Haines (a famous tennis player) and Bruno Anthony (a wealthy, boorish playboy), meet on a train and strike up a conversation. Sly Bruno brings the conversation around to murder, suggesting that Guy kill Bruno’s father, and that Bruno will kill Guy’s wife, Miriam (an unpleasant woman who won’t give Guy a divorce so that he can marry the sweet, lovely daughter of a senator—because Guy is famous, Bruno knows the gossip about him). Bruno says they won’t get caught because no one knows they know each other, and neither would have a motive for their respective murders.

It’s a grisly idea, yet terribly clever. Bruno is a psychopath, but Guy is a pretty good guy who would never imagine murdering anyone. He has even remained married to Miriam after she became pregnant by another man. He leaves the train after saying something patronizing but not serious to Bruno. Bruno misunderstands and thinks that they have a deal. Not long after, Guy learns Miriam has been murdered. When Bruno comes to Guy looking for kudos, ready with instructions for getting into the Anthony home to murder his father, Guy is stunned. He tells Bruno that he won’t do it, that he never meant for Miriam to die. Unfortunately, Bruno has stolen Guy’s lighter, and threatens to use it to implicate Guy in his wife’s murder. Guy has to do something…I won’t tell you more. If you don’t know the story, I can’t recommend it enough.

One of the things Highsmith does frequently and very well is put an average person in a morally-charged, thrilling kind of danger. One moment a character is sitting on a train, or throwing a dinner party, or on vacation in Greece, and the next moment they’re running for their lives. The 1950s was a time for intense realism in both books and film (okay, so the dresses weren’t necessarily so realistic), and morality was always in question. But I just love that sense that life can turn on a dime—and rarely in a pleasant way. There’s something more to Highsmith, though. Her villains are rarely thoroughly villainous. They are terribly human, and they sometimes get away with their crimes.

Highsmith’s pacing is perfection. She marches the reader right up to the edge of reasonable behavior and gives a little push—and we tumble into the story, compelled to follow her, peeking between our fingers at the awkward encounters, the necessary murders, the shamefully easy criminality.

There has never been another crime writer like Highsmith. I’ve read just about everything except her previously uncollected stories (I don’t think it’s fair to posthumously publish stories that a writer purposefully left unpublished.), and re-read her style book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction about once a year. Her prose is simple and declarative, yet wildly intense. It’s that intensity that I yearn for in my own work. That sense that really bad things can happen to just anyone, and they probably will. Once immersed in that world, I could hardly imagine wanting to write anything but suspense. Everything else pales for me—science fiction, romance, historical fiction—I want that constant tension. As a writer, I want to keep both myself and my readers guessing.

And a little postscript—Yes, I married him! We celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary this past July. So Patricia Highsmith is sort of our marriage muse, as well.

LBenedictcrop415Bio:
Laura Benedict is the author of five novels of dark suspense, including CHARLOTTE’S STORY and BLISS HOUSE, the first two books of the Bliss House trilogy. Her work has also appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, PANK, and numerous anthologies like THRILLERS: 100 Must-Reads, and THE LINEUP: 20 Provocative Women Writers. She lives with her family in Southern Illinois.

Visit her at laurabenedict.com.

“Murder, sexual obsession, and misogyny explode in the final scenes, bringing all the simmering evil to the surface in a shocking finale, that, like all good horror stories, is probably not the end. You just can’t look away from this bombsite—nor forget it. Dripping with southern gothic atmosphere.”—Booklist,starred review, Charlotte’s Story

Charlotte’s Story Buy Links:

http://www.amazon.com/Charlottes-Story-Bliss-House-Novel/dp/1605988782/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/charlottes-story-laura-benedict/1121186394?ean=9781605988788

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9781605988788

Bliss House–NOW OUT IN PAPERBACK:

http://www.amazon.com/Bliss-House-Novel-Laura-Benedict/dp/1605985724/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383097982&sr=1-1&keywords=bliss+house

 

 

Muse Wednesday Redux

It’s been awhile since I posted regular Muse Wednesdays. I missed them.  I love learning what set my fellow authors on the road to writing. But social media is a time suck and so I put the Muse blogs aside for only special occasions and the odd one-off author who actually seeks me out to do one.

So why bring them back now?  What’s special about the next four Wednesdays in September?

Bouchercon 2015 will be held in Raleigh, NC, from October 7-11th.

And once again, I have the distinct honor of being a Moderator for a panel entitled, Maintaining Pacing in Mystery.

The panel consists of published authors Annette Dashofy, Hilary Davidson, Laura Benedict, and Rebecca Drake.  Our panel is scheduled for Saturday, October 10th at 1 pm.  If you’re attending, we’d love to see you there.  If you aren’t, there is still time to register for this conference which is the largest mystery convention in the world. See the full scheduled of events and panels, HERE.

My four panelists are all at the top of their game in the mystery/suspense/thriller field, so I thought it would be fun to ask them who or what their writing Muse(s) are — and at the same time get some promo and advance excitement for our fabulous panel.  Yes, I am devious that way. 😉

The Muse Blog schedule is as follows:

September 9th –Annette Dashofy

September 16th –Hilary Davidson

September 23rd–Laura Benedict

September 30th – Rebecca Drake

I’ve already seen Annette’s blog and I love her choice.  And, no, I’m not telling, you have to come back next week and see who she picked.

And to remind you what a Muse Blog is all about, I am re-blogging my original Muse Blog which addressed why I write what I write:

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MARY STEWART’S THE MOON-SPINNERS

Monette Michaels

 In the summer of 1964, I picked up The Moon Spinners.  From the opening line, Mary Stewart had this twelve-year-old girl hooked: “It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it.”  Such a simple line filled with questions. Who is the narrator?  Where was the narrator that she chanced to see an egret fly from a lemon grove? And what exactly had started?

From that little line, I traveled with Nikky Ferris, a young British woman, on a journey of discovery and danger. When Nikky takes that first step off the beaten path to Agios Georgios, she didn’t know it yet, but she has changed her life forever.  As she makes her way into the rugged mountains lining the Greek coastline, I tasted the dust Nikky’s shoes cast into the air.  I smelled the lemon flowers as she wends her way through the grove.  I shivered at the coolness of the mountain water when Nikki pauses to rinse her hot, dusty hands.  I shared her sense of isolation and the building anticipation that something was going to happen.  When Lambos drops into her path, knife in hand, my heart rate jumped right along with Nikky’s.  What had started out to be a pleasant little getaway with her aunt in a sleepy little Greek seaside resort, has now become a life and death matter as Nikky’s future becomes inextricably intertwined with Mark and Colin Langley’s lives – – lives that had been changed forever when the brothers stumbled across murder in the wilds of Greece.  And I was with her every step of the way.

What amazes me, now that I also write novels, is that the set up in The Moon-Spinners is done so effortlessly and in less than two chapters. There are no wasted words or lines in a Mary Stewart book.  Just as the fabled Moon Spinners spin the moon, Ms. Stewart spins her story, effortlessly and inexorably pulling in her reader.

So what is it about Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels that has captured several generations of readers and influenced a generation of authors?

For me, other than the amazing settings and sense of place, it is her ability to create an atmosphere that holds you breathlessly in its thrall from her novels’ first words until the last. Her usage of words rivals a poet’s.  No doubt about it:  Mary Stewart is a master wordsmith.   Added to her perfect selection of words is a superb sense of pacing.  Each word, each line of text builds upon its predecessor, building tension and  providing relief, only to escalate again until the final climactic scene.  Her plots are a perfect balance of description, suspense, and romance and as seamless as a Mobius strip.  This is why myself and a whole generation of authors have attempted to emulate Mary Stewart’s style.

In my romantic suspense novels, I sweat every word, every line, striving to recreate the  suspense-romance symmetry, the perfect pacing of a Mary Stewart novel. My villains are driven to commit evil.  The heroes are strong; the heroines, just as strong or stronger. Fate throws them together, changing their lives for better – – or worse, as the case may be.  In my books, as in Stewart’s, good always triumphs over evil, but sometimes the line between the two is a bit smudged.  From lean first lines to the end, I strive to take my readers on just as breathless a ride as Mary Stewart always gave me.  Do I do this as gracefully and seamlessly as she did?  I only hope so.  Time will tell.

Copyright, Monette Michaels, 2006. This essay  is not to be reprinted without the express permission of the author. Worldwide print anthology rights are held by Crum Creek Press.