Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mixed POV approaches-- Agatha Christie

From Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie: 1939

Luke was just restoring some final order, replacing things in their place, when he suddenly stiffened and switched off his torch. He had heard the key inserted in the lock of a side door. He stepped across to the door of the room he was in and applied an eye to the crack. He hoped Ellsworthy-- if it was he-- would go straight upstairs.

This shows the continual shift Christie uses from a 19th C sort of omniscient (where we the reader are outside the character, seeing what he does but not "doing it with him"):
Luke was just restoring some final order, replacing things in their place, when he suddenly stiffened and switched off his torch. 

To a 20th C deeper third, where we are inside the character, perceiving what he perceives ("heard") and feeling what he feels ("hoped"):
 He had heard the key inserted in the lock of a side door. He stepped across to the door of the room he was in and applied an eye to the crack. He hoped Ellsworthy-- if it was he-- would go straight upstairs.
This is an effective technique and still used in mystery novels. It subliminally puts the reader into the viewpoint of the sleuth (or villain, sometimes) while reasserting the distance (outside, omniscient point-of-view) needed to evaluate and analyze all the evidence in the book (including what the sleuth doesn't know or misinterprets).

In Murder Is Easy (originally titled "Easy to Kill," btw), Christie uses a "pro-am" sleuth. He's a retired police inspector (from "the Mayang Straits"-- it's an area in Manipur, a peninsula in Eastern India), but out of his depth with the sophistication of British villains, who are, I'm sure we can agree, the most elegant of all. So we can see the pro at work from the omniscient angle, but the uncertain amateur (who is also falling in love, about which more later) through the single-third-person interior viewpoint. We feel both his certainty and his uncertainty, and have much better sense of how just plain difficult it is to figure out the

This book apparently came after several books featuring her impeccably correct sleuth, Hercule Poirot, who is never uncertain and seems to have no inner issues beyond a distaste for British weather. We don't really need an internal view into Poirot as he's not hiding much of himself. (In fact, several of the Poirot short stories are narrated, Dr. Watson-like, by a friend of his.) Luke, however, isn't just a "detecting machine" (you can tell I'm not a big fan of Poirot as a character, though I like the mysteries in those books). He's a young man, long exiled from his homeland and now returning, rootless, almost friendless, and most important, falling in love-- and all this shapes how and why he bothers to detect, especially as all the murders could plausibly be regarded as accidents.

What the more interior "single-third" viewpoint gives us is Luke that man, ruled by this new emotion-- falling for a woman he's unsure of and might not even like (I'm doing this in my Regency CSI series, and I can attest it's a difficult dynamic to describe). What we see is not Poirot's almost ruthless efficiency, but an amateur's repeated mistakes. (He's always fingering the wrong people!) Christie's use of omniscient (usually when he's sleuthing and gathering clues) allows us to judge whether or not he's right. And we have to notice that several times he's wrong. What the single-third deep viewpoint gives us is the reason he's so often wrong: From inside Luke, we participate in his biases and his impulses.

His first real suspect is Mr. Ellsworthy, the local antiques dealer. While the shopkeeper has been in the village for years, he's very much an urban character, and out of place here. He is (probably-- Christie is always a bit muddled when it comes to sexuality in general) homosexual, and Luke's instinctive distaste leads him to suspect the innocent Ellsworthy. From inside Luke (the single-third passages), we get a good sense of the first-half-century straight man's horror of the alternative. (We also get that muddled mid-century view from Christie-- Ellsworthy is not gay so much as generally "abnormal, perverted, depraved" (she uses all those terms, along with stage villain-type hysterical giggles, a "prancing and mincing" gait, and -- no joke-- slightly green hands... just plain devilish... inhuman). He practices witchcraft and Satanic rituals, of course. And it's assumed that he also abuses women sexually-- that is, he's portrayed as all that is perverse. This isn't, of course, a sympathetic or accurate rendition of any alternative sexual identity, but rather an expression of the horror Luke is feeling towards "the other".

So it's not a stretch to see Luke pretty soon fastening on Ellsworthy as the killer. Ellsworthy's supposed perversity would account for the seeming randomness of the murders (nothing seems to unite them except proximity)-- after all, an abnormal inhuman satanist wouldn't need any real motivation for murder!

Luke doesn't really discard this suspicion until he turns his attention onto another suspect. Again, this choice is influenced by his inner reality. He has fallen in love with Bridget, and naturally hates the rich, powerful, and unpleasant man she is going to marry (Lord Whitfield). It's no stretch for him to start suspecting Whitfield, who does have the suspicious trait of having employed most of those who died (and most of the village, it must be said-- he's very rich). While of course Luke's view of the man is colored by jealousy, it's also psychologically apt-- Whitfield is indeed a very large and destructive toddler who wants attention and demands immediate gratification, and can't stand opposition.

When we are sequentially inside and outside of Luke, we can understand his interpretation of something Whitfield confides (that he was once engaged to a lady in the village, but it was broken off because a pet bird he loathed "had its neck wrung"). Luke assumes-- because of his resentment of Whitfield, who gets whatever he wants, including Bridget-- that Whitfield was careless confessing to killing the bird. In fact, if Luke hadn't been so ready to think the worst about his rival, he might have noticed how careful Whitfield was to put that in the passive voice ("the bird was killed," not "I killed the bird"). From the outside, we notice that he jumps to this conclusion that Whitfield is a killer, and thus THE killer. From the inside, we understand why Luke makes this mistake (Whitfield is his rival for Bridget). We are able then to both judge him from the outside and empathize with him from the inside. (He does eventually figure it out, just in time to rescue Bridget from the real murderer.)

I'm going to try to be more analytical as I re-read the other books, and watch for this omniscient/single mix, or one or the other. My hypothesis is:
  • The "professional" books (the Poirot and Miss Marple ones) will have mostly omniscient, mostly outside the "sleuth" character and presenting action also from the perspective of the other characters (like "Sanctuary" gives the POV of the vicar's wife who discovers the body as much as that of Miss Marple solving the crime). The omniscient here recognizes the irrelevance of the interior lives of these professional sleuths (I know Miss Marple isn't paid for it, but she's professional in her skills).
  • The "pro/am" stories (where the sleuths are as much amateur investigators as professional, like Luke and Tuppence and Tommy) will have more back-and-forth between the exterior analysis level and the interior emotional level. In fact, this will provide a lot of the conflict and complications to the mystery-- solved not by the objective application of observation and logic, but through making emotion-based mistakes which lead the sleuths deeper into the mystery.
  • And in the books with the true amateurs, like Bobby and Frankie in Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, we see mostly from inside, from their own limited and emotionally charged perspectives.  Their ability to solve the murder will come more from their intuition as much as their observation, and they will rely much more on empathy and instinct ("I knew he was a liar!") than on logic.

Thoughts about this? Examples that support or don't? (Also I should look at The Man in the Brown Suit, with its somewhat clumsy use of "objective" or camera-eye perspective in the first scene, where the victim "stars".)

List of Christie's books, dated. From

Agatha Christie - The official information and community site

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Is retention the point of reading? And if it's "a point, not the point," how can we improve that?

From The Guardian: Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study finds

As someone who can't remember the plot of any book I read, print or E, I would have to point out that "remembering the plot" is not necessarily what readers are going for when they read. I'm a great reader (in the sense that I read a lot, not that I do it well), and I don't read for retention but for the experience as I read.

But this is an interesting study, however limited. The experience of reading electronic books might be different from reading books on paper. (The greatest difference I notice in my own reading, actually, is with audiobooks, which in many ways is closer to watching -- or listening to-- a TV show than to reading a book with your eyes. I like all the experiences, but they are different and have different benefits and problems.)

But if this is so, that e-readers are retaining less, what does it tell writers? I think I'm taking from it
that continuity is going to be more important than ever, things like
having each character have a distinctive name (not "Mark and Mary") that
can be tracked easily from paragraph to paragraph and page to page
without confusion, and clear markers (like a tagline at the top of a
chapter) of changes in scene or time.  That is, while not losing sight of
the small-picture accuracy of detail, we might also want to focus on the
ways readers will construct an unbreakable chain of the story in their
minds-- what are the connectors between parts of the book?

What else? Should we be concerned about making books more "retainable" regardless of the medium of presentation?


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Coolkayer commented:
Alicia, perhaps you've already done this, but please consider a post on capitalization after a colon. Every time I think I've got it--if the post-colon portion of the sentence is a full sentence unto itself, capitalize--then I see someone not cap a full sentence, and once again, I'm sunk. It's better than he thought: He can run all day now. Or It's better than he thought: he can run all day now. (This example confuses me to no end as it might be a semicolon or an em-dash instead of a colon. Ugh!) Thanks! on Sentences: Why a clause? Why a comma? Rules bend for meaning construction

Good question! I think part of the problem is that like so much else, the colon does double duty. It's used to join an introduction with an explanation or definition:
(Explanation... "why")
You should know why I left the party: My former business partner, the one who embezzled, was holding court by the pool.

(Definition "what")
First, understand what sociopathy is: a personality disorder that causes the person to engage in antisocial behavior due to a lack of an awareness of morality.

But the colon can also signal that what follows will be a list:
(list of three or more)
My cousin has failed at marriage three times: with Mike the love-maker, with Joe the taker, and with Pete the faker.

The list can be bulleted or numbered also:
My completed legal coursework includes
  • ·         Legal Research and Writing
  • ·         Advanced Legal Research
  • ·         Legal Ethics and Law Office Practice
  • ·         Business Law  
  • ·         Tort Law
  • ·         Practice and Procedure in Litigation

Now the rule about capitalizing after a colon is conventionally that if what follows is a complete sentence, you capitalize the first letter after the colon. Why? Because the colon is sort of a super-powered period (end stop) then. It's separating two sentences:

You should know why I left the party.
My former business partner, the one who embezzled, was holding court by the pool.

But here we don't want to just be making two different sentences. We're connecting them to say that they go together, that (in this case), sentence B explains what we mean in sentence A:
You should know why I left the party: My former business partner, the one who embezzled, was holding court by the pool.

The capital letter at the start of the second sentence acknowledges that it's a sentence, while the colon acknowledges that the two sentences are meant to be read together.

When the second part after the colon isn't a full sentence, that capital letter would be distracting (indicating a full sentence when it's not), so we leave that lower-case, as with the definition sentence.

Bulleted and numbered lists, however, sometimes have capped first letters... for each item in the list. (No matter what you choose, the choice should be applied consistently for every item on the list.) This isn't really required, but often looks better. In the case above with the course list, those are all titles of courses, and so would probably be capitalized anyway. 

With your sentence, 
It's better than he thought: he can run all day now. 
I think the problem is "it's" as the subject. It's not informative enough to set up the "explanation," which is "He can run all day now."

That is, yes, the "He" should be capped after the colon, because what follows is the explanation (what's not as bad as he thought) and it's a full sentence. However, because "it's" is so uninformative, you're not really setting up the question in that first clause to be answered after the colon. Try this:
His condition is better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
His recovery has been better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
His leg is better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
His stamina is better than he thought: He can run all day now. 
So you were right-- colon is good, cap letter is good. However, your mind was telling you that something was missing or needed improvement... and that's the subject of the sentence. The first sentence or clause before a colon sets up what is to come, and so should probably be clearly informative.

What do you think? It's (as much as I use "it's" myself, as you can see!) always a good idea to check sentences with "it" and "this" and "that" as subject and see if a more precise term will sound better. The fact that I could come up with four plausible nouns there indicates that you might want to be more specific in what "it" is. :)

Good question! Punctuation has secret depths, huh?


Writing Process Blog tour

I was tagged by @ElenaGreene7 to join the Writing Process Blog Tour! Tagging #dennysbryce and Wesley Redfield at

Four questions about my writing process:
**What are you working on?
I'm working on the first of a series of mystery-romances set in the Regency era. I'm almost done with one, but haven't come up with a title yet. Titles are hard for me.
**How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?
My strengths are writing emotion, and crafting elegant prose, so I'm more of a miniaturist than an epic writer. I like to focus on fine points of a scene—choosing exactly the right combination of action, reaction, design, and expression to give the reader a deeper experience. I've tried to learn that from the two greatest writers concerned with this time period, Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer.
**Why do you write what you do?
I'm writing what I'm interested in reading, actually—complicated relationships that end happily, against the backdrop of glamour and beauty that is the Regency period.
**How does your writing process work?
Not well. I always write out of order—whatever scene or event is intense in my mind—then I have to piece all these scraps together! Call me the "quilt-writer." I first write the dialogue, and then go back and add in everything else. So my scenes are mostly centered on dialogue rather than action.

What's your process like? Is it effective for you? Mine isn't, but when I think about "writing freely," about writing from the muse, I realize-- for me, that's out of order, just dialogue, just intense moments. (And fill in the blanks later, which is the hard part.) 

I'm tagging a couple friends who have very different writing processes.

Denny Bryce, the 2014 GOLDEN HEART® Winner in Romantic Suspense, writes CONTEMPORARY ROMANTIC SUSPENSE, HISTORICAL WOMEN'S FICTION, AND URBAN FANTASY. Her stories straddle the thin line between sex, danger, and love, which she calls ROMANCE ON THE EDGE. 

Wesley Redfield became enthralled with the rich cultures and history of New

Wesley Redfield became enthralled with the rich cultures and history of New Mexico while a professor at the University of New Mexico. His participation in reenactments and extensive trips on horseback in the Southwest add authenticity to his writing.  His latest book, Santa Fe:  Holy Faith, the sequel to Sangre de Cristo, comes out this fall.