Friday, May 27, 2016

Dangerous Plants in our Backyards

I’m researching a short story set in Illinois during Prohibition. It looks like a poisoning…but is it? A young flapper and her boyfriend try to solve the death of a friend who collapses in the steam tunnel underneath the speakeasy where they are partying.

The two poisons I’m considering are foxglove (digitalis) and deadly nightshade (belladonna). Either substance can be fatal in small doses…if the circumstances are right. Combine that knowledge with an existing medical problem being treated with prescription medicine and rotgut illegal booze and you have a witch’s brew that could fell most people.

Digitalis (from Digitalis purpurea) is today a lifesaving cardiac drug. The medicinal use of digitalis goes back to the 1780s, when physician William Withering discovered its usefulness for treating edema and heart failure.

The advantage of poisoning by using digitalis is that the symptoms of overdose resemble the condition being treated: headaches, tremors, irregular heartbeat, and nausea.  I used this information to kill off a patient in my novel The Bootlegger’s Nephew.

Digitalis can be administered as powdered leaves or root, or as a tincture. You can even add the leaves of the plant, foxglove, to a mixed green salad. Depending on the form of the compound, it takes about two grams to kill a person.

Belladonna from Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is most toxic in its berry form, but the leaves and roots can be made into a medicinal extract used to treat stomach disorders. Two juicy black berries can kill a child; ten to twenty can kill an adult.

The common names derives from Italian, “bella donna” (beautiful woman,) because Italian women used belladonna drops to enhance the beauty of their eyes by dilating their pupils. The cosmetic practice dates back to ancient Egypt and Babylonia. The alkaloid compound produced from this plant, atropine, is still used today to dilate pupils for eye examinations.

One source I found claims that a murderer could build up immunity to belladonna extract by sipping tiny amounts over time. The slightly sweet extract could then be used to lace a drink, killing a second person without injuring the murderer.

I just checked the arbor in my backyard. Deadly nightshade is thriving there and will soon produce tempting berries. I should experiment: volunteers, anyone?


Here are some resources: Wicked Plants, by Amy Stewart; The Big, Bad Book of Botany, by Michael Largo, and The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum.

Friday, May 20, 2016

What keeps a reader turning the page?

When a story starts with tension and keeps it up until the end of each chapter the reader will want to know more. Giving them a breather is a good idea, resolving some of the conflicts, but kicking it up a notch with a new issue or twist. I've lost sleep over chapter endings that made me want to know what happens next. 

Dialog moves a story quickly. The speaker must be clearly identified (or known by the dialect) so the reader doesn't get lost. People often speak in fragmented sentences and finish another persons sentences if they know them well. Exposition mixed in will help put the reader in the same room, just not too much description - or the reader may wander off. 

Readers now expect to start in the middle of the action. No more back story building or setting the scene like Hawthorne. The reader will get to know who is there and where they are as the story progresses, but you have to grab them in that first paragraph!

If at all possible, avoid data dumps or lectures. Fiction readers want to be there and be involved. They don't want you to tell them all the why's and wherefores in one page, but rather to tempt them with tastes and nibbles immersed in the story. Reveal important information, just not all at once. Be sneaky! Be concise. Leave them tiny snacks to keep them on the path of the story. 

Make your characters interesting, three-dimensional, flawed, and believable. The reader wants to care about them, understand them, cheer for them and hate them. Even the antagonist needs at least one redeemable quality. The main character in my novel FEISTY FAMILY VALUES is a royal be-itch. But underneath she has a heart. Few readers like her, but most come to understand her. She's someone a reader can relate to. 

Surprises and Emotions are critical. Give the reader twists they don't expect. Make them cry or laugh right along with the characters. Readers find pieces of their own lives in stories, commiseration for shared trials, justification, validation, hope and even comfort. The reader wants to be part of the story.

Use all five senses. Make the reader smell it, hear it, feel it, touch it - whatever "it" may be. If you give them a creaky old house they will want to smell the mustiness, sneeze the dusty, get creeped out by the echoes and touch the smooth banisters worn by thousands of fingers.

Good stories with strong characters, vivid scenery and intense emotions keep me turning the page. How about you?

Bonnie (BD) Tharp, award-winning author of women's fiction: FEISTY FAMILY VALUES and PATCHWORK FAMILY.  Also author of Kindle ebook short stories: THE CROSSROADS & EARL DIVINE.

I have a new Young Adult manuscript ready for an agent or publisher, whichever comes first. Wish me luck!

For more information

Friday, May 13, 2016

Blog Romanticism Vs. Realism Vs. Naturalism in Fiction by Jacqueline Seewald

Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad majoring in English, our Contemporary American Lit professor made an interesting statement. He said one way to think of literary isms was in descriptive terms. For instance, the romantic writer creates a woman with a straight perfection of a nose while the realist describes the nose with a wart on it. Next, we have the naturalist who describes that nose with a hair growing out of the wart. You get the picture.

Let’s consider traditional mysteries divided by type. First, we have the cozy which generally avoids gore, provides amusing and/or eccentric main characters, and has a somewhat predictable plot. There is often a slight romantic element. They also tend to feature an amateur sleuth. Think Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes.

Then there are mysteries that are dark and more serious in nature, often police procedurals or P.I. detective fiction. These usually center on men. P. D. James wrote wonderful realistic police procedurals as has Joseph Wambaugh. Women private investigators became popular in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Think Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton. Some of these authors are deeply concerned with social issues. Think Sara Paretsky whose early novels in her series tend to be more hard-boiled. Writers like Jan Christensen continue the woman P.I. tradition.

Third, we have the noir novel which is dark and often explores the sleazy underbelly of society. Some of these are hard-boiled detective stories and more naturalistic. However, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Modern noir is more violent, at times featuring serial killers and lots of gore. They can also be thrillers. Elmore Leonard wrote successful noir.

Some features, of course, are common to all three types of mysteries, others just to that particular one.

Romances are even more conventional than mystery fiction. However, not all romances these days fit into neat categories or formulas. I’ll use the example of Western fiction since my latest novel THE KILLING LAND is an historical Western that Five Star/Cengage labeled as a romance novel.

The historical Western generally occurs between the Civil War and the 1890’s, roughly the time when the frontier vanished. The conventional Western novel features a central male figure who is manly and triumphs over his antagonists. Very few women are portrayed as anything but secondary figures. The heroes are poker-faced and stoic. These action stories are geared to guy readers as in the classic Louis L’Amour formula.

The central character in my novel is a woman. Both my main characters, male and female, have flaws and are less than perfect. They may be romantically involved but they are realistically drawn. Today novelists are willing to research and write about the real Western frontier, using realistic characters and true information integrated into their books. This was my goal in writing THE KILLING LAND.

A lot of what happens in the plot comes from reality and, yes, some of it is even naturalistic. It’s a novel meant to appeal to a wider reading audience both male and female alike. What I strived to do was create depth in characterization as well as realism in plot and theme. Has it worked? Readers will need to decide that for themselves.

Today’s fiction combines various elements. It is in essence a new frontier. Short fiction, as well as novels, are often more experimental in nature and a mash-up of more than one genre and style.

As a reader do you have a preference? Do you prefer romance, realism, naturalism or a combination in the fiction you read? If you are an author what sort of novels or short stories do you write?

Friday, May 6, 2016

Debt in Anita Ray's World, by Susan Oleksiw

The world of India, both modern and traditional, offers unlimited stories--about people and places and gods. I never have to think up a story. The challenge for me is to keep up with the onslaught of ideas that billow out of an image I encounter in a museum or an article I glance at while turning the pages of a newspaper. The story at the heart of When Krishna Calls is one such idea mixing modern and traditional worlds in India.

One of the first things I learned when I arrived in India in late 1975 was that everyone below the westernized middle class was in debt. This is not the debt of student loans, or a mortgage that makes newlyweds "house poor." Nor is it the kind of debt some investors carry with the expectation that in the end they'll reap great rewards.

In traditional India, among lower-income caste groups, debt is essential to the economy. Money circulates in different ways in different strata of society, but at the lowest level, the point of debt is to keep money moving among people. Debts are repaid because no one wants to be shut out of the economy. The interest rate might be high, sometimes up to ten percent a month, but the total amounts borrowed are small and the spending can be significant in filtering through several businesses. The moneylender is usually someone well known to the borrower, the owner of a local vegetable stand or the employer of a maidservant or gardener. Whoever it is, it is rarely a bank.

And then there is the modern version of this loan business, and this is where things change. Large amounts of money change hands, much of it hidden in sham ownership deals, and all of it beyond the reach of the government. And the men who make the loans are not anything like the friendly vegetable seller. And you can guess which one has the greater influence.

This is the story behind When Krishna Calls. An employee of Hotel Delite goes missing, suspected of killing her husband, and is taken captive by a known loan shark. But he isn't interested in her. He's interested in something else.

Anita Ray, always ready to help, wants to find Nisha, someone she likes and admires. But when she finds out her Auntie Meena is involved, Anita realizes much more is on the line, perhaps more than she's ever had to deal with.

Once again, traditional and modern India clash before they blend. And Anita is pushed to the brink when she tries to rescue both Nisha and Auntie Meena.

When Krishna Calls is the last of the Anita Ray mysteries to be published by Five Star/Gale, Cengage. It will appear in August 2016. But I know there will be more adventures for Anita Ray.

Available for preorder now.