Murder, They Write — and Write, and Write

I’m probably going to get into big trouble here. Quite a few of my friends and acquaintances write murder mysteries. A vast number of my friends and acquaintances read murder mysteries.

Still, I’ve gotta say it: Something bugs me about murder mysteries.

The other day lonelyboy1977, a blogger I follow, blogged about “the one trope I love to hate.” The trope he loves to hate is the love triangle. It’s not the trope itself he hates. It’s the way writers who use it tend to fall into ruts. Rather than develop their characters and plots, they let the trope do the work.

In real life, murder is a crime. In fiction, it’s a trope. In murder mysteries, it’s a sine qua non. Without a murder, it’s not a murder mystery.

Aside: OK, now I’m curious. Are there any murder mysteries out there in which murder doesn’t happen? Recommendations welcome.

No, I don’t for a minute believe that writing and reading murder mysteries makes a person insensitive to murder. I get the distinction between fiction and real life. Even when it’s set in a real place, fiction creates an alternate reality. My friend Cynthia Riggs writes murder mysteries about Martha’s Vineyard, the place where we both live. They’re fun, they’re well-written, they’re true to the place in almost every detail . . .

body outlineExcept for the dead bodies that keep turning up. Homicide is very rare on Martha’s Vineyard. If murders happened on the Vineyard as often as they do in Cynthia’s books, the Vineyard would be a very different place. More of us would lock our doors. Fewer of us would go for long walks in the woods alone. Every time someone was murdered, we’d be surreptitiously studying our friends and neighbors for clues: Did you do it?

And perhaps wondering ourselves: Who out there is itching to kill me?

Why is the murder trope so popular with writers? Well, duh, writers write murder mysteries because there’s an apparently insatiable market out there for them. But how about from a strictly writing point of view?

fingerprintToss a murder into the meandering stream of daily life and plot happens. I’ve blogged before about how I’m plot-impaired. The number of online how-to-plot guides out there tells me I’m not alone. I’d probably be better at plotting if I were better at killing characters off.

The task I’ve set myself, though, pretty much precludes that option. In my fiction, I’m exploring Martha’s Vineyard. In creating my alternate-reality Vineyard, I’ve limited myself to the materials lying around in the actual place. At present I’ve got a loose dog, a child trapped in a bad family situation, and a protagonist who gets sucked into trying to rescue both of them. The dog almost gets shot and there’s one character I wouldn’t mind killing off, but so far no one’s died or committed murder.

What I’m curious about is how the murder trope influences the writer’s imagination. Murder is such a sure-fire way to get a plot going — does it push other possibilities out of the picture? The same goes for other tried-and-true tropes, like the love triangle. If something works once, we’ll usually do it again — and again and again and again.

Till it stops working.

Which isn’t likely to happen in our lifetimes.

Here I’m going to take a giant step backwards. As the late Grace Paley said, and I’m forever quoting, “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

My feet aren’t in the mud of murder mysteries, and I’ve already said enough. But I’m curious. And I hope some of you murder mystery writers and avid readers out there will weigh in.

Murder weapons

Murder weapons in waiting


Islanders Write? Not Quite

In some ways this is specific to Martha’s Vineyard, where I live. In other ways — well, some people are forever trying to erect walls with a few writers inside and most of us out in the hinterlands somewhere. Keep the faith — and keep writing, no matter what.

From the Seasonally Occupied Territories . . .

In the summer we denizens of the Seasonally Occupied Territories are regularly bombarded with events that have “Martha’s Vineyard” in their names. Their main connection to the year-round Vineyard is that they’re held on the same terra firma.

no trespassingSummer residents are often featured at these events. The year-round Vineyard, though, is usually not on the organizers’ psychic map. The underlying assumption seems to be that we year-rounders have much to learn from the summer folk but they have nothing to learn from us.

So earlier this summer, when I heard of an upcoming conference called Islanders Write, I dared hope that it might be something different. “Islanders Write”: Doesn’t that sound active to you? Islanders writing, talking about writing, talking about all the kinds of writing being done on Martha’s Vineyard, encouraging other islanders to write?

Aside: “Islanders” is what the academics call a contested term. Do you have to…

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Dear You

Got a question about editing? Is your work-in-progress snagged on some invisible rock? Are there some days when you just can’t sit still long enough to write?

Whatever you’re wrestling with, other writers are almost certainly wrestling with something similar — or we will be next week.

See the “You!” tab on the nav bar up above? It’s for you, You. It’s got a contact form in it. Send along your questions, your snags, and whatever else is on your writerly mind. This blog has almost 600 followers now (eeeeek!). I bet we can help you out.

All best,



What’s a Style Sheet?

I knew nothing about style sheets when I started copyediting books for trade publishers and university presses. Before long I thought style sheets were the greatest thing since mocha chip ice cream — well, almost.

So what’s a style sheet? More important, if you’re a writer, not an editor, why should you care?

English is a richly diverse language. British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) often spell the same word differently: spelt/spelled, labour/labor, tyre/tire. In AmE, some words can be spelled in more than one way, like ax and axe, or façade and facade. Others have variations that are pronounced differently but mean the same thing: amid and amidst, toward and towards.

And hyphens! Don’t get me going about hyphens. One of these days I’ll devote a whole blog post to hyphens. Sometimes a hyphen is crucial: consider, for instance, the difference between coop and co-op. Often the hyphen is helpful but not crucial. When I look at reignite, the first thing I see is reign. If an author wants to hyphenate it, re-ignite, that’s fine with me. For most readers, the hyphen in living-room sofa isn’t essential, but if the author has written it that way, I’ll generally leave it alone — and insert a hyphen in dining-room table if the author has left it open.

A style sheet collects all such choices into one handy list: choices not only about how words are spelled but about how they’re styled. Hyphenation is often a matter of style rather than spelling. When do you spell out numbers and when do you use figures? Are abbreviations OK? When the dictionary notes that a word is “often capped” or “usually capped,” which does the writer prefer?

It’s a rare author who submits a style sheet with his or her manuscript. A recent job included Arabic and Urdu terms transliterated into English, and many personal and place names that are transliterated in myriad ways. The author did include a style sheet with his preferred spellings and stylings, and I was profoundly grateful. It saved me a lot of online research and second-guessing.

In fact-checking another recent job, a novel, I quickly discovered discrepancies between the names of some real-life places and the way my author was spelling them. Other names were faithful to the actual place. I’m still not sure whether these discrepancies were intentional or not. If the job had come with a style sheet, I would have known — and I wouldn’t have spent so much time trying (unsuccessfully) to verify the author’s versions.

Why should you, the writer, keep a style sheet?

Maintaining consistency in a novel or long nonfiction work is a challenge. Sure, if you’re working on the computer, you can use the search function to find earlier instances of a word or name — or you could just consult your style sheet. If you’re writing a series involving the same locations and characters, a style sheet will be even more useful.

Whether you self-publish or publish with a trade, academic, indy, or small press, your style sheet means your copyeditor doesn’t have to start from scratch. If she finds inconsistencies in the ms., she’ll be able to go with your preference instead of guessing what you want.

Several books that appear frequently in my "Primary References" section

Several books that appear frequently in my “Primary References” section

I find that keeping a style sheet makes me more conscious of my choices, whether I’m editing or writing. Plenty of choices are “six of one, half dozen the other.” Others are a matter of style: for instance, do you prefer diacritics in words like façade and résumé and naïve? And sometimes, especially with proper nouns, it’s a matter of right and wrong. In the very well written nonfiction book I just finished copyediting, Katherine Hepburn’s name was so spelled. I’ve seen it so often (mis)spelled that way, I didn’t have to look it up (but I did anyway): it’s Katharine, with an a. Before you enter a name on your style sheet, verify the spelling.

If you write fantasy or science fiction, with made-up names that can’t be verified online, a style sheet can be especially useful. Same goes if, in either fiction or nonfiction, you’re dealing with names from other languages, especially languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet. Transliteration systems differ. Accents and diacritics and other spelling conventions can be confusing to someone who doesn’t know the language.

You can organize your style sheet in any way that makes sense to you and whatever you’re working on. Here are the major categories and subcategories in the style sheet I made for a just-completed job, with a brief explanation of each. Most of mine follow a similar format.

Primary References

Here’s where I put whatever dictionaries, style guides, and other reference works I’m using. This keeps my word list (see below) under control: it means I only have to list spellings and stylings that differ from the dictionary’s or style guide’s recommendation.


This section is for style choices that apply to the whole book. Number 1 is nearly always “serial comma.” Number 2 usually specifies either “which/that distinction observed” or “which OK for restrictive clauses.” (Anyone want a crash course on the which/that distinction??)

This particular style sheet had subsections for Capitalization, Hyphens & Dashes, Quotes & Italics, and Slashes. Most also have a Numbers subsection, but not this one.


Word lists can be short or long. They should include choices made where alternatives exist, e.g., axe rather than ax, or vice versa. They’ll probably include plenty of words where capitalization, hyphenation, the use of italics, or the styling of numbers is at issue. Their #1 purpose is to help me keep my choices and the author’s straight.

Among the words and phrases in my list were the following (with the reason I included each one):

Braille (can be lowercased)

carpe diem (like other foreign-language expressions listed in the dictionary, it’s usually not italicized)

coauthor (commonly hyphenated)

 decision-making (n.) (decision making and decisionmaking are also possible)

 not-yet-imagined, the (coinage by the author)

 rebbe (variant spelling of rabbi)

transparence (variant of transparency)

Trickster tales (Trickster capped as an archetype)

Western (cultural); western (n.; genre): compass directions are usually lowercased, except when they take on a more-than-geographical meaning. Eastern and Western may signify large cultural groupings. During the Cold War, they had political significance. (North and South are generally capped in reference to the sides in the U.S. Civil War.) And western the genre is sometimes capped and sometimes not. Could drive you crazy, no?


Some copyeditors list the names of virtually every person mentioned in a book. As a proofreader, I don’t find such exhaustive lists useful. So I don’t list familiar names that are easily verified — unless they are frequently misspelled (like Katharine Hepburn) or the author is inconsistent. It can be hard to verify names with particles (von, van, de, etc.), partly because styling varies from family to family and because online references aren’t always as authoritative as they think they are. So it’s worth putting them on the style sheet.

serenity prayer

A good style sheet helps editors and proofreaders recognize what should be changed and what’s fine as it is.

Proofreading 101

It’s happened to me many times over the years, and to many other editors I know: Someone calls, or emails, or comes up to me at a social gathering and asks, “How much would it cost to proofread my novel?”

Or “my [fill-in-the-blank]”: memoir, thesis, dissertation, résumé, website, whatever.

I quickly learned that what the writer invariably wants is editing, not proofreading.

Proofreading is the last step before publication. As I wrote in “Editing? What’s Editing?,” of all the levels of editing, proofreading “is the most mechanical of all. It means catching the errors that have slipped through despite all the writer’s and editor’s best efforts.”

To proofread something that hasn’t been adequately edited is an exercise in hair-tearing frustration. Of the gazillion things that need fixing, I can only fix the ones that are flat-out mortifyingly wrong. I learned long ago to say, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t proofread your manuscript. I think what you’re really looking for is an editor.”

typoAt the moment, though, I’m in the middle of a proofreading job. Five papers that will be published in an economics journal. They’ve been edited. They’re dense, technical, but clearly written. I’m no economics expert. I don’t know the jargon. I’m looking for typos and grammatical errors. Since the journal publisher wants consistency across the five papers, I’m also looking to apply the journal’s house style. Taylor Rule or Taylor rule? Macroprudential or macro-prudential? Either option is correct, but the journal prefers “Taylor rule” and “macroprudential.”

When I started editing and proofreading in the 1970s, every copyedited manuscript had to be typeset from scratch. So proofreading meant reading the proofs — the typeset copy that would be laid out to produce the print-ready pages — against the manuscript. This could be a two-person job: one would read the ms. aloud and the other would mark the proofs. We’d read the punctuation and stylings as well as the words: “Jack pos S” meant “Jack apostrophe S” or “Jack’s.”

Proofreaders who worked solo developed the knack of reading proof against ms. and noting all discrepancies. I got to be pretty good at it, but I’m not sure I could do it now. Thanks to the digital revolution in publishing, I haven’t had to for a long time. These days the writer turns in an electronic file — usually in Microsoft Word, the editor works in Word, the copyeditor works in Word, the author reviews the edited file in Word, and eventually the Word file becomes the raw material for the proofs. Each version is cleaner than the one before it.

As a result, much proofreading these days is “cold” or “blind” proofreading. This is what I’m doing with the economics papers: reading the proofs without comparing them to any previous version. In effect, there’s no previous version to compare them to: the previous versions have all been incorporated into the proofs I’m reading.

prooffreadingWhen I’m proofreading, I don’t read the same way as I do when I’m copyediting, or editing, or critiquing, reviewing, or reading for pleasure. The biggest difference is focus. I’m excruciatingly focused on the text letter by letter, word by word. It’s exhausting. When my attention shifts into phrase-by-phrase or sentence-by-sentence mode, I have to pull it back. Otherwise I’ll miss the misspelled word, the double “the,” the semicolon cheek-by-jowl with a comma where only one is needed.

If you’re a crackerjack speller and know your punctuation cold, you can learn to proofread, but it’s going to take plenty of practice before you can do a creditable job. And the usual caveats apply to proofreading your own work: if you can possibly avoid it, do; but if you can’t, leave a week or two between the editing and the proofreading. What makes copyediting or proofreading your own work such a challenge is that you know what it’s supposed to say. If your character is named Jack, you’re going to see “Jack” on the page — even when it says “Jcak.” If you’ve been misusing a word all your life, you’re not going to be able to call the error to your attention.

If you’re not a crackerjack speller and if your punctuation skills are less than stellar, you do need a good proofreader. Trust me on this.