Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ghosts In the Snow by Tamara Siler Jones

I really enjoyed this book. I don't read mysteries a lot because I find there is little to the story for me to enjoy. The mystery is either well seeded and I solve it too soon, or not seeded at all and so it comes across as an act of God, or more to the point, the author that the mystery is solved at all. That said, I've met Tamara electronically, and thought it would be worth while (after a long time of teasers as she tried to work through plot points without giving anything away to those of us helping) to give her first book a try. Will I be getting the second? Absolutely.

What Ghosts in the Snow offers is a mystery, yes, but it's a world and a community populated by interesting people whose subplots enhance, rather than distract, from the mystery itself. The mystery was to me the only real weakness, and by the end, it proved solvable and properly seeded. My problem was that I didn't see any real clues in the first half, something that frustrated me and left me wondering if it would be a jump out and surprise me ending. Happily, that turned out not to be the case. But here's the most important part: despite being frustrated by the missing clue layer, the story kept me reading. I wanted Risley and Nella to get together, I wanted the ghosts to find justice, I loved the way the characters interacted with each other in a rough, caring manner despite differences of station, age, and what have you. They didn't seem out of character or out of culture and yet managed to bind through bounds of loyalty, trust and just recognition of what made them unique. The mystery was not perfect, but it was darn good and neither was it all the book had to offer. Yes, the story gets gory at times, something that didn't bother me, but my husband's had me watching CSI for years. I've even been known to have dinner or dessert during it ;).

I actually finished the book and wrote most of this review some time ago, but I included this line: (it could have been hidden, but rarely do those kinds of things slip by me and it was so well hidden that even with the answer, I can't see any clues toward the first half) regarding the presence or absence of early clues. Before I managed to get it edited and posted, I mentioned this aspect to Tamara and then struggled to explain myself. The upshot of it was I decided to reread the beginning before posting to figure out what I had meant since that's quite a statement to make. So, here's what I found. I do stand by my statement and yet at the same time I can understand why Tamara was shocked. Maybe this will reveal an interesting quirk about readers like me that might help those of you interested in putting mystery elements into a story.

I reread the beginning of Ghosts in the Snow because in talking to Tamara, she was stunned at my sense of lack of seeding. I'll send her a private message on the details so I don't spoil the plot for those slow readers out there, but I will say this: I was on the look out for story seeding. What is present is author seeding. Basically, story seeding takes the fragments that we know and ties them to a person (or persons for red herring purposes). Author seeding puts key players in front of the reader's face often enough so that the reader remembers the person enough so that when that person becomes critical, it's not a "Huh? Who's that?"

Random made up examples for clarification.

1)Story seeding
  a) Detective learns the killer is most likely left handed.
  b) A gun-wielding character bumps someone and that someone is surprised not to feel a holster.
  c) Story persists and we learn the holster is on the opposite from usual side because that character is left handed.

There is no attention paid to b) and it could even occur before a) but when z) happens where we learn that character is the killer, b) clicks as in "I knew he was left handed," whether or not "I" picked up on the subtle clue at the first moment.

2) Author seeding
  a) Detective learns the killer is most likely left handed.
  b) Detective goes to a bar to drink after work and bumps into the killer.
  c) Detective answers a question from the killer near the scene where the killer has reason to be.
  d) Detective interviews killer because of a routine connection, but because it is routine, does not consider the possibility of more.

In this example, the author makes the character present while at the same time coming up with viable reasons why the character should be there. For example, killer is a persistent newshound. No one would find it surprising for a reporter to appear at the scene of the crime until the detective realizes the killer always shows up 10 minutes before his crew, though they should have left the station together.

Where this falls down is if the character could also be background color. If the character is just off enough to be an irritation, distraction, or entertainment, that could as easily be that character's role in the novel. Without the story seeding, that character is irrelevant and does not become relevant until the story seeding (mystery or not) makes that character relevant with the reader's "Oh, I remember that fellow. He was...."

So anyway, I hope I've managed to explain without giving anything away. I'm one of those people who catch on with well done story seeding very early in the novel and it informs how I read what comes next. To counterbalance this skill, I often forget the main characters' names several times during the novel if they don't come up frequently enough (especially in first person) because until I connect the people into the global picture I'm building from the seeds (and they exist whether or not it's a mystery), they aren't as concrete. It's an extension of my real-life trouble with names. I can remember that that's the person with the daughter who likes to draw elephants in purple, but that his name is George escapes me.

For those of you following my novel on Live Journal (http://marfisk.livejournal.com/), there's a seed I plan in the first few pages that is only just becoming relevant now at 90k. However, if I've done my job well, when she remembers the first moment, so will you. The people like me, however, should have filed that away as a potential seed at the first mention and will say instead, "Ah hah! I knew that would come up again."

7 comments:

Jean said...

Interesting analysis. If I read you right, author seeding should be more effective. But clearly more frustrating for someone accustomed to guessing or learning the ending before the ending actually arrives, since it's less clearly telegraphed.

Do you read all books that way or only mysteries?

Margaret said...

Thanks :). I read everything that way. The books where I can't see the foundation of the plot seem disjointed and random to me, rather hard to enjoy even when they have great characters. Every element is a piece of a grand puzzle. If the big picture isn't there, it's like trying build a puzzle out of a bag containing the random lost pieces from 50 puzzles.

However, I don't have a problem with having the answer, actually, because the enjoyment comes from seeing if I'm right and how the character comes to the same conclusion. Also, with red herrings I could have 1-3 possible answers.

For me, author seeding doesn't help because it's unconnected. Sure, the bright red pieces I pull from that random back are pretty and stand out, but if I can't figure out where they go with the black and green pieces then they're just flash with no substance. That's what author seeding becomes to me when I'm trying to put the puzzle together. Interesting background, but irrelevant. So if effective means hiding the solution, sure, but the goal of the story should not be to hide but to reveal. When I got to the middle of Ghosts, all that author seeding had been dismissed as bright color with no hooks to keep it in my mind. I didn't remember it at all when the story seeding began.

Mama Rose said...

I'm confused. I don't think I get the difference. Would you please send me a copy of the email you sent Tamara explaining it in terms of Ghosts because it may help me as I do the seeding of my mystery? I've read Ghosts, so I'm thinking that your analysis of that might help me understand better than your examples did. Thanks!! :)

Linda

Dawn said...

I don't neccessarily follow this, but I don't write or read mysteries at this point in my life, aside from the TV versions - Law & Order, CSI, etc.

I'm primarily a fantasy lover both in reading and writing and was thrilled with Ghosts in the Snow. For me it brought something new and unexpected to my reading. I did read it a year ago and can't put together the points you're getting at, however I was not disapointed in the reading.

Margaret said...

Dawn,

What you say makes perfect sense because the fantasy elements are very strong. The mystery bugged me at first, but the fantasy kept me reading. However, I would be surprised if you are gut-level unaware of these things. The seeding is what makes the difference between whether you (generic) say "Of course" or "Huh?" when you get to the end of any book. The difference is that if you're not conscious of the seeds as you read along, whether they show up on page 1 or page 150, as long as they're there when you get to the end and need them is all that matters (again, this is just on the gutlevel for most people). When I got to the end, I wasn't frustrated with either the mystery or the fantasy. By then, the story seeding had begun and was working successfully. It was only because I'm conscious of the first seed (yeah, I'm weird ;)) that I even noticed.

Cheers,
Margaret

Jean said...

I'll have to pay more attention to these things. I also am always trying to figure out what happens throughout the entire book, but I only thought Ghosts was a bit tougher than most--which I was happy about. In fact, if I figure it out too soon, I'm disappointed, even though I also read through to the end to find out if I'm right.

Margaret said...

LOL, that's like my mom who said if she figured it out, it meant the book wasn't well written while I said if I didn't it wasn't.

Honestly, unless you're like me with an odd knack for picking up on these things without even trying, you shouldn't be able to figure it out but the end should make sense when you get to it. Thanks to my odd knack, I see the world a wee bit differently :).

Cheers,
Margaret