Today my guest on the Mystery We Write Blog Tour is Ron Benrey. Ron writes cozy mysteries with his wife Janet. Ron has been a writer forever—initially on magazines (his first real job was Electronics Editor at Popular Science Magazine), then in corporations (he wrote speeches for senior executives), and then as a novelist. Over the years, Ron has also authored ten non-fiction books, including the recently published “Know Your Rights — a Survival Guide for Non-Lawyers” (published by Sterling). Ron holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master’s degree in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a juris doctor from the Duquesne University School of Law. He is a member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
As I’ve done with all my guests, I sent Ron a list of questions for him to choose among. Ron appears to be a thorough as well as talented writer: he answered them all! Let’s see what he has to say:
John: What is the relationship between fiction and truth?
Ron: There are many people who consider fiction “lying on paper.” They have made the mistake of thinking that truth and fiction are opposites, when actually, fact is the opposite of fiction.
Fiction has great power to convey truth. I love to quote Picasso, who famously said: “Art is a lie that makes us recognize truth.” The point is that novels can be full of truth, even though they are not full of fact. All good novels are.
John: We’re often advised to write about what we know about. How does this work for the mild-mannered mystery writer who never saw a corpse or has never been hassled by the cops?
Ron: Fortunately, the admonition to be knowledgeable does not require that we’ve lived all of the things we write about. It is possible to “know about things” by carefully researching them. Unfortunately, some mystery writers (both mild-mannered and bold) settle for inventing details they don't know anything about—and haven't researched. (Making note of what a popular TV show has to say about a topic is not research.) That’s why so many contemporary mystery novels contain incorrect police procedure, faulty details about firearms, ludicrous medical “facts,” and bizarre legal concepts.
John: Are you proud of your style? If so (and let’s hope so!), why? What’s special about the way you use language?
Ron: Yes—I am proud of my writing style. In my humble opinion, there are two aspects that make my use of language “special,” although I rarely describe myself that pompously. :)
First, I spent many years as a non-fiction writer who wrote interesting words about dull subjects (I wrote executive speeches and marketing materials—often about technology). Consequently, I know how to explain complex story details in ways that won't bore readers.
Second, during my decade as a speechwriter, I learned how to write readable, interesting, dialogue.
I hope that readers will agree with both of these statements.
John: Can you name six essential ingredients of mystery plot that begin with C? (Extra credit for more C’s.)
Compelling—this is what it's all about. A mystery novel without a compelling plot is a merely a doorstop.
Creative—there are too many copycat mysteries extant.
Coherent––all good mystery storylines hang together.
Cheery––Janet and I write cozy mysteries, which are designed not to be taken too seriously.
Cadaverous—I believe at least one murder per mystery plot is essential.
Canonical––I believe it's important to follow the long-established “rules” of mystery fiction, the most important being that you have to play fair with the reader.
Combative—or conflict-filled (take your choice).
Cats and Canines—while not absolutely essential, the lion’s share of cozy mysteries have cats and dogs among the key characters.
Cozy—obviously for us!
John: Great answers, Ron! Somehow you came up with C words nobody else has chosen.
John: Which is more important to you as you write: memory, research, or imagination?
Ron: Imagination—because that’s what necessary to transform details drawn from memory or captured via research into a compelling story. However, I don’t want to disparage memory or research. I find that memory provides many (most?) of the unexpected details that add richness to our stories, while research is essential to expand our catalog of intriguing detail, and to ensure that we don’t make errors of fact that will stop readers cold.
John: What makes your protagonist unique? What are his or her passions? Does she or he have flaws?
Ron: Well, because we want readers to identify with our protagonists, we’re careful not to make them so unique that they are unrecognizable. However, one unusual aspect of our sleuths is that most are competent managers and/or executives. Several, in fact, operate small businesses. They demonstrate a range of different passions, but virtually all will do what it takes to defend their good reputations. And because we want them to seem real, we draw them with common flaws. Our protagonists tend to be stubborn, opinionated, a bit prideful, and perhaps overly sensitive to things that have happened in their pasts.
John: What book made you want to be a reader? And a writer?
Ron: The novel that made me a fan of fiction was “The Bobbsey Twins, or, Merry Days Indoors and Out,” the first of the “Bobbsey Twins” series written by “Laura Lee Hope” (a name of convenience given to several different authors). The book that triggered my urge to write mystery novels was “Some Buried Caesar,” by Rex Stout, the first Nero Wolfe mystery I read. Nero and Archie hooked me on reading mystery fiction. Not long after, I decided that someday I would write mysteries.
John: Great answers, Ron! You and Janet obviously love what you do and know how to do it write. So give us a sample? Tell us about one of your books.
Ron: Here is the synopsis of “Dead as a Scone,” the first novel in our “Royal Tunbridge Wells Mysteries” series:
Murder is afoot is the sedate English town of Royal Tunbridge Wells … and the crime may be brewing in a tea pot!
Nigel Owen is having a rotten year. Downsized from a cushy management job at an insurance company in London, he is forced to accept a temporary post as managing director of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum. Alas, he regrets living in a small town in Kent, he prefers drinking coffee (with a vengeance), and he roundly dislikes Flick Adams, PhD, an American scientist recently named the museum’s curator.
But then, the wildly unexpected happens. Dame Elspeth Hawker, the museum’s chief benefactor, keels over a board meeting—the apparent victim of a fatal heart attack. With the Dame’s demise, the museum’s world-famous collection is up for grabs, her cats, dog, and parrot are living at with Flick and Nigel—and the two prima donnas find themselves facing professional ruin.
But Flick—who knows a thing or two about forensic science—is convinced that Dame Elspeth did not die a natural death. As Flick and Nigel follow the clues—including a cryptic Biblical citation—they discover that a crime perpetrated more than a century ago sowed the seeds for a contemporary murder.
John: That sounds good, doesn’t it fans? And look at this handsome cover:
And of course we want to let everyone know how to get their hands on this book, so:
New Blog Link: (Will launch on 11/1)
A final note from John: During the Mystery We Write Blog Tour, I will be keeping track of the comments left for the guests on my blog. After the tour, I'll draw one name out of a hat, and that lucky person will be given a copy of my new book, Behind the Redwood Door, as well as a copy of my short story collection, Generous Helpings. But I'll need to contact the winner, so if you're interested, leave your email address at the end of your comment.