Monday, October 24, 2011

On race car crashes and drama

JAN BROGAN: Although I never watch car racing, my husband and I happened to be flipping between stations at exactly the moment that the Indy race cars crashed on the Nascar track in Las Vegas last week.

Drawn into the drama, we kept flipping back from the Patriots game to the race track to find out what was going on. We were stunned, and even shaken, when it was announced that veteran driver Dan Wheldon had died.

As the cars took their laps around the racetrack, a solemn memorial, and the camera panned to the spectators, standing, head bowed, with many of the women crying, I had an ungenerous thought. Wasn't this why people watched car racing - because a crash was always possible? Wasn't it a little like going to the Coliseum, but crying when someone got fed to the lions?

And now, as they talk about making IndyCar racing safer by not racing on small oval tracks, I wonder could they ever really make it completely risk free? And if they could, what would that do to car racing?

And here at Jungle Red, we all use murder or the threat of death to fuel our mysteries and thrillers. So my question this week Reds, is --how high do the stakes have to be for there to be excitement?

And if it weren't for death, would we even have drama?

RHYS BOWEN: Jan, you are so right that people go to car racing hoping for the spectacular crash.

It's interesting to me that the mystery novel has come to mean the Murder mystery novel. What seems to have happened in recent mysteries is that the stakes have been raised for the protagonist. He/she is now involved/facing old demons/personally stalked or hunted by the villain. I think today's reader wants the thrill of danger--look how many movies have car chases, and exploding buildings--and the cerebral puzzle is no longer enough. After all, kids are growing up playing all those violent video games in which they experience a constant adrenalin rush.

JAN: I know, it's kind of sad. It's like we've all got such attention deficit disorder that we need the ultimate stakes to be involved to keep our attention.

LUCY BURDETTE: I guess in the old-fashioned puzzle whodunit the personal stakes for the sleuths were not so high. But these days, especially for amateur sleuth mysteries, the character has to have a damn good reason for meddling in what is truly professional business. I think about that issue all the time: Why in the world is a food critic (or psychologist or golfer) getting involved in solving this crime? I think readers may hold us to a higher standard as more good books get written and published.

I had such an interesting conversation with my editor a couple of weeks ago about the current popularity of cozy or lighter mysteries. I wondered if this had to do with the disheveled state of the world--that people are looking for better news, less heavy reading. She wondered if romance readers might be crossing over to the cozies because romance has become more and more eroticized. Talk about higher stakes for writers!

HALLIE EPHRON: How high do the stakes have to be? Good question, Jan. I think the drama is greatest when the stakes for the sleuth are personal. Even in lighter mysteries--or especially in lighter mystery novels. If readers just care about explosions and murders, they can read the newspaper.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: When I worked for ABC (and somewhat for ESPN) we released a video series with CART, one of the major racing organizations, and the hypocrisy surrounding the reasons people watched this so-called sport was mind-boggling. My particular interest was in what we should put on the cover and what words we were allowed to use in marketing what were essentially videos of the most spectacular crashes. One of my least favorite video assignments ....and they sometimes including working with wrestlers, porn stars and anorexic fitness divas.

I think some of my favorite recent mysteries have just one murder. What the Dead Know comes to mind...wasn't there just one in that book? I reject the notion of so many writers these days that a book isn't a "real" mystery unless multiple co-eds are murdered in brutal fashion. And these guys think they're being interesting by having intricate mutilations or the exchange of body parts. Sorry, I think that's boring. Maybe that's another reason traditionqal mysteries are doing well (relatively speaking.)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: "Excitement" is what stuck me, Jan. Is that what readers are looking for? I think--motive. Motive. If someone does something for a reason that readers understand-tht make's the terrible thing seem realistic..and therefore, exciting.

Let me say-I'm an Indy girl, so I've gone to the 500 several times. The last, I was sitting next to a friend's 10 year old son. There was HUGE and horrible crash. I thought--oh, I can't let him see this! I grabbed him, to hide his face. He about punched me in the nose to escape-he was so eager to see the wreck.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: What an interesting question, Jan. I don't watch car racing, and in my naivete I have to admit I'm shocked by the idea that people watch them primarily for the crashes . . . But horse racing is dangerous, too, and I love it, although I'm absolutely horrified when there's an accident on the track. And no matter what they do to make either of these sports (or many others) safer, there is still always the possibility of tragedy. But life isn't SAFE. It's not meant to be safe. And I suppose that brings us to mysteries and their enduring popularity. I think we like being reminded that life is precarious. But we also like the sense of resolution and sometimes justice that we find in mysteries--seldom is real life so neat.

Are our for violence as consumers getting higher? We think so, yet that would be an interesting question to pose to an historian. Hangings at Tyburn, anyone?

JAN: Debs, I think you hit the nail on the head. We like to be reminded that life is precarious. I think that's what gives it meaning.

What do you think about life, death, drama and meaning? How high do the stakes have to be to keep your interest?


  1. In fiction, whether it is a horrendous murder or a 'cozy' murder,I would like to believe that the involved characters make all the difference, not the event.

    Sol Stein, in his book, STEIN ON WRITING,wrote: " ...I am convinced that we need to know the people in the car before we see the car crash. The events of a story do not affect our emotions in an important way unless we know the characters. Some books center on catastrophic events that don't move me at all. The characters in those books come across as stereotypes with names. If they are not alive, why should I care if their well-being is threatened?"

    Like Stein, I would like to think that it is the emotions writers cultivate in their characters and share with their readers that make for meaningful events. Often, the stakes must be set high, but it is our identity with the character that ultimately makes the event something that truly moves us.

  2. So true Mark.

    In real life, too. I didn't know anything about Dan Wheldon when I saw the crash, and as the announcers told more about his background, and his wife and two small sons, the tragedy of the crash became more and more horrific to me.


  3. When I was young, a few million years ago, my mother limited what television I could watch, fearing that it would inspire me to violence (I'll admit I had a few anger management issues when I was seven). You can imagine how tame the shows were in that era. I did not grow up to be a violent person.

    But I agree that the stakes have been raised across the board for procedural shows these days--serial killers trump ont-timers. Viewers demand more, redder blood, and body parts flung across the landscape.

    But I think Jan is right. There is a feeling of "glad it's not me!" which in a perverse way makes the ghouls who watch crashes feel better about their own lives.

    BTW, my captcha is "reving"--hmmm.

  4. Race car events have a bit of "bread and circuses" feel to me, along with boxing, wrestling, and even football. Rugby, for sure. I've never understood the compulsion of human beings to watch other humans get close to taking one another's lives.

    My NaNoWriMo project from last year was a mystery that centered around an arson. I couldn't bring myself to murder anyone. The manuscript never got finished for other reasons, but also because I really could not resolve this one issue. I realized it had very little going for it without a couple dead bodies, and that really saddened me. It seems as though we used to read mysteries that did not require mutilation and dismemberment. Miss Marple would be horrified at today's crime literature!

  5. To address a point Lucy made, one of the reasons I am gravitating more to cozies is that I don't like experiencing the point of view of the killer. Over the weekend I put down a book recommended here that had a terrific main character and good writing because the text alternated between the protagonist and a serial killer. I shouldn't have even picked it up but I liked the sound of the heroine.

  6. There must be something in the blogosphere today. There were some interesting comments on a Graveyard Shift post last week about whether you needed a dead body for a book to be classified a mystery. I followed up on my own blog today. I'm a firm believer that it's all about the characters, and if I care about them, I don't need a homicide as the center of the book. But I write romantic suspense and I think the 'rules' are different. I know that when I write straight mystery, I do have a homicide--but that's probably because my protagonists are homicide detectives!

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. What's much more interesting to me (as a writer) than 'Whodunnit?' is 'Who can I trust?" And when the person you most rely on, the one you trust most, might (MIGHT!) not be what he or she seems -- that's what interests me. Often my books don't have a single dead body in them. Trust and betrayal: that's where the juice is for me.

  8. Sheila,
    I guess in some ways, it's not so different than the people who used to go to the town square for the hanging, or the beheading.

    But I'm with Karen and Trisha, I just can't get into the head of a serial killer. And even though I know it's supposed to be a fabulous show, I could never get myself ot watch Dexter because I DON'T WANT to root for a serial killer - NO MATTER WHAT good crimestopping motives he may have.

    But it must be a testament to Terry's point and Mark's point about character because I know a lot of people who I respect who absolutely love DEXTER.

  9. This is such a fascinating (and sad) topic. As someone who writes mysteries set in the racing world, my immediate thought after Wheldon's death was "but deaths are supposed to stay fiction!" And I've spent much time this week contemplating why *I* watch racing, what I find fascinating about it, and how it impacts my mysteries (I even blogged about that today at the Two For The Road blog I share with author Simon Wood).

    I think that many people watch racing for the violence of crashes. Now, many people like to watch boxing, most people slow down to look at wrecked cars on the highway, and thousands upon thousands of people watch the Jackass movies and YouTube videos of people doing dumb things and hurting themselves. I'm not those people (seriously, can't watch that stuff).

    I, and the real racing fans and insiders I know, watch racing because I like seeing true athletes ride the edge of ability and control. I don't mind the spins and bent fenders, but I don't like when a wreck is so bad as to take someone out of a race (or worse), because I like watching the competition. What I've had to come to terms with this week is that the dark side of that competition is sometimes death.

    I'm still at the start of my novel-writing career, and for now, I'm sticking with the mystery wrapped around a murder, because that's the fastest way to raise the stakes, heighten the drama, and make my protagonist take action. I hope that my skill will grow and that I'll be able to do a mystery minus the murder at some point and provide the same amount of drama. But for now, just a little bit of drama above what we might find in life isn't working for me, I need to turn up the gain on drama, if you will. That's my biggest challenge as a novelist so far: going beyond my personal experience to make a more dramatic, and therefore interesting, world in the story.

  10. Tammy, I hoped you 'd be here today..

    And hey, I work for TV news. There's a reason local news is what it is.

  11. Thanks, Hank! I almost felt I should apologize for that post being so long. But hey, it's my arena. :-)

  12. Hey Tammy,
    I'm glad you checked in. I'm actually in awe of people who can watch and understand car racing. I went to the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo when I was twenty and it was completely lost on me.

    I think it has to do with my relationship with any kind of machinery. And of course, life-threatening risk.

    But I bet the combination makes for a great mystery series.

    All best,

  13. I'm with you all on the serial killers. Nor do I like reading books from the point of view of the killer, although I have sneaked in a few small scenes here and there in my own series.

    But I always find it interesting to hear Agatha Christie described as "cozy." Her murders may not necessarily have been bloody, with the dismembered bodies we've become so used to seeing on TV, but she plumbed the depths of human nature. There is nothing cozy, for instance, about The Murder on the Orient Express...

  14. Thanks, Jan! And I'll be honest, I'm not into the machinery or life-threatening risk as a personal choice either (meaning, I don't drive or really want to push to the edge). But I find it fascinating. Of course, a lot of it for me is the stories of the people and teams and rivalries and such.

    I can't wait to get to the Monaco GP, btw! At least you enjoyed the scenery, I'm sure.

  15. Reading this post and the comments got me thinking about CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER by Tom Franklin, which I finished last night. This novel is all about voice and character and setting. Murder happens, and I knew who the culprits were (pretty obvious) but I didn't care because I wanted to know how the relationship between the two protagonists would resolve.

    Tana French's latest FAITHFUL PLACE is wonderful, also atmospheric and character-driven with a murder so far off stage it occurred in the backstory. The solution falls into place organically, without a car chase or a shoot out--and nothing grisly.

    They're quite "literary" these novels, which I like. But as a novelist trying to break in, I feel pressure to write the stuff that's easy for agents/publishers to peg. I suspect that if I'd written a sensationalistic, serial-murderer, bloodfest of a novel, I'd be published by now. This disheartens me.

  16. Oh Lisa,

    I SO know what you mean. The kind of mysteries I like to read and write defy the easy pegging.


  17. Mark makes a good point that I suspect we all agree with: it's the characters that draw us. I think the crises, murder and all, are essential b/c they reveal character. The writer's challenge, of course, is finding the balance between revealing the characters so the reader will be interested in what happens to them, yet starting with enough excitement to hook the reader.

  18. At age 19, I had a European adventure, complete with Belgian boyfriend. Lucien was a race car driver currently not driving (recovering from injury). He took me to several Formula One races. The sound of the engines traveled through your bones! The speeds intense. (There's a reason we call it break-neck.) The scenery was fabulous, particularly at the tracks with a winding road.

    Lucien make a remark that has stayed with me these 40-plus years. When a driver had what we Americans call a "fatal accident", Lucien's language was "he killed himself." That revealed so much to me about our thinking -- what the lie is when it's called an accident.

    As I consider what it is that holds my interest in stories, I'll have to go with character. "How high the stakes are" is individual, and motive is all. How urgent is it (that the character get away, or solve the mystery, or apprehend the villain)? And how involved am I the reader in the character's problems and motives?

    WHY would the amateur sleuth endure such danger?

    Why would the race car driver risk dying?

    I imagine it's me I am seeing, in a parallel life, making risks in imagination that I won't do in life. If only I would turn up the intensity, I might go at break-neck speed into danger. Perhaps the quest for justice drives me.

  19. Hi Avi,
    Yes, I agree, it all boils down to character.

    Lucien seems like he'd be a great one in a novel!

    I liked hte way you described the sound of the engine going through you. That's probably why I didn't like the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo. The noise.

  20. Somebody has to whip out this Hemingway quote; it may as well be me. "There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; the rest are merely games." I think the fact that racers risk everything is clearly part of the sport's appeal, to drivers and spectators alike. I also think that except for the real dregs - the fly-wing-pullers - nobody wants to see drivers hurt or killed.

    My day job involves building and supporting race cars; my evening (well, early-morning) job is writing hard-boiled mysteries; and on weekends I'm an amateur racer myself, at tracks such as New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen. I spend a lot of weekends at the track. When there's a crash, the jungle drums immediately sort it into one of two categories: not serious, in which case everybody jokes about the expense, and serious, in which case there is no joking whatsoever. You've never seen a place go silent like a race track at which everybody knows something bad has happened.

    Auto racing is a lot safer than it was a generation or more ago, when it seemed several renowned drivers were killed every year. Interestingly, this has rendered the deaths that do occur more shocking.

    I tend to agree that mysteries and thrillers have seen stakes inflation in recent years. When I recently laid out the bare bones of my next book for my agent - a story I thought interesting and complex and human and, well, mysterious - she said she liked the idea, but added in not-quite-joking fashion that somebody had damn well better get murdered early on. I realized she was right; the early-murder-that-drives-the-story is very much expected in my subgenre.

  21. SUCH an interesting conversation - and with Steve and Tammy offering insiders' perspectives on it. Loved both of your books.

    Lisa Albers, thanks for bringing up Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter - fabulous book, all about relationships. And I'd argue that the Reds, each of us, plumb the same territory.

  22. My husband used to work on the old CART races live back when he was engineer-in-charge of one of ESPN's TV trucks. I used to wonder, if they're Indy cars, why doncha just call 'em "Indy cars." Oops. He also worked NASCAR back when Winston sponsored races.

    His work taught me how racing is about how teamwork, science and human endurance mix. He used to go out with the pit camera crew and ask questions, so they started a series to explain different things on the track. Before all that, I hadn't realized how much auto racing is a team sport with precision machines. Turns out, the driver is like the front man. Who knew? Oops. Sorry, Danica. :( :)

    And I'm going to chime in from the horse racing side, too. If y'all decide to tune into the Breeder's Cup coverage on ESPN, you'll probably see retired jockey Jerry Bailey talk race strategy.
    Race riding isn't just climbing aboard and hanging on.

    In those two minutes of the race, jockeys - who have tremendous upper body strength - have to calm their excitable horses into paying attention to them, figure out how the horse is feeling, decide how much energy might be left in the horse and time that final charge to the finish line in a mix of science, nerve and psychology.

    Back when Jerry first retired, I always loved to watch his race coverage because he had experience riding some of the horses racing, so he'd analyze their running styles and share with the TV audience what strategies he'd used when he rode them.

    Now I'M going on and on. :) I guess what I'm trying to say is that, maybe fans initially come to the sport for the crashes, the speed and or the cute guys (Jeff Gordon, Julien Leparoux) and the pretty horses.

    But some fans pick up bits and pieces of behind-the-scenes stuff, then learn to appreciate the science and even artistry of what goes into the action on the track.

  23. As someone who raced, there are a lot of different kinds of people who watch motor racing and there are different reasons watch a major wreck. I wouldn't paint so black and white.

  24. Steve and Rhonda,
    You certainly fill in a lot of the blanks about car racing. Especially the team work part - and I love STeve's quote about the two kinds of crashes.

    Simon, I'm sure you are right. Nothing is as simple as it seems to an outsider. And my husband always tells me that car racers are the most intelligent of athletes.

    I can't even imagine going what? 220 miles per hour?


  25. Not all racers are going that fast, but what they're all doing is pushing the edge of car (and driver) performance, adhesion, control, etc. So the speed is a factor, certainly, but not the only one.

    Racers are also the most focused of athletes, in my opinion. I've heard them compared to jet fighter pilots in terms of concentration and absolute, unwavering focus needed on what they're doing.

    That said, I can *only* imagine doing it, myself. :-)

    Thanks for a fun conversation!

  26. I think it would be cool if Steve, Tammy and I were to do a book event together. We could pop the hood up on our experiences. :-)

  27. The drama in car race as it crashes has been described here. Useful post

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