Sunday, April 6, 2014

Triss Stein Scores Again in Brooklyn

Increasingly invaluable to the New York Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, Triss Stein contributes her considerable intellect and organizational talents to the wide American mystery writing community.

She has carved out a considerable niche for her writing in the increasingly popular Brooklyn series with
Brooklyn Bones and Brooklyn Graves, published by Poisoned Pen Press.

A member of the 2014 Board of Directors of MWA-NY, she directs the lively MWA/NYPL monthly library programs, as well as the partnering with libraries in the NY/NJ/CT/PA area.

Her stories have appeared in three volumes of the SINC Anthology—
Murder New York Style. She blogs on Women of Mystery and Poisoned Pen Press Authors. Previous books include Digging Up Death and Murder at the Class Reunion. Not long ago she managed a SINC research report on mystery readership, has served on the MWA-NY Mentor Program and chaired an Edgars Awards Committee.

"What do you think is the first thing a crime writer should nail down when starting a new novel?" I asked her.

"Character/voice. I think people like that/remember that/relate to that more than the plots we work so hard to dream up," she replied.

I agree with her—I may forget most of the plots in my own reading, but if a character draws me in—I'm a captive/fan for a long, long time!

Triss, welcome back to the home of Crime Writer's Chronicle!

T. J. Straw

Thank you, Thelma for inviting me to be a guest and write a little about how I work as a writer.

I have been asked before about writing routines, methods, process, schedule, and I am tempted to say, "What is this language you are speaking?" While I am a person who in real life makes lists, uses calendars, keeps addresses, labels freezer packages (and harasses my family to do likewise), my writing life only works when I lean back and let it happen. This is not the same as waiting for inspiration, though. Professionals show up ready to work.

What it is about is learning that writing, for me, does not start with an outline.

It starts with a wisp of an idea. A crime in a cemetery. (Brooklyn Graves) A body behind a wall. (Brooklyn Bones) An ambitious girl from the projects with a bright future, found beaten into unconsciousness. (Work in progress)

Because I am also writing about the fascinating history of Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods, there is a bit of history in my mind too. A gentrified neighborhood in its pre-gentrified days. Tiffany studios and Tiffany windows at the cemetery. The New York mob that wasn't the Mafia.

After that, I wait to see who shows up, but I also scrawl a lot of random ideas in a notebook or on scrap paper to prime the pump. Eventually, the ideas lead to more ideas and the characters start talking to each other when I put them in a scene. Then I get sort of organized and make a list or even a spreadsheet to keep track of the details.

I certainly don't recommend this as a way to write a mystery! It is disorganized, not my usual style. And it wastes time, as rewriting is inevitable. I always swear the next one will be thoroughly outlined, but I usually lose interest as soon as I try. I begin with a situation, some characters, and usually I know where they will end up. Everything else is a journey without a map. I am encouraged by the words of the great E.L. Doctorow who says it is like a journey at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I try to have a routine, though. Ideas and words flow best in the morning, as soon as I am adequately caffeinated, so I try to head for the computer right after breakfast and get in a few solid hours before a late lunch. After lunch, my concentration is blown away and that is a good time to edit, make phone calls, answer e-mail. Do laundry or errands. The tricky part is ignoring that little voice—it is an evil imp—that says, "You will concentrate on your writing more successfully if you clear all those little chores off your desk and off your mind." And then it is lunchtime!

Brooklyn Graves began a long time ago, when I read some news items about thefts at old, neglected cemeteries, and I thought that had mystery story potential. I live near a famous cemetery, not at all neglected but potentially fascinating to write about. And then I went to a museum exhibit about the newly discovered history of the all-women design studio that was once part of the Tiffany Company. I was fascinated and moved and it gave me an idea or two.

Who would I need to tell this story, in addition to Erica Donato, my protagonist, a Brooklyn girl who is juggling grad school in history, a job and raising a teen-ager? The first victim came into focus. A few characters showed up and led to some story lines I hadn’t planned. I needed another victim, a few possible criminals, a lesser problem or two.

Could I put it all in a cocktail shaker and come out with a book? It turned out to be Brooklyn Graves, a story with a charming (I hope) historical mystery, a heartbreaking (I hope) modern one, and a few interesting (I hope) detours.


  1. Good morning! I will be in and out during the day and will be happy to respond and answer all questions.

  2. Triss, it is so nice to have you with us. I am a pantser like you. My characters seem to be telling me the story. And we share EL Doctorow's reassurance that we can make it through the fog if we just proceed. I hope you will come back here often. See you at the library on the 9th!

  3. Welcome! I'm a pantser, too. Yesterday, I spent four hours throwing random plot and character ideas, and bits of possible dialog onto the page. What a mess. What a big, hairy mess. I was so happy!

  4. Again, thanks for coming by today, Triss . I agree with all your thoughts on creating a new book ... and find literary creation can be both uplifting and grueling! TJ Straw in Manhattan