Blacher gives details of writing murder mysteries to Santa Paula Rotarians

March 02, 2012
Santa Paula News

What does one get out of a lifetime career in education?

Why murder, of course, as members of the Santa Paula Rotary Club learned at a recent meeting from Dr. Joan Blacher, an educational psychologist and California Lutheran University’s professor emerita of education and a popular mystery writer. 

Blacher, the author of “Lethal Lake,” “Murder Canyon” and “Difficult Teens:  A Parent’s Guide for Coping” (to some, raising teenagers can also be considered a mystery) said she writes what she knows, at least locale and character wise. During her promised “brief, behind the scenes glimpse of how to write tales of murder and mayhem,” Blacher said her first novel resulted from retirement.

A licensed psychotherapist in private practice, the former university professor - who was also the director of a counseling and guidance graduate program - retired from CLU in 1998. “I decided then to move away from academic writing and not do so much research,” but Blacher said she had enjoyed some forays into fiction writing. 

It dawned on her that “Writing a mystery seemed like the right thing to do.” She found herself again researching - “Writing mysteries takes a lot of research!” she noted - and studying, including touring crime labs, attending conferences, and exploring policing methods and policies. 

“Difficult Teens” co-author Dr. Robert Meadows - professor and chair of the CLU Criminal Justice and Legal Studies program - was among those Blacher called upon for advice. Then she sat down to write mysteries: “I went from never writing a book to writing two... nonfiction is very matter of fact, but with fiction feelings have to be infused and characters have to have a voice” that lures readers.

Blacher said when her family moved to Somis in the 1970s, “It was so quiet at night I couldn’t sleep,” but she found at the crest of Balcom Canyon was popular for people dumping things, including bodies. Such facts blend well with mysteries that must blend story, people and scene to create “chilling plots, compelling characters and dark settings. Mystery writers are illusionists” who Blacher said must lay out clues that “zigzag... the goal is to mystify readers.”

Plotlines of course are looked for. In “the darker side of life, you can find that villain who does dirty deeds,” and she noted “Murder Canyon” was “ripped from the headlines.” Ideas can come from anywhere or anything - money is always a good motivator - and the plot revolves around the crime, those who commit, and those who solve it, with other characters in between. 

For her first novel Blacher created a four-page narrative and “I wrote the ending first,” tying together the killer, victim and sleuth. “The latter,” she noted, “can be a pro or an amateur, but they must be believable, someone you would want to hang out with.”

There must be a reason to spur the protagonist on and they must be “likable, human, with a mission to seek justice... and you drag them through one obstacle after another.” And it doesn’t hurt to write what you know: Blacher said her protagonist is an amateur sleuth who works at a university.

Suspects have to believable with motives and opportunity, and authors must “write detailed biographies for major characters” to keep them in character. Blacher felt her second mystery “had too many suspects... but I kept them.” 

Her rural settings are perfect opposites for dark crime and great mood inducers for readers, but first Blacher visits, takes photographs, talks to locals and thoroughly researches to make her settings as realistic as possible. “Nothing,” said Blacher, “takes place until I know” all components for a good mystery are present; “then it all clicks into place. These things are decided before I start page one,” but the beginning only comes after writing the ending.

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