Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Writer's Sandbox (the Joys of Reading and Writing)




by Beth Terrell

Years ago, when I first entered the teaching profession, I asked one of my co-workers if she’d read a particular book. She cocked an eyebrow and said, in a voice that can only be described as supercilious, “I never read anything but professional journals.”


One after another, my fellow teachers made it clear that reading for pleasure was something they rarely, if ever did. I remember thinking, “How will we ever teach our kids to love reading if we don’t love it ourselves?” What were they learning, except that reading was a chore?


True, there are those who think of reading as hard work, and maybe it is—in the beginning. Then after a lot of practice, it becomes both easy and exciting. Novels are like movies we can carry around with us everywhere, but unlike the kind of movies we see in the theater or on T.V., when we’re reading a book, we can decide what the characters look like and how their voices sound. We’re the ones who make the writer’s words come to life.


A good book can take us into another world or help us understand what it would be like to live in another person’s skin. I hope I’m never lost in the woods and forced to survive with only a hatchet and what few things I can scrounge from a crashed airplane, but when I read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, I can imagine what it would be like from the safety of my own living room. I can explore Oz with Dorothy or save Middle Earth with Frodo and Sam. I have read The Lord of the Rings an average of once a year for the last thirty-three years. I still cry when Boromir dies. That’s powerful stuff.


That ability to touch a reader’s heart is part of what draws many of us to the profession. There are some books that, as a writer, break my heart. I think, “Why couldn’t I have written that?” and, “I’ll never be that good.” To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. If there’s a more perfect book in the English language, I don’t know what it is. Over the years, the list of books that take my breath away have grown. A Separate Peace, The Outsiders. Mystic River. The Time Traveler’s Wife. We Need to Talk About Kevin. Books that touch something deep in the reader’s soul, make us think, make us feel. What writer doesn’t dream of accomplishing that?


“I can’t write,” my students used to tell me. “I can’t spell. I can’t put the commas in the right place.”


“Spelling and punctuation aren’t writing,” I would tell them. “Spelling and punctuation are editing.” Editing is a courtesy to the reader, to make a story easier to read. Writing is just about putting ideas down on paper in the first place. That first draft is like a block of artist’s clay or stone. Michelangelo didn’t make David from thin air. He started with a block of marble and carved away everything that wasn’t David. By the same token, most writers don’t spin completed novels from nothing. They write a loose first draft—the kind that make you worry that, if you die before it’s finished, people will find this horrid mishmash of a story and think, “What?! And she thought she was a writer?” Then they trim a bit here, polish a bit there, move this to an earlier spot, add some foreshadowing...A draft or so later (or ten or even twenty), there is a sparking, shining novel. Easy, no? Well…no.


But there is another reason to write, one that is valid whether you are a professional author, an aspiring professional, a teacher, a student, a mechanic, or a professional bull rider, and that is that writing is just plain fun. As professionals, sometimes we forget how much fun it is just to play with words and stories. I write and publish suspense novels, but I also write fantasy novels. Maybe they will be published one day. Maybe not. Either way, I love creating the world and the events that happen in it. I love capturing ideas; like monarch butterflies in a field of milkweed, they are everywhere.


You might enjoy writing, too. Mystery, romance, sf/fantasy, or literary, choose what appeals to you, make up a character, decide what he or she wants and why he or she can’t have it, and start writing. If you get stuck, ask yourself, “And then what happened?” You’ll probably get a lot of good ideas about what comes next. You don’t have to be a professional author to have fun writing, and you don’t have to give up the pleasure of writing when you become a professional.


Happy Writing!


(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, where you can read Beth Terrell's interview. The book is also available in a large print edition.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Key to Success Isn't Luck


by Marta Stephens

A few months ago, I was leading a chat for a group of writers when the question of luck came up.

How much does luck have to do with an author’s writing success?

Some may argue that good fortune has everything to do with a writer being at the right place at the right time. For example, what writer doesn’t dream of attending a particular conference and meeting an agent/editor who happens to be in a generous mood? The agent listens to the writer’s elevator pitch and immediately gives him the thumbs up. Okay, it could happen, I’m sure it has, but ask that author if it was a lucky break that got him published and I’m sure he’ll recite the number of years he’d studied the craft, how many hours a day he spends writing and perfecting his prose, and the countless revisions it took to polish his final manuscript.

Success doesn’t fall from heaven—you make it. Work for it. Study the craft, practice, read everything you can get you hands on, and write every day--not just when the mood strikes you either and success will happen.

So when asked what I’d say to an aspiring writer, I pull out my top ten list.

1. Nothing worth doing is without sacrifice. Are you willing and ready?
2. Never stop learning. It’s the key to keeping ideas fresh.
3. Know the mechanics of writing. Practice them until they become second nature to you.
4. Find your voice. It’s what will make you stand out from the crowd.
5. From beginning to end, the quality of the story depends on you. There are no magic wands, no shortcuts, or easy answers only hard work. Love what you do though and it won’t feel like drudgery.
6. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a few selfless souls who will guide you along the way. Network, give back, and pay forward as much or more than you have received because you never know where the road will lead or who you’ll meet along the way.
7. Listen to the advice given by those whose works you admire, but be sure to give your inner voice equal time.
8. Falling in love with your words can stifle improvement.
9. Find a critique partner who will offer constructive feedback. A fresh pair of eyes or two or three or four are key to a polished read.
10. The limelight is brief so remember your "please" and "thank you" (see number 6).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Promoting Your Book on TV


by Carl Brookins

So now you’re touring with your book. You’re booked for a local TV appearance. Good deal. I’m a former TV professional so here are some observations and tips drawn from years of experience.

Be prompt, especially if it’s live. Producers are paranoid and if a guest isn’t present well in advance of the segment, you’ll likely be cut. Realize that you might not get on. Stuff happens. That’s part of the attraction of live television.

Study a few interview programs to note deportment and what guests wear that works. Wear a becoming blouse or shirt in a soft pastel. Don’t clutter it with dangly bright metal neck wear. Avoid neck wear or finger, ear or nose rings of polished metal. They reflect light into the eye of the camera and thence into the eyes of the viewers, sending them fleeing from the room.

Be sensitive to your image. Even seated at a table watch your posture. Keep your knees together, sit up straight and look alert. It doesn’t matter whether you are wearing pants or a skirt, keep your knees together. Wide-spread knees on an open set can be distracting as Hell to the interviewer and viewers.
The program may be repeated at different times of the day or night. If you show up on the tube at six a.m. wearing clothes more appropriate to a local night club, the impression you impart may be damaging.

Ask the show’s producer if you can have a straight chair or a hard cushion. Lie if you have to; you have a bad back from all those hours hunched over a hot word processor. Soft, overstuffed chairs and couches are guaranteed to make you look rumpled, overweight and out of sorts. If there’s no choice, sit straight, legs crossed at the ankle, and don’t let your shoulders touch the back of the couch.If you have to walk onto the set after the show has started, remember posture and your smile. Unless you have great hips and legs and don’t mind showing them to everyone, avoid tight, short skirts or tight pants.

Smile, look happy even if it is five a.m. Assume people are watching, even then (they are). You still have a chance to win over four or five technicians in the crew. Smear a tiny dab of cold cream on your upper front teeth to keep your lip from sticking. Try not to drink anything while on camera. Use the toilet before the program starts.

Now we’re in the studio, bright and perky, waiting for a cue. Assume, from the moment you enter the studio until you depart, that there is a live microphone somewhere near you. Stories abound about the sorry and vulgar things said in unguarded moments, that have ruined careers. Avoid becoming another of those legends.

Unless your interviewer turns out to be a total jerk, avoid giving short or one-word answers. Interviewers use the time during your answers to find the next question, or perhaps try to work that bit of breakfast bacon out of the crack between their bicuspids. Avoid saying, “Gosh, these are bright lights. I don’t know how you can work under these conditions.” Be polite.

Speak in your normal voice at a conversational level. Projecting, the technique learned in elocution or theater class won’t get your voice out there farther, it’ll just irritate the sound engineer. Talk to your host. As early as possible, mention the name and location of the store where you are or were signing. If you wait for the host to ask, unless the bookstore is the program sponsor, it won’t happen. If you do it early enough in the interview, you may get a chance to repeat.
Become aware of the social/political climate. Here you are in an uptight law-and-order community where the son of the mayor has just embezzled the city treasury and decamped to South America. Gosh, it sounds just like the plot of your book. Could the jerk have gotten his idea from your book? Don’t go there! You came here to sell yourself and your novel, not get lynched.

When the host asks you what you meant by the scene on page 47, don’t reveal you wrote that scene three years earlier and haven’t seen it since the galleys went to the publisher two years ago. Keep two scenes in mind, one near the beginning and one toward the end. If the question arises you can say, “You mean the scene when John lures Mary to the barn.” The host probably won’t recall what’s on page 47 anyway, and certainly won’t say so even if s/he has actually read your novel. Assume the host has not read it. Avoid swearing, blaspheming, bad grammar and jargon. Howard Stern you ain’t.

Park your ego at the door and complete your personal toilette before going on camera. Pulling, tugging, tucking, twitching, scratching, hair-combing, nose picking, or removal of wax or shower soap from ones ears is terribly distracting to the viewer. Don’t be self-deprecating. You worked hard writing, polishing, and editing your book. Thank everyone after the program is over, including the studio crew. Keep a record so when you are back flogging your next novel, you’ll know whom to contact. If they remember you with pleasure, they’ll invite you back. And they might just buy your book.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read Carl Brookins' interview.)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Why Write About Geezers?


by Mike Befeler

On television or in movies, it’s the glamorous young people that you primarily see. But there is a worldwide revolution taking place. The population is aging. On a worldwide basis, the median age today is twenty-six but by the year 2050 this will increase to thirty-six. By the year 2030 in the United States alone there will be seventy-one million people aged sixty-five and older, of which nine million will be eighty-five and above, a doubling of this population from the current time.

So as a mystery writer, I’ve chosen to write about this increasing demographic—geezers and geezerettes. My writing has been inspired by people I’ve met in retirement communities and in the general populace. Some people have criticized me for adopting the term “geezer,” but I use it affectionately since I’m a geezer-in-training.

I’ve also focused my volunteer time to address issues of aging. I’m on the Outreach Committee of the Countywide Leadership Council and on the Aging Advisory Council for Boulder County where I live. Through these organizations I’m speaking to groups to promote a positive image of aging and reviewing funding for services provided to the older population.

So in spite of the problems that older citizens may face with health, finance, family, transportation, housing and retirement decisions, there is also something very important that older people have to offer—wisdom. Life experiences can be shared with younger generations in a positive and meaningful way. Also creativity may increase in the later years. As an example, the majority of folk artists began their careers after the age of sixty. My own personal experience is that I published my first novel at the age of sixty-two.

In my Paul Jacobson Geezer-lit Mystery Series, my protagonist is an octogenarian with short-term memory loss. It would be so easy to write off someone like this who can’t remember yesterday, but Paul has a love of life, steps up to the challenge of solving a crime he is unjustly accused of, experiences romance with a young chick in her seventies and trades quips with his precocious preteen granddaughter. I’ve found that when I strike up a conversation with a group of people in a retirement home I’m visiting, that I always encounter an engaging discussion on a wide variety of topics.

So in my writing I try to present a balance of the problems and opportunities for older people. Things aren’t always rosy and there are many challenges as we age. But life doesn’t stop after sixty—there is much to be experienced and shared.

So remember the importance of an older citizen. It may be the person you see in the mirror every morning.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Stay in Front of Your Audience


by Morgan St. James

Posting blogs on multiple sites can be extremely time-consuming, but let’s face it—that’s what drives readers to your website. So here are a couple of hints to make it a little more effective.

Compose your post in Word, off-line instead of doing it directly on the site. Save it as an HTML document which will help preserve the formatting. Then copy it and paste it into each of the blogs or journals you submit posts to. Customize certain parts of it for the particular readership before you do the final post. That way you only have to do some edits on the same post for multiple sites to personalize them rather than writing a separate piece for each.
Did you know that through an RSS feed your Live Journal can automatically post to your author’s page on Amazon.com and Borders.com? All you have to do is click the RSS syndication button one time and from that time on, whenever you post to Live Journal it will automatically appear on the Amazon and Borders sites as well.

Readers like to think of you as a person as well as an author. When you post on various sites, mention some personal facts or experiences that you think would be interesting. It’s important to be able to connect in that way with your readers and future readers and writers. After a library authors’ panel, a girl about eleven years old approached me. Her father said she was shy but he encouraged her to go for it. I was delighted to spend some time with her.

One of the things I told this young girl was to start writing and not to worry about whether it was perfect. Just get into the habit of putting her thoughts on paper and being able to read them later. I posted how important it was to me to be able to share what I’ve learned with others. That post produced several comments from readers.

Save as many e-mail addresses as you can in a special address book file. I learned that the hard way. Either I didn’t save the addresses, or did without any note about why I had them. When it came time to send out announcements, my list was very slim. Now I have an address file called “Book Announcements.” I don’t have to wonder why those names are on that list, and notify them every time I have new publication.

If you don’t already use one, create a signature with your websites or blog addresses, current books, stories and announcements of upcoming ones. You might want to store more than one type of signature, depending upon the content of your message. I keep one for Silver Sisters, a personal one and one for Sisters in Crime. That makes it easy to choose which one to use. Happy posting.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Linda Barnes Revisited


Bestselling author of the Carlotta Carlyle and Michael Spraggue series, Linda Barnes's novels have won or been nominated for The Anthony, Shamus, America Mystery Award, and the Edgar as well as named one of the "Outstanding Books of the Year" by the London Times.

Linda, how did 6 ft. 1 in. red haired private eye Carlotta Carlyle come to life? Tell us about her and do you share characteristics with Carlotta?-

She came knocking at my door while I was writing a mystery with a male detective, Michael Spraggue. Spraggue was an actor. I'd intended him as a one-off, a break-in book, so that I could get my foot in the publishing door before writing a female PI. When I finally sold that first book, my publisher insisted that a woman PI would never sell. He wanted a sequel and I wound up writing four Spraggue novels, but all the while Carlotta was screaming in my ear, demanding to be heard. She and I are both tall, stubborn, and wear size 11 shoes.

Why crime fiction? What prepared you to write the subgenre?

Growing up in Detroit. That's the light response, but it has serious underpinnings. I lived next door to a cop who killed someone on my front lawn when I was very young. Then when I was 21, a dear friend killed himself. When I wrote my first mystery, I was trying to make sense of his death.

Do you prefer writing about Carlotta or Michael Spraggue? And how do their crime detection techniques differ?

Absolutely Carlotta, although I have a warm spot for Spraggue. Carlotta's a pro; she's been a cop; she knows cops. She knows investigation techniques.

Over the years you’ve won or been nominated for a number of awards. Which one means the most to you?

Each means a great deal. Awards from your peers, like the Edgar, are wonderful. Awards from fans, like the Anthony, are even better. And awards from critics, like Publishers Weekly naming Lie Down With the Devil one of the best mysteries of the year, are incredibly helpful in terms of publicity.

Which of your books was the most difficult to write?

None of them are easy. How I wish they were. Heart of the World posed a special challenge because it was set in Colombia, a country I both love and fear.

What are the most important ingredients in a bestselling novel?

It's all character, plot, and language. But the most important of these is character.

Tips on acquiring an agent?

Real agents live in New York. Troll the Internet till you find a reliable list of literary agents. (Their association used to be called the Society of Authors' Representatives, but now it has a different name.) Write a one-page killer letter saying who you are and why your book will sell. Send it to any ten names on the list. If your letter's any good, you'll get a least one request to read your manuscript.

The writer(s) who most influenced your own work?

Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy L. Sayers.

Advice for fledgling writers?

Keep at it.

Who would you like to be trapped in an elevator with, past or present?

Dashiell Hammett or Dorothy L. Sayers.

Thanks, Linda, for taking part in the Mysterious Writers series.

Linda's blog site: lindabarnes.com

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Reflections of a Pack Rat


by Tim Maleeny

When I was a kid I collected everything — baseball cards, comics, bottle caps, key chains, action figures, coins, stamps, even pieces of wood, electrical circuits and plastic tubing in case I had to build a rocket ship or teleportation device. Boxes and bins filled my room, the closets, and the bookshelves, along with hundreds of books (which were probably the second thing I started collecting, after stuffed animals).

Some of those collections were put on display, many were played with, but there was something magical about having a collection just in case. Nothing was more exciting than playing a game which suddenly called for a contraption that could only be made with fifty bottle caps and ten yards of old string, knowing you had those essential ingredients somewhere in your closet, in the blue box with the Batman sticker.

Years later my desk and the walls of my office look a lot like my childhood shelves, with scraps of paper, scribbled notes, photographs, articles torn from newspapers, and file folders everywhere. Some of the information is new, dug up at the library or printed from my computer, but many items were found years ago and have only recently been pulled from a drawer or taken from a bulletin board to become part of my next novel.

One of my books, which has the unlikely title Greasing The Piñata, was called by Library Journal “a cracking good mystery!” When I look at some of the disparate elements that comprise the plot, they include a missing U.S. Senator, a trip to Burning Man, a bipolar drug lord, a clergyman-turned hitman, an female assassin raised by the Hong Kong Triads, a trip across Mexico, and a financial scam that begins in corporate boardrooms and ends somewhere in the heart of the environmental movement. (Those are just a few of the major players or settings, because I forgot to mention San Francisco, the box jellyfish, the magic act and the castle on the beach.)

So the question is how these seemingly unrelated items ended up in the same book, and how do they work seamlessly in a story that Publishers Weekly said, “smoothly mixes wry humor with a serious plot.” Did I know I was going to use them all when I started writing? Absolutely not. But more importantly, I didn’t realize I was going to use any of that information when I first discovered it-—I just collected it as I went along, putting each experience, article or thought into its own bin to retrieve later, just like those bits of plastic and electrical circuits from my youth. As a writer, you never know when you’ll have to build a time machine.

I used to travel for work to places like Hong Kong and Mexico, and though I wasn’t writing then, I did collect those experiences, along with some snapshots, stories and memories that came in handy when I decided to set my novel there. A file folder stuffed with articles about deadly sea creatures came in handy when I decided a box jellyfish should make an appearance. And a box of magic tricks I performed as a child, which I’ve since taken from the attic and given to my daughter, provided the inspiration for one of the more memorable scenes in the novel.

I see my daughters collecting things, both of them already interested in writing their own stories even as they are learning to read, and though I occasionally step on a bottle cap, it always makes me smile.
__________

Lefty Award winner Tim Maleeny appears in Mysterious Writers where his interview can also be read. The book is available in ebook and large print editions at Amazon.com.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Don't Go Home


by Caroline Hart                                             
      
In the spring of 1985, I was a failed author. I’d had seven books published but another seven manuscripts were stacked, gathering dust, turned down by a raft of publishers. This was the heyday of steamy romance novels. I tried that. No sale. I wrote WWII novels. Escape from Paris, the story of two American sisters in Paris in1940 who help British airmen flee the Gestapo, is possibly the best suspense novel I ever wrote.  Escape from Paris later sold to a small publishing house in England, then to Doubleday in the U.S. and has been reprinted now by Seventh Street Books. But in 1985, it was in the unsold stack of seven.
            
1985 marked a turning point in mystery publishing for American women. Until then, publishers considered the American mystery to be the hard-boiled male (of course) private eye written by men. That mold was broken by Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton.They wrote hard-boiled books but the protagonists were women. Publishers saw their sales and decided American women readers were interested in books by and about American women.
            
As a writer living in Oklahoma, I didn’t know a sea change was occurring. All I knew was that I’d written book after book and no one was interested. I was teaching at the time and attended a meeting of Mystery Writers of America in Houston. Wonderful Joan Lowery Nixon, a renowned Houston YA writer, had a cocktail party for the MWA members.
            
I attended though I felt out of place even though I’d had seven books published. There was that stack of seven unsold and nothing on the horizon. Everyone was friendly and kind, as writers generally are. I met Bill Crider who had just sold his first book. As we talked, he asked if I’d been to Murder by the Book. I asked him what that was. He said, “A mystery bookstore.” I’d never heard of a mystery bookstore. The next day I took a cab from the hotel to Murder by the Book. The owner was there, gracious and appealing Martha Farrington. I didn’t introduce myself or mention my previous books. Instead I gloried in the store, row after row of shelves filled with mysteries of all kinds, suspense, thrillers, traditional mysteries, crime novels, British mysteries, and a whole wall of used books. In Oklahoma when we like something we say, “I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.” That, to me, was Murder by the Book. (Martha has since retired but fabulous Murder by the Book continues to be a Houston triumph.)
            
I returned home, energized by friendly writers talking about the books we loved to read and loved to write and by visiting Murder by the Book. I’d just started a new book (the triumph of hope over experience) set in a bookstore. I made it a mystery bookstore. I wrote the kind of book I love to read, about ordinary people and the passions and heartache that lead to murder and about a young couple, Annie Laurence and Max Darling, who truly love each other. I called the book Death on Demand. 

In New York, publishers were looking for books by American women. The book sold to Kate Miciak at Bantam, one of the mystery world’s most fabulous editors. I had written it more in defiance than in hope. The possibility that anyone would publish it seemed remote. It never occurred to me to think in terms of a series. Kate called to talk and asked, “It’s the first in a series, isn’t it?” I immediately said of course it was. I wrote the next and the next and readers read them and I kept going. The 25th in the Death on Demand series - Don’t Go Home - will be published May 8. 

Annie Darling tries hard to keep her promise to Max that she will never again put herself in danger but their good friend Gazette Reporter Marian Kenyon faces scandal and heartbreak when an author’s return to the island ends in murder. He knew too much about too many. Choices are made by Annie about the importance of friendship and by Marian about what kind of truth matters.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

An Icy Death

Vickie Britton
Loretta Jackson

by Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson

Wyoming winters are often a challenge with temperatures dropping to zero and wind chill. Experiencing these harsh weather conditions personally and the panic that sets in during an emergency inspired us to write this book. 

Between Fort Collins, Colorado, and Laramie, Wyoming, a distance of about fifty miles, the weather can change dramatically from sunny to severe snow as the elevation increases, and despite weather warnings a sudden whiteout between destinations often catches travelers by total surprise.  One time, we tried to get through the mountains before the storm hit.  Halfway home, the blizzard struck.  In these conditions it is impossible to slow down because other traffic such as big trucks cannot see you and the risk of a collision is imminent.  Stopping is also out of the question because you might get struck by a passing vehicle or get hopelessly stuck.  If you slid off the road into one of the deep embankments, you might not be found and unable to summon help.

On that night, the blowing snow made it almost impossible to see the road and the steep drop-offs.  We were in a position where underlying ice made braking impossible and many trucks on the road were swerving wildly out of control.  We hit a patch of ice and barely escaped a bad crash into the canyon.  This experience led us to write An Icy Death. 
   
In Wyoming most travelers are warned to bring food, water and extra blankets in case of an emergency.  But sometimes people are caught unaware, or even these precautions aren’t enough to guarantee safety. Every winter in the area, despite weather watches and road closings, there are casualties from exposure and hypothermia. A person can freeze to death in a very short time. 

We have read newspaper accounts of people getting out of their car and losing track of direction, or staying in their vehicle and freezing to death. Wrecked or stranded cars leave travelers faced with a life or death decision to remain or to go for help.  And such was the case of our fictional characters, the wealthy, middle-aged couple, Arthur and Margaret Burnell.

Our story begins when Sheriff Jeff McQuede hears about a stalled vehicle and leaves the highway to find a woman frozen to death in a car.  Footsteps in the snow indicate that someone has gone after help, and McQuede expects to find the second part of a tragedy.

McQuede soon learns that Margaret and Arthur Burnell have traveled from Casper and taken a shortcut to Durmont.  Margaret is a partner in the Trevino Sporting Goods store chain, the local store which has recently been robbed.  While she is in town, she plans to have an audit of the books.  Because Arthur Burnell has signed a prenup, part of her fortune remains with the business, yet her husband would still profit enough to make him a prime suspect.   But he’s not the only one with motive and opportunity.  
             
In his pursuit of the killer, McQuede faces many grave dangers. In An Icy Death, in order to solve the crime he must face the brutal elements as well as a deadly killer.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Standalones vs. Series


by Vicki Delany

I thought it might be fun to take a step back and have a look at the most basic structure of the mystery novel.

There are, basically, two types of mystery novels: standalones, in which characters appear once, never to be seen again, and series, in which characters feature in book after book.

As a reader as well as a writer, I am torn as to which I prefer. I believe that in real life a person, unless they’re a secret agent or bodyguard to a crime boss, has only one great adventure in them. Police officers will tell you that the job’s pretty boring most of the time, and crimes, even murders, are mundane things, easily solved.

I am a realist, and I seek realism in the books I read. Which is why, personally speaking, I am not too fond of amateur sleuth books, such as the popular hobby or pet novels in which a mild-mannered middle-aged lady decides that the police in her town can’t do their job and she must solve the murder for them. This character has adventure after adventure, but it just doesn’t ring true to me, and in a lot of cases there is not real emotional involvement anyway.

A standalone novel gives the protagonist that one opportunity to achieve great things; to have that grand adventure; to meet the everlasting love of their life; to conquer evil, once and for all. In a standalone, the characters face their demons and defeat them.

Or not.

My first books were standalone novels of suspense. In Scare the Light Away the main character confronts, for one last time, the debris of her traumatic childhood. In Burden of Memory, the protagonist faces down the ghost of a past that is not hers, but is still threatening what she holds dear.

Then I switched to writing a series. And found that series novels present a different challenge. The central character, or characters, confront their demons, but they do not defeat them. Their weaknesses, all their problems, will be back in the next book. In each story the series character stands against, and usually defeats, someone else’s problem or society’s enemy, but she or he moves only one small step towards the resolution of their own issues, if at all.

In the Constable Molly Smith novels (In the Shadow of the Glacier, Valley of the Lost) Molly is haunted by the death of her fiancé, Graham. It was a meaningless, preventable, tragic death and, even in her grief, Molly knows that returning to the small town in which she grew up and becoming a cop won’t help her to make sense of Graham’s death. But she does anyway, and as the series unfolds, Molly is able to confront the gulf that Graham’s death has left in her life and, eventually, move on.

Series or standalone? Ultimately it is up to you and me, the readers to decide. I suspect we’ll vote for both.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What Did She Say?


by Chester D. Campbell

More to the point, was what she said worth saying? Dialogue can be a valuable tool for the mystery writer, but poorly done it can be a major stumbling block.

The usual advice for handling dialogue is to make it sound natural. That’s true, but far from the whole story. People can be boring when they talk, but dialogue can’t. In her book Don’t Murder Your Mystery, Chris Roerden says:

“Sadly, much of what passes for dialogue in the typical submission is little more than chitchat and data dumping.”

If a character has a long story to tell, it’s best to start it with a paragraph of dialogue and follow up with exposition. You can summarize the story without straining to make it sound part of a conversation.

Sometimes we get too wrapped up in our own thinking and don’t realize that what we have a character say doesn’t fit the conversational mode. A critique group colleague or a first reader can spot these and warn, “I don’t think he’d talk like that.”

Robert B. Parker is one of my favorite authors for dialogue. His short, snappy style is perfect for a mystery. It’s good for raising tension and creating conflict. Here’s a snippet from School Days with Spenser talking to a small town police chief:

“Optics are amazing, aren’t they?” I said. “We can see out fine through the tint, but people outside can’t really see as much.”

“Shut up,” Cromwell said.

The eyes behind the rimless glasses narrowed some more. I squinted back at him.

“Hard to see, isn’t it,” I said, “with your eyes three quarters shut.”

“This is your last chance,” Cromwell said finally.

“It is?”

“After this, it gets very rough.”

“Oh,” I said. “That’s when.”

Parker is not averse to throwing in an adverb once in a while. I do it rarely. He sticks to he said, she said, or he asked, she asked for attribution. It appears to be the preferred style for editors, and anything else should be used with caution.

My books are heavy with dialogue, which appears to be the case with most P.I. novels. In Writing the Modern Mystery, Barbara Norville says:

“A good example of moving the story forward with dialogue is found in the private eye novel. The P.I. gathers his information by moving from one suspect to the next, and the plot builds as he moves.”

That is the key to dialogue. It should move the plot and develop character. It can add to the creation of tension and suspense. And, occasionally, as with Parker’s Spenser, it can provide a breather by That is the key to dialogue. It should move the plot and develop character. It can add to the creation of tension and suspense. And, occasionally, as with Parker’s Spenser, it can provide a breather by making us laugh or grin like a kid in a sack race.

This is one area of writing where it pays to be a voyeur. When you’re sitting in a restaurant, shopping in the mall, waiting in line somewhere, listen to the conversation around you. You’ll not only pick up ideas on how real people talk, you’re likely to hear some good lines you can use in your novel.

I’ve grabbed snatches of conversation here and there that included some doozies. Here’s one I’m still looking for a place to use:

“I’d offer my child $10,000 on a house if they’d elope.”

Like everything else about writing, have fun with your dialogue. If you do, I’m sure the reader will have run reading it.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Create the Flavor


by Sylvia Dickey Smith

My favorite part of writing a novel is creating a sense of place. If I do so effectively I take the reader into the story, making them a part of it, rather than a mere bystander. Setting must strengthen my characters and my plot, not be the main focus. Setting is more like mood music. It leads readers into the story and fits the mood I want to create. It does not overwhelm. I start with setting when I develop a new novel. For me, I need to know the setting of the story first, for where is what drives my characters and my plot. Whichever way you do it, the critical ingredient is to feel passionate about your setting.

Setting is more than where your characters live. It is a way of life. Certain places and eras evoke certain expectations and stereotypes. Use these to get a good grasp of your characters, the cadence of their speech, the food they eat, how they dress, what they do in their spare time, their religion, their occupation, what your character and setting smell like.

You can use setting to advance your plot. In Deadly Sins Deadly Secrets weather intensifies the conflict and also serves as metaphor. An unexpected ice storm leads Sidra Smart, the protagonist, to rescue a half-frozen dog. He soon becomes an important character in the series.

Use setting to increase tension or set the mood. An electrical storm, for example, is a subtle way to build tension. So can an impending hurricane with no way to get out of town. In Dance On His Grave, Sidra heads into the swamp to see a Voodoo woman. Not only is Sidra tense about talking to someone who talks to dead people, but the ride through alligator-infested swamp where she sees her first Le Feu Follet heightens the tension and further sets the mood. (To the Cajuns of southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas, Le Feu Follet (or dancing light) played a prominent role in the superstition and folklore.

WHERE the story is set determines the personality of your characters. Are they sophisticated or innocent? Are they "big city" New York or "small town" Orange, Texas? Is the detective a big-time cop or a small time private eye like Sidra in Dead Wreckoning. She is out of her element when she goes into the swamp with marine archaeologists to find a resurrected pirate ship.

Don’t give so much detail in your setting that you slow the reader down. If a reader looks at a paragraph and knows it is a description of the setting, you have a problem. Details should be sprinkled in throughout. Setting can also be revealed through dialogue and illustrated by a character's actions and speech patterns. Breaking it up and getting it across through these different techniques will keep your reader from becoming overwhelmed by it.

Love your setting, or hate it, but don’t feel indifferent about it. If you do, change it!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Writing a Series


by Rhys Bowen
Bestselling author

The truth is that the choice is often not ours to make. Many writers, including myself, find out that we're writing a series when the publisher accepts the first book and asks, "Do you already have an idea for the next one?"

In fact most mystery writers get their start writing a series, and this has many advantages: you have a chance to build a readership over several books. You develop a presence on the shelves of the chain stores. You have a chance to develop an ever-deepening relationship with your main character, rather like an ongoing friendship in which he or she reveals more and more interesting personal and past details.

In many ways it's more comfortable to write a series. Each book starts with known facts, familiar characters, setting, subsidiary characters.

Of course there are disadvantages to writing a series: The biggest one is that you are stuck with your sleuth. Make sure you like him and find him interesting at the beginning. Agatha Christie came to loathe Hercule Poirot. You're stuck with the environment. If you aren't really fascinated with llama breeding, don't make your sleuth a llama breeder. You'll get mail from llama fanciers every day. You'll be expected to go to llama shows and knit llama sweaters.

Certain crimes will never happen in your environment.

You are not free to try new approaches--alternating points of view, darker approach, etc. Make sure you start off with the kind of book you want. If you start with a cozy series you can't go dark in the middle, as I have found out. Your readers except a certain type of book and will be angry if you change. My first Evan was deemed a cozy series. As I've come to know Evan better the books have become  darker and meatier but they are still designated as cozy. There are some places I could never go with the stories. Likewise the readers of my Royal Spyness series expect to laugh and be entertained. They would be shocked by anything too dark  happening.

And the last disadvantage: if the series becomes popular, you'll be expected to go on writing it forever, which takes from you the chance to try something new. Or, as in my case, you want to try a new idea and find yourself juggling several books a year.

It's hard. A writer should be free to write what whatever wonderful ideas come into her head, but writing these days is a business. I expect it always was. I expect Mr. Dickens's publisher said to him, "Charlie, I told you, no regency romances."

(Excepted from Mysterious Writers, Poisoned Pen Press.)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Using Real People as Characters in Historical Fiction


by Larry Karp

For my first mystery novel, set in present-day New York City, I tried to jump-start the narrative by using real people I knew for some of the characters. As I progressed through the first draft, though, it occurred to me that some of the characters were developing very nicely, but others were not. 

 Without exception, the static characters were the ones based in persons from the real world, and the blocks occurred because my perceptions of the real people censored their fictional counterparts. Fictional Muriel picked up the hammer to brain Sammy, but then stopped cold and just stood there - because Real Muriel would never do a thing like that. On the other hand, Alice, created from scratch, didn't hesitate to crease Sammy's skull. Also, as I was delighted to see, the characters' actions were unfailingly consistent with, and true to, their overall personalities and behaviors. Apparently, my subconscious had no trouble turning a tabula rasa into a organically-developed character, but pre-existing conditions were clearly a problem.

My worst situation involved a murder victim-to-be whom I'd grounded deeply in a real person I despised. But before long, I realized that this character's behavior was every bit as destructive to my story as his real-world behavior was to my life. Serves me right, I thought. Leave him where he belongs. So, rather than putting a fictional hit man on him, I took matters into my own hands and sentenced him to exile from my fictional world. Much more satisfying, much better for the story.

Many fine writers don't seem to have this hangup, but for me, real and fictional worlds need to be kept separate; each person's uniqueness and individuality has to be respected. It seems wrong to try to wrench people out of their own developing life stories to inhabit tales of someone else's making.

After four mysteries populated by fully-fictional characters, I decided to write an historical-mystery trilogy based upon real-life events unexplained by history. These three stories would involve such people as Irving Berlin, Scott Joplin, John Stark (Joplin's first publisher), and Sanford Brunson Campbell ("The Ragtime Kid"). The idea of trying to explore holes in history via compatible fiction was intriguing, but the notion of creating fiction involving real persons was daunting. I gave some thought to replacing these people with fictional constructs, but couldn't get the story off the ground. It belonged to the historical persons and no one else.

But once I'd read pertinent personal histories to the point of constant repetition, I felt free to fill in the innumerable blanks from imagination. The book was closed, so to speak, on Berlin, Joplin, and the others; they were no longer of this world. In extending their lives through imagination, I didn't feel I was placing their fictional existence at odds with any real-life stories still under development. If they'd still been alive, well, that would have been another story.

Friday, February 20, 2015

How Now Purple Cow--A Bogey Man Mystery


by Marja McGraw


It seems that something unexpected usually inspires a story for me. I won’t go into titles, for the most part, in the interest of space.

In my Sandi Webster series, stories were inspired by (get this) the Red Light District in Old Los Angeles, something that actually happened to me in another book, meeting an elderly female private investigator, a photo of a vintage, abandoned house in Nevada, and an admiration for Humphrey Bogart. Another was inspired by what used to be an ostrich ranch in Arizona. An ostrich ranch? It became a llama ranch in short order and included ghostly sightings and a house with character.

Back to the admiration for Humphrey Bogart, a book titled, The Bogey Man was so well received that I started another series involving a Bogart look-alike who wanted nothing more than to become a private investigator. In his case, not all of his dreams came true, but he, his wife and young son went on to become involved in crimes, although against his better judgment.

Chris Cross, known as the Bogey Man, started a forties-themed restaurant with his wife, Pamela. Right off the bat they discovered a body in a basement. That was the beginning of an interesting life. In one book, some Church Ladies tried his patience and skills when they wanted him to find a missing friend. Some Church Ladies in my own life inspired that one. Chris’s eccentric mother came to town and more adventures followed. Yes, I know a few eccentric people, and I should probably include myself in that category.

However, let me tell you that I never expected ceramic purple cows and a dream to inspire a story, but that’s exactly what happened. Many years ago my grandmother gave me some old ceramic figurines, including two purple cows. There should have been three, but apparently the bull was broken somewhere along the way. They were begging to be included in a book. I can’t explain it, but the idea simply wouldn’t let go of my imagination.

How could a writer use purple cows in a mystery? Well, if you add a dream about two close friends being spies, all kinds of doors can open.

After doing a lot of research about spies and spying, I found that only a minimal part of that research would fit the story. However, it gave me a feel for what things were like during the Cold War and what agents were up against. Maybe I’ve watched too much television, but it all seemed to fit together in a neat little story package.


Purple cows and elderly spies were a natural. Oh, and they needed just a little humor to pull it all together. If you include the young son and two Labrador retrievers in the mix, you’ve got some unusual puzzle pieces to fit together.

                                  ~~~

What could purple cows and elderly spies possibly have to do with each other?

When young Mikey Cross discovers ceramic purple cows, a ring, and investigative notes left by a mystery writer popular in the 1950s, his parents’ and grandparents’ lives are turned upside down.

Pamela and Chris Cross become involved in vintage intrigue with trepidation and more than a little angst when they find out there’s an elderly assassin on the prowl and the situation isn’t quite as vintage as they thought.

The dead just may come back as the living when it’s least expected.

~~~

I’ve tried to write all of my books so they can be read in any order. The only thing you might miss by reading them haphazardly would be the growth of the characters. That’s livable.

I enjoy being entertained when I read, and that’s what I’ve tried to do for readers of my books. I hope I can make you laugh, or at least chuckle, and in addition I hope the puzzles keep you guessing.

Hmm. I did write one book where the killer was fairly easy to spot. Ah, yes, there was an unexpected twist at the end. Always keep the reader guessing.

So, if you’re inspired as a reader, you might try How Now Purple Cow to see how purple cows and elderly spies fit together.


Jean, thank you so much for inviting me in today. I had a wonderful time talking about inspired stories.
_____________


Marja McGraw was born and raised in Southern California. She worked in both civil and criminal law, state transportation, and most recently for a city building department.  A resident and employee in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona, she wrote a weekly column for a small town newspaper in Northern Nevada, and conducted a Writers’ Support Group in Northern Arizona. A past member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), she was also the Editor for the SinC-Internet Newsletter for a year and a half.

Marja has appeared on KOLO-TV in Reno, Nevada, and KLBC in Laughlin, Nevada, and various radio talk shows. She says that each of her mysteries contains a little humor, a little romance and a little murder! She and her husband now live in Arizona, where life is good.


Friday, February 13, 2015

How I Motivate My Characters




by John Gilstrap
New York Times bestselling author

Someone asked me recently about how I motivate my characters. The person told me that he’d read an article somewhere about writing biographies for your characters, or maybe interviewing them to find out why they do what they do.

I had no idea how to respond. Interview my characters? I can’t imagine doing that. For a moment, I resented how lazy my characters are. They just sit there on their butts until I give them instructions. Then I realized that their lazy silence was actually a comfort. As long as they don’t speak to me on their own, I can assure my friends and family that I don’t share the psychoses that said characters occasionally exhibit.

Kidding aside, character motivation is a key element of storytelling—perhaps the key element. But it’s not something that I think much about. I personally find plot development to be far more daunting than characterization.

For me, plot equals character which equals motivation which equals drama. The various elements of storytelling are so interwoven and interdependent that I don’t know how to break them into their component parts. When a character’s child is stolen, the motivations are inevitably cast. The kidnapped child is motivated to survive and/or get away. The parent is motivated to get him back. The kidnapper is motivated to see his plan through to the end. Maybe it would be more nuanced for me if I wrote love stories; but as a thriller writer the whole motivation thing has never been a problem.

Sometimes I think the best advice we can give to struggling new writers is to think less and imagine more. Given the set of circumstances you’ve conjured, put yourself in your character’s position and start pretending. It was easy when we were kids, after all, before we attended creative writing classes and people started putting labels on the things that came naturally. When I was a boy and I played with my friends, the non-sports games were always of the role play variety, and nearly always involved imagined gunplay. (I cleared the neighborhood of marauding Apaches when I was very young, and then kept the Nazi threat at bay as I approached adolescence.) But here’s the thing: I became the character I was pretending to be. My bike was a motorcycle, and the pine cones were hand grenades.

When I started writing stories in elementary school, that reality transference continued. The reality of the imagined world trumped the reality of my actual surroundings. It still happens to me when I’m really in the zone—it’s the great thrill of writing. I don’t have to think about motivating my characters because all I have to do is report on what I’m seeing, hearing and feeling through their senses.

Being a big fan of Inside the Actor’s Studio, I’ve often thought that the Method, as described by the guests on that show, has a lot in common with my writing process. Once I create a premise that feels real, I don the emotional garb of the character from whose head I’m writing, and I embark on a great pretend.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, Poisoned Pen Press, where you can read John Gilstrap's interview and learn more about him.)


Friday, February 6, 2015

Writing Historical Mysteries


by Carola Dunn
Bestselling author

I have been writing historical  novels for thirty years. If you count the 1960s as  historical--opinions differ!--I have had more than fifty published. Of these, thirty-two are Regencies.. The other eighteen are mysteries, the seventeen titles of my Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, [including] Manna from Hades, the first of a new series of Cornish mysteries set in the 1960s.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to setting a mystery in the past. On the one hand, you don't have to worry about the latest advances in forensic science and technology overtaking the publication of your books. However, obviously, it takes more efforts to find out the methods used to solve crimes in the past.

Where the 1920s are concerned, it's easy to find countless mysteries written at that time which have more or less accurate information about detective techniques. For information about English police techniques, straight from the horses' mouths, the memoirs of Scotland Yard detectives are available, e.g. G.W. Cornish of Scotland Yard, as well as Mostly Murder by the great forensic pathologist Sir Sidney Smith.

The more distant from the present the period you choose to write about, the less accurate information is available. Of course, you don't have to go far back to find that the science of forensics didn't exist. Those responsible for detecting criminals were not expected to provide anything we would call real proof. A book well worth hunting out is Clues! (UK: Written in Blood) A History of Forensic Detection by Colin Watson.

In twenty-first century America, guilty verdicts are quite often proved incorrect when genetic evidence is considered. You can imagine how frequent miscarriages of justice were in the past.

Luckily, the less information is available, the more leeway for the fiction writer.

Creating an impression of the spirit of the times is, in my opinion, the most important job for any historical fiction writer mystery or other. If you're writing about Ancient Rome, your characters have to take slavery for granted; in mid-nineteenth century America, they should not. Religion reigned supreme in medieval Europe, even kings seeking the blessing of the papacy. To the upper classes of eighteen century England and France, manners and etiquette were of enormous importance, even in dire circumstances.

The class system was an unavoidable aspect of nineteenth century England that can't be ignored, however little you like it. America in the nineteenth century boasted a feeling of boundless opportunity--unless you were a slave. The Depression era depressed not only economic life but people's spirits and expectations. Wherever and whenever until quite recently, and still now in many parts of the globe, women were subservient.

All these aspects of society influenced the way people thought and behave and have to be a major part of your setting. They will change the motives for and kinds of crimes that are committed. Just consider one example: blackmail. These days, you couldn't blackmail someone for living "in sin." Too many people do it openly!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ten Commandments for Writers


by James Scott Bell

1. Thou Shalt write a certain number of words every week.

This is the first, and greatest commandment. If you write to a quota and hold yourself to it, sooner than you think you'll have a full length novel. (I used to advocate a daily quota, but I changed it to weekly because inevitably you miss days or life intrudes and you run yourself down. I also take one day off a week.) So set a weekly quota, divide it by days, and if you miss one day make it up on the others.

2. Thou Shalt write passionate first drafts.

Don't edit yourself heavily during your first drafts. The writing of it is partly an act of discovering your story, even if you outline. Your plot and characters may want to make twists and turns you didn't plan. Let them go! Follow along and then move on. At 20K words I "step back" to see if I have  solid foundation, shore it up if I don't, then move on to the end.

3. Thou Shalt make trouble for thy Lead.

The engine of a good story is fueled by the threat to the Lead character.  Keep turning up the heat. Make things harder. Simple three act structure: Get your Lead up a tree, throw things at him, get him down.

4. Thou Shalt put a stronger opposing force in the Lead's Way.

The opposition character must be stronger than the Lead. More power, more experiences, more resources. Otherwise, the reader won't worry. You want them to worry. Hitchcock always said the strength of his movies came from the strength and cunning of the villains. But note the opposition doesn't have to be a "bad guy." Think of Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive."

5. Thous Shalt get the story running from the first paragraph.

Start with a character, in a situation of a change or threat or challenge, and grip the reader from the start. This is the opening "disturbance" and that's what readers respond to immediately. It doesn't have to be something "big." Anything that sends a ripple through the "ordinary world." 

6. Thou Shalt create surprises.

Avoid the predictable! Always make a list of several avenues your scenes and story might take, then choose something that makes sense but also surprises the reader.

7. Thou Shalt make everything contribute to the story.

Don't go off on tangents that don't have anything to do with the characters and what they want in the story. Stay as direct as a laser beam.

8. Thou Shalt cut out all the dull parts.

Be ruthless in revision. Cut out anything that slows the story down. No trouble, tension or conflict is dull. At the very least, something tense inside a character.

9. Thou Shalt develop Rhino skin.

Don't take rejection or criticism personally. Learn from criticism and move on. Perseverance is the golden key to a writing career.

10. Thou Shalt never stop learning, growing and writing for the rest of thy life.

Writing is growth. We learn about ourselves, we discover more about life, we use our creativity, we gain insights. At the same time, we study. Brain. Read surgeons keep up on the  journals, why should writers think they don't need to stay up on the craft? If I learn just one thing that helps me as a writer, it's worth it. 

______________

James Scott Bell is a bestselling suspense author. The former trial lawyer was the fiction columnist for Writer's Digest Books and an adjunct professor of writing at Pepperdine University. His books on the craft of writing are among the most popular today.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read Bell's interesting interview.)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What is a Story? An Etude in the Key of C



by John M. Daniel

I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.  ~Huck                                                                                                                                                          

Rust Hills summed it up thus: Something happens to someone.” That’s it. Plot (something happens) and character (to someone).Okay, but what happens? Change. Or someone is, at the end of the story, a different person from the one who she or he was at the beginning.

How does that come about? It could be because of chance (a trolley runs over his foot, so he will never be able to tap dance again) but more often, and more interestingly, it’s because the character has made a choice.

The choice arises from a conflict. Remember: no conflict, no story. Conflict resolution, which comes in many forms, is what results in choice, and therefore in change. By the way, the conflict is often the outcome of a crisis of conscience, and results in a shift in the balance of power.

Yes, the choice itself has a consequence. The change, yes, we talked about that. But maybe a greater change. The moral center of gravity may have shifted. To make our story important, make that choice consequential. Write about what matters: the human condition. Write about love and death.

This critical moment of change, this catharsis, for reasons as old as the creative process, and even the procreative process, usually happens at the climax of the story.

If you don’t believe me, ask Huck Finn.

So as we write our stories, let us remember all of these ingredients listed here in alphabetical order:

Catharsis, Center of Gravity, Chance, Character, Change, Choice, Climax, Condition (human), Conflict, Conscience, Consequence, Creative Process, Crisis, Critical Moment . . . and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few.  

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, Medallion Books. Read his interview to learn more about John M. Daniel. The book is available in print, ebook and audiobook editions.)