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 fiancĂ©, 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.)