Writing Fiction is Challenging by Karen Shughart

 

I’ve written fiction and non-fiction; fiction is much more challenging. Prior to becoming an author of cozy mysteries, I worked as a journalist, publicist, author of two full-length books, plus those you find on coffee tables in hotel rooms or obtain at chambers of commerce to learn about their communities. When I sat down to write, I created an outline, reported the facts, and although the pieces included some description, the intent was to get the message across in as few words as possible.

I wrote features about people, cooking and entertaining; and a weekly column for a local

coffee notebook pen writing

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newspaper.  Community guides were succinct but in a style that, hopefully, encouraged visits to that special museum, historical site, shop or restaurant. The first non-fiction book, a cookbook and bed and breakfast guide; and the second, a how-to about fund-raising for non-profit organizations, had to be comprehensive enough to satisfy readers but not overly long as to bore them.  I had no problem with that.

But then there’s fiction. Maybe I’m an oddity, but for me writing fiction has been much more difficult. For starters, whatever appears on the pages is the product of my imagination, so my mind never shuts off. It’s constantly active, often even when I’m sleeping or not able to sleep because I’m thinking about revisions or how to structure the next chapter, making sure of a consistent thread throughout the story and, of course, that there’s realistic dialogue.

When describing investigative procedures, criminal charges, autopsies, side effects of drug overdoses, or even periods of history, the information must be as accurate as possible, allowing for some poetic license. Ditto for geography that’s particular to the setting. Research, including interviews with experts in those fields, takes time.

The length of a non-fiction book depends on the author’s goals, subject matter and the audience. It can be short or long, guided by the topic, but a general rule-of-thumb is 30,000 words and above.  With fiction, there’s a prescribed length for every genre, but most novels run between 50,000 and 120,000 words; cozies from 40,000 to 70,000.  At about 35,000 words, my first drafts have fallen short of the expected length. And at times, it’s been challenging to expand the story line without padding it with superfluous and extraneous details.

A newspaper column took a few hours to write, a community book about six weeks, and the non-fiction books about six to nine months. The first cozy took more than two years; the one I’m working on now may be completed a bit more quickly, I’ve been through the process before.  Writing cozies has been a lifelong dream, and don’t get me wrong, I’m loving it. But there’s way more to it than I ever would have thought.

 

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Why I Write Mysteries by Saralyn Richard

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I love reading and writing in all genres. I’ve taught creative writing to high schoolers and adults, and I’ve rarely met a story or a writer that I didn’t enjoy getting to know, but when it comes to writing novels of my own, I choose to write mysteries. I could tell you the reasons have to do with suspense and tension, tight plots, clues, character motivations, themes of good vs. evil, or other such elements, but the truth is simpler.

I love mysteries, because in no other genre is the connection between reader and writer so vivid. When an author lays out a mystery, she is ever-mindful of the reader. She unfolds the crime and investigation clue by clue, scene by scene, in a sometimes tortuous path toward solution. She hopes that the reader is traveling along the path, enjoying the adventure every step of the way. If she plants a clue in one chapter, will the thoughtful reader recall it in a subsequent chapter? Will the red herrings be identified as such? The author hopes to strike the perfect balance between foreshadowing and surprise, so the reader is captivated and delighted.

Every single time a reader responds to one of my books, I feel a new thrill, as if seeing the story through new eyes creates a wholly new perspective, one that I may never have considered before. A mystery is an invitation to the reader to come along with the detective, to match wits with the criminal, to bring his own clever ideas to bear upon solving the puzzle. The synergy created by the author-reader partnership is intellectually and emotionally stimulating and rewarding.

In MURDER IN THE ONE PERCENT, a group of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful elite gather for a birthday party in the lush, peaceful Brandywine Valley of Pennsylvania. When one of them is killed, and almost everyone has a motive, young Detective Oliver Parrott realizes this will be the case to challenge his intellect and to test his moral compass. Figuring out who comes to the party with murder in his heart and poison in his pocket becomes an active mental exercise for the reader. As the author, I am literally one step ahead of the reader, leading him by the hand, with an enigmatic smile on my face.

Book Blurb:

Final cover w quoteSomeone comes to the party with murder in their heart and poison in their pocket…

A powerful and rich playboy, a rare but naturally occurring poison, a newly divorced woman with an axe to grind, and pressure from the former President of the US—these are just a few of the challenges that African-American Detective Oliver Parrott faces when he answers a routine call for back-up and discovers someone died at a country estate the morning after an elaborate birthday party. When Parrott learns the deceased is the wealthy former US Secretary of the Treasury and just about everyone at the party had a motive to kill him, he realizes this will be the investigation to make—or break—his career.

Buy Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Murder-One-Percent-Saralyn-Richard/dp/1626947716/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1517072668&sr=8-2&keywords=murder+in+the+one+percent

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/murder-in-the-one-percent-saralyn-richard/1127890200?ean=9781626947719

https://black-opal-books.myshopify.com/products/murder-in-the-one-percent

http://www.saralynrichard.com/bookstore/ 

Author Bio:

Galveston Author Saralyn RichardAward-winning mystery and children’s book author, Saralyn Richard, is a writer who teaches on the side. Her children’s picture book, Naughty Nana, has reached thousands of children worldwide.

Murder in the One Percent, ©2018 Black Opal Books, pulls back the curtain on the privileged and powerful rich. Set on a gentleman’s farm in Pennsylvania and in the tony areas of New York, the book introduces Detective Oliver Parrott, who matches wits with the country’s elite.

A member of International Thriller Writers and Mystery Writers of America, Saralyn has  completed the sequel to Murder in the One Percent, entitled A Palette for Murder. Her standalone mystery, A Murder of Principal, will be released soon. Her website is www.saralynrichard.com. 

Social Media Links:

My author’s website is http://www.saralynrichard.com. https://www.facebook.com/saralyn.richard,

https://www.twitter.com/SaralynRichard,

https://www.linkedin.com/in/saralyn-richard-b06b6355/,

https://www.pinterest.com/saralynrichard/,

https://www.instagram.com/naughty_nana_sheepdog/ and https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7338961.Saralyn_Richard.

I am available to meet with book clubs and organization members. Contact me at saralyn@saralynrichard.com.

Posted in Guest Blogger, mystery | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Stalking Ideas

by Janis Patterson

One of the questions authors are asked the most is “Where do you find your ideas?” – as if ideas were rare and wondrous things as difficult to discover as flawless emeralds. As far as I and most of the writers I know are concerned, there are fewer questions more maddening.

As if one has to ‘find’ ideas. They find us, as ubiquitous as mosquitoes during a lake holiday, and sometimes just about as annoying. For example : you’re working happily on a sophisticated big city humorous mystery, when all of a sudden the sight of an axe in a hardware store brings up a flash of inspiration for a dark and noir-ish story about a suburban serial killer. It lurks at the edge of your consciousness, waiting to leap on every unguarded moment with yet another character or plot twist.

The sleuth you’re trying to write is an urbane, wise-cracking former male model who speaks four languages and not only knows but actually cares about the difference between white tie and black tie evening wear. (Sigh) The sleuth who is trying to creep into your mind is a wise-cracking suburban mom who hates soccer, has a daughter mad for ballet and who, through her knowledge of some arcane middle-class suburban pastime, deduces the killer who has been decimating the neighborhood.

Finally to propitiate the annoying creature you take a few precious hours to make some notes, jot down an idea or two, scrape together the bare bones of an outline and file the results into your bulging Ideas file. (You do keep an Ideas file, don’t you? I have for years. Mine is now roughly the size of Rhode Island.) The only problem is, when you decide the suburban mom has to have a garden, there is the flicker of an idea about a well-known television writer who loves to raise poisonous plants and his encyclopedic knowledge allows him to solve crimes as there is suddenly an epidemic of poisonings on the set of a controversial new series…

See how insidious this is? Before long you’re doing nothing but making notes about possible story ideas while your sophisticated and urbane city detective languishes somewhere in black tie (appropriate to the occasion, of course) waiting for you to come back to him. Ideas are everywhere, and catching them can take over your life.

Now, as we must never forget, I will repeat my mantra – an idea is not a plot. An Idea Is Not A Plot. Repeat that three times every day before you sit down to write. An idea is a situation, a frame, a slice of a singular moment in time. For a successful book, you need hundreds of ideas, and you need to be able to mesh them together seamlessly to provide a workable story. That part is work. Fielding a couple of the bazillions of ideas that flash by you every minute is not.

For the record, my second-most-disliked question is when some bright-eyed naif comes bouncing up (for some reason this is usually a middle-aged male at a cocktail party) and says with the utmost generosity of a Lord Bountiful, “I’ve a wonderful idea for a book – why don’t I tell it to you so you can write the book and we’ll split the money.” If it weren’t so maddening it would be funny to see their faces fall with disbelief when I tell them that ideas are literally everywhere and why would a writer need or even want to borrow ideas when there are more around for free than we could ever even make notes on in our lifetime? Let alone that the writing of the book is the work part, not finding an idea or two.

There have been a few, foolish ones who forge ahead and tell me their idea anyway, apparently convinced that once I hear it I will find it so irresistible and wonderful that I will fall all over myself begging to write it. Huh. Usually this idea is either an improbable farrago of wish-fulfillment or a twisted re-hash of some recent television show. Sigh. Unfortunately, there is nothing in any etiquette book about how to handle this situation and stabbing the innocent but tenacious offender with a cocktail pick is frowned upon. (I say that from sad experience…)

See the problem? It’s not that we have to stalk ideas – it’s that ideas stalk us, continually battering at the gates of our mind until we acknowledge their existence, which diffuses our focus. Perhaps a friend of mine said it best : “It’s not the idea; it’s what you do with it.”

What we do with it – writing the story itself – is the important part.

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Not Your Usual Suspect by Paty Jager

gabriel hawke logoThe way my mind, and I would expect most writer’s minds work, if I see a person with something interesting about them, chances are they are going to end up in one of my books.

I like to make my main and secondary characters stand out. Whether it’s their background, their mannerisms, or just the way they look. Study the people around you. No one is exactly like another. Yes, they may have the same color of hair or wear glasses. But if you look close, one may have designer glasses while another has the cheapest brand. And one may have smooth, shiny hair while another has hair that could use some conditioner or even be washed.  Both the glasses and the hair tell you a lot about that character without me saying too much.

That is what I like to do when writing. Give the readers just enough information about a character to then let their imaginations fill in the blanks.

I think if you over describe a character, you are not allowing the reader to fully use their imaginations in “seeing” your story.

Crime SceneIt’s like the scene were six people witness a crime and each one sees something different. I think all readers are the same way. Even if I did give them an exact description of a character, they would still “see” the character in their own way in their mind.

And I like to flip things around. If I see a well-dressed man with a bald head and carrying a brief case that’s normal. But I see he is wearing sneakers- that’s different. I figure out why he is wearing sneakers in my mind, then in my story, it’s a woman in her sixties, in a jacket and skirt, with sneakers and gray hair. She is wearing sneakers because she is finished with her appointments for the day and she is getting ready to walk home.  Maybe…

Now the man may just wear sneakers all the time because he is a CEO of a sporting goods firm, but I gave the spin on the woman and why she is wearing shoes to show some insight into her. She is a person concerned for her health, so she walks. And is wise enough to bring sneakers and confident in herself to be able to wear sneakers with business clothing.

Or- is she grudgingly walking because of her health. Perhaps her doctor told her she had to get more exercise and rather than “waste” time, she found she could walk to and from work faster than driving and that way, she gets her exercise and a few more minutes of work time?  There are so many ways to spin one character and so many ways to falsely show they may be the killer.

I would have to say my favorite part of writing murder mystery books is finding ways to throw the reader off and point a finger or evidence toward an innocent person. Does that make me cruel? Perhaps! But it is what makes writing and reading mystery books so much fun!

Go ahead, pick out a person and study them. How can you use something about them to create a character?

The ancient Indian art of tracking is his greatest strength... And also his biggest weakness.

MURDER OF RAVENS

Arresting his brother-in-law ended his marriage, could solving this murder ruin a friendship? https://www.books2read.com/u/bxZwMP

MOUSE TRAIL ENDS

Dead bodies in the wilderness. A child is missing. Hawke is an expert tracker, but he isn’t the only one looking for the child. https://books2read.com/u/mlYaWB

RATTLESNAKE BROTHER

Corrupt officials. Death to those who dare complain.  (Releasing March 20th)

 

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Poise Versus Panic By Patricia Smith Wood

imageSince I’m a Gemini, I have many “twin” features. Sometimes I’m one side, sometimes I’m the other.

I’ll give you an example. I can often take two different sides of an argument. Not as much as I once could (I think I’m getting set in my ways), but when called upon, I can. That means I can sometimes talk myself “down off the ceiling” when I get upset about something, or am too invested in one outcome over another.

I think most of us would prefer to respond to problems with poise, as opposed to panic, but sometimes, we just don’t pull it off. I’m going to tell you about two women who did.

I belong to the Croak & Dagger New Mexico Chapter of Sisters in Crime. As most chapters do, we have an interesting speaker (or two) at each of our meetings. For our February meeting, our program chair had secured two very interesting women who just happened to also be members of our chapter. One was a medical doctor with lots of emergency room experience, and the other was a Ph.D. in biology who had been a dean at the University of Wisconsin. They would talk to us about poisons—a subject they were both well versed in. They had given the same talk to a large group of writers at a conference in Las Vegas last summer, and they graciously agreed to provide it for us.

Well, naturally, mystery writers are interested in ways to kill people, so we were looking forward to the presentation. The two experts were going to give us a slide show to impart their information. Our intrepid program chair had contacted the officials at our meeting place (a community center) and requested a slide projector and a laptop for the night of the meeting. This was not an unusual request, and we had often asked for and received equipment such as this for a program. Everything was on track.

Until it wasn’t. Our program chair showed up early at the community center and found only a projector set up in the room—not the needed laptop. She immediately contacted the front desk and inquired. She explained she had been promised the equipment would be there, ready for the presentation no later than 6:30. The two young women (volunteers) shrugged. They knew nothing. It wasn’t their job.

I arrived within seconds of these revelations. I’m the membership chair (and immediate past president) of the group. I hadn’t known there would be slide presentation so was surprised at the problem. I called my husband and asked him to bring a laptop to me which we had used a number of times for slide shows. He did. I tried to set it up, there was a problem. Nobody there knew how to fix it, including me.

If you were a presenter, how would you feel right about now? What would you do? Say you’ll do it another time? Throw up your hands and pout? That’s NOT what our two ladies did.

They used their notes (and the laptop screen) to go through their presentation verbally. They took turns, went through the list of most potent poisons and where they come from. They explained the ways in which someone might be introduced to each poison. They answered questions and thoroughly captured their audience. It was a wonderful presentation.

No, we, the audience, did not get to see the slides. I’m sure that would have been wonderful. But that isn’t the point. Some people (and maybe even me) might have lost their cool, thrown a tantrum because the equipment they needed wasn’t available, or walked out and left us without a program. Not these ladies.

They didn’t pout—they were (and are) poised. They behaved like the professionals they are. They showed us all how to react to a minor disaster.

Which is, as it turns out, to do whatever you can to fix it, but if you can’t, do the best you can under the circumstances. I must admit I was inspired as much by the way they handled the situation as I was with the actual presentation. It’s a lesson I hope I don’t soon forget.

When I grow up, I want to be just like those two ladies.

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It Couldn’t Happen Here

By Sally Carpenter

For this post I’m going to forgo fiction for true crime.

Every week, it seems, another city is ravaged by a mass shooting. It’s easy from the security of ones own home to say, “How tragic, but it could never happen here.”

Until it does.

Thousand Oaks, Calif., is a large city about 10 or so miles south of where I live. It’s considered one of the safety cities of its size in the U.S. But on the night of Nov. 7, 2018, T.O. became another sad statistic.

An armed ex-Marine walked into the Borderline Bar and Grill during the monthly College Night when many young adults were relaxing and dancing to live country music. Within minutes, 12 people were shot dead—including a police office who lived in my town—and others wounded. The killer then turned his gun on himself and committed suicide.

Three months later, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I don’t know any of the people present at the bar that night and I wasn’t there, so I can only image the terror as the survivors fled for their lives or helped others to safety. The survivors will no doubt be dealing with raw emotions for the rest of their lives. And the grief of the victims’ families seem unthinkable.

The police have determined no motive for the slaying. A few theories have been suggested, including PTSD, but questions remain: Of all the bars in T.O. that night, why that one? Why that night? What triggered the act? What did the madman hope to accomplish through killing strangers?

The bar remains closed out of respect for the victims, but another local music venue has stepped in to host a weekly Borderline Country Music Night, so the former house bands can continue to perform and the Borderline regulars can still gather in solidarity.

The rest of the community has shown amazing support. A foundation set up a special fund with the monies going directly to the victims’ families. Many groups and individuals have held fundraisers. A jeweler created unique necklaces with the profits going to the special fund. A printer created “T.O. Strong” T-shirts and has been working nonstop for weeks to fulfill orders.

REO Speedwagon was already scheduled for a local January concert, so the band (several of the musicians live in the area) decided to donate the ticket sales to the special fund. Due to audience demand, a second concert was added.

Another benefit concert was held in the large Civic Arts Plaza with a slew of well-known country singers along with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the emcee.

A small church of about 35 members held a special collection for the special fund that resulted in its largest Sunday offering to date. The local megachurch, Calvary Community, opened its doors to host several funerals for the victims, even those who were not church members.

An artist drew pencil sketches of the victims and donated the portraits to the families.  Another artist created a large wall banner with life-size color drawings of the fallen.

I work at a community newspaper, and besides carrying the news coverage, the paper is also running profiles of each victim. The reporter said the families have been happy to talk about their loved one and share their memories with the world.

I don’t have a neat way to wrap up this post, as real life is often messy and many crimes are never solved or resolved, as the pain lingers on long after the police report is filed.

Perhaps that is why we write mysteries. As authors, we have control over good and evil. Writers can punish the wicked and bring them to the justice that often seems lacking in reality. Authors can delve into minds and find the motive. Writers can tie up loose ends and leave readers with the satisfaction that, at least in our story, all will turn out right for the good guys.

Note: in your comments, please do not discuss gun control, mental illness, politics, police efforts or similar subjects. This post is not the place to debate such topics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Something Bigger

My reading encompasses genres besides mystery, especially literary fiction, historical fiction, and nonfiction. Nonfiction educates me, and I’m delighted when the author presents information in a way that makes me want to know more. The same is true of well-researched historical fiction, with the bonus of plot and characters to keep me engaged. After pushing through several highly acclaimed recent literary novels, I had to ask myself why I found them such a struggle to read compared to the classics in the genre or to my other reading. My conclusion: self-absorbed protagonists with no goals beyond their egocentric concerns. In these books, I’ve admired but not enjoyed masterful portraits of unpleasant people and vivid descriptions so alive and detailed I was immersed in the locations with all my senses without ever wanting to be there. Appreciation for writing skill isn’t the same experience as getting wrapped up in a story. When I force my way through one of these frustrating novels, I feel the way I did as a kid eating lima beans. Mom cooked them and they’re supposed to be good for me, but do I have to finish?

The mystery genre appeals to me because the protagonists are involved in something bigger than themselves. The lead characters in mysteries have their personal problems, their relationship challenges, and sometimes their demons, but the pursuit of their goals demands caring and courage, often in spite of those private difficulties.  As a writer, I hope to give my readers the experience of empathy as well as an intriguing setting and the mental exercise of solving the puzzle. After all, that’s what draws me to the series I follow.

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