A Pantser’s Kind of Outline, by Amber Foxx

I sometimes say I don’t outline, but in a way I do—backwards. After I write a chapter, I take notes on the plot progression, including the events that might be clues or might be loose ends. This becomes a clean-up guide as well as a quick review of the story structure when I finish improvising and following my characters where they choose to go. I also note emerging themes and subplots. Later, I use the notes as revision tools. They help me in deciding what to keep, expand, or cut.

Having reached the near-end of my work in progress, the crisis and the partial solution to the mystery, I now have the denouement chapter to write, the one where I tie up the last loose ends. In looking back over my notes, I find about half are tied up. As for the remaining ones, many are so minor I can cut the lines that set them up, while others are significant questions that have to be answered. I’m glad I kept that list. Now I have something bordering an outline in advance for the final chapter, as well as a plan for future cuts and reorganization.

*****

The sale on books one and two in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series will end June 13. Until then, you can still download The Calling free and buy Shaman’s Blues for 99 cents. No murder, just mystery.

Where Do Your Characters Come From?

End of Trail full cover

This question is frequently asked of authors. My answer is “They come from many places.”

My heroine in the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series was inspired by three women: A female resident deputy I interviewed for a newspaper article, a female police officer and single mom who took me on a ride-along and shared a lot about her life, and a native Yokut who grew up on the reservation.

Tempe’s husband is a composite of the many pastors in my life—some are relatives.

Nick Two John’s appearance came another native Yokut. (He read Deadly Omen and called to tell me I got the Pow Wow right but didn’t mention recognizing himself.)

Over the years, I’ve held contests for people to have a character named after themselves. When I do this, the character in the book is always much different than the real person. My friends and now editor, Lorna Collins, won one of the contests, and her namesake has now appeared in three Deputy Crabtree mysteries as a ghost hunter.

Another friend and fan of the series pleaded with me to put her in a book I did, in Raging Water. Because the character has my friend’s looks and personality (as she wanted), I changed her name to Miqui Sherwood. When her friends read the book, they said I described her perfectly. She has since appeared in two more books, including the latest, End of the Trail.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B087SFTC6K/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1588514254&sr=1-1

Over the years I’ve met many interesting people, sometimes I borrow their personality traits to create a character or unusual appearance or way of dressing.

And often the character appears out of my imagination, especially the villains and the victims—though bits and pieces of real people might make up a part of one.

Over the years, I’ve heard of many ways that authors have created their characters, if you are an author, where do your characters come from?

Marilyn

 

 

The Question of the Victim

One of the first ideas that come to me when I begin a novel or short story is the identity of the villain. As soon as the basic scene takes shape, the victim is the first of the characters to gain a sharp outline in my imagination. The villain, among several possibilities, is the last to be identified.

The selection of both victim and villain allow me to explore various questions, but in the beginning I was mostly interested in mastering the form and telling a particular kind of story.

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In the cozy mystery, the victim tends to be “the person we love to hate,” the obnoxious neighbor or underhanded business partner, especially the philandering husband or the domineering departmental supervisor. No one misses them, or is sad to see them go. In my first mystery, Murder in Mellingham, Beth O’Donnell made everyone cringe with her sarcastic and cutting remarks, a bully though diminutive in every other way. With the victim neatly dispatched emotionally for the audience, the reader concentrates on those around her. But as the series progressed I wanted the victim to play a more complicated role.

Kali_Front

Setting a murder mystery in an exotic location (to us, the outsiders) offers new possibilities, and I took the opportunity to present a victim who was admired and mourned. Jean is an American nurse traveling through India on her way to Burma, or Myanmar, with a plan to be smuggled in to work in a clandestine clinic in the jungle. This will be her second trip, and she has come prepared with medicine and equipment. Who would want to kill her and thwart her humanitarian work? In Under the Eye of Kali, Jean disappears and is later found dead. Her openness about her plans seems to suggest smugglers or ordinary thieves could be the culprits. We care more about who the villain is because we care more about Jean.

Below the Tree Line

In the first Pioneer Valley entry, Below the Tree Line, Felicity O’Brien finds a young woman she’s only met once dead in her woods. This is the first of two deaths, neither of which fall into the category of expected victims. The reader has no reason to hate either woman, and the convenient category of the cozy victim has no role here. There can be no ambiguity about the death of either woman, and thus no pleasure in the reader at the elimination of an odious character.

The choice of victim tells the reader several things, but mostly what our own values are as we come to know the character and gradually discern the shape of his or her life. We conveniently agree that the obnoxious victim in the cozy got what he or she deserved; we admire the sleuth who tracks down the killer of a virtuous person risking her life for others; and we agree there can be no justification for killing an innocent person.

Crime fiction or mystery fiction opens for discussion and exploration our basic principles and beliefs. In Modus Operandi, Robin Winks, the late reviewer of and writer about this genre, was eloquent on this point. “Ultimately one reads detective fiction because it involves judgments—judgments made, passed upon, tested. In raising questions about purpose, it raises questions about cause and effect. In the end, like history, such fiction appears to, and occasionally does, decode the environment; appears to and occasionally does tell one what to do; appears to and occasionally does set the record straight. Setting the record straight ought to matter.”

How Cozy Should I Be?

I love cozy mysteries. I love the daring amateur sleuths of all manner of professions, seeking out a killer to free someone or protect someone or whatever. I love getting recipes and craft instructions and knitting patterns and tips on how to brew coffee or plan tea parties or store cheese.

I also sew. I’m big into clothing construction and repair. I’ve been spending most of my weekends on lockdown getting projects done that had been languishing because I almost always had places to go on weekends and was sticking to my writing work during the week. I even blog about it occasionally.

You’d think that given the above, I’d be a natural for writing a cozy about someone who sews a lot. Which I was thinking about as I was working on my latest set of projects the other day. I know a lot about sewing. I’ve got some pretty good tips stacked up. I should totally do this, except for one problem. There’s way too much foul language in my sewing life

You see, naughty words are largely a no-no in the cozy world, and when I’m sewing, the air gets more than a little blue. This is probably because I’m not the best stitcher out there. I mean, I’ve been doing it ever since I took Home Ec in junior high (and still use the pin cushion, pins, and measuring tape I bought when I took the class). But I am pretty impatient and that does not always get the best results. Or the reality that when I get something right, there’s probably something else that goes wrong. Like here.

The other problem is that I don’t have a plot yet. I’ve got a character I’m getting to like, plus some variations on the usual tropes that make nice little twists. But I haven’t got a victim and a really good way to kill him or her, plus a reason for my amateur sleuth to be sticking her nose into police business. These may come. They may not. This is the very, very early stage of the process. And I’ve already got a techno-(I hope) thriller that’s up for getting written next. Then Book Four in the Old Los Angeles series. But, dang. A cozy involving sewing. I could do that.

Why Cozies by Karen Shughart

 

Shughart,Karen-0016_ADJ_5x7 (1)Whew! Haven’t these past several months been surreal? Did you ever think a year ago that your life would change in ways that you probably never could have imagined? Before COVID-19, we expected that there would be ups and downs, but in most cases our daily routines were pretty much the same. And then BOOM! In a period of weeks, we’re wearing masks and gloves, ordering online more frequently, having our groceries delivered or picking them up curbside and enjoying happy hours with our friends, neighbors and family members on Zoom or by standing across the street from each other for a shout-out while we walk our dogs. That is, for those of us who have stayed healthy.

So, what does this have to do with the title of this blog? Plenty. I did a search on Google to see if I could find the definition of a Cozy mystery and this is what I found:

“(A) Cozy mystery is the gentlest subset of the broad genre of crime writing. As its name suggests, it’s a comfort read that leaves you satisfied and at one with the world, rather than scared to sleep alone with the lights out.” Source: Debbie Young, Cozy author and blogger http://www.authordebbieyoung.com/

“Cozies are a subgenre of crime ficiton in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.” Source: Wikipedia

“The small size of the setting makes it believable that all suspects know each other. The sleuth is usually a very likeable person who encourage(s) community members to talk freely about each other. There is usually at least one knowledgeable, nosy (and of course, … reliable!) character in the book who is able to fill in all the blanks, thus enabling the sleuth to solve the case.” Source:  Cozy Mystery List.

I’m not sure about you, but for me the global pandemic and its consequences have been a bit unnerving, to say the least. Don’t get me wrong, I count my blessings and have a lot to be thankful for. But could any of us have imagined that when we turned on the TV, the news would almost completely be about a virus that was infecting and killing masses of people? That schools, non-essential businesses, cultural and sports venues would be closed? The world changed in an instant and we had to adapt to it without any time to prepare.MurderintheCemeteryfrontlarge - Copy

So, getting back to the title of the blog: Why Cozies? While this hiatus may have encouraged some of  us to take an online class or catch up on the classics, stimulating non-fiction or that documentary we’ve always planned to watch; truth be told, many of us want to be transported to a time, place and setting where we can escape for a while and read a great story with lots of twists, turns and sometimes surprise endings. In short, something fun. Cozy mysteries can provide just that. And what’s wrong with sitting by the fire or on your front porch, cup of tea in hand, whiling away the hours being transported to a place where you know the horrors of our world won’t encroach?

 

Guest Author Terri Reid

The origin of my main character – Mary O’Reilly

Gold leaves floated down from tall branches and then rushed with the wind across the concrete pavement of the playground only to be caught against the brick walls of the school. Children laughed and ran, along with the leaves, playing on equipment that would be considered criminally neglectful today.

In a corner of the schoolyard, with leaves swirling around their Mary-Jane shod feet, the young girls stood together, discussing the upcoming weekend. Dressed in the plaid uniforms of their Catholic School, one might think the conversation would have inklings of piety or, given their age, perhaps it centered on the cutest boys in class. But no, their conversation was much darker and more daring.

“You have to stand under the oak tree, leaning against it’s trunk.”

“And you have to have a rosary around your neck, not just a necklace.”

“Then you have to repeat three times, the words ‘I believe in Mary Worth.”

“The…then…what happens?

“She climbs down the trunk of the tree, grabs hold of the rosary, and tries to choke you to death.”

“To death?”

“Or she scratches your eyes out with her long, dead fingernails.”

“Dead fingernails?”

“You need to try it, on Friday night. It always works best on Friday night.”

This is where Mary O’Reilly was born, although I didn’t realize it at the time. My Irish-Catholic upbringing filled with stories of ghosts and ghouls fed the storyteller that was in my DNA. The stories weren’t only shared on the playground, they were told by parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. Hearing ghost stories, especially true stories that people had actually experienced themselves, created a delicious terror that could not be duplicated by any other event. Then having a ghostly experience of my own gave me a clearer insight of not only the paranormal, but how people react when you admit you have seen a ghost.

My main character, Mary O’Reilly, was a fourth-generation Chicago police officer. One night, during a drug bust, a dealer darted out of a derelict apartment building. His eyes and his gun were trained on Sean, Mary’s oldest brother. She didn’t even think about her reaction. She stepped between her brother and the bullet. Then everything went dark.

The next thing she remembered was floating above the hospital room where the nurses and surgeons were working on her broken body. Then above the Waiting Room where she saw her parents and her brothers pacing, their faces drawn and pale. Finally, she drifted up to a place that felt peaceful and safe.

“Mary, you have to make a choice now,” the deep, gentle voice echoed in her head.

“You can continue on to the light,” he continued. “Or you can return to be with your family for a time. But if you choose to return, your life will be different. Things will have changed.”

She thought about her family, remembered the look on their faces, and made up her mind immediately.

“I chose to go back,” she replied.

When Mary recovered, she discovered the change was a little more than she bargained for. Mary now could see and talk to ghosts.

Mary’s character is smart, brave, athletic, and compassionate. She is loyal and she has a tender heart. She has learned that a ghost is only a person who happens to be dead. And, as she works with the dead to solve their mysteries, she has learned one compelling truth: often the true monsters are the living.

Loose Ends

Dying is what changed Mary O’Reilly’s life. 

As a fourth generation Chicago cop, she knew the risks of the job and stepping between another cop and a drug dealer’s bullet was just something you did.  She would have done it even if the cop hadn’t been her older brother.  Rushed into surgery; Mary flat-lined.  She actually saw it, because she was watching from the ceiling of the room.  She floated pass her family in the waiting room, looking worried and much, much older.  And then she started her walk towards the light.  She was nearly there when she heard a voice call her by name and give her a choice.  Continue on or go back.  But if she went back things would be different. Boy, was that an understatement.

Now, a private investigator in a small town, Mary’s trying to learn how to incorporate her experience as a cop and new-found talent of seeing and communicating with ghosts into a real job. Her challenge is to solve the mysteries, get real evidence (a ghost’s word just doesn’t hold up in court), and be sure the folks in town, especially the handsome police chief, doesn’t think she’s nuts.

Twenty-four years ago, a young woman drowned in the swimming pool of a newly elected State Senator.  It was ruled an accident.  But now, as the Senator prepares to move on to higher positions, the ghost of the woman is appearing to the Senator’s wife. 

Mary is hired to discover the truth behind the death. She unearths a connection between the murder and the disappearance of five little girls whose cases, twenty-four years later, are still all unsolved.  As she digs further, she becomes the next target for the serial killer’s quest to tie up all his loose ends.

Buy Link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B003Y5H8IK

Terri Reid is the author of the Mary O’Reilly Paranormal Mysteries. An independent author, Reid uploaded her first book “Loose Ends – A Mary O’Reilly Paranormal Mystery” in August 2010. By the end of 2013, “Loose Ends” had sold over 200,000 copies and, has consistently ranked as one of the top selling books in its genre. This year she celebrates the 10th Anniversary of Loose Ends.

She has nineteen other books in the Mary O’Reilly Series and several other series including The Willoughby Witches, The Blackwood Files, The Order of Brigid’s Cross, and The Legend of the Horsemen.

Reid has enjoyed Top Rated and Hot New Release status in the Women Sleuths and Paranormal Romance category through Amazon US. Her books have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese and German and are also available in print and audio versions.

Reid has been quoted in a number of books about the self-publishing industry including “Let’s Get Digital” by David Gaughran and “Interviews with Indie Authors: Top Tips from Successful Self-Published Authors” by Claire and Tim Ridgway.

She was the keynote speaker for Book ‘Em North Carolina Writers Conference and Book Fair in Lumberton, N.C., a guest presenter at Love Is Murder in Chicago, a guest lecturer at a number of universities in Illinois, and has been the opening speaker for the Illinois Paranormal Conference.

Reid lives in northwest Illinois near Freeport, Illinois, the setting of the Mary O’Reilly series.  She writes a weekly blog called Freaky Friday through her website at www.terrireid.com and can be reached at author@terrireid.com.

Where? When?

by Janis Patterson

It is one of the so-called pieces of wisdom in mystery-land the body should appear as quickly as possible, just as in some parts of romance-land the hero and heroine have sex almost immediately after they meet. I’ve even read some stories where they end up in bed before they’ve been introduced!

Haven’t these writers ever heard the phrase “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey”?

This isn’t a new rant of mine – you’ve probably heard it in one form or another before, but I believe it bears repeating, especially in mystery-land. Murder is a terrible crime. It permanently alters everyone even remotely touched by it. It should not be treated as an hors d’oeuvre.

Back when I was traditionally publishing I allowed the house editor to convince me (convince, as in “We won’t publish your book if you don’t!”) to bring on the body as early as possible in the first chapter. I wanted to be published by this particular house, so always an over-achiever I put the discovery of the body on the second page, and it was a grand disservice both to the poor thing and to the story. The victim had no history, no backstory, no personality, and there was no emotion, no sense of loss in his passing. In other words, he was nothing but a stage prop. (“Hey, Fred, put the body down stage left!”) Even a villain – which he was – deserves a more fitting end than that.

Of course, we had learned something about him by the end of the book because to solve a murder you must know why someone would want to kill him, but it was dry and anticlimactic – nothing but tags that eventually pointed the way to his killer.

I am a whole-story kind of person. I believe that to feel the kind of outrage that murder should engender we have to know the people involved in the tale so that when there is a murder we feel a sense of loss, of outrage (even if the character deserved his ignominious and premature death) and a sense of satisfaction when the murderer is finally run to earth and justice is served.

Not everyone agrees with me. I have been severely dinged and chastised for having the murder occur close to the middle of one of my mysteries. It’s a good story, it has a large cast of characters (three of whom are killed) and it is a complex story, with the solution inextricably interwoven with the dynamics among the characters. But apparently that’s not fast enough to be acceptable for some readers. Neither, I hasten to add, was the setting – a scholarly Egyptological conference without a tea shop, a B&B or knitting store in sight. One correspondent was particularly incensed that the entire conference did not shut down in order to bring the murderer to justice. I don’t understand that; yes, everyone is somehow altered when murder enters their sphere, but unless they are close to the crime or the victim few change their entire focus. Most of us would probably cling desperately to what is normal in an effort to bring stability back – unless, of course, the murder affects them personally, which changes everything.

As I’ve said before, murder is an horrific crime. Both it and its victim need to be treated with a certain respect and dignity. To cheapen death is to cheapen life.