Stories that got away & the Second Hook

My drafts tend to start out with a smart-alecky tone that slowly gets less and less so as I write. It is a mental exercise that helps me warm up to my characters. I’m used to that. What I’m not used to is a character who wants to stay funny. I’m several chapters into a book featuring a young clothing designer who wakes up in an alfalfa field after a convention ‘meet and greet’ in Kingston, Ontario. What’s written is a hoot. And there it sits. Waiting for inspiration, a different plot, another alfalfa field? Or maybe it was just a bad idea, after all one of the protagonists broke free to take on a key role in Booth Island.

Ever since I gobbled up Max Brand (The Gentle Gunman and . . .) and Alan LeMay (The Unforgiven and . . .) westerns, I have wanted to write a western. A dinner with Louis L’Amour at the Top of the Mark in San Francisco further fueled the fire. In those days, I was very up on the sheep wars and Billy the Kid so L’Amour and I had a great chat, during which he shared that Sam Elliot and Tom Selleck exemplified the characters in his books. If you haven’t read Hondo (also a great John Wayne movie) or Conagher do, they’ll hook you. As for my brilliant career writing a western mystery/thriller, it may still happen via one of the protagonists in my upcoming Wanee series.

Just like I still want to place Laury Cooper (Cooper Quartet) in Nîmes, France in 1970 and see what happens next. It would be weird though, since it would make the Quartet a Quintet and fill in a gap in the early years of the series. But still . . . what’s stopping me, read on.

A few years ago, I planned a mystery/thriller series that followed a farm woman sent from the East to marry a cousin living on an Illinois farm. I had the plot hook for ten books, beginning in 1850 through 1870s, the research started and had a line on the rest. I knew the farm, the crops and stock, and the land because it was based on the farm my father’s family settled. I loaded my research and notes to my OneDrive, put my hands over the keys of a blank screen and nothing. Why?

I’m not sure, but I suspect as Margaret Lucke (House of Desire) pointed out in a recent conversation, I needed a second hook to set the tale in motion. With the hook set, the characters feel free to inform themselves and whisper their stories in my ear until their words flow onto the computer screen.

Cover in waiting

As it turns out, like the protagonist from the alfalfa field, my farm woman migrated herself to Wanee, a fictious small northwestern Illinois town, set the first plot in 1876, and named herself Cora. Her brother Jess lives on the farm she was supposed to inhabit. When the series begins, nineteen-year-old Cora’s thieving mother deserts her, saddling Cora with debt and a boarding house with one boarder. Cora, who dreams of the single life of adventure and mystery, struggles to pay off her mother’s debts in a village troubled by post-Civil War growth while dreaming her dream of escape.

Cora’s story starts in Unbecoming a Lady, the first Wanee mystery, out soonish. The second book A Convergence of Enemies will follow next year. And Cora is currently whispering her third adventure to me nightly with help from a few Wanee friends, that’s what a second hook (in this case a disappearing mother and a restless town – is that two hooks?) can do.

Now Calypso and Grieg from Saving Calypso have something in mind, but they await a hook, I told them that and they both gave me that look. Sometimes stories don’t get away, they just wait for that second hook. And sometimes they do and should.

All books are available on Amazon, except Unbecoming a Lady. Find me at my website dzchurch.com and sign up for my shared newsletter there, too, or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mysteryhistorysuspense.

BACK IN THE GROOVE—SORT OF

Attending the PSWA Annual Conference was wonderful. So rewarding to see old friends and make some new ones—plus talk writing and hear speakers and panels on various writing topics.

I need to write another—and the last—Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery. Tempe is retired now and I’m ready to let her enjoy her retirement. Though I’ve had a request to put one of the ongoing characters in, one who is based on a real person and would like to see something specific happen with the character, that’s all I had. (I thought End of the Trail would be the last and then The Trash Harem had to be written. Now I need to send Tempe off with one last adventure.

In my newsletter, I asked my readers for ideas and did the same on Facebook. More ideas, but nothing that appealed.

While I was at the conference I some thoughts about what might be good in this final visit with Tempe started to pop into my brain. I even thought of a good beginning. No, I haven’t written anything down yet as I’ve had too many other things to do. When you come home from being gone six days duties pile-up: unpacking, laundry, and all the mail.

Frankly, I’ll be glad to actually be in the writing groove again, it’s been far too long. In the past, I’ve managed to write and publish two books a year. Nothing so far this year.

I’ll start like always, jotting notes down. Eventually getting to who turns up dead—where, and all those who might have wanted the victim dead. Naming and writing all the new character descriptions often comes next. Usually while I’m doing it, plot ideas will come tumbling unbidden but quite welcome.

Because I have other work I do for folks, sometimes it takes a while to get started on a new book. I am hoping for the best. I really, really want to get back to writing.

Marilyn

Discovering the Story

This post is both an apology and a discovery. I went off this morning thinking I had attended to everything that needed attending to, and then came home to realize I was wrong. So, late but here is my post along with my apologies.

When I began working on the Anita Ray mystery series I knew there would be a wedding in the story arc, and I assumed I knew who the bride would be. After two entries in the series I zeroed in on the prospective bridegroom. But after another two novels I found I was wrong. The character who was the obvious candidate wasn’t all that obvious anymore for reasons not known at first. I don’t want to give away what happened to him, but he lived to appear in a later story.

I continued with the fifth book in the series, In Sita’s Shadow. Each mystery is named for an Indian deity whose temperament matches one aspect of the story. Sita is the wife of Lord Rama, and is considered the quintessential wife, the spouse deified, her perfection unmatched in this world or any other. 

The choice of this figure for the title was meant to underscore the character of one of the main figures in the plot, but then the story got out of hand, and all of a sudden I had a love story in my lap.

Many Indian weddings, if not most, are still traditional, which means they can take hours. Every step in the ritual must be exact—the roles of the relatives are strictly prescribed, the recitations must be exact (no stumbling over the lines), and the families must meet all the requirements.

I thought it would be fun to write about a traditional Malayali wedding adapted to modern requirements, and it was. The first ritual is the presentation of the dowry. Among the Nayars in Kerala, the groom is required to provide the dowry; his “gifts” must be exactly what was agreed to. The gifts are inspected by the father of the bride and his agent before the ritual can begin. There’s something about watching two men with their agents calculating the pile of gold sovereigns, jewelry, saris with gold borders, and keys to cars or motorcycles, and more.

The guests watch it all. Women sit on one side of the room, men on the other, and we check out what the groom provided. I once made the mistake of saying, “So is that what the groom offered to give?” And the father of the bridge pounced and said, “Must give!” He was adamant, even fierce. Marriage is serious business in India.

The wedding in In Sita’s Shadow is adapted to the needs of a Westerner and an Indian woman, and figuring out how this would work required creativity as well as consulting with an anthropologist, but we figured it out, and it’s now one of my favorite scenes of all I’ve written about India. Auntie Meena, originally a skeptic of this relationship and the marriage rites between them, is won over. I hope the readers will be too.

Coming in August, In Sita’s Shadow: An Anita Ray Mystery.

Be There – Using ALL the Senses in Writing

Writers often hear “write what you know.” I have found that to be bad advice for many experts, as you’d be amazed how many knowledgeable people simply cannot explain their expertise to us common folk, so they need a translator, in the form of a ghost writer or a developmental editor. I’ve worked as both. But I digress.

Most of us fiction authors cannot experience everything that we write about. God forbid that we actually embezzle funds, dump toxic waste, set fires, or kidnap, torture, or murder people. We must rely on our imaginations or on accounts documented by others for all those crimes. But I do think it’s important to include sensory details from real experiences whenever possible.

So, when I’m out hiking, I’m always trying to truly experience everything as much as possible so I’ll remember the details when I write my Sam Westin mysteries. I would never wear earphones because I want to plug into my memory bank a wide variety of natural sounds: the low whoop-whoop-whoop mating call of a blue grouse, the groan of tree branches rubbing against each other, the roar of a waterfall, the crunching of my snowshoes on icy snow, the rumble of a distant rockfall. Scents are important, too: I inhale into my memory the grape-juice odor of blooming lupines in hot sun, the tang of broken pine needles, the whiff of smoke from a forest fire on the other side of a mountain range.

Touch is usually the most noticeable sense for me when I’m on a trail: I notice the razor-sharp edge of broken granite as I slice my leg on a rock, the stickiness of tree sap or the dampness of moss on my pants from the last place I sat down, the feel of a breeze drying the sweat on my back in summer, the sting of wind-driven sleet against my bare face in winter, the annoying bite of a blackfly in spring. In the Pacific Northwest, we often even have tastes along the trails: the tartness of salmonberries, the sweetness of huckleberries, the numbing taste of licorice ferns, the crunch of fiddlehead ferns.

And of course, sights are absolutely crucial: the myriad greens of a dense forest, the contrast of gray granite against snow, the awesome grandeur of a volcano, the terrifying crevasses in a glacier, the miracle of simply viewing the ocean or the sea of mountains that is the North Cascades. I try to be equally present, a sort of sensory sponge, when I’m kayaking or scuba diving, soaking up all the sensations the experience has to offer, because details can help readers experience the world a writer creates with words.

I’ve attended the Writers Police Academy twice. It’s an incredible experience, where mystery writers undergo some of the same training that police officers or forensics specialists or firefighters receive. I’ve learned about the difficulties of getting and matching fingerprints (fascinating), studied cases to distinguish suicides and accidental deaths from homicides (often harder than you might think), studied blood spatter (gruesome), learned how to clear a building in which an armed suspect was hiding (incredibly stressful), and shot an assault rifle (absolutely terrifying), just to name a few memorable sessions.

Seeing the wall on the US-Mexican border was an experience I’ll never forget, either, and learning from all sides about its impact on the environment and cultures was invaluable. I’ve been there twice. I absorbed so much that I got a whole book, Borderland, from the brief time I was there.

When I sit down to write a new book, I try to incorporate as many sensory details from my experiences as possible.

My next Sam Westin mystery, Cascade, includes a wolverine, an avalanche, and a collapsed building. I’ve never seen a wolverine except in a zoo, so I had to collect that information from books and articles. The book will be out in late August or early September. I’d still like to think a wolverine will appear somewhere in my future, in real life.

I’ve never been in an avalanche (thank heavens), but I’ve seen a few, and I’ve been through avalanche training. I do know what it feels like to fall through a snow bridge (only a couple of feet in my case, again thank heavens) and I’ve been caught in a whiteout in the mountains when the snow is so thick that you can’t distinguish up from down until you fall. And at the Writers Police Academy, I crawled through a simulated collapsed building in the dark. It’s more difficult and more painful than I imagined, but (yes, I’m still thankful) I didn’t have the danger of tons of debris looming above me, as many victims or first responders might in real-life situations.

I encourage everyone to do as much of what interests them as is possible. Even a frightening experience is enriching. I’m grateful that I’ve had a wide variety of memorable experiences to help with my writing, and I hope to have many more.

To Prologue or Not to Prologue (#2) by Karen Shughart

I promise this isn’t a duplication of Paty Jager’s blog from last Monday. Paty and I frequently seem to be on the same page when choosing topics for our monthly blogs, and when I read her title, I was terrified that my extremely rough draft had somehow made it’s way into scheduling instead of her very well-written and polished one. Fortunately, my fears were allayed when I saw her name as the author. Whew! And while our titles are the same, we’ve written from our own points of view.

Each of the books in my Edmund DeCleryk Cozy mysteries has an historical backstory that’s related to the crime and provides clues to why the murder was committed. In book one, Murder in the Museum, the prologue introduced a character whose journal, written in 1845, was discovered at an archeological dig in Toronto, Canada. The prologue in book two, Murder in the Cemetery, ties the crime to a battle that occurred in Lighthouse Cove, NY during the War of 1812.

My creative juices really started flowing in book two, and I played around with writing two prologues: the first as described above; the other to introduce the setting, the month of May. You’ll have to read the book to learn why that’s important. My dilemma was which to keep and which to discard. I realized I was emotionally attached to both, so decided to get my publisher’s advice-few books are written with two prologues. Her quick response: “go for it,” and I did.

I’m heading down the home stretch with book three, Murder at Freedom Hill. Yet again, I’ve written two prologues: the first, the historical backstory – it takes place in 1859 in Lighthouse Cove during the abolition movement, when fleeing slaves boarded a schooner to transport them across Lake Ontario to Canada. The second is set in November, the month when the harvest is over, and the chill and frost of winter lurk just around the corner.  

What I love about writing this series is that I don’t have to follow all the rules. It doesn’t mean I am undisciplined; I certainly know how to craft a story from beginning to end, but I enjoy taking liberties with commonly accepted writing practices when it makes sense.

It’s up to us mystery writers to decide how our stories will be written. Some begin with the murder; others lead up to it, it can go either way. It’s the same for prologues. Sometimes a book needs no prologue, but at other times a prologue can set the scene and enhance the plot. And at times, two prologues are even better.