Favorite First Lines

Favorite First Lines

 “I was trying to remember if I’d ever been blindfolded before.

I didn’t think I had been, but the cloth on my eyes felt vaguely familiar, almost nostalgic. I couldn’t imagine why. The only images I could connect with blindfolds were kidnappings.”                      J. Michael Orenduff, The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein

“Nearly thirteen thousand summers have passed since that splendid morning when the first human footprints appeared between these towering canyon walls. But in all the years since that singular event, not one good thing has happened here. This being the case, hardly anyone visits this remote and dreadful place—though the rare exception is worthy of mention.  Consider Jacob Gourd Rattle.”                     James D. Doss, The Witch’s Tongue

An effective opening says something that makes the reader sit up and pay attention. It’s not a warm-up, but the beginning of something. Something that sets the tone of the book and makes the reader curious or empathic or otherwise immediately engaged. Usually—though not always—it leads into the event that triggers the main plot.

I like the two I quoted above because both give the reader a strong sense of the voice and mood of the book. In the Orenduff example, the narrator reveals his personality, his sense of humor, and his ability to stay cool in bizarre situations. And of course, it raises the question: Why is he blindfolded? The reader is caught up right away, and I think it would hook newcomers to the series who are not yet acquainted with pot thief Hubie Schuze. They don’t need to know his name yet, or what he looks like, or that he’s in Albuquerque. That can come later, once they are pulled into the events.

The example from Doss sets a different tone. His omniscient narrator sees a big-picture view, hinting at something supernatural or evil, and yet doing so with a touch of humor. You can almost hear some Southwestern old-timer spinning a spooky tall tale. The lines create a sense of mystery about the canyon itself and the events—none of them good—that have happened there. And of course, the reader has to wonder who is Jacob Gourd Rattle is and what he’s doing in this cursed or haunted place.

Peter Heller’s novel, The Painter, begins with an equally powerful but entirely different type of hook.

“I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea. As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be. I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.”

This is backstory and introspection, a risky way to start a book, and one that seldom works. So why is it effective here? For me, it’s the juxtaposition of the startling first line with the narrator’s other unexpected life turns. Art and fatherhood suggest peace, nurturing, and creativity; shooting someone clashes with that image. Then, his compulsion to paint and his ability to vanish into his work suggest he is a passionate man who has things he’d like to forget. The interiority of this passage lets the reader know that this book will be as much about the protagonist’s inner arc as about the dark suspense that drives the plot.

I began Soul Loss, the fourth Mae Martin mystery, this way:

“The full moon was the only glitch in the plan. Too much visibility against the desert and the lake. He’d have to wait ’til he was sure the other campers were sleeping.

“Jamie stared down the slope from his tent to the shore. Depression grabbed him like a weighted net. He’d felt lighter after making the decision, but now the delay dragged him back down.”

Newcomers to the series may wonder who he is and why he’s on the verge of some desperate act. Readers who have been following the series know him and his history, and I meant to alarm them, to make them want to reach into the story and stop him.

Though I’m satisfied with my own first lines, I’m inspired to aim for even stronger ones in the future.  I have an opening line I love in book seven (as yet untitled and unfinished). I’ll have to move it from the beginning of chapter three to the beginning of the book, rearranging the chapters, but it might be worth the work.

What are your favorite openings and why?

Series- Keeping it Interesting by Paty Jager

paty shadow (1)I don’t know how you feel about reading mystery series but I love reading and writing them. Following a character on their journey through life, murders, and mayhem is fun. They have personal triumphs and failures, that the reader who has become a part of that character’s world can cheer and cry over.

Some of my favorite characters and series to read over the years have been Mrs. Polifax by Dorothy Gilman, Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Mysteries with Joe Leaphorn,  Leighann Dobbs, Blackmore Sisters, Marilyn Meredith’s Tempe Crabtree and J.L. Simpsons’s Daisy Dunlop. I enjoy meeting back up with them in each book and seeing what mayhem they get into.

I like writing series because I can continue relationships, make new relationship, and have a cast of characters I know and can take on adventures. Whether they are the main characters, Shandra Higheagle and Ryan Greer of if they are the quirky, endearing, and annoying secondary characters, like Crazy Lil, Sheba the dog, Ryan’s nosy family,  or the cast of characters who live in Huckleberry.

The murdered person and the murder suspects are usually new characters, which means I have to discover all I can about them before I start writing the books. But that is one of the best parts about a mystery, discovering how to make characters connect and have motives for the murder that happened.

I’ve never thought of myself as analytical or a puzzle solver but I love piecing the story together to have my sleuths think it’s one person only to discover it could be someone else. Keeping my sleuths guessing, I hope also keeps  the readers guessing.

I just released the fourth book on my Shandra Higheagle mystery series- Murderous Secrets. This book has Shandra delving into her father’s death. She’d always been told it was a rodeo accident, but as her grandmother continues to come to her in dreams, she begins to feel it wasn’t an accident and searches for the truth.

A bonus about this book, the timing couldn’t have been better, because it happens in December and ends on Christmas Eve.

Murderous SecretsMurderous Secrets

Jealousy…Deception…Murder

The accident that took her father’s life has always haunted Shandra Higheagle. When her dreams become too real, she knows it’s time to discover the truth. It doesn’t take long to suspect her father had been murdered and that someone is unhappy with her probing.

Detective Ryan Greer knows Shandra well enough to insist he be kept informed of her investigation into the decades old death of her father. When signs implicate her mother, he can’t withhold the information, even though he realizes it could complicate their relationship.

Buy Links:

AmazonNook –  KoboWindtree Press

Award-winning author Paty Jager and her husband raise alfalfa hay in rural eastern Oregon. On her road to publication she wrote freelance articles for two local newspapers and enjoyed her job with the County Extension service as a 4-H Program Assistant. Raising hay and cattle, riding horses, and battling rattlesnakes, she not only writes the western lifestyle, she lives it.

All her work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters. Her penchant for research takes her on side trips that eventually turn into yet another story.

You can learn more about Paty at

her blog; Writing into the Sunset

her website; http://www.patyjager.net

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/pages/Paty-Jager/132536633482029

Newsletter: Paty’s Prattle: http://eepurl.com/1CFgX

Paty’s Posse: https://www.facebook.com/groups/402519373168442/?ref=bookmarks

Goodreads http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1005334.Paty_Jager

twitter @patyjag.

Mystical Mysteries

Mystical Mysteries

If I could channel the spirit of any author to mentor me, it would be the late James D. Doss of Los Alamos, New Mexico. I discovered him through a review in New Mexico Magazine and read all seventeen of his Charlie Moon mysteries, some of them more than once, and I know I’ll read the whole series again. Though I don’t attempt to write like Doss—no one else could—he influenced me greatly as a writer of unconventional and mystical mysteries, where the ordinary and the spiritual meet.

Here’s a short list of the things I love about Doss’s books:

  • Characters. Complex and eccentric, they surprise the reader. I love the ongoing characters and the unique, colorful people introduced in each of the books. My favorite one-book character is six-year-old Butter Flye in The Night Visitor. Doss wrote child characters with unsentimental realism. Butter is tough and strange and yet likeable, and I have never laughed louder or longer reading any book, let alone a mystery, than I did when I read the encounter between Charlie’s irascible aunt, the shaman Daisy Perika, and Butter in the back seat of a truck.
  • Spirituality. The visionary experiences that Daisy and her ward Sarah Frank have are written in a way that makes me feel as if I’ve taken the shaman’s journey with them. The spirit world is integrated seamlessly with earthy realism and humor that says Doss understood this aspect of Indian culture: the sacred and the comic are not opposite or incompatible. He mixed Catholic mysticism into the books as well with beauty and sensitivity, another Southwest truth. Many people adhere to both Native religions and Catholicism at the same time. My favorite character for expressing that unique blend of spiritual worldviews is Nahum Yacitii, the old Ute shepherd who apparently ascended to heaven in a windstorm and comes back to visit the few who can see him.
  • Language. I read a Doss book and I am in the place. When he takes us for walk in the Canyon of the Spirits with Daisy, I hear every step and smell and feel the air. Even the description of the nervous, jerky second hand of a ticking clock is a marvel of observation that sets the mood of a scene perfectly. (I leave you to find this treasure, also in The Night Visitor.)
  • Mastery of the omniscient narrator. Most writers can’t pull this off, but Doss could show the thoughts of every character in a scene without causing the slightest confusion or disorientation in the reader, often to humorous effect. He could even use the point of view of an animal—a bird, a deer, or a prairie dog—as the only witness to an event, and make it work.
  • Hanging out with the guys. Doss wrote real, not hyper-masculine, male characters. Charlie often fails to understand the women around him, but he does it so sincerely I like him for it. The friendship and repartee between Charlie and Scott give me a sense of hanging out with the guys in a way a woman doesn’t often get a chance to in real life, even when some of her best friends are men.
  • Humor. I get a kick out tall tales Charlie Moon tells just for the fun of it, pulling people’s legs. While the essence of each book is serious, dealing with life and death and love, there is a layer of humor as well, coming from the genuine interactions between characters and from their various eccentricities. Daisy is a spiritual visionary and also a quirky, cranky old lady.

Doss resolved the tangles of Charlie’s love life finally in the last book. I wonder if there were more books in his mind when he left this world, though. Daisy was the oldest living member of the Southern Ute tribe, and Sarah Frank, a young adult by the end of the series, was trained—somewhat—as Daisy’s shaman’s apprentice. Was Sarah destined to inherit all the spirits in the canyon, and the ancient little spirit-man living in a badger hole, the pitukupf? I’ll never know. It’s the sign of a good series, though—I still think about it. The characters live on.

This is revised from a tribute to Doss originally posted on http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com.