As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.
Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES
Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?
Not that I’m complaining with this particular prologue. Clare Mackintosh’s The Last Partycontains beautiful setting details that could easily be the stuff of prose poetry. The third-person omniscient narrator allows for easy movement through the occasional mutterings of different village characters before the main event: the annual New Year’s Day dive into a lake along the Welsh/English border. Only this year, these villagers are joined by a dead body.
The prologue is long enough that it took me to the end of the episode, and yes, I admit to being a bit silly this time with my movie trailer voice. 🙂 The premise here just reminded me of too many trope movies–the “cop who doesn’t play by the rules,” the “outsider who must become a hero,” and so on. This time, we have “the victim who wanted everyone dead and everyone is a suspect.” Goodness, the dust jacket itself says, “With a lie uncovered at every turn” and “In a village with this many secrets…” It feels a touch absurd with such descriptions, but you know what? Action schlock with those anti-rule cop buddies are still fun. Fantasies that always count on that reluctant hero are still fun. So I bet this mystery with a town full of Edward Gorey-esque suspicious people will be fun, too.
Welcome back my fellow creatives! In the midst of surviving Midwestern snow, rain, more snow, more rain, and a single epic sledding trip–
–my family and I find warm solace in rereading old favorites.
Bo explores his biographies of the Marx Brothers. Bash marches to battle in his Transformer books. Biff dissects the data of every Federation ship in his Star Trek encyclopedia. Blondie explores the Wings of Fire series yet again, pausing at various pages to create her own illustrations of the story.
Me? I returned to Longbourn.
“Why there, Jean?” you may ask. “Why not a Poirot or Howl or some other such series?”
Good question! First, Bo and I are already enjoying Poirot mysteries via the boxed set of television adaptations he got me for Christmas. It’s as much fun to watch David Suchet and Company bring these stories to life as it is to watch Bo enjoy them. Even my three B’s have started to pay attention. “Why hasn’t anyone died yet? Hastings is silly. Woah, the police are using phones. Wait, that’s radio? WHAT?”
As for Diana Wynne Jones, I’ve a goal to finish a series I started looooong ago for some critical reading here: The Dalemark Quartet. This actually also ties to rereading Pride and Prejudice, for both are influences of my lost-in-development-hell Shield Maidens series.
Lastly, I had come across a really cool YouTuber named Dr. Octavia Cox who does close reading of classic literature, and her analyses of Pride and Prejudice made me realize just much one can uncover when one sloooowly moves through the words.
So, let’s focus today on why rereading those old favorites can do a writer–and reader–some good.
Comfort food for the imagination. When reality is cold and bleak, why not escape to a time and place we love? Of course, trying new things is important, but just as we enjoy those warm, delectable comfort foods, so does our imagination enjoy a return to the familiar. We experience those favorite lines, interactions, and settings with fresh appreciation each time, even to the point where we must read them aloud to others. Bash is an avid fan of this–if a Transformer has made him laugh yet again, he’ll read through the whole scene to Biff and Blondie who then, of course, must read the entire story for themselves. When one person loves a story, one never seeks to hide it! As a writer, those returns can be a marvelous benefit to us as we develop our storytelling skills, too.
Worldbuilding. Because we “know what’s coming” in the story, we can pay more attention to all the periphery details and how those enrich the overall setting. Rereading Howl’s Moving Castle, for instance, helps a reader better see how everyday magic utilized by sailors, bakers, and even hatters in Sophie’s life. Rereading the lives of the Marx Brothers–or rewatching Poirot–reveals the surprising pieces of 1930s life that can easily be forgotten. Rereading Wings of Fire helps Blondie catch specific aspects of dragon culture depending on where those dragons come from. In this reread of Pride and Prejudice, I paid closer attention to second and third-string characters, like the Lucas family, so I could better understand life in the Regency period.
The more we study those social gatherings, the more we understand how important they were for folks to meet anyone potentially suitable for marriage; how a female’s talents in entertainment could lift her up in the eyes of the community, and how many dance steps you had to memorize (oh my GOODNESS I would have failed miserably in that period). One may gasp with Elizabeth when Charlotte accepts the simpering Mr. Collins’ proposal, but when one reads closely, one catches that Charlotte is 27 years old–on the far end of the spectrum when folks were expected to marry. Add the size of Charlotte’s large family and small fortune to the mix, and readers have a clearer understanding of the period’s pressures upon a single young woman.
[Charlotte’s] reflections were satisfactory. Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. –Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.
Is it any wonder Mrs. Bennet was cheesed off at Elizabeth turning Mr. Collins down? In that time and place, such a life was a young woman’s best option. We as modern readers may not understand that at first, but the more we reread and revisit the setting of the story, the more we learn.
Foreshadowing. It can be so, so hard to catch the clues dropped early, can’t it? We are caught up in the current moment, eagerly anticipating the next exchange or event that alters the storyline’s progression. That was me with a lot of tales, whether they were mysteries like The ABC Murders or fantasy epics like the Harry Potter series. We can even use Harry Potter as an example here: in the first story, Harry talks to a snake he unwittingly releases from its zoo enclosure. At the moment, it’s a lighthearted moment, but in the second book, we learn that talking to snakes is not common at all; plus, it was a trait usually only seen in witches and wizards who preferred the Dark Arts. So is Harry actually a Dark Arts master in the making? Dunh dunh DUNH!
One of Dr. Cox’s analyses of Pride and Prejudice really got me thinking about this, too, in regards to Lydia Bennet. The youngest and wildest of the sisters, she is on the constant search for entertainment and isn’t shy about demanding it from her family and friends. She’ll flirt with a number of officers, demand balls, play betting games with cards–the girl loves risks in all shapes and sizes. It’s a sly bit of foreshadowing about Lydia’s character arc and the choices she’s capable of making. Jane Austen’s slyness continues when Lydia starts talking about Wickham more frequently; it’s timed just so that it comes after Elizabeth refuses Mr. Darcy and reads his letter of Mr. Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgiana, Mr. Darcy’s little sister. Elizabeth has no desire in hell to listen any references of Wickham, but what happens?
With such kind of histories of their parties and good jokes, did Lydia, assisted by Kitty’s hints and additions, endeavour to amuse her companions all the way to Longbourn. Elizabeth listened as little as she could, but there was no escaping the frequent mention of Wickham’s name.
Because we’re focused on Elizabeth in our initial read, we don’t wonder why Elizabeth ignores Lydia’s ramblings. In the rereads, though, we better understand that all of Lydia’s choices fit her temperament and character, and when Wickham bolts his militia, it really isn’t a wonder for Lydia to bolt with him for a lark.
Not to mention the hardcore foreshadowing of Wickham!
Character Arc (one way or another). Let’s stick with Pride and Prejudice‘s Wickham here. In our first read, we share in Meryton’s positive first impressions of Mr. Wickham:
But the attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance.
That is, the dude’s hot.
Lydia’s making a point to flat-out run into this guy and his friend. Elizabeth’s aunt is hollering at the guy from her window. He’s got eeeveryone’s attention with his manners and looks. After a brief run-in with Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham starts probing Elizabeth as to what’s known about Mr. Darcy, and through the coming pages we find out that Mr. Wickham is pretty cool with bemoaning his fate at the hands of the prideful Darcy. Once Elizabeth reads Mr. Darcy’s letter, however, she comes to realize how “gentlemanlike” Mr. Wickham often broke rules of decorum by bashing Darcy at every opportunity. Mr. Darcy’s letter also foreshadows an important aspect of Mr. Wickham’s character–his womanizing. He’s not afraid of ruining a young lady’s reputation for his own interests, and while he failed with Georgiana, he succeeds with Lydia Bennet. Everything that was his character is revealed for an arc from “hot guy” to “womanizing jerk.”
Elizabeth Bennet is also a fine study for the character arc. Oh, she remains playfully witty from start to finish, but in the opening chapters of the ball where Lizzy and Mr. Darcy meet, she is just as prideful as he. She laughs it off, sure, but from that moment on she “willfully misunderstands him,” as Mr. Darcy himself put it during their time together in Netherfield. She refuses to believe such an observation, though, and continues feeling herself best and right regarding Mr. Collins’ simpering, Miss Bingley’s interference with Jane Bennet’s happiness, and more. While Elizabeth is right in some of her observations, she has to face her own mistakes later in the story when it comes to Wickham and Darcy. She has misread people, and she has to own up to it. It actually reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle when Sophie realizes just how much she cares about Howl. She can’t even admit to herself that she’s capable of loving someone until a fire demon lures Howl into a trap. Readers love seeing characters grow into themselves, so having these rereads helps writers better catch when and how such moments happen.
Two People Finding Each Other.
Blondie: What are you reading?
Me: Pride and Prejudice.
Blondie: Who gets murdered?
Blondie: Does anyone die or get blown up?
Blondie: Is there magical stuff in it?
Blondie: That sounds really boring.
Now when I was Blondie’s age, I would have agreed. I was immersed in fantasy and mystery at that point, so if someone wasn’t getting murdered, then something better be getting blown up. Now, though, as I reread Pride and Prejudice, I am reminded of something many of us seek in stories of any genre. Even the most violent thing I’ve ever studied on this site, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys, understood this important element of storytelling.
Boys members Butcher and Hughie are both transformed by love: Hughie struggles with a broken heart not once but twice, and Butcher’s descent into revenge begins with the rape and murder of his wife by a super “hero.” Early in their time together, they help two witnesses of a murder rekindle their relationship. Looking on, Hughie says:
What is it about love stories, you know?
BUTCHER: Two people findin’ each other.
Many of us yearn for that other soul that connects with us in a way no other can. There’s a reason romance alone can sell a story and that many genres include a romantic interest. Is it demanded? No. It doesn’t even have to be a love thing. It could be something as equally powerful as finding a friend or a family member. There is a unique joy as a reader in watching two characters come together, “finding” each other in spite of all story-world obstacles–even the barriers they themselves created.
So yes, there is much to enjoy and learn in a good re-read. What are you rereading during these dreary days? I’d love to hear. x
Happy New Year, my fellow creatives! I hope 2023 is a kind one to us all. I’m eager to work with my university to develop strong goals as an educator, an advocate, and as a writer. That includes chatting with you here, and (fingers crossed) getting something published before 2023 ends.
To start the year off right, I picked up a cozy mystery my husband Bo had given me for Christmas…in 2021, but better late than never. Miss Marple has really grown on me over the past couple of years, and since I’ve not read all her books, I wanted to see if I could cover the rest in 2023. So, here we are with her third mystery, The Moving Finger.
And I’m peeved.
Not deeply peeved, mind you. The mystery itself is rather good. A brother-sister pair settle in to the countryside for a few months while the brother recovers from a back injury. With the peaceful setting situated, the “harmless” crime of poison pen letters begins with a flurry of notes to different members of the community–Jill’s a floozie, Tim’s not your husband’s child, etc. Even the urban siblings receive a letter that they’re not really siblings. The town gossip burns bright, but no one really takes the letters seriously.
That is, until a woman apparently commits suicide. When her maid is later found murdered, the letters suddenly feel like ticking time bombs. When will the next letter lead to the next death? Cue Miss Marple….
…a few dozen pages before the end.
That’s what brings me here for a brief rant/chat with you all. I know my blogging was rather sporadic last year as I continue to find my place academically and creatively, but one thing that I hope will help is to keep my blog posts shorter than the 5k essays I’d been writing. The short story collection I began in November reminded me just how much fun creative writing can be when we give ourselves time to actually write. We must still take a moment to learn from others, though, and that’s why we’re here.
When one writes a series, one cannot just use the same group of characters over and over and over again. A story-world is usually populated by more than a dozen folks, yes? So, there must always be someone new to the mix. Perhaps that new person is a side character, or perhaps that new person is a real first-stringer, a protagonist in their own right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in an established series so long as we establish why the, well, “established” protagonists are on the sidelines. For a big example, see the Chronicles of Narnia. The four Pevensies are only protagonists in two of the books; two Pevensies are protagonists in a third with their cousin, and then that cousin is a protagonist with a schoolmate in another book. Two books have nothing to do with the Pevensies at all, yet they’re still in the series because the series is focused on the world, not those characters.
Okay, let’s look at a series based on a character–James Bond. Bo, who chides me for not having read the Bond books yet (shall I remedy that this year?) explained that The Spy Who LovedMe,Fleming’s ninth Bond novel, doesn’t bother introducing Bond into the story until around the halfway point. Because the story is told from a civilian woman’s point of view, we can’t just pop over to wherever Bond is, even though this is technically a James Bond novel. We’ve just got to wait for him to show up.
Yet I’m not peeved about Chrestomanci’s late arrival like I am with Miss Marple’s in The Moving Finger. Why?
It has to do with agency. Chrestomanci may have been late to the Witch Week party, but he took action. He dealt with the witch-burners and saved the children. He DID SOMETHING.
I’m not going to spoil the resolution of The Moving Finger, but I will say that Marple’s interactions with others can be counted on one hand. Readers don’t see her talking to police or many townspeople. She’s with the vicar’s wife, and she talks to the urban siblings. That’s it. Yet she gets the pages of explaining the mystery at the end? What did she DO???
For the record, I think the mystery’s plot is fine. The characters are a little cheesy with the romance, but not to the point of irritation. What bothers me is that Marple’s absence from the story would not alter the story’s outcome. A little tweaking of interactions with the regular cast here would lead to someone realizing the truth and catching the culprit. Miss Marple had no real agency in her own story, and that just leaves me confused as a reader: why is this a Marple story at all?
There’s nothing wrong with a different cast shining inside an established protagonist’s universe. The key is to make sure that established protagonist still has a moment to shine themselves. So long as readers know their favorite hero(ine) is still ACTIVE in the story-world, they will be happy to see others take action, too.
I’m always happy to cheer you on–especially this year, as I’m recovering from COVID. Thankfully our symptoms are mild and we are pacing ourselves carefully. Be thankful for every healthy moment!
In the meantime, I’m happy to have an author interview with someone I’ve followed for some time in the indie author sphere but have never had a chance to interview until now. My friends, please welcome Craig Boyack!
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
This won’t have anything to do with the written word, but it was still powerful. All of my elders went through World War II in some fashion. They would quote statements made by the leaders of the day, and as a child, you knew they were important. Some of this carried through the Kennedy years, but then Nixon came along and everything changed.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Hopefully, everything. I love how new things evolve that capture our imaginations. Things like Steampunk or Cyberpunk come along and get us thinking a new direction. Urban fantasy is another take on this concept.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Wow! Tough question. I’d have to say none, to be honest. It isn’t like I can actually visit Jurassic Park or Diagon Alley for real. This has to do with the kind of stories I write.
My wife and I visited New Orleans a few years ago. Two of my novels had scenes there, but the visit was after the fact. We took a midnight Voodoo tour with a guide that was quite fun. Got to visit a couple of Voodoo shops along with Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Decent place to visit for someone who’s written pirates.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
This has to be the hardest question here. I spent many years reading the “appreciated” novels. I worked my way through Jaws, Mountain Man, Clan of the Cave Bear, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, etc. I didn’t read many that didn’t draw popular attention. I also read a lot of classics.
These days, I mostly read work by friends. All of them are under-appreciated. Such is the life of an indie author.
‘Tis the life of an indie author, indeed! I love that you and several other amazing writers have come together to create an inspiring and educational site for fellow creatives. Can you please tell the tale of the genesis of Story Empire and how this collaboration has benefited your writing life?
Story Empire is something I’m quite proud of. It all started when Mae Clair and I were talking about doing some mutual promotion for the Halloween season. She wanted to bring in some others to share the effort. We never did do that promo, but created the blog instead.
Our goal is to share things we’ve come across with other writers. We don’t charge, and people are allowed to disregard something that doesn’t fit their style. It’s a great place to discuss the topic of the day. We’ve been around long enough that it’s become a good resource for authors. I find myself pointing out the search tool in recent posts, because there is quite a bit that could help a struggling manuscript.
As a personal benefit, I get to hang out with some incredible authors and hope some of their talent rubs off on me. These people are genuine friends and we chat frequently about all kinds of things.
I get disappointed by how many schemes are out there charging for promotion that doesn’t work. There doesn’t seem to be anything that charges less than the promotion might bring back, and most of them are losing propositions. We all want more readers, and are willing to spend a reasonable amount on promo. It seems there is no magic bullet to make that happen.
Would you say publishing your first book, Wild Concept, changed your process of writing? If so, how so?
I hope I’ve changed. I leave these older books online as artifacts of my journey. To be honest, they’re a little rough around the edges compared to what I produce currently. Still, Wild Concept, has an intriguing main character, and a decent theme about prejudice and controlling influences.
The process is much the same. Use my weekends to hack out as much as I can. Spend weeknights trying to repair the speed writing I did. Repeat the process.
I’ve taken up some changes, like storyboarding and working ahead, but the process is largely the same.
Lisa Burton will always be with me. She still shows up on the blog when I have some spare time to dedicate. She still poses for posters to advertise my new books, and goes on the occasional blog tour.
Lisa Burton Radio was a ton of fun, and it moved books for indie authors. The best part is that it was free. Eventually, I started begging authors to participate to keep it going. I decided those authors had to have skin in the game, too. If they didn’t put some effort into my free promos, why should I. Those hours are best spent elsewhere.
I would encourage authors to try something different. Lisa’s posters are still quite popular, and they give someone an image for Pinterest. They look good on social media. Since there is a link to my work, it does nothing but help me.
As one who’s a big fan of writing music, I got a big kick out of the playlist you share in correlation with your Hat series. Firstly–do you struggle writing while people sing? I always get muddled with my words when someone else is singing words. 🙂 Secondly–do you prefer to build the music playlist before you begin drafting, or does the playlist grow as you write?
I’ve often considered taking the playlist down, and haven’t updated it for a while. I think it has three likes in two years. Music inspires me like nothing else. I like to reference it in my stories.
Having said that, I can’t write with it either. Even instrumental pieces steal my focus. These days, I have an extensive playlist on my phone. I listen to that during my commute, and it entices the Muse to ride along.
It comes from things I’ve enjoyed over the years, but I take effort to put a new spin on them. If I write about a popular movie-class monster, readers automatically know what I’m talking about. I’m not afraid to create my own, but those can be a lot harder to sell. When my vampires turn out to be rodeo cowboys, I think readers are pleasantly surprised.
You have a fair amount of novels as well as short story and microfiction collections. Can you share a bit of your process in working out whether a story requires a few hundred words or a few hundred thousand?
Process? What process? I believe a story should be as long as it needs to be. Obviously, I put some thought into it, but if I wind up with a short story instead of a novel, I’m not disappointed. I will say, The Hat Series consists of short novels on purpose. My reasons are two-fold.
First, I like to have something for everyone. If all a reader has time for is a bit of micro-fiction, I like to have something available. Short novels are a good market for me.
Second, because of the style of comedy, I’d rather leave readers wanting more than wear them out with it. That way they come back next year to see what the characters are up to. Lizzie and the hat bickering are funny, but there is a chance of having it go on too long.
Let’s face it–we all have that writing Kryptonite. Mine strikes me down in the form of a phone call from my sons’ principal. What’s yours, and how do you overcome it?
It’s hard to complain about it, but I need solo time to write. Someone else watching television, music in another room, even company will stop me cold. I find that I get what I need, and make room for all the other things. Sometimes we just have to put it aside and take life as it comes.
Speculative fiction can be a tough gig. You have to ground readers somehow, but you alsowant to push the limits of the suspension of their disbelief. How do you balance leaving readers to work things out with taking care of the reader and guiding them by the hand through your story-worlds?
That is tough, and you have to understand that every reader is different. I want to net as many happy customers as possible, but have to allow for a few to escape. Some tales require more work than others. Science Fiction, or Fantasy come to mind. Since The Hat Series is more Urban Fantasy, I don’t have to dedicate as much space to world building. We all understand parking garages, roundabouts, and food trucks.
What would you say are common traps many aspiring writers fall into, and how can they avoid them?
The biggest one I hear about is writer’s block. I took steps years ago to combat that. The Muse serves me well. I get more ideas than I know what to do with. If I find myself dwelling on one, I write it down. They start in the Notes app on my phone.
If they want to grow, I usually start a rudimentary storyboard. I add to this over time, and eventually, they start looking like finished outlines. I never find myself lacking for something to work on that way.
Thank you for inviting me over. I love that our community supports each other, and I try to return the favors.
Thank you so much for chatting with me this fall, Craig! I hope your writing adventures are as magical as the season ahead.Stay tuned to my podcast–I’ll be highlighting one of your books!
Blondie promises to collaborate with me this December! What is she going to give us? I’m honestly not sure, but I’m really excited!
Welcome back, my fellow creatives! October has come, and with it the joy of reading tales deliciously eerie on chilly autumn evenings.
So let us break for a wee spell from the lovely indie fiction to venture down paths dark and mysterious. I’ve got some fun frights recommended to me by other neato book reviewers as well as some spooky stories by authors I’ve not had a chance to taste before. Let us begin with The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix.
What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!
A stormy August has descended upon us here in Wisconsin, my friends. Not only has rain come at last to our parched farmlands, but so has the lightning, thunder, and even tornados. We’ve had to huddle in our basement a few times in the last week around the transistor radio to hear of funnel clouds taking shape, of lightning striking power poles blocks away, of tornados destroying homes miles away. But we are all safe and well, and no deaths as of yet been reported. A prayer of thanks for that!
While storms will always trigger memories of flooding in our home, I know storms can also be an amazing inspiration for storytelling. There is something about that dark and stormy night that puts us all in the mood for a good ol’ whodunit…
I was born and raised in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood, so I’m a city girl from way back, but I have a strong connection to rural Wisconsin thanks to my mother. Her parents, my grandparents, were Polish immigrants whose pursuit of the American dream led them to a small dairy farm in the north central part of the state, near the paper-mill town of Mosinee. I spent many summers on that hard-scrabble farm: milking cows, driving the tractor, baling hay, and staring at a night sky filled with stars. On one memorable night I even saw the aurora borealis flicker and dance above the horizon. To me, Wisconsin was always a magical place. I didn’t discover Door County until I was a young adult, but the majesty and sheer beauty of the area reinforced the notion.
Oh, yes, there is something magical in this land of forests and fireflies, I agree! Let’s get back to that in a moment. First, let’s explore the magic of the stories you enjoyed as a child.
When I was growing up books were a luxury we couldn’t afford. But I was a reader, and the books I enjoyed came from the library. Every Tuesday the bookmobile parked outside the neighborhood A&P grocery store and opened for business. Every week I walked in the front door –a seven-year-old proud to have her very own library card — and then marched out the back door with five books, the most you were allowed to check out. For the longest time, I was fixated by the biographies of famous women – women like Clara Barton, Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, and Florence Nightingale. Then one day, my Aunt Jean loaned me her childhood copy of The Secret Garden.
My love of fiction began with that classic children’s story. The Secret Garden took me to a different time and place in a way that the biographies did not. Maybe it was the language or the fact that the story was about characters closer to my age, but I fell in love with the book. Just as Mary and Colin discovered the door to the hidden garden, I discovered a door to a limitless universe of literature, one that demonstrated the power of imagination.
Ah, so you were a frequent visitor of the library as a kid as well. I distinctly remember getting a small illustrated version of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and that cinched it for me as far as the genre went. After going through all the Nancy Drew stories the library had on hand, I devoured Colin Dexter’s Morse stories, P.D. James’ Dalgleish stories, and of course, Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Did you experience a similar journey through the mystery genre?
Growing up I loved the Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Miss Marple stories. Here were people following clues and solving puzzles, figuring things out. Then I read Dorothy L. Sayers, and my sense of what a mystery could be shifted to something more. Her books about Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane did so much more than simply solve the crime. They revealed the pain and struggle of the human heart. They were windows to the soul.
I’ve had the same experience reading other mysteries, books such as The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre, Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, and The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. In each instance, the mystery was essential to the story, but in each instance the story encompassed more. These are tales of human strength and weakness, stories of internal conflict and struggle.
Thank you for these recommendations! I’ve not read Tartt or Smith, but I’ve enjoyed a number of Le Carrénovels in the last few years. Now, what of your own fascinating mystery series? Just as Sherlock tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”–
“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
–you create suspenseful tales of murder not in the urban land of Chicago, but the quiet, rural peninsula of Door County. What inspired that choice?
I always wanted to write a mystery, but I had no idea of where, who, or what it would entail. One day, I was sitting on a Door County beach looking out at Lake Michigan. It was a perfect day – blue sky, blue water, warm sun. The kind you could sell for a million dollars if only you could bottle it up. That night I sat in the same spot. Heavy cloud cover obscured the moon and stars; it was inky dark – and eerie. I kept looking over my shoulder and thinking: anything can happen here. The contrast between day and night prompted thoughts of light and dark, good and evil. And the idea was born: I’d write a mystery about a picture perfect location (Door County) where sinister forces were at work beneath the surface.
What were the sinister forces; who was responsible for them; what happened as a result; who suffered and why; who stood to benefit? I wanted to write a story in which the contemporary crimes were linked to past events. People in Door County tend to know each other’s histories. My protagonist had to be a stranger –enter Dave Cubiak. A former cop from Chicago who could track a killer, a man with his own burdens, a man who didn’t know anyone and would have to ferret out the clues and follow their trail until he stood before the culprit and asked Why?
Death Stalks Door County was meant to be a stand alone. One and done. When I began my career as a mystery writer, I couldn’t imagine writing a series. But as I was going through the long initial process of writing and revising and hoping to find a publisher, different story ideas kept popping up and slowly the notion of writing a series loomed not as an impossibility but as a logical next step. By the time I had signed a contract for the first book, I was half way through the initial draft of the second book.
Along with Cubiak, I, too have been on a journey. Writing his story, his books, has taught me two lessons that I believe every writer must learn and embrace: one, believe in your story and two, believe in your ability to tell it even as you continue to hone your craft.
Dave Cubiak is indeed on a journey! Meeting him in the opening pages of your first book gave me such a powerful picture of a man trying to hide from his grief as much as move on from it.
Do you find it difficult to write a protagonist of a different gender? What tips do you have for other writers who struggle to write outside of their gender?
I don’t find it more difficult to write a male protagonist than a female protagonist. Either way, I need to know them fully – who they are, where they come from, their struggles, dreams, disappointments, weaknesses, strengths, values, foibles, fears, how they walk and talk and think. Dave Cubiak evolved with the idea for Death Stalks Door County. He was an integral part of the story before I wrote a single word. In many ways, the book – and then eventually the series – is his story.
My books are more than mysteries; taken as a whole they trace Cubiak’s journey from the pivotal moment that changed his life to all that came after. One male reader said he felt they were stories of hope for anyone struggling with loss. Another man said he liked Cubiak because “he’s real.”
The challenge, then, is not to write either a male or female protagonist, but to write one that is real, one that belongs in the story.
The keys to writing outside your gender are empathy and observation. Try to understand that character; walk in their shoes; feel for them. Watch how they act; listen to how they talk. Invite them into your imagination and live with them for a while. Put them in different situations (finding an injured kitten; stumbling on a wallet stuffed with cash; getting a letter from an old lover seeking forgiveness for the unforgiveable) and see how they react. If you can do all that, you can write the character.
You mentioned earlier that Death Stalks Door Countywas meant to be a standalone, but your imagination created more conundrums for Cubiak and inspired you to write a series instead. A happy change in plans, I’d say! Yet I should think such a change in plans requires a change to one’s writing process. How would you say your writing process changed after publishing Death Stalks Door County?
I’d been a staff writer for the Readers’ Digest and a professional nonfiction writer for nearly twenty years when I decided to write my first mystery. Death Stalks Door County was years in the making. I’d read plenty of mysteries and literary novels, but I’d always written nonfiction articles. Even a seven-thousand-word piece pales by comparison to a book of seventy-thousand plus words. With the first book I had a lot to learn. I wrote and edited; I revised and submitted. I got rejected. Repeat. And then again. At one point, I printed the manuscript and let it sit on a shelf for two years. One day I picked it up, fully intending to toss it in the trash. But as I flipped through, I realized that (1) it was decently written; (2) I really liked my characters; and, (3) I was the only person in the world who knew the story and if I didn’t tell it, then it would never be told. Sitting on the floor of my office, I decided that I would give it one more try. One more read through; one more edit; one more round of queries. And that’s when the magic happened. The email read: “Please send full manuscript.” Music to any writer’s ears.
I wrote Death Stalks Door County as a pantser. I had an idea and started writing a book. As I struggled with the process, I slowly evolved into a plotter. I began to think in terms of chapters, then scenes. Bit by bit, I broke the story down into pieces. The smaller the pieces and the more of them that I had, the better handle I had on the story and the more confident I became.
Last month I finished book seven and what changed from writing the first book to the way I wrote the rest of the series was my approach. Starting with Death at Gills Rock, the second volume, I realized that I needed to know the details of the story before I could write it, so I began to plot every step of the action. In essence, I created a road map that carried me from beginning to end.
There are writers who shudder at the thought of plotting the story first, and it’s not a technique that will work for everyone. But many will benefit from it. There are very clear advantages: Plotting ultimately eliminates writer’s block – with a well plotted story, you never sit in front of a blank screen or empty page and wonder now what because you know what comes next. Instead of writer’s block, however, you will have thinker’s block. Working out the kinks and inconsistencies and struggling to make sense of the story line takes work. It’s not easy but ultimately it means that you don’t toss out ten or twenty thousand words because you changed your mind midway through chapter three.
I was once asked if detailed plotting doesn’t take the fun out of writing. Not for me, it doesn’t. In fact, it makes me more comfortable and confident and eager to write.
A seventh book in the works? Huzzah and congrats! I know just what you mean about pantsing. I enjoyed this style of writing quite a bit during the years I participated in National Novel Writing Month, but you’re absolutely right that when it comes to crafting a strong story–especially a mystery!–one needs to know where the clues are hidden, which characters are where and when, how the reveals happen, and so on. Having the plot planned takes a lot of the panic out of writing, to be sure.
You have been such a joy to converse with here, Patricia–thank you so much for sharing your time and talent with us! May we please close with any other tips you have for aspiring writers? There are so, so many traps writers can fall into, and any trap sprung often wounds, even scars, a writer’s imagination and motivation.
Based on what I have learned from presenting and attending various workshops and listening to aspiring writers discuss their work, I’d say there are three common traps.
Not being clear on the kind of book you’re writing – this is most likely to be a problem for first-time writers. To paraphrase Socrates, “To know thy book is the beginning of intelligent writing.” Different types of books have different rules. Something as simple as word count varies from one kind of book to another. Taking the time to figure out what you want your book to be – memoir or historical fiction, cozy mystery or thriller – helps the writer focus and start and stay on the right track.
Misinterpreting the advice to “show don’t tell.” We’ll all heard this dozens of times. Unfortunately, many new writers interpret the advice to mean that you show everything, but that is not what is meant. As a writer, you show the important parts and tell everything that happens in between. As I see it, we have a responsibility to hand the reader a finished story on a silver platter, not to present the verbal equivalent of an unedited video of everything that happens in a character’s life and expect the reader to ferret out the story.
Trying to please everyone. After Death Stalks Door County, my first mystery, was published I was invited to a book club whose members included both men and women. Listening to the book club members discuss my work was an enlightening experience. One woman said she really like X about the book; her husband said X was what he liked least. Then a man said he wished I had included more Y, and the woman across the table said, oh, no there was quite enough of Y for her. As the back and forth continued, I asked myself: which of these people should I be trying to please? It didn’t take long to realize the futility of trying to write to accommodate the preferences of a specific individual or type of reader. My takeaway from the experience: Write the book you want to read. Write to please yourself.
And so we shall, Patricia. So we shall. x
My fellow creatives, you are welcome to visit Patricia Skalka’s author site as well as book reviewsite for more information on what she writes and reads.
Blondie and I are keen to share our own writing updates! It’s also high time, methinks, for a bit of creative nonfiction crafting when it comes to those everyday absurdities. x
Good morning, my fellow creatives! Today’s selection comes in thanks to my mother, who is an avid listener of Wisconsin Public Radio and heard about a series set in one of her favorite places in all of Wisconsin: Door County.
Welcome back, my fellow creatives! Where on earth did June go? I’ve not the slightest, but my own three B’s have really taken to their summer reading programs, already earning some tickets to the local museum and state fair. Speaking of my B’s–Biff and Bash, in particular–this particular selection for the podcast is not just to help wrap up Pride Month, but to focus on a unique pair of protagonists: twin brothers.
I hope you enjoy this sip from Infinity Son with me! If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories.