In 10 years of serving on crime fiction juries, I’ve seen hundreds of stories. Most are forgettable. The ones that stick with me are those that vibrate with tone and/or voice. I know them when I see them. So do agents and editors. Tone and voice tip the scales from an also-ran submission to a tale that editors and agents desire.
But what are tone and voice? Essentially, they’re attitude. The character’s attitude and the story’s attitude. Attitude is good in fiction. You’re writing slices of creatively enhanced life, not journal articles, academic essays or newspaper items. Your characters’ and your narrative’s words must hint at—or outright shout—attitudes, stances, secret fears and desires. Attitude shakes its fist at the story problem.
Tone: the attitude your narrator or protagonist brings to the table.
Each word the narrator says, every action they take, reveals their attitude toward the situation and the characters, including toward themselves. Words with tone are more than simply substituting active verbs for passive ones, although that’s a good first step. Read the following two lines out loud:
1. She walked toward the girls and said, “Say that again.”
2. Fists clenched, she stomped toward the girls. “Say that again.”
Both sentences have the same number of words, but chances are you infused the second “Say that again” with some heat, some determination. That’s tone. You want the reader to hear that anger in their head when reading.
Tone in short crime might be solemn, legalistic, humorous, slapstick or wise-cracking, but it is layered in by the narrator’s every word, thought, or action.
Voice: the attitude of the writer to the subject matter, characters, and plot.
Voice is slippery. It arises from the words you habitually use, the way you construct sentences, and how you feel and think about whatever you’re writing. Voice changes between fiction and non-fiction, and by subject. You’ll write differently on subjects you care nothing for—say, what pro baseball players do in the off-season—than on a topic you care passionately about, whether that’s animal cruelty, missing children, or the silly doings of tabloid-fodder celebrities.
See that? By describing the doings as ‘silly’ and the celebs as ‘tabloid fodder’, I’ve given away this writer’s attitude. That’s the reader’s cue to expect an article that’s slightly snarky about celebrities tabloids.
Voice makes a statement, takes a position, shakes that fist. That’s what makes a story memorable.
Testing for Tone:
1. Read aloud the third paragraph on Page 5 of your work-in-progress.
2. Identify only from those words what the character is feeling about whatever’s going on. That’s the tone.
3. Give the paragraph—only the paragraph; no set-up or explanation—to your housemate, your sister, your crit partner, and ask them to describe the character’s attitude. Are their answers what you hoped they’d be? If not, change it. Then ask someone new.
Tone and voice are developed through the words you, the author, select on purpose. After you’ve developed a cunning plot, an engaging heroine (or hero), and a keen eye for typos and grammatical imperfections, if you can infuse the story with those elusive qualities of tone and voice, you’ll soon be attracting positive notice from agents and editors and yes, from readers.
Jayne Barnard has been writing fiction since third grade. First published in 1990, she’s written for children and adults in the veins of history, mystery, and lately alternate dimensions. Her fiction awards include Saskatchewan Writers Guild, Bloody Words, and Unhanged Arthur, as well as a shortlisting for the UK Debut Dagger. Her YA Steampunk Mystery, Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond, is a finalist for the Prix Aurora and the Book Publishing in Alberta Award, and a winner of the eFestival of Words Award for Children’s Literature.
Before she left my bed and office, Rose spilled some of the dope I’d need to have a hens’ teeth chance of keeping her husband off the cooling board. A few hours’ digging the next day told me the rest of what I needed to know, and it wasn’t pretty.
Delbert “Dell” Nicholas was a grifter, a two-bit gambler, a cheap drunk—choose your poison. Pushing fifty, he was twice Rose’s age. Which goes to show that God moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform. I’ll be damned if I could understand it. But then, I wasn’t the creator of this fucked-up world. At least I could find solace in that. Dell was currently employed as a blackjack dealer at the Last Frontier, one of the first joints on the Strip which had left its heyday behind a few years back. Like most of the clubs in Vegas, the Last Frontier was neck-deep in mob ties. And Manny Divino was one of the club’s top gorillas. That spelled bad news for Dell Nicholas. Very bad news.
Roses’s chump of a husband was either stupid or had an overriding death wish. It was no secret that Divino’s moll at the time was Gloria Wainwright, daughter of a ship builder back east who’d made a fortune building Liberty cargo ships during the war. How the hell she ever wound up in Sin City and in Manny Divino’s bed was anybody’s guess. But facts are facts, and Dell Nicholas wasn’t long for this world without some serious intervention—preferably divine which I was in no position to supply.
So, the next evening I did the second best thing. I walked into the Last Frontier, found Nicholas’ table, and joined in the fun. I was barely keeping my head above the breakwater when a doll wearing a revealing, tight white dress strolled across the casino floor and slunk up next to the dealer. She wrapped a slender gloved arm around his neck and kissed him like a long-lost lover. After whispering some sweet nothings in his ear, she retreated a step and cast loving glances his way. Nicholas turned a couple shades redder in the face, but maintained enough composure to keep the game rolling. All the while he kept sneaking sidelong glances at the Lady in White who kept her adoring eyes batting in the dealer’s direction.
Fifteen-twenty minutes later Lady Luck brushed her luscious lips against my cheek. I went on a winning streak for the next half hour where I couldn’t lose for trying. I’d turned my couple hundred bucks into some real dough. Hell, if I kept this up for another few minutes I could close shop and retire in Malibu or wherever the hell I chose.
And then it hit me. Nobody, especially this Marine who’d been nailed four times by enemy fire from the Nips, could be this damn lucky. I was being played like an out of tune piano. As I continued to win, egged on by the cheering crowd who’d gathered around the table, I glanced around the casino entrances. That’s when I spotted Manny Divino. He was leaning against one of the arched doorways, wearing a white muslin suit and fedora, and grinning ear to ear. His trimmed, penciled mustache rose at one corner with his smile. Pure evil smirked across his handsome mug.
I figured then that I was neck-deep in shit, sunk there by my recent, one-time lover, Mrs. Delbert “Roseanne” Nicholas. Semper Fidelis my ass. I felt like the fool I was. I’d stepped into it by letting my guard down. It was a shit-sandwich I’d have to eat myself.
I half expected Rose to show up, smirking and snuggling against Manny Divino. I imagined her patiently waiting for her lover boy’s plan to unfold, where the hapless Dell Nicholas and I would wind up in a common shallow grave somewhere in the vast desert on the outskirts of Las Vegas. We’d be coyote or wild pig food before we were ever missed, or our sun bleached bones were discovered.
And then she did. Rose wore a deep scarlet dress the color of blood that she planned on siphoning from her husband and me. She slid under Divino’s arm, cigarette trailing smoke as she snuggled that delicious, betraying body against his side. Even from across the casino I could see the haughty smirk playing across those delicious, red lips that had entertained me so delightfully just last night. And for the moment, I was stunned.
One of the first bits of advice an aspiring author receives is “write what you know.” For many years, I didn’t have a clue what that meant. After all, my life seemed dull. Many writers I knew had led lives of intrigue, or at least had cool job titles. How could writing about what I knew possibly be of interest to readers?
I spent several years toiling away in a factory. Determined to get some mileage out of all that pain and suffering, I wrote, and sold, my first short story set in that factory. I’ve learned that what is ordinary to me may seem intriguing to an outsider.
Your experiences may seem bland only because they are so familiar to you. I have some hints to help you see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Finding the Key
The key to writing what you know begins with taking a fresh look at your experiences. Apply your unique knowledge of people and places to show readers something new.
Setting: Readers may think they know all about Kansas City, the maternity ward in a hospital, or flea markets. If you have knowledge of the inner workings of these environments, your reader will be delighted to walk inside that world with you. There’s nothing like the feeling of being an insider.
Maybe your setting is familiar to you, but it could be a strange new world to your readers. Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee series takes place in Singapore, Yu’s home town. Craig Johnson’s Wyoming setting for his Longmire series is new territory to a city dweller or easterner.
Try to observe your environment through fresh eyes, as though you’re a visitor. Don’t just look. Take in the smells and sounds. What captures your imagination?
Characters: If you’re creating a new character, or looking for ways to make your characters more interesting, try people watching. Everyone has a story. That old man standing next to you in the grocery checkout line might have been an Olympic athlete in his day. Most people aren’t as ordinary as they seem. People often have interesting stories beneath their seemingly mild-mannered exteriors. If you aren’t surrounded by fascinating people, remember that sometimes a story needs an Everyman.
In Elaine Viets’ Dead End Job series, Helen is a minimum wage drudge. Her invisibility as a telemarketer, hotel maid, or cruise ship staff gives her access to behind-the-scenes information vital to solving crimes. There are dozens of elderly sleuths whose age imparts the same invisibility. Think of all the ordinary guys thrown into dangerous situations, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings.
Conclusion: The key to writing what you know begins with taking a fresh look at the places and people that form your world. Tease out the details only you know to make your reader feel you’re giving him or her an insider’s secret peek. Just like the people in your life, your character may have a history that gives surprising depth. If you look at your experiences from the point of view of an outsider, what you know may be far more interesting than you imagined.
Catherine Dilts is the author of the Rock Shop Mystery series, while her short stories appear regularly in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. With a day job as an environmental regulatory technician, Catherine’s stories often have environmental or factory-based themes. Others reflect her love of the Colorado mountains, fishing, and running. Her third novel, Stone Cold Blooded, is scheduled for release October 10. Learn more about Catherine at http://www.catherinedilts.com/
I’m exhausted yet still riding this high from the lovefest that is Bouchercon. For those who have never been, it’s the biggest mystery fan convention anywhere. I heard this year it was a record number (close to 2000) and it’s no wonder. New Orleans is one of the most exciting towns and one of my personal favorites for its food and music scene. I can’t even begin to encapsulate the incredible camaraderie and frenzied joy of Bouchercon in one blog post but I’ll try. Here are a few of my personal favorite moments:
I arrived Wednesday in time to do a reading for the Noir at the Bar After Dark. Jay Stringer from Glasgow was the host and asked me to read (thank you, Jay!) along with Johnny Shaw, Christa Faust, Danny Gardner, and Renee Asher Pickup, to name a few. The readings were fantastic and downright dirty. Perfect way to start B’Con!
The free books were done a little differently this year. Instead of receiving the books in your tote bag, you were directed to a ballroom where rows of books lined four long tables. You were given 6 raffle tickets to exchange for 6 books of your choice. Unfortunately, the high-demand books were already gone by the time I picked them up, but there were still plenty on hand to make my choices difficult.
I attended three panels on Thursday. The first was the “Metropolitan Glide” panel with my friend and fellow writer group-er Travis Richardson moderating. This was about writing crime fiction involving police. I learned about a new website (http://police-writers.com) that features cops from all over the country who write.
Then I headed to the “Invisible Touch: Agents & Editors Panel: State of the Industry” with Juliet Grames of Soho Press moderating. This panel included Jason Pinter of Polis Books, a fairly new publisher who is making quite a name for himself already with both Rob Hart and Patricia Abbott’s books being nominated for an Anthony for Best First Novel (both fantastic books too!). Jason said, “We have professionalism, terrific distribution with Publishers Group West, and we’re ‘scrappy.’” They’re definitely a publisher I’m keeping my eye on.
Lastly, it was time for my panel “Murder Under the Sun” with Michael Stanley, C. Michele Dorsey, Jeffrey Hess, and Annamarie Alfieri with Mysti Berry moderating. It was a great discussion about what inspires us to write crime fiction in hot places. There were some great audience questions like does a hot setting inspire you or is it character? (I’m inspired by character or a scene in my head. The setting I flesh out later.)
Friday, I had a bookseller/publisher luncheon hosted by Harper Collins to honor Laura Lippman and her book WILDE LAKE. It was a fantastic 6-course lunch with such folks as Sarah Weinman and Oline Cogdill. And of course Laura Lippman. She talked about her husband’s show Treme and getting on a krewe.
Then it was back to the hotel for the “Hardboiled v. Noir” panel with Susan Alice Bickford moderating along with Craig Faustus Buck, Rob Hart, Barbara N.S. Nickless, and Lisa Turner. A few definitions of hardboiled and noir were given, including “hardboiled involves a detective, noir does not. Noir is about losers.” I also liked, “with noir, you choose between bad and worse” or “in hardboiled fiction, heroes fall from a pedestal. In noir, they fall from the curb.”
Lee Child and I!
Saturday was an exclusive William Morrow panel called “Women Taking Shots.” The first 60 people to email got in. I had no idea what to expect but all I knew was it involved Lisa Unger, Alafair Burke, Kate White, Karin Slaughter, and Sara Blaedel, moderated by Lee Child. When I walked in to the room, there was a complimentary bar and chocolates. The discussion turned out to be along the same lines as one I had the night before at the bar. Do men blurb crime fiction for women as much as women blurb for men? The answer is no. The authors talked about how this imbalance is a reflection of our male-centric society in general. Male readers may see a blurb from a female author as a “weaker” story as opposed to a blurb on a book written by a female as “stronger.” Sara Blaedel was the only one who said it wasn’t really the same in Denmark, mostly because nobody blurbs (except her). This was definitely a conference highlight for me as these legendary authors joked around with each other while discussing a timely topic.
“I, as a writer, choose how I want to frame the dance.”
Saturday I attended the “Social Issues” panel with Julia Dahl, Ovidia Yu, Bruce DeSilva, Paul Hardisty, Erica Wright and Gary Phillips moderating. It was an interesting discussion of how these authors stay current when it comes to writing social issues. When Gary asked Ovidia how she wrote about Singapore with its fairly constant changing political and social landscape, Ovidia said something I liked: “I, as a writer, choose how I want to frame the dance.”
A friend and fellow Sisters in Crime/LA writer, Ellen Byron, had her launch party for her second novel, BODY ON THE BAYOU, at an art gallery on Saturday night. There couldn’t have been a better party location for a book set in New Orleans than an art gallery!
Walter Mosley and I!
So what else can I say about this conference? It just shows how supportive and lovey-dovey us crime fiction writers are no matter how hard we try to convince everyone we’re jaded or competitive or whatever. We’re not any of those (okay well maybe some of us are but I have yet to meet them). It’s basically a big reunion and tribal bonding over 4-5 days. The “big shots” have no problem taking photos with us and my friendly chats with Lee Child and Walter Mosley were definitely conference (and life) highlights for me. Whether we’re cozy or noir, big publisher or indie, newbie or veteran, we are all crime fiction writers and readers. Too often we feel all alone in this writing gig, but conferences like this prove we’re anything but.
I’m already counting down the days until Toronto!
Sarah M. Chen juggles several jobs including indie bookseller, transcriber, and insurance adjuster. Her crime fiction short stories have appeared in “Shotgun Honey,” “Crime Factory,” “Betty Fedora,” “Out of the Gutter,” and “Dead Guns Press,” among others. Cleaning Up Finn is her first book, available now from All Due Respects Books.
My stomach clinched. Kathy, sobbed on the phone. “Logan’s missing! My husband’s golfing and hasn’t returned my call.”
“I’m on my way. I have to get Sydney’s service vest.”
I filled my waist pouch with his favorite treats, located his water bottle, and snapped it onto my belt. “Let’s go, Syd.”
Kathy stood out front, waving her arms.
Sydney and I bolted from the car. I held one hand as she blubbered information in between blowing her nose and hiccupping. “Logan had a meltdown when his brothers left to play golf. With his autism, there’s no way Logan can sit in a golf cart all morning. He got angry, anyway.”
I clasped my hands together, easing my tension. “You need to know I’ve only played hide and seek with Sydney and other children. He’s a service dog in training, not a search and rescue dog. But Logan and Sydney have made such a strong connection on the beach, Syd may be able to find Logan. But you’ll need to stay here.”
Kathy’s eyes widened.
I touched her shoulder. “You have to be here in case he comes home or someone finds him.”
She sobbed. “I’m going to go crazy waiting.”
A load of gravel hit the pit of my stomach one stone at a time. “Will Logan get in the water?”
She shook her head. “Not without his life jacket. He may walk a long way and forget how to get home. He doesn’t know his phone number and can only say his first name.”
I blew out my breath, and smiled. “That’s good, he won’t get in the water. Can you give me an item he wears? Sydney needs his scent.”
I wrapped Syd’s vest around his back. He knew at once he was on duty. His amber eyes brightened and his lips spread into a grin.
Rushing back, Kathy carried Logan’s ball cap and spoke in spurts. “I’m surprised he…ran off without… this.” She gasped and choked. “He doesn’t like… the sun in his eyes.”
Syd and I jogged toward the sand dunes. I held Logan’s ball cap up to Sydney’s nose. “Find, Logan.”
He inhaled the scent, backed up, jiggled his stub, and shoved his nose again into the empty space inside the cap. That was his signal, “I know what you want me to do.”
“Good boy, Syd. Find, Logan.”
I let him run, getting his bearings. He lunged into the bushes behind Logan’s house, and then circled the sea grass in the dunes. As he dashed toward the water, his nostrils opened and closed level with the sand, and then he made a U-turn. Racing on dry sand, he sniffed his way up the coast. After each inspection, Sydney woofed. Logan would recognize Syd’s bark and come running.
If he heard. Or if he could? Those thoughts sent shivers up my neck.
I called Logan’s name. High tide moved down, leaving no foot-prints, no trail of food, and no way to know which way Logan might have gone.
Before heading up a wooden path, I returned the cap to Syd’s nose. “Find, Logan.”
We walked under another house and up to the front yard. Sydney lost interest and led me back to the sand. We repeated checking the dunes, and under each house, block after block. After an hour and a half, I said, “Down,” in someone’s empty carport. Syd panted heavily and rested. Once his breathing slowed, we shared a bottle of water.
What if he knocked at someone’s door, and they took him in. I shuddered inside. What if we can’t find him?” I wiped my damp face.
Kathy phoned. “My sons are going door to door. And Logan’s dad contacted the island police. One car is patrolling the streets.” She took a long breath. “This is the longest he’s ever been gone.”
My voice squeaked out. “So he’s done this before?”
“Twice. He’s never gone very far, but each time it’s happened, he’s walked a little farther. It’s been two years since the last time.”
“Did he have a special hiding spot?”
She whispered, “No.”
My chest tightened. “We’ll find him. He’s getting older. I bet he’s just found a better hiding place.”
I hung up and made eye contact. “Okay, Syd. Find, Logan.” He turned in circles, excited to be back on the job. When we reached the pier, hope shoved the pebbles in my stomach to the side. Maybe he’s up there watching the seagulls, or looking for dolphins.
As I looked left, despair swallowed my relief. On the other side of the pier, strangers camped in tents or in trailers at the State Park.
We scoured every corner of the pier and restaurant, and asked the manager if he’d seen a black-haired, little boy.
My stomach quivered. I swallowed the nausea. No sign of Logan.
I collapsed on the pier. Sitting crossed-legged, my hands covered my face, and I cried. Sydney put his nose under my arms, lifting my hands to lick my tears.
“You need a rest. Go play.” We walked down the stairs, I undid his vest.
Sydney dashed at the small waves, popping the white bubbles in the foam. I didn’t care if he got wet. He was free to relax.
The sun blazed, making the sand too hot for bare feet. I worried about Sydney’s feet and Logan’s. Would he look for shade?
Five minutes later, I strapped-on Syd’s vest and lifted Logan’s cap to his nose.
He turned in circles, wiggled his rear end, and darted to the dunes. Then he put his nose close to the sand, sniffing like a hound dog. Chills traveled up my body. He was onto something. It better not be a fish.
Sydney tramped up to a tree in someone’s backyard, turned around and circled me like he was saying, “Hurry up.”
“What do you smell, Syd.”
He barked and showed me foot prints. They were small, bare feet.
“Okay. Show me.”
Sydney sniffed the ground. His rear end pointed to the sky. I followed. He circled the dune once more and followed footprints from the ocean to the trees. He wouldn’t move forward.
“What is it Syd?”
I glanced between the dune and the trees. Steps to someone’s house, painted sky-blue, had disguised a three-sided outdoor shower under the wooden steps. An ocean blue plastic shower curtain decorated with colored fish closed the opening. Syd crept towards the shower stall.
I pressed my lips together. Could Logan be inside? Was he hurt?
Sydney stood at attention. “Good boy.”
Syd’s body squirmed, making an indention in the sand with his bottom.
I slid the curtain back, an inch at a time. There was a small bench on the back wall and shaded by the tree. Sleeping with one arm under his head and one arm hanging off the ledge, Logan breathed, peacefully. He had no idea of the ordeal he had begun.
My eyes overflowed. I bent face to face with Sydney and whispered, “Good Boy. You have the honor of waking him.”
Sydney’s eyes sparkled. He slinked in, put his nose under Logan’s limp arm, moved closer and licked his cheek.
Logan’s eyes opened. He squealed, “Syd-ney. Syd-ney. Want see.” Logan sat, lifting his beaming face, showing two missing teeth on the top and on the bottom.
I snatched Logan’s hand and said, “Sydney, home.”
After twenty-five years of teaching special education and training her own dogs in rally and agility, Sheri finds the subject of dogs and special needs children close to her heart.
Sheri S. Levy’s magazine article about a diabetic alert dog, “Scent with Love,” was published in Clubhouse Magazine in July 2010. This story was nominated for a Maxwell Medallion Award with the Dog Writers Association of America’s competition and received the Special Interest Award at their February 2011 awards banquet in New York.
In 2015, Sheri’s debut novel, Seven Days to Goodbye, won another Special Interest Award with DWAA. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Carolinas, teaches writing workshops, tutor’s students, and volunteers with an accredited, nonprofit service dog kennel, Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services (PAALS). www.sherislevy.com
SPECIAL OFFER: Sheri’s publisher is having a sale on all her books through Sept 30th. You can purchase Seven Days to Goodbye, online for $2.99. Barking Rain PressAmazon
A word from Kait Carson—when Sheri contacted me in response to MMO’s request for guest bloggers, I jumped at the chance. Animals have always been important in my life, and I was lucky enough to own and train a therapy dog. I’ve seen first-hand what service animals can do. I’m including all of Sheri’s pictures here on the blog for two reasons, first, they show the amazing bond between child and animal, second because these dogs train long and hard to do what they do, and they do it for a treat, a toy, or a pat on the head. The definition of unconditional love.
Due to the response of our past few guest blogs, we have decided to feature mystery writer J.R. Lindermuth’s guest post, HOOKS, for an additional day. Thanks to all who have participated, and please spread the word to all who would be interested!
by: J.R. Lindermuth
Your first sentence should draw the reader in. The second should compel him to continue reading.
That isn’t sage advice from some great writing seer. It’s my admonishment to myself as I begin each new story or novel. I’ve been using it since a reviewer said she was “hooked after page three” about an earlier book.
Page three is too darned late to hook most readers.
People have short attention spans and we writers need to perk their curiosity from the beginning. And the best way to accomplish it is with an opening that inspires “who,””what” or “why?”
Richard Wrights great novel “Native Son” (1940) begins with:
The second line is taken up with explaining it’s the sound of an alarm clock, which diminishes the impact. I don’t think it would work today. Modern readers are not patient critters.
On the other hand, Elmore Leonard’s opening for “Glitz” (1985) begins:
The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.
Now who wouldn’t want to know more about that?
I hope I’ve accomplished something similar for Shares The Darkness with “She didn’t come home last night.” You know someone’s missing. Hopefully you’ll want to know why?
Here’s the blurb for my latest, Shares The Darkness, seventh in the Sticks Hetrick crime series:
Jan Kepler and Swatara Creek Police Officer Flora Vastine were neighbors and schoolmates, but never close.
When Jan, a school teacher, avid birder and niece of a fellow officer, goes missing and is found dead in a nearby tract of woods Flora finds herself thrust into the middle of an examination of the other woman’s life, as she searches for clues.
As usual, the police have more than one crime to deal with. There’s illegal timbering and a series of vehicle thefts taking up their time. And there are other issues to deal with. Flora is concerned there’s some shakiness in her relationship with Cpl. Harry Minnich who seems to be making a lot of secretive phone calls.
Still Flora maintains focus on the murder. Despite evidence implicating other suspects, the odd behavior of another former classmate rouses Flora’s suspicion. Flora’s probing opens personal wounds as she observes the cost of obsessive love and tracks down the killer.
Bio: A retired newspaper editor, J. R. Lindermuth has published 14 novels and a non-fiction regional history. His short stories and articles have been published in a variety of magazines. He is a member of International Thriller Writers and is a past vice president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society.
It’s amazing how our minds work, isn’t it? All we know is in there, and often connections are made, and we come up with an idea or a project.
Several things came together for my Paula Mitchell, PI, series, some that amuse me (okay, I’m easily amused).
The first decision made was simply that I wanted to write a female PI series. That’s not so amusing, I know. But I like to start at the beginning and muddle, I mean, stride through to the end, so here we are. I appreciate the structure, the need for a feisty character with a sense of humor, and a mystery for her to solve. I have no problem writing in first person, or any person. I’ve written almost a hundred short stories, so have a lot of practice writing in first and third person, a very few in omniscient, and in either male or female or the occasional mummy point of view.
Next I needed a name for my protagonist. I have a terrible time coming up with names, especially for main characters. But I’d heard about how many soap opera stars, or, I guess, their writers, do that, and it amused me, easily. You take your first pet’s moniker for first name, and use the first street name you lived on. Unless it’s too weird. I had a friend who lived on Tuxedo Avenue. I’m not sure Tuxedo would work for a last name. I’m not sure Tuxedo works for a street name. Anyway, because my first pet was a male with a male name, I decided to do something different, but still using my own past to come up with something. Paula is named in honor of my father, Paul, and his sister who was so glad she was born second, or she would have been named Pauline, their mother’s name, which she didn’t like. At all. And yes, I lived on Mitchell Place growing up, where some Mitchells still lived.
Okay! Now I had a character’s profession and name. Next I needed a sidekick. And I admit, I did not consciously chose to make her best friend a lawyer, but maybe you can guess what books I devoured in high school? Yes, Perry Mason. I probably read the whole series and watched, later, every TV show. Of course, Perry was the main character, and coincidentally, Paul (was my subconscious at work here?) was the private investigator he used when he needed to help solve the case. One difference is that Perry had a smart, beautiful secretary who also often helped. My Paula has a very handsome assistant who is studying to be a paralegal. He has yet to help solve a case, but that seems like a good idea. And might amuse me. Was my subconscious at work when I named my lawyer Geri, rhymes with Perry? Honest, I did not consciously think of any of the Perry Mason connections until long after writing the first book. Perry, after all, was not a female PI.
PI stories are generally written in a linear fashion. Someone hires the PI to solve a case. PI runs around interviewing people, getting into trouble and danger, and finally figures everything out. After, of course, finding the person with the best motive, the means to do the deed, and opportunity.
I write by the seat of my pants, sometimes with my hair on fire. I set up a character to be the one to hire Paula or her lawyer friend who then assigns Paula to investigate. The person doing the hiring needs to be in some sort of trouble, of course. In the first book, Perfect Victim, a man is accused of murdering his girlfriend when she breaks up with him. Lawyer Geri is skeptical and has Paula check into the case. In A Broken Life, Paula sees an old high school friend, obviously homeless, and finds out her identity has been stolen. Paula offers to help. In Secret Exposure, a man is arrested and charged with murdering his wife after she files for divorce and accuses him of abusing their son. Geri was his divorce lawyer and uses Paula to investigate.
I simply figured out motives and opportunity for the accused and victim’s friends in each novel, trying to make every one unique and memorable somehow. If I reached a place where I didn’t know what to do next, I made a list of possible things that could happen, picked the best one to use and went from there. At some point I often stop and make a note of what other things Paula could do about a particular suspect or situation. So, basically, my first draft is my outline, all fleshed out, and since I simply go from point A to the end, I usually don’t run into any trouble or have to go back and add anything, but if I do, it’s no more than a scene or three. I don’t often use flashbacks for these novels, and I think that makes it easier to plot on the go and write them than other books I’ve written where the plot is not as linear.
I firmly believe that reading a lot of mystery fiction helps me write my own stories faster and easier. Stephen King, in his memoir/advice-to-writers book, On Writing, says he spends an hour reading for every hour he spends writing. Besides making us better writers, a study just found out that reading a book (nothing else—only a book) for thirty minutes or more a day ups our chances of living two years longer than the people who don’t do that. http://www.newser.com/story/229339/to-live-longer-pick-up-a-book.html
Besides reading a lot, the second trick is to write a lot. Preferably every day. Whether we feel like it or not. Set a word goal, and go!
Now I have to decide whether to go read a book or write some fiction. Since it’s cocktail hour, I think I’ll go read a good book. One that amuses me.
BIO: Jan Christensen grew up in New Jersey. She bounced around the world as an Army wife, and in Texas after her husband retired. After traveling for eleven years in a motorhome, she settled down in the Texas Coastal Bend. Published novels are: Sara’s Search, Revelations, Organized to Death, Perfect Victim, Blackout, Buried Under Clutter, A Broken Life, Cluttered Attic Secrets, and Secret Exposure. She’s had about seventy short stories appear in various places over the last twenty years. She also writes a series of short stories about Artie, a NY burglar who gets into some strange situations while on the job. Learn more at her website: www.janchristensen.com