By Jan Christensen
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