I believe writing novels is half craft and half art. The craft part includes mastering using the language – grammar, word usage, sentence structure etc. Plus an author has to understand the basics of effective storytelling, which covers a lot of ground. Knowing what a hook is and how to craft one, an acquaintance with basic plot structure, control of point of view – those are all skills that anyone can learn and an author must master.
The artistry of writing is harder to define and probably impossible to master. Even authors I consider very good, if not excellent, say that they’re always striving to do better with each book. There is no way you can ever say you’ve got it completely figured out and there’s nothing more to learn.
As authors, we work to convince the reader that our story is real, that it’s happening right now in a place they’re getting to see in their mind’s eye. The art of writing novel lies in crafting a story that will bring the vision that lurks in the author’s mind to life in a reader’s brain as well.
Beginning writers often mistakenly believe that describing everything in painstaking detail will create that vivid impression of their world. They will painstakingly list all the furnishings in a room to set a scene or supply every measurement of a character and enumerate each feature.
In fact, though, one or two well-chosen details usually work much better than long lists of them. If I tell you that the room has velvet drapes at the windows and flocked wallpaper, do I need to describe the carpet as well? We know it’s going to be plush because the other things already speak of wealth. And unless there’s something particular about the furniture, I don’t really need to describe it in detail either. A reader’s imagination will fill in the blanks.
Then there are the characters. I don’t tell everything I know about a character to the reader the first time we meet him. I may give a few physical details to help the reader form a picture. Height, hair color, eye color and build are the visual things most readers want to know about the people in the story. The truth is I treat meeting characters in a story the same way it works in real life. We see them first from the outside, and usually form and impressions based on gender, physical build, and other obvious characteristics. But it’s in their conversation and actions that we get to know them more deeply.
Much of the artistic process lies in choosing which details you need to include in a story. The heart of a story is all about what you tell readers and when.
In a mystery, the story is all about introducing the players – the detective, the victim, the witnesses, suspects and other necessary individuals—setting up the crime, and then revealing information about what happened in small doses, spaced out appropriately through the story, until the solution is revealed. Because it’s plot-driven genre, there’s usually not much room for deep character development. And yet, readers love some mysteries and series more than others based almost solely on the main characters.
Because of tight word counts and plot focus most character development is woven into how the detective solves the mystery. Think of Nero Wolfe and the way he sends Archie Goodwin out to gather information because he refuses to leave home. Or Jack Reacher’s lone wolf tough-guy style. Or any of Agatha Christie’s odd assortment of detectives.
But all the lovely little bits that show the character have to be worked pretty deeply into the overall plot. The only time we get to see Nero Wolfe working with his orchids is when Archie goes to fill him in on some important information from the case. Hercule Poirot twirls his ‘moustaches’ while discussing the latest suspect.
In my own mystery novel, A Gift for Murder, the first in my Market Center Mysteries series, I worked in a lot of the detail of trade shows and how they operate when my heroine, Heather McNeil has to explain the job to a newcomer. And then I tried to work in a bit of atmosphere with each little bit of evidence I revealed. That’s been one of my guiding principles in writing – make sure that everything I include serves more than one purpose. Each clue to the mystery is part of the background of the show and helps make the setting more real. I try to be sure each interaction the character has also helps demonstrate character as well as advance either the main or a subplot.
A couple of scenes I included in the first draft did what I thought was an amazing job of showing some of the depths of the main character. One I especially liked was a small section where Heather stopped at a booth showing an assortment of paintings. A couple of them inspired some interesting musings on her approach to life and her work.
Unfortunately, as my editor pointed out, that was all they did. Those scenes didn’t advance the plot in any way, provided no clues to the mystery, and didn’t help establish the setting. She suggested cutting them and I did. When I self-published the book after rights reverted to me, I didn’t put them back, even though I’d like them.
Everything has to carry its share of the weight in a story by serving double duty. Those scenes didn’t and therefore they didn’t help to make the story more real for a reader. Out they went.
Karen McCullough is the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Daphne, Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, six grandchildren (plus one on the way) and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.
A Gift for Murder Blurb:
The Home and Decorative Accessories Show makes for a long week for the Market Center staff, and particularly for Heather McNeil. As assistant to the director of Washington, D.C.’s, Market and Commerce center, she’s point person for complaining exhibitors, missing shipments and miscellaneous disasters. It’s a job she takes in stride—until murder crashes the event.
- Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGKYNT6
- Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/gift-for-murder-karen-mccullough/1100204419?ean=2940016665269&isbn=2940016665269
- Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/308556
- iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/a-gift-for-murder/id641857648?mt=11