From Stage to Page: How a Playwright Became a Writer by Elena Hartwell

Hartwell_Headshot I wanted to be a novelist. It wasn’t just that fiction might pay better (it does) or that playwrights aren’t “real writers” (they are), it was that fiction — especially mysteries — was still my first love.

By Elena Hartwell

I cut my teeth on murder mysteries. Starting with Nancy Drew. Then moving on to Tony Hillerman — the entire series sat on my granny’s bookshelf — then, later, falling in love with Kinsey Millhone. As a reader, I have run the mystery genre gauntlet from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Rich Zahradnik.

I was sure I’d be a writer.

Then I discovered theater. And fell into a dark place. Well, dark much of the time, because we’re always working with the house lights off and nothing but a glow coming from the stage. I loved working in the theater. Directing, building, lighting, propping, acting, and sometimes … writing.

But something nagged at me. I wanted to be a novelist. It wasn’t just that fiction might pay better (it does) or that playwrights aren’t “real writers” (they are), it was that fiction — especially mysteries — was still my first love. I wanted to be a part of that amazing group of writers who filled so many of my reading hours with thrills, suspense, danger, and sometimes humor.

gMLNYk3A8H2lS0M_lurcfJ2VEYFNIictLCWzzi0pJD0,zaeu-BFY1iFvhn5wTqZsj7a3xtjtxVtSy7psEFCgJNMPlaywriting taught me a lot about story structure, dramatic tension, and especially dialogue.

Playwriting taught me a lot about story structure, dramatic tension, and especially dialogue. When I started sending my fiction out to agents and publishers — even when I was told “no” — I often got personal notes about the success of my dialogue. Much of what I’d honed for years onstage, turned out to work very well on the page.

The same held true for character development. To create a blueprint for an actor to fill out as a full-blown character, a playwright has to understand backstory and psychology and intention. All of this experience went into my first book, which didn’t sell, and my second book, which didn’t sell, and my third book, which didn’t sell… and into my fourth, which did. I’d finally learned how to write like a novelist.

one_dead_300 coverStory editors are gifts from the gods. . .While those early manuscripts were extremely valuable, helping me become a successful writer, working with a talented editor was the final, missing piece in my puzzle.

Finding a home for One Dead, Two to Go taught me another valuable lesson. Story editors are gifts from the gods. I learned as much about how to shape a mystery and how to set up a series in the months I worked with my editor as I had writing my first couple of manuscripts. While those early manuscripts were extremely valuable, helping me become a successful writer, working with a talented editor was the final, missing piece in my puzzle.

I started writing for the theater twenty years ago. I’ve had productions around the US and abroad. And now, my first book launched on April 15, 2016. They are all my children: my plays, my novels, my short stories and blog posts. Every word I write matters to me. Will I continue to write plays? I think so. I hope so. I love the theater and even now feel its siren call. But writing my “first” novel was also special. It felt like coming home. I cut my teeth on murder mysteries, and now, here I am, all grown up, with one of my very own.


For more of Elena Hartwell and her writing:
https://twitter.com/Elena_Hartwell

 

 

E. Michael Helms: Me, Myself, and I

helms

Me, Myself, and I—or why I favor First Person Point of View

Why do I favor writing (and reading) in First Person POV? “I’m glad I asked that question,” I said. Okay, all kidding aside, here are a few reasons why:

Realism: We all experience life in first person. Think about it. When is the last time you heard anyone referring to him or herself as anything other than “I” “me” “mine” “my” “myself”? If your wife, husband, best friend, lover, or worst enemy dines out at a fabulous restaurant in your absence, how do you learn about their dining experience? It must be relayed to you through the spoken word from the individual’s own mouth. Think second-hand information. In real life, there is no “omniscient” being that can fill in the particulars about what your friend or cousin saw, touched, smelled, heard, or tasted during the meal.

Imagine you’re at a crowded stadium for your team’s most important game of the season. If they win, they play for the national championship. Lose—they go home—game over, season over. You are there, experiencing first hand (first person) the scent of hot dogs, popcorn, roasted peanuts, and draft beer wafting on the breeze. Not to mention the lovely young college lass wearing the low-cut blouse sitting in front of you. The air is electric. The crowd roars as you watch the quarterback scramble and hurl a sixty-yard TD strike to the open wide receiver. The roar is deafening, the stadium literally shakes, and you are there!

But what if you’re stuck at home with no ticket? Worse yet, your new sixty-six inch, flat-screen TV is on the blink. The game is about to begin as you frantically dial your radio to the station broadcasting the game, hoping to catch the opening kickoff. Ah, there it is, and the reception is decent—not great—but you can pick out what’s going on from the announcer’s running commentary. “Shotgun formation, empty backfield. Bronson studies the defense. He takes the snap, avoids a tackle and rolls out of the pocket to the right. Deshaun Carter has a step on the cornerback down the right sideline! Bronson sidesteps another rusher. He’s got Carter wide open . . . there’s the throw . . . it’s . . . Carter juggles the ball . . . he’s got it! Touchdown, Tigers!”

Which scenario do you prefer? (Assuming you are a rabid football fan; if not, insert your own favorite pastime.) For me, experiencing the game first hand wins, hands-down.

Walk a mile in my shoes: Another strong point for First Person POV is the intimate connection between the reader and protagonist. From the beginning the reader is “inside the hero’s head” and immediately privy to his thoughts and emotions. Nothing is “watered down” by the distance of a third person narrator. Reader and protagonist are bonded “in the moment.”

Strong characterization: Because the reader is inside the hero’s head, he/she quickly learns what makes the protagonist “tick.” The reader becomes a mind reader, knowing minute details about the protag that might not be revealed to anyone in the story, even our hero’s closest friend or love interest. Nothing is hidden from the reader. He/she sees all, knows all, even the protagonist’s deepest, darkest secrets. Quite an advantage, is it not?

Did someone say “pitfalls?”: Okay, I’ll be the first to admit there are—or can be—obstacles to First Person POV. If handled correctly, I believe first person is an effective and highly entertaining way to construct a story or novel. There are, however, a few things to be aware of:

Scenes where our narrator is absent. If our hero is missing from the scene, he can’t know firsthand what happened. This is where strong secondary characters can shine. The protag’s good friend was a witness, and through snappy and informative dialogue events are transferred to our hero. Or, our hero reads about it in the newspaper, or hears it as breaking news on the radio or TV. The point is, important information can be passed to the protagonist effectively in a variety of ways. Skillfully done, it works fine. Poorly done, it can kill your story and cause readers to abandon ship.

Sentence structure. I did this, I did that, I said, ad nauseam. Too many “I”s can quickly become irritating, especially used at the beginning of sentences. I crept to the window. I listened for any sign that he was inside. I pulled the revolver from my back pocket just in case he showed. You get the picture, and it’s not a pretty one. If you plan to use First Person POV be prepared to find innovative ways to break up the nasty habit of beginning too many sentences in the same paragraph (or page) with “I.”

The sounds of silence. There is always the danger of too much inner monologue, or thought, or reflection. If you find your protagonist slogging through a page or two filled with the above, hit the brakes. Break up those lengthy, silent soliloquies or risk losing the reader. Too much “silence” amounts to telling the reader, not showing. So, when your hero begins to wax eloquently to himself, have him receive a phone call with pertinent information that propels the plot forward, or a knock on the door from the cops warning him against crossing the line, or have him unexpectedly spot a suspect and decide to tail him. Remember, B-R-E-A-K it up!

Scarecrows won’t cut it. To pull off First Person POV for the long haul of a novel-length work, your protagonist must be stuffed with more than straw. He or she must be well-rounded, with a strong voice and a vibrant personality. A healthy dose of attitude always helps. Our hero can bend, but not break. Our hero has morals, lives by a code of honor that can’t be broken, but always has a flaw or three to balance things out. No Superman or Superwoman allowed here, unless you’re writing a superhero book. Above all, the reader must be drawn to the protagonist by that certain “something” all heroes possess to one degree or another.

Okay, there you have my perspective on First Person POV. I take full responsibility for my humble offering. I would love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts, agree or disagree. Or, the author of this brief article would enjoy hearing reader’s opinions, whether they agree, disagree, or wish to remain neutral in this matter.

“Oh, good grief!” –Charlie Brown

 

 

Whom Do You Kill: How Kait Carson Constructs a Murder Mystery

Author photos 009On constructing a murder mystery: In the case of a deliberate murder, I look to the victim. Somewhere in his life lie the seeds of his destruction. There was a moment in time when that person set his fate into motion.

Most of my books are murder mysteries. Although some don’t appear to be about murder at first. The general topic includes something timely, human smuggling, drug dealing, corruption, general malfeasance, and then the dead guy shows up. The villains are usually folks you would have to dinner, and the victims could be your best friend. That brings up a problem. How does a writer decide who needs killin’?

The process is different for every writer. I’ve been told that some writers find someone they really, really, really don’t like, and they gleefully kill them off on their pages. Others base their selection on an evildoer they’ve read or heard about and let their imagination take over. Some stream of consciousness writers (a/k/a pantsers) just start the book and wait to see who dies. It’s as good a way as any other is.

female private eyeOn solving the murder mystery: I don’t know why the victim died. To discover that, I write, page after page of profile. The notes talk about the victim’s life, who his friends are, his childhood, what he did for a living, for recreation, his politics, his business associates, and his beliefs

My way is a little different. One of my majors in college was psychology. The study fascinated me, especially the part that dealt with human interactions and how we are the masters of our own destiny and the authors of our own downfall. The concept is like catnip to my creative mind. In the case of a deliberate murder, I look to the victim. Somewhere in his life lie the seeds of his destruction. There was a moment in time when that person set his fate into motion. It’s a time when a choice had to be made, and the victim, knowingly or unknowingly, made one that would have fatal consequences.

I can see you thinking back on your own life…. Have you taken that one turn? Made that simple choice? Of course you have, you’re human. So many possibilities will your choices bear good or evil fruit.

Before I start a book, I know my victim and my protagonist. I don’t know why the victim died. To discover that, I write, page after page of profile. The notes talk about the victim’s life, who his friends are, his childhood, what he did for a living, for recreation, his politics, his business associates, and his beliefs. Somewhere in the middle of all of this free form writing, a pattern begins to appear. Victims at this stage develop the desire for pets, social symbols, spouses, families. They also develop behavior patterns. These behavior patterns become organic. No other person in the book could possibly react in the same way as the victim. How he rationalizes that a particular wrong is right. These reactions and rationalizations tell me why he needs killin’.

Can you identify these seeds in your life? Do you believe that victims are everyman?

(Confession of a killer writer, I’m using the pronoun “he” in these paragraphs. I’ve killed women too. He is nothing more than a convenience of convention, not a definitive identifier.)