Mapping Your Mayhem

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

When I was asked to teach a writing course for Sisters-in-Crime/Los Angeles, I decided I better evaluate how I wrote a story first. I write novels and short stories and figured there were similar fundamentals all writers use in both endeavors. Then I remembered the Aristotle course I had taken in college. I still had the textbook, The Poetics, so I dusted it off and read the part on the 5 Basic Elements in any story: Plot, Character, Dialogue, Setting, and The Meaning of the story.

I have covered most of these points in previous blogs, but there is one crucial thing a writer needs to make sure all these elements fit and that is a Timeline. I looked back over the files I had on all the books and stories I had written and lo and behold, I actually made a timeline for just about all of the stories.

What does a Timeline do? It keeps track of Who does What, Where, and When, and sometimes Why. I worked as a newspaper reporter a long time ago and those points were necessary in any article I wrote.

I actually use several methods to achieve these goals. If the story doesn’t cover very much time or utilizes few locals, I write a simple Timeline noting the date and time certain things happen and where the action takes place and who does what each time. If there is a lot of time covered, I use a calendar.

I generally have a basic idea what my story is about before I start putting words on paper. I write the opening (usually about 20 times) until I know where I’m going and the tone I want in the story. Then I jot down the relative time of day each event happens as the story progresses. I break them into no less than 15 minute intervals. Usually it is thirty minutes or by the hour. You can’t have more than 24 hours in any given day, so it keeps you honest and organized.

If my characters are driving around the city, take for instance Los Angeles, I use Google Maps to see how long it takes to get from point A to point B. I’ve seen TV shows where people in L.A. can get someplace in thirty seconds… Only if they use a teleporter. (“Beam me up, Scotty.”) I discipline myself and make my fiction a tad more real.

When I have finished the story, I’ll go back over the Timeline to see if I have crammed too much or too little into that given time frame. And I do something else. I’ll see if the plot holds together. Sometimes a destination doesn’t make sense or maybe some other character should be involved or eliminated. And sometimes I need to add a high point or low point just to give the story movement. I know movies today are all action and explosions and no plot, but I prefer plot and character.

There is another type of timeline I make: A List of Characters. I include their date of birth in case they age throughout the story. You want to make sure you don’t have a character born in 1920 be only fifty in 1990. And you don’t want a character to remember seeing news of the Hindenburg when she was born in 1947. Keep track. I start out with a piece of paper that I print off just for this task. I pencil in the character’s name as I write them. I give a brief description of their role and age. Many times I change the name. I put an alphabet at the bottom of the character page. I circle the first letter of the character’s name in that alphabet. I want each name to fit each particular character, but they can’t all begin the same letter unless I’m having fun.

When I’m finished with the story, I copy all those names and descriptions into the computer and add even more description and start evaluating those characters. Do some need more personality? Does one need to be meaner? Or smarter? Or should a particular character add something to the story that is needed? Or should the character be eliminated? One time I wrote a book knowing who the bad guy (or in this case gal) was going to be, but when I was finished, I had another thought. I bumped off the initial suspect and then my private detective had to go back over the case to see what she missed… or was it time to hang up her .38s and retire? It was by reviewing that list of characters that allowed me to see a “What if?” scenario. And I am glad I did. It made for a much better and far more exciting conclusion to the novel.

And here is another benefit in having that Timeline. It gives you an Outline for your story in case an editor or publisher wants a synopsis of your book. And even better, that quick rundown of the plot lets you see what your story is about so you can more easily write the all important blurb for the back of your book. You only need the first third to tell any reader what is in store. Think of the Timeline as the dry run for that “elevator pitch” you have heard about. The fact that you have consolidated your story into a few pages of a “time-lined” plot; you can easily tell someone what the story is about.

I have put most of my writing course into books: The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook and its companion book: So You Want to be a Writer. They cover many of the things I have posted on our blog, but as an added bonus, they give you diagrams and pictures of the worksheets I employ. I use them in all my writing. I never create a story without them. Maybe they can help you. Write on!

How Writing Has Become My “Virtual Vacation.”

by Author Hope Callighan

After a tumultuous 2020 (Who saw that coming??), I’ve found writing has become easier – easier for me to escape what’s going on in the world and become immersed in my characters’ worlds.

I’ve also discovered that readers are looking for an escape these days, more so now than ever before. I hear it over and over in the emails that I get.

For those of you who have never heard of me, I’m a Christian cozy mystery writer, with several published series. Most feature a mature female character who has faced some life-altering event and been forced – or decided to – start over. As each series progresses, the characters develop strong and lasting friendships and relationships.

So…if you’re a seasoned writer or just beginning, I’ll share a few tips on how I have decided what to write and then once I start, how to find my happy place so that the words flow.

I love what I write. Back in 2015, my husband and I were brainstorming one day, tossing out ideas for a new series. We came up with the idea for me to write one about a woman who became assistant cruise director on board a mega passenger cruise ship since cruising was something that we both loved.

Not long after, I released “Starboard Secrets.” After writing the first book, I was hooked. I had so much fun joining Millie, my main character, on her cruise ship adventure. That series has continued for five years with book twenty releasing a couple weeks ago.

The joys of research. Researching about cruising makes me happy and when I’m happy, the ideas flow. What better way to write a cruise ship adventure than when I’m sitting on my private balcony gazing out at the vast ocean and breathing salty sea air?

I use my own experiences. Adding my own experiences helps make my stories more authentic. Readers are smart – they pick up on that and appreciate it.

I love cruising, but I also love visiting Savannah, Georgia. Thus, the idea for my “Made in Savannah” series, which is also popular with readers.

After the third or so visit to this great city, I decided that Savannah would be the perfect location for a new set of characters and adventures.

The main character, a mobster’s wife, promises her husband on his deathbed, to get their sons out of the “family.” After his death, she discovers a key in his pocket that leads her to a property he owned in historic Savannah, Georgia.

Keeping good on her promise, she moves from New York and starts over. It’s a bumpy journey and the lead character realizes escaping her past isn’t quite that easy. Readers love learning about this unique location, her commitment to her family and they are emotionally invested in her and her children’s success.

The latest release, “Christmas Family Style” is a fan favorite – and one of this writer’s favorites, as well. It has elements of things that I love…Savannah, Christmas, family. I’m already getting emails from readers, asking when the next book will release.

What’s new? I currently have three “WIP” – works in progress. Actually, they’re the first three books in a spinoff series for my first cozy mysteries, The Garden Girls, set in the fictitious town of Belhaven, Michigan.

So…if you happened to hop off here to take a peek at my author page, you know that I have several ongoing series…four to be exact. I have devoted, die-hard readers for each and am convinced they would hunt me down if I ended any of them.

How do I successfully keep them running, keep readers buying the books and turning the pages? I’ll share a couple of my tips with you:

Be mindful of “Cookie Cutters.” If you write a series, or plan to write a series, always remember that your readers have expectations. They want to pick up your book and know what they’re getting. That’s why they bought it, right? But there can be a fine line between meeting expectations and writing cookie cutter books. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase wash, rinse, repeat – but that can be misleading, because there is SO. MUCH. MORE.)

If you write the exact same (for example) mystery story over and over – and the only thing you change is the basic mystery, the names of the suspects and the “whodunnit,” you run the risk of cookie cutter burnout – for you as the writer as well as the reader. I believe that a series needs to progress…just like life. New characters are added while others fade away. Difficult circumstances arise – divorce, death, yet the main character prevails no matter what.

If your plan is to start a new and long series, spend some time thinking about it. Where do you want to start? Where do you want the series to go? How many books do you plan to write? How will you keep the series the same – to meet readers’ expectations, yet fresh, where they’re eagerly and anxiously waiting to find out what happens next?

Be original! A few years back, the hot, new cozies were all about donuts. There were donut shop settings everywhere. After a while, the covers and stories all looked and sounded the same. I couldn’t tell one from the other.

So, be original and your work will stand out.

I’ll end with this – a piece of advice I wish I’d had before writing my very first fiction story. Keep notes, notes and more notes.

I keep copious notes on each of my series…characters, descriptions, locations, a synopsis of every story. I even track the seasons. This helps me “jump right back in” when returning to a series, so I’m not totally overwhelmed or completely lost.

It also saves me from backtracking, spending valuable time poring over previous books to track down details that are important to the story, which takes me out of the moment and makes it harder to get the creative juices flowing again.

A lot of my readers re-read my series and they read straight through from one to the next, which means I need to be on my toes with the details. This is particularly important if you write long series.

We’ve certainly faced some challenging times this year. As I write, I keep reminding myself that those words mean something to readers…to my readers. I’m helping make the world a little brighter by bringing a smile to someone’s face or have touched their heart.

Perhaps it was a Bible verse I included that struck just the right chord and encouraged someone. (I have gotten emails from readers who have told me this and let me tell you, it never fails to give me chills that God is able to use me in such an incredible way.)

My last piece of advice is to find joy in your writing, because when you love what you write, your readers will, too.

*****

If you would like to find out more about me or my books, you can find me at:

Website:  hopecallaghan.com

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/authorhopecallaghan/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Hope-Callaghan/e/B00OJ5X702/

This blog post was posted for Hope Callighan by Photojaq (Jackie Houchin)

Skeletons After Halloween

by Linda O. Johnston

My fellow Writers in Residence always seem to come up with some wonderful writing advice when they blog here. 

Me?  Not so much. 

Oh, I love writing. It’s what I do. And years ago, I used to attempt to learn, and follow, all the rules I could. 

Now, I’m just used to doing it my way–which, yes, does include some rules, at least. 

And what is that way?  Well, first I need to come up with an idea.  What kind of idea? That depends on what I want to write next. These days, that’s nearly always a romantic suspense book or a mystery that is part of, or might become, a series. 

Then what?  Well, I sit in front of my computer and plot. And plan. And more. 

Over my many years of writing I’ve come up with what I call a “plot skeleton.” 

 It has various blanks to fill in, although I don’t always complete everything.  The beginning is just a blank where I put down anything that appears in my head.  From there, I’ll focus on my main characters and write all that comes to mind about them: their backgrounds, what they’re doing now, why they get involved in this story, and what’s likely to happen to them–often putting it into a character arc. 

I also make a list of other characters at the end, though it doesn’t have to be complete. 

Eventually, I get around to my actual plotting part, where I have blanks to fill in that generally follow screenplay plotting: grabber, three acts that are each ended by a plot point, a black moment, climax and ending. Do I follow them all exactly?  No, but having the skeleton there to fill in is a good reminder if I choose to do so.          

And then–I use that screenplay plotting to create the synopsis.  From there, if I need to put together a full proposal, I write the first three chapters. 

Simple? Yes… and no.  But it works for me. 

So Happy Post-Halloween, and my skeleton is still keeping me company!  And if you’re a writer, may you plot the way that works best for you.

Photo by Matthew Schwartz, Unsplash

(Linda O. Johnston's article was posted by Jackie Houchin)