Two Murders in One Book: A Story-Within-a-Story

by V.M. (Valerie) Burns

Each book in my Mystery Bookshop Mystery series features a story-within-a-story. My protagonist, Samantha Washington and her late husband, Leon, dreamed of quitting their jobs and owning a mystery bookshop. When her husband dies, Samantha realizes life is too short not to follow your dreams. So, she quits her job, buys the building she and Leon always dreamed about, and opens a mystery bookshop. Owning a bookshop that specializes in mysteries was a dream Sam shared with her husband. However, she also had another dream. She dreamed of writing British historic cozy mysteries, which she does to fill her time after her husband’s death. Each book in the Mystery Bookshop mystery series includes two mysteries, the mystery that Sam is solving in her real life and the British historic cozy mystery that she’s writing.

People often ask, what inspired me to write a story-within-a-story. The truth is this series didn’t start out that way. When I first started to flesh out the idea for the series, my initial plan was that the only murders would take place in the book that my protagonist was writing. I didn’t plan on having Sam solve a murder in her personal life at all. This is where I got the title for the first book, THE PLOT IS MURDER. My theory was that it would be more realistic that way and I wouldn’t have dead bodies littering the streets of the small fictional town of North Harbor, Michigan. However, I wondered if mystery readers would be satisfied with that. Then, I had my eureka moment. What if, I had two mysteries? The protagonist would solve a mystery in her life AND there would also be a murder to solve in the book she was writing. As a mystery lover, I thought that would be a book I would want to read. As an author, I wondered, what was I thinking? It’s hard enough to write one mystery. How was I going to write two?

I tackled the task of writing two mysteries in every book the same way you eat an elephant—one bite at a time. When I started, I didn’t have an elaborate plan (or much of a plan at all). I knew I wanted parallels between my two storylines. My thought was that writing the British historic cozy would help my protagonist (Samantha) solve the mystery in her real life. So, if Sam was faced with a locked room mystery, then there would be a locked room mystery in the book she was writing. 

Another common question I get is whether I write the stories separately or simultaneously. For me personally, I write in sequence. I have friends who can write scenes out of order. However, I can’t do that. I have to write in order. Occasionally, I get stuck (it might be more than occasionally) and I have to move forward and come back and finish a scene later, but that’s about all I can do out of sequence. It’s probably just a personal quirk (I’ve got quite a few). 

My best advice for writing, whether it’s a story-within-a-story, a stand-alone, a series, short story, whatever, is to figure out what works for you and do that. Writing isn’t a one size fits all activity. Just because one method works for one person, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Each person and each writer is different. Writing a book from beginning to end is hard. Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to be someone else. Also, keep in mind that everyone doesn’t like the story-within-a-story concept. I’ve heard from readers who found it distracting and have told me they skip the British historic cozy. I’ve also heard from readers who prefer the British historic cozy over the contemporary mystery. Every person is different with their own unique likes and dislikes. It will be impossible to please everyone. As a writer, all you can do is focus on writing the best book you possibly can. Keep your fingers crossed. With perseverance, hard work, and a great deal of luck, your dreams can come true, just like Samantha Washington.

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While visiting the land of Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes, bookstore owner and amateur sleuth Samantha Washington finds herself on a tragical mystery tour . . .
 
Sam joins Nana Jo and her Shady Acres Retirement Village friends Irma, Dorothy, and Ruby Mae on a weeklong trip to London, England, to experience the Peabody Mystery Lovers Tour. The chance to see the sights and walk the streets that inspired Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle is a dream come true for Sam—and a perfect way to celebrate her new publishing contract as a mystery author.
 
But between visits to Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel district and 221B Baker Street, Major Horace Peabody is found dead, supposedly of natural causes. Despite his employer’s unfortunate demise, the tour guide insists on keeping calm and carrying on—until another tourist on their trip also dies under mysterious circumstances. Now it’s up to Sam and the Shady Acres ladies to mix and mingle among their fellow mystery lovers, find a motive, and turn up a murderer . . .

You can read more about Samantha Washington in the other Mystery Bookshop Mysteries.

THE PLOT IS MURDER

READ HERRING HUNT

THE NOVEL ART OF MURDER

WED, READ, AND DEAD

BOOKMARKED FOR MURDER

Purchase Link

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About the author

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V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born and raised in Northwestern Indiana. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dog Writers Association of America, Thriller Writers International, Southeast Mystery Writers of America, and is on the national board for Sisters in Crime. V.M. Burns is also the Agatha Award nominated author of The Plot is Murder, the first book in the Mystery Bookshop Mystery series; and the RJ Franklin Mystery series. She now lives in Eastern Tennessee with her two poodles. Readers can keep up with new releases by following her on social media.

Website: http://www.vmburns.com/

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

Instagram: https//www.instagram.com/vmburnsbooks

Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/v-m-burns

 

This article was posted for V. M. Burns by Jackie Houchin.

 

What planner to use? My conundrum.

by Cynthia Naden

PLANNER.FRANKLIN 80326_6lrgI have been using a planner since the early 1990s and before when I was in real estate. It was a simple spiral 5×7 notebook. It worked for me until I was introduced to the Franklin Covey Planner when I was a paralegal working for Honda North America. The company was paying for the planners, and everyone was encouraged to use the Franklin system.  I did and loved it. I continued to use the Franklin program even when I changed employers.

I had discovered how beneficial it was and in the habit of writing things down and marking them off when I accomplished them. I hadn’t planned on changing, but when I was forced into early retirement and decided to pursue a writing career, I converted my planning to that of a writer and discovered that it was more important than ever.

PLANNER.NOVEL2 il_1140xN.2394617989_pn00However, I am still in search of the perfect writer’s planner.  I have immersed myself into planning groups and become friends with other authors who use planners. Surprisingly a number of them use a combination of planners. I was surprised to learn that my author friends had incorporated several different ones depending on what they needed to track to organize their busy lives.  They will use an individual planner for personal, family, and writing.

When selecting a planner – there are choices: dated and undated, weekly or daily layout in addition to monthly design, hole punched/loose-leaf, spiral-bound, hardcover bound, softcover bound, size, i.e., 5.75″ x 8.25” or 7″ x 10″, 8” x 11”, and the list goes on. The planner world has expanded into adding stickers for a personal and decorative touch!

PLANNER emma-matthews-digital-content-production-8K62atzbulQ-unsplashI have used a Panda Planner, Amplify, Commit30, Happy Planner, Erin Condren, Define Your Day, Full Focus, and All in One Planner by the Ivory Paper Company.

My problem is that I have tried several different ones besides Franklin and come back to it, but find it lacking and not always exactly what I need for my writing career. Hence, I have a stack of the planners, as mentioned above, that I am using or have tried out.

Help me! What is your go-to planner?

Social Media and Me

by Linda O. Johnston

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First off: Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone, and the best of luck to you!

Now, into my topic of today: social media and me. And I have to admit I’m far from being an expert. But does that keep me away from some of the sites? No! 

I’m always on my computer, or nearly so. Yes, I spend most of that time writing and editing and pondering the fiction I’m writing. 

But then there’s social media and me.  I spend too much time on Facebook, though I admit I’m not good at it. I look at other people’s posts and comment on them. On my own home page I’m likely to post stuff about anything special about the day, especially if there’s something going on about animals, particularly dogs.  Most recently it was National K9 Veterans Day.  Why?   Because I’m a full-time dog lover.

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I belong to Facebook groups, too. Some involving writing, of course, but that’s  not all. Can you guess the topic in which I’ve joined the most groups? Well, what if I told you there are lots of Facebook groups featuring Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, the dog breed I’m addicted to? Right!

I do have my own website: www.LindaOJohnston.com  And one of these days I’ll add an author page to Facebook. I hope.

 I also get on social media to help promote my published novels. Yes, I do that on Facebook, especially when there’s something new coming out. This year, I’ll have two new Harlequin Romantic Suspense books published, one in August and one in October. You can bet I’ll let the world know via Facebook then.

And then there’s Writerspace. I subscribe to the site, which calls itself Communities for Writers and Readers. They do a lot of promotion for me. There’s a monthly Author News newsletter that I always participate in. I can do blogs there, and have new books featured, and participate in their monthly contest.

You can figure out, since I’m here, that I like to blog. A couple of the sites where I used to blog regularly have shut down, such as Killer Characters. I still blog on Killer Hobbies each Wednesday, but now there are only two of us posting there.  I also blogged on the InkSpot blog fairly regularly, but that was one helping to promote books published by Midnight Ink, one of my former mystery publishers–that now has gone out of business. 

What about other social media sites? I haven’t really gotten into them. I have a Twitter account but never use it except to read others’ posts. I also have a Goodreads account but am seldom there. I don’t do Instagram–or really much of anything else.

 I admire people who do more than me in social media. And I’m generally open to trying something different as long as I don’t have to spend much time learning to do it. 

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So–What do you think of Social Media? What’s your favorite site and why? What do you like to post? How often? And do you think it helps your writing and selling?

WHAT MAGELLAN STARTED…

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  by Rosemary Lord

Hmmm. Well, it’s been a year of discovery, hasn’t it?

When our world was stopped a year ago, by the dastardly Covid pandemic, we had to re-think our entire lives. The way we did everything. The way we worked, lived and communicated. For those of us living alone, we learned more about ourselves. Those quarantined with loved ones and family members, probably learned more about them than they ever wanted to know!

A year later, look at how much we have discovered about us and everyone else and about the world around us. Our priorities have changed. We have learned to appreciate so many things. We have adjusted, we have compromised. We have discovered whole new worlds into which we never would normally have ventured when, at times, the internet or The Discovery Channel were our only companions during this past year.

That’s where Ferdie comes in. Ferdinand Magellan was born into poverty in Portugal in 1480. He was orphaned at 10 years old. Not a great start in life – but he had an imagination and a curiosity. At 12 years old, he was appointed as a page to the Queen of Portugal. He received an excellent and diverse education at the palace. The more he learned, the more curious he became about the world that he knew must be out there, somewhere. Portugal appeared uninterested in his adventurous ideas, so he turned to the King of Spain. The King listened. When Ferdinand Magellan set out to discover new worlds on his Spanish expedition to the East Indies in 1519, he had a goal. He had carefully plotted. (Take heed, writers: plotting can be useful!) He had a plan.

He had decided to prove Copernicus and others wrong, and prove that the earth was not flat.  Magellan became the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe. And he didn’t fall off the edge! He even named the Pacific Ocean such – because it was more peaceful than the Atlantic Ocean he had traversed. He studied clouds, discovered penguins – and the Spice Islands! How exciting!

All because he had planned and plotted and Life had taken him in a different direction and on a different adventure. And because he was curious…

Curiosity – that’s what is so important to writers. Curiosity and a sense of adventure. With a year of no actual travel, many people have turned to ‘armchair travelling.’ Luckily for us writers, people have been reading books as a way of escape, as a way of learning about new lands, new places and people. They’ve been reading far more books than usual. They didn’t have time before. And many have been so inspired by the places they have visited on the written page, that they have resolved to travel far and wide – once the Covid regulations allow.

Our writing has that effect on people. We paint pictures of enchanting islands where romance lingers in the air, or dark, mysterious back-streets winding through spice-scented villages, or vast golden sands stretching out to reach the azure skies. Perhaps an overcrowded city-scape, where throngs of bustling people hurry on about their lives, speaking an unfamiliar language – or the quiet charm of a Cotswold village of fifty years ago, or a painted houseboat on the Ganges…

There’s a whole world out there that we, as writers, have introduced our readers to. Often places we, ourselves, have never visited. We just love to do research and we’re good at it.

For generations, people the world over felt doomed to travelling every rush hour to a cubicle office in an anonymous tower, to work in order to earn a pay check to support their families.

Well, this past year, they discovered that, like us lucky writers, they could do a lot of work from home. Lives changed forever. People got creative and reassessed just how important is that promotion, that fancy office title? Perhaps they could downsize and lessen their financial burdens. Maybe they could stay home and become a carpenter, or a painter – or write that novel they had always felt they had in them… Well they did. And they have.

This past year our writers’ world has changed, too. Without Writers’ Conferences, we have Zoomed, Skyped and learned the mechanics of Webinars. We’ve learned our way through self-publishing, while waiting for traditional publishers to resurface. It seems that more books than ever have been published and more books than ever are being read. If you’re not commuting to the city every day – you have time to read more. A lot more.  So it works out for everyone.

This past year of discovery has affected our writing, too. During the decluttering that we enthused over, we have unearthed and finished old, forgotten manuscripts. Some writers are exploring writing in different genres. They’ve found a different voice. A different song to sing. 

So the adventures and challenges (big and small) of this past year and our discoveries about ourselves and our life today may not sound as exhilarating – and certainly not as dangerous  – as Magellan’s. We may be on a different path now, and not where we thought we needed to be. But it’s still our own discovery and just as magical in its own way. Thank you, Ferdie, for leading the way….             

Posted for Rosemary Lord by G.B. Pool

BACK TO BASICS: Writers’ Boot Camp Part III

 by Miko Johnston

Last year I began the BACK TO BASICS series with BEGINNINGS and then presented MIDDLES, so as this is my first post of 2021, I’m beginning by ending the series with ENDINGS.

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Congratulations. You’ve grabbed the reader’s attention with your opening and kept them rapt through your middle chapters. Don’t spoil things now with a disappointing or frustrating finale – the pages that comprise the lead-up to the climax through the final sentence. 

An off-putting beginning may discourage a reader, and when asked she’ll say, “I couldn’t get into it, but you might like it”. A problematic middle will dampen her interest, but she’ll likely continue, hoping for redemption. However, a bad ending will exasperate her. She’ll fume over wasting her money buying the book and wasting her time reading through to the end, and she’ll badmouth the book to everyone she’s ever met.

Am I right?

Once you’ve convinced a reader to buy your book, you don’t want to ruin all the time they’ll invest in reading it with an ending that falls flat, doesn’t make sense, or comes out of nowhere.  

A good ending must appeal to our emotions as well as our logic; move us, make us think, but also make sense. The best ending, simply put, satisfies the reader. This is not synonymous with a happy ending, which too often can be trite. It means the story finishes in a way the reader feels is plausible, based on what happened throughout the pages. She may be pleasantly surprised it didn’t turn out as expected, but as it ought to have concluded. Or she may be left wanting the story to go further and view the end as merely a good stopping point, which it should if you’re writing a series. Genres often dictate the type of ending needed – the detective solves the murder, the cop catches the criminal, the lovers beat all odds and wind up together. 

To conclude your novel successfully, first consider what doesn’t make a good ending:

1 – A lack of any closure. The point of the story must be resolved. You don’t have to spell everything out, but too many story threads left hanging will frustrate the reader. 

2 – Too ambiguous. You can leave some details to the reader’s imagination, but not the entire plot.

3 – Too neat. The opposite problem; tying up too much or having everything work out perfectly defies credulity.

4 – Too rushed. You want to build tension as you approach your final pages. A fast pace can produce excitement, but slow it down enough to generate that tension.

5 – Too drawn out. If you slow the pace too much you won’t generate tension and worse, you’ll lose the reader’s attention.

6 – Too contrived. Also known as deux ex machina or “the Martians landed”, this ending comes out of thin air with no foreshadowing in the story.

7 – Too predictable. Even if we know how the story will probably end, we still want something satisfying before we close the book.

8 – No ending. The story just stops.

If you’re wondering what satisfies readers you have only to look at book review sites like Amazon and Goodreads, which offer (usually) genuine critique. Your own experience as a reader will inform you as well. Classic endings include:

1 – Resolved: Effective in stand-alone stories where the protagonist has a goal and achieves it. The detective solves the murder. The lovers reunite. The operation is successful. This works best if it involves some plot twist, surprise or emotional satisfaction.

2 – Unresolved: Commonly used in literary fiction, where the point is to give the reader something to consider, or evoke an emotion. It’s often seen in series, where some plot elements are left for the next book, but trickier to pull off in a stand-alone. There’s a fine line between unresolved and ambiguous, so even when done well, many readers don’t find this type of conclusion satisfying.

3 – Open-ended: This is an implied ending, which like the unresolved ending, can frustrate readers who want to know, not contemplate, what happens. It differs from the unresolved ending in that the reader gets a sense of how the story turns out through foreshadowing in earlier chapters, or it might leave the plot open to interpretation, but complete the protagonist’s arc.

4 – The twist: Also known as a surprise ending. It differs from the contrived ending because it’s been adequately set up throughout the plot by lacing the story with subtle clues. Twist endings delight readers of mysteries, but it also works in other genres.

5 – Book-ended: I mentioned this in Part I of Writer’s Boot Camp. If you begin your story with the lead-up to the climax, complete the circle by returning to that moment at the end. Or, instead of pairing an action, create a symbolic book-end by repeating the theme of your opening, very effective in stories about never-ending battles like fighting crime, spies or terrorists.

6 – Statement or summation: This can complement or a contrast a statement or explanation beginning, and like it, tends to be cerebral. A successful version will be metaphorical rather than concrete, leaving the reader with something to think about, or picturing what happened and imagining what will happen next.

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The one element all good ending have in common is that they’re successful only when properly set up throughout the pages.

Still struggling? If your finale lacks closure or is muddled, it might be because you didn’t resolve enough story threads. Fix that with addition and subtraction – add enough details to flesh out critical plot point and edit out non-critical bits like multiple red herrings and extraneous characters or storylines.

If the pacing is off, decide whether you’ve rushed or dragged out the climax. If it’s the former, intensify the ending by delaying the payoff enough to create tension. Emotional reactions, thoughts, reasoning out, or physical actions like running, arguing or physically fighting can slow down a rushed pace with added conflict. Trimming might be enough to fix a plodding climax. Shortening sentences to an almost staccato rhythm speeds up the pace as well.

Does your protagonist feature prominently in the resolution of the story? There’s a reason a common synonym for protagonist is hero – we want our characters to be pro-active in bringing about the conclusion of the story. Make them active participants in their quest and its success or failure.

If pacing and character aren’t the problem, then consider the tone. Have you maintained continuity throughout? Can you justify your protagonist’s arc? I’ve read books that changed genres or mood along the way. In some cases the end bears little resemblance to the beginning. Find the scene where you lost your way and let it guide you to what and how much needs revising.

What if you don’t know the ending, or aren’t sure of how to bring it about?

I introduced the idea of writing different beginnings in Part I. It also works in reverse. If you’re unsure of how the story should end, consider the different possibilities and write out a few. See which works best with what you have. For example, if you can’t think of a good twist ending to your mystery, attempt a book-ended or a resolved ending. It may yield an idea for your story’s climax. Or, if you can’t decide between several endings, consider making it open-ended by inserting clues from the potential conclusions into the plot. Then the reader can decide for herself.

If you can’t seem to get to the ending you’ve planned, try the bridge technique outlined in Part II.  Link up the ending with the last chapters you’ve completed by working backwards for a while, then move the story forward to that point.

I hope the techniques I’ve outlined in this series have been helpful. Perhaps you have other methods you employ to open, continue or close your stories. We’d love to hear them.

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Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories in anthologies including LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently completing the fourth book in the Petal series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com