What to Cut Out of Your Story

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

Gayle at Bill's House Sept 2022

Hopefully, writers are also readers. We really need to see what others are doing, not to copy their story, but to learn what works and what doesn’t quite get the job done. Thankfully, many writers have their own unique style, though I have read many books that were a tad too much like twenty other authors’ work. Even movies and television shows fall into that category of being like every other show or movie out there. Unfortunately, many current publishers and producers prefer to stick with whatever worked before and won’t venture into a Brave New World. Their loss.

But what if you stick with your original story and don’t want it changed? (1) You don’t sell it to a major publisher/producer. (2) You find a small publisher or studio that doesn’t ask for too many changes. (3) You find a vanity press that lets you do what you want but you don’t make all that much money on the deal, or (4) You self-publish and make even less money unless the winds are favorable and you actually get the recognition you were hoping for. People like Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, Steven King, Charles Dickens, and even Benjamin Franklin self-published. Their books found fame after the initial publication, but they did start out doing the job themselves.

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I have heard many stories about those who sold their work to Hollywood and ended up basically selling their soul in the deal when the entire story was rewritten into something the author wouldn’t recognize. That’s the name of the game. You sell the movie rights to a production company and just walk away with the check in your hand and don’t look back. Really big name writers can negotiate a contract that keeps most of their work intact. Good for them. Some writers might sell the first script/novel/story to Hollywood and if it is a huge success, even if it was gutted and rewritten, their agent negotiates the next deal and the writer keeps his next story intact. Sylvester Stallone didn’t give up his rights on the Rocky movies and it worked out for him. But that isn’t the norm.

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So what does a writer do to keep her story close to what she envisions? If the writer reads a lot of books and watches a lot of current movies and takes note of what type of story any given publisher or producer seems to like, she might gear her story toward that type of writing. That doesn’t mean turning out a carbon copy of the previously published or produced story, but the writer probably should stay within those known parameters. And as I said before, lots of work out there kind of looks the same as everything else you see or read.

Now if you are as frustrated as I am with this nonsense, you will just write your book the way you want, try to find an agent and/or a publisher that likes your work as is. You might be willing to change something on the surface, but if it is a slash and burn request that totally guts your work, you might want to go to another agent and/or publisher, or self-publish.

So what are you willing to cut out of your work? Its heart? Its soul? It’s a tough question to ponder and even harder to answer. Think about it. Write On!

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Let’s Talk about Dialogue

By Gayle Bartos-Pool

Aristotle That Aristotle guy was smart. He understood the basics in writing a story: Plot, Character, Dialogue, Setting, and the Meaning of the story. If the writer doesn’t address all those points… what’s the point of the story? Of course you have to have a Plot. Something’s got to happen. And without people or even a furry face, there is nobody to watch as they uncover those twists and turns. Without a Setting you have no place to wander through while the main characters are exploring that environment. And without a Meaning to the story the reader is going to wonder: Why am I here?

 

But what about Dialogue? That is the way each character tells the reader who they are and even sometimes explains what that environment looks like in personal terms. Remember, one character might see a desert as a wasteland while another might see it as a beautiful vista. That being said, dialog can be tricky. Ask an actor who has to interpret those words and make their character have personality and not be just another passenger on the bus. I learned this lesson when I took acting lessons back in California.

 

There was a time I thought I would write for the movies and television. Yeah, me and about ten million other people. In California, half the people you meet want to be actors, the other half want to write for the silver screen. I thought a good way to see what these actors needed from a screenwriter was to take acting lessons and learn firsthand. I actually learned a lot from the acting teachers I had.

 

The first teacher was actor Bruce Glover. What a character, and I say that with deep respect. He was in the movie Diamonds are Forever with Sean Connery. He played one half of the “killer” duo that wanted those diamonds and did whatever they could to retrieve them. The patter between Glover’s Mr. Wint and Puffer Smith’s Mr. Kidd was reminiscent of the old Vaudeville act featuring the song: “Absolutely, Mr. Gallagher. Positively, Mr. Shean” in the movie Ziegfeld Girl 1941.

Glover took that a step further and made sure his character had not only the delivery right, but he did a little bit of business so the camera picked up on his actions. Don’t they say: Actions speak louder than words?

typewriter-and-deskSo as a writer you need to give your character something to say that fits his or her character, but also have them do something that nails that character while they are speaking. Whether you are putting those words on the page to be read in a book or writing a scene for a movie, describe those characters with words unique to them and give them something unique to do. And I don’t mean just your main characters. Why have somebody show up on the page or in a scene who adds nothing to the story. If you don’t want to add a superfluous character, have someone literally send a telegram and then let an established character read it out loud. But remember, when they’re reading that message let them give it some personality… it’s either good news (slap your thigh)… or bad news (cringe)… or it’s a disaster (dive under the table!)

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EXAMPLE:

Ladies sitting around having tea and mentioning the great weather doesn’t move the story.

Ladies sitting around having tea, mentioning the weather and the latest fashion doesn’t move the story, either.

 

                        But how about this…

Ladies sitting around having tea, mentioning the weather, talking about the view, noticing the flower arrangements in the restaurant and the latest fashion being worn by other guests doesn’t move the story until one of the ladies finally says: “Let’s stop talking about nothing and talk about Sarah’s murder. Somebody killed her and we’re going to find out who did it.” Now that gets the ball rolling.

 

Let’s explore the last example. We can see/hear the ladies chatting. Each character’s view of her surroundings will tell us a little about that character whether one lady is envious of someone’s very expensive outfit or they notice the guy this other lady is with and they know he isn’t her husband. Meow!

 

Or how about the lady who thinks the prices on the menu are a tad too high and she reveals that her husband just lost his job.

 

Or maybe one lady doesn’t want to mention that the handsome guy coming in the door of the restaurant with the little floozy used to be her boyfriend, but one of the other women points it out in a catty remark.

 

But the gal who wants to get down to the important things like who killed their friend is setting the story off in another direction. And what if all the ladies are raring to go to solve the crime except one of their group who is hesitant. She doesn’t say much or maybe says nothing. Does she know more about this than she’s willing to admit? What if our main character picks up on that lack of comment and confronts her later? Or maybe somebody else confronts her and one of them turns up dead?

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What they say… or what they don’t say. That’s part of Dialogue. And their actions as well. Sometimes actions do speak louder than words. What if the quiet one excuses herself early from their tea and the next thing we hear is that one lady’s home was broken into and that someone just might have something to do with the death of poor Sarah?

 

Ah, Dialogue. That Aristotle, who was born in 384 B.C., knew of what he spoke. Words have consequences. And how they are delivered can even change their meaning. How about this: two versions of the exact same Dialogue.

 

First Version: A guy and a gal are on a date. He has been a little free with his affections with another lady and she knows about it, but she will forgive him.

He says, “I’m sorry I was such a fool, Gwen. It’ll never happen again. I’m crazy about you.”

She says, “I’m just mad about you, too, Harry,” she responded, touching his face lovingly, seeing the love in his eyes.

 

Compare it to this version:

He says, “I’m sorry I was such a fool, Gwen. It’ll never happen again. I’m crazy about you.” He says this while looking off in another direction.

She says, “I’m just mad about you, too, Harry,” she responded, grinding her cigarette into the plate of uneaten lobster.

 

Does Harry have a chance in version two? Probably not.

What a character says and how he says it and what he is doing while he is saying it tells a story.

 

So, as you write Dialogue always ask yourself:

                        Does it advance the story?

                        Does it enhance the story?

                        Is it redundant? Is it redundant?

 

Write On!

Now About that Memoir…

By Gayle Bartos-Pool

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Several of us on The Writers-in-Residence blog have been mentioning writing a memoir recently. Maybe you’re thinking that it must be associated with people “of a certain age,” but frankly, younger people haven’t lived through nearly as many adventures, ups, downs, and life in general as we folks in that upper age bracket, so we do have more to write about, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start writing your own memoir now and keep adding to it.

But it is true that older folks have survived it all, the good, the bad, and what life threw in our path to make us who we are. And you want to know something else? We all learn from those things. I’m sure you all have stories to tell. So why not let others laugh and cry and say Wow! along with you? Your friends and family will enjoy reading about your life because they weren’t with you every step of the way unless you’re a Siamese twin. Younger people can actually learn things when they read how you became you.

And there is a bonus in there, too. You will start to understand who you are as well. There will be some things that you recall, maybe some that have been buried for a while, that will let you reevaluate your life and see that you were and still are a very interesting person. You won’t be able to change the past, but you can see what you did along the way. If there were problems in your life, what did you do to overcome them? Not everybody starts out a Rockefeller.

As for John D. Rockefeller, the head of one of the wealthiest families in America, he started out as a bookkeeper at sixteen in Cleveland in 1855. He sold and moved produce during the Civil War to the Union Army. He was an abolitionist, voted for Lincoln, and after the war when the need arose switched from food stuffs to oil. An oil glut had some refiners dump the excess in rivers and streams, J.D. used the surplus to run his refineries and turned the rest into other by-products. He wasn’t going to pollute the waterways or waste all that product. He founded Standard Oil. The guy had a philosophy: He said God had provided the opportunity to earn all the money he had made; J.D. didn’t mind making it. He also wanted to save as much as he could and give away as much as he could. He was a philanthropist and considered one of the richest men ever in American history. There were downsides to his businesses, but he did a lot of good in his life. But that is what makes people so interesting no matter what they have in the bank. The good, the bad and the interesting.

dad-and-meI had the opportunity to have a father in the United States Air Force. We lived on the island of Okinawa when I was 5-7 and in France when I was a teenager. I went to a boarding school that provided an education that exceeded my first year in college in Memphis. I switched schools because I wanted to actually learn something. To pay for my college education, my wonderful dad sold some of the French clocks he and my mom had collected while we lived in France. I worked a year between my sophomore and junior years in college as a private detective to earn money myself and to see what the world was all about. That was probably as important as the four years in college. After I graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis and worked another year to earn money, I moved to California. I took acting lessons so I could learn about the movie industry and especially how to write dialogue because I wanted to write for TV or the movies. I had a few scripts looked at, but none sold. I decided to write mystery novels instead. There is even a story in how that came about, but you’ll have to read my upcoming memoir to see how that happened. It’s a good story. Oh, I went on to write 24 books. I guess all this preparation in life laid the groundwork for that little endeavor.

I have a little saying that I wrote a while back:

It doesn’t matter what you don’t have; It’s what you do with what you have.

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I have been working on my memoir for nearly a year. I have over 40 scrapbooks with bits and pieces of my life from the time I was born to today. I even have my mom’s family album that I redid when it started to fall apart that has the family’s history in pictures. What a joy to look through it now with my niece and her kids. My brother and I still recall old stories and some of them are in the book. It’s full of pictures and memorabilia and stories of my family and me. It shows how I became who I am.

So when you are writing your memoir, even if it takes you a few years to go through your scrapbooks or diaries or old photographs or spend a few holidays with family and talk about old times, discover who you are and share it with others. We all have a story to tell. Frankly, we are all interesting. Write On!

From PI to Mystery Writer

I’M READY FOR MY TAKE OFF…

by ROSEMARY LORD

Of course, first I scrubbed the kitchen sink, did a load of laundry, sent belated birthday cards, and read a “Be Kind to your Kidneys” article. All essential stuff – when you’re supposed to be writing your current book…

YakIs it ‘Yak Shaving’ again? For those of you who weren’t there: ‘Yak Shaving’ is when you find yourself doing something as irrelevant as shaving a yak (don’t ask!), instead of the goal you set out to accomplish. MIT student Carlin Vieri invented the term and blogger Seth Gordon, explained, “the seemingly unrelated, endless series of small tasks that have to be completed before the next step in a project can move forward.” Hmmm.

Don’t get me wrong. I have increased my writing accomplishments ten-fold.

I started a strange mystery about a young, dark-haired girl (so not autobiographical!) in London climbing out of a window to escape… you get the gist. I’ve written many pages of another new mystery set in a small, Greek coastal village. A 60-year-old widow returns to the site of her honeymoon, hoping to find some direction in her life – but finds mayhem instead…I wonder where that ideal came from? Perhaps I should go back and do some more research in that village. What a great idea! Then there’s a World War Two mystery – only six pages done on that one. I’m also still fiddling with my Lottie Topaz Book Two. I’ve written several chapters, know where I’m going – I thought. But the rest is still foggy. So, I took Jackie Vick’s advice and moved away from that book to focus on another project. All these other new storylines. She’s right about the insights you get as you write the draft of another book. Answers to the one you were stuck on filter through whilst writing the next.

As you can see, I’m all over the place. I share this with my fellow writers and readers, not as a cry for help. Well maybe a smidge. More as a warning. Don’t do as I do!

When I see what fellow blogger Linda Johnson accomplishes – she’s a prolific novelist, meeting deadlines with her strict writing schedules. Gayle Pool, Jill Amadio and Miko Johnson all do it. And Jacki H. continues to promote all of us and write children’s stories, as well.

I ask myself, what is wrong with me? I know better. I think I’m missing a gene…

Pushing RockSometimes I feel like  Sisyphus – the Greek Mythology, evil sinner Sisyphus was condemned to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a mountain. Once he got to the top, the weight of the boulder forced it to start rolling down to the bottom, wherein he had to start again.  According to Albert Camus, the Greek gods felt that there is no more dreadful punishment than this futile and hopeless labor for Sisyphus. Hmmm.

So,  I’ll stop whining! I think this is the way writers’ lives go – seasons of fruitfulness and seasons of distractions.

Stephen King said of writers: “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” And I’m certainly not afraid of hard work. Just sometimes need a push in the right direction to get over that hump!

When you think of it, we’re really lucky. This is what we choose to do: write. Yes, most of us have ‘day jobs’ – other ways to survive, whilst we feed our muses. Or they feed us. I think most of us have managed several careers – often simultaneously. Which become wonderful sources of material for our writing. And I can’t complain.

It’s not as if we have to study for years, as doctors, nurses and medical professionals do in order to improve and save people’s lives. Or go through really tough, brutal training and then, literally, put ones’ life on the line every day as our police officers and military do, in order to protect us all.

Computer filesWe sit at our computers – or with pad and pen – and spill our imaginations onto the page. We aim to entertain, to educate, to inspire, to elevate people’s lives and show them different possibilities – escape into other worlds. Or perhaps just to make them laugh. Everyone needs to laugh. Charlie Chaplin said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”  And then some of us write because we just want to.

And so I get back to the writing. To the completion of writing. Of getting unstuck and moving forward with all the storylines and characters coursing through my brain and – sometimes – tumbling out onto the written page. Hooray!

Fortunately, I’m not alone. As very successful and prolific author M.C. Beaton  – author of the Hamish Macbeth and the Agatha Raisin series – once said when asked her worst habit – “Procrastination!” she replied. Yay! There’s hope for me yet! The interview continued with her philosophy: “Stop projecting. Tomorrow’s a mystery. This is not a rehearsal. I’m on stage now.”  Although my favorite was her answer was to the question, “What do you collect?” M.C.’s immediate response: “Dust. I’m a lousy housekeeper.”

Thankfully, after this cathartic Blog, I’m ready to get going again. Move to the next stage. Be disciplined. Finish one book before moving on to the next. Get going.

Someone once said, “Move forward. Aim high. Plan a takeoff. Don’t just sit on the runway and hope someone will come along and push the airplane. It simply won’t happen. Change your attitude and gain some altitude. Believe me, you’ll love it up here. “

I’m ready for my take off. How do you get unstuck and move forward?      

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Here’s a Novel Idea: Read a Book

By Gayle Bartos-Pool

The first person whoever wrote a book didn’t have libraries and bookstores full of previously penned tomes to read and enjoy and from which to get inspiration to perhaps write their own story. They had a story to tell and wrote it. We, centuries later, don’t have any excuses. We not only have books, but plays, movies, and television shows overflowing with plots, characters, scenery, and dialogue to stir our imagination. Not that writers can’t get ideas from life around them, but sometimes actually reading something from another writer lets us know it can be done. Even a lousy book can inspire a would-be writer to say: “Hey. I can do better than that.” And they do just that every day. But first we have to pick up a book.

You might have friends or family members who recommend a particular favorite. You can always go to a bookstore, if there are any left, and ask the bookseller to point out a few books in a particular genre. Long ago I worked at a Waldonbooks in the Glendale Galleria in California. People were always asking where a particular section was. Mysteries, romance, kid’s books, self-help, religion. At times I would point out a favorite of mine. The store would set out best-selling books on tables in the front of the store complete with advertising paraphernalia from the publisher. We didn’t have to do that with the romance novels. They sold like hotcakes and we would sell down to the wall by month’s end. Unfortunately, the book chain decided they didn’t want to carry lots of books in all kinds of genres, only the top selling books. Obviously they didn’t know avid readers liked to pick out a ton of books of their choosing, old titles, newer ones, or try something different. Oh well. Management must have been more interested in their bottom line than their customers. I love capitalism, but I also love books.

But what can a writer or would-be writer do to get inspiration? They need to ask the one person who will have the most influence on their work what they prefer reading? And who is this veritable font of information? Themselves. Writers usually write what they like to read. But they need to read other writers in their chosen genre to see what’s out there. This means the good, the bad, and the: “Oh, God! That’s the best thing I ever read.” kind of book.

Now I might have loved mystery books and mystery shows on TV, but the first book I wrote, though it took a while to get published, was a disaster novel, CAVERNS. Then I spent ten years writing a spy trilogy, but that wasn’t finding a publisher, either. Then my wonderful husband, Richard, said these immortal words: “You used to be a private detective. Why don’t you write a mystery novel?” Ah!

But what did I know about writing a mystery? My spy novels were based on History and a bit about my dad’s life in the Air Force. I added a ton of facts and made up the rest. But a mystery. I needed to know more about the genre since mystery writing wasn’t like a stand-alone novel where the writer defined the parameters. What did I do? First, I joined Sisters-in-Crime in Los Angeles and Mystery Writers of America so I could hear what other mystery writers did. Those two groups had many famous speakers at their meetings who talked about their writing. I read their books and the books of some of the members of both groups. I was learning.

Since a writer needs a place in which to set a story, a few came up. First, I got called to jury duty. Then Richard got called. He went to downtown Los Angeles the same day the O.J. Simpson jurors were called. He came home and told me about the media circus down there with news cameras, helicopters, and microphones. My first Gin Caulfield book was called Media Justice about a high-profile case, the media’s influence, and Gin gets called to jury duty.

Next, Richard and I got free tickets to the Santa Anita Race Track. That became the opening of the second mystery in the Gin Caulfield Mystery Series, Hedge Bet. But then something else happened. I read another book.

This book was Eighteen by Jan Burke. Jan was a member of Sisters-in-Crime and I picked up her book of short stories. I loved the book and the idea of writing a short story. So I wrote one about an ex-mobster turned private detective. Then I wrote another one about the same guy. Then Sisters-in-Crime announced their latest anthology and asked for submissions. The theme of the anthology was landmarks in Los Angeles. I had to write another story, but it just so happened Richard invited me downtown for lunch one day and we went to the Bonaventure Hotel. That landmark ended up being the one I used in my story and the story got in the anthology. I thanked Jan for her inspiration.

Now I had three stories with the same character. The reviews for my story in the anthology were good, so I wanted to write more with him as the lead. So I wrote a couple more, but can you do a book of short stories all about the same guy?

Then I met another writer. I had read a lot of his books as a teenager and read even more after I met him. His name: Ray Bradbury. Jackie Houchin, a fellow Writers-in-Residence member and good friend, and I went to the opening of his play Fahrenheit 451 since Jackie reviewed plays for a local newspaper as well as an on-line paper. She got to bring a guest, me, but I thought I should review the play, too, since we got in free. On Opening Night Mr. Bradbury mentioned the time he had a batch of short stories he wanted to have published so he asked his publisher what he should do with them. The publisher told Ray to link the stories together which he did and The Martian Chronicles was published. So I had my answer from a writer who got the job done. I linked the Johnny Casino short stories together like a TV series.

I have three books in the Johnny Casino Casebook Series out there now thanks to inspiration from my husband, a book by Jan Burke, some advice from one of the best writers in history, Ray Bradbury, a chance to review Ray’s play because of a friend, and the fact I liked mysteries and wanted to write them.

Ninety present of the books I read are mysteries. I have learned a lot from each one: What to do and what not to do. And also what I can do better. But reading sure made a difference in my writing. If you are a writer: Read On!

Words, Words, Words

by Jill Amadio

Capture (1)For the past several months I have often wondered when I would succumb to the inevitable and find that one morning I have woken up woke.

If so, what would it mean? When would the barrage of new phrases and words all find their way into my mysteries?  That alone is a mystery, one of wonderment as I ponder the problem. The main issue, I assume, is finding the correct context for such slang as “snowflakes” when I am writing about my main character, Tosca Trevant, as she sunbathes in Newport Beach, California. Turns out that calling someone a snowflake is an insult. The connotation is beyond me but I can just imagine her whispering furiously in denial as I write.

Perhaps I should send her “catfishing” after having a “glow-up” as part of the plot. Translated, catfishing appears to mean using a fake ID, and glow-up refers to using make-up in order to make oneself more attractive, although it can also refer to using cocaine. I should confess here that the British phrase, “nighthawking” has been around forever in the UK and widely used in books and film. It was recently used in the TV detective series, “Midsummer Murders,” and means poaching, trespassing to hunt rabbits and wild life illegally at night.

What about “gaslighting?” To my mind the expression would necessitate sending Tosca back in time to that glorious era when gas lit our street lights, lamps, and stoves. Ah, but I was able to understood it quite easily when I remembered how the dastardly Charles Boyer would alternately lower and then raise the gas to make Ingrid Berman think she was going crazy.

The word “doxed,” however, had me baffled until I Googled it and found it means luring someone into a relationship, usually with malicious intent, and using an online dating service. Now, doesn’t the word “lure” conjure up a far more sinister image than dox? I also think that anything beginning with “dox” sounds like something Shakespeare would write, or thundered aloud by King Henry VIII, and is akin to “pox.”

According to my trusty Roget’s Thesaurus, under the reference for “doxology,” there are many meanings, almost all relating to religion and one to “malicious intent.” This term has a far more ominous foreboding to it than dox. Even using it in context in conversation would, I think, raise eyebrows.Office clutter 1

Which brings me to “shadow banning,” and its offshoot, “stealth banning.” The first version is weird but the second phrase is much more clear. But both well and truly stumped me, even when I took them separately. How was I to use the phrase in a book unless, perhaps, I was writing a ghost story? Would the plot require me to ban shadows? I once wrote a magazine series about a ghost-hunting couple who went on to have a TV show, but I know for a fact they were seeking what they believed were real ghosts, not shadows. This week, defining the phrase resulted in my learning that shadow banning means blocking someone from using their social media page without their knowledge.

How about “cancel culture?” Seems as if all these new words have negative meanings. I suppose that cancel culture means boycotting someone’s ideas and beliefs, or their culture and replacing it with something more acceptable – although I ask who is making those decisions?

Reviewing all of these slang words, most of which have not yet been added to my computer’s Spelling program, I wonder how long before they will be replaced with others, and how can writers keep up? I scoured a few of the latest mysteries recently released and could find none of the above, just old-fashioned, familiar words that can be understood by readers, as they have been for centuries.

Will we be left behind if we don’t keep up with the new language? Will publishers need to pull our mysteries and re-edit to replace the offending words we have lovingly crafted and insert instead the current phraseology? Or should we wait awhile for the truly latest? Only on television have I heard any of the above weirdo words used, mostly by news broadcasters with woke as their favorite. One last note, some of the slang has now been translated into other languages, including Urdu.

What is your favorite gripe, if any, about our new English language? Are you planning to use it in your mysteries and thrillers? Perhaps we should include a glossary at the beginning or back of the book. Or not. Either way, I am off to get a glow up, do a little catfishing, and dox my landlord.

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Research: How Much is Enough?

 

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

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Shakespeare didn’t have access to the Internet to look up Who’s Who? Back when he wrote about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, or the hundreds of other historical characters who populate his plays. There were a few books available that would give him some background information and the schools in the Stratford area where he grew up had a curriculum that taught a lot about the Greeks, Romans, and what History was known at the time. What else would they be teaching? Nuclear fission? Some “scholars” (I use quotation marks because I question their credentials.) have tried to say The Bard didn’t actually write all his work because he wasn’t “formally educated” and how dare a mere peasant do such a good job? Well, it looks like he did and did it beautifully.

 

My point is, writers need to research their work just like Shakespeare must have done at least enough to capture an era or a practice or an historical character who might appear in their story. And then there are locations that the writer might never have actually visited like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars or police procedures like Along Came a Spider by James Patterson unless they were a cop or knew a cop themselves or knew how to break into a house unless they were a burglar or knew one or… You get my drift.

 

So what does a writer today do? Research. There is a ton of it already done out there whether you go to the library or use the Internet or talk to people who do some of this stuff for a living or who have experienced something about which you are writing. Dick Francis gave his characters great jobs before the mystery interfered with their daily lives. Everything from jockeys to photographers to wine merchants. By the time the mystery was solved the reader knew some interesting things about all kinds of occupations. And it was always just enough. He never weighed down his prose with a seminar on “existential basket weaving.” Of course there is Joseph Wambaugh who served fourteen years with the Los Angeles Police Department and who then went on to write over a dozen terrific novels about the police.

 

Let me give you a “for instance” of learning something from a great source. When I was first writing the Johnny Casino books I wanted him to have a rather dubious background. I wanted his father to be in the Mob back in New Jersey. Johnny would grow up in that atmosphere. He would actually work for the Mob until he realized this wasn’t who he was (In more ways than one as it turned out.) He wanted something else out of life.

 

This was all well and good. Johnny would change his name, eventually move to California, and become a private detective after nearly screwing up there, but then he realized: that other life wasn’t him. But I had a problem… or two. I didn’t know if that character arc was feasible. Once in the Mob, always in the Mob. Isn’t that the case? “The only way outta da Mob is in a pine box.” (I made up that quote, but you get my point.) Then I went to a gun store to, well, buy a gun, and I met the owner: Chris Biller. If this wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what was.

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Chris had been an L.A. cop for many years. When he retired he opened Greta’s Guns in Simi Valley, California. Chris had been a good cop. He didn’t much care for those guys in the ranks who got chummy with celebrities and who forgot they were still wearing the badge. He had some good stories. But he had one more story that made all the difference in his life (and Johnny’s and mine as well.) His father had been in the Greek Mafia. Chris grew up much like my Johnny Casino character, not that Chris was a hood, but he knew he wasn’t Mafia material. He wanted a different life and he got one. Just seeing the type of man Chris was let me know Johnny would be that type of a guy, too. See what a little research and chance meetings can do.

Something else Chris mentioned was a book I should read about the Mafia called Five Families by Selwyn Raab (copyright 2005). I read the chapters up until the point Johnny would no longer be in the Mob and it gave me great insights into that life. The book and Mr. Biller created a background for both Johnny and his father.

 

Research, no matter if it’s through books, TV shows, movies, personal contact or even jobs the writer might have had to enhance their stories, makes “the read” feel real. After all, we are creating a world within our pages. As for me, I used my dad’s time in the Air Force and the spy planes he dealt with to play a part in my spy trilogy. Then there was my stint as a private detective that helped with my three detective series. But most of all, it was the many, many people I spoke to about the jobs they did and the things they know that enhanced my stories. After all… we can’t know everything. And Research broadens our horizons and helps us create those new worlds.

 

The other problem writers have when researching their subject matter is knowing when to stop writing about what you learned. Too much is just that – Too Much. Don’t bore your reader with so many details you distract from the story. As I tell the students in my writing classes, always ask yourself: Does it advance the story? Does it enhance the story? Is it redundant?  Write on!

 

Writing a Page Turner

By Gayle Bartos-Pool

            Not all mysteries require vast amounts of page-turning events to keep the story moving along. If the main characters are interesting, intriguing, fun, clever… you know what I mean, the reader will keep reading to the end. There should be some drama and a little danger for the hero or heroine to overcome, but it can be parceled out gently. Cozy mysteries work in that manner and have done very well for the past hundred years.

            Private detective stories and police procedural might have a few more cliff-hangers at the end of every chapter, but they usually deal with more technical aspects of tracking down the bad guy rather than discussing the situation over a cup of tea in a cozy novel. Those gals in the cozies always get their man or woman, so their way works, too. But professionals do have access to information not available to Miss Marple in the Agatha Christie novels or Jessica Fletcher in all those Murder She Wrote TV shows. I’ve seen them all many, many times and loved every one.

            We all know the Three-Act Structure of writing. Act One introduces the main characters and a problem. Act Two has the hero assembling his resources and trying to understand what’s really going on while the bad guy is setting more traps for our hero. Act Three has that do-or-die moment when the hero asks himself if he can handle the job, then he calls up all his resources and goes to battle the villain in the last chapter.

            But how do writers construct those “page-turner” events at the end of every chapter? Here are some of those moments in my stand-alone novel Closer. I recently reread the book and was surprised how many of these little hints were strategically placed throughout the story, some even within the chapter and not necessarily at the end of one. And something else I noticed, sometimes my main character would have a thought she posed on the page. Sometimes it was another character thinking to themselves about things that were happening. Those are good ways to let the reader know what those characters are reacting to or plotting, after all, they are moving the story along with those thoughts. They let the reader know there are things that have to be discovered.

            But several times the third-person teller of the story (the author) throws in a thought or two himself. These are shared between the reader and the writer. It’s up to the characters in the book to not only ask the questions himself, but discover the answers in order to solve the puzzle. Closer has numerous hints, thoughts, and questions posed by the characters as well as the writer. Here are a few from the beginning of the book:

As she turned off the car’s engine, Shelby noticed her tank was nearly empty. She thought she had nearly a full tank. As one of the two lieutenants with the Santa Isabel Police Department and one of the two officers who had to be on call for anything that happened in town because the higher-ups always managed to find an excuse not to show up, she always kept a full tank just in case something important did happen.

She was surprised she hadn’t noticed the low gas gauge when she drove home the evening before. But then, she hadn’t noticed the sedan sitting on the street opposite the police station either. It was an unremarkable vehicle, gray and nondescript, invisible in weather like this. Since the weather made the roads slippery, she spent more time trying not to hydroplane into parked cars along the street rather than notice somebody watching her.

Or how about this part?

Harry wasn’t good at small talk. The cop in him had to either ask questions or formulate an hypothesis. He came right to the point after several miles down that dark country road.

“Maybe the shooter was aiming at me.”

“What makes you think that?” she asked.

“I’m up here from Los Angeles. I knew the poor woman who got shot. Maybe the killer wanted to get rid of anybody who might recognize him.”

Shelby studied Harry’s face. His eyes never left the road. He was taking this pretty well, considering the ramifications. And here she had thought the shooter might have been after her since this was her turf. Now they could share the worry, if that made it easier. But two dead people wasn’t good no matter what, and she didn’t want any more additions to the body count.

“I’ll put out some feelers back in L.A.,” added Harry, “to see if anybody was interested in the fact I was sent up here to investigate the commander’s wife’s death.”

“Do you think somebody down in LA would want Mrs. Wright dead?” Shelby tossed that one out as another hypothesis.

He turned and looked at her this time. Something about her question made him think of other possibilities. She could tell there was something on his mind, but he wasn’t ready to share that bit of information. Instead, he answered her with, “I’ll think about that one. Let me change the subject for a while. Let our brains relax. You worked in Los Angeles. What was it like for you?”

Now it was her turn to avoid the subject. She gazed out the window and then spoke. “I guess I’m better in a small town. Too much happens in the big, bad city that you don’t see coming.”

“Tell me about it.” His voice was calming. He sounded truly interested in her response, but she wasn’t quite ready to open up.

“Nothing to tell,” she said back to him. Her words clipped. Then she added in a friendlier tone, “Didn’t get along with a few of my fellow officers in L.A., so I asked for a transfer. Best thing all around.”

Harry gave her another look. “If you ever want to talk about it, I’m a good listener.”

She breathed a small sigh. She dodged that bullet. Maybe some other time the two would open up. Not today. “How about you tell me why you decided to transfer to LAPD.” She turned slightly in her seat and watched him drive. “L.A.’s bigger and hairier and the publicity can be brutal.”

“You got that right,” he admitted. “As for me, the drug busts up in the Foothills had started to clean out that cesspool. I worked on a few of those babies. A couple of my cases took me out of the country when I was after a drug dealer wanted by several countries. All I could do was gather evidence and hand it over to the local constabulary and then hope we had extradition privileges with that country.”

“We’ve had the same problem up here with major art thefts. If the fugitive heads to some countries in Africa, we’re screwed unless we can hogtie them, stuff them in a trunk, and spirit them out of the country.”

“Would you do that?” He took another glance in her direction.

She thought about her answer for a second. “Maybe. It depends on what painting he stole and from whom.” She said that with a slight chuckle in her voice. “But don’t quote me. How about you?”

“I always wonder what someone would do if the circumstances were right.”

“It would take mighty big circumstances for me to go too far out of bounds.”

“What if someone you cared about did something totally wrong? Would you lie for them?”

“Sometimes you don’t really know people.” She turned away from him and gazed out into the dark. “They can disappoint you,” she said this mostly to her reflection in the window as she watched the black trees crowd that section of highway.

Harry didn’t look over at her this time. The road was not lighted and the curves were too sharp to take his eyes away, but he did hear her. Now he had more to think about.

He dropped her off at the station. He said he had a lot of phone calls to make and that he would get together with her for dinner the next evening. She waved as he drove away. Her thoughts were on the case as well as on the guy from L.A. There was something about him that grabbed her attention.

A few paragraphs more and we have this…

She opened her car door and saw her sunglasses hanging over the steering wheel.

“Rats,” she said out loud. She needed gas. That’s when she remembered it was odd that she had run out of “petrol.” She never ran out of gas.

She grabbed the flashlight from the shelf under the dashboard and aimed it under her car. No sign of a leak. This older model vehicle didn’t have all the new fangled bells and whistles that opened and locked the doors with an electronic device. Even a third-rate carjacker could get into her car with little effort, but everybody in town knew who owned the boxy beauty, so stealing it wouldn’t get them very far. And if anybody wanted to siphon gas, all they had to do was undo the gas cap.

She thought about who in town might pull a stunt like that as she drove to the nearest gas station and filled up. She also thought she’d find a mechanic who could put a lock on the gas cap.

She thought that would be her only concern except for that body on the pier and poor Earl Riley, but that wasn’t the half of it.

More questions for Shelby to get answers to. But they are trying to solve a murder, so the young officer working with Shelby is out with Harry Davenport’s young officer sidekick, Frances Lynton, and getting some information and some questions, too.

“How long have you worked with Davenport?” Not that he wanted to know, but maybe she would finally run out of “Harry the Magnificent” stories.

“Ever since he came back to L.A. He actually asked for me as a partner.” Her eyes widened like a kid on Christmas morning. “He interviewed almost everybody in the division, but he liked me best. I’d do anything for him.”

“My boss is like that, too, but sometimes she goes places I don’t want to go.”

“I know what you mean. Harry was checking on your boss—”

“He what?”

Afraid she said too much, Frances went into damage control mode. She reached over and took Marcus’s hand and then gave him a smile that aroused his libido. “He wanted to make sure you guys put the best person on the case. The death of his boss’s wife meant a lot to Harry. He had to make sure Shelby was up to the job. The fact he spends so much time with her, says he trusts her.”

And remember, you can always begin a chapter with a page-turner…

CHAPTER 7

_________________________

The next day was a game changer on more than one level. It was around eight o’clock in the morning when the team met in the larger conference room where they had set up a whiteboard for notes and a long table with the evidence from the crime scene laid out. Other than the flashlight, the old map, the passports, and those now wilted flowers and fern, there wasn’t any new tangible, solid evidence. But there are different kinds of evidence.

Or what about when our police detective is checking on a vehicle that was driven by the now dead wife of the high-ranking police officer in Los Angeles and Shelby wonders if the car rental place rented a particular vehicle that nearly ran her off the road a few days earlier.

“Did you rent a big gray Volvo a few days ago? Maybe one that came back with a ding on the front bumper?”

“Yeah. I worked on the repair job the day it happened. Only needed a little tapping with a rubber mallet to straighten her out. I can do those in my sleep.”

“You probably clean them up pretty thoroughly when they’re returned, right?”

“You bet. I get that job, too. Why?”

“Fingerprints. Can you tell me who rented it?”

He gave her a questioning look and then said, “Sure.”

Back inside the office, Kirby looked up the vehicle and found the information.

“Frances Lynton. If I remember right, I think she’s a cop,” said the young man.

Frances Lynton is Harry’s sidekick…

            Here is Shelby’s thought on the matter.

The drive back to the station gave her time to think. From what Marcus had told her, Shelby knew Frances had a thing about her boss, but trying to run them off the road because she might be jealous was a bit extreme. Or was there something else driving that woman?

So now we have tension from another cause… Jealousy, perhaps? Some new truths are going to be revealed from Harry, Shelby, and Frances. But there are more players in this story and their connection to the dead body found at the dock in this small town is revealed one layer at a time.

I use the word “layer” because it’s the old “peel the onion” method of writing a page-turner one layer or revelation at a time. Set up a question or drop a hint early on and then answer it or expose a truth later to make sure your reader stays happy. Just remember to answer those questions somewhere before the end of the story. You never want to disappoint your readers. You want them to come back for more. Write On!

A Very Merry Christmas

from the Writers-in-Residence Blog

All of us writers here on the WinR blog wish you a Very Merry Christmas. Enjoy this holiday, savor the moments, love your family and friends, and consider writing about not only this holiday, but the other ones you have celebrated. The memories are priceless and fleeting if you don’t write them down. And remember: We all have a story or two in each of us.

These pictures might get you in the mood to capture your precious moments.

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