Hey, our blog is still here, and I couldn’t be more delighted. I was pondering what to write about now, and came up with what I hope is a fun topic: my thoughts about the most fun thing about writing.
Do I know yet? No! But I’ve gotten a lot of ideas. And I’ve been writing for a long time.
My thoughts? First, even if I set a story somewhere real, near me, the fun thing about it is figuring out what can be different, and what my protagonist can learn about it—and tell me! For one thing, since most of what I write are mysteries and romantic suspense, people can get hurt or even killed in those environments I find fairly safe in real life. So where’s a good place to murder someone where the mystery can be resolved well and quickly enough in a story? A real place? A fictional place?
Even more important is those characters, especially my protagonists. They’re not me, but they contain some of my characteristics. The character closest to me was in my first mystery series, the Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter Mysteries. Kendra was a lawyer who lived in the Hollywood Hills with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Lexie. At the time I was writing about her, I was a practicing lawyer, and one of my Cavaliers was named Lexie. And yes, I live in the Hollywood Hills.
Other protagonists aren’t quite as close, but still had characteristics I like and admire. The spinoff series from Kendra was the Pet Rescue Mysteries, which of course contained dogs and other animals—and I was volunteering a lot at local rescue organizations when I wrote it. In my Barkery & Biscuits Mysteries, my protagonist owned a bakery for dog treats—and was owned by a dog named Biscuit. In my Superstition Mysteries, my protagonist owned a dog named Pluckie. And currently, in my Alaska Untamed Mysteries under my first pseudonym, Lark O. Jensen, the protagonist, a naturalist, introduces tourists to all sorts of wonderful Alaskan wildlife, including seals and bears and wolves—and yes, she brings her own dog Sasha along on her tour boats.
And in the Harlequin Romantic Suspense stories in the various series I create, yes, dogs are involved. All my stories do contain suspense, whether they’re mysteries or not, and even those I’m asked to write when I can’t always include dogs. And they contain at least a touch of romance, often more.
So… setting is fun. Characters are fun. Killing people vicariously, and not for real, of course, can be fun. And creating romances can be fun.
Plus, various animals are fun. Dogs are fun.
Hey, for me, maybe the most fun thing about writing involves one of the most fun things in my life: dogs.
So what’s the most fun thing about writing for you?
By the time you read this, the manuscript for my fourth A Petal In the Wind novel will be back from the editor and ready for its final draft before publication. Prior to sending it out, I made several passes through it, each time searching for ways to fix or improve the work.
In my first pass I searched for everything from formatting issues to misspelled words. In light of recent events I found parts of the story, which I’d begun writing in 2017, had become dated. I couldn’t gloss over a worldwide pandemic and the social rifts that emerged from political discord. Several new characters who were introduced in chapters written years before the book’s conclusion sounded too generic; I’d gotten to know them better as the story progressed and that needed to be reflected in their earlier dialog and mannerisms.
Other passes looked for repetition, excess verbiage, more precise word choices, missed misspellings, lapses in logic, and incorrect information. With that complete, I sent out my manuscript, anticipating a few more changes would be needed once I heard back from my editor. I took advantage of the wait time to put together all the additional material needed – logline, book blurb and synopsis.
Whenever I have to write marketing stuff, I cringe. It’s not what like to do, or do well. I view it as a necessary evil, and many authors I know feel the same way. However it must be done, and the good news: I’ve found an advantage to it beyond promoting the book.
When you have to encapsulate your x-hundred page novel into a one page summary, then a teaser for the back cover, and finally a one-sentence logline, it forces you to look at your theme in a different way. Gone are the long passages of prose, the snappy dialogue, the transitional scenes and flashbacks. You must have a laser focus on what your story is about – what you’re trying to get across to the reader in terms of theme, character, and plot. By doing so you sometimes will see aspects of the story that are important but may not have been shown in a compelling or complete way. So beyond my editor’s input, I saw that I wasn’t done with my revising.
I came to that conclusion when I encapsulated a 106,500 book into a few paragraphs with just a hint of where the story will eventually wind up. I had my external conflict and internal struggle, and pointed that out in my blurb. Then I wrote my logline:
Amidst the social and political upheaval in the aftermath of WWI, a woman who identifies as an artist marries the love of her life, but chafes at being relegated to wife and mother.
We can understand the difficulties a woman would face in giving up her career to marry and have children, especially at a time when such notions weren’t as accepted as they are today. But had I adequately shown how she feels in the book? Could I have made it not only clearer, but on a much deeper level?
The logline hints at the deeper issue. What she rails against is not being married to the man she loves, or even the challenges of motherhood. It’s losing her identity, having to see herself as only a reflection of her husband and children. When Jane marries John Doe, she becomes Mrs. John Doe. Her baby’s mama. She’d wonder—what happened to Jane?
My character Lala is a woman who’s accomplished a great deal despite her youth. She not survived the trauma and hardships of WWI and kept her family alive, but her home town as well. It’s described as a factory town north of Prague throughout the series. In America we’d call it a company town, where a single business – in this case a furniture factory – provides the economic base of the area. Circumstances force her to take charge of the factory and oversee its conversion to wartime production. If it had closed, which it nearly did, the town would have been devastated. How can someone like this ignore all she achieved, the skills she developed, the talent that resides within her?
When the manuscript returns from the editor, I will review the comments and make some changes, including a few of my own – adding more layers of my character’s internal dilemma to the story. Then I’ll probably rework my promotional material. A writer’s work is never done…that is, until it goes to the publisher.
Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including “LAst Exit to Murder” and the soon-to-be-released “Whidbey Landmarks”. The fourth book in her series is scheduled to be published later this year. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re a writer, how do you decide what to write?
Often, it’s the kind of story you love to read: romance, mystery, paranormal, historical fiction, whatever. That makes sense.
Or maybe something you believe others will want to read, so it’ll sell well. But that’s not something totally predicable. So I go with what I enjoy.
With me, my preferences have changed over the years. Oh, I’ve always enjoyed romances, romantic suspense and mysteries. I’m not as much into historical stories as I used to be. Same regarding paranormal stories.
But you could probably tell what my favorite stuff was at any time of my life in the past many years by seeing what I’ve written!
My first published fiction was a short story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and I won the Robert L. Fish Award for first published short story! Yes, it was a mystery of sorts, a humorous one: “Different Drummers.”
My first published novels consisted of time travel romance, and most revolved around places or things I particularly liked. For example, one of them, Point in Time, took place in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. Another took place in Alaska, in the Klondike, and I’ve always loved visiting there: The Ballad of Jack O’Dair. And of course there’s Once a Cavalier, featuring my babies, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
I wrote other paranormal romances too, including Stranger on the Mountain, and the Alpha Force miniseries I created for Harlequin Nocturne, about a military unit of shapeshifters.
I loved paranormal romance! But notice that’s in the past tense. So is my focus on paranormal stories. I still read some, but I’m not writing any now.
I’d always enjoyed mysteries and romantic suspense. I still do—and that’s in the present tense!
That’s why I write them both: romantic suspense for Harlequin Romantic Suspense—and formerly for Harlequin Intrigue—and mysteries, over time, for multiple publishers including Berkley and Midnight Ink, and—upcoming!—Crooked Lane. Most of the mysteries, and as many romantic suspense as possible, include animals, especially dogs. I love to write about dogs. Why? Because I love dogs!.
So that’s how I decide what to write: again, what I love to read. But also what I most enjoy writing about.
How do other authors decide? Based on conversations with fellow writers, I gather they, too, mostly figure out something they enjoy, then pounce on it and pour out a story they love.
It’d be hard, after all, to write a story if you didn’t like its subject or genre.
Those writers who are reading this blog, I’d love to hear in comments where your ideas originate and how you decide to write about them. And how you enjoy writing about them!
A common piece of advice given to school children and new authors alike is “Write what you know”. But many established authors dismiss the principle. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, told The New York Times, “One of the dumbest things you were ever taught was to write what you know. Because what you know is usually dull.”
So where does an aspiring writer begin? Unlike most authors, I had no lifelong desire to write a book and only considered it as a potential career two years ago. We moved back to the UK from Kenya so my husband could begin training for his next military posting in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I realised that as I didn’t speak Bosnian, and the country had a high unemployment rate, I was unlikely to find a job.
Further, as a family we would be moving around the UK, and potentially the world, for at least the next eight years. I needed to keep myself busy and engaged, but not with a physical business like the farm shop I had set up in Kenya. My new venture needed to be portable and flexible to work around the demands of my family.
I first considered writing as a method to convey the incredible experience I’d had living in Kenya, in Eastern Africa. I’m not sure if moving to Kenya or returning to the UK was more of a culture shock. In Kenya I’d become used to a way of life lived at a slower pace, with no judgement of what people wore or what car they drove, and far less emphasis on the material side of life.
In Africa, the first priority is to survive and so each day, and certainly every birthday, is celebrated. After that come friendships and community and, of course, enjoying the glorious sunshine, fantastic scenery and amazing wildlife that Kenya is famous for.
P.D. James wrote in her “10 Tips for writing novels” for the BBC, “You absolutely should write about what you know. There are all sorts of small things that you store up and use, nothing is lost as a writer. You have to learn to stand outside yourself. All experience, whether it is painful or whether is is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.”
My Kenya Kanga Mystery Series is set in Nanyuki, a small market town three hours north of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. It is dominated by the often snow-capped Mount Kenya which, at over 17,000 ft, is the second highest mountain in Africa. This is where I lived for six years, and it’s the perfect setting for a cozy mystery series.
In my books I’ve used actual locations, such as Dormans, a town centre coffee shop and a hub of gossip, and the relaxed garden location of Cape Chestnut restaurant. Other places, such as the Mount Kenya Resort and Spa, are recognisable as being based on real settings which I’ve altered to suit my stories.
Small towns in cozy mystery series can develop the “Cabot Cove” syndrome; if Cabot Cove existed in real life it would top a number of categories of the FBI’s national crime statistics.
To avoid this phenomenon, I themed the second and subsequent books around actual events. These include an important elephant focused wildlife summit, a 4×4 off-road charity event in the Maasai Mara and, in the book I am releasing in May, a marathon in a UNESCO World Heritage wildlife reserve.
A sense of place is important to me and my writing. Has a certain smell or the call of a bird transported you back to a memorable location? I try to convey the smells, sounds and sights of the individual settings and it does help that I’ve visited most of them. And if I haven’t, as P.D. James said, I can use snippets of other places that I have stored up to successfully create them.
The characters are another aspect of my books which I’ve developed as I’ve expanded my writing craft. Mama Rose is based on an incredible friend of mine, now in her 80s, who is a community vet, a staunch catholic and a member of various committees. The help and assistance she has given, and continues to provide, those less fortunate than herself can not be fully conveyed in my books. But is it important to recognise, and remember, that there are still people who put others before themselves and work for what is morally right and just in life.
The other characters have developed from meeting people and observing situations in Kenya: the interaction of customers and stall holders at the local vegetable market, street sellers trying to persuade tourists and visitors to buy their wares, and the ability of a charismatic priest to captivate his audience in a town centre park.
A snippet I have woven into one of my books occurred when I took my young children to mitumba; a large jumble sale of donated thrift clothes, and other items, from first world countries which are shipped to Kenya and sold in makeshift markets.
Two raggedly dressed, and shoeless, children tentatively approached our car holding out their hands in a begging gesture. I remembered two squares of jam sandwich which my boys hadn’t eaten. I handed the pieces to the children expecting them to stuff them into their mouths, but instead they just stood and waited. Slowly they were joined by a group of similarly attired children, and those who had the sandwiches carefully divided them up until every child had a small morsel to eat.
This was an incredibly humbling experience. So perhaps it is not necessarily “write what you know” but “write what you feel”. After all, as writers we strive to elicit an emotional response in our readers’ minds.
Finally, Dan Brown said, “You should write something that you need to go and learn about.” As writers we do need to expand our knowledge, and understanding, and researching is one of my favourite area in the writing process. I have learnt so much more about Kenya than I knew, or understood, when I lived there.
Rhino Charge, my third book, has many Kenyan Indian characters. It evolves around events at a 4×4 vehicle off-road event which is popular amongst the Kenyan Indian community. Whilst I had Indian friends, I wasn’t aware of how, or why, their ancestors had settled in Kenya. Researching this aspect of the Kenyan culture was fascinating. I learnt that Indians came to Kenya with the British and supported the creation of the East African Protectorate, which became Kenya, as clerks, accountants and police officers.
Two and a half thousand Indian labourers died during the construction of the Mombasa to Uganda railway line, including those killed by the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo. The rupee was the first currency used in the colony which was ruled using an extension of Indian law. On the 22nd July 2017, President Kenyatta officially recognised the Indian community as the 44th tribe of Kenya. Researching and learning this extended my knowledge and increased the depth of Rhino Charge.
Not all authors are luckily enough to live in extraordinary locations such as Kenya, or Bosnia and Herzegovina, but small towns still have their own customs and query characters.
I’m currently planning my next series which will be set in areas of the UK I have lived in and visited. The theme is antiques, of which I have no knowledge. I enjoyed, and was fascinated by, auctions which I attended on my return to the UK, to buy furniture for our house. And I observed some fantastic people for the basis of my characters. I’ll research collectibles, antiques and related crimes to build interesting stories with “can’t put down” plots.
When I can finally move freely around Sarajevo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, I will begin researching for a future series. I’ve already discovered that everyone here has a story to tell from the devastating war and various sieges, including the longest in modern history in Sarajevo. As I search for potential locations, characters and stories my attention will be more focused as I learn to observe and record even the smallest incidents. Who knows what snippets will make into future books.
Oh, sure, I’m writing every day: checks to pay bills, answers to emails and texts, posts on Facebook and Instagram, birthday cards to put in the mail that day, a grocery list, a “to do” list, a note to Hubby about an errand I need to do and when I’ll be back.
But creative writing? Um, no. Unless you count a quick book review I pound out in fifteen minutes, knowing that unless I do it today, it will be late, and then I’ll feel awful. Too bad I only skimmed the last two chapters… but you don’t mention how books end anyway, do you? And then I still felt awful, because I’ve always determined to finish a book – every word – before writing a review. Boo-hoo.
Oh, I do write curriculum for my third (used to be fourth) to sixth grade class* at church every week. That can be fun. The delivery can be somewhat creative, but not the text of course. It’s the Bible, after all.
In one point in last week’s lesson I was teaching how that precious Word of God is called “the sword of the Spirit” in the Bible. “Sharper than any two-edged sword, able to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” I’d been teaching them the first sermon preached by Peter, the fisherman-turned-apostle, when I came to its conclusion. (It’s a doozy!) I pictured a duel between forces of good and evil, raised my imaginary sword and did a bit of fencing (pantomime, of course), ending up with my opponent on the floor, my sword tip on his chest. The phrase “coup de grace” came to my mind, and still holding my imaginary position with opponent pinned down, explained the French phrase. “The final blow,” I said, looking at the fifteen kids slowly. “The thrust that pierces the heart,” I said. And then I jabbed my sword right to the floor… holding for a few seconds before looking up. Then I jerked it free, held it high, then slipped it into my imaginary sheath at my left hip.
There was quietness for a few seconds, then I had the kids read verse 37 of Acts chapter 2, which was the response of the crowd to the strong finish of Peter’s sermon. It reads, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?'” Peter’s inspired use of Scripture had brought instant conviction.
But that was “creative” thinking and teaching, not writing. So what do you do when your ink well is dry?
Read in the genre you want to write. Read for pleasure (maybe even some old favorites). Read those authors who inspire you. Read, read, read.
Start (or start up again) a daily or weekly journal. I have to admit that when we returned from our (fantastic) cruise and a week later faced the monster that became Covid-19, I quit journaling. (Crazy huh? What a “ripe” season of lockdowns, scary bar graphs, no one working, everything closed, ghost freeways, that I could have used in stories. Sigh!) Well, it’s not too late. Maybe begin with a “to do” list, and comment on your doings and feelings during that day. Or… you choose.
Study books by writers that give instruction. A few weeks ago we had Sara Rosett as a guest blogger. She wrote about she used lots of things for Research in her historical mysteries. But she also mentioned a couple “How To ” books she has written. “How To Outline A Cozy Mystery” and “How to Write a Series.” Both are easily found on Amazon. (I recently bought them both and am eager to dig in, for at least a chapter a day.) Look for books on short story writing by our own The Writers In Residence, G. B. Pool.
Take note of those weird dreams. Hey, maybe your creative muse is locked down inside your head, and wants to safely, with some social distancing via dreams, give your mind some help.
Look at a calendar. Upcoming holidays are always good for getting the juices or muses working. Think back to fond memories. Think forward with some Sci-Fi or Fantasy weirdness. Let the seasons inspire.
Do whatever it takes, even acting out some scenes from your favorite book in front of your spouse, dog or cat, or the mirror. The movements, actions, even words may lead to some nice black… or maybe purple… INK in your writing well.
*I used to teach a class of 4th to 6th graders, but now that all must wear a face covering in class, I have inherited the 3rd graders as well. (They used to be together with 1st and 2nd grade.) According to the “order,” all students in 3rd grade and up must wear masks etc. Second grade and below do not have to. The Children’s Ministry leader felt it would be hard on some in a class that have to wear them while others didn’t. But, on the fun side, I’ve discovered that those third graders are pretty sharp too and I only need a little tweaking of the lesson that I prepare for the older kids. (PS: I wear a face shield, so the kids can see me better.)
Some writers can sit down at their computer with no idea of what they will write about and launch into the first draft of their book. They find the blank screen and the infinite possibilities exciting and inspiring. I’m not one of those writers. I must have an idea of where the story is going before I begin writing. Otherwise, the blank screen paralyzes me. Before I begin a book, I spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the story. I’ve discovered that both nonfiction and fiction inspire different aspects of the story for me.
I like to dig into nonfiction as I brainstorm my historical mystery plots. Here are a few of the resources I’ve found most helpful:
Newspaper Archives—My historical series is set in early 1920s England, so the online British Newspaper Archive has been an invaluable resource. I scoured the Positions Available section, what we’d call the Help Wanted section today, which gave me an insight into the jobs were available, the qualifications required, and the salaries that were paid. The British Newspaper Archive has magazines in addition to newspapers, and those are wonderful for getting a feel for what people read in their leisure time. One delightful surprise came as I flipped through an issue of the Sketch. I came across the first publication of Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb with Poirot and Hastings.
Magazine and newspaper advertisements are also helpful for researching clothing and fashion as well as helping me keep in mind the attitudes of the time. Ads for fur coats and smoking tobacco seem a bit jarring to me as a modern reader, but browsing the ads helps me keep in mind the typical mindset of someone who lived in the early 1920s.
Nonfiction books—Once I have a general idea of the direction of the story, I search out nonfiction books related to the theme of the novel. I’ve read all sorts of books—everything from books on the English country house to code breaking during World War I. I find nonfiction is an excellent source for clues and red herrings. Nonfiction books have even inspired a complete plot. The second book in my historical series is about an author who keeps her gender secret from everyone—including her publisher. A real-life author who did the same thing inspired that story idea.
While researching the Egyptomania that gripped the world after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, I ran across a story of a British nobleman who had been connected to the excavation and committed suicide. That incident became the jumping off point for the third book in my series, The Egyptian Antiquities Murder.
Memoirs—One of the most valuable resources I’ve found for getting inside the heads of my historical characters are memoirs and biographies. The Bright Young People of the 1920s were a prolific and literary bunch. It’s easy to find information about them, and reading about their midnight scavenger hunts and paper chases across London as well as their extravagant themed parties meant that I had plenty of ideas for a book set in London among the high society set when it came time to write An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. In addition to story ideas, I also cull clues in red herrings from memoirs. I note down the things that people hid from their families or feared would become public knowledge.
Video clips—I didn’t realize how much video is available from the early 1920s. YouTube and stock image sites have quite a bit from that time. I’ve watched videos of people strolling in Trafalgar Square, dancing in nightclubs, as well as an informational video from the 1920s on how the brakes work on an early motorcar, which was critical when plotting how a certain murder was committed.
Vintage clothing auction sites—My readers want to imagine the characters wearing flapper dresses and elegant evening gowns. I need to know about the fabric, cut, and embellishments of the dresses. With multiple images of individual clothing items, auction listings of vintage clothes are a good source of detailed information about the materials and construction of the clothes of the era. Another great source for clothing details and inspiration is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute with its extensive online collection.
I was a fan of Golden Age mysteries, but I’d always read them for pleasure, not research. When I decided to write a historical mystery, I began reading and rereading my old favorites as well as seeking out new authors from the era. I read the books in a different way and found that they gave me a first-hand view of day-to-day life in the time. I used my fiction-reading to glean small details that gave my stories the feel of the time.
Dialogue—Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing a High Society Lady Detective series. Much of the verbiage is inspired by my reading of Golden age fiction. Terms like old bean, old thing, topping, and that’s not cricket are common in Golden Age mysteries. The posh set was fond of their adjectives and adverbs, so I use those types of words in conversation in my historical books in a way that I wouldn’t do in a contemporary novel. Everything was ghastly, frightful or screamingly. I sprinkle those terms throughout conversation to give it a feel of the 1920s.
Culture—As I read Golden Age fiction, I made mental notes of how the characters’ lifestyles: the size of their houses, whether or not they had telephones, what they ate for meals, as well as what types of cars they drove—even if they had a car. Another thing I noticed was the formality of conversation and address. People rarely used their first names when they spoke to each other unless they were well acquainted. I fold all those details into my stories.
I’ve learned to allow some time to delve into research before I begin a book. I gather these all these details and ideas, then let them brew in my mind for a while. By the time I sit down to actually begin writing, I have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to go and some of the clues and red herrings I’ll use. If I take the time to absorb ideas from both nonfiction and fiction that blank screen isn’t as intimating and my writing goes much faster.
USA Today bestselling author Sara Rosett writes lighthearted mysteries for readers who enjoy atmospheric settings, fun characters, and puzzling whodunits. She loves reading Golden Age mysteries, watching Jane Austen adaptions, and travel. Publishers Weekly called Sara’s books “enchanting,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”
She is the author of the High Society Lady Detective historical mystery series as well as three contemporary cozy series: the Murder on Location series, the On the Run series, and the Ellie Avery series. Sara also teaches an online course, How to Outline A Cozy Mystery, and is the author of How to Write a Series. Sara’s latest release is An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. Find out more at SaraRosett.com.
Have you been writing? No? I hear you. We can’t seem to find the energy, or the creativity, to write. Even though we have a file full of ideas to play around with, or a started piece, or a half-finished manuscript. Even though we have plenty of time to write with no excuse other than the million other things we can be doing. Cleaning out the hall closet. Again. Thinking of a new way to use canned tuna. Researching unfamiliar candidates on my primary ballot – maybe I would want the next governor of Washington to be Goodspaceguy* : )
I sympathize. It took me a few months to get inspired enough to write again (see my last post). If you’re still stuck in neutral, I’m here to help get you in gear. And what better way than to get back to basics – how to write a story.
WHAT IS A STORY?
A story is a fully formed concept that has a beginning, middle, and end, plotted with characters, goals, conflict, and stakes. This applies whether you write short stories, screenplays, novellas or novels.
HOW TO BEGIN:
When you consider buying a new book, you generally open it and read a few pages before you decide to take it or leave it – you can even do that online with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. If the book’s middle sags, or the ending isn’t satisfying, you won’t know that until after you’ve purchased it. However, if the beginning doesn’t grab you, it’s not going home with you. That’s how readers will react to your book. This is why the most important part of a story is the beginning.
A beginning has to serve many purposes. It must introduce us to the ‘who’ of the story, also some of the what, when, and why. The tone and genre should be apparent. It should also give us enough to pique our interest; too much bogs down the story and too little leaves us scratching our heads.
As authors, we really begin by sitting down and writing. Thinking, mulling, researching – all important, but they won’t get the words on the page. Once you’ve committed to writing, you need a way to begin. The possibilities might seem endless, but there are basically three ways to launch a story.
This is when you begin at the last possible minute to give the reader a sense that the story has already started and they’re joining it already in progress. This may seem counterintuitive, like walking into a movie after it’s begun, but it tends to get the reader curious about what’s going on, so they keep reading to find out.
A good example of this would be a murder mystery that opens with the detective arriving pre-dawn at the crime scene; a beat cop hands her a take-out coffee and reads his notes: “The vic is….”, which gives readers information simultaneously with the detective. We don’t need to be in her bedroom when she’s awakened by the precinct’s call, or watch her get dressed, fix breakfast and head out to her car. That would be like arriving at the movie theater before the commercials. With mid-action, you get the reader engaged right away and weave in the details as you go.
II Setting a scene that’s about to change
This is when you open with a scene of normal everyday life. It could focus on a character, like a young woman celebrating her promotion with her office mates, then walking home alone. Or a place, like a military base in the Middle East, where soldiers are relaxing. Often the genre hints that the placid opening will be disrupted with a bang – maybe literally. If the book’s a mystery or a thriller, you know something is going to happen – that young woman will be murdered; the soldiers playing cards or tossing a football around will suddenly come under attack. If the genre doesn’t imply something will happen, hint at it in your opening paragraph or page.
The key to this method is to hold off the revelation long enough to generate tension. Change it too soon and it will be like shouting BOO; startling but not satisfying. Wait too long and the reader will lose patience as well as interest. It also must depend on the length of the manuscript. You can take more time with a novel than with a short story.
III A statement or explanation
Common in many great classics, this type of beginning employs a form of narration:
A nostalgic “I remember…” musing
A “Let me introduce myself” statement
A narrator’s observation
An implied ‘bookend’
An omniscient point of view.
Mysteries that open with the murderer observing his deed, such as Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train, is one example, since the murderer is not the protagonist. Using an implied bookend, Lawrence Hill begins his engrossing novel, Someone Knows My Name, with his elderly heroine ready to tell a packed audience her life story. The rest of the novel is told in flashback up to the climax, which brings us back to her about to go on stage.
Using this method addresses the reader in a direct way, which builds a bond. However, it introduces the plot slowly, in a cerebral rather than a dynamic manner, so it must intrigue us enough to keep reading. You can accomplish this with an opening sentence in a short story, but longer form fiction allows for more time.
Confused yet? Think of beginning a story like getting into a pool. Some just jump right in – method one. Others will dangle their feet in the water awhile, then slip in – method two. Others (me) will dip a toe in, complain about how cold it is, then slowly inch deeper into the pool until the water’s shoulder-high before gliding under – method three.
* * *
Are you are having trouble starting your story? Consider writing three different versions using each of these methods, then see which best accomplishes the goal of an opening. Which will lead you in the direction you want to go? Even though you’ll reject two of the openings, you may keep a nugget from them to use elsewhere. Or, if you decide to use a bookend opening, you can convert one of your other versions into chapter two.
Have you begun your story but aren’t satisfied with it? Does it feel bloated with backstory? Does it convey enough to grab the reader’s interest? Which type of beginning did you use? Does it satisfy the goals of that method? If so, perhaps trying another method would be more effective, or it might suggest a fix for your original beginning.
Your opening should not only prod your readers to keep going, but you as well. Again, even outlining an opening using another method of beginning may prompt some questions or ideas that will move you forward. If you’re writing a sequel, try rereading your previous book, or go back to the beginning and reread them all. It may give you momentum, or you may find some detail that triggers an idea to follow up on.
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Have you gotten stuck after writing the opening and can’t seem to progress? Does your plot feel bogged down and going nowhere? In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to keep the middle from sagging or lagging.
*Spacemanguy` was an actual gubernatorial candidate in Washington state’s primary election. He lost.
Miko Johnston is the author of three novels in The Petal In The Wind series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at email@example.com
As a Brit I put up with a lot of ribbing in America. Some friends take me to task for pronunciation. Well, I can’t help it if I have a very slight West Country accent as I am from Cornwall. To my amusement my accent is occasionally mistaken for Australian.
As a writer from over there, though, the ribbing can give me indigestion or at the very least depression for hours. The main problem is spelling. I am warned by colleagues that editors at U.S. publishing houses come down hard if you keep inserting a “u” into words like behaviour, colour, and honour, or substitute a ”z’ for an “s”. Other minefields include using “ae” rather than “e,” as in “aeon” and “eon”. Maybe it’s a matter simplicity. Americans pare as many ells from words as possible while Brits love double ells, such as “levelling” versus “leveling”.
My books are published here but habits die hard and I usually claim that Brits use the correct spellings. They only got chopped when unnecessary (to whom?) letters are summarily killed off. Flautists are called flutists, kerb is curb, and gaol is jail. Obviously what it comes down to is pronunciation, though. Americans spell words economically as they are spoken which is commendable although it escapes me why tyre is spelled tire. I think it has to do with the Boston Tea Party and wanting to be set apart from that awful king.
It’s a huge temptation to some authors who have leapt across the pond to use British spelling, perhaps as a sly signal to agents and publishers they are querying that the writer is a Brit – a sort of literary snobbism one occasionally encounters. In my first mystery I have my lead character admonish the British consul’s wife for this attitude which I did, in fact, actually encounter in Newport Beach.
Then there’s the grammar. Collective nouns in particular give me pause. Is a group, say, a government, singular or plural? Americans say it’s the former; Brits insist on the latter. I have a page from the Associated Press Stylebook permanently stuck to my printer to remind me which to use.
Figuring out past particles is always fun. For instance, Brits say “pleaded” Yanks say “pled”. Oh, and the very, very worst word I hate to see changed is “hanged”. To my mind it should refer only to someone at the loop end of a rope, giving the action a far heftier meaning than the briefer word “hung”, as used here. People are not paintings.
What else? “Have” and “take” always flummox me. Am I going to take a bath? Or, am I going to have a bath? I read somewhere that this is an example of a delexical verb, which I’m not even going to touch.
While writing my mystery my beta readers caught another mistake. I wrote, “He drove her to hospital.” Wrong. I was told there should be a “the” in front of “hospital”. I’m sure there’s some kind of diabolical rule about this but I think it is fine to give an in-house editor something to mark up to justify his/her salary. As for tenses, the past participle in the U.S. for “got” is “gotten,” an ugly word that makes me shudder enough to want to write a thriller entitled “The Dangling Participle and the Dark, Dark Pluperfect”.
While writing the first in my crime series, whose amateur sleuth is a disgraced Cornish woman exiled by the palace for discovering a scandal (not sexual!), I had to learn the police rankings and figure out who was a sheriff and who was a police officer. Having worked with a reporter at the good old British rag, the Sunday Dispatch, I decided to have my sleuth simplify her confusion (and mine) by using British titles. When caught speeding she addresses a California Highway Patrol (CHiP) officer as Chief Superintendent, and calls the Chief of Police, Constable. I was very pleased to learn that sheriffs and policemen can be lumped into a group collectively referred to as “cops”.
When I mention a British pastime, such as nighthawking, no one has a clue as to its meaning. I was going to give the nasty habit to a character in my next book but I decided the explanation could be tedious unless you’re one yourself.
Even the four seasons can be a challenge. Seeking representation for my new book I scoured the agent lists and was rejected by 55 of them. I knew small presses can be approached directly and I found one with whose name I fell totally in love: Mainly Murder Press in Connecticut. However, the website declared, NO SUBMISSIONS UNTIL LATE SPRING!
Ha. I immediately sent in my query along with a note: “Dear MMP, I live in Southern California and although it is only January according to the calendar, and snowing where you are, it is already late spring here. You should see the roses!”
I received an email back within three hours, asking me to send chapters. Which I did. Obviously the publisher was not off in Tahiti but still on the snowy East Coast.” MMP published only 12-14 books a year and has now closed its doors but who can resist the name? So my advice is to go ahead and break the rules. Lay it on thick. Change the climate. Worked for me.
Jill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep” and the second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead.” The books are set in Newport, California. http://www.jillamadio.com
This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)
I’ve been writing since I was a child. I started writing plays for our stuffed animals, then an ongoing story with two friends. When I had small children, I discovered I could make money writing freelance human interest stories for the two local newspapers.
My mind has always been filled with stories. It was several years after I started writing on a regular basis, that I realized I didn’t daydream about family members coming to harm anymore. My husband drove a semi-truck for thirty years of our marriage. Before I started writing, my mind would dredge up all these horrible things that happened to him each time he was out on the road. Once I started writing every day, those went away. I had put my imagination to better use.
My first book, let me rephrase that. The seventh book I wrote, was contracted by a small press. Yes, I didn’t sell my first attempt at writing a book. It took me 7 manuscripts before I had crafted a book that a publisher wanted.
Even though the first two books I wrote were mysteries, it was a historical western romance that was contracted. The book hadn’t started out as a series, but the hero had four brothers and once readers started asking for the other brothers’ stories, well, what could I do! The first book, Marshal in Petticoats, started the series titles: Outlaw in Petticoats, Miner in Petticoats, Doctor in Petticoats and Logger in Petticoats. Then I wrote three standalone historical western romance books. Improper Pinkerton, I had hoped to make into a series about the Pinkerton’s, but it didn’t fly off the shelves or onto ereaders.
I have always been interested in the Wallowa Nez Perce, the band of American Indian that summered and wintered in the county where I grew up. We had a rodeo each summer named after Chief Joseph, but that was the only time I ever saw a Native American in the county. Other than the ghost of a warrior I saw one day while riding my horse on the mountain behind our house.
My inquisitiveness started me digging into their history when agents at a writer’s conference said they were looking for historical paranormal. I came up with my Spirit Trilogy. Three siblings of a northern band of Nez Perce with blonde hair and blue eyes that turned red with their emotions (my research discovered this northern band), who had become spirits. They are shapeshifters. Through them, I showed the history of the Wallowa Nimiipuu, as they call themselves.
Historical Western Romance seemed to be taking a hit and not selling well. I was complaining about it at a Romance Writers of America meeting and one of the other authors said, then write contemporary western. I said I didn’t think I could. Lo and behold, on the two hour drive home from the meeting, a radio show host talked about how kids had used their parents’ credit card to order items on the internet. And Poof! I had an idea for a book. That was Perfectly GoodNanny which won an EPPIE award for Best Contemporary Romance in 2008. I wrote another contemporary western romance, Bridled Heart. They are both stand alone romances.
Then readers were asking for more Halsey Brothers. I decided to move forward in time and wrote stories for three male secondary characters who had been brought into the Halsey family. This is the Halsey Homecoming series. Each character is finding their way back home to Sumpter and the Halsey family. There is also a novella, A Husband for Christmas. This is a female secondary character’s story.
Wanting to write Action Adventure, I wrote the Isabella Mumphrey Adventures. She is a cross between Indiana Jones and MacGyver. The first book, Secrets of a Mayan Moon, she is in the Guatemalan Jungle. I became friends with a Guatemalan blogger who helped me make sure the book sounded authentic. I LOVED writing this character. She had three books. Then, again, even though the first book won the Reader’s Crown in 2013, the books are slow selling.
Mail Order Bride books became popular, but I thought they had been done over and over, so I came up with a sort of mail order husband series. Letters of Fate. In these historical western romance books, the hero receives a letter that changes his path and leads him to the woman he marries.
Ditto my Silver Dollar Saloon series. These are historical western romance, where the heroines are women who are taken in by the saloon owner when they are found starving, sick, or beaten. As they heal both in body and in mind, they find they can love and be loved again. They are redemption stories.
I finally felt confident enough to go back to writing mystery books in 2014. I wrote the first three Shandra Higheagle Mystery books and released them three months in a row in 2015. I love writing what I had always wanted to write, and I love that readers are enjoying the books. Shandra is a Native American potter. She is only half Nez Perce and wasn’t raised knowing her father’s heritage. This aspect made me feel confident I could write her because I could discover more about her family right alongside of her as I wrote her books. I have a friend who lives on the Colville Reservation where Shandra’s family lives. Number 14 in this series just released. It is set in Kaua’i Hawaii. I vacationed there last year and used it as a setting.
The other mystery series, is the Gabriel Hawke Novels. Hawke is from the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. He joined the military, came home, and became an Oregon State Trooper. Fifteen years ago, he became a fish and wildlife officer with the Oregon State Police in Wallowa County. Remember that place from earlier in my post? I grew up in Wallowa County, I love the rugged, ruralness of it for a mystery series. And what better character to solve mysteries than a master tracker, with roots in the area. His forefathers summered and wintered in the valleys and the mountains. He is not only protecting the animals and land for the law but for his ancestors. To be sure I had this character’s occupation written correctly, I rode with a Fish and Wildlife State Trooper in the county for a day. He gave me a notebook full of information and ideas for stories. I’m currently writing book 5 in this series. It is set in Iceland, a place I visited last year. When I discovered they held a large SAR (Search and Rescue) conference every other year, I knew I had to bring Hawke to Iceland.
As you can see, I tend to write what is strongest in my mind. And if they don’t sell, well, then I move on to something else. Right now, the mysteries are doing much better than the romance. My calendar for 2020 is to write only mysteries.
What genre(s) do you like to read? Why?
My latest release:
Hawaiian adventure, Deceit, Murder
Shandra Higheagle is asked to juror an art exhibition on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.
After an altercation at the exhibition, the chairwoman of the event, Shandra’s friend, arrives home with torn clothes, scratches, and stating she tried to save an angry artist who fell over a cliff. Shandra and Ryan begin piecing together information to figure out if the friend did try to save the artist or helped him over the edge.
During the investigation, Shandra comes across a person who reminds her of an unhealthy time in her past. Knowing this man and the one from her past, she is determined to find his connection to the dead artist. When her grandmother doesn’t come to her in dreams, Shandra wonders if her past is blinding her from the truth.
Paty Jager is an award-winning author of 43 novels, 8 novellas, and numerous anthologies of murder mystery and western romance. All her work has Western or Native American elements in them along with hints of humor and engaging characters. Paty and her husband raise alfalfa hay in rural eastern Oregon. Riding horses and battling rattlesnakes, she not only writes the western lifestyle, she lives it.
If we’re traditionally published, they’re set by the publisher, with our agreement. If we’re self published, they’re largely set by ourselves.
I’ve been doing this for a while and generally consider deadlines my friends. They certainly keep me moving.
Recently I’ve been under deadlines for four Harlequin Romantic Suspense novels. I met the first two with no problem, but I’d agreed to the third being shorter than usual thinking I could meet it anyway–but I had to ask for an extension.
I just turned in that manuscript.
Now I’m working on the fourth of those books. I’m first doing a synopsis and three chapters to turn in, then finishing the rest of the manuscript. I have a few months, so I should be fine. But right now I’m looking at all the weekend events, panels and more, that I’ve agreed to in the near future. Then there will be a visit from some dear family members that will probably use up a week. And an annual trip that has been extended to see those family members at their home. So… well, I’m worried about meeting that deadline.
After I do? Well, I’m not sure what I’m writing next. I’m hoping to do more mysteries, but I’m not under any contracts. And I’d enjoy writing more romantic suspense books as well.
But after that deadline is over, I have some trips planned, so I’ll have to be careful.
Okay, I’m not the only one with deadlines. And I had all kinds of other deadlines when I was also a practicing attorney. Nearly everyone has deadlines in their lives. Do you? Writing deadlines? Work deadlines? Family deadlines?
Yes, deadlines are a part of life.
What do you think of the ones in your life? Do you face them down and stare at them and meet them? Or do you cringe when you think of them?
Or do you want more of them, as I do?
Linda O. Johnston, a former lawyer who is now a full-time writer, currently writes two mystery series for Midnight Ink involving dogs: the Barkery and Biscuits Mysteries, and the Superstition Mysteries. She has also written the Pet Rescue Mystery Series, a spinoff from her Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime and also currently writes for Harlequin Romantic Suspense as well as the Alpha Force paranormal romance miniseries about shapeshifters for Harlequin Nocturne.
This article was posted for Linda O. Johnston by Jackie Houchin