While Jackie Houchin is on vacation (in Spain or France now) we have another Guest Author. (Thank-you, Elaine!) Jackie hopes to return with her next scheduled post of June 8, 2022.
by Elaine L. Orr
Like most writers, I put words on paper because if they don’t get out that way I risk screaming on a street corner. I get those words into print because I think others would enjoy them.
When readers like the characters, they may clamor for more. Even if they don’t initially, we think they will. I consider several things when I start a new mystery series.
Is the setting or main topic interesting enough to keep exploring? My first series (the now twelve-book Jolie Gentil series) is set at the Jersey shore because I love small, east coast beach towns.
Can I connect to the characters enough that readers can too? This doesn’t mean does an author like the characters. Some of the most relatable ones are the evil ones.
Is the life of the main character part of a profession or hobby that makes discovering a lot of big problems (or bodies) realistic? Jolie is a real estate appraiser and runs a food pantry, both things that bring her into contact with many people in varied settings.
Is there a plan to have the characters evolve over time? If lead characters have the same strength and foibles in every book, they become predictable. That sameness can lead to reader (and writer) boredom.
Is the plan to write a certain number of books, culminating in a big event or life transition? Or can stories continue as long as the author has ideas?
I’ve used the Jolie Gentil Series as the example, so I’ll do it one more time. I envisioned three books, with the third being called Justice for Scoobie, a childhood friend she reconnects with as an adult. Wrong. He’s the favorite character. Couldn’t bump him off and have Jolie solve that crime!
My primary hobby is researching family history, a natural one seeing that I like U.S. history and finding my families’ links to it. Why did I never make that an important focus of a series? Beats me. It is now.
The Family History Mystery Series has the fourth book underway. And that tells me something. My other two series (River’s Edge and Logland) have three books each. I may start fourth books, but why not jump into them immediately after the third?
Did I not think through the first four questions above? I did, and I have more ideas. What was missing? Passion. Hard to define, but it’s another key component of writing. You have to REALLY want those characters’ lives to continue if they appear in a series.
Have you noticed I didn’t use the word plot once in this piece? All good stories need more than a beginning, middle and end. They need a compelling story and conflict, which doesn’t necessarily mean action. In mysteries, there are a myriad of criteria. For example, if the villain pops up at the end with very little role or foreshadowing, reviews may not be kind.
As in all books, plot matters in a series. But the characters (and their evolution) matter most. Main and even ancillary characters need to contribute to the story and have a clear purpose.
Reader reactions matter, but they can’t determine how your characters develop. They can, however, inform what you do after book one. Take them seriously, but don’t make them your guide.
Finally, enjoy writing the series. If you don’t, the series could meet an untimely demise.
Elaine L. Orr writes four mystery series, blogs, keeps in touch with lots of family and friends, and tromps cemeteries looking for long-dead ancestors.
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.
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!
A few years after my retirement, my first novel, A Tangled Yarn, was published as part of a cozy mystery book-of-the-month series. I had found the opportunity to write for the series through a regional writer’s conference where I met a representative from the publishing company.
I tell you this for two reasons. First, it’s never too late to begin anew and reach for your dream. Second, dreams can come true if you’re proactive. I would never have published that first novel if I had stayed home and just dreamt about becoming a “real” author. I met the publisher’s representative because I had started attending conferences to learn more about the how and what of writing, and to meet agents and publishing companies’ representatives. Even though I am an introvert (a good many authors are), I really believe that joining writers’ groups and attending conferences are invaluable for building our skills, for learning about our business, and for networking.
Since that first book after “retiring,” I have gone on to publish a second cozy mystery, five historical mysteries, and a collection of historical short stories—with a sixth historical novel to be published this summer.
My historical stories are all set in Imperial China, specifically (at this point) in the late 1300s, the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. The first three—Hidden, Warned, and Trapped—is a young adult trilogy that I had been thinking about and working on for many years. My educational background is anthropology with an interest in Chinese culture and traditions. Of course, that was long before I retired from jobs that did not specifically involve much of this training.
So, when I decided to write historical Chinese mysteries, I needed—and still need—to do a lot of research on the time period. I read Chinese literature and whatever scholarly papers or books I can find dealing with Imperial China. I look at materials on the law, economics, religion, art, education, geography, medicine, local and family histories, and more. My research is broad because I never know what’s going to be useful for a story. Criminal case reports are, of course, important because they not only tell me about the why and how a case was handled, they also expose the tensions/stresses in the society at that time. Other areas also provide windows into the social, intellectual, and religious realities for people at that time in history, which are critical for forming believable, historically grounded characters and motivations.
Also, research is needed to get a realistic picture of what’s happening at the local level, beyond the Emperor’s court. In my newest series, A Ming Dynasty Mystery (Deadly Relations and No Way to Die), I wanted to show life from both a male and female perspective. The male character, Shu-chang, was easy to develop. He’s an amalgamation of striving young men struggling to achieve social and economic success through the long-standing Chinese merit system which was based on an examination process. There are many, many examples of such young men.
The female character, however, was more difficult because I wanted her to be educated and to have freedom to act outside of her home. At the same time, she had to be realistic. I couldn’t simply give her a contemporary mindset in order to create an interesting story. After all, she lived in a period and culture with a different set of expectations for men and women. Fortunately, while reading broadly, I ran across an account of a learned woman who had trained as a professional women’s doctor under her own grandmother. I was able to use her as a model on which to build my character Xiang-hua. I now had a strong female protagonist that I felt was also true to her time and place.
Fortunately for me, I enjoy research, sifting through and collecting historical tidbits. I can easily get lost in the details. However, only a small fraction of what I find interesting can or should go into a story.
As we know, an author has to be judicious in what and how information is used. It has to support what is happening without overwhelming the reader. A story is not the place for an information dump! This is true whatever the genre, but in historical fiction it is particularly important to get the balance right.
The trick is to provide enough detail that readers can easily envision the characters and environment—which may be alien or exotic to them—without being boring or bringing the story to a standstill. Consistently meeting this challenge is a skill that takes practice, and a good reader or editor can be invaluable in helping to correct the balance if and when it goes astray.
Finally, let me add one more thing on beginning to write fiction later in life. I have heard authors say they are compelled to write their stories. That’s not me. I don’t feel compelled. After all, until I retired, I wrote only a little poetry and few short stories or novels. Mostly, I immersed myself in whatever current job I had and in my family life. Once retired, however, I went back to dreams largely laid aside and dusted them off. Writing cozies and, especially, historical mysteries provides constant new challenges for me. Each story gives me a goal to work toward. A new world to share with others. And that brings me true enjoyment.
P.A. De Voe, an anthropologist and China specialist, writes contemporary mysteries and historical crime stories set in Ming Dynasty China. She’s a Silver Falchion award winner and twice a Silver Falchion award and an Agatha award finalist. Her short story, The Immortality Mushroom, was in the Anthony Award winning anthology Murder Under the Oaks edited by Art Taylor. She is a member of Sisters in Crime National, Tucson Sisters in Crime, the SinC Guppy Chapter, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, St. Louis Writer’s Guild, Saturday Writers, the Historical Novel Society, and Mystery Writers of America/MWA Midwest. Find her at padevoe.com. Her books can be found on Amazon.
Well, not literally on the road necessarily, but traveling. On vacation.
Is there such a thing as a vacation for a writer? Yes… and no.
Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, our minds are busy. Never mind whether we’re sitting at a computer churning out whatever story we are working on. That might not happen as much while we are out of our usual environment.
But yes, we’re writing when we’re not writing. Our minds are at work, observing what’s around us, the environment, the people including possibly our families but also those who are there on vacation too, or locals, or those who are taking care of us at whatever hotels or resorts we might be visiting or cruises we’re on.
It’s all inspiration! No matter what we might be writing at the moment or planning to write in the near future, we’re always open to new ideas that we might head for in the future.
Yes, last time I was here I wrote about a life of strange inspirations. But what about inspirations that aren’t strange, but fun?
So why am I addressing this? Well, last week I was on a family trip at a resort in Cancun. Oh, yes, it was fun. I loved being with family, and the environment was amazing. Extremely windy when we were there, but the brilliant blue water beyond the white sand beach at the place we were staying was beautiful. A lot of generous service from the resort staff. Multi-level swimming pools. Vast buildings around areas where outside entertainment was provided. Even fireworks!
I had mixed emotions about some of it. We’d been to that resort before, and they have a couple of large pools containing dolphins that appear to be well treated considering where they are, but having such smart animals that are originally from vast sea environments contained like that… Well, I’ve researched dolphins. They’re wonderful beings. As smart as humans in their environment. Am I inspired to write about them? I’ve always been inspired to write about them, but definitely not in situations like that—unless they can find a way out and get revenge!
See! My mind was at work while I was relaxing and enjoying my vacation.
How about you? Does traveling inspire you to develop new ideas, new stories, different kinds of things?
By the way, this subject is so vital to me that I’m incorporating it into the three blogs I’m posting on the same day this month. I’m addressing it somewhat differently, but it’s definitely on my mind. Along with my writing.
Well, we wanted this year to be different, didn’t we? Or, did we yearn for The Good Old Days of yore: that is pre-Covid? The truth is somewhere in the middle…
For two years, we did as we were told. Because lives were at stake, and livelihoods, businesses, careers. We shut our lives down, following the Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines. We did the best we could.
But now, not a moment too soon, our world is supposed to be opening up again. How’s that working for you? What are you looking forward to doing, as we get out and about, and happily smile, bare-faced, at each other again?
I don’t know about you – but, as a writer, I really missed all the Writers’ Conferences and workshops. It was a chance to get together with other creative folk from all over the world – writers, publishers, readers, agents – and swap ideas, hear news and get inspired and encouraged once more. Whether we attended in person, participated via Zoom or read about them online. They always made me feel part of a wonderful, chattering, writers’ world.
I loved reading about the conferences far, far away. Especially those sublime Writers’ Retreats in Tuscany, Greece or exotic Eastern islands. I mean, who could afford them? Even the fare to get there? Who had the time? But it was lovely to dream about the ‘one day’ when I had several best-selling novels under my belt and knew I could write the expenses off from my high taxes of my super-successful writing career.
I also learned a lot reading the descriptions of the workshops offered. Some were business oriented, about how the super-successful J. K. Rowlings and her compadres ran their writing careers or businesses. Or had someone else do it for them. Details of the foreign retreats that focused on creativity had descriptions to drool over: the leisurely, dreamy days gazing out on azure seas, after early-morning yoga, while tutors encouraged one to write something totally different from your usual style. To explore hidden corners of our creative brains. A morning of writing would be followed by exquisitely prepared meals of fresh, local produce served ‘en-plein-air’ – in the shade of exotic trees. To be followed by an afternoon saunter to the local farmers’ markets – or perhaps a wine tasting at the local vineyard. Then return to your room for more writing time. That is, if you could stay awake after the food and wine! Those Writers’ Retreats are VERY expensive. But one can dream…
In reality, most of us attend the more practical conferences packed with workshops on different styles and genres, on research, on editing our tomes, and how to wrap them up with an eye-catching pitch. There are always plenty of opportunities to attend agent-lead workshops, meet publishers and editors and hear lectures by our successful counterparts. I used to love listening to the late (and dearly missed) Sue Grafton. She always made us feel that if she had achieved success, then we could surely do the same. Charlaine Harris, Ann Perry, Lee Child, Ann Cleeves, Michael Connelly – I could go on – but they all spoke at these numerous events, sharing advice and encouragement for their fellow writers.
These conferences are held all over the country. The annual Bouchercon was to have been in New Orleans last year but was cancelled due to Covid. I was looking forward to that! This year it’s in Minneapolis in September. The last Left Coast Crime Writers Conference I attended was in Vancouver in 2019. The 2020 one in San Diego was cancelled. This next one is in Albuquerque in April. (I’m moderating a panel of screenwriters and guesting on a panel about Twentieth Century Mysteries.) Malice Domestic Conference will be in Bethesda late April. The International Thriller Writers Conference is June 4th in New York.
There are several more venues for writers to hone their craft and network, including the California Crime Writers, which has gone online due to Covid precautions. There’s something for every writer: romance writers, mystery writers, screen writers, short-story writers. Something for every genre, for beginners and experienced career writers, traditionally published, self-published and ‘pre-published.’ In that long conference weekend, we get to talk about writing, meet new writers and readers, new agents and publishers, learn the latest forensic discoveries, the new publishing trends – and often, we plot how to commit murders that we can get away with! For our literary characters that is, of course! Although that discussion might well happen at the Romance Writers Conference occasionally, too!
Many conferences were in California, so I would drive to them. But other times I would fly to another state. Apart from the fun adventure of travelling to these events, I’ve missed seeing my writer friends from all over the globe. We laugh a lot, catch up on each other’s lives, eat a lot – and the bars are always open. It’s a lovely escape – before we return home to our usually isolated writing life. There, we scribble in our endless notebooks, then tap away on our computers – until we have something completed that we can discuss at the next writers’ conference.
So, we’re back to normal – sort of.
What part of your writers’ life did you miss most these past couple of years?
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 email@example.com
Few mystery writers pour their personal passion into their fiction to get their message across as successfully and as brilliantly as multi-book author Jessica Speart. Published traditionally by such as Severn House, William Morrow, and others as one of the most addictive thriller series, the acclaimed American author’s plots are based on true, wildlife issues.
Elephants slaughtered for their tusks, sharks for their fins, rhinos for their horns, and other species for their rarity, many endangered, form the focus of Rachel Porter’s action-packed sleuthing. An agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (USFWS), the fictional character is a composite based on real agents who investigate smuggling, murders, and criminals who break the laws that cover illegal species trading.
Casting a worldwide net, Speart sets her mysteries in several American states, and peoples them with characters in Mexico, Russia and other countries where illegal hunting is at its most prevalent such as Hawaii for its rare reptiles and exotic birds in Florida, but what stands out the most is the remarkably meticulous and detailed research that Speart brings to her books. The reader learns a wealth of fascinating facts told in an often-humorous style while at the same time learning how poachers work, the tools needed to trap tortoises, and the clever ruses criminals use that include the rich and famous with their collecting obsessions.
“Doing research is essential to my writing,” she said. ”The idea is not to just make things up [but] to provide facts in a compelling way.”
An investigative freelance journalist for several years after studying theater at the Boston University College of Fine Arts, and stints as an actress off-Broadway, in commercials, and soap operas, Speart switched from acting to writing.
“I needed to get away for a while and ended up going to Africa. It was there that I witnessed the poaching of elephants for their ivory and rhino for their horns. I came home determined to do something to try and help.”
Speart took a direct approach and began her magazine career writing stories about the USFWS special agents and their investigations. She became fascinated with their work. Many of her articles involved wildlife and drug-trafficking crimes and were published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.
But the subject matter, she discovered, wasn’t high on the list of law enforcement agencies. An animal lover, she decided to take justice into her own hands by starting a crime series, knowing the popularity of mysteries and thrillers could give her topic a voice.
“My first ten books are the fictional Rachel Porter mystery series,” she said, “which sprang from my magazine work. I became frustrated with the outcome of many wildlife cases. The illegal trade in endangered species is worth between $15-20 billion a year and yet the fines and punishment remain low.”
In the process Speart became an expert in demand at endangered species conferences, a keynote speaker at a wide range of distinguished forums including the American Museum of Natural History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, chapters of the Audubon Society, and others, and a frequent guest on television shows and documentaries..
“The transition from non-fiction journalism to fiction wasn’t difficult, given the reality of the issues,” she said, having covered cases from initial suspicious behavior to arrest and conviction.
The fast-paced Rachel Porter series begins with what could be considered fragments of the author’s own life. Titled GATOR AIDE, it takes place in the steamy bayous of Louisiana and the New Orleans French Quarter, featuring an alligator chained to a bathtub with a dead stripper nearby. The book’s characters include cops, killers, drag queens, and corrupt politicians.
Speart’s second book, TORTOISE SOUP, crosses the country to a new assignment in Nevada where endangered tortoises have disappeared, while book 3, BIRD BRAINED, sends the USFWS agent back to the southeast coast and Florida, where exotic cockatoos and parrots are smuggled out. The cast includes a wonderfully-rendered sleazy snake dealer, Cuban cigar smugglers, airboat cowboys, and Castro terrorists. The action never stops.
Primates inhabit book 4 and the locale is the Mexican border. Not too surprisingly because they exist in real life, there’s a game ranch stocked with rare antelopes, Indian deer, and African oryx for the rich to hunt down and kill for sport. Rachel Porter unwittingly joins the group on the wrong side of the party.
Caviar, anyone? BLACK DELTA NIGHT explains how Tennessee’s Mississippi River paddlefish becomes a rival to Beluga for the Russian mafia to exploit. This time Rachel goes undercover when murder is on the menu.
While her methods eventually result in catching the criminals, her way of operating tends to irritate her bosses and, once again, she is shipped off to another state. Montana, long known as home to private militias and survivalists, also has more than its share of grizzly bears. But why are they being killed along with several Native Americans? A KILLING SEASON provides a dazzling backdrop to the puzzle.
Books 7, 8 and 9 see Rachel once again shuttled off to other states to get her out of her boss’ hair. This time she is sent to Georgia with its manatees in COASTAL DISTURBANCE, and then to northern California with BLUE TWILIGHT in which a collector is obsessed with a rare butterfly. Again, Speart’s research brings reality to the characters, locales, and plot lines. In RESTLESS WATERS Rachel is back in Hawaii to chase down those who upset the fragile ecological balance.
Book 10 winds up the series with UNSAFE HARBOR involving the importation of illegal Tibetan antelope fur clothing, before Speart turns to non-fiction for her 11th book, WINGED OBSESSION: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler.
“It deals with an actual case that is so crazy no one would believe it if I wrote it as fiction,” she said. “A Japanese national began prowling around America’s national parks. One butterfly he chased was the Apache Fritillary, catching 500 of them and shipping them back to Japan to sell.”
Following up on the true case she flew to Japan and went undercover to make friends with the man. Soon, she discovered he was setting her up. A thriller, indeed.
Whether writing non-fiction or fiction Speart spends time outlining her books before giving it its freedom. “I’m a big outliner, especially when it comes to writing a mystery. Otherwise, it’s like driving your car through a tunnel without lights on a dark night. You are bound to have an accident.”
She noted that some authors spend a year-sometimes two or three – nurturing their book. “Then comes the morning when we finally have to let go and the book takes on a life of its own.”
Speart finds that releasing a published book is exciting and frightening both at the same time. “There’s the rush of having the published book hit the stores, there’s the fear that no one will like it. But what about those folks who read your book and become angry?”
After BLUE TWILIGHT went on sale a small group of butterfly collectors felt she had attacked them, and, in turn, began attacking her.
“Apparently, I’d hit a nerve,” she said. “I’m not saying butterfly collecting is a crime but there are those who cross the line between collecting legal butterflies versus collecting protected and endangered butterflies. There are instances where even legal butterflies have been over-collected.”
The author points out that there is a class system when it comes to species being valued, and that if they were chimps, tigers and others public reaction would be one of horror. She continues the argument on her website in one of her blogs. She also discusses the difference between the two styles, saying that narrative non-fiction is fact-based storytelling employing some of the same skills that are used in fiction, setting each scene, presenting fascinating characters, and creating a strong narrative persona.
As for specific dialogue in non-fiction, Speart again brings her research to the forefront. It requires, she says, exhaustive digging which is something she enjoys. She also points out that narrative non-fiction doesn’t have to be told as purely objective journalism. Writers can bring emotion to their characters and create a sense of drama while following the story arc.
A few books that fit into the discussion are some of her favorites including In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer; The Orchard Thief by Susan Orlean; The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, a book that began Speart’s love affair with the city of Savannah.
Jessica Speart teaches an advanced mystery writers workshop in Connecticut, and reminds students: “You have to believe in your work and not give up. Writing is a rough business and not for the faint of heart.”
Escapism through scenery and characters is what I love about reading fiction! And because of that I’ve often shared here on Writers in Residence my meandering and self-centric thoughts on both aspects—scenery and characters from a writing perspective. And in this post, I’m visiting both again—conjointly— as they are both affecting my writing adventure right now. For sure, I was completely surprised by Parnell Chatterman. A new hero and series I hope to start this year. (Big deal for me—a one at a time kind of writer.)I’m guessing part of my interest and surprise stems from a 2021 malaise that grabbed hold of me writing-wise all last year. So I certainly didn’t expect a new and concurrent series popping up!
In the past, my one at a time few books have been inspired and happened in the various places I lived at the time. I.e, Uncle Si’s secret, my first was written when I lived in North Bend, WA. From there, the next was around Ridgecrest, CA, and from there to the Mojave and fictional Newtown and Shiné. All real and inspiring places for me, and the last, nonexistent Shiné in particular, has become very real. And I’m thinking, the people in Shiné too? Hence the surprise—out of Shiné the place and it’s inhabitants, I’m starting a new series (only a few pages written) based on an “inhabitant” of Shiné. I honestly hadn’t realized how real Shiné had become for me. Real enough to become further fiction?
The distinction (and irony) I’m making and pointing out may not be obvious…so I’ll try to explain a little further. I walk my dog(s) every morning. It’s early, and I’m out in open desert (Shiné land!) But in the far distance I can barely see trucks moving along I-15. Sometimes my imagination wanders off to what the drivers might be thinking, their back stories, and of course, how they would fit in a murder mystery. For me, scenery and setting inspiring fiction. (one such driver has a “walk on” in my current WIP.)
But Parnell Chatterman’s existence came out of place already in existence. (I know, I know, Shiné doesn’t really exist), but it is very real in this writer’s mind. The Mojave location, Shiné’s layout, the inhabitants—combined and somehow gave life to a new character with a series of his own!
So what is the take away from what I’m experiencing that might inspire writing friends, and also may be interesting to readers as to where all this writing stuff comes from? I think the nugget is to try to make your setting and characters so enticing, that consequently, a place someone might want to live in or visit in reality— and for the writers reading this, a whole new series may arise? Maybe there’s a character you really like in a current book that you want to bring to the stage? Or, on the other improvement side, maybe your current-book’s world isn’t enticingly-real enough to “create” new fiction. And the question would be do you want to change that?
And, the additional point —that for me and maybe some others of you—this writing journey is sooo full of surprises, and the importance of keeping our minds open to those surprises. Let them in!
Having reread this—I’m thinking my thoughts here might be either helpful—or maybe just come across as idiotic twaddle. Either way though, hoping my meanderings will re-emphasize how important setting and characters are. Parnell Chatterman certainly thinks so!(smile) I better get writing… And reading. Have Death of a Green-Eyed Monster by M.C. Beaton with R.W. Green waiting for me, and Hamish Macbeth and the Scottish Highlands are a setting and characters I love visiting! Lochdubh and Hamish are real, aren’t they?
Do you like receiving a thank you note for some little thing you did (or even said)? I recently received “three thank yous” via email (one was from my very well-trained, sweet granddaughter for a gift I sent).
It used to be something we would pound into our kids’s heads when they got birthday or Christmas gifts. “Write Aunt Dottie a thank you!” “Tell grandma you loved her gift!”
One boy at church ALWAYS wrote such sweet notes to me as his Sunday School or AWANA teacher. They were well thought out, and even used “bigger words” than I expected. Many had little drawings of something I might have given him. I would tell his mom that she sure trained him well, but she told me, “Oh, that’s his idea. I don’t say anything.” Sadly he’s graduated out of my class now. I miss his notes and illustrations. (Yes, I’ve saved them.)
I enjoy writing thank you notes as well. I’m always surprised when someone I sent a card to exclaims “Oh, what a wonderful surprise! That was so nice of you!” Sometimes I send an email, and very occassionally a quick text message. But I enjoy writing out my thoughts on real-life cards. And since my granddaughter now has a little business* making greeting cards, I get to use all kinds of them. She’s the artist and designer.
I also write birthday and holiday cards . Dear Kerry! Don’t make so many cute ones I just HAVE to buy and use!!
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Recently there was an article in our newspaper, The Epoch Times, January 26, 2022, titled “The Importance of Thank-You Notes”. I loved the sentiments and agreed with what was written.
This morning, February 25, 2022, there was a response in the form of letter in The Readers’ Turn section. It is a wonderful story of one particular thank you. Here it is (I hope it’s clear enough to read.)
As we here at The Writers In Residence are always encouraging our readers to WRITE, have any of you recently received something in the mail – snail, email, or text – that you could turn into a short story, essay, blog post, or even a poem? Ok, yes, even a utility bill that came. (Have you seen how Natural Gas prices have skyrocketed?? You could write a letter to the editor, or the company!! Haha.)
But I had something else in mind. Something creative. I recently got a snail mail letter from my sister who will be 89 next month. She is super spry physically and mentaly. She is now taking a writing class, and had to write a small piece from each of 30 prompts. She did it, and now she says her local newspaper wants to publish a few of them. Wow! Who knew? MY sister!!!
So… a thank you note that caught your attention, a birthday card, a GALentine’s Day card (yes, my granddaughter makes those!) or perhaps a mailing from a charity with a photo of a needy child, a disaster, or a pet who needs a home might spark a thought. Maybe even a gardening catalogue with seeds from an old variety of flowers that your grandma grew might inspire you to write a mini-memoir.
Go look through your mail. If you’ve got an idea now, let us know below. If it turns out nice, I might consider posting it in one of our GUEST BLOG spots this year. Just go do it! Write!
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—”
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…
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!