I’m busy. I’m always busy. But busy before the pandemic began is a lot different from busy now.
Is that true for you, too?
I’ve been writing forever, and I’m fortunate to be traditionally published a lot. That means I generally have faced a lot of upcoming deadlines. That hasn’t changed, although at the moment there seem to be more than usual.
But my busy-ness before was enhanced a lot by get-togethers with other writers at meetings of local chapters of Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and sometimes more. Then there were all the conferences I attended, which often included the Romance Writers of America National Conference, held annually in different locations. Then there were Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and other mystery-related conferences. I attended at least one a year. And in addition, there were annual conferences locally, such as the California Crime Writers Conference.
And now? Well, some get-togethers are available virtually. I’ve attended some chapter meetings that way, but not annual conferences. I know Malice Domestic will be virtual this year and I keep receiving emails about it—but so far I haven’t decided to go.
That’s all certainly different from before. But things seem to be improving now, as far as the ability of people to meet in person, though in smaller groups, and the necessity of being vaccinated, and wearing masks, although that seems to be changing at least to some extent and in some locations.
So will I go back to the old ways as things open up again? I don’t know yet. Tempting, yes, but I want to feel more secure that I won’t get sick or bring the virus home to others. And maybe I’m getting into bad, more solitary habits this way.
I’ve been delighted, though, to meet some of my fellow Writers in Residence for our usual—formerly—monthly lunch recently!
And you? Do you attend conferences now, virtually or in person? Writing events? Reading events?
It was Virginia Wolfe who, in 1929, famously said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.”
I thought about that as I de-cluttered my office-space for the umpteenth time, trying to create more writing space. I’d even bought myself a new smaller office chair – petite, chrome with pale gray leather. Much prettier than the traditional tall black swivel chair I’ve had for years. You see, I don’t have an actual office – a separate room – but use the far corner of my living room, surrounded by bookshelves, for my office. It would be nice, I thought, to have a separate office with a door – that I could shut at the end of each work day, and ignore my mess of research papers and note pads.
Agatha Christie had a lovely, bright office in her sprawling country home, Greenway, on the River Dart in Devon. Now a National Trust property, the view from her office window is of green lawns and masses of colorful wild flowers. But she said she really did her thinking, about her plots and characters, in the huge claw-foot bath-tub in the upstairs Victorian bathroom.
Men who write fiction need a room of their own, too. I also visited Bateman’s estate: Rudyard Kipling’s Jacobean home in Burwash, Sussex. You can walk into his book-lined study and see his wide writing table covered with travel mementoes, his inkwell, pen and assorted hand-written pages. Next to the table is a daybed, where Kipling would spend part of his writing day reclining and thinking through his books before he committed his tales to paper. Tall windows overlooking rolling fields and farmlands, made the room surprisingly light.
Beatrix Potter began writing as a very young child, when her nursery was on the top floor of the family’s tall, Victorian London house. (At least she had a room of her own.) She would be brought downstairs to visit with her mother for an hour each afternoon. Her only companions were the household staff. When her lunch (delivered to her room daily on a tray) was late one day, a maid explained “Cook’s got mice in the kitchen!” Beatrix was intrigued: “What’s ‘mice in the kitchen’?” A houseman brought one of the mice in a cage for the little girl to see. The rest, as they say, is history. She asked to keep the caged mouse as company and began to draw the furry creature and write stories about it. Her literary work expanded when, as a teenager, they moved north into the countryside, where she found Mrs. Tiggywinkle and all the other characters she brought us.
In today’s world, most writers have a room of their own in which to write. Although Carol Higgins Clark started out writing on the corner of the kitchen table. She would retype her mother’s (Mary Higgins Clark) novels to send out to her agent. Carol said her mom explained everything she was doing, so that eventually Carol was able to write her own novels and found her own literary success, following her late mom’s very successful path. She now can afford her own office.
Jackie Collins wrote hugely successful novels set in glamorous Beverly Hills and Hollywood in her equally glamorous office, with big picture windows overlooking Beverly Hills. The furniture was light beige and luxurious, her desk semicircular with a high-back soft beige leather chair. Jackie wrote all her novels by hand on yellow legal pads. She wrote daily from nine to five, with a short lunch break.
Danielle Steel has not just one Room of Her Own – or office – but two: One is in Paris, where she grew up, and the other in San Francisco. She travels back and forth. The mother of nine now-grown children, Danielle has written almost two hundred books. Her passion for writing has led to an intense schedule. At her desk, built to resemble a stack of her books, Danielle begins at 8 am each day and does not leave until a draft is complete. Sometimes she just stops for four hours sleep and carries on until the book is finished. She wears her comfy cashmere nightgown and eats at her desk, with refills of de-caffeinated iced coffee and a stash of bittersweet chocolate. When she is in San Francisco, she writes on her 1946 Olympia standard typewriter. As I said, Danielle Steele has TWO rooms of her own in which to write her fiction.
I remember visiting fellow Brit-born writer, Jacqueline Winspear. She had a lovely, small home-office, where she wrote many Maisie Dobbs novels. The walls were lined with shelves of books, research, and jumbo post-it notes, with a large table under the window and a comfy chair. Jacqui said that when she shut the door and closed the blinds, she could lose herself back in the Maisie Dobbs world of England in the 1930s.
I was envious that Jacqui had a room of her own in which to write. A room with a door that she could shut. I remember thinking that if I had a cozy office with a door that I could shut, then I could easily write at least one novel a year – just as Jacquie has done.
But now, as I settle down again at my table in the corner of the living room and start scribbling another segment of my next Lottie Topaz novel, I look across the room to the patio and the pool outside. I realize that I can’t continue without another cup of tea. Kitchen here I come. Then I have an idea for a contemporary mystery I’m working on set in St. Tropez. You see how quickly I distract myself?
While other writer friends have churned out dozens of novels, I realize that I have allowed my life and time to be torn in different directions, sorting other people’s problems and dramas. But, hey, I’m getting better. At least I am writing a few times a week, for a couple of snatched hours. I just want to be totally dedicated to writing several hours, every single day, like the aforementioned writers. What’s wrong with me?
Aha! I have found the real reason behind my lack of focus. I don’t have a
proper office – with a door that I can shut on all those distractions. I need a room of my own.
That’s not a typo, it’s a play on words, inspired by a stream of advice I’ve gotten from many writing experts on a touchy subject. We’re told, write what you know. Does that include exploiting who we know?
How far are you willing to go to write a tantalizing mystery, an emotionally powerful drama, or a deeply moving character study? Would you base it on an actual incident or situation in someone’s life and its effect on them? I’m not talking about libel, but morality.
A piece in your news source of choice might inspire you to write a “ripped from the headlines” novel. Legitimate public information is fair play for adaptation, such as a criminal case or someone’s media appeal to raise attention to an issue. For example, some couples have had children in hopes of providing bone marrow or other vital tissue to save a stricken older child. In addition to non-fictional accounts and memoirs written by family members, many authors, including Jodi Picoult, opted that storyline for novels. Dramatic, yes. Is it exploitive?
What if something noteworthy happened in your own life? You might write a memoir detailing the experience and how it changed you. Or you could draw on the event to fashion a scene, and more importantly, for the emotions it evoked, whether it’s the pain of loss, the thrill of first love, the shock of violence or post-traumatic stress inflicted by a drastic incident. When I write about grieving or passion, feeling afraid or distraught, it comes from my own experience, but I do so voluntarily.
We base our characters, at least in part, on people we’ve known. We imbue them with that person’s physical characteristics or personality traits. Say you’ve given your sleuth, a Vietnam vet, the same war wound as your brother, and his nemesis flashes the pasty-faced smirk of your loathsome ex-boss. Those qualities illustrate the characters, but don’t define them.
Great writers incorporate their lives into their stories. They tend to base some characters on family members and people closest to them, portraits which are often unflattering and unkind. Writers also mine tales from family and friends for source material. My own series of historical fiction novels began with a rumor about my grandmother. Stories about transformation, triumph over tragedy, and overcoming loss are rich with potential. As an example, a brilliant, successful woman marries a man who never divorced his first wife – and his family knows that when he walks down the aisle – makes a great storyline. What if she was your best friend? Or if a couple in your family, grappling with an intellectually disabled son who’s growing stronger and more aggressive, are agonizing over whether to institutionalize him?
In Betsy Lerner‘s excellent book, “A Forest For The Trees”, she urges writers to use whatever they can in their own lives to enrich their story, including incidents in the lives of the people closest to them. “If you are going to be honest and write about all the untidy emotions, the hideous envy, and disturbing fantasies that make us human, how can you not offend your loved ones, your neighbors and community?” A New York Times piece by James Parker, contributing editor at The Atlantic, endorses the practice of “invading” other people’s lives, but only if you can elevate it above exploitation; the purpose must be empathy.
For me the issue goes deeper than adapting an external experience. We can take plotlines from personal sources and show how one might feel in that situation, but what about someone far removed from ourselves? Each day I’m exposed to people whose experiences, based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality, shape their world view, which differs vastly from mine. Are there places within a person that are too intimate to go, too unreachable to know?
In 1990 I worked on a conference sponsored by an organization of scientists who explore the repercussions of technological advancement. They chose as their conference theme: Can We Do It? How Do We Do It? Ought We Do It? As a writer, I ask myself the same questions in understanding the social implications of storytelling, crafting diverse, authentic characters and emotionally compelling plots. Characters and plots that ring true to those outside the world I create as well as to those within.
A fiction writer’s goal is to produce a logical and believable manuscript, populated with characters, many who’ll be familiar to us and a few who thankfully bear no resemblance to anyone we know. We can borrow from their histories or instead, as Parker says, “invade” other people’s lives; strive for realistic portrayals or take Lerner’s advice to “be honest” enough to “offend”. That leaves me wondering: Is it proper to take the experiences of those we know best for the sake of a good plot? Is it possible to mine the depths of emotions, or the most intimate thoughts, of someone so dissimilar from us?
Can we? How? Ought we?
Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of three novels in the A Petal In The Wind saga, as well as a contributor to anthologies including LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently pages from competing her fourth novel in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband, who graciously helped her revise this post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
CeeCee James was recently a guest blogger here. Her story interested me as a multi-series author. I interviewed her for a UK magazine, and thought The Writers in Residence might like to read what she told me.
Several authors on both sides of the pond pound the keyboard with more than one mystery series but few write as many as bestselling CeeCee James. She has no fewer than seven different series out there. Most of them cozies, their eclectic plots feature pets, farm animals, flamingoes, recipes, a book club, circus life, history, a tour guide, and a host of other characters that people her world.
Her first published books, however, comprised a three-book award-winning series based on her own life that brought brilliant reviews as “heart-breaking, raw, and inspiring.”
Childhood experiences, good and bad, are often expressed in a writer’s fiction whether consciously or unconsciously and can be, say therapists, a way of working through them and letting them go. In James’s case she frankly talks about her difficult times as a young girl, bringing a compelling depth, compassion, and growth to her characters and her writing.
But why so many series?
“My life has been full of adventures and journeys. We moved 40 times and I attended 10 schools from coast to coast. In all of my works I draw on my own personal struggles, shortcomings, and victories. I had a rocky childhood, and spent time in foster care,” she said. “I feel blessed I’ve been able to realize a childhood dream to be able to share my stories with others. I can’t imagine too many careers that are as rewarding,”
No surprise that her first series was largely autobiographical and based on many of her personal experiences, but then she lightened up and plunged into the world of murderous cozies. Starting with the Angel Lake Mysteries, it centers around new beginnings, marking a significant turnaround in James’s own life.
“My first mysteries are about the character, Elise, who is starting over and not quite sure where she fits in. Her journey is about finding confidence in who she is. There’s always a little bit of me in these characters, a voice for thoughts I didn’t know I had.” Next James explored the curiosities of hotel life with the Oceanside Hotel mysteries with plenty of humor from a mother and daughter team.
Then came the Baker Street Mysteries. Set in Pennsylvania the books feature a tour guide who presents re-enactments of the American Revolutionary War. The author moved on from 1775 to take readers into circus life, with the first in the series titled Cirque De Slay.
Time to switch hats again, and James produced the Flamingo Realty Mysteries, wherein she blends in a couple of characters from her previous series.
Among reader favorites are the Mooved to Murder mysteries with their covers of cows, lambs and other farm animals, and her books with kittens and puppies. The newest series stars members of a book club in The Secret Library Mysteries.
How does she manage to keep them all straight?
“I write one series at a time so that gets all my focus. I time going back to my other mysteries when I’m ready to take a break from my current series. My favorite place to write is curled up in a fat, oversized chair with a cup of coffee and my two mini dachshunds sleeping at my feet.”
A favorite character among the many amateur sleuths? She said that each main character takes a turn as being her favorite at the time, especially when they are going through something she can relate with, and their vulnerabilities make her fiercely protective of them. When she moves on to a new series, she’s infatuated all over again “with a new baby.”
As for choosing settings James said she writes what she wants to read and what interests her at the time. She researches towns and villages looking for small restaurants and shops to get a feel for it and its flavor, many of which she has lived in at one time or another. She looks up local plants and landscape terrain, and of course researches for toxins and poisons.
A “pantster” rather than an outliner, James finds her stories emerging as she writes.
“I tried outlining and immediately hit writer’s block. I have to have the freedom to let the story lead me. If I am really struggling with it I’ll reread an old favorite like Lord of the Rings, or The Stand. I admire those authors’ skills so much it almost always inspires me.”
The past that has provided grist for the mill drives her intense interest about how other people experience their lives. The pandemic, too, has brought back memories of feeling trapped.
“I was surprised to find that feeling lurking around in my subconscious. I remember the strength and hopelessness of that emotion while growing up. It hit me in a very weird spot.”
In between James’s massive literary output, she paints in several media including watercolor, ink, and acrylics. She also makes miniatures, and crochets during which one imagines her mind is working overtime to plot another crime.
Ajectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-orgin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you will sound like a maniac.
It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list. But almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before color, green great dragons can’t exist.
Try it in your own writing. Check out your most recent book, or the book lying nearest to you right now. It’s a phenomanon!
In this short post, I’m indulging myself musing over a realization that hit me the other night—an insight into reading, rather than writing, and for what I’m fancifully calling “Literary Pixie Dust.”
Alas, I’ve never had great eyesight, and with age, it’s gotten worse, so a lot of my “reading” is moving into audio books, or Kindle text-to-speech. Sometimes I’ll also get the book because of the touch and feel…and smell of books. Several nights ago, while falling off to sleep, I was listening to the audio book Light Darkens by Ngaio Marsh and read by Philip Franks, and it hit my conscious psyche[i] that with my favorites like her, there’s “something special” from the very beginning. And that “Something” is not something I remember ever reading or talking about.
But fanciful and goofy as it might sound, there is a “magic”[ii] that takes you into the story—and in that you’re not just reading, not just enjoying, not just picturing[iii]—but your mind is dusted with some kind of story-pixie-dust. Indeed, the characters, the scenery, the plot—including the overarching musicality of the author’s writing that I’ve gabbed about before—all seem to twinkle. (I’m not surprised if you’re laughing by now!)
As I fell off to sleep, I was kind of laughing at myself. Must be the audio experience itself, the book reader, his voice. So, next morning I found my book copy of Light Darkens, and “it” was still there. I could hear it while reading with my eyes. (M.C. Beaton sprinkles the same pixie-dust on her delightful Hamish Macbeth novels.)
It’s similar to several movies I’ve seen during my life that had a “special something” outside of all the good movie-making mechanics like directing, photography, screenplay, casting, etc.
I’m pretty sure I’m not a pixie-dust writer[iv], but I am a reader. And I’ve heard said in so many ways how wonderful reading is, all the places you can travel, all the characters you can meet…but it really is also “magical” for some readers like me. A thought, which led me to feeling so lucky to be involved in the reading and writing world throughout my life.
This was a different kind of rest stop on the winding road of writing for me. But, on that winding road, my writing goal for this year is–to do more of it, and along the way learn as much as I can! Pixie-dust magic is not on the agenda. Indeed, I’m not sure this indefinable (but very real to me as a reader) element is something one can actually learn? Regardless, it would sure be nice to have. Hats off to Ngaio et al.!
Happy Writing and Reading Trails!
[i] I’ve read the book in the past, but not heard the audio book.
[ii] I’ve searched my mind (and on line thesaurus for the perfect word)—but it won’t come. Hence “magic.”
[iii] Wrote a post here in the past about pictures left in my mind from some books.
[iv] Even if I dreamed of being such, don’t think my style, characters, or topic lend to that sort of “magic.”
After trying her hand at various jobs including telemarketer for a funeral home, Jacqueline Vick combined satirical humor and the quirks of her ginger mutt to create the Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mysteries. She is also the author of the Harlow Brother mysteries, as well as some standalone novels. She currently resides in Southern California with her husband. Join her Mystery Buffs Newsletter to keep up on the latest news, or check her out on Instagram.
Thank you, Jackie Houchin, for allowing me to take your spot this week on Writers in Residence and all of the WinRs for having me on your blog. I’m here to give a brief etiquette lesson.
In my Harlow Brothers mystery series, manners rule. Usually. Edward Harlow secretly writes the Aunt Civility etiquette books, and as her official representative and public face, he has to be up on proper behavior. His younger brother, Nicholas, who is also his secretary…not so much.
My description of good manners agrees with Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart on pornography: “I know it when I see it.” If you get more specific, you’ll find not everyone agrees on what constitutes proper etiquette.
In Brazil, eating with your hands is bad manners. Even a sandwich.
If your business meeting is in Germany, you should allow the eldest person to enter the room first.
In Japan or India, avoid using the word “no”.
In Australia, punctuality is important.
Still not clear? Here are a few examples of proper – and improper – behavior.
In the following example, Cary Grant shows good self control when he remembers, after pulling a fist, that a man should not punch a lady.
Never try to talk with your mouth full. (Even when you are facing a killer who looks like Boris Karloff.)
Under no circumstances is is okay to play with your food.
Now that we’re clear on the rules, is it ever okay to break them?
In Deadly Decorum, the third Harlow Brothers mystery, Edward is the celebrity guest at a weekend charity fundraiser. When a board member is killed, he comes perilously close to losing everything, including his manners, when a killer decides he doesn’t want the Harlow Brothers investigating the crime and threatens everything dear to him.
There aren’t strict rules for writing fiction, but at least one character needs to change in some significant way by the end of your story just to make the journey worth taking. But it doesn’t have to be the main character. If you’re writing a series, whether it’s in book form or a television series, you can take a lot longer to have your main character or a series regular change in some significant or meaningful way. If a character is making a “guest appearance,” they can change dramatically in that one book or show. But whether it’s a novel, short story or screenplay, one character should have a true Character Arc in each outing.
So what is a Character Arc?
A main character needs to go through phases during any given story. Usually it’s the protagonist in a movie or stand-alone novel, but sometimes it’s a character very close to the lead character. That person usually has these phases thrust upon them by nature, or willful intent by another character (the antagonist), or by a fatal flaw in that particular character. Or, here’s a fun reason: the character learns something about himself or herself that alters their personality or their way of thinking because of that revelation. Maybe they’re from outer space or somebody else is really their father or they have a twin. This kind of thing can happen to the hero or a major player. It’s how the character deals with it that makes the difference.
Watch old movies and pick out these arcs or phases as the movie progresses. It is amazing how many screenwriters use these phases. They work perfectly in a short story, too.
You will find many books on the topic of the Character Arc. Even if the phases are given different names, the description is pretty much the same.
Orphan – the character feels alone or is literally abandoned
Wanderer – the character goes looking for clues or answers
Warrior – the character decides to fight for what is right
Martyr – the character risks everything for his ultimate goal
Character Arc from “A Role to Die For” – G.B.Pool
Orphan – middle-aged actress starts losing roles to younger actresses
Wanderer – she starts looking for one last, great part
Warrior – she defends herself against the person who wants that part
Martyr – she risks getting caught for doing a dastardly deed, but doesn’t flinch when confronted
Character Arc from The Wizard of Oz
Orphan – Dorothy is blown to Oz by the tornado
Wanderer – Dorothy wanders around Oz and meets several characters who accompany her on her journey
Warrior – Dorothy and her pals have to brave their way through the woods and flying monkeys to get to the Emerald City
Martyr – Dorothy dispatches the evil witch and then can’t catch the Wizard’s/Professor’s balloon to get back home. She fears she will be stranded there until she is told she has the power to go home in those ruby slippers.
Dorothy’s Character Arc is also an outline for what is called The Three-Act Structure which is the basis of most every story ever written. Follow:
Act I – A young girl finds herself alone in a strange place; she meets a few characters who are willing to help her in her quest: she wants to get home.
Act II – She is told she must ask the wise man in the city that is far away for help; but someone who wants what she has doesn’t want her to make it to the city and throws out roadblocks.
Act III – She and her new friends have to fight their way through some tough places to get to the city and she ends up saving her friends’ lives; the wise man leaves without helping her; and then someone tells her she has had the means to get back home with her all along – the ruby slippers.
The basic Three-Act Structure (or Beginning, Middle, and Ending) is found in most great movies and books and short stories. It’s simple. It works. It goes hand-in-glove with the Character Arc phases.
Okay, let’s dig deeper into this Character Arc concept.
You know there should be a plan, but how do you know what your character is supposed to be doing in each Character Arc phase? That’s where your Plot comes in. You can’t really have a story without both Plot and Character, can you? If you know roughly where you want your character to go, you can plot/plan/prepare the journey.
Your character(s) must have a destination in Act I, even if they don’t realize they are on a journey when they wake up that morning. In most stories the journey is thrust upon them. They are living their lives when all of a sudden they find themselves out there in the wilderness. In a mystery, the protagonist is either the main suspect or asked to find the clues leading to the real killer and is basically left to their own devises. In other words: Orphaned in the story.
In the Act II they need to gather both clues and maybe some help in order to solve the crime. In a romance, the girl (it’s usually a female in these things) finds herself in a new town or a new job or a new environment like aboard a ship or even a spaceship. The character finds his or her self wandering aimlessly (hence the Wander Arc) and needs to get his or her bearings.
Also during Act II the character (the Wanderer) can learn a few things about himself or about the people around him. This is also the time the character begins to question not only others, but themselves.
It’s during the transition from Act II and Act III (or Warrior phase) when the main character has obstacles thrust in their path. This can be red herrings in a mystery or maybe an earthquake or hurricane or drought in an adventure. Books come in all flavors, so whether you’re writing Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Thriller, Romance, Westerns, Dystopian, or a Contemporary story, this phase comes into play. But it’s also during Act III when the Martyr Arc kicks in. It’s the Do or Die phase. Does the hero succeed or die trying? Not all stories have happy endings, but they should have an ending that fits the story the author is writing. And I do mean that the author has a choice to make (At least at first; more on that subject in Part 2). There is no formula here. Write the ending that fits the story you want to tell.
Along with the Character Arc for either your main character or a character whose life is sort of the center of the story you are telling, there is also a Character Arc for another central character in your story, especially if you are writing a mystery. This is the Arc for the villain. Remember, the villain is the guy or gal who caused all the trouble in the first place. This character sets the action in motion, is introduced somewhere around the early part of the story as just another character, then tries to thwart any solution to the problem during the middle of the story, and is brought to justice or a reawakening of his or her soul by the end of the story. That’s four parts, just like the main Character Arc.
Some writers both past and present will drop in the bad guy right at the end of the story with no early introduction which isn’t fair to the reader or the story. This character has two faces. Usually the first one seen is nice, sympathetic, tries to help find the solution to the problem at hand. Of course, what this character is actually doing is seeing what holes he can patch up before he’s caught. Sometimes those methods are diabolical, but that’s why he’s the bad guy.
While the Wandering hero is gathering friends to help him solve the puzzle, the bad dude is working in the background to make that not happen, sometimes offering to help as well. When the hero becomes the Warrior, the villain has to double-down. Bad stuff starts to happen and the hero has to make serious decisions. The villain already knows what he will do. And it is never very nice.
The last phase has both hero and villain battling to the death, both figuratively and actually in your story. Sometimes heroes die. Again, that’s your call as the writer. But always keep in mind who the villain is and what he or she wants. That Arc will show the reader what kind of person the villain is. Will he sacrifice everything for whatever it is he wants? Money? Power? Or does he just hate the hero because of jealousy? Just keep in mind the villain’s Arc while you are crafting your story. And remember, even if it’s not a mystery, a love story or saga can have one person trying to screw up the life of the main character. And it can be because of love, money or power. Craft that Arc well and you will have a good story.Part Two of this blog will be coming up in a few weeks. Watch for it!
Each book in my Mystery Bookshop Mystery series features a story-within-a-story. My protagonist, Samantha Washington and her late husband, Leon, dreamed of quitting their jobs and owning a mystery bookshop. When her husband dies, Samantha realizes life is too short not to follow your dreams. So, she quits her job, buys the building she and Leon always dreamed about, and opens a mystery bookshop. Owning a bookshop that specializes in mysteries was a dream Sam shared with her husband. However, she also had another dream. She dreamed of writing British historic cozy mysteries, which she does to fill her time after her husband’s death. Each book in the Mystery Bookshop mystery series includes two mysteries, the mystery that Sam is solving in her real life and the British historic cozy mystery that she’s writing.
People often ask, what inspired me to write a story-within-a-story. The truth is this series didn’t start out that way. When I first started to flesh out the idea for the series, my initial plan was that the only murders would take place in the book that my protagonist was writing. I didn’t plan on having Sam solve a murder in her personal life at all. This is where I got the title for the first book, THE PLOT IS MURDER. My theory was that it would be more realistic that way and I wouldn’t have dead bodies littering the streets of the small fictional town of North Harbor, Michigan. However, I wondered if mystery readers would be satisfied with that. Then, I had my eureka moment. What if, I had two mysteries? The protagonist would solve a mystery in her life AND there would also be a murder to solve in the book she was writing. As a mystery lover, I thought that would be a book I would want to read. As an author, I wondered, what was I thinking? It’s hard enough to write one mystery. How was I going to write two?
I tackled the task of writing two mysteries in every book the same way you eat an elephant—one bite at a time. When I started, I didn’t have an elaborate plan (or much of a plan at all). I knew I wanted parallels between my two storylines. My thought was that writing the British historic cozy would help my protagonist (Samantha) solve the mystery in her real life. So, if Sam was faced with a locked room mystery, then there would be a locked room mystery in the book she was writing.
Another common question I get is whether I write the stories separately or simultaneously. For me personally, I write in sequence. I have friends who can write scenes out of order. However, I can’t do that. I have to write in order. Occasionally, I get stuck (it might be more than occasionally) and I have to move forward and come back and finish a scene later, but that’s about all I can do out of sequence. It’s probably just a personal quirk (I’ve got quite a few).
My best advice for writing, whether it’s a story-within-a-story, a stand-alone, a series, short story, whatever, is to figure out what works for you and do that. Writing isn’t a one size fits all activity. Just because one method works for one person, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Each person and each writer is different. Writing a book from beginning to end is hard. Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to be someone else. Also, keep in mind that everyone doesn’t like the story-within-a-story concept. I’ve heard from readers who found it distracting and have told me they skip the British historic cozy. I’ve also heard from readers who prefer the British historic cozy over the contemporary mystery. Every person is different with their own unique likes and dislikes. It will be impossible to please everyone. As a writer, all you can do is focus on writing the best book you possibly can. Keep your fingers crossed. With perseverance, hard work, and a great deal of luck, your dreams can come true, just like Samantha Washington.
“While visiting the land of Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes, bookstore owner and amateur sleuth Samantha Washington finds herself on a tragical mystery tour . . . Sam joins Nana Jo and her Shady Acres Retirement Village friends Irma, Dorothy, and Ruby Mae on a weeklong trip to London, England, to experience the Peabody Mystery Lovers Tour. The chance to see the sights and walk the streets that inspired Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle is a dream come true for Sam—and a perfect way to celebrate her new publishing contract as a mystery author.
But between visits to Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel district and 221B Baker Street, Major Horace Peabody is found dead, supposedly of natural causes. Despite his employer’s unfortunate demise, the tour guide insists on keeping calm and carrying on—until another tourist on their trip also dies under mysterious circumstances. Now it’s up to Sam and the Shady Acres ladies to mix and mingle among their fellow mystery lovers, find a motive, and turn up a murderer . . .
You can read more about Samantha Washington in the other Mystery Bookshop Mysteries.
V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born and raised in Northwestern Indiana. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dog Writers Association of America, Thriller Writers International, Southeast Mystery Writers of America, and is on the national board for Sisters in Crime. V.M. Burns is also the Agatha Award nominated author of The Plot is Murder, the first book in the Mystery Bookshop Mystery series; and the RJ Franklin Mystery series. She now lives in Eastern Tennessee with her two poodles. Readers can keep up with new releases by following her on social media.
I have been using a planner since the early 1990s and before when I was in real estate. It was a simple spiral 5×7 notebook. It worked for me until I was introduced to the Franklin Covey Planner when I was a paralegal working for Honda North America. The company was paying for the planners, and everyone was encouraged to use the Franklin system. I did and loved it. I continued to use the Franklin program even when I changed employers.
I had discovered how beneficial it was and in the habit of writing things down and marking them off when I accomplished them. I hadn’t planned on changing, but when I was forced into early retirement and decided to pursue a writing career, I converted my planning to that of a writer and discovered that it was more important than ever.
However, I am still in search of the perfect writer’s planner. I have immersed myself into planning groups and become friends with other authors who use planners. Surprisingly a number of them use a combination of planners. I was surprised to learn that my author friends had incorporated several different ones depending on what they needed to track to organize their busy lives. They will use an individual planner for personal, family, and writing.
When selecting a planner – there are choices: dated and undated, weekly or daily layout in addition to monthly design, hole punched/loose-leaf, spiral-bound, hardcover bound, softcover bound, size, i.e., 5.75″ x 8.25” or 7″ x 10″, 8” x 11”, and the list goes on. The planner world has expanded into adding stickers for a personal and decorative touch!
I have used a Panda Planner, Amplify, Commit30, Happy Planner, Erin Condren, Define Your Day, Full Focus, and All in One Planner by the Ivory Paper Company.
My problem is that I have tried several different ones besides Franklin and come back to it, but find it lacking and not always exactly what I need for my writing career. Hence, I have a stack of the planners, as mentioned above, that I am using or have tried out.