I had a surprising experience recently when I received the following review on my book, Pure Lies: “False Deception – I thought it was historical fiction. It’s just a sex thriller. I stopped after the first chapter. No thank you!”
I actually had to go back and read the prologue (not the first chapter) to see what the reviewer meant. Sex thriller? Did I actually write a sex thriller? For those of you unfamiliar with this mystery, it is about greed and depravity as underlying motivation for the Salem witch trials. And, as in all my novels, it is unraveled by modern technology years or, in this case, centuries later.
The last two paragraphs of the prologue depict a church deacon and a young woman committing a “sin” but it is wholly in the context of the story and lays the foundation for one of the villains in the story to show their true character. Or so I thought.
Pure Lies was the winner of the San Diego Book Awards for Best Published Mystery, Sisters in Crime in 2014 and has excellent reviews. It is historical fiction on one hand, and modern crime-solving on the other. Is it a cozy? No. But a sex thriller?
Naturally, every reader is entitled to their opinion. I’ve read “real” sex thrillers, and this review seemed far off the mark. But then I’m biased.
As a writer, it reminds me how important those first few pages are . . . to each individual reader. We need to consider our readers, but we have to be true to our writing. Would this opening scene to my book have been better without the “sin?” I think not.
Your ideas are welcome.
Time Exposure was my first full-length novel. It was the great American novel, er, great American mystery novel. (Is there such a thing?) I had done my research, been to the places where I set my scenes, talked to the experts of the time. My writing was superb, just like a movie script. I figured I had a book contract cinched.
Was I ever surprised, when, after reading the first ten pages, the critique group leader, a college professor asked me this: “Do you write a lot of reports for work?”
“Excuse me?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Your story has a great deal of potential . . . but it’s not a . . . story.”
I waited, blood thudding in my ears.
“It’s a report,” he said. “You tell, not show, you give us no way to visualize the characters, the action or the settings. You use too many adjectives and adverbs. The word ‘was” or ‘is’ shows up in every other sentence. And, there’s no emotion, no background, not much action–you give only the facts.” Ma’am.
I went home dumbfounded. Although I am proud to say I didn’t cry at the group session. That came later. Then I made a decision. Do I throw the manuscript in the trash or figure out how to fix it? How to write a good mystery, in other words? And that’s what I did. I took all the criticisms and read, researched, and re-wrote . . . again and again and again. Chapter by chapter, scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph.
Did I learn? I believed I finally made the grade from report writer to novelist, when my boss at the Science Museum said to me: “This sounds a bit flowery and dramatic for a report. Sounds more like a novel.”
Chapter endings are as important as beginnings. Read the endings of your chapters. Go ahead. Are they riveting? Are you anxious to turn the page? Will your readers be? Take a closer look at the ho hum ones and begin to focus on endings that would compel a reader to keep going.
I skimmed through some books to see how those authors ended their chapters. Here’s one from Deception Point by Dan Brown. “Rachel felt weightless for an instant, hovering over the multi-million-pound block of ice. Then they were riding the iceberg down – plummeting into the frigid sea.” The reader is not likely to put the book down at this point, at least until they find out what happened to Rachel and her friend. Brown could have ended with something like: “Rachel stood motionless on the block of ice and prayed the block wouldn’t fall into the sea.” Nah.
Here’s another. “Emergency Room. Code Blue. Susan ran for the elevator.” This is from Chelsea Cain’s The Night Season. What if Cain had stopped at Code Blue? Would it have the same impact as her running for the elevator?
I believe this idea of compelling endings is not only important for fiction but for non-fiction as well. Take Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: “Sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, he had taken off his uniform, picked up a sack of rice, slipped into the Naoetsu countryside, and vanished.” Vanishing, dying, running, falling, are all great ways to end a chapter on a high, cliffhanger note.
How about this from my mystery, Time Exposure: “As he sank to his knees, he lifted his head to gaze up at the Blackhawk. Captain Geoffrey Farrell smiled down at him. A boot to the head put him out.” Or this from Pure Lies, in the form of dialogue: “Well, you may be nuts and I wouldn’t testify to this in court, but between you, me and the microscope, honey, these signatures were all written by the same person.”
Scene endings can follow this rule to some extent, but it might get tiresome if every scene did. I think you have to let the reader rest once in a while and catch up with the action.
Not all chapter endings must end on an action note either. Many can end with inner conflict or conflict between characters. Gives the chapter tension. What happens between these two people next? Does Anna May leave her husband? Does mom throw Maynard out of the house? Does little Davey start to cry? Is Barbara in danger of being fired, of losing her health insurance, of missing a plane to an important event? If you care about the characters, you will turn the page.
I’d love to hear some chapter endings you think are great . . . or terrible. When we can recognize what works and what doesn’t, our writing benefits in the long-run.
Writing mysteries is a “flexible” process and as an author I must be tuned-in and willing to make changes . . . often serious changes. Throw out chapters, throw out characters, add new locations, scenes. Pump up the senses: add fragrances, colors, cacophonous sounds.
I often reach a sticking point around the middle of the novel, which leads me to inject a “turn of events” into the story. This turn of events is often not planned, but gives the story a much-needed jolt.
In my current book, there are two NYPD homicide detectives, one in the past and one in the present. Both are following leads in a murder case (as detectives are wont to do.) Each lead spins off other leads, but in the end, the leads peter out (as my brain does) and they are left, frustrated, and wondering what the next step might be.
When this happens to me, I simply just murder someone. What? you say. It’s as simple as that. Murder someone.
Now, this “someone” absolutely must have relevance to the story. Please don’t bring in your next-door neighbor unless they’ve had a role in the story already. In addition, there must be a darn good reason to kill this someone off. If it’s your neighbor, the old “fence dispute” doesn’t cut it.
Yes, a fresh murder can get the readers’ (and writer’s) mind spinning in new directions. What did I miss? Why didn’t I see that coming? If X is now dead, she couldn’t have been the culprit.
A mid-novel murder is always good to keep readers on their toes, working to figure out the mystery. That’s the point. I write mysteries. The longer I can keep my readers baffled and confounded about what’s really going on, the more enjoyable the read.
One of the most important, but often most difficult part of writing a novel is selecting names for your characters. When you begin you might already have some in mind. But as the characters morph during the writing process, that name might no longer fit. If you’re writing a series and the same characters reappear, you still need to name new characters.
Villains’ names are particularly important to get right. Common sense tells you that “Melvin Fuddrucker” is probably not the best handle for a serial killer. Or is it? Do you want to throw the reader off and let him like or sympathize with your bad guy? Do you want the reader to think: Melvin, hmm, an accountant or a store clerk, when in reality, Melvin is a triathlete, computer genius, and serial killer? Obfuscation may be a good thing.
The good guys shouldn’t be shortchanged either. You want your characters to be memorable and to have your readers calling them by name six months after they’ve read your book. I have a hard time remembering names six hours after reading some books. But characters from other books stay with me for a lifetime. LONESOME DOVE by Larry McMurtry comes to mind. How can you forget Augustus, Call, Newt, or for heaven’s sake, Pea Eye?
So how do you choose names? One thing to remember. Try not to have too many characters with the same first initial. So, Bob, Bill, Binky, Belinda, and Bruce would probably be confusing. A couple are okay, of course. My two main characters are Maggie and Mead. Duh. One’s a first name, one’s a last. But I’ve avoided other “M” names unless they are historically necessary.
Also, unusual names are okay but too many are dicey. Throw a few Jenovas in with the Jennifers. Don’t make them too hard to pronounce, either out loud or in the reader’s head. It’s frustrating. Of course, if many of your characters are from countries other than the States, throw that idea out the window. But, perhaps, giving them a nickname will make them easier to recall.
One problem with historical novels is that using the real names of people involved can present problems. For instance, in some books by Sharon Kay Penman, one of my all-time favorite writers of historical England, she explained that the spelling of some characters had to be changed to distinguish one Maud from another Maude. (Lots of Henrys, Johns and James as well. Yoiks!)
Timing is very important. Names fall in and out of favor over the years, so take care not to use a very modern YA name like Aisha or Brandon in a book about merry old England.
When you’re creating a character name from scratch, consider these: personality, looks, age, ethnicity, stature in the community, occupation, attitudes toward politics, etc., values, whether the character is single, married, gay. Does the character remind you of a good friend, a bad friend, a worker, colleague, television or movie character (Dexter? Miss Marple? Morse? Lynley? Zen?) Does the character have a sense of humor? Is the character always depressed, upbeat, brutally honest, or unbearably shy? What are their quirks, flaws, hobbies, passions, hates? Does he carry around a blue plastic bag instead of a briefcase like Tony Hill?
Do you want the character’s name to conjure up something in the reader’s mind? Like Charlie Parker in John Connolly’s books makes me automatically think of the jazz musician.
I had a difficult time giving my villain in TIME EXPOSURE a meaningful name. He was, by profession, a Shakespearean actor in disguise on the battlefield as a sutler (a guy who went around selling goods to the foot soldiers.) What name would this actor choose for himself? He selected the name Jack Cade for his cover. Why?
Jack Cade was actually a real person who led the peasants in the Kent rebellion of 1450. He was also a character in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 2. In the play he talks to his friend, Dick the Butcher, whose most famous line is “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I thought my villain would get a kick out of that, and since he probably didn’t want to be called Dick the Butcher, Jack Cade he became.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your character’s names. If you want your readers to love a character, naming him Hitler or Attila would be a tough sell. Find names you like as you read books or newspapers, watch movies, or meet new folks at a party, and jot them down for the future. You might even try the phone book, but then you don’t have the advantage of seeing the name in action on a real person. Make something up, but explain in the novel what the name means to the characters involved.
While Shakespeare said “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” it would be hard to conjure up a picture of a beautiful flower if you called the rose, Skunk.
Time Exposure is a mystery that takes place during the Civil War. I wanted readers to abandon the present and immerse themselves in those brutal, tumultuous years of the mid-nineteenth century. Scene by scene, chapter by chapter. I wasn’t there, so how could I paint a picture of that time period, accurately, vividly, and with painstaking detail?
Research, of course, but research using primary sources whenever possible. What does that mean? There are many books written about the Civil War. About the battles, about the people, about the politics — the operative word being “about.” These sources are written today by historians looking back in time. I wanted to go back there myself. How?
Primary sources are the ones that deliver the information firsthand. Photographs are an excellent way to learn about the past. In my case, tens of thousands of Civil War photographs are available, yes, through books and online, but also at the Library of Congress, where there are drawers upon drawers filled with folders of photos taken back then. The originals, if you can imagine!
Other primary sources of an historic period are letters or journals. Using the Civil War as an example, there are books of letters to and from soldiers and their loved ones. If you use credible authors, ie: Ken Burns, you can be sure these are the true words of the people of the time. If you are really lucky, you may be able to track down a diary written from the time period. A friend of mine’s ancestor was a soldier in the War and he passed down some interesting paraphernalia (no journal, unfortunately.)
Very important primary sources are books written by someone of the time period. An example, which helped me shape my scene at the Union Hotel Hospital, was a precious thin book called Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott. Louisa May was actually a minor character in my book. If you ever wondered what it would be like to volunteer as a nurse in a hospital during the Civil War, listen to Louisa May:
“My three days experience had begun with a death, and, owing to the defalcation (I had to look this one up!) of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patients, hopping, lying and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new ‘nuss,’ who suffered untold agonies, but concealed them under as matronly as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t.”
From this one simple paragraph, I learned about the hospital, the patients, the illnesses and Louisa May’s (and other nurses’?) attitude toward them all.
In addition to Louisa May Alcott’s writings, I examined photographs, I read letters, poems and the words of songs written during the time. As I kept reading, I got a feel for the rhythm of speech of the period. I learned some of the basics: what the people of the time ate, drank, smoked, what they wore, how they amused themselves when they weren’t killing each other on the field, what their sex lives were like (there are some bawdy postcards out there!) Essentially, I learned how they lived and, sadly, how they died.
Bottom line: If you write historical stories, (or even modern stories about places you’re not familiar with,) what you don’t know can hurt you. The best way to find out what things were really like, is to do your research through the eyes of those who lived it.
There are no shortcuts. Ideas welcome.