For me, outlining is extremely important. Mainly because a large part of the action in my mysteries take place in the past and have so darn many details, I can’t rely on my pea-brain to remember it all. I begin with my “jump-start” outline. Now, what the heck is that, you ask. I made up the term so I can’t refer you to any book or manual. Since there are two separate story lines in my books – past and present – I actually have two “jump-start” outlines. But since both are very similar I combined them for today’s blog.
Modern (and Past) Story Line
- Broad overview of story, ie: Digital photographer searches for missing Van Gogh painting after her best friend is murdered (my last book.) The Past story line will be a bit different since this is where the story begins.
Expand this to a paragraph if you like, but no more for now.
- Characters: Snapshots of main characters, both protagonists and antagonists, to include physical description (so you can visualize them,) their likes, dislikes, what’s important to them . . . or not, education, occupation, you know, general stuff. Add in personality traits: stingy, obsessive, lazy, kooky. Use bullet points. They’ll grow organically as you write.
- Setting: Where does most of the plot take place? In my last book, Washington, D.C. and Paris, France. Ooh la la. Get it right – go visit, don’t just look at pictures.
Major conflicts, ie: Is the main character getting divorced, in love with a loser, always fighting with her boss, her mother, her sister? Are her relationships getting in the way of her job success? These may only come up occasionally and in usually in sub-plots.
- Ending: You may not always know this at the beginning, but at some point — early on –you do need to know what the ending will be. As a caveat, I will say that I had the ending for one of my books and my editor suggested a completely different one. I loved his idea, changed it and in doing so, ruined my follow-up book. (You’ll have to read it and see. Ha!)
With my “jump-start” outline I write a quick and dirty first draft. At this point, I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t as far as plot, characters, etc. Now, I get into serious outlining. More detail on all the above, and even a chapter by chapter outline. What will happen next, next, next.
I better define the characters in terms of personality and interactions with each other. I refine their conflicts. I add details to the settings.
Then I start again. Read the new draft out loud, cringe and re-write. Test the chapters out in my critique group, cringe and re-write. I don’t usually re-outline unless the book isn’t working as a whole.
Hopefully, that first “jump-start” is all I need. Ideas welcome.
In my last blog I talked about what novel writers can learn from screenwriters. Well, it hit a nerve with all writers and I got many comments. One comment referred to Broadchurch, the television series I mentioned as an example of good screen writing. The reader who commented agreed that the series was excellent but stopped watching it after three episodes because it was so dark. (Thanks, Mark Hunter!)
This started me thinking about other TV series as well as mystery novels that fit into that “dark” category. And they are legion. Let me name a few you might be familiar with: Happy Valley, Hinterland, The Killing, The Missing, Dexter, The Escape Artist. Then there are those I haven’t seen, mainly being turned off by the title: Killer Couples, Murder on the Social Network, Married Single Dead, Slasher, I am Not a Serial Killer. (Really?)
So what is about today’s mysteries (many of these series were books first) that compels authors to write such grisly, black, and freaky-scary scenarios? I believe that the transition from book to film has demanded heightened “grimness” for dramatic effect. When a book becomes a movie, the dark elements are often played up. And the villains are getting meaner and nastier all the time.
Don’t get me wrong. The villains in novels can be just as rotten. However, when you actually see the character in the flesh, so to speak, the villainy is enhanced. Take a series called Happy Valley, a British psychological cop thriller. Excellent series. The villain, however, left such a lasting impression with me, that I have difficulty watching the actor in any other series. Believe it or not, he’s the priest in Grantchester and I now find him hard to believe (as a good guy) after seeing him in Happy Valley.
But back to point. There are still many series and books that have all the great attributes of a good mystery, both book and film, and are not as dark. See if you agree: Inspector Lewis, Sherlock, Endeavour, The Bletchley Circle, Foyle’s War, Bosch, Midsomer Murders (okay, a little fluffy here.) The Wallender mysteries and Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley. Agatha Christie’s stories are also in this category.
To be a good mystery, must it make you throw up, weep, shake in your boots, or cause insomnia? Or should it make you ponder, riddle-solve, and give you ingenious plot and character ideas for your next book?
I welcome your thoughts and ideas.
One of the most difficult tasks for writers, but also one of the most important, is creating the back (jacket) cover text.
It must be brief but intriguing, succinct but riveting. For discussion sake, here is the back cover text for my latest book, Pure Lies, a mystery about the Salem Witch Trials. It is the same text I used for the ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) contest “pitch” and it got me through the first two rounds. Let me know what you think or share your own back cover copy.
Two women, separated by three centuries, are connected by a legacy of greed, depravity and deceit–a legacy which threatens to make them both victims of the Salem witch trials.
1692, Salem, Massachusetts Born in a time and place of fierce religious fervor, 16-year old Felicity Dale has only endless church meetings and the drudgery of chores to look forward to. When her friends begin accusing neighbors of witchcraft, she fears the devil is in Salem. By chance, however, she discovers that the accusations of her “afflicted” friends are false. What had begun as a youthful diversion has been twisted through seduction and blackmail by powerful men into a conspiracy for profit. Nineteen people will pay with their lives.
Today, Washington, D.C. Maggie Thornhill is a renowned digital photographer in Georgetown who possesses a passion for history. As her Ph.D. dissertation, Maggie takes on a project to electronically archive the original documents from the Salem witch trials. She observes discrepancies in the handwriting of the magistrate’s signature on certain land deed transfers — land that belonged to the witches. When a professor studying the documents is murdered, she begins to suspect that the trials and hangings were a result of simple mortal greed not religious superstition.
Mystery writers have a tough decision: how to kill their fictional victims.
There are far too many ways to murder to mention here. (If you want unusual methods, watch Criminal Minds.) I’ll mention one way that was based on a sad but true story.
One of the more gruesome aspects to my research for The Triangle Murders was learning about defenestration. This nasty means of murder is the act of throwing someone out the window or from a high place. The term comes from two centuries-old incidents in Prague. The first in 1419 when seven town officials were thrown from the Town Hall, no doubt precipitating the Hussite War. The second in 1618, when two Imperial governors and their secretary were thrown from Prague Castle, sparking the Thirty Years War. The latter was referred to as the Defenestration of Prague.
Now, while there’s something appealing about throwing political officials out of the window, remember that when they hit the ground the results are quite grim.
Falling as a cause of death can be very effective. There are two ways a person can fall. A vertical “controlled” fall is when the person lands upright and feet-first. An “uncontrolled” fall is when some other part of the body hits the ground first ie: head or back. Not pretty.
The vertical fall is survivable up to about 100 feet, but an uncontrolled fall can be fatal at very short distances such as from a stepladder. With a controlled fall, the initial energy transmits through the feet and legs and spares vital organs. The uncontrolled fall, however, can cause massive internal and head injuries.
146 people, mostly young women, died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in New York City, on March 25, 1911. Many chose jumping out the ninth-story windows to escape the raging fire. Safety nets were ineffective and bodies crashed right through them. Strictly speaking, defenestration was not the cause of death because they were not pushed out the windows. However, the result was the same. Death by impact on a hard surface.
Unrecognizable bodies lay on the sidewalk along Greene Street, together with hoses, fire rescue nets, and part of a wagon. All were drenched by the tons of water used to contain and extinguish the fire. Photographer: Brown Brothers, March 25, 1911. Photo courtesy of Kheel Center, Cornell University, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/
I use defenestration as the actual cause of death in another book Pure Lies. It’s a clean way to murder (no blood on your hands) and allows easy escape for the killer. There is the problem, however, of actually shoving someone who might be bigger and heavier than you out the window.
But that’s a story for another blog. Ideas welcome.