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.
154 years ago last July, the brutal battle at Gettysburg was fought. In only three days, 51,000 men were killed, wounded or gone missing; 5,000 horses were slaughtered on the battlefield.
I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to gather details for my book, Time Exposure. I roamed the sites of its bloody history, Cemetery Ridge, Devils Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top. The excursion provided me with background elements to set the scene. But it also elicited dark, yet poignant emotions to help me paint the picture of the grim aftermath.
I used the technique of letters and diary entries to bring out the human side of the Civil War. I excerpt here a letter from my fictional Civil War photographer, Joseph Thornhill, to the love of his life, Sara Kelly. All other characters and events are real history. This letter might well have been written at the time.
July 3, 1863
My Dearest Sara,
I felt I had to write you today, after three of the bloodiest days I have ever witnessed. I must get it off my mind, and I might not even post this letter, lest you be terribly offended. But I feel I must unburden myself somehow.
Rumors have it that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suffered great losses, maybe one third of their forces dead, wounded or captured. The Union Army is said to have lost a good deal, maybe one quarter of their troops, but it is safe to say we won the battle of Gettysburg. Lee’s army is retreating back to the South and Mead’s men are elated. Finally, victory, and an important one.
It is sad to think that this particular battle may have been fought over something as simple as shoes. There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes in the town of Gettysburg and on July 1 an officer under Ewell’s command led his men there to confiscate these shoes. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Union Army.
I was slightly wounded today, some shrapnel lacerating my arm. But don’t worry. The doctors have bandaged me up and say I will be fine, no permanent damage, and I take a bit of laudanum for the pain. Luckily my camera, which was caught in the crossfire suffered no harm.
I must admit that until now I had no real concept of the power our modern weaponry wields. The force of the injury knocked me clean off my feet. I think this experience will prove useful to me in my work.
The wound has not stopped me from working, however, although it is a bit difficult with one arm in a brace. I rely on my apprentice more. I’ve been busy photographing the town and its people. Now I’ll begin, once again, to shoot the battlefield remains. I am steeling myself to this task slowly, but have not made much progress.
Both Alex and Tim O’Sullivan–you remember, I mentioned this fine young man and competent photographer to you–will arrive in the next few days. I look forward to working with them.
Now, other gruesome scenes await my camera. Embalming surgeons, as they call themselves, have arrived. Although many of the dead soldiers are hastily buried where they fall, many end up in mass graves. Some are later exhumed and buried in military cemeteries, whether they’ve been identified or not– often with the headstone reading only: “A Union Soldier” or “A Confederate Soldier.” It is hard to imagine–dying in the name of one’s country but that country not even knowing your name.
On a lighter note, I have also photographed some of the Union soldiers and officers after the final skirmish, and they were truly in high spirits–dirty, sweaty, exhausted, some wounded, but all euphoric. There was optimism in the air and hope, hope that this war would soon end. But for now we must deal with the brutal aftermath of this battle. Hospital tents crowd the countryside and the small population of Gettysburg is inundated with the sick and wounded. I doubt this town will ever be the same.
Tomorrow is July 4. I wonder if anyone, in the midst of all this furor, will appreciate the irony that this day marks the eighty-seventh year of our nation’s birth.
I miss you, my dearest, and long to see you this Christmas. You are always in my thoughts as I pray I am in yours.
Yours ever truly,
While letter or diary writing is a device to take the reader back in time, it is an opportunity for the writer to truly bring the past alive. Ideas 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.”
It’s not easy keeping track of details in a novel that goes back and forth in time. Or any book of fiction, for that matter. What do I mean by details?
Details relative to the characters could mean simple and obvious characteristics such as eye and hair color, height, weight and age, gender, dress style, likes and dislikes, personality quirks, language and speech mannerisms. Believe it or not, it’s not always easy to remember all of these unless your characters re-appear in several books. I keep a list of all these traits for each of my characters. In fact, for each book that my main characters appear, I re-visit the list to make sure I’ve aged them appropriately. Even a year off will throw your readers into a tizzy.
More important, when dealing with generations of families, or when you go back in history to another time period, chart your way through the years, decades, or centuries involved. Ancestry maps can be helpful.
Deadly Provenance goes back to World War II with the “grandparents.” In modern time, the “parents” and “grandchildren” are featured. It’s vital to have all those years mapped out. How old were the grandparents in the 1940s? How old are the parents now? The grandchildren? When did they marry? Who did they marry? Trust me, it’s confusing if you just wing it. Your reader will definitely notice that the parents could not possibly have been born if the grandparents were already dead.
Another detail to be meticulous about and I must say I have been remiss in an early book, is language and speech. If a character is from Boston, don’t give him a Brooklyn accent or use an expression that is idiomatic to the wrong region. Same goes for dialect, and, by the way, don’t use too much of it. It’s distracting.
If you use foreign language phrases, please, please, make them correct. A Google translation will give you the basic words, but is the phrasing correct? Do the French, Germans, Slavs, Poles, speak like that? Make it authentic. Ask someone who speaks the language.
Even small details like what flowers bloom when and where are important. In a recent review of my book, Pure Lies, a reader reminded me that lilacs grow in May in New England. I’d had their scent wafting through the air in July. Wrong.
It takes time to get the details correct, but in the end, your work will be far more authentic. And your reader will thank you for it.
“Amanda stepped off the elevator on the lower level of the parking garage. At ten o’clock on a Saturday night, the level was empty except for her car . . . and one other she didn’t recognize. A sound of dripping water and the soft scurrying of animal feet – rats? – made her throat close.
She swiveled her head in search of anything or anyone nearby then took a tentative step toward her car. Then another step and faster, faster, until she was almost at a sprint. Her high heels clicked on the concrete floor and echoed in the cavernous space. Finally, she reached her car. Damn, why didn’t she have her keys ready?
Amanda fumbled through her bag, her heart now ratcheted up, pumping blood through her ears. All she could hear was the furious whooshing sound of her own fear.
There, her keys, at the bottom, now in her hand. She clicked the fob and the latches opened. She reached for the handle, but before her fingers closed around it, she detected a breathy squeak of rubber soled shoes behind her. She dropped her bag, swung around with a gasp, hands clenched into fists, ready to defend herself and . . .”
So, what do you think? Tension? I always love the late-at-night parking garage scene. Scares the heck out of me, even now.
What is tension, really, and why is it so important in writing? Even if you’re not writing a mystery. Even if you’re writing non-fiction.
The noun tension has its Latin roots in “tendere,” which means to stretch, and tension occurs when something is stretched either physically or emotionally to its limits. Strained relations between countries can cause political tensions to rise. Tension can be added to a rubber band by stretching it to its limits. By the way, you can release nervous tension by shooting that rubber band at the local bully.
Tension is the means to get your reader to turn the page, particularly if it’s used at the end of a chapter as a cliffhanger. People, for the most part, don’t like to leave things unresolved. They want to find the solution, even if it’s an unsatisfactory one (that’s another story.)
While you cannot (or should not) distort facts when writing non-fiction, tension around real events can ramp up the readers’ pulse just as thrillers can. Take “The Monuments Men,” for instance. How tense can a situation be when you have a group of men and women trying to save the art and monuments of a Europe at war? When, finally the fighting ends, and they discover, in a dark, damp mine in Austria, a cache of hidden loot that would make King Midas gasp? When, they manage to “derail” an art train bound for Germany with stolen paintings of Masters like Leonardo.
Now that’s tension. That’s real life. Whew.
I welcome your feedback and samples of tension in your writing.
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.