Like most American high school students, my introduction to plot structure started on an island, at a dinner party. The island was Ithaca. I was stuck in my parents’ house where hundreds of suitors drank my mother into the poorhouse as my family anxiously waited for the return of my father, Odysseus. After reading The Odyssey, my teacher drew something like this graph on the chalkboard. This pyramid type structure, developed by German novelist Gustav Freytag, was the secret to all good stories. First the author, Homer, set the scene and outlined the central problem. Then, he set the character–Odysseus’ son–to solve the problem. Meanwhile, we see Odysseus’ trapped on Crete recounting the adventures that took him away from his family in the first place. Odysseus sets off for home and meets his son who is searching for him (The Climax) and they kill the suitors (resolution). I keep a modified version of this graph in my office. Thrillers can’t have Freytag’s long line of introductory exposition. The best ones start with the inciting incident and then the action takes off. Or, with a suspense story, there is the inciting incident and the uncomfortable movements beneath the guillotine. Thrillers must also have a twist that comes after the initial climax. The reader, in my opinion, should think he or she knows where the story is going and how the action will culminate and then, just as that happens or starts to happen, and the audience is anticipating the falling action, the reader should realize that there is something else going on and another unanticipated climax is in the offing. My graph looks like the one above with the orange words. My stories don’t always follow this exact pattern. Ideally, there are several twists and turns so a plot graph would appear more like my work on a stair climber machine than a pyramid. But, looking at this image reminds me of what I am trying to do and gives me a structure within which to be creative. It makes me feel more free to go nuts because I know that there is a format in the back of my mind keeping my story moving. In addition to Freytag’s pyramid, I learned another important thing from my high school English teachers and The Odyssey: how NOT to end a story. At the end of the epic poem, Athena shows up out of nowhere and stops the now dead suitors’ parents from flaying Odysseus’ whole family. Dea Ex Machina is a disappointing exit in a thriller. The advancing hordes cannot be stopped by a sudden flood or the appearance of a bomb. The main characters have to resolve the action. Odysseus should have ended when he gave Penelope the olive branch. Readers would have taken it as peace restored to his house and Ithaca–and conveniently forgot about the hordes of angry parents with dead sons. It was a better ending.Read more
Okay folks, here’s the line-up of the Miss Demeanors (www.missdemeanors.com) who are “wanted.” I must warn you they are thought to be armed, with either pen or keyboard, and dangerous. These ladies on the lam have been known to commit murder on the page and have been paid for it. The Miss Demeanors Wrap SheetCate Holahan: Extremely dangerous. Planning a How to Commit a Murder Party tonight! Guilty of writing “The Widower’s Wife,” allegedly out Tuesday, August 9, 2016 (Crooked Lane Books). Prior offenses include “Dark Turns.” (November, 2015) Tracee de Hahn: Pleaded guilty to writing “The Swiss Vendetta” (St Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books). May have fled to Switzerland. Allegedly created the Agnes Lüthi Mysteries. Susan Breen: Master mind of the Maggie Dove series. Guilty of writing “Maggie Dove” (digital imprint, Penguin Random, June 14, 2016). Her wrap sheet includes the upcoming “Maggie Dove’s Detective Agency,” out October 18, 2016. Alexia Gordon: Charged with authoring “Murder in G Major,” which debuts September 13, 2016 (Henery Press). Conspiring to commit “Death in D Minor.” May be on the lam in southwestern Ireland. C. Michele Dorsey: Convicted of writing “No Virgin Island” (Crooked Lane Books, August 11, 2016) and for conspiring the plot in “Permanent Sunset,” allegedly out on October 11, 2016. Rumored to be plotting future offenses on the Caribbean island of St. John. Warning:Should you see one of the Miss Demeanors, do not approach her. Instead, comment on the Miss Demeanor blog or on Facebook. For more information about this line-up, go to www.missdemeanors.com. The rumor is that there is a big reward coming for a group apprehension.Read more
Where do they come from? No, this is not the dreaded question posed by a child about babies. This is about characters that pop into the minds of writers almost as miraculously as those babies. How does that happen? One minute I am standing in my kitchen shifting from one foot to the other as I tend to the laborious task of stirring risotto. The next minute a woman named Elise is talking to me inside my head. You might wonder, do I have mental health issues? If I do, they have nothing to do with the chatter from Elise, who is clamoring for me to tell her story. A lawyer by trade, she loves to cook as a creative outlet and becomes quite accomplished as with everything she does. Elise is an overachiever, who tells me her entrepreneurial husband capitalized on her culinary talents by inviting clients to lavish dinner parties resulting in huge success for him. Maybe it’s the tedium from stirring the risotto, but I’m intrigued. So what’s the big deal about that, I ask Elise. Now I am talking in my own head to a woman who doesn’t exist. And no, I am not sipping wine as I cook. Elise is only too happy to fill me in with the details. Jeff became so successful she could stay home and raise babies while she continued to throw dinner parties for his clients that Ina Garten would envy. As the years slipped away, Elise began to regard what once was her own joy of cooking as a job. When the kids were done with college, she quit. She told her husband he could start taking his clients to restaurants. He told her he understood. He wanted to quit too. The marriage. “And that’s only the beginning of my story,” Elise whispered, while I added more liquid to the pot. By now I am thinking, screw the risotto. Where’s my laptop? I need to get this down before I forget. Before Elise goes away and I don’t get to know the rest of her story. But don’t worry. There’s no chance Elise is going to leave my head before I know the whole bloody mess. She reveals juicy details when I least expect it. While driving on the highway when I don’t have a pen and am terrified to text. In the middle of the night when I have insomnia and have to decide whether to simply scribble down a few notes and try to go back to sleep or to accept the challenge and hit the keyboard at 4:00 a.m. The woman will not stop talking to me, so I must write her story if I am ever to have quiet in my brain again. When my fingers hit the keyboard, I feel I am channeling Elise. Yes, I know this is weird and may explain some of the things people say about writers.Where did Elise come from? Was it the aroma of the risotto that released her from another world? How did she reveal her story to me, a story that it may seem I made up, but did I? I have always written mysteries, which I also adore reading. But Elise wasn’t having a murder in her story. At the end of 263 pages, I discovered what she already knew. Her story was a romantic comedy. You won’t find Elise’s story on a bookshelf. Yet. I haven’t known quite what to do with it or the revelation to me as a writer that I am no more in control of the stories I write than I am in the garden I plant. Maybe the process is more deliberate for other writers. For me, I am just going for a ride with my characters wherever they take me. But I am still scratching my head, asking where do they come from?Read more
Asking why I write is like asking why I breathe. Because I have to; it’s not voluntary. Tell the ocean to stop making those damn waves; leaves not to bud, bloom and then fall; clouds not to gather and clear. Try telling me not to write.Sometimes writing feels more like an affliction than a passion or interest. But the why is simple. There are stories in me I must tell.A lot of what I write is make-believe. I like playing it safe. Telling the truth is fraught with high voltage wires which once touched can electrify and ignite. Plus writing fiction can be delicious. From acts of betrayal in “real-life,” I can capture villains and victims, placing them as hostages in my fantasies. Go ahead and jilt me, I will murder you with ink. Drop me from your inner sanctum of friends, you may find yourself a fat, pathetic, whining murderer. Fire my child and see how you like being the foil for someone’s cruel indifference. And you can never complain, because, you see, I don’t write about real people. Of course, I don’t.If you drink Guinness, you know somewhere beneath the frothy head on your stout, below that first sip so delicious none other can be as good, you hit the thick body of liquid, heavily laden as if all of Ireland’s burden had been poured into your chilled mug. Though not necessarily as pleasant as the head, or first sip, it is in this sludge where you will find genuine flavor and satisfaction.That is why I write. So I can dredge from the sludge the inescapable reality of the flavor of life. Ignoring what needs to be written never makes it go away, it only makes it thicker, heavier. The stuff churns, not regularly or predictably, but rather when you don’t expect it. A word or an image flashes by, sending you a message reminding you you will not be free to move about the cabin until you flee the binding strangulation of your seat belt, the one you buckled yourself into.Writing drains the wound, opens the sore to the fresh air to heal. Writing releases the pressure and eases the pain. A writer is like a sponge, soaking in the human experience, occasionally jubilance or triumph, but mostly the exquisite sad stories of ordinary souls.Like Larry, for instance. There I am on a tropical island so pristine and perfect, I have trouble ignoring God. As I amble onto a beach where I plan to spend my day reading, swimming and purging myself of the toxins in my life, I see two women and a man crouched down around an immature sea gull. Of course, I can’t shut up. I have to ask. They tell me the gull can’t fly. I make sympathetic noises, happy for once to let someone else be in charge.I settle in and watch the man tend to the immobile gull. He gently scoops the bird into his hands and walks with it down the beach to the cottage where he is apparently staying. The gull barely resists. Larry, I now know his name even though I don’t want to because I am committed to not being involved in this mission while I strive to be without one, wades into the water about knee deep and sits the duck on the still Caribbean blue water. The gull can at least float. I turn back to Harlan Coben.But even while Harlan rivets me, I cannot stop watching Larry and the gull, who has now been named Louie. I am drawn to this story. I watch Larry as much as Louie.Larry is a handsome man in his late fifties, early sixties. He is tall and appears fit. His skin is smooth and tanned. But something is wrong, I sense. Larry’s gait is tentative, hesitant. His eyes are vacant. His words are slow and few. He tends to Louie with loving simplicity, sitting with him in the sand, taking him out in the water for dunks, feeding him tiny fish he has spent hours catching, worrying when Louie will not eat.Larry’s wife, vivacious and vibrant, the perfect study in contrast to her mate has called the vet. Thank God. I can move onto my next book. Monitoring the story of Larry and Louie is beginning to exhaust me. I am writing in my journal about them, worrying that Larry is becoming too attached to Louie. I am becoming too invested in their story. I am on vacation, for God’s sake.The vet comes to the beach and bustles around Louie, smiling and laughing all the while. I stay glued to my beach chair fifty feet away, book opened on my lap, thrilled that my Jackie O sunglasses allow me to observe what is going on with the vet without being observed. I am now stalking a sea gull. This is my vacation.The vet explains that a number of birds in Florida and the Caribbean have developed a syndrome where they simply are unable to fly, that it is somehow connected to balance; some recover and others simply die. There is no treatment. She offers to take the bird. Larry’s wife looks at Larry and turns to the vet. She asks the vet if she could come back later in the afternoon after her last house call so that Louie could spend the rest of the day with them. I am beginning to like Larry’s wife.Larry sits on the sand next to Louie. He and his wife take Louie in the water where he eats something the wife has ground up that makes her wriggle her nose in disgust. Larry hangs out with Louie for the afternoon, much as I am hanging out with my husband. They sit on the beach, go in for a swim, come out, dry off, sit some more on the beach. I am worried how Larry will cope with his separation from Louie.Toward the end of the afternoon after Larry had taken Louie for a walk down the beach and back, he steps into the water right in front of where I am sitting. He places Louie once again on the silky turquoise water. Louie flaps his wings a little, then a little more. I lean forward, my book falling face open into the sand. I don’t care. Louie is going to fly, I just know it.I sense my husband next to me also at attention. We are about to witness a miracle. The flapping stops for just long enough for me to hold my breath and hope Larry’s heart is not about to break, when Louie spreads those wings once more and flies up about three feet and skims over the water for a hundred yards, landing out by a few yachts where the other gulls hang, waiting for a treat.We clap without thinking. Larry turns around and looks at us and smiles. My eyes tear. I know something is happening to Larry that I can’t understand. What I do understand is that I have been privileged to witness it.Larry and his wife head home a few days before our vacation ends. Twice after their departure, while my husband and I sat in the same spot we territorialized our entire vacation, a gull landed about three feet away from us. On each occasion, the gull walked around a little, cocked his head a few times, and let out some very plaintive cries. “Where’s Larry?” we knew he was saying. Louie, I wish I knew.Why do I write? I write because Larry’s story seeps into my cells, weighs my heart and brings a lump in my throat that won’t go away until I do.Read more
Am I the only one who intentionally waits to read a book until it calls to me?
Don’t get me wrong. I fully plan to read the latest Sue Grafton waiting on my shelf since August as soon as I finish the book I am currently reading. You see, Kinsey Millhone called to me last night. Maybe I was thinking about peanut butter and pickle sandwiches, which I don’t eat. Or was it seeing some hearty seniors running the Eight Tuff Miles race in St. John in the Virgin Islands that made me remember fondly Kinsey’s dear friend and landlord, Henry? Never mind, I just know something tugged and me and told me it was time to take “X” off the bookshelf where it has been patiently waiting for my beckon.
I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Elizabeth George at the New England Crime Bake this past November. She has been one of my favorite authors since I bought her first book in hardcover in blind faith almost thirty years ago. Surely, I would want to immediately devour A Banquet of Consequences, especially since the author signed my copy. But I knew better. There would come a moment when the book would practically leap into my arms, so hungry was I for tales of lofty Lynley and lovable, but naughty Havers. That moment arrived a few days ago when the 573 page novel fell into my arms, just a day after Robert Galbreith (JK Rowling’s pseudonym) had left me breathless after A Career of Evil, also read when I longed for Strike and Robin to share their new adventures.
Sometimes the draw seems to be place. Authors who write location as passionately as character can affect me so in the future, I find myself thinking, it’s time to be in Dublin and Tana French must be read. Other times, I find myself missing characters, which is one reason I love series.
I wonder do others have these literary cravings. Insatiable, as if for a memorable Bolognese, do you find yourself absolutely must having to read a particular author or about a place or character?
I have always been an insatiable reader, beginning as a very young child when I would devour golden books by the dozens, those thin flat volumes with golden binding. Soon, I graduated to Nancy Drew, becoming a life-long mystery lover. The scarier, the better, and not necessarily gory. I learned very early that what goes on inside the mind can be more frightening than external forces. Witches and vampires can be banished; it’s those internal demons that will level you. I balance my fixation with psychological thrillers with a steady stream of non-fiction, just so I don’t become as weird as some of the characters to whom I am so drawn. So, when I ordered “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, carrying Oprah’s badge of approval stuck to the cover, a book about a young woman’s hike across the Pacific Crest Trail, I thought I was just going for another walk in the woods, like I had with Bill Bryson. Strayed was racked with paralyzing grief after the death of her mother, which led her first onto a trail of self-destruction before her rather random, ill-considered and impulsive foray into the wild. Before long, I knew something was very wrong. On vacation, I read a book a day. “Wild,” which is beautifully written, was going at a pace of a few pages a day. Unlike with Bryson’s “Walk in the Woods,” his recount of hiking the Appalachian Trail, which I read in two days (only because I wanted to savor it) on a hammock while camping at the Audubon Sanctuary in Wellfleet, I had a growing aversion to the book. I didn’t get it. Sure, it was painful to read about Strayed’s grief for a mother who, while less than perfect, was adoring and courageous in her own right. But I practice family law and am immersed in human suffering every day. As Cheryl encountered critters and characters, I felt my heart race, my palms sweat and heard my own mother’s words. “You can’t do that. You might be…” Fill in the blank with your own brand of fear. Stabbed, robbed, murdered, hit by a car. The consequence to whatever action you were considering taking was always disproportionate and negated any joy the challenge might offer. Why would a bike ride, trying out for a play or considering an urban hospital school of nursing necessarily lead to tragedy? “If you go to Boston City Hospital for your nurse’s training, I won’t be able to sleep for three years. You’ll be murdered, raped, or at the very least, mugged for sure,” my mother had said, when I decided that being a nurse in an urban environment in the 70’s was a place I might make a difference. I ended up in a nursing school in the hospital where I had been born, which was more like a country-club, and while in Boston, seemed oblivious to the social civil war raging outside its doors. As I read on at a pace slower than grass grows, my mother’s words became my thoughts. “Jesus, Cheryl, don’t be stupid. Do not get into a pick-up truck with that guy, no matter how much licorice he has.” “Are you kidding me? You’ve just seen not one, but three bloody rattlesnakes, that actually rattled at you, and you are not going to be smart enough to call it quits?” “Do not tell me you are going to drink the water from that mud puddle. Better to die of dehydration. Think of all the germs, dear.” “What, you’re going to eat berries right off a bush? How do you know what they are when they aren’t even labeled? They could be poisonous, you know.” My writing group members didn’t help. One by one, they’d read the book, each proclaiming how much they enjoyed it. I was one year into the book and at page 103. Still, a little stubborn like the author, I refused to quit the flipping book. I marveled at her, as she set up her tent nightly. When I go camping my husband erects the tent and a screen room so I can arrive later with flowers, candles and a tablecloth to decorate. Strayed goes two weeks without a shower, peeing in the woods. I get nervous about getting the hot and cold water straight at a hotel. Strayed worries a bit about snow and ice and sliding off a mountainside. I am terrified of driving in even the slightest snowfall, grateful that my gloves absorb the sweat from palms so my hands don’t slide off the steering wheel and cause the accident three flakes of snow would never cause. “You’re not going out and drive in this weather, are you?” I realized I am terrified to walk alone in the woods, yet since my forties I have wanted to do just that. I flirted with Outward Bound, but found more excuses than reasons to ignore my fears. I loved walking in the woods with my husband, but rejected I could do it without him. Was I more afraid of the woods I was sure was populated with the very murderers I love reading about, or was I really just afraid to be alone. Alone with me. To face what Strayed’s mother had confronted when she learned she was dying. “I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life… I always did what someone else wanted me to do. I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife.” Once Strayed was on the home stretch, I began to relax. I knew she made it because the woman is on Facebook and blogs. She seemed to be acquiring some wisdom on her journey, yet I was worried about her not having a job or a place to live, or even know where she would live, at the end of the trail. “What? You don’t have a place to live after you went through all that?” When I had fewer pages left to read than I had read, I was able to pick up my pace. I took “Wild” with me wherever I went, enjoying the sight of the now familiar cover photo of Cheryl’s battered boots with the endearing red laces, giddy with her that our journey together was nearly done. I relaxed as she bathed in a stream, walked beneath a canopy of endless trees. When she described the moment when she realized she was solitary, but not alone, one with nature, without any interfering, intervening events or forces, I finally got it. It is not the howl of the coyotes, the beady eyes in the dark, the man with the fish knife we fear. It is fear we will never rediscover who we are, never return to the instant when we drew our first breath, that single second when we became alive before we were subjected to the expectations and demands of others. Before we had to pass the Apgar, demonstrate a suckling response, evacuate the Meconium stool from our prehistoric existence. We are forever seeking a return to that moment when we were truly authentic, pure and uninfluenced, devoid of fear or any other human emotion. We just were. Maybe the only other time we reach that moment is when we succumb to death. Maybe we should fear death less. Or maybe we should all walk alone in the woods. It took Cheryl Strayed eighty days to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and conquer her fear. It took me fourteen months to read her book and make a dent in mine.Read more
I need a tagline. Something appropriate for, let’s say, a bookmark. Put differently, I have to distill my entire book, the product of hours, days, months of work, into a few words. Not necessarily a sentence. A few words that suggest a sentence. If you are a marketing professional you might jump on this opportunity. Headlines! Titles! Taglines! Short, snappy and full of punch. This is the reason I am not in marketing. It is also the reason I don’t write short stories. They are, to be clear, too short. Actually, this exercise is one long flashback to writing the summary section of my query letter. (Deep breath, that one worked, surely I can conquer this hurdle.) Hmmm. Maybe I should look at that letter again and Wordle it? I’ve read that a tagline is mission, promise and brand. Give me 5,000 words and I can bring it home for you. Actually, right now, I’d settle for 300 words, since I’m staring 3-7 in the face. In a perfect world I would have worked my way through the problem to end this post with my tagline. Instead, I will end with the decision to go back to writing my next book. Never thought I’d say that the need to write a few thousand words was comforting.Read more
It’s time. Madame XYZ and Monsieur ABC need names. Real names. My main characters are named the moment they appear on the page – after all, their name says something specific about them, not least importantly what region of Switzerland (or the world) they are from. A name can hint at age, social or economic situation. A first name might be traditional or modern; ‘plain Jane’ or something to make half the population cringe. That’s not to say I haven’t changed a major character’s name at close of writing. I’m not alone in this, legend has it that Margaret Mitchell used Pansy O’Hara until it was time to publish ‘Gone With The Wind’. Would Pansy have made the splash that Scarlett did? In my case, Agnes Lüthi started life as Micheline. Is she better as Agnes? Yes, I think so. Still, it was a big change. But today is minor character naming day. The groundskeeper and tow-headed 10-year-old boy get to keep their parts and therefore they get a name. I am sure I will spend more time on this than it deserves, on the other hand, a name says it all…..Read more
Does it help to count? The first 1,000 words of a new book are the hardest (and the most thrilling when they are DONE!). No more blank white page. You know where the story starts (in this draft at least) and you’re off and running. The next ten thousand slip by, then you re-group. Move through with edits and the beginning is richer, more detailed (in my case, real names for minor characters in lieu of Monsieur ABC and Madame XYZ). Thousands more words. Yippee! On the other hand, there are days when you edit and see the words disappear. 32,032 is now 27,501. Yikes. I frantically do the math: How did I cut 16%? Why? A blood-letting. Now I question my judgement: maybe I didn’t need to trim that scene, cut that chapter, edit that description. There have been darker days: When the manuscript was complete and in the hands of the publisher and I knew deep down in my heart that I needed to cut several characters and trim trim trim (okay, surgically remove) an entire theme or two. It felt dangerous. What if I couldn’t fit it all back together again? This was major surgery, none of your outpatient stuff. In the end I learned a good lesson…. Just do it. Have a plan—this isn’t willy-nilly cutting to see what happens—and keep track of what is cut and moved, and what is now missing and will have to be redistributed to other characters and descriptions. But do it. After I cut and redistributed and in-filled I ended up with a few thousand more words. By then the word count didn’t matter, but it illustrated that if I aimed for the best book the rest would follow. I’m trying to keep this in mind….. and not care that today’s work feels like driving in reverse.Read more
So, you have a book trailer to promote your latest mystery or thriller. What do you do with it? I ran into this problem today when my cousin, a multimedia producer, and I finished the book trailer for The Widower’s Wife. (See Trailer Below) Aside from posting on the obvious places–your web site and your Amazon author page–where else can this kind of media live? I make a list of book video bloggers on YouTube and send them the link to the trailer in hopes of interesting them in reviewing the book. I also post on bookreels.com, a book trailer site, and submit to book bloggers who are considering a review. Sometimes, a book blogger will post the trailer along with the review or leave it up on the site as a teaser to his or her commentary. I also put it on the video sharing sites like Vine and send it out to my email list. Where do you put your trailer?Read more