I learned two things this week. Two things I knew but seem to have forgotten. Both are important to my work as a writer. I may have to get a tattoo as a permanent reminder.
First: It’s the Characters, Stupid.
Duh, of course I know this. I’m a reader and a writer so why was I surprised when that thought occurred to me after I finished reading the latest two books in a historical mystery series of around fifteen books that I’ve loved for years.
Thinking about the series, I suddenly clearly saw the skeleton of the books, the bones on which the author has hung the flesh of every story in the series. And, for the first time, I found the books repetitive and boring. I noticed the research dumps, such as detailed descriptions of historical places incidental to the story and the lists of every item of clothing every man or woman was wearing. I also noted the similar verbiage used from book to book to describe recurring characters. Was I seeing it because I read the books back-to-back? Or had the author gotten careless, and it was more obvious? I don’t know.
Now I know how hard all of this is. But the author’s job is to keep it fresh. Will I be able to keep the NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli Mystery series fresh for ten more books? Who knows? But I hope I can keep things fresh until I stop. Or maybe I should say I hope I’ll stop if I can’t keep it fresh.
The point of this is that when I turned the last page of the second book, I thought, that’s the last in the series I’ll read. But then I remembered something one of the characters said at the very end of the second book. It would affect their lives in future books. And I knew I would read the next one because I care about the characters and I need to know what happens to them.
Boom. It’s the characters, stupid.
Second: I’m a Pantser.
After writing four romances, one general fiction and four mysteries you would think I wouldn’t even have to think about this. Right? But about twenty-five hundred words in, I found myself stalled on the fifth NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli Mystery because I kept trying and failing to come up with the victim, the suspects and the background or motive for the crime. Nothing I considered seemed right. I struggled with this for months.
And then one day, staring at my many books on writing, my gaze fell on How To Write A Mystery: A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America. This MWA anthology, edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King, contains essays on the craft of mystery writing by MWA authors. I pulled it off the shelf and when I put it on my desk, it fell open to Lee Child’s entry, “Never Outline.”
Child’s advice hit home. “I’m going to argue in favor of spontaneity. And against overthinking and overplanning, and certainly against making lists. Specifically, I’m going to suggest: no plan, no outline….” He believes that writers, as readers who love mysteries, who have read thousands of books in the genre, have everything we need inside us. He goes on to say, “Just start writing. Something will happen, sooner or later.”
Slaps self on the head. How did I forget. I don’t ever know the crime, the victim or the suspects when I sit down. I just start writing and let my subconscious take control. It figures everything out.
Boom. I’m a pantser.
Maybe I’ll do one tattoo on each hand so when I sit down to write I’ll have visual reminders.
In addition to publishing multiple mystery and romance short stories in various anthologies, Catherine has authored four romances novels. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lindy James, was awarded a GOLDIE for Best General Fiction.