For most of my working life, I wrote nonfiction. I started out as a free-lance writer and, later, wrote articles, newsletters and speeches as a communications specialist for a large corporation. Now that I write fiction, I find it a completely different experience.
I’ll say up front that fiction writing is more fun. On the other hand, at least until the recent past, nonfiction has been more profitable. As a freelancer, I would be given an assignment, usually after submitting an idea to the editor. I would be told how much I’d be paid, how long the article should be, and when it was due. When I worked as a writer and editor for a corporation, I was rewarded for my efforts with a salary.
A work of fiction is, at least for all but a few lucky authors, a leap of faith. From the start, a novelist has to believe that, after months or years of work, she’ll be able to get her work published. Even then, there is no guarantee she’ll ever realize a profit or even minimum wage for the hours she’s put in. The worst that can (and often does) happen is for a novelist to have her work fail to find its way into print, instead ending up in a drawer, never finding an audience. In recent years, however, would-be authors do have another option. They can self publish through a service like CreateSpace and have their book available on Amazon. This arrangement does effectively preclude sale in bookstores or to libraries. It also presents the enormous challenge of publicizing the book and attracting readers.
About the process of writing itself: One huge difference between non-fiction and fiction involves research. Nonfiction always begins with fact gathering. Take, for example, an article my husband and I wrote a number of years ago for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. The article was about water: How does Los Angeles get its water? Where does it come from? Is it safe to drink?
I did a lot of the research. As a free-lancer, I had more time to spend on it, while my husband was working full-time. At the start, all I knew about the city’s water was that most everyone seemed to prefer bottled water. They complained that tap water tasted bad. Some questioned whether the water was safe to drink. I started by interviewing people in the agency that delivers water to most of the city and other water experts in the area. We went to Lake Havasu, a major reservoir in Arizona, that delivers water to L.A. We visited the Owens Valley, another source of our water. We took a look at the California aqueduct. I learned that our water is perfectly safe to drink and continue to drink it to this day. The assignment gave me the chance to find out things I never would have learned, and I enjoyed our out-of-town trips. But the actual writing was a grind. It took the better part of a month to boil down all that information to manageable size and organize it into a coherent and readable form.
When I write fiction, the process is completely different. I don’t start out with research. I write down the basic elements of my story; usually it’s an idea I’ve been kicking around in my head for a while. I invent a main character who will solve the crime, a murder victim, the circumstances of murder, the murderer, the motive, and the timing of the crime. I also set up my support characters: suspects, witnesses, and people close to the main character who may or may not play a role in the mystery.
This part is challenging and fun, like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Some authors start with a complete outline of the book. I don’t find that helpful. Instead, I simply sit down and start writing. So far my books (I’m on my third) begin in an airport. I can’t say why that is; perhaps I think of the story as a journey I’m about to take. As I go along, research comes into play when I need to look up facts about a topic or place I’m unfamiliar with. For example, when would the coroner’s office need to have a body officially identified? (I was surprised to learn that this usually isn’t necessary.) Then: how would the coroner’s office go about showing the deceased to a relative, friend or workmate? In real life, it’s not like the body viewing on TV. To find out about such things, I go onto my browser and look up the topic. I also call on people who know the subject I’m struggling with. For example, my brother-in-law is a criminal defense attorney; I have a friend who is a private detective; and my husband has had a long career in journalism and on paparazzi, which play an important role in my second book, The Bequest, due out next summer.
There are, of course, points where the action gets stuck and I can’t think of a way to move the story forward. That’s tough to get through, but I’ve always managed. Once the book is complete, I go back to the beginning and start rewriting. I love this part. I get to put in more character development, plot twists, and other details. I usually will go through the book yet another time, just for good measure. Each time I put new material in, take out extraneous passages, and polish my writing.
Finally, the book is done, and here comes the hardest part. Sending it out into the world of agents and publishers who will determine its fate. This is not fun. I can’t count the number of times I received the manuscript for The Swap back on my doorstep after mailing it out. The most discouraging was when it was returned within a few days, well before anyone in the publishing world would have had time to look at it.
It took years before The Swap found its home at Light Message Publishing. At one point, after many rejections, I gave up and put the manuscript away. I found myself unable to start a new book when I knew I’d have to face the nightmare of marketing it when it was done. Then, a while ago, I got The Swap out again to reread it. I thought passage of time would have given me enough distance to see the flaws in my mystery, the reason it was rejected.
That wasn’t the case. The book was terrific—fast moving and suspenseful. There was a twist at the end that surprised even me. I’d forgotten I’d put it in. Once more I began looking for a way to get The Swap into print and out to readers. This time I succeeded.
I’ve been addicted to murder mysteries since the age of six when I discovered the Nancy Drew series was far more intriguing than the adventures of Dick and Jane. My first manuscript, “Cindy Parker and the Haunted Mansion,” was written when I turned my third-grade spelling words into a sixteen-page novella. If my mother hadn’t made me go to bed at 8:30, who knows what kind of masterpiece I could have created. The teacher gave me an A plus and I was hooked. I knew I wanted to be a mystery author.
My personal anti-depressant has always been to read a mystery by one of my favorite authors, a group of writers who not only devised a puzzle for me to solve, but also kept me laughing. They could turn the gloomiest day into pure sunshine. When I sat down to write my first novel, I had one goal in mind. To write an intriguing murder mystery that also provided plenty of giggles. Seems simple, right? NOT!
I discovered that it wasn’t that easy to mesh the suspense of a murder investigation with laugh-out-loud moments. The heroine can’t be blithely tripping over dead bodies right and left. While the premise of mid-life dating itself can provide laughs (ah, the true stories I could share) there is still a definite fear factor involved.
What if you don’t meet Mr. Right and instead meet Mr. Wrong?
How do authors keep their audience glued to their chairs and pages, wondering how the protagonist will elude the killer’s clutches? After ramping up the drama, will a funny remark give them an opportunity to smile and relax, or stop them cold?
It’s critical that readers identify with and root for the protagonist as she searches for the killer. She may be forced to do so to save her reputation or stay out of jail. It definitely helps if your protagonist is relatable to her readers. In Dying for a Date, when Laurel McKay is faced with a gun, she states, “I didn’t want to flee, I just wanted to pee.” I know I’m not the only member of the “hot flash” set who can relate to that.
There’s also the romance factor. How do you maintain conflict and tension between your protagonist and the investigating detective? Especially when he can’t decide if he should arrest the adorable soccer mom, or kiss her? The author needs to keep the audience engaged in the mystery yet still provide those moments that sizzle and sparkle with laughter.
My favorite use of situational humor are my chase scenes. Anyone can write a fast-paced chase, but I guarantee I’m the first author to write a scene with dueling backhoes. In Dying for a Dude, I crafted what one author termed as the funniest chase scene she’d ever read. You can’t go wrong with a scenario that includes a stagecoach, a runaway carriage, a motorcycle, and a horse that can jump over Mini-Coopers.
In my new release, Dying for a Diamond, Laurel embarks on a kayak trip that offers a few comic moments. Most detectives attempt to turn over clues. Only Laurel could turn over a suspect!
I would love to hear from both mystery readers and authors. Does anyone else enjoy a dose of humor with their homicide?
Handling my muse has never been easy. Aggie Mundeen showed up unexpectedly in a class. Meredith Laughlin, the twenty-three-year-old protagonist in my suspense novel, Nine Days to Evil, was taking her first liberal arts class in graduate school, waiting for the professor to delve into Shakespeare’s Othello, when Aggie Mundeen drew her attention:
“One woman in Meredith’s row near the window didn’t match the others. Meredith guessed she was in her late thirties. Her blackish hair, parted in the middle, puffed downward and covered her ears, immobile, like a Brillo pad. Her turquoise crocodile eyes, heavy-lidded, darted stealthily around the room. A diminutive nose contrasted with her classic features. Her lips, outlined larger than their natural curve, were a garish red that matched her long, manicured nails. Meredith imagined her with a softer hairstyle and less lipstick, wearing a perfectly tailored Chanel suit. But she wore a nylon turquoise warm-up trimmed with wine-colored piping that screamed at her lips and nails. She sat, her hands resting on the desk and a sneaker-clad foot crossed over her opposite knee. She evaluated the professor as he fumbled with books and papers on his cluttered desk. “Okay,” her body language said, “show me something.”
Aggie’s actions and words, usually amusing, somewhat cynical, caught my attention. She became permanently stuck in my brain. I found myself waiting to see what she would do or say and chuckling at her antics. She eventually shared her background, not an easy one, and demanded that I write a book about her. Or maybe a series.
I thought about it. She was older and wiser than Meredith, with a varied background and a wry view of life. She was serious but humorous, smart, dangerously curious and determined. I thought the many facets of her personality could sustain a series. I would enjoy watching her infiltrate Detective Sam’s investigations and come close to driving him crazy. I liked her fearlessness, humor and dogged determination. I was hooked.
Aggie has been showing me something ever since. Single, approaching forty and terrified of middle age, she wrote a column advising people how to stay young. Having recently moved from Chicago to San Antonio, she found it necessary to shape up before anyone discovered she was “Dear Aggie” who wrote the column. So she signed up at Fit and Firm Health Club. Unfortunately, a murder occurred there. Fortunately, Detective Sam showed up to solve the crime. Naturally, Aggie dove in to help him. (Fit to Be Dead)
The summer after Aggie survived the health club fiasco, Meredith received discounts to vacation at the BVSBar Dude Ranch in exchange for writing articles about the place. She asked Aggie to go, and they talked Sam into accompanying them incognito, which was fortunate. When an expert rider was tossed from a horse, they suspected foul play. Against Sam’s insistence that she butt out, Aggie managed to stir up a hornet’s nest of cowboys. Who knew Home on the Range meant murder?
(Dang Near Dead)
Having survived outdoor living, Aggie, appalled by the prospect of a precipitous descent into middle-age decrepitude, poured her heart into writing “Staying Young with Aggie.” When she heard a professor would teach a course linking genes to aging, she blasted off to the local university to study genetics and DNA. Unfortunately, she discovered a dead body. Detective Sam reminded her not to help with the investigation. But dangerously curious and programmed to prod, she raced to solve the crime, wound up the prime suspect and was on target to become next campus corpse. When she barely survived, and Detective Sam got over being apoplectic, her close call made him realize he loved her. He wasn’t sure he could trust her to stay out of trouble. (Smart, but Dead)
In River City Dead, Aggie and SAPD Detective Sam Vanderhoven plan their first rendezvous at a San Antonio River Walk hotel during Fiesta Week…a vacation from crime and reset for their tumultuous relationship.
With Aggie, nothing goes as planned. Murder descends on Casa Prima Hotel. Disturbing revelations surface about the Fabulous Femmes, Aggie’s new friends holding their convention, and calamity plagues Aggie’s debut dance performance at Arneson River Theater.
Even in idyllic River City, crime complicates relationships.
Is your muse as troublesome as mine? Does she get you into trouble? How do you handle her/him?