Eventually every writer must come to face to face with a vacant screen or blank sheet of paper, and the words that are stored in our head start to pour out—or they don’t. The compelling story we thought we had to articulate, evades us and we fall back on the mechanical: word counts, details, research—words on a page.
And that’s okay.
Writing fiction is learned. It requires craft and discipline and more than anything it requires inspiration—the inspiration that comes from listening to the voices in our head. Voices which convert to words, which lead to characters, to scenes, to the interaction of character and scenes, and how they all build upon each other to tell a story that transports the reader.
Writers must have the courage of convictions that words, and the joining of words into sentences and the melding of sentences into paragraphs and the linking of paragraphs onto pages, will produce a book that we hope will entertain, educate and perhaps make a difference.
Because at the core of it, at the very base of our being, writers are idealists with an incessant urge to get our thoughts and stories out of our heads, onto paper, and into the hands of people we want to reach.
But what about that muse?
Our muse is always with us, except for the times we ignore her presence. We may struggle with conjuring up the right word or the next scene, and beg that she appear. She looks at us in amazement because she has never left our side.
Our muse is our imagination.
She is the free flowing ideas that pour out of our fingers and onto our keyboards. If we hit a wall or become blocked it is likely because we are trying too hard. The quickest way to turn our back on our imagination is to “think” about it. Stuck? Then take a few minutes to get up and walk around, or step outside or watch some inane show on the TV. Still stuck? Then talk to your protagonist. Ask him or her what’s going to happen next? Who’s going to walk through that door, or cause the phone to ring, or send a letter in the mail? Try to imagine the unexpected, and let your imagination kick-in.
Maybe read a book. The author, Annie Proulx is quoted: You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.
Be careful, reading can be captivating but it’s not writing, read to prime the pump.
Still stuck? Then write a few words about why you feel stuck and what could be the cause. The idea is to prime the imagination pump. That is how our muse talks to us.
It is not enough to say: I’m blocked; I don’t know where my story is going. Stop, don’t write your story, write your protagonist’s story. Or, maybe write the villain’s story. Or, maybe write the end of a story.
The important thing is: don’t stop writing.
Even if it’s just a paragraph, write every day, and you’ll discover that the muse you’re desperately seeking has been seeking you. One of my favorite quotes is from legendary western author Louis L’Amour: Start writing, no matter what. The water can’t flow until the faucet is turned on.
That’s the question I get asked the most, where do I get my ideas? Of course, all writers know that it’s impossible to answer. Ideas come constantly all day long, sometimes several in one minute. Having ideas is not usually a problem. Having the time to develop them is.
Sometimes an idea hits me that is too good to ignore, even if I don’t have the time for it. The eclipse anthology was one of those. I first heard about it on Earth and Sky, whose posts I subscribe to. The more I thought about the fact that a total solar eclipse, something I’ve never seen (although I saw a partial not too long ago), is going to happen in my back yard, the more excited I got. My front yard, too. Right at my house! So, naturally, I got ideas for short stories that happen during the blackout period, short as it is.
I put together some ideas, then, wondering what I would do with my story, had another thought. Maybe other writers would like to write eclipse stories, too. The themes are tempting and ready made. Light and dark, warm and cold, sun and shadows.
Okay, so…if others writers WOULD like to do this, then what? (“Then what” is a famous writer question, right after “What if.”) The answer to that came to me in a flash. How about approaching the publisher that the Austin Mystery Writers used for our Silver-Falchion-winning MURDER ON WHEELS? I did and they loved the idea! Yay!
So I was able to say that we already had a publisher when I put out the call for submissions. The result is DAY OF THE DARK: Stories of Eclipse, being launched by Wildside Press on July 21st, exactly a month before the eclipse. I’m gratified by the enthusiasm that has met this project, one that I had no business doing and had no time for, but had to do anyway. The stories I received, sure enough, ran the gamut. I think they are a good representation of the above themes. I hope readers will think so, too.
Sometimes those pesky ideas drop straight from the heavens onto our heads!
Preorder site for DAY OF THE DARK: https://tinyurl.com/ycus8fv3
5 Tips to Writing Paranormal
By Jeri Westerson
Once upon a time, there were just books. It didn’t matter what they were about. The public read them, hungry for the next novel or the next serialized chapter in their favorite magazine. But then, marketing was born, and with it, categorizing. Now there are genres. There’s literary, which encapsulates all that can’t be categorized, but more often than not stands for “literature” that speaks to a universal audience. There’s science fiction, where science fact meets the “what if” of fiction. There’s the mystery genre with all its sub-genres, from cozy small town mysteries where there is no sex, graphic violence, or harsh language, to the roughest noir, to sub-sub genres like medieval mysteries, romantic mysteries, paranormal mysteries…and on and on. The romance category of books is everything under the sun, so many we don’t have time to go into them all here.
But why bring up genre anyway? Well, because it helps us readers to find just the right book. Feeling like a mystery? We know what kind we like and can plug in the very category we find most intriguing on our search engines. I have to admit, it is handy, even though authors hate being categorized.
I’m usually penning medieval mysteries myself, but I’ve made the venture into the paranormal. Not that there weren’t already fuzzy paranormal things happening in my Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Mysteries, what with the religious relics my protagonist always gets involved with. But this time there is no ambiguity. My new series, BOOKE OF THE HIDDEN, which comes out on Halloween, is a contemporary urban fantasy about a woman who leaves California to open an herb and tea shop in a small town in Maine. But when she finds an ancient book bricked up in the wall of her shop and opens it, she literally lets all hell break loose, and its now her job—with the help of a ragtag group of local Wiccans and the mysterious and handsome Erasmus Dark, an man who claims to be a demon—to put it all right again. It’s a tale full of magic, murder, and romance.
So what do you need to pen a paranormal?
1) A likeable protagonist. Likely a she and written in first person. Is this a hard and fast rule? No, but it’s the bulk of urban fantasies and paranormal romances. And if that’s what the people want, why make it tough on yourself. Oh, and by the way, is urban fantasy and paranormal romance interchangeable? Sort of. There can be romance in an urban fantasy, just not the main focus. And if the focus is romance, make sure one of the romantic leads is paranormal. When I was working out the series, I hired a freelance editor to help me straighten out the kinks. I guess she wasn’t as versed in paranormal as I thought she was, because one of her (lousy) pieces of advice was to not let my female protagonist have a relationship with the demon. Say what?
2) Go heavy on the paranormal. Don’t be coy. Readers are tuning in because they want all that paranormal/supernatural stuff going on. Whether vampires or shifters, big bad demons or something else popping up from the netherworld, ratchet it up! Don’t let the supernatural be peripheral. Make it the reason the story exists. So maybe it might be fun for you to write the everyday life of a shifter, going to the PTA, baking cookies for the bake sale. But there needs to be a darker reason there’s a shifter in the book other than your love of extra hairy, howling guys. Falling down the rabbit hole and ending up in a different world far darker than Wonderland is a great jumping off point. Or as in the case of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, Sookie has a special power that she hates having. But when all these vampires come out of the closet, it’s kind of a relief to her. Making the paranormal normal is the key.
3) How about some romance? Do you know why the Beauty and the Beast story gets a resurgence every few years with women flocking to these stories? It’s because we like a tragic hero, and we also don’t mind a guy with a beast face, as long as his heart is soulful. Go for it. Run with it. Only this time he’s a vampire, or a werewolf, or a…whatever. A Wendigo with a heart of gold. Even Wendigos need love. Look, it really doesn’t matter what the beast is. He can start out as the enemy and grow and become a friend, then a lover. Remember Spike in the Buffy series? Man, did that ever work! That’s the bad boy making good. But still a bit of a bad boy. Don’t change the nature of your beast, because that’s what we like about him, but give him a reason to be a hero. He can have a change of heart, but maybe every now and then, he’s still gotta kill. Inner turmoil makes for interesting characters.
4) Don’t forget the side characters. Every Buffy needs her Scooby Gang. And they aren’t just there for window dressing. One of the things I liked best about mystery authors like Julia Spencer-Fleming, is her knack for writing interesting side characters, the many people who populate her small town. Yes, sometimes they are just background, but in later books, they become the focus of the story. We were already introduced so we feel we know them, care about them when they get into trouble as the series goes on. Your side characters might start out as comedy relief or for exposition purposes, but don’t leave them there. Flesh them out. If they stick with your protagonist when the going gets tough, they will inevitably get into trouble on their own. And speaking of the good guys, maybe there’s an anti-group in the books as well. In the Twilight books, there were good vamps and very bad vamps. Pit them against each other and make it harder for the protagonist to do her job, whatever that job is.
5) Setting. I love the fall. Maybe it’s because I live in southern California and it’s hot most of the year in the particular inland corner where I live, and I dream of cool, blustery days, and the colorful play of fall leaves rustling in the breeze. So not only do I set my book in a fictional small town of Moody Bog in the wilds of Maine, a picturesque and sleepy village where nothing could possibly go wrong, but I’ve set the action in the fall, just as the season turns. Just as everything dies. The books are leading up to the climax that will happen on Halloween, so my autumn is long and just as cold as I want it to be. But an urban fantasy or paranormal romance can be set anywhere. Kat Richardson set her Greywalker series in a decidedly dark Seattle. Anita Blake, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Vampire Hunter, makes her way through a fairy and vampire infested St. Louis. It doesn’t matter where you set your stories, as long you give it your own stamp. And by the way, this is part of your world-building, so make sure you know the rules of the world you’ve built—do your vampires sparkle in the sun, or go up in flames?—and keep it all consistent from book to book. This will require lots of notes. I know it does for me. And I never quite get a handle on the characters and the story arc until I’ve at least written the second book, so I recommend jumping on that as soon as you’re done with the first. Things will change. The rules of your universe will be more fleshed out. Don’t forget to go back to the first book and correct and smooth out those changes. It will definitely make for a great series that way.
Award-winning author Jeri Westerson likes to make the fur fly in her new paranormal series, BOOKE OF THE HIDDEN, the first of which will be released on Halloween! See her “booke” trailer, her Pinterest page, friend her on Facebook, or read an excerpt on her website BOOKeoftheHIDDEN.com.
Tips for Writing a Great Short Story
By Margaret Lucke
I love short stories. There’s something satisfying about a tale that can be read in a single sitting and make its impact all at once. For a writer, a short story offers the challenge to create a work that’s succinct yet fully formed – as well as the advantage that, though not necessarily easier to write than a novel, it certainly takes a lot less time.
In addition to writing stories of my own, I’ve had the privilege of reading many short story manuscripts as an editor, a writing coach, a contest judge and a teacher of fiction writing classes. I’ve even written a book on how to write them. I’ve had the opportunity to look at short stories frontward and backward, upside down and sideways, and I have a few tips to offer that might help you in writing yours.
Sharpen the focus. A short story doesn’t give you much room to stretch into subplots, characters’ backstories, or philosophical discourses. It works best when you concentrate on one incident, one set of circumstances, one series of actions and consequences. While a novel can cast a floodlight on a subject, a short story illuminates more like a flashlight’s beam.
If your narrative wants to sprawl, don’t try to stuff it into a too-tight literary form. I recall one student whose story was bursting at the seams, filled with characters, plot twists, and locales that cried out for more development. The author was surprised when I suggested that what he’d really written was the outline for a novel. Taking the notion to heart, he turned what had been an overwrought short story into a fine novel.
Have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I hear you saying, “Well, duh,” but what this means isn’t as obvious as it seems. I’ve read plenty of narratives that claim to be short stories but in fact are not. They’re character sketches or personal essays or portrayals of a slice-of-life moment. They open and close and have words in between, but they don’t have the forward thrust that’s expected of a story.
One definition of story that I like is “the telling of a series of connected events.” A series of events implies movement through time. In a short story, the beginning, the middle, and the end of a story each have a specific function in orchestrating that movement.
In the beginning, something happens that throws the main character’s life off center, even if just a tiny bit, and requires the character to take some sort of action.
The middle describes what the character does to deal with this new circumstance.
The end reveals the result—the character has restored balance, or embraced the new situation, or perhaps has failed to do either if it’s that kind of story. But whatever the outcome, something for the main character has changed. The change might be as large as new life circumstances or as small as a new understanding or insight, but as a result of what has happened, nothing will ever be quite the same.
Make every word count. This is good advice for novels, too, but it’s especially important for short stories. There’s no room for flabby sentences, excessive explanations, or unnecessary details. Don’t worry about this while you’re writing the first draft, but be ruthless in the editing.
An example is my most recently published short story, “Femme Fatale.” When I saw the call for submissions for Black Coffee, an anthology of noir crime tales, I knew this tale was a perfect fit for the theme. The problem: the editor wanted no more than 6,000 words, and my story had 7,000. I sat down with a printout and a pencil and begin whittling. Was this adjective necessary? Could I lose this witty line of dialogue? Could readers visualize the scene without this line of description? It took several passes through the manuscript, but when I was done my narrative was cleaner, tighter, and more powerful—and much shorter. When the anthology was published, I was honored to have it include “Femme Fatale.”
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Margaret Lucke’s new mystery novel is Snow Angel, featuring artist/PI Jess Randolph, who joins the frantic search when, on the eve of a high-profile murder trial, the star witness’s seven-year-old daughter disappears. She is also the author of the novels A Relative Stranger and House of Whispers, and two nonfiction books on writing, Writing Mysteries and Schaum’s Quick Guide to Writing Great Short Stories. Her most recent short story is “Femme Fatale,” which appears in the noir crime anthology Black Coffee. Visit her at http://www.MargaretLucke.com.
I bill my work as stories that “uncover the mystery of character,” because I firmly believe you can’t have mystery without character, and by that I don’t just mean those playing the roles to move the story along. The nuances of those filling the roles completely influence the tale, whether more action packed or cerebral. It’s also what makes the sleuths and agents themselves memorable; not only are they effective at what they do to succeed (though methods vary), but endear readers enough to want to see more of the one doing the solving.
In my case, recognizing aspects of character became key to my storytelling process. Many mysteries are about someone being hired to solve someone else’s problem, or stumbling into someone else’s issue. For me, I tend to write about people with personal mysteries in their lives and stumble into something larger. Personally, I enjoy figuring out clues and puzzles and have keen interest in the details; however, without a viewpoint to invest in, my experience is that following the cold, hard facts isn’t enough.
In fact, it would take time before I recognized myself as a mystery and crime writer. It took writing about an investigative journalist in a near future exposing deception, to a 1950s-newspaper staff driven to uncover the truth, followed by a golden age radio actress determined to find her husband, then a post-Prohibition singer wanting to find out how her father died, that I finally started to figure out these were all variants of the amateur sleuth. The idea took some effort to wrap my head around since amateur sleuths are often associated with cozy mystery; my works try to revive the tone of the traditional pulp era with perspectives and topics geared to a modern audience’s sensibilities. The publisher I’ve worked with, Pro Se Productions, is part of a group that has worked to etch out the term “New Pulp” for this style of writing; notice I said style, which doesn’t prevent it from being a mystery in any sense.
In every case, I found something in each of the character’s pasts to mine in order to have that play a key role in the story. For “Tragic Like a Torch Song” in THE DAME DID IT anthology, the tie-in was obvious in that her motivation is finding her father’s killer. In the stand-alone short story “Ghost of the Airwaves,” available as an e-book, radio actress Abigail Hanson finds her drive in wanting to know who killed her husband, further motivated by knowing that an anonymous tipster wants to help. While I created the investigative reporter in “Cover Story,” I needed to follow a set of guidelines established by the ARIA KALSAN universe creator; my character’s personal story and motivation to uncover the mystery allowed me to access a world someone else developed and bring a part of myself to it. Most challenging of all these situations would be doing “Pretty as a Picture,” my first published story for Pro Se Productions in the anthology NEWSHOUNDS; here, not only did a series bible pre-define the world, but also the backstories of all the major characters, and I pulled a piece of the backstory of one of the characters and got permission from the publisher to flesh it out and use that element to drive the mystery.
From these diverse experiences, I gained an awareness that mystery and crime are universal, and not limited by time, geographic location, or even planet. What all of my stories did have in common would be something out of a character (usually the lead’s) past that deeply and directly affected the story line, though in the more action adventure driven tales I struggle with the character through-line sometimes needing to take a back seat. I know some people write very well putting plot front and center and just using character archetypes, but that’s not my style of writing.
I advise other writers to leverage character in their own mystery and crime stories, and see if it works for them. Granted, the main reason people read is to discover who did it and follow the trail of clues with the sleuth, or if the danger can be prevented in time with a crime suspense or thriller. However, the approach of individual characters, and how their weaknesses might hamper their success, must not be undervalued. While this is obvious to a degree, as I mentioned, others have found success solely relying on archetypes because they can build complex and captivating enough puzzles and tell plots at breakneck speed so that a reader can’t stop reading. Each author’s unique voice is what counts.
Focusing on the “mystery of character,” not just in a character’s attributes but in the audience trying to figure out the puzzle of the lead of the story, strongly came into play for my latest short story, which I feel is more suspenseful crime than my prior stories. Called “Hidden History” and featured in EXPLORER PULP, the lead character is someone who unwillingly assumed someone else’s identity after a traumatic accident, and now her past catches up with her. As she gets pulled into her old life, clues begin to surface that the accident may not have been one at all. Here, the mystery of the lead’s identity and the greater mysteries of the plot are strongly interwoven. While technically the protagonist, it feels awkward to characterize her as such. That actually proved to be part of the fun of it, not to have everything be easily defined. Having a mystery to uncover about the character kept it intriguing and interesting for me as well, which hopefully translates to an interested readership as well.
I've co-authored five books. Four of them worked, the fifth didn't. When the collaboration works, it's a pleasure, when it doesn't it's a struggle. I'm going to share with you the guidelines I now use before I venture into new co-writing project.
Number 1. Check your ego at the door. If you are not willing to let go of your own voice, then co-authoring isn't for you. What two authors do is find that third, unique voice. The first author I worked with didn't want to lose his voice. yes, his style and voice were good, but when the book was finished, it was easy to see who had written what. That isn't what you should be striving for. You should have a seamless story that sounds like one voice.
Number 2. Know the other author's strengths and weaknesses, and more importantly know yours. The idea author to co-write with is one who strengthens your weaknesses, vice versa. With Shadow Worlds, a science fiction thriller I co-authored with Darrell Bain, I knew nothing about quantum physics. Darrell had the science background, but his dialogue and characterization needed a little help. Those are two of my strong parts. So together we created a action-packed story of science with characters and dialogue that made the pages sing.
Number 3. Can an author who outlines, and one who likes to write by the seat-of-their-pants work together? Can an author who lives to write genre fiction and another who tends toward literary fiction create a book. Yes, but it's harder to do. Maggie Pucillo and I are good friends. We thought why not write a book together. And we did, A Spiral of Echoes, but it wasn't easy. I'm tend to write genre fiction, wham, bam, keep the action going. Maggie likes slower paced fiction, more narrative. It was alot of give and take. At one time we even set the book aside and said it wasn't going to work. But we pushed on, met each other half way, and ended up with a paranormal romance, that neither of us could have written by ourselves.
Number 4. It's very hard to write with someone who doesn't have the same work ethic. If you're a stickler for setting timelines and your co-author is more casual about them, you will drive each other crazy.
Number 5. Then there is the author that blends perfectly with you as far as style. The author that loves genre fiction. Is an outliner like yourself and shores up your weaknesses. That's what Randolph Tower and I have together. Ice and One last Sin were true pleasures to write. The words and dialogue flowed. The agreed upon timelines were met. The two finished books a perfect blend of two voices.
If you decide to give co-authoring a try, that's what I want for you. Take time to think things through. Yes, it's fun to brain-storm story plots with an author, but writing is hard work. Be prepared to bend a little, open up to new ideas. Someone is never right all of the time. The results may surprise you. I love co-authoring, but it certainly isn't the right path for everyone.
Barbara M. Hodges is the author or co-author of 11 works of fiction. She lives on the central coast of California with her husband Jeff and two basset hounds, Hamlet and Heidi. Barbara is very involved with basset hound rescue and you will always find a basset hound scamp in her books.
She is also the president of the Central Coast Chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of Public Safety Writers Association.
Q. Charlie Miner struggles throughout this story to keep his body and soul together until his deed is done. I love that his character is not another vampire, ghost, or fantasy character, but he comes across credible in the need to be responsible to those he loves, and the fear of completely letting go.
Can you tell us how you came up with your protagonist and his motives?
I once read a dark and brilliant novel by Brian Moore called Cold Heaven. The main character’s husband dies in a boating accident but seems to continue existing as if not dead—no supernatural, paranormal, Steven-King sort of thing; suspension of disbelief did not require heavy lifting. I was (dare I say it?) haunted by this. Years later, the opening lines for Down Solo occurred to me—“They say once a junkie, always a junkie, but this is ridiculous. I haven’t been dead more than a few hours and I already need a fix”—and I realized that I could borrow the device from Moore’s literary novel and employ it in a noir/hard-boiled setting.
As for motives, if you wake up with a bullet in your head, you probably want to know how it got there. Of course, if you’re a drug addict, you might have a more-immediate motivation.
Q. Drug use is a major theme. Addiction, itself, creates a division of reality vs. non-reality. Is this also the reasoning for Charlie’s body/soul struggle?
Charlie thinks he’s different from the average junkie because he’s an accidental addict. He got there as a consequence of physical pain, where traditionally addiction has been the end result of so-called recreational experimentation. Once you’re in the trap, though, the similarities outweigh the differences—you are exiled from your natural self, and the way back may require a radical realignment.
Q. Could a reader then parallel a Freudian linkage? The Id and the Ego?
Addiction can be explicated in Freudian terms: the ego is torn between the id’s pleasure-seeking and the superego’s condemnation; the resulting friction causes anxiety, requiring sedation by drugs and/or alcohol; the continuing sedation causes life problems that exacerbate the cycle, etc. Charlie seeks help from a Mexican detox that uses an ibogaine ceremony, which leads to his first experience of decoupling his mind and body. The theory behind the treatment is that the hallucinogen can reshuffle the psyche’s deck, so to speak, with all the cards somehow landing in an optimized order.
Q. Serious subject, theme-driven character, intriguing plot—dark, adventurous yet also full of humor—how do you go about making sure these all held in a good balance in the storytelling?
I have loved books since I was a child, and I believe that if you read enough good material, you will internalize the basics of good storytelling—character, plot, structure, dialogue, setting, etc. Combine that with an active interest in writing—practice and a willingness to study it as a craft—and you have a foundation. Now, as to the odd mix you give me credit for, I have to guess at something else that probably comes into play. As a member of what I’ll generically refer to as “the recovery community,” I have heard thousands of stories, many of them deeply moving. Their common elements are honesty, tragedy, determination, failure, hopelessness, and then renewal and redemption. And humor is essential—we call laughter the music of the heart—and we find it in the most cringe-worthy moments, even though they were awful and pathetic when they occurred.
Q. What do you see as your major goal when creating a novel—other than just entertainment, of course?
It’s not a conscious intent in the moment of creating, but the goal is to immerse a reader in my made-up world—to involve you in my character’s plight, thoughts, and emotions to the point where you have a stake in the outcome. That’s what gets me to the last page when I’m reading good work.
Q. Will you disclose your writing process? Outline first? Start with character and idea and begin writing? How do you get your magic accomplished?
As I mentioned, the first two lines popped into my head out of the Great Nowhere, and motive was built in (who killed Charlie Miner?—he has to find out!). From there, I bumbled along until I had a narrative arc in mind that was supposed to unspool backwards along the lines of the film Memento: Charlie’s memory is impaired by the damage from the bullet, so he has to find clues to recreate the events leading up to his death. He picks up just enough clues to get himself in a brand new set of problems. Unfortunately, I got to my original ending at around page 100; that stumped me for about a year until I realized that I could go deeper, add levels to the plot, and get to novel-length without simply adding fat. I wrote an article on my process, which is here: http://www.authorsfirst.com/storyboarding-for-depth-and-clarity/.
Q. What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to find it on Amazon?
After Down Solo, my publisher (The Story Plant) put out Trust Me, which is a more-conventional psychological thriller involving a predator in the Los Angeles recovery community. Now I’m looking over the final draft—post-proofreading—of the sequel to Down Solo. Charlie Miner is called upon by his friend Detective Dave Putnam to look into the claims of a self-professed clairvoyant who has seemingly helped solve several murder cases for the LAPD. Down to No Good was a lot of fun to write and will be available in October.
I hope people will visit me at www.earljavorsky.com.
I read a lot of mysteries, naturally, because friends write books and there are always new and exciting mysteries to dive into. But sometimes I take a break from these and read other books: non-mystery novels, biographies, and nonfiction in general. I also belong to a book club, and the choices of the members are often different from the books I read on my own. Since I’ve become a writer, I’ve become much more aware when I’m reading a book of the skill of the author in taking me into a place or time so fully that I feel as if I am actually there.
I recently read a book by Sigrid Nunez called THE LAST OF HER KIND, which takes place in New York at the end of the sixties and into the seventies. This was a book that plunged me back to that time. It was a time of civil unrest: the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, riots and takeovers of buildings by university students, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, among other events. There is an evocation of an LSD trip by the woman experiencing it that made me remember how assiduously I had avoided trying the drug. The book made me uncomfortable in the same way that I remember being uncomfortable then, as though I had been dropped back almost fifty years and somehow entered a strange planet full of people who were entirely different from those I thought I knew.
Some books bring me such a sense of actually being in the setting among the characters that a return to the mundanity of life is almost painful, returning to earth from a fantasy trip and being forced to pick up my bookmark to mark my place and go back to work or to whatever task faces me. I was like that as a child, always lost in the world of a book, reluctant to face the monotony of long division or algebra.
James Lee Burke’s Louisiana mysteries bring me into the oppressive heat of New Orleans; Tony Hillerman’s description of the Navajo world makes it come alive; I don’t remember the settings of Agatha Christies’ book because I was always too immersed in the puzzle; but Ellis Peters’ medieval tales evoked the monastic setting and the period; and Elizabeth George created a fascinating English world including an entire Oxford college in one of her mysteries.
Recently I visited my friend in Florida where I have set my two mysteries: A REASON TO KILL and SO MANY REASONS TO DIE. We made a trip to Vero Beach, a city north of where my friend lives and where I had never been. It’s quite a well-to-do area, and I immediately began to set some scenes from the book I’m currently working on in that town: more expensive than Burgess Beach where Andi and Greg, my two detectives live and work, with houses set both on the Indian River and on an island facing the Atlantic Ocean. I find myself absorbing details of new places, trying to remember my feelings when I’m there, in an attempt to recreate new settings in my writing.
Do you enjoy new settings in your reading or writing? I’d love to hear about books that evoked memories from you or made you want to travel there.
We used this statement as the headline for a press release a few years ago where it received a lot of attention and several call backs.
Yes, we are a husband and wife team who write together, three books now, and we are still married.
When we started writing in 2000, we were doing our own things – I wrote a romantic comedy and Janet produced a couple of contemporary, and cozy mysteries. We routinely edited each other’s work, but Janet had a secret. She wanted to write a ‘50s hard-boiled detective novel but couldn’t figure out how to get into a man’s head and make her detective sound real. I would consistently change the dialogue for her male characters telling her, “A guy wouldn’t think that.”
One day she revealed how she’d love to write a hard-boiled murder mystery. Surprised and delighted, I turned to her and said, “So let’s do it together.” She almost broke into tears.
When our family and writer friends learned what we were up to, they warned that this arrangement could spell out the demise of our 43 year-old marriage. They insisted it would never work. Concerned with these dire predictions of doom, we decided to take a business approach. The first rule was to check our egos at the door. We set rules of professionalism, overall respect and patience. A deadline schedule was established and we met every two weeks to discuss character development, subplots and fight scenes. We discussed what was working and what wasn’t.
Contrary to the warnings, our writing journey has turned out to be a lot of fun. We took research field trips to old Los Angeles and Hollywood. Touring the neighborhoods, historic hotels, restaurants, and night clubs gave us the feel for the 1950s. The headlines from period newspapers provided us with insight into the lives and scandals of period actors, actresses, and studio executives. Mobsters were big thing in 1950s L.A. with amazing personal lives. Since Will is a member of ASIFA-Hollywood, we have opportunities attend screenings at many of the historic motion picture studios and see where our PI, Skylar Drake would have worked as a part time movie stuntman. We interviewed retired police officers about LAPD procedures and equipment in that era.
The result has been three novels so far and a wonderful partnering experience for both of us. There are, however, still some curious skeptics who wonder about us. At a recent public appearance, we were part of a panel of mystery authors discussing the writing process. When the time came for questions, a hand shot up from the audience. The elderly man stood, pointed at the two of us and asked, “How exactly does that work?” Janet smiled and asked, “How does what work?” The person answered, “This writing together. Why haven’t you killed each other? I could never dream of writing with my spouse.”
websites: www.janetlynnauthor.com and www.willzeilingerauthor.com
I’ve had great success getting published online and in print with Flash Fiction. For those who don’t know what it is, it’s any story less than 1,000 words.
Like all stories it needs a beginning, middle and end. For me, writing flash fiction is very similar to writing jokes. I did stand-up comedy and worked on sitcom scripts for many years and I think that helped hone the craft of getting to the meat of the story in as few as words possible.
In flash fiction, there is no room for subplots, multiple characters and full descriptions. Your goal is to establish your main character, the predicament she might be in and then come to a satisfying ending. It’s the same for a regular short story or novel but highly condensed.
Establish your main character. One of the best ways is to start in the middle of a conflict. For flash fiction the old saying, “Action speaks louder than words” is true. If your character is standing in a line at the bank, don’t have her walk to the bank, notice it’s a clear day, enter the bank, say hello to the guard and get in line. Start with a man saying, “Hands up, this is a robbery.” How does she react? Put her hands up like everyone else, tries to dial 911, hide her purse or pull out a gun to join the bank robbers. Each action and reaction gives us a quick read of who that character is.
The predicament. Right away throw your character into the lions’ den. Create more conflict. This is the bulk of story. How does the antagonist maneuver through the action? Throw in a couple twists or turns.
A satisfying ending. For me, this is usually a big twist much like a punchline at the end of a joke. You’ve been leading the reader down one path and suddenly you switch paths. Boom! It’s over. This is the hardest part of writing flash fiction. Sometimes when walking my dog Seymour, just the twists come to me and I don’t even know the story. And sometimes the ending changes and it’s even a better one than what I thought of because of how the beginning and middle turned out.
You may be saying to yourself, I know all that but how do you do it under 100 words or 750 words. My suggestion is, first write your story in three sentences. Don’t cheat and use long run on sentences. For instance: A street magician sees a man attack a woman and flee into the night. Later he sees the same man, they scuffle and the magician kills the killer. The magician finds out he’s killed the wrong man and is now arrested himself. The full story is called John’s Spot. It’s told with 742 words. I’ve even written 100 word stories and believe it or not, 6 word stories. The six word stories are based on what Hemingway claimed was the best story he had ever written: For sale, baby shoes. Never used. Wow, there’s a whole sad tale right there. Here are more examples of 6 and 100 word stories.
It’s a good way to get published and make a name for yourself in the writing world. I’m not great at multitasking but I’ve found that I can use writing flash fiction as a break from writing a novel.
The markets are out there. Some of my online publishers have been Akashicbooks and Spelk Fiction. A great source for all publishers seeking short stories is: Sandra Seaman’s blog.
Keep writing and keep it short! www.stephenbuehler.com
Stephen Buehler’s latest short story, Seth’s Big Move appears in the new LAST RESORT anthology.
Stephen Buehler’s latest short story, Seth’s Big Move appears in the LAST RESORT anthology. His short fiction has been published in numerous on-line publications including, Akashic Books. The Derringer Nominated short story, Not My Day appeared in the Last Exit to Murder anthology. He has just finished revising his novella, The Mindreading Murders, into novel length. He is also currently seeking a home for his mystery/comedy P.I. novel, Detective Rules. By day he is a script/story consultant, magician and lives with a dog named Seymour. www.stephenbuehler.com