Friday, November 30, 2012

The Side Men...and Women

It’s certainly been the case I’ve had minor characters play a bigger role than first intended in a story.  That initially I only needed them for one or two passages, but as the writing progressed, you invariably come to a part where rather than introduce another character, a throwaway, you ask yourself what would happen if this other person, this individual who already appeared, were to play a part here?  It’s not always a logical fit, but it can compel you to do some rewriting and reconfiguring of your plot that adds those juicy reveals us mystery writers like to plant along the way.  If you can come up with an organic way in which characters you didn’t think had anything to do with one another but actually do share a past, such adds depth to the story.
Don’t recall if the following is one of Elmore Leonard’s writing rules, but he has admonished that even if it’s just a gunsel used in one passage, do your best to give that hood some sort of individuality, some sort of dimensionality.  Keeping that in mind, when I introduce a character who is frankly fulfilling a plot function, I often imagine a physical, psychological or back story attribute to that character.  None of this may make it onto the page, but it will shape how I describe my other characters reacting to this character or how this character speaks.
What also intrigues me, and writers from the aforementioned Mr. Leonard, Jules Verne to Asimov and James Ellroy, will have a seemingly secondary or minor character show up in one story yet take center stage in another.  To me that’s like in comics where we now have the DC Universe – or DC Universe 2.0 as they did a reboot of all their characters a year ago, the New 52 (as in 52 titles) – and now, well, Marvel Now.   The latter comes in the wake of the reverberations of the Marvel Universe-wide X-men versus Avengers and is billed as a re-launch, not a reconfiguring of its characters like DC did.
Not to worry, this is not the forum where I’ll get all fanboy, geeked out on inconsistencies in timelines here; like how does a now younger New 52 Batman/Bruce Wayne have an 18 or 20-year-old Dick Grayson (former Robin, boy wonder sidekick, now Nightwing, a costumed vigilante in his own right) as his ward?  To return to the point, it’s kind of a cool thing to build your own world, working out the interconnections.  I’ve done it where I’ve had a main character referenced, sometimes obliquely, in another book or short story.  There’s a mega-conglomerate I’ve used, a many headed company called SubbaKhan or its subsidiaries have shown up in several of my books with diverse storylines.
I hope one day to employ even a small percentage of the myriad characters and institutions Marvel and DC, Verne and Asimov, have introduced and cross-pollinated in their stories.  To have some characters who are secondary or tertiary in one setting, step from the shadows and take center stage in the next and go back to having a cameo if you will in another setting.  Some die, some change, some move on and some are reimagied – like say extrapolating what ever happened to Wilmer (thus the still of the great character actor Elisha Cook Jr. who played Wilmer in the Maltese Falcon film) after he got out of prison.
For me then, being interested in my major and minor characters helps me to keep them interesting.    

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Jimmy the Raisin

by Alan

How and when do you decide to make a minor character recurring? Or don’t you?

Some writers are lucky enough (skilled enough?) to create characters that speak to them. The characters “tell” the writers where they want to go in the story, what they want to do, who they want to kill. Sometimes I envy those writers because my characters just sit there, like misshapen lumps of modeling clay, waiting for some kind of direction from me.

And it’s not always easy to figure out what those characters should do—I was never good with clay.100_3753

That’s why, when I do create a character that’s complex, fully-formed, and compelling, I like to keep him or her around for a while. I mean, those are the characters that are fun to write!

Thankfully, most of the “funnest” characters I’ve created are main characters who appear in every series book. But when I stumble upon a minor character who fits the bill—someone who is unique or fascinating (or humorous or dark or whatever) and is fun to write—then I’ll find a role for him or her in future books. (I’m all about the fun!)

It’s not just characters within a series that get considered for inclusion/exclusion. I took a fun-to-write character from a standalone work-in-progress and plopped him into one of my Last Laff books (with a name like Jimmy the Raisin and a face to match, how could I help myself?).

But Jimmy the Raisin didn’t seem to mind at all, or if he did, he didn’t complain to me. After all, I’m the writer, this is my show, and I can do whatever the heck I want. I don’t have to answer to anybody!

Right, Jimmy?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Something Like This...

by Tracy Kiely

My parents were huge fans of Bob Newhart, especially his early work as a stand up comedian. They’d play his bits at parties, and pretty soon I was a fan too. I can remember coming home from school and perching on the backside of the couch facing my dad’s stereo system. (As befitting the 80s, the entire system was roughly the size of a small car. I believe at some point there was even a discussion about splurging on a “diamond stylus.”) From my perch, I’d flip through their collection of Newhart LPs (look it up all you youngsters), plop the chosen record on turntable, and then slip on the enormous gray and white cushioned headphones that resembled the headsets worn by helicopter pilots in Vietnam.  Oh, yeah. Add a pair of bright pink leg warmers to the mix, and you have a pretty clear idea why I was never nominated to the Homecoming Court.
If you’re not familiar with Newhart’s early stuff, a.) You should become so right now,
and b.) a lot of it revolved around imagined telephone conversations. He’d set up the premise, and then say “I think it might go something like this...”
Some of his best bits include an imagined conversation from Sir Walter Raleigh trying to explain tobacco to the head of the West Indies Company in England (“Let me get this straight, Walt, you've bought eighty tons of leaves? Ah…this may come as a kind of a surprise to you, Walt, but come fall in England, we're kinda up to our...,”) and a call between a slick press agent and a reluctant President Lincoln (“Abe, do the speech the way Charlie wrote it. The Inaugural Speech swung, didn’t it?”)
Anyway, the point of this rather long introduction is to explain that when I started writing my first book, Murder at Longbourn, I wanted to reveal my protagonist’s situation quickly, without the reader feeling as if they were receiving a tutorial. Elizabeth was a young woman who had just broken up with her two-timing boyfriend.  This decision, while good for her self-esteem, has left her without a date for New Year’s. I needed to give Elizabeth a reason to visit her Aunt Winnie’s new Inn, where, of course, romance and murder awaited. I also had a writing teacher who once advised me to give my main character a headache (not literally, of course; she just meant to add tension). To achieve both Elizabeth's need to leave town and her so-called headache, I created the character, Katherine, Elizabeth’s forever smug and condescending older sister. Katherine is married and the mother of a "perfect child."  She is constantly telling Elizabeth what is wrong with her life and how to fix it. She is the reason Advil comes in those large bottles. No doubt due to my admiration of Newhart, I decided to introduce both Katherine and Elizabeth’s reason to visit Aunt through an awkward telephone call:
Seeing the caller ID, my mood went from bad to worse.
It was my sister, Katherine. I knew what was coming. One of her goals in life is to see me married – and while I’m in no way opposed to the idea, it’s not my driving force in life.  As I expected, no sooner did she hear my voice than she launched into rapid-fire speech. She had heard the news of my breakup from our mother and was clearly dumbfounded.   How could I let a “catch” like Mark “slip away?”  Didn’t I understand that with each passing year my chances of getting married diminished?  (I’m all of 26). Didn’t I know that I had to “reel them in” while I was still young? (The way Katherine tossed around the fishing jargon you’d think she was a seasoned angler.  Which was odd, given that the closest she ever got to fish was in her grocer’s frozen section.) 
            I didn’t want to tell her the real reason for the breakup – that Mark had been seeing at least two other women behind my back. But knowing she’d interrogate me until she got all the lurid details, I resigned myself to the inevitable. Candidly I volunteered, “He cheated on me, Katherine, okay?”
Silence answered.
            “Katherine, are you there?”
Finally, all in one breath I got, “Oh, you poor, poor thing.  Are you alone right now?  You shouldn’t be alone. Where’s Bridget? Oh, that’s right, Colin’s proposing this weekend, isn’t he? Well, don’t let that get you down. I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re thinking that you’re going to end up some lonely, old woman who lives with cats, but that’s not true!”
“Actually, Katherine, I wasn’t thinking that...”
“Good, that’s the spirit! Ok, here’s what we’ll do.  I’ll come down.  No, that won’t work.  Tom and I are having a huge party this weekend for some clients.  You’ll just have to come here.” 
My brother-in-law sells hot tubs. It wasn’t hard to imagine where the night would end with a party composed of fellow enthusiasts in a house with the deluxe model. 
She continued on. “You come here and we’ll forget all about Mark.  We won’t even mention him. Do you know who he was seeing?  Is she pretty?  You poor, poor thing.” 
The thing about my sister is that she does mean well.  However, her idea of well and my idea of well are on opposite ends of the spectrum.  Thanking her for her concern and promising that I would call if I needed to talk, I hung up on another, “Oh, you poor, poor thing.”
I looked at the bag of Oreos. After my third one, I realized I needed something stronger. I needed a large glass of chardonnay and a larger dose of Cary Grant.  Pulling my wooly cardigan around me, I went in search of Bridget’s DVD collection.  Passing the hall table, I reread Aunt Winnie’s invitation and decided her affair was just what I needed. Right after North by Northwest.” 

Katherine pretty much disappears after that scene, as she had played her role and was free to disappear into the Well of Lost Characters. However, Katherine really struck a chord with a lot of readers. It seemed that most people have a Katherine in their lives (God help them) and therefore could commiserate with Elizabeth’s perpetual frustration in dealing with her. So, I brought Katherine back for a larger role in the third book in the series, Murder Most Persuasive, and again, readers seemed to enjoy the sisters’ “Love/Annoy the Crap Out of Each Other” relationship. I will keep Katherine around as she is (unintentionally) entertaining, but I can’t see her taking on a major permanent role. As Jane Austen herself said, “Of some entertainments, a little goes a long way.” Katherine is one of those entertainments.
Happily, Bob Newhart is not. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When they won't stay fired

How and when do you decide to make a minor character recurring? Or don’t you? 

By Vicki Delany

I’m enjoying these questions put to us by readers!

I agree with a lot of what Sue-Ann says.  The characters do seem to have lives and intentions of their own, so it’s often not a decision at all.  Sort of like I might decide that that rather annoying new neighbour will be moving out soon.

Unfortunately, she has no intention of doing so.

Case in point: Adam Tocek, the RCMP dog handler who becomes Molly’s boyfriend (and later? Wait and see!)  He appears in one scene in the first book in the series,  In the Shadow of the Glacier, when Molly is at a potential riot and she, being still on probation at this point, is more than happy when a couple of RCMP officers show up to help out.  

At that time I was working with a group of guys by the names of Tocek, Chen, and Farzanah. How’s that for good Canadian names (and me, a Delany)? I asked if I could use their names in the book I was writing and they were keen.  So, Tocek and Chen show up at the riot. (Farzanah had to wait for another book,)

And that was to be the end of that.  Turns out that behind my back Adam Tocek was giving Molly Smith the eye.   And being the rather shy sort that he is it takes him a good three books to get around to asking her out.  Who knew? Not me.

As for working the other way, when you decide to make a minor character leave, that is probably more of an author’s decision.  Characters never seem to WANT to leave, so sometimes they have to be fired.  Kicked off stage protesting all the way.

Again, an example.  Meredith Morgenstern is a small but important character in the first four books in the series. She’s a newspaper reporter in their small town, and she and Molly Smith have an animosity that goes back to something that happened in high school that neither of them can remember.  Meredith is constantly sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong, and messing up the police investigation, but I soon began to realize that I was running out of things for Meredith to believably do.  So she got a pink slip.  I was, however, very nice to her and I found her a new job at a muck-raking tabloid in Montreal.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Silly Me

By Sue Ann Jaffarian

When I first began writing my Odelia Grey series I had a collection of core characters in mind and the books would revolve around them. I had never written a series before so, to be honest, recurring characters outside of this important handful didn't even occur to me. Peripheral characters, I determined, would be used and discarded, their purpose over once a book hit the end.

Silly, naive me. By the end of that first book in the series, I had learned that some characters tell you, the author, if and when they are leaving. 

Take Michael Steele, for instance. And I don't mean the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee.  MY Michael Steele started off as a minor character. He was Odelia's obnoxious attorney boss. The original plan was for his part to be small and over by the time the 2nd book began. Mr. Steele had other plans.  The more I included him in Too Big To Miss, the more he insisted on additional page time. The more page time he received, the more arrogant and ballsy he became in demanding more scenes and dialogue. Finally, I gave up and let him have his way.  I've worked for attorneys myself for over 40 years. Trust me, surrender is the easiest way to deal with them.

But Mike was right. His page time is gold and readers love him. He's in every book, even if it is in a small way. 

A similar thing happened with the character of Willie Proctor, a felon on the lam. He arrived on the scene in book 2, The Curse of the Holy Pail, and was only supposed to be in that book.  Imagine my surprise when I'm writing book 3, Thugs and Kisses, and he makes a surprise appearance. I had no plans for including him in that book when all of a sudden my fingers typed his name.  Weird, I know, but true. And like with Mike Steele, he's a scene stealer. Willie is not in every Odelia book, but he's in several and mentioned in most.

Similar things have happened with other minor characters, but not to the same extent. It's very convenient creating characters, letting them rest for awhile, then pulling them out of your bag of tricks when you need someone to flesh out a story. Why create an entirely new character when a familiar character with a back story in place fits the bill?

Just make sure you didn't kill them off in a prior book.

The other half of this character coin is when do you remove a recurring character from service?  The answer is when they stop being entertaining, helpful to the protagonist, or a tired joke, or if their demise moves the arc of the series forward.  For example, Odelia's father is deceased at the beginning of book #5, Corpse On The Cob. I really didn't want to kill Horten Grey, but removing him from the picture gave Odelia an opportunity to develop and grow as a person, which is important since she is the star of the show. It turned out to be a very good decision. And Horten didn't kick up a fuss. He was a gentleman about being removed from the storyline.

I can, do and should listen to my characters, but in the end, I'm the author. The CEO of the series. The Head Honcho. The Big Kahuna.  As I like to remind Mike Steele on occasion: I brought you into this world. I can take you out of it.  It's really the only way to control him.

P.S.: I've been teasing the members of the Sue Ann Jaffarian Fan Club by letting them know I'm killing off someone near to Odelia in book #8. It's the truth. One beloved character will not be returning to the series. The teasing is mean, I know, but it has definitely created some lively speculation and discussion, and the demise is not a PR trick. It will push Odelia towards another spurt of personal growth.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Happy (day after) Thanksgiving!

by Meredith Cole

So we all gathered yesterday to celebrate Thanksgiving. If your house is anything like mine, you're still full--and the fridge is still packed with turkey and other goodies.

My protagonist, Lydia McKenzie, has plenty to be thankful for. A rent stabilized apartment above the flood line in New York, a job and great friends. Her parents are often unavailable during the holidays since they sold their house and bought an RV, so Lydia usually ends up an "orphan" on Thanksgiving. But instead of feeling sorry for herself, she's grateful not to have to travel anywhere.

So what would she bring to a holiday celebration with friends? Honestly, she's not much of a cook. She's in her twenties and lives in an apartment with a tiny kitchen. But she would never show up empty handed at a celebration. She might whip up some pumpkin martinis to bring, or buy an amazing pie at a local bakery to contribute to the festivities.

Lydia's friends really aren't great cooks either. The turkey will be either under or over cooked, and the side dishes will probably be mostly purchased pre-made. But by the time dinner is set out on the table, they'll probably all be full of holiday cheer (and pumpkin martinis) and it will all taste delicious to them!

Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! And if you're attempting to wade into any Black Friday shopping experiences--stay safe! I will be staying home today, feeling grateful and writing.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"I've prepared and handled raw food?"

. . . as Goldie Hawn says in bewildered tones, in Overboard, that towering piece of cinematic majesty.

Dandy Gilver would be much the same.   Cook, to Dandy is a noun.  Cook, is Mrs Tilling, and you can find some of her recipes below stairs on the Dandy Gilver website.

As for giving thanks?  “My dear, I don’t think so, do you?  One shouldn’t gush with emotion in public.”
Not me.  I love Thanksgiving.  I don’t really get it, but I love it.  It’s a four-day weekend and there’s lots of food.  (For a hilarious take on this holiday from a UK point of view, see Simon Wood, who blogged about it yesterday.)

This is my third since moving here.  First time out I was on Martinelli’s duty.  Impossible to get wrong.  Last year I served my apprenticeship on appetisers.  Possible to get wrong, but no one cares because Thanksgiving dinner is all about the main course and the truckload of sweet things to follow.
But this year?  Oh-ho, this year I have been promoted to – drum roll – green bean casserole.

I’m making two.

One with fresh beans, crimini mushrooms, sour cream, onions that I’ll caramelise in my cast-iron frying pan for two hours with nutmeg and garlic, and chicken stock that I made with three chicken carcasses and handfuls of herbs and which is in my freezer in small batches against just this eventuality.

And the other one.  You know the one I mean.
Now, I feel very affectionate towards the idea of mixing together products and calling it cooking – what a friend on Facebook this week called “the Midwestern Lutheran church-basement pot-luck tradition”.  Some of my happiest evenings in Scotland ended with an after-dinner game using the Amish Barn Cookbook I brought home from a winter in Ohio.

No one ever guessed the seven ingredients in Amish waldorf salad.  Foodie friends would say – very airily – “Well, celery, apples and walnuts.  Let’s get them out of the way.”  And I’d say, “Nope.”  Endless fun.
That Thanksgiving in Ohio was also the time Neil and I wondered if the stores were open the day after the holiday and drove out to a mall to see.  It seemed quite busy.  We laugh about it now.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Giving Thanks

by Chris F. Holm

My protagonist, Sam Thornton, ain't much for cooking. And given that he's been condemned to hell for all eternity, I suspect he ain't much for giving thanks, either. Also, the dude spends his days ensuring the souls of the damned find their way to hell, so my guess is when he shows up at a potluck, people scatter. Which is to say, I plan on dodging this week's question.

I, unlike Sam, have plenty to be thankful for. I'm thankful for the opportunity to share with the world these silly little stories I carry in my head. I'm thankful for the countless folks who've championed me in one way or another along my winding path to publication. I'm thankful to have the love and support of my family and friends in this and all endeavors (particularly my wife, who, contrary to first fiery impressions, clearly has the patience of a saint in putting up with me.) I'm thankful there exists on this planet a group of people as warm and talented as the mystery community, and I'm doubly thankful they've embraced me as their own. (In case you haven't noticed, Agatha Christie I ain't.) I'm thankful to everyone who's taken the time to write some kind words about my books, whether on Amazon or Goodreads or wherever. Heck, I'm thankful to anyone at all who's read them in a culture so glutted with entertainment, and so choked for money and free time. (Okay, one or two of those readers I could've done without. But internet trolls aside, the point still stands.) I'm thankful to have a roof over my head, food in my fridge, and heat and light when I need 'em. But mostly what I'm thankful for is the improbable fact I lead a life if possible more exciting and fulfilling than the bookish kid I once was could've imagined.

Well, that or pie. Because yum. But probably the other thing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New Thanksgiving Traditions

By Hilary Davidson

My main character, Lily Moore, has never had much in the way of family traditions. Her mother wasn't the sort to prepare a Thanksgiving feast, and Lily was more likely to escape the holidays by watching the classic Hollywood films she loves so much, instead of sitting at a table filled with turkey and all the fixings.

Still, Lily's friends are her surrogate family, especially Jesse Robb, who is like a brother to her. While Lily isn't the type to spend much time making meals for herself, she enjoys cooking for him (as she does in The Damage Done). Since Jesse hails from Oklahoma, that means Lily has picked up a repertoire of recipes from his home state, including cheese grits, brown bean chowder, and sweet barbecue brisket. Invite her to Thanksgiving dinner, and at least one of those will be on the table. IThis style of cooking suits Lily particularly well, since her idol, Ava Gardner, hailed from North Carolina and loved that sort of rib-sticking food, too.

While I'm talking about Thanksgiving, I'd like to mention some real-life resources for people who have celiac disease (as I do), or gluten intolerance. It's getting easier to find safe foods and recipes. For Thanksgiving, one terrific resource is Eating Well's gluten-free recipe guide, which includes Turkey Tenderloin with Cranberry-Shallot Sauce and a vegetarian Winter Squash Risotto. I also like Prevention's "Perfect Gluten-Free Thanksgiving Menu," which linked to many different sites for recipes. I also include some holiday resources on the Gluten-Free Guidebook. However you celebrate your Thanksgiving, I hope it's happy and healthy!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Culinary Steroids

By Reece Hirsch

What would my protagonist Will Connelly bring to the Criminal Minds Thanksgiving dinner?  Since he is a single, thirty-something guy, don’t expect him to cook.

The things that he knows how to prepare aren’t staples of anyone’s Thanksgiving Day menu – nachos, omelets and pasta.  Will would bring a decent bottle of wine and perhaps a small jar of my great culinary secret – truffle salt.

Truffle salt is to cooking what anabolic steroids are to baseball.  Add truffle salt to a dish and you will make the inedible edible, the mediocre good and the good amazing.

What’s so great about truffle salt?  Well, first, it’s salt, which is already one of my vices.  When it comes to white, granular substances, there are worse addictions.

Second, as you would expect, truffle salt contains tiny specks of ground truffle.  People pay hundreds of dollars for liberal shavings of black truffles on a pasta dish, but truffle salt is relatively inexpensive and it has just enough of the precious stuff to add that rich, aromatic truffle essence to a dish.  And, most important of all for guys like me, you don’t have to be Alice Waters, David Chang or even Guy Fieri to achieve the effect.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Hey, What's the Big idea?

It might be one idea that launches the story but several come into play before I’m through – or even old scenarios get dusted off, rearranged,  and used in this newer context.  I’ve written here on Criminal Minds previously how an article in my hometown paper the L.A. Times about a planned subdivision had hit hard times during the ’08 economic meltdown inspired, if that’s the right word, my latest novel Warlord of Willow Ridge.  As my colleagues have noted this week, you start with a “what if” for a character or situation and build out from that.  Yet it’s also the case that nuggets and full blown outlines and characters I’ve previously worked out for something else can be mined.
As an example, for some time I’ve been intrigued about the notion of an avuncular liquor salesman who was also a killer.  Maybe he was some sort of hitman for hire or he was an assassin for a super secret government agency.  This idea sprang from back when my dad had a friend who was a freewheeling liquor salesman.  He dated smart, good-looking women, drove swanky leased cars, got to travel servicing his accounts, do special events and what have you.  A black Don Draper if you will.
Spring forward some years and at one point I was determined to create a comic book series or at least a graphic novel using my liquor salesman as the main character.  I wrote a couple of different outlines of who this guy was and why he went around bumping off people.  In one of the scenarios, he wasn’t a killer per se but a bona fide spirits rep who Kolchak-like – a reporter character of TV, prose and comic books who invariably gets tangled up in horror cases – due to his job encounter werewolves, serial killers, aliens and the like.  But none of my proposed pitches really go to how I saw this character.
Then came New Pulp.   
As I recently noted on the other site I blog for, Thalia Press Authors Co-Op in a piece entitled Pulped Fictions, and by others, particularly the hard working Keith Rawson on LitReactor, e-books, them internets and print on demand have helped to usher in an ascendant  neo pulp sub-genre.  Long story short, I’ve recently been working on what will be a series of e-book novellas in this mold.  One of the ideas is in the tradition of 1970s paperback vigilantes like the godfather of them all, The Executioner (who spawned The Punisher in Marvel Comics), The Nullifier, The Baroness, et al. 
But as I sat down to work out the particulars of my modern-day vigilante, I knew my liquor salesman wasn’t the main guy…but he could be the uncle of this guy.  That when something drastic happens to our hero to transform him, to send him after the bad guys, ol’ unk steps forward to help and Shazam! our guy and us learn he’s more than just a smooth talking booze pusher.  Now if I can just come up with a cool moniker for my guy.
Hopefully another idea will bubble up when I think on it or one of those massive cover-all vinyl ads plastered on a bus passes by and something clicks.  Though I’m pretty sure I won’t be calling this dude The Hugo Boss Man.  I mean, that does have a ring to it, but not exactly the badassness I’m looking to convey.
But never say never I guess.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What If?

by Alan

From a single idea, how do you build enough of a story to fill a book?

This question is not relevant to my writing process because the plots and characters of my novels appear to me fully-formed.

Yeah, right.

That might be true if my books were two pages long, but when I set out to write a book with 80,000+ words, I know some additional story-building is always in order.

I begin with the premise—compelling characters facing an interesting dilemma—and work outward, always looking for ways to complicate my protagonist’s quest to accomplish his/her goals. A lot of that work takes the form of What If questions. What if he discovers his father’s not really his father? What if his girlfriend turns out to be a Martian envoy sent to negotiate a peace treaty with Earth? What if he studies at the feet of the Dalai Lama, then challenges him to a duel with nunchuks? What if dogs could talk and walk on two legs and drive cars, but still needed to use fire hydrants as bathrooms? (Obviously, some What If questions lead to more promising plot events than others.)

signposts for blogEach twist in the plot (or introduction of a new character, or move to a new setting, or back-stabbing double-cross, or whatever), yields a whole new set of possibilities going forward, so my What If exercise continues with this new set of parameters.

Rinse. Repeat. Increase the stakes.

After some time (weeks, months, eons), I’ll eventually reach The End. Then I sit back and examine what I’ve got. Usually it’s a steaming hot mess of cardboard characters, hokey plot twists, and generic settings (and those are the good parts!).

That’s when the revision process begins. I whittle away all the garbage (Martian envoy? Really?) and bolster all the good stuff. If I need more plot, I generate more What If scenarios. Slowly, painfully, things fall into place and my steaming hot mess begins to actually make sense.

At least that’s the plan.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


By Tracy Kiely

Last year, my youngest son asked me if I would speak to his second grade class about writing books.  I immediately said yes because A). he’s adorable and B.) the days in which he wants me to not only come to school, but openly acknowledge our relationship are numbered.  My oldest son, now 16, began tossing the parental volunteer slips for field trips when he started middle school, and most days treats us like his personal chauffeur, so I know it’s just a matter of time. Of course, we probably haven’t helped matters by merrily calling out to said oldest child to “make good choices!” on those mornings when we have found him to be particularly vexing. And the last time he informed my husband by text that he could “leave now” to pick him up, my husband arrived and then stood by the car with a homemade sign reading “ KIELY, J.”
But, I digress.
Anyway, while I was happy to speak to my youngest's class, I realized that I’d have to tweak my usual discussion about writing, as I didn’t think the school officials or parents would like me sharing the many methods I’ve learned over the years on how to kill someone. (“Guess what I learned today, Mommy! If you put lilies in water, the water turns poisonous!”)
So, instead I talked about the process of writing fiction, which I basically boiled down to this: Come up with a character. Describe that character. What is special about him or her? Once you know your character, give him or her a problem. I think my son’s class came up with a character named Doug. Doug was an overweight orphan. (I know, right? I do believe I heard Dickens scream in protest.) Anyway, Doug’s problem was, not surprisingly, that he was being attacked by aliens. (I love second grade). From there we just played a simple game of “Fortunately…Unfortunately.” I started by restating what we had created – a fat, orphaned boy named Doug who was being attacked by aliens. Then I had them complete the sentence starting with, “Fortunately…” I believe the answer was that Doug could fly. Next, I asked them to finish a sentence beginning with, “Unfortunately…” (Which, interestingly enough, was that due to Doug’s unhealthy BMI (not their words) he fell out of the air a lot.)  We continued in this vein until Doug had conquered his intergalactic enemies and eaten a lot of pizza.        
            Now while this may seem a bit simple, it is an effective way to flesh out your initial idea. Personally, I tend to start with the murder. I think of who I’d like to kill (hey – don’t judge. It’s cheaper than therapy). My first mystery idea involved killing my then boss. (Trust me, he sooooo deserved it. My opening line was a spoof of Rebecca “Last night I dreamt I killed my boss.” Seriously, had I’d finished the book, that line would have killed! ) 
I digress. Again. Anyway, from who gets killed, I shift into how they were killed.  I think I watched a lot of Colombo episodes in my youth, because I need to know what the killer did wrong – what mistake he or she made that ultimately leads to the solution.  From there I determine the characters in play. Who was the murderer? Why did they kill? Then I think about the victim some more. Were they well liked? Who else might have wanted to kill them? The characters that this question creates have their own lives to flesh out. Who are they? What do they want? What do they want to hide? Are any of these characters connected? What is their relationship to each other? Would they lie for each other? Would they frame each other? 
I remember once reading an interview with Agatha Christie in which she said that she tried to give every one of her characters a secret which they didn’t want the police to know. This secret might have nothing to do with the murder, but is still made their actions suspicious to the reader. Then I read elsewhere that it was always a good idea to make one character seem to have no motive, no means, and no method in which to have killed the victim. It was argued that most readers will hone in on this character as the real murderer. So, that means you have another character to create and flesh out.
All of these steps help create the story around your first idea, whether it is how Doug escapes the alien or how you’d love to kill your boss. And if you get stuck, try the old “fortunately…unfortunately” method. You’ll be surprised what you come up with.     

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

An acorn to an oak tree

By Vicki Delany

From a single idea how does an entire book grow? 

What a great question. It’s appropriate for me right now as I am at the very beginning stages of working out the details of the next Constable Molly Smith book (which will follow the already completed A COLD WHITE SUN, due out in August). 

And I have a single idea. 

The idea is this: When I was in Turks and Caicos a couple of weeks ago, I had a very minor altercation at the airport. A man in his thirties attempted to cut into the line to exit the customs area ahead of me.  I called him on it.  He and his friend then turned verbally abusive (in a mild but still upsetting way) as they followed me out in to the taxi area.  I got into my taxi, left and that was the end of that.  Except for most of the next day when I was sort of peeking over my shoulder.

Anyway, as I said, that was the end of that.  But it might not have been.  Now Lucky Smith, Molly’s mother, is a very forceful woman (considerable more than normally mild-mannered me) and I could imagine her being involved in a similar situation.

What might happen, if that hadn’t been the end of that?

And that is the premise of the book.

Time now to expand on the premise:

1)  Where is this all to take place?   I’ve been thinking for a while, and my editor is encouraging me, to take Molly et. al. out of town for a while.  So, Lucky will be on a weekend escape with her paramour, Paul Keller, when this happens.   How about Banff? A great location, and I’ll settle them all in at the luxurious Banff Springs Hotel .

2)  Who is this rude person?   I have never given Paul Keller (the Chief Constable of Trafalgar) any family background except to mention that he has grown children but never anything more than that.  Hum, how convenient.   Perhaps this rude man will be Keller’s estranged son.  And, said son is up to nefarious deeds.

3)  Being up to nefarious deeds means he has friends and acquaintances who might want to see him dead, or at least incapacitated.

4)      Why is Keller’s son in Banff at the same time?   Too much of a coincidence to have him just drop by.  So, let’s make it Thanksgiving weekend and hey, Keller’s ex-wife lives in Calgary (that has been stated before), which is very near Banff.  So the wife is attempting to have a family vacation being unaware that Keller is there also.  Not a stretch to make Banff a favourite of both parts of the divorced couple.

5)      Meanwhile back at the ranch?  I have to bring Molly Smith and John Winters into the plot somehow.  Easy enough with Molly.  When she hears that her mom is in trouble (being suspected of killing the abovementioned young man) she heads straight for Banff and begins nosing around.   Winters?  Well, he can be back in Trafalgar working the phones on Molly’s behalf.

And so it all grows.  I need a subplot of some sort involving Winters. Something that sort of parallels what is going on in Banff, but I am confident that I will come up with something.

Whatdaya think?

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Snowman Method

By Sue Ann Jaffarian

It has been years, many years, since I was a kid living in Massachusetts, but I still remember the excitement of the first significant snowfall of the year.  And I still remember how to make a snowball, a snow angel and a snowman.

When I begin a new novel, I pretty much utilize the same techniques to build the book as in building a snowman. I start with an idea. It's usually a small, quirky idea. It's not the plot or character development, just a theme on which to build the story around.  For example, in the book I am currently working on, which is my 8th Odelia Grey novel, the theme is auctions at storage lockers. You know, like that show Storage Wars.

Since I write humorous books, I like to choose fun or interesting themes to present in each book.  Murder, movtive and the solving of the crime are important, but choosing the theme is what distinguishes the books one from the other. Not to mention these topics are very fun for me to research. Here are some samples of past books:

Lunch box collecting -  The Curse of the Holy Pail (Odelia #2)
Drag Queen Bingo - Twice As Dead (Odelia #6)
Haunted vintage ring - Gem of a Ghost (Granny Apples #3)

When I begin a book, I hold the theme in the palm of my mittened hand like a fresh clump of snow and squeeze it together to see if it will stick and be strong enough to be the nucleous of the story.  Then I start packing the plot idea around it, adding to its size. I layer on the cast of returning characters and blend in characters particular to this book. With each plot point and page, I pack on new material, smoothing out the rough edges, making sure it's tight and manageable until I can no longer hold it in my hand.

Next I toss it on the ground and start rolling it around, letting it pick up more snow and more bulk, growing in size with each page, each chapter, each twist, until it's the size I want.  I set that aside and start over and do the same with a second ball of snowy words, starting with a palm of snow and building until it's the size I want. I place the second ball on top of the first.

At this point, the book is almost finished. Carefully, I pick up a handful of snow and start forming the most import piece - the ending. I pack it tight with resolution and justice. I roll it around in the snow, picking up the important words and information that will bring satisfaction to my readers. When I feel it is the right size, I lift the smallest and final orb and place it on top of the first two.

There, I 'm done!  No, not yet.

The snowman still needs editing. It needs to be smoothed and rounded. It needs eyes, nose and  mouth, and a few embellishments such as a hat, scarf or buttons down the front. Stick arms are always a crowd pleaser.

At some point I stand back and smile with satisfaction (and hopefully this is before or on the deadline date). Now it is finished and I can go back inside where it is warm and cozy and have a cup of hot chocolate ... until the next snowfall.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Offend No One -- Or Else

by Meredith Cole

Back when I was lowly peon/production assistant on a film set, I remember getting the advice to be careful not to offend anyone. They told me that the intern you might have cursed at for bringing you a bottle of warm water could be your producer/boss tomorrow, and they certainly wouldn't forgive your nasty behavior when they were in charge. I thought this advice was ridiculous. Be nice to everyone is my motto, not because the janitor could be the next CEO but because he is a human being. All human beings (and animals, too) deserve respect and kindness (exception to the rule: the jerk that cut me off in traffic. But I don't think he could hear me cursing at him...)

Attempting to offend no one when you write is a completely different proposition. First of all, it's really difficult to know what someone might find offensive. Hair dye? Someone who curses? Someone who carries a gun? And the attempt to make something unoffensive often makes the work offensively bland. In order to interest people in your story, you have to have a unique voice and point of view. That voice may be too strident for some, but for others it will be intriguing and interesting. So it's a delicate balance.

My sleuth Lydia McKenzie makes no mention of going to church, and says she gets religious only when she loses her keys. So far I have not received any mail about this comment--so perhaps people just accepted it at face value. And probably the reason it's not offensive is that she's not telling anyone else what to think or slamming religion in any way, just stating how she feels. You have to be pretty isolated to have never met anyone that believes something different, so I think most of us get used to hearing other points of view.

I am a strong believer in moderation. I grew up in a political left-leaning household, and I know full well that radical people on the left and right can each be so radical they somehow morph into one another. I don't believe in shoving my politics down anyone's throat, but perhaps I'm just fooling myself. It can seem sometimes that just existing is a political act (a woman who takes a job and does not become a full time wife and mother is for some people offensive--or vice versa).

So what's a poor writer to do? Know your audience for one. As Reece says, writing a political thriller without politics is, um, ridiculous. But so is putting in lots of swear words and sex in a cozy. People are bound to be offended. So know your genre and find a place where your politics and point of view are a good fit. You're probably not the only person who thinks the way you do, so you're sure to find loyal readers who find your voice "refreshing." And if you get a big backlash and lots of hate mail, you can probably ride the controversy to the top of the bestseller list like the Tiger Mother or one of those other "offensive" authors--and then you'll have all that money to console you!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What, no sex?

“How much of your character's political and religious belief do you put in a book or do you shy away from those topics?” was the question and it’s a good one.  What’s amazing is how quickly that question – whenever it’s asked – becomes “How much of your political ideology and religious fervour should you cram down a reader’s throat like a shift-worker on a foie-gras-goose farm?” 

As I pointed out, commenting on Reece’s posting on Monday (before I realised I should keep my mouth shut so’s I’d have something to say on Thursday), no one ever thinks having a character kill their entire family with a nutmeg grater is a suggestion for how readers should live their real lives.

Well, anyway, I've got it easy. Dandy Gilver’s political beliefs – the unthinking Toryism of the Brtish upper class in the 1920s – and her religious beliefs – the unthinking  high-church Christianity of the British upper class in the 1920s – are not mine to cram.

Not everyone gets that, mind you.  In pre-facebook days, once or twice a reading group or lunch club invited that delightful Dandy Gilver’s fragrant creator to speak and were horrified to have the likes of me roll up.

And once I was accused of being an apologist for social stratification because I write about “toffs coming along and solving the problems of the plebs.”  Needless to say my accuser hadn’t read any of my books.

To tell the truth, drip-drip-drip bias in fiction bothers me as much as it did that angry if uninformed class-warrior.  Three examples:

In Enid Blyton, the rich kids were always taller, stronger and braver than Edgar the cook’s son, who always snivelled and went to pieces at the first whiff of danger.  Also they were clean-limbed.  What does that even mean?  What would someone look like who was dirty-limbed?

I had to stop reading Jonathon Kellerman’s The Butcher’s Theatre because all the Israelis were tall, strong and brave (and probably clean-limbed too) and all the Palestinians were low-down cheating scalliwags.   Who smelled bad – yes, really. 

Every week when the X-Files was on I’d think: “Come on.  Just once.  Let the scientific explanation be right.  Just one week and then back to all the spookety-woo next time.”  Not one single time did Scully ever carry the day for reason, though.  In this case, I watched every episode in every season, just to make sure.

So, in conclusion, politics and relgious belief are just another part of a character’s make-up to me and if they’re key they need to be depicted with the same reckless devotion to the demands of the story as everything else.  But when an author builds a world, you don’t half get a good look at the builder too.

The Hell You Say

by Chris F. Holm

My books might not feature much by way of politics, but questions of faith are front and center in my Collector series. If they weren't, my books would be one hell of a lot shorter. See, the series centers around an undead guy named Sam, who was a decent enough chap in life – went to church, paid his taxes, didn't litter – only to find himself on the wrong end of a deal with a demon when his wife fell ill, one that condemned him to an eternity in hell. Not that he'd categorize it that way; as far as he's concerned, eternal suffering's a small price to pay for saving the woman you love. But even he'd admit his existence ain't no picnic. Particularly because in my books, hell is tailor-made to each of the condemned – their punishments specifically designed to maximize their torment. In Sam's case, he's cursed to peer in on the humanity he left behind, his face forever pressed against the glass. As Dante wrote:
There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery.
Or, to hear Sam tell it (less poetically, no doubt) in this conversation lifted from DEAD HARVEST:
“I’ve got a contact in the demon-world who might have some idea who’s behind this – I thought I’d pay him a visit, see what I can see. Only I’m not exactly relishing the idea.”

“Is he – I mean, do you have to go…” she stammered. “Is he in hell?”

I laughed. “Near enough – he’s in Staten Island.”

“Oh,” she replied. “But you’ve been? To hell, I mean?”

“Have I been? Sweetheart, I’m sitting in it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Hell isn’t some faraway land, Kate. It’s right here – in this world, in this room. Heaven, too, as near as I can tell. They’re just, I don’t know, set at an angle or something, so that they can see your world, but you can’t quite see them. Occasionally, the boundaries break down, and the result is either an act of horrible savagery or of astonishing grace. But make no mistake, they’re always here.”

Kate’s brow furrowed as she looked around the room. “I guess I always imagined hell to be all fire and brimstone.”

I lit my cigarette and took a long, slow drag. “You ask me, I’d guess heaven and hell look pretty much the same,” I replied. “Only in hell, everything is just a little out of reach."
 It's been a trip, having the books out there for all the world to see. When I was writing them, I was very cognizant of the fact that I was playing around with some sensitive concepts, and (the sales boost of a book-ban aside) the last thing I wanted to do was turn off potential readers. But I think wrestling with the notion of faith, the inevitability of our own mortality, and the question of what, if anything, comes next, is universal to the human experience, regardless of where you come down on those questions. And thus far, correspondence with my readers has borne that out; the only thing they ever gripe about's my penchant for salty language. It seems swearing's far more controversial these days than heresy...

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Political Animals

By Hilary Davidson

"Don't get political."

That advice was given to me early on by more than one writer. They pointed out that everyone buys books, regardless of political affiliation. You don't want to turn off part of your readership with your opinions. No one actually said, "Don't talk about religion." I suspect that's because they assumed it was understood.

It's smart advice. Unfortunately, I've never been able to follow it.

According to Aristotle, humans are political animals. (Old Ari actually said, "Man is a political animal," but I'm paraphrasing to remove the sexist slant. Wait, was that political? Oops.) When I first read those words, they resonated with me. Often, political issues are treated like a game, kind of an our-team-versus-their-team battle that should really be left behind on some sports field. To me, politics are about what we value and how we live, and I don't believe in easy distinctions that divide people into two camps. Humans are much more complicated than that.

In my novels, some characters are more explicit in their political and religious views than others. The most obvious is Jesse Robb, the gun-toting, Bible-quoting Okie who first appeared in THE DAMAGE DONE. Jesse admires Will Rogers and Ronald Reagan, and if someone asked him to define himself politically, he'd say conservative. But Jesse is also a gay man, and his experience with intolerance and bigotry — which is made explicit in THE NEXT ONE TO FALL — has shaped his views. The tension between what Jesse was raised to believe, and what life has taught him, is at the heart of the character.

My main character, Lily Moore, describes herself as a lapsed Catholic, but she steers clear of politics early on. That was a deliberate choice. Lily is someone who has tried to escape the harsh reality of her early life by embracing film, fashion and travel. In THE NEXT ONE TO FALL, she's questioned by a Peruvian police officer named Felipe Vargas; it doesn't go well:

“What is your vocation, Miss Moore?”
The question was a relief. “I’m a journalist.”
That earned a nod from him. “Ah, I see. Like Angel Paez.”
“I don’t know who that is,” I admitted.
“You are a journalist visiting Peru and you do not know of Angel Paez?” His surprise seemed genuine. “Paez founded the first investigative reporting team in Peru at La Republica in 1990. He has exposed government corruption, international drug trafficking, and concealed warfare. He has written for papers from Mexico to Japan.”
“Oh. He sounds like someone I would like to read.” It was embarrassing to admit how little I’d prepared for this trip. Normally I did a lot of research, but in this case, I’d floated along in my hazy state, trusting that Jesse knew enough for both of us.
“What do you write about?” Vargas asked.
“You are on staff at an organization?”
“I freelance. And I write travel guidebooks for Frakker’s Travel Guides.”
If he’d been vaguely interested in my profession before, he was completely dismissive of it now. “Guidebooks?” He frowned. “I see tourists here and in Cusco, their noses buried in those guidebooks. So you are one of the people providing them with a superficial, stereotypical picture of my country? Those books are horrible. I remember seeing one that told travelers to avoid Lima, that it was dirty and there was nothing worth seeing there. The capital of my country!”

What Vargas states explicitly is an issue that Lily has started to struggle with — namely, does her work have any value beyond promoting purveyors of luxury travel? Does her life? Her outlook changes in THE NEXT ONE TO FALL. Librarian and reviewer Lesa Holstine described it this way: "Her trip to Peru... turns her character inside out, changing her from a vulnerable, lonely woman to a defiant one fighting for justice." The fallout from that is something I explore in the third book, EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES, which comes out in March. It's not a spoiler to admit that Lily is a character who is becoming more political as she evolves.

One thing that I don't believe in: authors using characters as mouthpieces for their own views. If you want to hear my opinions, come see me on Twitter. I've never enjoyed books that preach at me under the guise of fiction. Characters have their own inner lives, and it's up to the writer to reveal what makes them tick. Their views on politics and religion are part of what makes them human — and real.

*          *          *

It's election day in the United States. Whatever else you do today, please vote. I know this won't be easy for people displaced by Hurricane Sandy, but there are some measures in effect in New York and New Jersey to make voting possible for those affected by the storm (follow the links for details). Links to each state's board of elections are here. Keep David Foster Wallace's words in mind: "In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard's vote."

Monday, November 5, 2012

Purple Prose

By Reece Hirsch

At the 2011 ThrillerFest, I participated in the panel “Political Thrillers:  In a Red and Blue Country, How Do You Stay Purple?”  That title seems to assume that there is an advantage for an author to remain politically neutral in order to avoid alienating a large bloc of readers in a country that, as we're being constantly reminded lately by pollsters, is divided more or less 50-50 down party lines.  I am of two minds on the subject of being politically agnostic as a writer.

In my first book THE INSIDER, I never mention my protagonist Will Connelly’s politics.   It just never seemed to be something that the reader needed to know in the context of that story.  However, Will is an affluent, thirty-something resident of San Francisco, so that alone gives you a pretty good indicator of his likely political affiliation.

Nevertheless, THE INSIDER did have a political theme to it, which was what landed me on that ThrillerFest panel.  My book touches upon issues of excessive domestic surveillance in the wake of 9-11, and was based upon some real events.

In the early Nineties, the National Security Agency (NSA) developed a powerful encryption device known as the Clipper Chip, which was to be used to encrypt telecommunications transmissions. The encryption software was to be made available for use by private businesses and individuals.  However, the Clipper Chip was designed to provide government agencies with "key access" to all encrypted transmissions for law enforcement and national security purposes. The program was criticized in Congressional hearings based upon privacy concerns and was ultimately abandoned in 1995.

THE INSIDER posits that the Clipper Chip program was never really abandoned, but went forward through an undisclosed deal between the NSA and a private software company, and that the NSA continued to secretly monitor the communications of private citizens during the ensuing years.  My book also considers what might happen if the encryption keys that permitted government access to that vast volume of personal communications fell into the wrong hands.

As a result, THE INSIDER contained a few hopefully not overbroad swipes at the Patriot Act and the Bush administration’s handling of domestic surveillance after 9-11.  In hindsight, the opinions expressed in my book are taking on a more purplish hue now that the Obama administration has largely carried forward the policies of W in this area.   So now we come to the first of my two minds on this subject:  if your story arises out of an inherently political point of view, then don’t be wishy-washy about it.  Readers can tell when you’re pulling your punches, and they can also usually read between the lines and discern where your true sympathies lie.

Now to the second of my two minds:  I generally don’t like political fiction.  There are people who do it brilliantly (David Simon and George Pelecanos come to mind), but in most cases if your focus as a writer is making a didactic point, then that probably comes at the expense of crafting an engaging story.  THE INSIDER wasn’t “about” post-9-11 domestic surveillance.  I used the Clipper Chip storyline in my book solely because I thought it would make for an entertaining thriller.   But once I’d picked up that plot device, I didn’t see any point in shying away from the political implications of that choice.  Does that make me as a writer Red, Blue, Purple or some shade in-between?  If a reader is asking that question, then I probably didn’t do my job as a writer.