Wednesday, August 30, 2023

A Hook and a Slab Come to Harm, by Catriona

Have you had success taking an old, perhaps previously abandoned, manuscript and breathed in new life before selling it?

I certainly have. It was the first thing I ever wrote (apart from short stories for competitions that I didn't win and radio sitcom scripts that went into development and are still there, as far as I know).

And my God was it ever a typical first effort! No detail of physical setting, character appearance, back story or portentous weather went undescribed; no metaphor went unnailed; no gasp-inducing plot twist or satisfying pay-off of built-up suspense went . . . unignored.

See, it wasn't a crime story. It was an exploration of life, love and family through the medium of a novel where nothing happened. My favourite (not).

I called it The Hook and The Slab, being as it was about two brothers, one enormous and one wiry, both butchers, who become obsessed with the visiting psychology student who rents the flat above their shop. Oh it was about culture, especially food, and alienation - the brothers are Scottish and the student is Japanese - and isolation.  

But, even then, two things kept trying to break through. I wrote a climactic scene that belonged in a different book. I wrote a supporting character and a chorus of background characters that insisted on being funny. Inside this over-written musing on isolation and connection, there was a darkly humorous psycho-thriller trying to burst out.

I put it in a drawer, after forty rejections from agents, and started writing the first Dandy Gilver mystery instead. 

In the following eleven years, I wrote mysteries, capers and thrillers but I never forgot about Keiko Nishisato, her friend, Fancy Clarke, and those brothers, Murray and Malcolm Poole. It bothered me that I had brought them to life and abandoned them. I didn't care anymore about the metaphors and the explorations, but I came to care more and more about the story I hadn't quite written, the fun I never quite had.

So I wrote it again, with the brakes off, with a decade between me and academic writing, with the security of believing in stories. I called it Come to Harm, which I still can't believe hadn't been used before - it's such a great thriller title.This time around, there was a dark secret, a hidden mystery, clues to be found, red herrings to be stumbled over, and a happy ending. 

It worked out well and I'm proud of it. 

Can you see that quote? The New York Times said "expertly done" If they only knew!


...with a little help from my friends... by Cathy Ace

What are the ten most important things you’ve learned in your time as a writer? Both useful and useless?

MOST IMPORTANT: Mum must love my books!
Mum with my latest book - LOVE that the
cover for her phone (knitted by my sister)
matches the book cover colors!

In no specific order my Top Five (not capable of a top ten, sorry!):

I was once told to stop doing it when it stops being fun: THIS WAS NOT HELPFUL.

Why? However much you love doing something, and however ultimately satisfying doing it might be, there are always parts of the process that are far from fun. My writing is my working life, it’s how I pay bills, so – yes – I’ll work through the “not fun” parts until I get the job done. This isn’t my hobby and, even if it were, I know that people with hobbies find there are unpleasant bits, and they don’t give up, either. So I suck up the not fun, and get on with the job.

I was told to focus on being a writer – the rest of it isn’t important: THIS WAS ALSO NOT HELPFUL

My writing is my livelihood, so not understanding the way the publishing business works isn’t going to be helpful. If I made jewellry for a living, wouldn’t you think it would be helpful to understand what people want to wear, where they want to be able to get their hands on it, and how the links between me making it and them wearing it work? It’s the same with writing: I spent years building my understanding of how the business works, which allowed me to see that there were options available to me I hadn’t even dreamed would be as good as working with traditional publishers…until I understood the way traditional publishers work. Writing is either the business you’re in, or it’s your hobby. It can’t be both. Making a decision one way or the other is the best thing to do, and neither is wrong.

I was encouraged to write from the heart…to write what I want: SOMETIMES HELPFUL, WITH CAVEATS

As I reader I am more than passingly familiar with the fact that when I see the cover and title of a book, then read the blurb, I am in the process of forming a set of expectations about what sort of journey that book will take me on, and what sort of companions I’ll be making the trip with. If readers have expectations (which we all do), then writers need to understand them – even if, as creators, we then choose to subvert those expectations. So, no, I don’t think it’s good advice to “just” write what you want, I think it’s better advice to write what the reader wants – if you want to sell books, that is. And this does allow for “surprising the reader”, by the way. That being said, the writer has the opportunity to write HOW they want WHENEVER they want – these books are called “passion projects” and usually don’t pay the bills, but give great satisfaction to the writer in other ways: it’s about balance in one’s creative life.

I was told I should have a schedule for my writing: HELPFUL, WITH CAVEATS

I cannot write my works of fiction every day. No daily/weekly word count glowering down at me, weighing me down with guilt. No number of hours at the keyboard every day, or week. BUT…scheduling my writing time across the year is something I find helpful – and it allows me to book my editors’ time across the year, too.

I was told I should understand my process: HELPFUL, WITH CAVEATS

Until you’ve tried a few different ways to write, you really don’t know what works for you, so – yes – try different approaches. If a daily wordcount/hours schedule suits you and your life, do that…if not doing it works for you, do that. BUT once you understand what works for you, don’t let the voices of others who poo-poo your process sway you. I write fast – I always did, it’s just that my traditional publishers didn’t know that.

Something I wish I'd known when I started out, that no one told me: being with fellow authors is one of the most rewarding things you can do, so try to do that whenever possible. You might not actually talk about writing, but you can enjoy something just as valuable...quiet times with people who know the pain and pleasure that being an author means!

I hope you'll consider trying my books! You can find out all about them at my website:


Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Ten Pieces of Silver Advice from Gabriel Valjan


What are the ten most important things you’ve learned in your time as a writer? Both useful and useless?


10. Readers are a better judge of your work than agents or the interns manning the Slush Pile. Publishing is a business, and the majority of agents are looking at your work relative to their business model, so submit your best work, follow directions for submissions, and carry on. What sells is not necessarily Quality.


09. Write what you want. Nobody knows what will sell, so you might as well write what gives you pleasure.


08. If you strive to improve your craft, what you write tomorrow will be better than what you wrote yesterday.


07. Be kind, especially to other writers and to yourself. You never know another person’s journey in life, and they don’t know yours.


06. Learn your strengths as a writer and work to improve on your weaknesses.


05. Rejection is not personal. This is a business, and agents and editors are human beings. There are numerous reasons for your story’s being rejected, from your story is similar to another story to your storytelling’s not being their cup of tea.


04. ‘Write what you know’ is both the best and worst advice I’ve received. Writing from experience helps with credibility and a plausible story, but use it as a springboard for your creativity. Write to discover how you think and feel about something. It’ll make you a better person and writer. Empathy and compassion are not to be underestimated.


03. Always be courteous and professional, with readers and critics. Not everyone will like you, so why lash out and give anyone ammunition? Strive to leave a positive impression. Don’t forget, what you say online lives forever, and some people have long memories.


02. Never respond to negative reviews. Ever. Say a simple, ‘Thank you’ to kind words. Know that there are keyboard warriors out there whose only joy in life is to demean others.


01. Write what scares the hell out of you, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It’s too tempting to replicate formula. Success (to me) is growth, falling and standing up, and trying again.


EXTRA. Show up and confront the blank page. Most people talk the talk, but few sit down and do the work. Whatever you write is your creation, something from deep within you, and what is on the page is an exercise in imagination and your own unique relationship with language. If you’re writing in English, don’t underestimate the difficulty of the language you take for granted.


Your writing may provide a reader out there with comfort, companionship, insight, or much-needed entertainment.


Monday, August 28, 2023

Ask Aunt Susan: How to Become Rich and Famous

 Q: What are the ten most important thing you’ve learned in your time as a writer? Both useful and useless?

-from Susan


Why waste time on useless advice, especially because one person’s moment of total clarity is another’s blank wall? Suffice it to say, you’ll hear lots of “tips” as you do seminars, attend panels, etc. No one’s going to mislead you deliberately, but your writing is unique to you. I do counsel you to listen and weigh anything you hear, because no one’s writing is perfect. Don’t reject anything on the delusional assertion that you’re writing deathless prose already and know more than these self-aggrandizing snobs who think they know more just because they’ve been traditionally published for years, won awards, and sell a lot of books! 


With that, my ten bits of advice, learned by trial and error, helpful to me, and perhaps to a writer nearer the starting gate:


Commit - the first step is to believe in yourself and your goal to write. This means give yourself the time, the space, the freedom to fail a bit as you find your feet.


Reward yourself - wrote a whole first chapter? A latte and a cookie! Signed up for a writing workshop? The reward is in the going to it and absorbing everything, making friends, feeling like a Writer!


Show don’t tell - Yup, common advice and, of course, there are places where you have to tell. But the concept is to help the reader embed themselves in your story and the closer they get through hearing dialogue, smelling roses, seeing soggy streets the more you’ve hooked them.


Every scene counts - Big, big for me at least. Rambling is pleasant but as you polish the draft, yeah, a lot of that goes nowhere. Why is this scene here? How does it serve the story, be it the primary plot, or the personal growth, or providing forward momentum?


Kill your darlings - Big one, perhaps biggest for new writers. You wrote this gorgeous opening paragraph, but so what? It’s backstory or no story, just lovely prose. Cut. You can paste it into a computer file you call “My Darlings” and, who knows, maybe you’ll get inspired by it sometime in the future (but probably not)?


Never kill a pet - Having just turned in MURDER AND THE MISSING DOG (March 2024) I know whereof I speak. Also, have you seen the passion of Facebook users when they hear about an abused animal who needs rescuing? Yeah, that. If you want to show a villain who is pure evil through and through, have them kill a dog, cat, fox, or hedgehog and your readers will insist the villain die a horrible, lingering, exceeding final death!


Finish the book - This is beyond vital. Starting a story, playing with it, masticating the first few chapters over and over may be a good hobby, but you want to become a Writer, yes? To do that, you have to stick with it through all the messy, frustrating, hand-wringing stages until you can type “The End.” Then, of course, the real work begins. But you have a whole manuscript - a book! 


Take feedback - Ask for serious feedback and listen rather than argue when you get it. Readers at this stage are invaluable: Where does it blog down, why don’t they like the protagonist, is that environment believable? Better still: What did they love? What sucked them in and held them captive in your story? 


Use your network - So, months later, you have a polished manuscript and what’s next? The rough road to an agent’s interest. By now you’ve met other writers (Sisters in Crime, writers’ conferences and retreats, etc) and are reading the acknowledgement pages in novels you like and that you think are kind of like yours in style, sub-genre, setting. If you’ve chatted with an agent at a conference, say you met them and are taking the liberty of sending them your query (or whatever specific thing they want). Do not be shy and do not presume! And, do not give up. Some famous authors tell authors who are at this stage that they sent queries to 40, 50, 99 agents before finding theirs!


Always read the contract - Congratulations! You have an agent and she got you an offer You’re thrilled: “Yes, yes, thank you, thank you!” No. Read the contract. Understand what the publisher takes and what you get. What the publisher will do for you (don’t expect much) and the details of advances and royalties. 


So, that's it from Aunt Susan's Help Desk. I look forward to the rest of the week and what my talented and successful fellow Minds have to say. 



                            Out now in e-book and hard cover; paperback out in November 2023. 






Friday, August 25, 2023

Dinner For the Damned

By Abir


This week’s question: You’re hosting a dinner party. Which six characters from crime fiction are you inviting and why?


Dinner parties aren’t my forte, at least not preparing for them. Truth is, my culinary repertoire is limited to only a few dishes (though I do a mean salmon linguine and a also lamb curry which tastes good but isn’t going to win any prizes for presentation). Fortunately my wife is a fantastic host, so she does 97% of all the preparation and the cooking while I content myself with taking care of the alcohol and the entertaining, which often blend seamlessly into each other.


But ok, let’s run with this dinner party idea. At first, I thought about inviting some of my favourite detectives from crime fiction. This is pretty easy – there’d be Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, and Robert Harris’ Xavier March for starters. You might spot a pattern emerging there. To them, I’d add Teodor Borlu and Lizybet Corwi from China Mieville’s classic, The City and The City, because they the cities where they work- Bezel and Ul Quoma – and the organisation they represent – Breach – are, in my opinion, some of the greatest literary constructs of modern fiction. I’m fascinated by the cities, and I’d love to read more about them. Finally, because we need six, why not Six herself? Nicola Six, from Martin Amis’ London Fields. Nicola is truly enigmatic. Right from the start of the novel, we know she’s going to die. The only questions are how and why. We could ask her about it over dessert.


But then I thought, why the good guys? If there’s something that unites the above, with the possible exception of Lizybet Corwi and Nicola Six, is that they are rather dour, brooding souls – hardly life and soul of the party material. And that’s the thing about much of crime fiction. The good guys are often quite lacking in social skills. They’d rather be dead than attend a dinner party. The bad guys, though…now they know how to have fun, and as the great American philosopher William Joel once said, ‘I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners have much more fun’.


So how’s about we invite a different crowd? How’s about we invite the villains? People who will appreciate my humour, and will probably be less judgemental about the look of my lamb curry.


I’ll have to set ground rules though. No serial killers and no cannibals. The first, because I don’t particularly want them knowing where I live, and the second because, what if the food’s crap? I have visions of Hannibal Lecter – a person who literally eats human flesh - turning their nose up at my mushroom risotto. I don’t think I could live with the shame.


So then, who’s coming to dinner?


First up: Justice Wargrave, from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. This is a man who essentially kills a bunch of folks at what might be termed his retiring party. Mad, yet avenging, angel of justice. I like his style.


Second: Tom Ripley, that most talented creation of Patricia Highsmith’s. What can I say, I’m a sucker for charming people. I’d make notes on everything he says.


Then there are two people coming as a pair, Professor Moriarty and Irene Adler, two of Sherlock Holmes’ greatest adversaries. Moriarty, I’m a bit scared of. I think he’s unhinged, so I might have to pay special attention to him. Maybe give him his own bowl of nibbles as he walk in the door.


Irene Adler, though. She’s the one who fascinates me. A villain whose intellect matches Holmes’ own, and who may also touch his heart. What an amazing person. I’m sitting next to her at the dinner table.


Next, and sitting on my other side, will be Helen Grayle (not that that’s her real name) from Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. The archetypal femme fatale, she’s a bit two dimensional in the book, so it’d be nice to get to know the real woman.


Finally, and most interestingly for me, I’m going to go out on a limb and choose Estella from Dickens’ Great Expectations. I know it’s not a crime novel, but it’s my party and I decide who gets to come. Why Estella? Because of her effect on men? Because she’s been damaged? Possibly, but mainly because like Helen Gayle, she is a femme fatale – the flame around which men flock, then burn. I find women like that fascinating. I’d also put in a good word for Pip.


So there you go. My dinner party for the damned. And there’s an extra space at the table if you want to come.




Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Pass the salt

You’re hosting a dinner party. Which six characters from crime fiction are you inviting and why?

by Dietrich

For this question, I considered all the well-rounded and memorable characters from the novels that I’ve read so far this year. Then I thought why not keep it closer to home and invite the characters created by our own Criminal Minds. So, I went and got some extra chairs to make rooms.

First off, let’s start this virtual potluck party by dividing the chores between our Week One and Week Two writers. That means we start with Susan. And I say we let her characters Katherine and Pippa choose the table setting for our potluck. No doubt it would be white linen, and of course our potluck would take place in Burgundy. And obviously, one of her characters would choose the right wine.

From Liar’s Dice, let’s lure Gabriel’s Shane Cleary away from the snows of Boston and leave the mounting body count for a while and come and toss the salad.

And while Cathy would be the perfect person to organize the event, I think we could safely task this to the women of the WISE agency and put them in charge of sending out the invitations. And of course Althea, dowager duchess of Chellingworth, would be the right character to take care of the table setting. Who better than a duchess to know which fork goes where?

I’m sure that Catriona’s Lexy Campbell would delight and surprise us with the hors d’oeuvre, perhaps a mysterious object all wrapped in bacon and smelling of syrup — yum!

Josh’s Niels Madsen would be my first choice to man the BBQ and get things smoking in the right direction.

Brenda’s Ella Tate could lend a clever twist to a well-crafted and riveting pasta salad for those with a vegetarian lean, perhaps with the help of her sidekick Detective Liam Hunter.

Terry’s Samuel Craddock hails from the Lone Star State, and who better than a Texan to bring the right steak sauce for us meat eaters? And Im also hoping that he might keep an eye on Niels to make sure he’s not burning any of the ribeyes and links.

I think I would seat my character, Paulina Ovitz, next to James’s Ellie Stone, seeing how the two are both from the same era and bound to offer some excellent table talk about all things sixties. Maybe they could team up and whip up a fabulous sixties’ dish like a cheese ball, or for dessert a Jell-O mold — so yummy-less, it’s enough to make my stomach cry.

Then of course there’s Abir’s Sam Wyndham who would no doubt delight in treating us all to Mixologist Anthony Peart’s Milk & Honey vodka cocktail created for his novel The Shadows of Men: 40 ml Russian Standard. 2 teaspoons of runny honey, 50 ml milk, 2 cardamon pods. Shake vigorously to break down the pods, strain in a tall glass over ice. No Garnish necessary.

Well, there you have it — a perfect, criminally-good potluck. Bon app├ętit.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Who's For Dinner?


Terry here with the chance to host a dinner part. The catch? You have to invite six characters from crime fiction. 

The reason this question is so interesting is that I had trouble coming up with six. Not that I don’t have characters I find fascinating in crime fiction, but crime novels that are well-written seem so complete. I feel like to pluck characters out of their world and try to have a conversation with them would be taking them into a world (mine) that they aren’t familiar with, and that they wouldn’t shine the way they do in a well-written mystery. 

 Take Elvis Cole, Robert Crais’ LA detective. His repartee is always entertaining. He’s a wise-cracker—in his element, Los Angeles. I live in LA, too, but would he be comfortable at my dinner party? Or does he need the milieu that Crais has created in order to be his entertaining self? Do I need to invite his sidekick, Joe Pike? And would Pike kill one of the other guests for who-knows-what reason? 

 How about somebody like Lady Georgie, Rhys Bowen’s intrepid-ish impoverished royal sleuth?
My guess is she’d eat everything she could get her hands on, so a menu wouldn’t be a problem. But what might be a problem, is that she, like so many amateur sleuths, seems to attract murder. I’d have to be very careful to choose guests who could hold their own (see final dinner party, below). Plus she’s known to be awfully clumsy. I’d have to use the second-best wine glasses. 

 I absolutely adore Tracy Clark’s Harriet Foster, whom I first met in Hide,
but what kind of dinner party guest would she be? Would she be a downer because she’d still be mourning her profound losses? Would she be eyeing all the other guests with suspicion? I think if I invited her new partner, Li, thing might go better. But still, how would it work if I took her out of Chicago and brought her to my beachside house in LA? 

 Jim Ziskin’s Ellie Stone is a great character, a reporter with a keen nose for news, but how would she fare if she had to sit down at my table in southern California? Would she enjoy my ordinary world, or would she be bored? Would she quiz the other guests to tell all their secrets? Would she insist on bringing Fadge?

Timothy Hallinan wrote a fascinating book, Pulped, in which his characters live on after their series has been dropped by a publisher who had all the books pulped.

The attempts of the characters to continue their lives without their creator is poignant, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes perilous. What happens when a character tries to see beyond the limits of what their writer has described? They run into blank spaces. Is that what would happen if they came to a dinner party with people their creators never exposed them to? 


The closest I can come to composing a possible dinner party is Mick Herron’s Slough House gang, first introduced in Slow Horses. Oh lord, what would it be like to try to corral those slow horses? (pun intended).
First, I’d have to have the party in Slough House, which solves the problem of taking them out of their milieu. And then I’d serve some kind of English dish, and with a couple of them, a few eccentric dishes. River Cartwright could probably be counted on to eat whatever I served, but what in the world would Roddy Ho eat? My suspicion is that he exists on fast food, the less nutritious the better. And don’t get me started on Jackson Lamb, who’d fart his way through the meal and insult everyone there. But for all of them, it hardly matters what I would cook. The important thing would be to lay in enough alcohol to fell an ox. As for conversation, I’d get to sit back and listen to them bitch about their bitter lot in life: Entertaining, as long as they get to talk the way they do in the books, and for that I’d have to have their creator coaching from the sidelines.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Look Who's Coming to Dinner

You’re hosting a dinner party. Which six characters from crime fiction are you inviting and why?

Brenda here.

A twist on the dinner party question and slightly tougher, but I'm up for the challenge.

It might be tougher to come up with a menu though. Allergies, gluten intolerance, vegetarians, vegans, likes, dislikes ... I'm going to leave this fictional meal to my fictional sidekick Tony who lives downstairs from journalist Ella Tate in Blind Date and When Last Seen. He's constantly throwing gourmet dinner parties and will whip up something delicious.

"They gathered around the table ten minutes later, digging into a meal of Caesar salad, roast beef, Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, and gravy. The wine flowed, and the noise level rose pleasantly. They settled back as Tony served up chocolate almond cake with Amaretto cream and brandy with coffee to finish off the meal." When Last Seen

Okay, for the list, which follows a certain theme and should make for some interesting conversations:

1.    Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly) L.A.

2.    Vera Stanhope (or Jimmy Perez is she's busy) (Ann Cleeves) Britain

3.    Benny Griessel (Deon Meyer) South Africa

4.    Sean Duffy (Adrian McKinty) Ireland

5.    Thomas Lynley (Elizabeth George) U.S.A.

6.    Kurt Wallander (Henning Mankell) Sweden

As dedicated crime fiction readers likely deduced, I decided to go with all cops so they can compare their cases and investigations, which will vary depending on country. Wouldn't it be fascinating to listen to their stories and perhaps gain inspiration for new books of one's own?

In my head, I'm already laying out the cutlery :-)


Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Friday, August 18, 2023

The 3 Building Blocks of Every Novel, by Josh Stallings

Q: Plot, character, setting - how do they fit together in your work? Which do you find the most tricky (if any) and which do you have the most fun with?

A: I’m drinking a mug of coffee watching the sun creep into our shadowed valley and thinking about this question. When writers talk about “setting” it never feels like the right word. I come from theater and film where a set is only a physical space, it didn’t seem inclusive enough. I prefer milieu: “applies especially to the physical and social surroundings of a person or group of persons.” To my brain it also contains the vibe of a piece and even the sub-genre. WAIT. Oh, I see now that’s exactly what other writer’s meant by setting… Fine. That’s a wheel I don’t need to reinvent.

Now that that linguistic pretzel is straightened out I can continue. 

My first novel Beautiful Naked & Dead started from character. I knew the opening line would be “There is nothing quite like the cold taste of gun oil on a stainless steel barrel to bring your life into focus.” Moses would start every day with this ritual of deciding if today was the day to pull the trigger. The character idea came from thinking about hard boiled tough guys and that the most dangerous person in the room was the one who didn’t care if they lived or died. Moses was suicidal, he saw it as an escape hatch. It was his super power.

Setting was in the background from the start of The Moses McGuire Trilogy. I wanted to write a modern hard-boiled series based in North East LA, a place I lived a large chunk of my life; our family had roots there, my father lived by the Arroyo Seco. It was a place that hadn’t been written about and a place I loved. 

Moses’ voice and the novel’s tone came quickly. But it took many drafts to find the plot. I was lucky to have three good writers, Tad Williams, Deborah Beale, and Charley Huston to slap me around, um, I mean, help guide me. They asked the hard questions like, “Why did that guy do that?” I’d shrug and which ever one I was talking to would say, “You have to know why every character does what they do. Even if you don’t put it in.” It was a brutal learning process, and I’m forever thankful for it. These amazing writers believed in my words, my heart on the page, enough to help me draft by draft learn to tell a story with a plot and all. 

Young Americans started with settings. 1976 San Francisco, a heist in a gay disco. That’s the germ that the novel grew from. Nine words that gave me time, place, social setting and even sub-genre. Heist. The word alone makes me smile. I know there have been dark noir heist stories. Jim Thompson’s The Getaway for one, but those in my personal strange filing system are “robbery” stories. My quintessential heist novel is The Hot Rock by Donald E. Westlake, or any of his Dortmunder books. For film references, The Hot Rock (1972) Oceans 11 (1960 or 2001) are great at explaining what I aim for. 

By saying heist I was clueing myself in that I wanted to veer away from the painful hard boiled Moses books and write a more light hearted novel.

The setting made sense, I was a teenager in 1976 in the San Francisco Bay Area. My friends and I were glitter kids*, fans of Bowie, androgyny, tight jeans, and platform shoes. On weekends we’d drive to the city to go dancing at a wonderfully crazed gay disco where the door people didn’t look too closely at our fake IDs. All of the characters in it started out as people or amalgamations of people I knew. As a teenager I didn’t consider myself a criminal, though others might have. I did some shoplifting, breaking and entering, selling weed and hash, from time to time I carried a pistol. Ultimately I was lucky that I had little aptitude for any of it. Jacob, one the protagonists wasn’t me, as much as he was a kid in a circumstance like mine. The plot grew out of these characters. And a heist. I knew they were going to rob a disco on New Year’s Eve 1976. The first question I answered was why they had to do it, what was at stake. From there the plot was driven by character. 


Tricky started with character. My intellectually disabled son stood on a porch with an LAPD officer shouting for him to comply, his hand hovering over his pistol. I wanted to write a character based on my son. It took a year of research to find a truthful way to talk about the LAPD and how some of them treat our citizenry. I knew the novel opened with an LAPD officer aiming a gun at an intellectually disabled man. I knew I wanted to return to my beloved North East LA. I wanted to write about a good cop, like the man my grandfather had been. The plot grew out of these two characters, Cisco and Detective Madsen. The setting became three fold, the police department / murder investigation, the intellectually disabled community, and East LA gang life.

As I write this I see that regardless of whether I start with setting or characters, I always have to fumble my way through the plot. Plotting remains low on my writer-brain’s priorities until I’m half way through the novel and it hits me I better know where it’s going, or at least have a general direction in mind. 

I wish I could outline a novel and then write with the security of knowing where the damn thing is headed. My agent wishes I could too. But so far, that doesn’t seem to be in my wheelhouse. It is more important to know how you write best, than to focus on what you don’t do.

If only I could write an outline… I know what my pops would have said about that, “Yep, and if my mother had three wheels she would’ve been a trike.”

The thing I’ve learned speaking with enough other writers is, we all work slightly differently. We aren’t making widgets or painting houses, we’re creating worlds. No method is better or worse as long as it gets you where you need to be to write the book you want to write. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Mary Sue, in the Drizzle, with a Twist, by Catriona

Plot, character, setting - how do they fit together in your work? Which do you find the most tricky (if any) and which do you have the most fun with? 

Fun? What is this "fun"? Okay, that's Current Catriona, 68K words into a first draft, with six more clear writing days needed and only two more clear writing days guaranteed before jet-lag, Bouchercon, and - poor me - summer holiday. Three if I write on the plane. Four if I give up exercise (I won't). Five if I don't write this blog.

Bouchercon has its compensations!

I'll get there. I always do.

And anyway, I'm lying. There is fun to be had and I have most of mine with the plot. Always when I'm on the first draft, I know there's a big twist coming that I'm gagging to write. It might well have been the pip of inspiration that got me started on the story in the first place. In other words, the thing that overcame the inertia and self-doubt. This twist might have been my precious hoarded secret for a year or two and finally I get to set it free. 

Also, near the end (where I am right now), there's the "everything comes together" bit. In my head, it's like a Cecil Beaton synchonised swimming display. It's when all the breadcrumbs I've dropped throughout the draft, hoping that everyone will see them but will think they're the pattern on the carpet, get scraped up and mixed together to make a big, delicious rissole of resolution. 

Seriously, Bouchercon is not a burden

Wooft. Completely lost control of that metaphor halfway through.

So that's the fun. Plot starts off the process, causes untold tension and doesn't pay out until the bitter end. 

Setting comes very early on too. I need somewhere for this story to happen. It's going to be Scotland (unless the book in question is a Last Ditch comedy in which case it's going to be Cuento, CA) and then it depends.

If I'm writing Dandy Gilver, I scout about for somewhere I haven't sent her before geographically, and then the plot I've got in my head suggests whether she'll be in a hotel, hospital, convent, village, ballroom, department store, circus . . . the moment in Book 5 when I realised no one could stop me playing at shops and I could call it work? Pretty good day.

In fact, this Bouchercon might be quite a treat

If I'm writing a standalone, however, I don't know what to tell you. Scotland is beautiful. There are untold miles of grandeur and gorgeousness, but my stories recently have tended to take place in the other bits. Bus shelters, nail bars, junkyards, towerblocks, brickworks . . . even when I am in the countryside it tends to be the bleaker moors and uplands, with terrible roads and aggressive sheep. Why? That brings me to the final factor we're considering this week.

Character. This is the bit of writing a novel I feel least in control of. Once I know I want to write a story about X and it would work if it took place in Y, I have to be patient and wait to meet Z, to find out whose story this is. Because my standalone protagonists are usually women in trouble of some sort, I think I keep them away from idyllic settings, or at least from lives of cushioned comfort. That's where the bus shelters come in.

This Z was Finnie Doyle

There's always some of me in the protagonist (see title of blog), but she's never been a youngest child, in a long marriage, with an academic background, so she's not me biographically. She's always a she, too. when there's a "he" - two out of three voice characters in next year's standalone are men, for instance - I find that I write them in third person, whereas a woman protagonist might well be in first. 

Further than that, it's hard to predict. It definitely feels as if my protagonist is someone I encounter rather than someone I create. Except for the peculiar fact that I get to name her. And that name is crucially important. Which makes no sense at all! We get our names when we're screaming little bundles of brand-new humanity and the people we know in real life can have names we'd never give a character, can't they? Nevertheless, fictional names have to work. Finding them is something I have endless trouble with. In fact, finding characters is probably the aspect of writing I struggle with most. 

The struggle is messy and uses a lot of Post-Its

My method for overcoming the problems is to keep writing to the end of the first draft without worrying about it, trusting that I'll know this woman, these people, by the end and then I can go back and take out all the early stuff that doesn't ring true anymore. 

Writing is re-writing. 


Let me tell you a story... by Cathy Ace

Plot, character, setting - how do they fit together in your work? Which do you find the most tricky (if any) and which do you have the most fun with?

Oh heck – complex question, complex answer!

For my Cait Morgan Mysteries: I tend to start with a title. Yes, I know that’s odd, but that’s how it goes for me. I am almost ready to reveal the details of the 13th book in the series, but not quite yet…so forgive me for talking about book 12, which came out in 2022. The title of this book was THE CORPSE WITH THE TURQUOISE TOES. As soon as I had the title, I saw the titular corpse in my mind’s eye: turquoise means (to me) somewhere where turquoise originates, and I had it…of course, a cult headquarters in the Sonoran Desert, way out beyond Phoenix, Arizona. Yes, I, too, hate it when authors tell me that stories just pop into their heads, so I’ll explain my thought process, I promise. I’d been “fortunate” enough to have encountered an actual cult back in 2020, and a story had been percolating about them…and I’d once got to know a high priestess for a volcano-worshipping cult whose HQ was in Sedona…then the turquoise thing just fitted in, and I was off! Yes, EVERYTHING I encounter in life is story-fodder.

Because Cait Morgan and Bud Anderson are in every book, those characters were in place, as was the setting itself (a fictionalized cult HQ built to be a “spa retreat”) but I wanted to use the framework of a seemingly-innocent cult-like life approach I’d invented back in book 2 in the series, and there was a great character I wanted to bring back from the same book, so I fitted her in (the daughter of an ageing rock star and his ex-groupie wife, who’d also been in book 2). She was a chef ,so I had her as the person setting up the restaurant at the desert retreat…then I built from there.

The plot? Because of my behind-the-scenes experiences with the cult I’d encountered in 2020, many of the storylines (how it operated, and could exploit the weak) were threads I could weave to a more substantial yarn…and I added in an extra layer – which I always do with the Cait books: there’s always some sort of ongoing (even if subtle) reference to other works of art – in this case it was the Oz books. I used every one of the wizard’s names for characters, used emblematic nods (Cait and Bud are transported to the cult’s HQ in a ruby-red vehicle, for example) and followed it all the way through there being characters there who are akin to the lion, the scarecrow, the tin man…and then there’s the “wizard” too, of course. Great fun to write, and all woven into a plot that’s complex and a bit tricky. Is plotting a challenge? Always, but it’s great fun. Yes, I’m a plotter not a pantster, so it’s all worked out ahead of time, as well as red herrings, real clues, and the final denoument.

For the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries: a bit different, though I still start with a title. These books feature a large, and ever-growing, cast of characters…though some come, and some go, with each book. The setting always includes the stately Chellingworth Hall and its Dower House, plus the village of Anwen-by-Wye. Beyond that? Often real local places like Builth Wells, Hay-on-Wye, and Brecon are in play, and I usually have at least one of my four private investigators having to head off to “another place” to do some digging about – which might be London, or the south-west corner of bucolic Scotland, or even the rugged coastline of Wales. In the most recent book it just so happened that all four of them remained within about a thirty-mile radius of their home base…but next time…no, can’t say! I enjoy writing about all these settings because – be they real or fictional – they are real to me, and I like to visit them…and I enjoy spending time with my characters too.

For these books there are always several cases being handled by the PIs, so that’s the hardest part – scheduling all the events that happen to each individual, and making sure they link up with their colleagues in the right way, at the right time. This means I plot these books in a different way than my Cait Morgan books - which are plotted in a linear form, with me starting the plot at the beginning and writing up across a forward-moving timeline. For the WISE women, I work up each case, then weave the whole set of cases together over the timeline, making sure that every person is only in one place at a time, and knows or doesn’t know that which it is imperative they know or don’t know at the right time, too. Post-It notes – I thank you!

I suppose, in summary, I find the setting, the characters, and the main story points to be the easier parts, but spend most time on the detailed plotting to make sure I am able to weave a complex story that hangs together, has the right pace to keep readers wanting to know what happens next, and to (hopefully) deliver a satisfying conclusion.

Then all I have to do is WRITE THE BOOK – which is what I am going to get back to asap!

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