Mystery and fantasy writing

Archive for April, 2013

Whose Story Is It?

When I began writing the books that would become the Grace Street mysteries, I tried many different points of view. I finally settled on Ellin Belton, Camden’s girlfriend, to get her opinion on everything that was happening at 302 Grace Street, because Ellin has very strong opinions, and I thought it would be good to see the other characters through her eyes.
However, I was chugging along—and chug is the word—when David Randall, a minor character, appeared in the doorway of the house. At that time, Randall was not the handsome dashing fellow he is today. He was paunchy and unshaven, wearing boxers and a tee shirt, a cigarette drooping from his mouth.
He said, “It’s my story. Let me tell it.”
I was surprised. I’d planned for him to be one of the tenants in Cam’s boarding house, a washed up salesman with no future. “Well,” I said. “Go ahead.”
The minute Randall started talking, I knew his was the voice the story needed. This was the point of view character. The story flowed in a way it never had with Ellin. No more chugging. He came with a tragic back story, a sarcastic sense of humor, and a passion for finding what others had lost.
“One more thing,” he said. “If this is my story, I’m going to be a hell of a lot better looking.”
I often find if a book isn’t working, it’s because the wrong person is trying to tell the story. Figuring out whose story it is can be a long process. There are several books still in the drawer, waiting for the right voice. Sometimes I let each character have a turn, hoping the work will take off and run. I live for those moments when a character decides his or her own fate.
The Grace Street mysteries continue to be Randall’s story as he strives to win Kary’s heart and work through the grief of losing his young daughter. He’s come a long way from the sleazebag I envisioned.
And Ellin has never forgiven him for taking over.

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Rewriting — Literally

I just finished rewrites on Now You See It, the third Grace Street Mystery, which will be published this October. I love the rewriting process, mainly because I get to revisit Grace Street and find lots of new bits and pieces, new motivations, new clues, and somehow, it all comes together.
One particular experience with rewriting I can recall was in seventh grade English class. We were asked to write a descriptive paragraph. My teacher said, “Write your first draft in pencil and go over it in ink,” which I took literally. After writing my pencil draft, I very carefully traced over each word in ink, a daunting process, until my mother clued me in.
In this wonderful computer age, revisions are a snap. There’s cut and paste and copy and delete – zip! It’s done. In the olden days—yes, children, gather around the fire—we had mysterious substances called carbon paper and Correcto-Tape and Wite Out. I would always get to the bottom of a page before making a mistake. Out came the white goo with its tiny brush, the meticulous painting, and then the wait while the stuff dried. Then typing over the dried spot, hoping to be in the right place. Wow. Did I really go through all that?
Now, the freedom of the first draft! Just write! It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t matter if I can’t think of a word and put in xxx, or skip to another scene. All can be magically fixed with a few clicks of the keyboard or a swipe of the mouse, a long way from my patient tracing of penciled words.
I did get an A on my paragraph, though.

How I Write

I try to write something every day, even if it’s just a grocery list. When I was working as a media specialist, I found time during the school day to jot down some thoughts and ideas, but my very best writing times were during the interminable teachers’ meetings in the afternoons. Those of you who aren’t teachers can’t fully appreciate the incredible dullness of these meetings. You’ve put in a full day with the children, and in my case, shelved about a thousand books and picked up a thousand more. You’re tired and hungry and know you have about an hour before a lot of stores close. Information that could’ve easily been put in a memo, or in later years, in an email, was read to us. Often graphs and charts were put up on a screen and each item gone over in detail. During test season, the test rules were read to us. Sometimes there would be a speaker, and I did feel sorry for the luckless person trying to engage a group of worn out and jaded school personnel.
But I could get in at least a chapter, maybe two. I sat near the back, writing in my notebook, and occasionally looking up to show I was paying attention and taking notes, yes, sir! Meanwhile, my characters chatted away and had adventures while the meeting droned on. I was never in danger of missing anything important. In my thirty years in education, nothing in these meetings ever pertained to the media center. Ever.
Now I am retired! I recommend it highly to anyone who can manage it. I work in the mornings from eight until about noon, take a lunch break, and work from one until about three. If the work is going really well, I’ll write more after supper, but usually I’m done. I used to always write in long hand in spiral notebooks, but now I enjoy composing on the computer because it’s so easy to make corrections. I make very sketchy outlines, breaking up the chapters by Day One, Day Two, and so forth, but I rarely know what’s going to happen. I might have an idea of where I want the story to go, but my characters have minds of their own, and they always dictate the action.
I live in an apartment and rent the unit under me for an office. I hadn’t planned on renting a second apartment, but after suffering through some rowdy tenants who had all the manners of a pack of howler monkeys and could not shut a door without slamming it, I thought, if they ever leave, I’m renting that place. They finally hooted off to another part of the jungle, and peace reigned once more. There’s no phone, and I disconnected the doorbell, so when I’m at work, there are no distractions. My neighbors know not to knock on the door unless there’s an emergency.
I really love my office apartment, so thank you, howlers! You played a small and noisy part in the success of my writing career.