Mystery Genre Workshop Part Four: Tips for Writing Mysteries

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The first three parts of the Mystery Genre Workshop covered plot, characters, and the importance of creating the story’s location. Let’s review a few tips you should keep in mind as you write.

Know Your Ending!  

This will help you focus as you write the story and not lose sight of your concept. You may take a detour or two along the way, but write to your ending.

Hook Your Reader!

Make that first line or paragraph attention-grabbing, intriguing. Open with an action scene, introducing either your sleuth or your villain.

Make Your Reader Empathetic!

The reader must identify and care about your hero and want the same goals the character does.

Plot Your Plan!

Carefully plan your story (outline or pantser—on paper or mentally). Knowing where to place strategic points and keep the action going is vital.

Pace, Pace, Pace!

Take your reader on an action-filled adventure, increasing the tension as the story builds to its final climax. You must also provide scenes with little action to provide a place for your reader to breathe. A great tool to build tension, pull it away, then create more tension increasingly until the story’s final climax.

 Perfect Characters!

Humans are not perfect in real life, do not create a perfect imaginary human. Give your character flaws, both physical and psychological. Keep them real, give them family issues, scars, phobias. We all have them!

 Plant Clues and Water Often!

As you plot your story, always remember you are engaging your reader in a puzzle to discover who committed the crime. Provide clues early, be subtle but truthful about the real clues, be matter-of-fact about certain things. Misdirect your readers’ attention with red herrings—false clues—but make certain they are plausible.

 Location, Location, Location!

Your setting, the world you build for your story should serve as another character to drive your plot. Whether a gritty, noir environment or a quaint, seaside village, use the location’s characteristics to frame your narrative.

Protagonist, Antagonist, and Minions!

The closer a character is to the realization of the Protagonist’s goal, the more developed they should be. Give them dialogue when appropriate, something that makes them unique—a hobby, an addiction, plays a sport on the weekend.

 Stay on Target!

Your goal is to take your Protagonist from desiring to achieving a goal. Keep the narrative focused on the target, and that is realizing their goal. Any extraneous scenes that creep in your writing need to be thrown out. The mystery and the clues to solve it are all you should be concerned about it.

 Have Fun!

As a mystery fan, diving into a “who done it” and trying to decipher the clues and guess the culprit is enjoyable. As a mystery writer, my pleasure is from writing those clues and hoping to stay ahead of the reader and shock them at the end.  How much fun is that? Enjoy the process and your reader will as well!

 (Also, don’t use exclamation points as I did here, no more than one per book.  They are fun though!)

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For Writers Who Love Worksheets: 

Some writers love worksheets for plotting, character development, and world building. I never do any of this, but in case you do, here are some representative worksheets for your use.

 

Plotting Your Story:

https://evernote.com/blog/12-creative-writing-templates/

 

Character Development:

https://thinkwritten.com/character-development-questions/

 

World Building:

https://nybookeditors.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/World-Building-Worksheet.pdf

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Mystery Genre Workshop Part Three: Scene of the Crime

 

The Importance of location

When fingertips touch the keyboard to write a story, a writer is beginning the process of building a new world. How mundane, ordinary, complex or exotic doesn’t matter, writers are world builders.

While the term usually conjures up alien civilizations or fantasy castles, the truth is when the screenwriters imagined Cabot Cove of Murder She Wrote or the author of Midsomer Murders borrowed the countryside of England near Oxford to use as the setting for her novel, they were building a world.

Designing a new world is complex. When writing a science fiction or fantasy story, you start with a blank slate, creating everything. If you choose a ‘ready-made’ location, much is already set in place, you only need to tweak locales to suit your plot needs.

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There are three types of world building. Let’s look at what is involved with each.

 The Created World

This the world most think about when hearing the term “world building.” The science fiction and fantasy genres where a writer’s imagination selects everything that exists.

  • Design the physical world: terrain (mountainous, desert, forest, coastal), atmosphere, location in the universe.
  • Create races of beings (keeping natural conditions in mind).
  • Culture including art, music, writing.
  • Government and military systems.
  • Infrastructure and city planning.
  • Education.
  • Agriculture.
  • Industry.
  • And everything else!

The Real World

This world is the one we know. Most stories are set in villages, towns or cities that we are familiar with or have a history to draw from. Historical fiction novels are set in a known past. All other genres, other than those of the created world, fall here.

Fictional locations can be written but do not deviate from what is known. A small town can be created for a cozy mystery novel, but it will have the same features as any small town.  The government, military, and the culture will be as we know it.

The Alternate Reality World

This is a world that we think we know, but it is not the same. The Alternate history genre tweaks the actual outcomes of significant events such as the ending of World War II and redirects history. The landscape and peoples may remain, but the government, military, culture, infrastructure, and perhaps agriculture may have been altered.

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The Mystery World

Mystery stories typically fall into the realm of the “Real World” although mysteries can be set in any imaginary world. There are some considerations to make as you develop your mystery world.

You must set a world conducive to a murder mystery. That is one where you do not reveal too much about the world where your detective or your killer resides. You must leave unanswered questions about the world.

Clues, both real and red herrings, must be set in the framework but again against a backdrop of mystery. If the murder happens in a room where there is a secret door, until the detective knows there is a secret door, the reader should not either. If the story is being told from the POV of the killer, then the door may be revealed to the reader but not the detective. Again, you have created your world, but you must keep it secret.

Someone must solve the crime. If you are writing crime fiction, a law enforcement officer will be your lead investigator. The agency the investigator works for, a local police department, the FBI or any other agency must be created.

Details should include:

  • Department structure: Who is in charge? What are your investigator’s rank and responsibilities?
  • Ancillary services: Is there a forensics department? A medical examiner? A video tech?

In a cozy fiction, the investigator is a civilian. It is essential to establish the plausibility that they can solve a crime.

Details should include:

  • Who is this amateur sleuth?
  • How did they become involved in the murder?
  • Who do they know? (family and friends)
  • What are the skills they possess that might assist them in solving a crime?
  • Do they know someone close to the official investigation that might have information to share? (police officer, medical examiner, prosecutor, reporter, etc.)

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Wait. Less World Building is Better?

There is a fallacy in the concept of world building. While crucial to the development of your story, it is the story that drives the world building, not the opposite.

Many authors, especially those who write science fiction and fantasy, revel in creating every minutia of the world they are writing about. That may be a satisfying exercise for the author but an unnecessary one. Despite the plethora of world building worksheets available, the process is considerably more straightforward than it appears.

The only world building you need is dictated by the story you write. Let’s assume that you are writing a science fiction story set on a spaceship. The most immediate world you should describe is the world your characters exist in, the spaceship. Description, origin, propulsion system, crew, food stores, destination, and reason for the mission are all crucial aspects of the world that need to be determined. A planet they stop on for only a short time requires less description, a planet where most of the action takes place needs more explanation.

Do not write your story around your world, but create the world around your story.

Mystery Genre Workshop Part Two: Mysterious Characters

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When someone mentions “mystery novel” what image comes to mind? The cloaked Sherlock Holmes, the wax mustache of Hercule Poirot, the trenchcoated Columbo, the clever Jessica Fletcher, Clarice Starling’s strength, the gritty Harry Bosch, or— any number of detectives that leap from the pages of our favorite mystery stories.

Why? Simple, the writers and screenwriters made them memorable.

As discussed in the previous article on plot, many writing “experts” debate whether a novel is plot driven or character driven. I believe both must be present. An excellent plot will not save a poorly written character, nor will an excellent character save a poorly written plot. Writers need both.

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Attributes of Mystery Characters

What makes a strong and identifiable protagonist in a mystery story?

The answer is the same components that create any good character. The reader must empathize with your main character’s goal and become vested in the same desire to achieve the goal. The protagonist needs to be multi-dimensional, and that complexity can be obtained by providing the reader with recognizable attributes. Creating a complex and compelling protagonist and applying these traits to secondary characters as well adds depth to the story.

Let’s first talk about characterization, a process that displays the character’s persona.

Developmental Strategies

General Characteristics

  • Physical Description: Convey to your reader only what you want them to see. Do not assign a grocery list of hair color, eye color, height, etc. but weave descriptions into the story. Allow your character to have a flaw—a scar, a crooked eyebrow, an old sports injury that flares up at times. Perfection is not realistic.
  • Personality: Is your character open to experience or resistant, conscientious or untrustworthy, an extrovert or introvert, agreeable or disagreeable, neurotic or even-keeled?
  • Interaction: How do they behave with others? Do they relate to people positively or negatively, or do they feel superior or indifferent? Do they have a sense of humor? Are they at times sarcastic? Are people comfortable in their presence?
  • Mannerisms: Do they gesture when they talk, twirl hair through their fingers? Do they tap a surface with their fingers or a pen? Give your character a quirk. Annoying or appealing, mannerisms add depth.
  • Environment/Culture: Your character’s living conditions reveal a great deal about them. Are they tidy or messy? What kind of car do they drive or food do they prefer? Does your character have a passion for the arts, or sports, or reading or are they committed to their job?
  • Communication: How your character speaks brings them to life. If they have an accent use it (do not overdo jargon) to add depth. Vary their speech pattern from the norm when they are nervous or happy. Include the character’s inner-thoughts to bring intimacy between the character and the reader.
  • Names: A character’s name can be very telling. It can provide insight into their background, profession, or where they come from. Choose names that will provide insight into who the character is. A judge would not likely be called Junior in the courtroom, a prostitute Elizabeth on the streets.

 Sleuth Specific Attributes

While these attributes are also vital to other genres, a detective—professional or amateur—often possesses these traits.

  • Intelligence, excellent deductive reasoning skills.
  • Experienced and knowledgeable, either as a law enforcement professional or in the case of an amateur sleuth a comprehensive knowledge of some component of the crime.
  • Are often loners, misunderstood, not comfortable in social situations, yet only the reader might be aware of this aspect. They often do not trust others.
  • May experience a physical or psychological challenge, an addiction or phobia.
  • Often have an experience in their past that either disrupted their personal life or impacted their career.
  • Has a foil to play off, someone who is their opposite but not necessarily their enemy such as a by the book superior.
  • Possesses a strong sense of justice but doesn’t always play by the rules to achieve their goals.
  • Willing to risk everything to solve the crime even if their reputation is at stake.

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When considering a list of traits such as this, it is evident that creating a compelling character is a complex but worthwhile task. Readers are drawn to a story by the plot, but they return to read an author’s other book or series of books because they identify with the characters within and empathize with their desires. The attributes discussed can be utilized by characters in any genre, and all do not need to be present in every character, but the more complicated—and human—you make your protagonist, the stronger the bond with the reader.

Characters, whether in a mystery story or other genre, should want something so badly that they will risk all to achieve it. They carry burdens of secrets from their past they don’t want to confront, but those secrets make them vulnerable. When you can create a character that becomes a reflection of the hopes and fears of your reader, then you have achieved your job as a writer.

 

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Mystery Genre Workshop Part One: Plot and Structure

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 Why Do We Love Mysteries?

Years ago, a new bookstore opened in the city where I was living. An avid mystery fan, I hurried to the store on opening day. The smell of new books mixed with incense filled the air, the wooden bookshelves were polished, and the blood-red carpet pristine. Except in one section where yellow tape outlined the shape of a body lying on the floor. I didn’t have to look for the section sign, I knew exactly where I was. I had arrived in the world of mystery novels.

What is the mystique about mysteries that draws us to them? There are several reasons. First, the concepts of good and evil and justice are recurring themes in mysteries. The most satisfying stories for many readers are the ones where good overcomes evil and justice is served.

We are given a real hero to cheer for, whether that hero is a police detective, a government agent, or a florist. The professional or amateur sleuth personifies the good we treasure and brings the evil villain to justice.

There is another draw that brings us into the world of mystery. The puzzle. As a story unfolds, the writer provides clues, misdirection, foreshadowing, all of which allow the reader to deduce the culprit along with the sleuth.

From Christie, Doyle, Chandler, Cornwell, Connelly, McDonald, Evanovich, and Grimes to the unknown authors of tomorrow, they have given us hours of enjoyment as we attempted to figure out—Who done it?

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Let’s look at how to write a mystery story. I am a pantser, I do not outline my story in advance, but I know vital points about my story before I type the first word. I know who my protagonist and antagonist are and whether my protagonist is a law enforcement official or a civilian. I know the crime. Most importantly, I know the ending, which provides a target to focus on as I write.  You may take a detour or two along the way, but you must arrive at your ending. Once you know these items, you can create your plot. divider-2

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Clues to Writing a Mystery

 Plot and Structure

The plot in a mystery is centered around crime, commonly murder but not always. (If you choose a murder mystery, make the first murder early in the story. Murder mystery fans get anxious for a victim!) The novel’s central conflict is between someone trying to solve the crime versus the criminal’s efforts to cover his or her tracks. At the same time, a mystery is often set up as a kind of puzzle or game for readers, who analyze clues and try to solve the mystery themselves. (Isn’t that the idea?)

To Develop Your Plot:

  • Know your ending. It’s difficult to write a mystery if you don’t know who the killer is and why they committed the crime.
  • Know your beginning. How you introduce your plot is as important as the ending.
  • Allow your reader the confidence that they can solve the mystery whether they do or not. It is essential for your detective to work through the process, follow the clues, and solve the crime logically, as the reader might do. Don’t spring a solution onto the reader at the last moment, that’s cheating, and it will ruin your story and your credibility.
  • As to clues, foreshadowing is your friend. You don’t want clues to be obvious, but they must show importance later. Leave clues, your reader needs to be engaged in the mystery. Be subtle in those clues you do give, and no one said you can’t throw a few red herrings in to get them off the trail. Surprise your reader with plot twists, keep them guessing.
  • Know your basics. Who are your detectives, police professional or civilian? Who was murdered and how were they murdered and why? Who are the suspects? What obstacles stand in the detective’s way? Who is the killer? Do your homework, know your method of murder—gun, knife, poison—and make your story plausible.

To Structure Your Plot:

Act One:

  • Introduce your protagonist.
  • Reveal the crime.
  • Establish your protagonist’s goals and desires.
  • Determine your setting (important for sub-genres).
  • Introduce other characters (one may be your antagonist).
  • Set up obstacles the protagonist must face to achieve the goal.
  • Create subplots (often about the protagonist’s career or private life).

Act Two:

  • Raise the level of obstacles the protagonist must confront to raise the suspense.
  • Reveal clues as the investigation intensifies, including a core clue.
  • If a murder mystery, add another murder.
  • Sub-plot deepens.
  • Introduce red herrings and take away a promising suspect.

Act Three:

  • Motives are revealed.
  • Misdirection regarding the main plot.
  • Main clue revealed.
  • Sub-plot resolved.
  • Stakes for the protagonist raised higher.
  • Climatic confrontation with the perpetrator.

Notes:

  • Hook your reader. The first sentence, sentences, or paragraph must draw your reader in. For a mystery story, it is best to begin with action of some type. The murder occurring or the protagonist doing their job (a detective at a crime scene, for instance).
  • Establish empathy with your protagonist early. Your reader must identify with them and the goal they seek.
  • As stated in plot development, give your reader a murder/crime early in the story. Introduce the plot focus within the first half (but no later than the end) of the first chapter.
  • As you develop your plot, begin to consider the development of your characters and the secondary characters.
  • Pace your story, include waxing and waning action and offer a couple of mini-action scenes, and a more significant action scene in the middle, building to the final climax with the antagonist.

 

Plot is always essential to any story but imperative to a mystery. Every nuance of the story needs to lead to the resolution of the protagonist’s goal. Many writing “experts” like to purport that novels are plot driven and some say character driven. I believe you can’t have one without the other. Tomorrow we will examine the importance of characters and how to develop them within a mystery story.

 

Writers Unite! Announces Our Third Anthology! Realm of Mystery

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Mystery writers, join Writers Unite! for the third volume in our Anthology Series!

Submissions for Realm of Mystery will open on September 1, 2018, and closed on October 31, 2018.

You must be a member of the Facebook group Writers Unite! or a follower of this blog to enter. Click here to join WU!

The guidelines for the anthology and directions for the submissions port are found here.

Two crucial points:

  • You MUST edit your entry prior to submission. We do a light edit on the stories before they are sent to the publisher but will not correct excessive errors. Those stories will be rejected.
  • You MUST have the anthology’s theme as the focus of your story. Writers Unite! chose to do a main genre as opposed to specific themes so that authors had a broader scope to choose sub-genre of interest.

There is an art to short stories. The writer must condense a story into fewer words and also choose those words carefully. Writing a mystery short story has the added element of clues and foreshadowing that are difficult to develop within a few thousand words.

Starting on Monday Writers Unite! will offer a workshop on writing short stories and the mystery genre.

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What is Mystery?

Mystery (pronounced mis-tuh-ree, ) is a genre of literature whose stories focus on a mysterious crime, situation or circumstance that needs to be solved. The term comes from the Latin mysterium, meaning “a secret thing.” stories can be either fictional or nonfictional, and can focus on both supernatural and non-supernatural topics. Many mystery stories involve what is called a “whodunit” scenario, meaning the mystery revolves around the uncovering a culprit or criminal.

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Get writing!!  Time to tell us “Who done it?”

WRITERS UNITE! TIPS ON WRITING!

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Deborah Ratliff: We Just Click, Dude!

How a deep connection between characters engages your reader.

 
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”    ― Aristotle

A writer recently posted a question in a group discussion. What causes a reader to return to subsequent novels by an author? He wondered if the author and their writing style was the reason.

I have heard this question many times, and I think that while an author’s style is important to a reader, what brings a reader back repeatedly is how the author crafts characters.

Once at a meeting of a writing group, we were discussing the merits of writing a novel series and what would cause readers to continue to follow the books. A local playwright listened to this discussion before pounding the table. He declared that there was only one reason a reader came back: the characters. Provide a character that a reader can identify with, care about, connect to, and they will respond and read everything you write about that character.

This is true for me personally. The first author and character I became enamored with were John D. McDonald and the infamous Travis McGee. Everything about his books drew me in. The main setting, the coast of South Florida, remains a favorite to this day. Every detail, the ancient Rolls Royce McGee converted into a pick-up truck, the houseboat he won in a poker game, the marina where the boat docked, all characters within the novels. But that alone did not bring me back.

Travis McGee was larger than life. A man of honor with a strong moral center who, while he would bend the rules to accomplish his goals, never lost sight of the truth and what was right. He was reliable, counted on to help people when they had exhausted all other possibilities to undo a wrong. I think we all want that level of stability and strength in our lives.

McDonald didn’t stop with his main character. He created a world of characters that existed from novel to novel. McGee’s best friend, the economist Meyer, was unique, along with a cast of colorful and eccentric characters. From Chookie, who danced at a local club, to The Alabama Tiger, who held a constant floating party on his boat, these characters became old friends. The last Travis McGee novel may have been the saddest book I have ever read. My friends were gone. There would be no new adventures.

However, that instant connection I had with McGee and company will never leave. I read those books over often and feel nostalgia and peace simultaneously. Once you have felt that connection whether in real life or in your imaginary life that feeling will never leave.

The question then becomes this. How do writers craft characters that readers can connect with at the desired level? Let us examine what makes a character memorable.

 

Who is this person?

You must establish your main character as likable and relatable. They do not have to be perfect but do need to have characteristics the reader can identify with, or there will be no connection.

An important consideration is not to stereotype your character. Perfection is not the goal here, realism is. The reader wants to see someone who is strong and heroic but with flaws that they have themselves. Then they can project themselves into the action. Remember, Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.

Construct your character through show and tell, don’t provide a litany of characteristics. If your character is short (which I identify with) frame the description as “she stretched to reach the top shelf” not she was five-one. The reader will have experienced the reaching or watched someone who did and identify without an exact reference to the character’s height and create an image in their imagination.

Above all, reveal your character’s flaws. Are they afraid of new love because of hurt in the past? Are they devastated or angry because of a tragedy? Did they lose everything and have to start over? Show the fears they feel, the pain and anger. You should also give them a reason for hope—a faith that they will survive and reach their goal. Give them humor and confidence, even if you shake it from time to time. Let them laugh, cry, rant, and fight for what they want. Your reader should be cheering for your character to succeed with every word.

 

What are they seeking?

Establish your MC’s goal as soon as possible. What do they want? Once you have established the task before them, throw obstacles in their way. Create the need for the reader to become engaged in their quest. We have all wanted something we seemingly can’t have, and as problem after problem piles on, we think we will never reach our goal. Let the reader feel that frustration, fear, anger as they fight through the issues keeping them from their goals.

 

Who are their companions?

As with the Travis McGee series, secondary characters are significant to how your reader identifies with your main character and invests in the story. They need to be memorable as well.

I wrote a story where I introduced a character, a bartender in the New Orleans French Quarter, who was meant to be a vehicle for my protagonist to run into her former lover. Within two paragraphs, I had fallen for the bartender, and he morphed into a cousin and best friend of the former lover and became an integral part of the plot. The story became more vibrant with more depth because I added a character who had a vested interest in the outcome.

Create the friend, the mentor, the grandmother, the housekeeper, whatever character you need to help you present your MC’s human side. Someone who recognizes their flaws and is not afraid to tell them. Someone they can confess their thoughts to, someone they trust. With each interaction between these characters, the reader will become more attached to the main character.

 

What does this effort give you, the author?

Going back to our original question, why do readers return to a writer, they come back because they like the characters.

They “just click” with them. Standalone stories with great characters will bring readers back to an author. A series of novels with the same character succeeds because, while writing style may have allowed them to enjoy the first novel, readers will want to read the second and third and so on because you gave them a character who reflects their desires and one they can identify with time and again.

Never forget how it felt to instantly connect to someone important in your life. A good author will give that incredible emotion to their readers. Those readers will be back for more.

 

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Deborah Ratliff is Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing site, Writers Unite! which has 43,000 + members from around the globe.

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Resources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/18077-what-is-a-friend-a-single-soul-dwelling-in-two

https://www.goodreads.com/series/52264-travis-mcgee

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082971/

Writers Unite! Tips on Writing

WT - Write Daily

Susan Staneslow Olesen: The Idea Factory

“I want to write, but where do you get your ideas?”

It’s hard for me to answer such a question because I’ve never had to think about it; ideas were just there. Writing is in my blood—my grandfather published a few books, my grandmother wrote poetry, my great-great-grandfather collected folktales, and my dad has articles published in magazines. I’ve been writing seriously since I was ten years old. I didn’t pursue writing as a career because it was something I already did well; there were other things I wanted to learn. Give me a class with a term paper and I knew I’d get a good grade.

Now, that’s not to say I never get writer’s block, or sometimes have no idea what to write. I belonged to a writer’s group for ten years, with monthly topics. Often I whipped off a piece that night or the next day, and goofed off the rest of the month. Sometimes I wrote three. Sometimes I started out with the topic in mind, but it took such a tangent you never saw it coming. Presented with the topic of “Hands,” I wrote about a magician’s assistant. For a theme of “Water,” I wrote a Greek-style myth inspired by a line of Pete Townshend’s song Hiding Out—“a waterfall of women weeping”—what an image! And yes, most certainly, I get overwhelmed when starting a new novel—even now, when I’ve written ten of them.

So, where does a writer get ideas?

The answer is: look around you. There isn’t a thing under the sun that isn’t an inspiration. Ants in the grass. A cat hugging himself in his sleep. A moth beating against a window. The fading sunlight creeping across a carpet. Every one of those has a story behind it. When? Where? Why? I needed a name for a lawyer, so I looked around me. Larry Lamp didn’t cut it. Marcus Driskin was named for a bottle of—you got it—dry skin lotion.

My first novel series, Best Intentions, arose from a short story I read in the back of a women’s magazine when I was about nine years old. It involved parents who abandon their five children at the side of the road, and how the oldest child—eight or nine herself—tries to make a home for her siblings in the woods. Using that theme of children abandoned, I invented a story of a large family whose mother dies unexpectedly, and when the father is sent to prison, they are legally abandoned into the custody of the eldest child (an overwhelmed 22-year-old in my story). That one small concept—children alone—turned into a five-volume sociological study of abandonment, depression, abuse, and the power of love and forgiveness. I joke it’s my Ph.D. in psychology. The two stories have as much in common as apples and oranges, but they came from the same concept.

In my second novel series, there is a simple line in Conflicts of Interest that says, “My second wife died of a medical condition.” It was only on editing that I wondered, what if the condition was suicide? Why? My head then exploded with possibilities, and a 40-page outline evolved almost overnight.

The best thing for a writer, the very best thing you can do to advance your writing career, is get outside and OBSERVE. Take notes if you have to, but your goal is to leave your abode and go feel the entire world with every one of your senses. Walk through your town, whether it’s New York City or a small village in the Punjab. See it with a child’s eyes, a child’s sense of wonder. What does it smell like, not just here, but there, too? Breathe in: smell the dirt, the pavement, the trees, the garbage rotting by the roadside, the skunk in the distance, fresh paint. How does the sun feel on your skin? Is the air humid, damp, sticky, dry, cold, hot, is the wind blowing? Is the sun hot but the air cold? Hot like a lamp, or hot like cayenne at a Mexican fiesta? How does the air change after it rains? What does the pavement smell like after rain, awash in the metallic smell of writhing earthworms? Listen as you walk. What music do you hear leaking from cars or windows? What is it saying? Is there a busker on the steps of city hall, blowing a trumpet or sawing a violin?

Everything tells a story.

James Baldwin called it Experience. A writer needs to experience everything they can, and then write what they know. That’s true, but you can’t always experience something—not everyone will be an astronaut; no one knows what it feels like to travel to Mars; a woman (random, average) cannot know what it’s like to be a man, and a man won’t ever experience childbirth. We don’t know if an elephant feels sadness; we can’t all climb Everest; we don’t all have a twin; we may never undergo divorce or have a child kidnapped or find an evil clown in the sewer drain—but we can observe, ask people, read biographies and science books, and we can use those observations to project a sense of experience, remembering a time when we felt profound fear, and write what we know. Read. Read everything you can get your eyes on, even shampoo bottles. What comes into your head?

A short video on Japanese cooking I saw inspired a short story of a child getting expelled from school for using a similar method to cheat students out of money. Completely unrelated, but inspired by nonetheless. Knowing old glass has a tendency to slide downward over the millennia led to the scene in Best of Everything where newcomer Sarah gets off on the wrong foot, informing Grandmama that her expensive and rare artwork is being mistreated and starting to slide off the canvas. When the cat died of liver cancer, I turned the feeling of loss into a poem about two children playing in a real forest. You can read it here. A horrific nightmare I had in college became a character’s nightmare in a story.

Susan S Oleson kitty

You’ve lived on this planet for decades. What have you experienced? What facts do you know? Think of a fact, any fact, and use it to formulate a story. Monarch butterflies migrate. Chewbacca walks through the Death Star naked, and no one thinks twice. It takes, on average, twelve minutes for pasta to cook. Murders can happen in less time. (Okay, so now I have a picture in my head of a naked Wookie boiling water for pasta, but s/he is murdered, and a butterfly flies past the window. See how ideas multiply?)

Experience. Observe. Examine everything, as if you just landed from another planet and were trying to figure everything out. Everything you can see, smell, touch, taste, hear—grab it with both hands, let it sift through your fingers. How would you describe it?  Observe everything. Observance = experience. If you’re writing about Greece and you’ve never been there, take a trip if you can. If not, find a Greek festival. Watch the people. Listen to the language. Note the colors of the costumes and the dances and the rhythm of the music. Taste the food, or at least just look at it, noting the way a grape leaf looks rolled and stuffed and cooked, or the shine on a triangle of baklava, the way the walnuts spill between the layers of dough. Taste the sweetness of Ravani. At worst, find a travel DVD at your local library and take in what you can. Observe, observe, observe. It doesn’t have to cost anything. Take notes if you have to. Many foreign cities have webcams; view the landscape in realtime. See the buildings, note the colors. What does it make you think of?

As a writer, your job is to convey your story, to transmit the movie from your head to that of the reader. A successful story pulls the reader inside, connects with them not just visually with a painted scene, but emotionally, retrieving the smell of Grandma’s peach pie, the gold flaky crust with the tips of the edges just starting to burn, the way she twisted the peaches in the pan just so to make it look like a swirl when set on the table, with a dollop of whipped cream perched in the center, rivaling the onion domes of Moscow. To build up that illusion, to pull those memories from people’s heads that make your writing alive for them, you have to pull their emotions, and you reach those emotions by pulling out those details that trigger their memories, and those details come with observational experience. A good story takes place more in the reader’s head than on the printed page. Hair the color of rusted chains, bouncing in a confident rhythm as she trekked up the walkway, paints a dynamic picture that sticks in readers’ heads, lights their imagination, and connects in a personal way. Roan may not be a word everyone understands, but most people have seen rusted swings in a schoolyard, brownish-red. Shared experience. In The Shining, Stephen King mentions the way someone blows their nose, peaks into the hanky, then puts it away. You’ve seen people do this. A little detail, incidental to the story, but it makes the character pop from the page. You know people just like that. You’ve seen passing motorists pick their nose while driving. Perhaps you have a friend with an eye that has a tic; it twitches when they speak. Slide that fact into a character; instant association. Use that fact as the basis of a story. Perhaps the tic is a fatal flaw, giving away a secret.

Observe. Observe. Observe. The distant clang of church bells, tolling the hour. The rush of wind through pine trees. The headline of a newspaper; a magazine article on solar-powered cars. Listen to the conversation behind you in the restaurant. Teri’s husband blew another paycheck gambling, and Hope’s offered to front her $40 for groceries. Every one of these situations is a story. Writing dragons? Visit a pet store and watch lizards.

Go. Write. Write with passion. Use all that knowledge you spent a day, a week, a lifetime accumulating, and put it into your writing. Write with authority, knowing that your words are truth. Everything you see or hear is a potential character, a potential story, a potential detail to help bring your story alive. If one idea isn’t enough, list several: a blue car, falling acorns, the wedding ring, Billy the Exterminator, the sound of geese honking. The more ideas you list, the more your story writes itself. First day of school, shadows on the wall, grandpa’s missing teeth, misty rain, fireman. All that knowledge is in your head—or at least in your notes. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

Don’t overthink it, just let your story go where it wants. You’ll be surprised where you wind up.

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Susan S Oleson   

Susan Staneslow Olesen is an exhausted novelist and blogger for the Cheshire Public Library, where she also runs a writer’s group. A graduate of Wells College and The Chase Collegiate School, she has been a fruit picker, dial press operator, special education teacher, crisis intervention specialist, Disc Media Wizard, fostered 50 kittens, and is a 30-year foster parent to six children plus three of her own. She runs in circles and tears her hair out with her husband in Connecticut.

 

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