Category Archives: Deborah Ratliff

Deborah Ratliff: A Storm is Coming

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The news was full in recent days with updates regarding an impending hurricane headed for the Gulf shore of the United States. A severe storm in an area still smarting from the horrors of hurricanes past deserves our attention.

I will admit, however, that there is a little part of me that becomes excited when a hurricane is forecast. The writing muse that lurks in my head hears “hurricane” and immediately conjures up scenes of roiling dark seas, ragged gray clouds, and howling wind driving heavy rain sideways, stinging all it touches.

A storm is coming.

I love storms. I love the growl of thunder. The boom reverberating off my chest sometimes takes my breath away. A purple streak of lightning both startles and excites me. Along the shore I love so much, the rough waves slamming into the soft sand display the power of the weather. Those emotions are strong, and I find that I often use weather to establish a mood.

For example, this is the opening passage of my upcoming novel One of Those Days:

“It was another one of those days, like every day in southern Louisiana. The sun was a golden glare in a washed-out sky, the air thick with moisture, its weight heavy and clinging to her skin. Adie Morgan winced against the bright light despite the dark sunglasses hiding her eyes.”

Yes, I opened a novel by describing the weather despite Elmore Leonard’s first writing tip, “Never open a book with the weather.” In this instance, the main character has returned to Louisiana due to a near family tragedy. I needed to show it was an ordinary day and weather is a good measure of how ordinary a day can be.

Concerning Leonard’s epitaph regarding weather, many writers stop with that statement, considering it gospel. However, Leonard went on to offer a justification. “If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long.” Leonard also added an exception—“If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”

Hemingway didn’t adhere to Leonard’s pronouncement either. He wrote to John Dos Passos: “Remember to include the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.” Going so far as to include a mention of the weather in the opening and in the body of such works as A Very Short Story, In Another Country, and Cross-Country.

Bullet-pointed rules rarely tell the entire story. The nuances of a subject are far better to use as guidance. In Leonard’s case, his apparent state of “never” is in truth a more thoughtful description of when using weather is appropriate.

I admit to employing weather as a tool whenever I can in my writing. I love the emotion invoked by weather. A gentle rain may be soothing or melancholy to a thoughtful character. A blizzard can be cozy and warm in front of a fire or bitter cold and frightening when stranded. Toss in a hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, or volcano eruption, and you have chaos, fear, and often, heroism. You don’t need a significant weather event to invoke a mood, and that is precisely what the inclusion of weather can do to a story.

Foreshadowing is an invaluable tool in a writer’s arsenal and assists in building suspense. I wrote a character—a photographer—who ventured outside in a light rainstorm to take photographs, not realizing she was being followed. The rain provided a way for me to slow her down and become more aware of her surroundings, consequently becoming suspicious of the situation. Later in the day she went for a run, ominous clouds of a much stronger storm rolled in, and she increased her pace to hurry home. The storm broke before she reached safety and the bad guys following her caught up. As the subsequent scenes played out, the heavy rains remained as a constant, adding to the dark mood of the plot. The rain and later raging storm served to foreshadow the confrontation with the villains.

More than anything, weather can help set the mood of a story. The website Literary Devices defines mood “as a literary element that evokes certain feelings or vibes in readers through words and descriptions.” Mood is attained through setting, theme, word choice, and pacing. 

Setting:

Weather is a component of setting. Its impact is in the extremes of weather—blizzards, tornadoes, monsoons, heat waves—which have a wide-sweeping effect. Remember that even a calm, balmy evening can be integral to your story, but when the weather becomes too commonplace, better to keep the topic in the background as it is in real life.

Theme:

Theme is the message that you want to convey to your readers. The theme can be love, good vs. evil, overcoming odds, survival, heroism, or other emotional experiences. Weather can affect the mood of your theme. The pain of unrequited or lost love could be represented by thunder, lightning, high wind, or rain. Joy could be represented by a sunny, warm day with a gentle breeze.

Word Choice:

The selection of the proper word to use is crucial when writing and when setting a mood. When writing weather, referring to sunlight as bright or brilliant or blinding can convey different meanings.  Referring to the air as hot and dry provides a different environment than calling the air hot and humid. Be cognizant of the impact of the words you use on your reader. One word can make a huge difference in your message.

Pace:

Weather can augment the pacing of your story. Remember that alternating action with quieter narrative is essential. By providing “rest” sections in your story, the reader has a moment to take a breath before you ramp up the action again. Calm weather, even a soft rain or a cool breeze is restful. A powerful storm, an impending tornado, or the occurrence and aftermath of any significant weather event steps up the pace and suspense in your story.

A lesson learned is that all writing tips are not set in stone. There are exceptions to any opinion regardless of the experienced writers’ dictates. Use common sense and know when it is appropriate to follow your instincts. Break the “rule” when necessary but make sure it is for a reason and that it moves your story forward. Begin your story the way it needs to be begun.

Remember, opening with the weather is just fine. After all, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

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Deborah Ratliff is a Southerner with saltwater in her veins and a 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 43,600 + members from around the globe.

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Resources:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/23/writers-in-the-storm

http://j-nelson.net/2015/03/never-open-a-book-with-weather/

https://www.shmoop.com/quotes/it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night.html

https://literarydevices.net/mood/

 

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Deborah Ratliff: I Went to this Writing Seminar

Writing is an endless learning quest.  In search of answers to our questions about grammar, structure, point of view, and all the components of writing, we join writing groups or search the internet for answers. We also attend writing seminars.

One would think that with assembling a collection of “experts” on writing it would be highly informative. However, remember the old idiom, “Never judge a book by its cover.” That phrase is very telling when attending a writers’ conference.

My expectations are always high when I attend seminars. I admit to being one of those people who love to learn regardless of the subject matter. With my passion for writing, attending a writing conference is an inspiring event for me.

Until I go.

Don’t get me wrong, I always enjoy attending, but I often come away feeling very short-changed. I expect, especially if I have paid money, to be informed, engaged, and to a point, entertained by the speakers. I am not so naïve that I expect all speakers to be entertaining. I do expect them to be informed and organized when giving their talk.

In another article, we discussed what to expect when you search the internet for answers to your writing questions and how to judge the information given. There are considerable differences of opinion because much advice is subjective. Writing is a craft, not a science, and even the most rigid component of writing—grammar—has rules that can be bent. Our perception of what is correct when writing comes from our likes and dislikes within the general framework of the “rules.”

Which brings me back to the subject of seminar presentations. I do not expect to agree with the opinions or objectives of each presenter, nor do I expect to learn new things—a review of knowledge is as valuable as exposure to new ideas. What I do expect is that the presenter is organized, professional, and informative.

What happens in reality?  Some presenters, especially those at smaller seminars, tend to be unprepared. A recent workshop I attended opened with an author who entitled her presentation as one subject. Then after a rambling introduction, off-topic and incoherent, she announced she was only discussing a portion of her announced topic. The presentation went downhill from there.

Another presentation was a frantic attempt to generate interaction with the attendees about creating characters. The presenters assembled the audience into small teams and assigned a task. The exercise was “describe a character” and their first question, “What color are his eyes?”

While the color of your character’s eyes can be an essential part of your plot, most of us are rather adept at giving a physical description of a character. We also know the pitfalls of providing that description in a tell-versus-show manner. In a group presentation, wouldn’t delving into the deeper attributes of character development be a more challenging and informative exercise? I tend to think so.

As authors, we should relish the opportunity to share our knowledge as well as promote our brand by speaking before diverse groups of people. While the opportunity to talk to fellow authors may arise more often, we should seek out presentations before non-writing-related groups to broaden our audience.

Before speaking in public, you need to prepare. Let’s look at the steps you should take to develop a presentation.

Steps to the Perfect Presentation:

Who is your audience? 

  • Determine the demographics of those who will be listening to your talk. If writers, how skilled are they or will there be a mix of novice and experienced writers? Is this a group of genre writers as in a mystery or romance writing group?
  • When speaking before a community group, be confident that you understand the focus of the organization. Tying your message about your writing and your novels to their interests will strengthen the connection between you and your audience.
  • For instance, if you are speaking to a community club with a charitable focus, mention their efforts and provide a book or two for their next fundraising event. If possible, tie your theme into their work. Keep it short and straightforward but make the connection. If it’s a group of entrepreneurs or a corporate audience, you can talk about the business side of writing or the process of writing as opposed to the nuances of creating a story.
  • The goal is to give your audience what they need to hear.

What is the subject of your talk?   

  • Choose your subject based on your audience demographics. Your topic should be interesting to your target audience and appropriate to the event where you are speaking. Discuss your intended topic with the event planner so that you don’t replicate someone else’s presentation. You can complement another speaker but not imitate.
  • You should stay within the framework that you have expertise in. If you do not write in deep-POV, don’t talk about it unless you do extensive research and understand it.
  • Audiences ask questions. You do not have to have all the answers, but you should be prepared enough to know when you don’t know and say so. You can follow up with the questioner later.

Develop Content.

  • Preparation is the key to a successful presentation.
  • Use the 4-1 rule—spend four hours on every one hour that you are presenting. Most of us will rarely be giving a talk that lasts more than an hour, most will have approximately twenty to forty-five minutes. Regardless, spend the hours needed to gather the information you need.
  • If presenting to fellow writers, keep in mind, most know the basics. Think of your talk in the framework of what obstacles writers commonly encounter and how to overcome them. Be personal, share your issues and how you resolved them.
  • Collect the data relevant to your points and then prepare your presentation.

The Script.

  • Think of your talk as a script.
  • Your goal is to be prepared and not leave out important points.
  • Start with your main points, then fill in the finer points you want to emphasize.
  • Keep your content clear, concise, and focused on the subject. Provide an introduction, your message, and a conclusion.
  • Include anecdotes of your own experiences and examples of your points.
  • Do not attempt to do your presentation without notes. Have your script with you in whatever format you feel comfortable using. If you use multiple pages or the infamous index cards, number them in case you drop them. It happens.

The Visuals.

  • Technology is a beautiful tool to use when presenting. PowerPoint presentations add color and focus to your message. Do consider attention spans when preparing slides. Keep your slides simple and easy to read.
  • A successful venture capitalist by the name of Guy Kawasaki developed a plan for doing PowerPoint in his talks called the 10/20/30 rule. “…A PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.” It is not necessary to follow this rule explicitly, but it is a great reminder to keep your slides to a minimum and be readable.
  • You should use visuals as an asset to your message but not to convey the message.
  • Create handouts to accompany your talk. Whether the full outline of your speech or bulleted points of the highlights, a handout can provide information and you can also brand with your website and other contact information.
  • If possible, print your handouts in color for impact.
  • Determine the number of people who will be present and print enough copies plus extras. Do not interrupt the flow of your talk to distribute handouts. Give the handouts to the audience at the beginning or end of the presentation.
  • Remember—technology fails. Be prepared to give your talk without technical support.

The Presentation.

  • Be yourself, do not try to adopt a persona that doesn’t match your personality.
  • Dress professionally. Casual meeting? Dress in business casual. Image is important.
  • Speak clearly and slowly. Nervousness causes rapid speech.
  • Humor is an excellent way to connect with an audience. If you have an amusing anecdote about your writing, tell it if appropriate to the topic you have chosen.
  • Make eye contact with the audience.
  • Move around a bit—wander the “stage” area if not tethered by a microphone. Movement will help keep the audience from focusing on one spot, and they will be more relaxed.
  • Take time for questions, and answer concisely. If you don’t know the answers, say so. Do not try to cover something you do not know.

While you may have a bit of stage fright or feel uncomfortable, if you are prepared, you will do well. Remember, you are talking to people, your writing peers and those who are interested in talking to you, so enjoy the experience.

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About the Author:

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 43,700 + members from around the globe.

Resources:

https://www.slidegenius.com/blog/102030-rule-powerpoint-pr

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.

 

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/

Deborah Ratliff: Rules. Rules. There Are Too Many Rules!

Have you seen them? The myriad of articles posted on the Internet explaining all the things you must do to write the perfect story. Perhaps, you have seen the equally extensive list of articles telling you what you should not do. The problem? Not every article agrees on what is the correct or incorrect way to write.

What is a writer to do? How do we decide?

After years of writing business-related manuals concerning policy and training, newsletters, and research papers, I decided to return to writing fiction. My story construction skills were rusty, as was my grammar. In the corporate world, I was fortunate to have an assistant who proofed my writing. I was not so lucky in the private world. I knew I needed to hone my craft, and what better tool to use than the internet. I fired up Google and began to search for everything I could find on writing, and well, it was overwhelming. No matter the topic — how to write an opening line, how to create memorable characters, when to use effect and affect — the results of my search returned more articles than I expected. Faced with so much information, I wondered how I would manage to wade through and find what I needed to write “the great American novel.”

I am not alone. A member of Writers Unite! posted the following after receiving conflicting advice on how to write:

“Help! I’m a new author and have been networking with writers and editors. I’ve become so confused by all the different pieces of advice, I’m struggling to write a simple sentence. In the recent past, I’ve been told so many rules that I can barely keep them straight.”

The member went on to list examples of the rules as they have been explained to her.

  • Do not use descriptions
  • Show versus tell
  • Never make any cultural references
  • Do not give backstory on characters
  • Vary sentence length
  • Do not use adverbs.

Let us examine these rules.

 

Do not use descriptions.

Descriptions are the soul of writing. Not limited to location or characters, descriptive writing should include the five senses. Written images of a room may not be as crucial as whether it was hot or cold, what aromas did the character smell, did light spill into the room, or was it dark and eerie. A writer can easily bore their reader by droning on about the wallpaper or the carpet fiber or the tea cozy, but there are times when it is imperative to set a mood. How a person lives or the environment around them can be very telling as to who the character is and provides a great deal of depth.

The key here is to not overdo. Pay attention to what your story needs and nothing else. If you do write descriptively, pare down those words to include only what you need.

Avoid a litany of characteristics. “She was young, her hair long and blond, athletic build…” Instead, weave those characteristics into the story, “Preparing for her run, she pulled her blond hair into a ponytail…” and be certain that her “run” was essential to the plot.

 

Show versus tell.

The bane of every writer’s existence is this rule. Writing “experts” pound this rule into us at every opportunity. The fact is, it is a great rule and one that I fully believe in following. Anton Chekhov’s famous quote is the quintessential example: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

This rule harkens back to being descriptive. Allow your reader to feel, taste, hear, smell, and see, so they become fully immersed in the world you have created for them.

Should you always show versus tell? Yes, however, there are times when it is acceptable to move your story along and tell the action, instead of showing it. Remember to keep those moments very rare. “Jack, his face reddened, hands clenched, spun and left the room, slamming the door behind him.” You have set up that Jack is angry, describing the sound of the door slamming is not necessary.

 

Never make any cultural references.

Ask someone writing historical fiction not to make a cultural reference, and they will laugh at you. This is a specific rule. If you are setting your story within an exact timeframe, then cultural references of the era are vitally important to the credibility of your work.

The obvious reason for this rule is a cultural reference will date your work. Again, you need to keep the context of your story in mind. There may be times when a cultural reference is integral to the plot. I think the mention of social media, cell phones, or Instagram, among other references is acceptable providing they remain general.

 

Do not give backstory on characters.

Really? Exactly how do we bring depth to our stories if we do not provide pertinent backstory? Once again, this rule harkens back to the use of descriptive prose and show vs. tell. Do not write copious paragraphs about your character’s backstory but show by intertwining the information within the events and dialogue.

 

Vary sentence length.

Again, I agree with this rule in general. You need to vary the length of sentences and paragraphs to keep your reader from being bored and to maintain the pace of the story.  Sentences that are too long can cause your reader to lose interest. Short sentences can make your work seem rushed and choppy.

However—and there is always a however—when writing a scene with high tension, short sentences convey that sensation to your reader. Short, powerful sentences describing fight scenes mimic the action. Longer sentences express your character’s thoughts and reflections and help slow the pace of the story when necessary. While this rule is one I believe writers should adhere to, it is also one to suspend when the story calls for it.

 

Do not use adverbs.

Short of a lesson on the use of adverbs, which could be extensive, let’s agree that too many adverbs are not a good thing. According to my go-to grammar guru, Grammar Girl, verb modifiers are often “redundant or awkwardly placed.” She quotes master writer Stephen King who complains about them in his book On Writing, saying, “’I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops,’ but he doesn’t shout it loudly. He likens adverbs to dandelions. When one unwanted weed sprouts up, more follow.”

Grammar Girl suggests that you use adverbs in dialogue if appropriate to how the character speaks. Otherwise, she proposes to “use them wisely and only occasionally.”

 

I return to the original question. What is a writer to do?

As I worked my way through the copious amounts of advice I came across, I began to focus on the advice of only a few “experts ” and to rely on grammar references like The Chicago Manual of Style and Grammar Girl for practical advice. Listening to too many voices will create chaos and fail to provide direction.

The reality is that these rules are guidelines. They can be bent or broken depending on the creative needs of the author. As you write, keep the “rules” in mind, they are designed to keep your work coherent and consistent but do not be afraid to go against the experts. Only you know what your story needs.

About the author:

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. A few of her short stories appear in the Writers Unite! anthology Realm of Magic, published on August 1, 2018.

Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing group, Writers Unite! which has 42,000 + members from around the globe.

Sources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/16383-don-t-tell-me-the-moon-is-shining-show-me-the

https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html

Writers Unite! on Dr. Paul’s Family Talk Impact Radio USA!

Writers Unite! was invited back to chat with host Paul Reeves on Dr. Paul’s Family Talk on the internet radio station, Impact Radio USA.

Listen now as we discuss our first anthology, Realm of Magic which will be published on August 1, 2018, by RhetAskew Publishing. We also talk about our second anthology. Realm of Romance published in late Fall, 2018 and a bit about the writing process and how important it is to weave backstory into a story and not info dump at the beginning of a novel.

Click here to Listen to the Podcast!

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Realm of Magic

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Mr. Price’s Dinner Table – Deborah Ratliff

 

Location, location, location.

How many time have you heard that a business’s location is essential to its success? It is. The same is true for the site of your story. Choosing a small town, an urban environment, or an alien world instantly sets the mood, the culture, and the anticipation for your story. Choose wisely, and the location becomes another character in your writing, adding depth and complexity to your plot.

Why we choose a location varies from our own experiences to the genres that we write.  I set my stories in the world that I know best, the Southern United States and often in New Orleans. To explain how I decide, I need to take you on a journey to my childhood.

I am a Southerner and quite proud of my roots. Growing up in South Carolina I was fortunate to have parents who saw no color differences in their fellow man. People from all walks of life and cultures visited our home.

Memories of my childhood remain clear today. The mimosa tree that I played under in our yard. Houses where all doorways, windows, and chimneys were trimmed in blue to ward off evil spirits. The dime bags of boiled peanuts sold on the street. The ‘air-conditioned tree’ at the Herlong Orchard peach stand where the temperature was twenty degrees cooler in the shade and the water stored in a metal canteen was ice cold. While there was a horrible undercurrent of division and anger in this place I love so much, there was also a goodness of soul. Family, friends, food, and good times existed as well.

My father worked at the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, South Carolina where at the time hydrogen bombs were being made. With workers from all over the world employed there, as a child I met a variety of people. One of my father’s best friends was a bear of a man, a Navaho by the name of Jess Brown. His wife Athea, a small, plump woman who might have been a better cook than my grandmothers, was like an aunt to me. I am about one-sixteenth Cherokee and Jess, and Athea gave me a sense of what being Native American meant. Proud, hard-working, gentle people.

Another friend of my parents impacted my life more than I realized. Mr. Price. Honestly, I am not sure what his first name was, my parents never called him anything but Mr. Price. He was older, a slight man, regal in bearing, with snow-white hair and a thick Southern accent that held a lilt of his mother’s heritage. She was a Cajun from southwest Louisiana, and it was his reminisces about his mother’s upbringing that fueled my love of the Cajun culture.

Mr. Price was called a ‘bachelor.’ In the South in those days, an unmarried man of means, a patron of the arts was referred to in that manner. Anyone who has read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt will recognize who Mr. Price was. Polite society did not mention the word homosexual as that wouldn’t be gracious and respectful.

We often had Sunday dinner at Mr. Price’s home, a large two-story house near downtown Aiken. I remember the opulent crimson flocked wallpaper in the parlor, the glittering crystal chandelier in the dining room, and fresh flowers everywhere. While I loved to have dinner in the dining room,  if the weather cooperated, we would often eat on the back terrace surrounded by a formal garden.

Dinner? Not what you might expect for a South Carolina gentleman. While on occasion we might have shrimp and grits or barbecued chicken, we often feasted on shrimp etouffee or jambalaya, dishes Mr. Price’s mother made when he was small. At age ten, I had my first taste of that Cajun chicory coffee at his dinner table.

I was mesmerized as he would tell us of his parent’s home in Lake Charles, and his grandparents’ house in the country nearby. He would spin tales of fun in the bayou, and I was hooked for life. While I loved South Carolina, my heart drifted toward Cajun Louisiana. His memories stirred emotions in me that I have kept to this day.

When I began to write fiction again a few years ago, I knew I would set my stories in the South. While I have never sugar-coated the problems the area has, which are no different from any other part of the United States, there is an ambiance and tone about the South, the southern coast especially, that is alluring. When I began to write it was Louisiana that I set my first novel in, New Orleans specifically.

Having visited New Orleans a few times as an adult, I discovered that my writing muse was a resident of the French Quarter. New Orleans, the bayou, the jazz, the beignets, the sultry weather, all characters in themselves and ones I find creeping into my writing.

On a recent Sunday, I watched one of Anthony Bourdain’s final “Parts Unknown” episodes. We lost a unique individual with Bourdain’s death. A talented essayist on life and culture and how food is intrinsic to our existence, not only for sustenance but for our soula. This show centered on Cajun Mardi Gras as celebrated in Southwest Louisiana.

We know of Mardi Gras as a glitzy party of drunken revelry, resplendent with cheap shiny beads, gaudy costumes, and over the top parades, as well as – well – fun. Bourdain showed us a Mardi Gras few outsiders know,  celebrated away from the French Quarter. Equally as gaudy and drunken but steeped in tradition and meaning.

Despite the commercial decadence of the more popular party in the French Quarter or the more traditional decadence of Cajun Mardi Gras, the spirit of the Cajun people, their passion for life, food, and even voodoo fuel my imagination and my soul.

I realized how ingrained the Cajun world was to my writing when I recently started writing a short story for a romance anthology. I struggled with setting and story until my muse left the jazz bar in the Quarter and reminded me, I was a mystery writer. I knew where I belonged. My story is now a romance between a TV reporter and a detective brought together over a dead body.  The location you ask? The French Quarter.

There is something about the tenor and vibe New Orleans that touches me.  A city steeped in tradition and like Anthony Bourdain, unique.

After writing my first novel, Crescent City Lies, a mystery set in New Orleans, I realize that the Cajun culture remains embedded within me, sparked so many years ago at Mr. Price’s dinner table.

Location, location, location.

(photo from https://www.visitaikensc.com/groups)