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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
What is the subject of your talk?
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.
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.
Okay, am I ready to send this story to the publisher?
Almost. Trust me, it will be worth it. Go back over the submission guidelines to see if the publisher has mentioned how they want the actual story to be presented. If it does not give any direction, then your story should be submitted using the Shuun format. The Shuun format is a directive about margins, fonts, font sizes, spacing, headers, and title page layout. If you have written your story using this method, you have no problems. If you haven’t, check online for some direction (either Google or YouTube) and re-format you story. If they do give directions, follow them as closely as possible. Sometimes publishers request that your document not have paragraph indents, or be presented in single spacing. Some may even ask that all reference to the author be removed from the story. This is usually done when the story goes before a panel for blind judging. The anonymity allows for the work to stand for itself, which is why it is important to put so much other information in the submission letter–it may be your only way to influence the editor/publisher.
This really seems like work; the story didn’t take this long to write.
You’re right, it is a lot of work, but you must remember the publisher has the advantage over the writer. Unless they are looking for the work of a specific contributor, they really do not care who you are when your story comes in. It sounds heartless, but this is a business and time is money, so you had better give them something worth their time.
You have a story (universally formatted), a head shot, an author’s bio, and a submission letter, so let’s do this. WAIT, it is worth one more look, almost like a checklist. Go back to the submission guidelines, and yes, yes, yes… you’re ready. But this publisher wants you to submit on their website, now what do you do? You fill out their information boxes, cut and paste your letter into the appropriate space and either do the same for your story, or attach the file. Remember, when you cut and paste any document, go back over it to make sure your paragraph breaks are there. If not, re-install them to make the best presentation, showing emphasis to detail.
Okay, that’s it, there’s nothing more you can add, so you take a deep breath and hit the Send button. Be proud, you are one step closer than before to becoming a published author.
You wait, but not for long. If the publisher is of note, you will probably get an automated email stating receipt of your story and giving direction to contact them if you do not hear their decision about your story. If this email doesn’t come within 48 hours, send them an email and ask if they received your story or if you should send it again.
You should have four objects in your possession when this process is over: your story, your picture, your biography, and your original copy of your submission letter. Good, you want to keep all of them available for the next time you submit a story for consideration. If it’s the same story, use can use the same letter MAKING SURE to change the date, name of publication, etc., to save yourself unnecessary embarrassment. If you are submitting a different story, you already have the components, just retool the letter for the new story. If you get poor results after several submissions, try retooling your letter. If you still have nothing, try retooling your story.
If you get a rejection letter, don’t feel bad. There are only a certain number of spots in any roster, just try another team. I like to think of these as not being rejected, but this publisher has declined to use my story now, which is a roundabout way of saying “thanks, but no thanks.” In fact, I have never received a letter with the word reject in it. If you do, that is not a publisher of worth. Sometimes, they will take the time to make positive comments or suggestions about how to improve your story. When you receive this type of letter, my advice is to send a polite response acknowledging their decision. Remember this is a business and you are a professional–leave them with a good opinion of you as someone positive to work with. It may help the next time you send them a story.
If you get a letter of acceptance, congratulations! Look forward to them sending you a contract and working with their editor to make your story fit their mold… but that is another topic for another day. Have fun, and welcome to this wonderful world as a professional writer. I hope this hasn’t been too confusing, nor disheartening. It really does get easier as you go.
(November 2017 All rights reserved)
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.
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.
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!)
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:
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.
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.
Sleuth Specific Attributes
While these attributes are also vital to other genres, a detective—professional or amateur—often possesses these traits.
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.
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?
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.
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:
To Structure Your Plot:
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.