If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com.

October Interviews
10/2 Debra H. Goldstein, Two Bites To Many
10/10 Connie Berry, A Legacy of Murder
10/17 Lida Sideris, Double Murder or Nothing
10/23 Toni L. P. Kelner writing as Leigh Perry, The Skeleton Stuffs A Stocking
10/30 Jennifer David Hesse, Autumn Alibi

Saturday Guest Bloggers:
10/5 Ang Pompano
10/12 Eyes of Texas Anthology Writers
10/19 Neil Plakcy

WWK Bloggers: 10/26 Kait Carson


Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Lyrical Press will publish Kaye George's Vintage Sweets mystery series. The first book, Revenge Is Sweet, will be released in March. Look for the interview here on 3/11.

Shari Randall will be writing again for St. Martin's, perhaps under a pseudonym. We look forward to reading Shari's Ice Cream Shop Mystery series debuting next year. Congratulations, Shari!

Susan Van Kirk's A Death At Tippett Pond was released on June 15th. Read E. B. Davis's interview with Susan.

KM Rockwood's "Frozen Daiquiris" appears in The Best Laid Plans: 21 Stories of Mystery & Suspense, edited by Judy Penz Sheluk. The anthology was released on June 18th.

Fishy Business anthology authors include KM Rockwood, Debra Goldstein, and James M. Jackson. This volume was edited by Linda Rodriguez.

Please read Margaret S. Hamilton and Debra Goldstein's short stories (don't ask about their modus operandi) in a new anthology, Cooked To Death Vol. IV: Cold Cut Files.

Warren Bull's Abraham Lincoln: Seldom Told Stories was released. It is available at: GoRead: https://www.goread.com/book/abraham-lincoln-seldom-told-stories or at Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/ydaklx8p

Grace Topping's mystery, Staging is Murder was released April 30.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Page One: A Killing Occurs

Our story opens with a body. In a cozy mystery, the deceased will have succumbed in some unusual and often humorously thematic manner, like being drowned in a vat of fabric dye or suffocated with organic cheese. In noir, the victim will lie unmourned in a dank alley, with only rats and derelicts for company.

I'm generalizing, of course. But no matter the sub-genre, there will be a body on the first page of the mystery, almost always.

I am not a fan of this trend. Yes, I know readers today like to get the story moving quickly, but that's a little too quickly for my tastes. I'm old school in that I prefer to get myself grounded in the setting and characters before the Big Bad happens. I want to settle into everyday life, feel the rhythms and rites of this place I'm entering. I want to know what's at stake here, what is being unraveled by the murderer's dark action.

Because this is where we want to return, this place of order. And if we jump too quickly into the chaos, we never get that twinge of loss at what had been. And it's important that we come face to face with that loss. The murderer has violated not only an individual, but an entire society. I want to see that society whole first. I want to become a part of its tapestry.

But now, more often than not, I barely get past "Chapter One" before blood is spilled.

The members of the YA book club that my Sisters in Crime chapter sponsors have expressed similar complaints. They are high school age and read widely across many genres. And they claim that they can tell if some well-meaning editor has completely upended a book's natural narrative just to get a corpse in the first paragraph. The plot loses its natural flow, they tell me. It jigsaws and teeter-totters and whiplashes. And they don't like that.

So yes, we're instructed as writers to begin "in medias res," in the middle of the action. And yes, we writers sometimes want to begin way too far back in the story, to our protagonist's first communion or some other dusty encounter. I am guilty of this, absolutely. I know that where I begin telling my story is rarely the point where its beginning will eventually be. I have to write my way to that point. But I know it when I write. I recognize it clearly and cleanly. And it is never the scene where my character finds a body.

Well. Almost never. Full disclosure – if you turn to the first page of my first book, The Dangerous Edge of Things, there's my girl Tai retching in the azaleas because, yes indeed, there's a body in the driveway. I wrote it that way because as an unpublished writer, I thought that was expected of me. And, I will admit, it worked. The murder plunged my new-in-town protagonist right into trouble with a capital T, leaving her as off-kilter and confused as the reader. But in every other book since, I've started by grounding the reader in Tai's life – in her gun shop, with her boyfriend, as she deals with her challenge of the moment – before I drop a killing in her lap.

What about you? Do you like your stories to start off with a deadly bang on the first page? Or do you prefer to get your feet wet before the capital crimes start happening?
Note: My between-book short story "Not Even Past" is free today on Kindle: a love story, a ghost story, another love story, another ghost story, and lost Confederate treasure. Not a single murder I thought my protagonists deserved a break before the onslaught of Reckoning and Ruin.


Margaret Turkevich said...

I try to have a body in the first three chapters, long enough into the story to establish the "old normal" and what's at stake. One of my favorite books, Murder With Peacocks by Donna Andrews (1999), only has a body sixty pages into the story, which works so well. But that was seventeen years ago.

Julie Tollefson said...

Where to put the body, how to pull readers in to the story quickly, how to introduce characters -- It's such a balancing act, isn't it? Looking at it as a reader, with a series, especially, it's nice to be re-introduced to characters you love before their lives are turned upside down again. But as a writer? The story I'm working on now is a police procedural and has a body on page 1. :)

Warren Bull said...

Reading tastes change. In THE MALTESE FALCON the books starts with fairly long description of the protagonist.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Well, in Ant Farm the first murders occurred before the novel begins and we never see them -- but we do know of the first one on page one and a second group on page 10. In Bad Policy, on page one we know something has occurred; on page 2 we find our hero in Homicide's interrogation room. In Cabin Fever, we don't get a murder all the way until page 13. In my WIP Doubtful Relations no known deaths occur until well into the book.

I do not need an immediate death or crime to keep my interest. Give me characters and some kind of tension and I'm content. Give me pages of backstory or normal life of getting up, having breakfast, brushing teeth, tying shoes in double knots before taking the morning one-mile walk, and I might be on to the next book.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

I don't murder my victims until the story is underway with characters as well as victim or victims and suspects introduced. It seems to work with those who have told me how much they enjoy my books. Of course, I write cozies with a slight edge in a small town. As a reader, I don't care if the body is introduced later. In fact, I rather prefer it that way so I get to know what kind of person the victim was. I read because I want to solve who the murderer is before he/she is exposed at the end, and I want to get to know the characters involved. I don't care if I please every reader or not, I want to write what I like.

Tina said...

I agree with Margaret and Warren -- reading tastes change, and they change our perception of what is a "good" book. I wonder if I'm now out of step with the rest of the mystery-reading public?

And it's interesting to ponder reader expectations vs writer expectations, which Julie pointed out can vastly influence expectations about where --and when -- that body ought to be. Which is why I've never tried to write a police procedural; my books are character-driven traditional mysteries (which is what I prefer to read as well).

I think Jim has it right -- there's gotta be tension of some sort for me to feel enough investment. I liked the way he worked it in Ant Farm-- death's on the front door, but it's also already happened, both at the same time. And it's inextricably woven into character.

Thanks for sharing your insights!

Tina said...

Excellent point, Gloria, and one I am happy my publisher supports -- my audience's taste is not necessarily the same as the taste of the general mystery-reading public. My books violate enough rules that they can't be easily categorized in any particular sub-genre. Also, dropping a body too early minimizes the pleasure of trying to figure out which character is going to die.

KM Rockwood said...

Left to my own devices, I'd do entirely too much set-up. Several times my critique group has said to me, "That's a nice character description,(or setting) but it ain't a story."

"Have a body in the first chapter (or first three chapters or whatever)" is the kind of rule that just begs to be broken. Like all such rules, though, we have to know why the rule has been stated and what it is intended to accomplish before we can effectively break it.

The story need to be enthralling, it needs to pull the reader in, and if that can be done while the murder or other crime waits, I think that's fine. The point of having the murder right away is to assure that the conflict, interest, etc. are present from the beginning.

Now, knowing that and putting it into practice are two different things...

Tina said...

AH yes, the great chasm between knowledge and practice -- I've done some climbing in that particular territory. I do love my set-up too. But I understand it's only necessary for me, pantser that I am, to work my way into the story. And I am grateful that I have more tools for that than simply dropping a dead body (and of course some bodies get dropped to enthralling purpose). Like you say, KM, there are some rules that beg to be broken. As long as the breaking works.

Shari Randall said...

"The pleasure of figuring out which character is going to die" - yes! Agatha Christie was so good at this, giving us a house party of vile people with tension galore, but no body until half way through, giving us lots of time to wonder who is going to be The Body. I think that is why so many mysteries up the ante by having more than one murder in a book - they've skipped the part where we guess who will be the victim.
When I wrote the proposal for my mystery series, the publisher wanted the "body drop" by page 30. The new normal, I guess.

Tina said...

And THAT is my biggest grumpiness by far, Shari -- the insistence on particular plot point placement instead of insistence on creating tension, pulling the reader in, enthralling, all of our other tasks as writers. Long live Ms. Christie and her cast of vile characters.

Kait said...

One of the reasons I read so many British mysteries is because the bodies come later, after I have had a chance to orient myself in the setting and the story, meet the characters, get comfortable with them, and fret over the one who is murdered because I had a personal relationship with him/her. I'm trying to pull something similar off in the third Hayden Kent. I have a death in the beginning, but it is a natural death and Hayden is not buying that the victim died...later on comes the murder. We'll see if the editor agrees that it will work for the audience...

Terry Odell said...

You've made all the right points, Tina. As another pantser, I need to start too far back but that's for ME, and I don't include those false starts in the book.
I'm in the 'get acquainted first' camp. But then, I think you can have a mystery without it being a 'murder mystery.' There are a lot more things that can cause chaos to a character's life than having to find a killer. But that becomes a different kind of story. And genre matters, too. A thriller needs to start faster, but it doesn't have to be a dead body. And in a romantic suspense, you've got the romance arcs to establish as well as a mystery/suspense plot.

Tina said...

Kait, we must have studied the same playbook! I used the "natural death" approach in the third book, and thought it worked quite well. Fingers crossed your editor likes your approach too!

And Terry, you made all the right points too. One thing I like about all your different books is that you adapt to each sub-genre's needs -- whether the character-driven procedural or the romantic suspense -- without compromising your own unique voice and style. And you can make things like an upcoming Halloween parade ominous and nail-biting without the need to throw a body at us. But when you DO throw a body, you make it work.