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

Check out our February author interviews: 2/7-debut author Keenan Powell (Alaskan lawyer), 2/14-Leslie Wheeler (Rattlesnake Hill), 2/21-bestselling author Krista Davis, who unveils a new series, 2/28-Diane Vallere answers my questions about Pajama Frame. Please join us in welcoming these authors to WWK.

Our February Saturday Guest Blogger Schedule: 2/3-Saralyn Richard, 2/10-Kathryn Lane. WWK's Margaret H. Hamilton will blog on 2/17, and Kait Carson on 2/24.

Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published. Her short story "Goldie" will be published in the Busted anthology, which will be released by Level Best Books on April 25th.

In addition, our prolific KM has had the following shorts published as well: "Making Tracks" in Passport to Murder, Bouchercon anthology, October 2017 and "Turkey Underfoot," appears in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: a Fifth Course of Chaos.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Back to the beginning

by Julie Tollefson

I’ve been thinking a lot about the beginning of my work in progress the last few weeks. I like my characters. The situation I’ve put them in is fraught with suspense. The story is compelling.

At least, it’s all those things to me. But when I take a step back, I wonder: Does it move too fast? Are the characters really as three-dimensional as I imagine them to be? Is all the good stuff I see in my head really there on the page?

In an attempt to get perspective, I pulled three novels I love off my shelves and re-read the first twenty or thirty pages of each to see how the masters set the hook for readers like me.

Still Life, the first in Louise Penny’s Three Pines series, begins with a body, briefly introduces Inspector Gamache, then slips back in time and slows down without losing tension. Readers get to know Three Pines and its residents, victim included, in a gossipy way that reveals enough secrets and simmering feuds to keep readers captivated for 25 pages until Gamache appears again.

In just six pages of The Black Hour, Lori Rader-Day introduces a damaged protagonist (literally—she’s recovering after being shot before the story begins) and sketches a situation rife with drama. Questions draw the reader on: Who shot the main character? Why? How will she cope? What happens next? And, particularly interesting to me, do I even like this character?

Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains begins in the middle of action—a pickup truck’s almost slow-motion slide on icy roads and its driver’s equally slow-motion observation of her bathrobe-clad neighbor traipsing through a roadside graveyard in a blizzard. An odd situation, sure. But then, like Penny, Pickard takes the reader back in time to build a strong sense of place and relationships among characters.

Common to all three? In the beginning, the mystery isn’t so much about the dead body—that’s coming in each—but about the people through whose eyes we see the story unfold. In short, all three books have, as Donald Maass describes in Chapter 5 of his excellent Writing 21st Century Fiction, “standout characters.” (I’ve written about this book before, and I probably will again. I love it that much.)

“Look at those people in your own life about whom you care greatly,” Maass writes on page 76. “Often, they’re people who to the rest of the world appear ordinary.”

That’s it! The characters in all three novels appear ordinary, but their stories are not.

So, uh, how does that help me with my current manuscript?

First, I’m reminded that it’s not necessary to race straight into a murder investigation. The real story often happens on the fringes of the investigation, at a pace that allows the reader to breathe.

I’ll also take another look at my ordinary people—a detective content with his small-town beat, an ambitious college student—and find the extraordinary in them. Plot will keep the story moving, but characters will steal the show.

What qualities do you look for in the beginning of a novel? What keeps you reading?


Jim Jackson said...

My only requirement is for the author to engage me sufficiently so that I am interested enough to turn the page. I don't care if there is a body on the page; I don't care whether or not the main character is introduced.

I am extremely skeptical of beginnings that are a scene from the middle of the book. Almost always this means that if I had started at the real beginning I would have been bored and put the book down. The editors decided the only way to hold my interest was by giving a preview of some interesting, terrifying, whatever, action. And so, if after such a scene, the book's writing is not strong, I do put the book down and turn to something else, no longer being willing to waste my time.

I'm sure I miss a great book or two that way, but I save myself many poorly written ones, so I am content.

~ Jim

Kait said...

YES! Shouting intended. Oh, Julie, what a wonderful post. Thank you. I have long loved the softer style of British mystery fiction and have cheered on the rising trend in American mystery fiction that has allowed the body to drop later on the page and allow the reader space and time to care about the characters (and sometimes even the victim(s) first. I've never before read a post that so clearly discusses the topic.

"The real story often happens on the fringes of the investigation at a pace that allows the reader to breathe." So true. A wonderful breath of spring air. Well done.

Warren Bull said...

In reviewing novels from the Golden Age of Mystery I see over and over again situations and characters that engage my attention. I would continue to read if there not a mystery.

Tina said...

Chiming in with another YES! I am not a fan of the direction that "in media res" has taken. I want to get to know the people who will be sharing their lives with me -- who I am going to trust are extraordinary in ways that will be revealed -- before I get involved in the mystery with them.

For writers who prefer plotting this way, screenwriter Dan Harmon offers his eight-part Story Circle structure, which begins (yay!) with Establish The Protagonist:


KM Rockwood said...

I want to care about the characters and what happens to them. As someone else said, the murder mystery is secondary to whether I would keep on reading. It is a vehicle by which I am transported into the lives of people I come to care about.

Margaret Turkevich said...

I'm deep in Paula Munier's guide to writing beginnings.

Grace Topping said...

Terrific blog, Julie. You make some sound points. When I drafted my first manuscript, I wrote it so the reader could get to know my main character and the victim. By the time my agent go hold of it, I had to cut thousands of words and get the murder earlier. She kept insisting that even page 28 was too late. I believe this comes from young, young agents and editors who are accustomed to instant gratification and don't see the value of waiting until later to drop a body. I've also heard that this is important for first books--that writers have more flexibility with each subsequent books. Let's hope.

Shari Randall said...

Oh, I loved this, Julie. There are so many demands in today's publishing world, as Grace noted, for a particular story structure. I miss the Golden Age mystery, where part of the fun was figuring out who the victim would be first, and then figuring out whodunit. Great post!

Julie Tollefson said...

Jim, I do agree that I can feel cheated when the book starts in the middle and then backtracks. Sometimes, it's just not done skillfully - it's a trick, and not a very successful trick.

Julie Tollefson said...

Kait - Thank you! I feel like I'm heading in the right direction. :)

Tina - Thanks for the link! I'm definitely going to check out the Story Circle structure.

And Margaret - I'm intrigued! What have you learned so far?

Julie Tollefson said...

Warren - I think that's the hallmark of a good story - that you would continue to read even if there wasn't a mystery.

KM - I know that's what I'm working toward - characters I (and my readers) will care about.

Julie Tollefson said...

Grace - Thank you! I hope, as Kait says, that we are moving toward a place where getting to know the characters is not only acceptable but expected.

Shari - Thank you!

Gloria Alden said...

Julie, I love this blog. I've read all of Louise Penny's books and the Nancy Pickard book. None of my books start with a dead body. Like you I want the reader to get to know my characters first. It's the kind of book I like to read, and my following are quite attached to my characters, too, and like trying to figure out who the murderer is. A woman in the feed store where I buy feed for my ponies and chickens, bought my first book when she found out
I write mysteries. I went in the other day to get some more feed, and she wasn't quite finished with the first book, but almost and thought she knew who it was. Her daughter who was
there, too, was going to read it next. So the mother took me aside and said, who she thought the murderer was . . . and I told her she was right because she was almost done. Her daughter ended up buying three books from me - the first one for her father-in-law and the next two in the series.

Julie Tollefson said...

Gloria - Thank you! I love that you have such a close connection to your readers. Those personal relationships within a community are awesome.