When I was learning to write — well, I still am — I devoured books on writing and editing. But the one I went back to over and over was Writing Mysteries: A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, ed. by Sue Grafton with Jan Burke and Barry Zeman (Writer’s Digest Books, 2002).
And now there’s a new reliable: How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook by Mystery Writers of America , ed. by Lee Child with Laurie R. King (April 27, Scribner). If you write mystery or crime fiction, in any subgenre, you need this book. I can say that because I contributed and I have actually seen the full ms. It’s out today. See the full list of topics and contributors on the MWA page, where you’ll also find links to the major retailers. Or ask your local indie.
The moment you have it in your hands, you’ll be smarter already. Pinkie swear.
Once upon a time, we put on real clothes and went out into the world. Now a good chunk of us work from home in our torn jeans (and not fashionably torn), sweats, or yoga pants. Our characters, though, are still going about their business, running a Spice Shop in Seattle or a local foods grocer in Montana, and going all kinds of places. Which means that while I can grab the nearest thing on my closet shelf, I actually have to think about what they wear.
And because I live in a small town in western Montana, I don’t get to see the full range of clothing styles I could glimpse in just an hour sitting in the window of Starbucks on 5th Avenue in Seattle or nursing a cappuccino in a hip Missoula coffee house. When I do get out of town, I’m always looking, looking, looking. Turns out city lawyers don’t dress as formally as when I was a downtown Seattle lawyer—except when they do. There’s a lot wider range of styles and outfits these days.
Both physical magazines and catalogs and websites are a great source. Of course, you have to look beyond the companies you shop from. For Erin, my 32-year-old Montana girl, I browse Title 9, Athleta, REI, and other companies with an outdoor or “activewear” style. Her mother, Francesca, dresses from the pages of Soft Surroundings. For a special event, I’ve dressed characters from J. Peterman — take a look; the catalog copy itself is pretty wild. Pepper, who runs the Spice Shop in Pike Place Market, wears black yoga pants and T-shirts with her shop apron on workdays, but I let her go bright, bright, bright away from work, and on dry days, she loves to wear a pair of petal pink Mary Janes she splurged on in Assault & Pepper.
For Bitterroot Lake (coming April 13, written as Alicia Beckman), I thought about how different the four friends who are the focus of the story are. Sarah’s quite aware that her upscale Nordstrom look is right on par in her toney Seattle neighborhood, but a little out of place in Deer Park. Janine is a baker who’s showed up in town with only her work clothes. Sarah lends her clothes, but because of the tensions in their relationship, she’s self-conscious about it. Besides, everything’s too long. Nicole — Nic — is a lawyer whose workday wardrobe isn’t too different from the casual pants and fleece jackets she wears on her spur-of-the-moment, long-distance drive to Deer Park.
Dressing the men is even trickier. Around here, for men of a certain age — like the age of the man I’m married to — dressing up means a sport coat over Levi 501s and popping the dried mud off the cowboy boots. (Wear the ones with the nonskid soles this time of year.) Daily wear for the younger men tends toward cargo pants and T-shirts, although the “active wear” influence of the ski slopes and hiking trails is strong, too.
Think carefully about how your characters dress and what their clothing conveys about them. And do tell me some of your favorite tricks and sources for dressing your story people!
Last fall, before we got COVID and my brain turned to mush, I read a fun and handy guide by mystery writer Becky Clark called Eight Weeks to a Complete Novel: Writer Faster, Write Better, Be More Organized (March 2020), available in paperback and ebook. It’s half (or more) a guide to outlining and half (or less) a guide to time management for writers. The basic premise of the first half (ish) — and it’s one I’ve long endorsed — is that knowing the overall shape of the story you want to tell and identifying as much as you can about the key scenes will make the writing process smoother and faster.
I’ve met Becky several times and we’re Facebook friends. She’s hilarious, both in person and on the page. More than that, she’s a smart guide to working more efficiently, because it makes our books and lives better. I know some writers run screaming from the mere suggestion of outlining — when I hear some of the comments, I always wonder what happened to that budding author in the third grade. Becky discusses various options and approaches; it wasn’t all new info to me, but review is always useful.
One of the most useful aspects for me was the (re)encouragement to be very focused on the daily schedule, which for me means writing in the morning, set an hour or two aside in the afternoon for promotion. For me, the amount of time focused on promo depends on where I am in the process, but I really needed the push to set a block of time and not be so random. I also like her idea of “word banks,” consciously looking for and recording phrases and images that will fit your current project. (If this sounds like my “three things” idea, you get why it attracted me, though it’s a little different, and she’s so smart to suggest making it a daily practice.)
No, you can’t read this and automatically be smarter, funnier, and more efficient. You actually have to do the work. But if you do, voila! You might actually have time for the rest of your life. Pretty appealing when you think of it like that, right?
I often talk here about the importance to writers of reading as a writer, of developing the ability to identify why a book or essay or poem has a particular effect. When you begin to understand the power of certain tools, you can decide how, or whether, to use them in your own work.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the US. We’ve all heard recordings of Dr. King’s speeches and we know that part of their power came from his delivery—his voice, his use of dynamics, his pauses and gestures. But you can feel the power even when you read the words on the page, as my college rhetoric professor, a wonderful old Jesuit, showed me 40 years ago. Smarter people than I have dissected King’s use of rhetorical devices—the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech is particularly noteworthy—and their research is worth a closer look. Let me pique your interest with a quick look at three commonly-quoted lines.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — The two key phrases, “injustice anywhere” and “justice anywhere,” are parallel in structure, but justice is contrasted against injustice, and the change from anywhere to everywhere uses parallel, rhyme, and contrast, emphasized by the potent phrase “a threat” in between. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Another powerful example of parallels and contrast. “The time is always right to do what is right.” — This short line combines two cliches, but takes its power from contrast, through the use of the wo different meanings of the simple word “right.”
Think about how you use contrast and parallel structure in your sentences. Dialogue and scene and chapter endings offer lots of opportunities to use these tools. A common tool in revision is to identify the strongest line of dialogue and make sure everything else leads to it. Can you give that line even more punch with rhetorical devices—the ones I’ve mentioned or others? What about the last line in a scene or chapter, which sums up the action and creates a turning point? How can you use rhetorical structure to make sure the reader keeps reading? As you read or listen to Dr. King’s speeches today, and as you hear other speeches in the days ahead,listen as a writer.
I’m a big fan of literary agent and teacher Donald Maass. I’ve attended both his Break-out Novel Intensive (BONI) and his BONI Graduate Retreat, intensive seminars where 30 writers gather for a week of classes with Don, Lorin Oberwenger, and other instructors. When I attended BONI in Hood River, Oregon in April 2012, I had a 3-book contract with Berkley for the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. The first manuscript was due August 1; I had about 60% of a first draft and felt pretty good about it. I went home and started over.
And Death al Dente won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel.
Each of Maass’s books on writing is filled with insight, easy-to-grasp analysis, and detailed exercises. I recommend them all, but particularly the most recent, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface (Writer’s Digest Books, 2016). We read in large part for an emotional experience, and Maass’s book shows us how to evoke that on the page for our readers. Easy to say, difficult to do, but so much easier with a master teacher.
Most of the books I’ve mentioned in the last few weeks have been reference books or craft guides. Today I want to spotlight Be the Gateway: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Creative Work and Engaging an Audience, by Dan Blank (We Grow Media, 2017). I first encountered Blank and his work on Writer Unboxed, a terrific group blog that mixes writing craft, promotional advice, and inspiration. He no longer blogs there, but writes a weekly newsletter to which I subscribe. Blank works directly with writers to, as he says, “develop their author platforms, launch their books, and create marketing strategies that work.” (More on his website.) His newsletters and his book are not places to learn technical details of SEO, how to increase your Facebook following, or how to build a website. Instead, he focuses on giving writers ways to develop connections with their readers. As I said last week in raving about Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction, readers read in part for an emotional experience. If you give it to them on the page, they’ll read your next book. And if you market and promote your work with that same goal, istarting by dentifying your passions, why you write, and what experiences you want to give your readers, you’ll not only connect with them, you’ll enjoy the process.
Wow. Believe me, it’s true. That’s a big part of why I’m doing these Writing Wednesday posts. Sure, I hope you’ll buy my books. But I also want to share some of what I’ve learned in the process of writing and selling them you, and engage with you in the process. Because that’s a big part of why we’re driven to create, isn’t it?
Decades ago, in college, we were all required to buy Fowler’s Modern English Usage, originally published by H.G. Fowler but then in a 2d revised edition by Sir Ernest Gowers. It was brilliant, and it didn’t always make sense to my ears because — well, because I am an American. And my idea of “modern” wasn’t quite the same as old HG’s or Sir Ernest’s.
So I was elated to discover Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan Garner, published by Oxford University. (Shown is the 3d edition, 2009). It’s modern. It’s American. And it’s just what every writer needs. It even includes a “language-change index” which does exactly what it says.
Since last week was the launch of my tenth novel, The Solace of Bay Leaves, the 5th Spice Shop mystery, I figured it might be good, in talking about favorite references, to mention my first book, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011). When I first joined authors’ groups, other writers asked me questions about the law—how would my detective get a search warrant, can this character inherit from that one, who is Miranda and why are we always warning her? Like DP Lyle’s Murder and Mayhem which I highlighted a couple of weeks ago, it’s aimed at mystery writers, but it’s equally useful for nonfiction writers, including journalists. 160 questions and answers in a dozen topics, illustrated with examples from real-life cases, including some of my own, and books and movies.
And yes, I still pull my own copy off the shelf now and then to remind myself of the facts about the law. Because even though it’s fiction, we owe our readers the truth.
By the way, Books and Crooks, as it’s known in my house, won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction. Such a special moment, because it told me I’d correctly identified a need and filled it. Though it’s been out several years, it is still largely accurate, though there have been quite a few developments in the law of the death penalty since then. Use this blog’s search function for some updates.
How I first found The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (2012), I have no idea, but you can see that both the cat and I find it enormously useful, if for slightly different reasons.
The ability to identify and describe body language and facial expressions is critical in conveying emotion on the page. The authors list dozens of emotions, from adoration to worry, briefly define them, then set out physical signals, internal sensations, mental responses, and other key indicators. They also include a section on avoiding common problems, such as too much telling and cliches, and tips such as finding the root emotion, using the setting, and using visceral or instinctive reactions.
I use the lists as a starting point, thinking about a particular character, their personality, gender, how they use their body, how controlled or demonstrative they are, the intensity of the situation. You are the ultimate authority on your characters, but the authors’ lists will get the ideas moving. I’ve annotated my copy, listing additional emotions, adding observations of my own, and interleafing other resources. The authors have also written books on character traits, setting, and more. I see from their website, Writers Helping Writers, that they’ve put out a new edition of the Emotion Thesaurus. Maybe the cat will get me a copy for Christmas.
We’ve all got a collection of books we pull off the shelves over and over, references we rely on to help us find the right word, get the legal or medical details right, or figure out how to ramp up the emotional content of a scene. (“I said emotional content. Not anger,” as Bruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon.) Over the next few weeks, I’m going to highlight a few of mine. If you’ve got a favorite to recommend, please chime in in the comments.
Murder and Mayhem: A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers by D.P. Lyle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003). A medical doctor who writes thrillers, TV tie-in novels with a medical theme, and books on forensics, Lyle also writes the “Forensic Files” column for the Mystery Writers of America answering questions for writers of both contemporary and historical crime novels. His blog, The Crime Fiction Writer’s Blog, is another terrific resource, often featuring fascinating guest bloggers from the worlds of medicine and science.
My copy of Murder and Mayhem barely fits in its slot on the shelf anymore, stuffed with articles and emails from Doug that I’ve printed out. When you need to know what drugs might cause cardiac arrest or what happens to body and brain when one character pushes another down the stairs or off a cliff, this is THE book.
And columns, book, and author were a big inspiration for me in writing my first book, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011), a book that should be on YOUR shelves!