Mystery Musings

Well, darn.  I’m a late comer to J.D. Robb’s Death series, but once I read the first one–Naked in Death–I had to read the second, Glory In Death, and the third, Immortal in Death.  I enjoy the grittiness, Eve Dallas’s character trying to stay true to herself as a cop while falling hard for rich and handsome, Roarke, who’s been known to bend the law, and the compromises they both make to make their relationship work.  The mystery never takes a back seat to romance, stays the main plot line with the romance as a subplot.

So, when I saw one of J.D. Robb’s books on sale, I bought it, even though it was WAY ahead in the series–#43 of the soon-to-be 51 books.  I mean, I’m so far behind in the books anyway, I thought What The Heck?  The first three books build on each other, but they were easy to read as standalones, too.  I thought Eve and Roarke’s relationship might have evolved quite a bit by number #43, but I expected pretty much the same type of story.  And it IS still a gritty crime that becomes Eve’s case, along with the usual cops who work with her.  And she and Roarke are still crazy about each other, and he still fusses over and helps her because he worries about her.  Nice.  But the TONE of the book really threw me off.  I found it so annoying, I had to make myself stick with it, and I have to say, it wasn’t until the last half of the book that I felt like I was reading J.D. Robb again, that she settled into the rhythm I enjoy so much.

Because books do have a rhythm–and not just words, sentences, and paragraphs.  It’s a balance of concentrating on plot, subplot, and developing and fleshing out characters.  I’m just as hooked on Eve and Roarke’s relationship, her interplay with her friends and fellow cops, as I am in the crime they’re solving.  And for the first half of the book, there was scarcely enough of that for me.

It felt like Robb was telling the first half of the book in staccato.  I went from one scene of Eve snapping orders at one person to Eve snapping orders at someone else.  I understand the intent.  It was to build a sense of urgency.  Which it did.  There was one shooting after another with intermittent interviews of witnesses and searching for clues because Eve knew the killer was just getting started.  And each time she struck, she’d kill more and more victims…because she could.  Occasionally, Roarke just felt like Eve’s lackey, and I didn’t like it.

Finally, a little after the first half of the book, Eve zeroes in on who’s committing the crimes, and Robb let more character interaction enter the story.  The pace settled a little, and I felt like I was reading one of my favorite series again.  The voice AND the tone felt right.

Everyone has his own personal likes and dislikes, and most people are going to like the fast pace and building tension of this book.  Robb created two well-developed villains, especially the girl.  A great character study of a psychopath.  And once I got to the middle of the story, I was a happy reader again.  I finished the book satisfied.

Starting a new book

One of the joys of writing a series is to revisit old friends–characters you’ve used in previous books–and then add in a few new ones.  And if you get really lucky, one of those new characters jumps off the page for you and demands a book of his/her own.

When I wrote the first Mill Pond romance–Cooking Up Trouble–Ian’s brother, Brody, came to help him get the inn ready.  Brody’s a bit of a curmudgeon.  He’s a little too responsible for his own good, and I fell in love with him.  Whom to pair him with?  Someone who doesn’t pay attention to schedules and likes to bend the rules.  Harmony drives him a little crazy, and Brody makes her want to whack him in the head every once in a while.  A perfect match. For the story, I made Paula, Ian’s chef, and her two kids a part of the plot line, and I grew so attached to them, I wanted to find someone for Paula.  Hence, book 3.  So far, with every book, there’s a new character who begs me for more time in the next book.

I just finished final edits for Book 4–and I know this isn’t fair since I’m writing a few books ahead of what you can read–but Miriam just walked onto the pages in that book and told me that I was lucky she graced me with her presence.  She has that kind of personality.  And I couldn’t wait to write a book with her as the protagonist.

I’m starting that book now–the fifth Mill Pond–and I’m trying my darndest to do justice to the personality that is Miriam.  I also tried to give her a story worthy of her.  She teaches high school English, so I wanted a kid to be part of the romance.

The first time I wrote Miriam’s first chapter, it contained everything in the plot point I’d written for it–all of the characters, a hook, and the inciting incident–but it was flat.  That only goes to show that just because I know what’s supposed to happen, I don’t always get the voice and tone right.  Nobody wants to just plod through a story–not the readers and not me.  So I deleted the whole thing and tried again.  This time, I concentrated on the snark that’s part of Miriam, and it worked.  The woman can quell a rampaging teenager in her third period class with a raised eyebrow.  My type of heroine.  She’s almost six feet tall, gawky and bony, with short, corkscrew curls.  So who could be her Mr. Right?  A man who’s comfortable in his own skin and brews beer.  Miriam has a thing for hops:)

I’m going to have to push myself to keep the energy up for this book.  I’m hoping to deal with a couple of serious subplots in a funny way.  I might need more chocolate.  I know I’ll need wine.  But I have goals, and that’s a good thing:)

 

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3 down, more to go?

My three book contract is up with Kensington.  I delivered my last book, and I’m waiting for my editor to read it and send feedback.  I’ve been lucky so far.  No rewrites.  That might not hold with this book.  It has a different rhythm, a different flow.  My protagonist is a female chef with two kids, and I wanted to capture how those two things drove Paula’s life, how she had so little time for anything else–like romance.  But romance finds her anyway.  The thing is, I’ve grown attached to Mill Pond, the people who live there, and I wondered what to do next.

Luckily, my editor wrote that he hopes I have more stories in mind for the series.  I do, but first, my agent has to negotiate a new contract.  I have no idea how much time that will take,  but I had to send a proposal for her to submit, and that managed to be a lot of work.  My wonderful, wonderful editor is easy-going about what I send in, just as long as he can get an idea about what the next book will be like.  I’m the one who fusses about plot points.  I know there are pantsers, who start a story and let their characters lead the charge.  I can’t start a book until I know all of the pulse points along the way.  And yes, it’s come down to pulse points for me.  I’ve gotten more driven about my outlines, not less.

I used to start a book, just knowing the set-up, two turning points, and the end.  If I aimed for those, I knew I was on the right track.  Not anymore.  I’ve reached the point where I want an idea for each chapter in the book.  For Fit To Be Thai’d (my working title–Tyne’s Paula’s assistant chef, who specializes in international cuisine), I have FORTY lengthy plot points.  Why?  Because the longer I work with my characters, the better I know them, and I’d rather do that during plot points than while I’m pounding out pages.  More, for this book, I wanted to focus on tone.  I want the book to have a “light” feel.  I want Tyne to jump off the pages.  Anyway, it took me longer than usual to plot out this book.  I was beginning to think I’d NEVER get it done.  But I’m glad I did all of the grunt work ahead of time, because now, I can’t wait to write it.  And the proposal’s sent.  And now I have to wait until I hear back from my agent and editor–the life of a writer.

And talking about writing, I’m doing my blog early this week, because I’m playing hooky over the weekend.  My daughter’s coming home on Saturday, and we’re taking her son and his significant other to a small Vietnamese restaurant for supper.  Then on Sunday, Holly and I are spending the day cooking for the Oscar Party we share with a few movie buff friends of ours.  I haven’t seen any movies lately, but they know them all, so I’m just focusing on providing the food.  We go all out–salmon in puff pastry, spiced beef on pita triangles, and creamy crab and bacon endive boats, along with boiled shrimp.  Dawn and Holly are chocoholics, so I’m making a flourless, chocolate cake, too.   (Now you know why food creeps into most of my stories.  I love it!  Love to eat, love to cook).  Anyway, I’ll be missing in action this weekend, but hope you have a wonderful time and happy writing!

My webpage: http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

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twitter:  @judypost

CoockingupTrouble

 

Writing: Tone and Voice

My daughter came to stay the weekend with us. She’s a travelling nurse who works in Indianapolis, close enough to zip home and spend time with us. We’re celebrating my sister’s birthday tonight. She asked me to make supper for her–Delmonico steaks, potato salad, and peach cobbler. Easy enough to do. So I thought I’d be brilliant and write my blog ahead of time, then post it today…except when I hit the link, the only thing that saved was the title. Arrgh. I saved the post twice, to be sure. What can I say? Life happens. But here goes. Again.

I’ve been thinking about the difference between voice and tone lately, because I’ve been working on a few different things instead of just one. When new writers join Scribes, some of them ask about voice. What is it? How do you get it? It’s always a tricky thing for me to explain. But in my opinion, voice is the combination of all of the components that make up your writing style–word choice, the way you arrange words, if you prefer long, rambling sentences to short, punchy ones, if you use sentence fragments, your rhythm, your style–it’s a natural reflection of you. The best way to “find” your voice, is to simply write, then write more, and keep writing, until eventually, your writing will be YOU. You’ll learn all of the craft of writing along the way–grammar, verbs, etc.–but voice is what makes your writing different than anyone else’s. I don’t think it’s something you have to work at. Don’t try to copy someone else. Learn from them, but be you. And eventually, people will recognize your voice. (Les Edgerton wrote a good “how-to” book on Voice, http://www.amazon.com/Finding-Your-Voice-Personality-Writing/dp/1508879710).

Tone, I think, is a different animal. Tone is something I choose when I want to flavor a story. It’s the difference between a story that’s dark or humorous. It’s a matter of word choice. It permeates the cracks and crevices between sentences. Setting contributes a lot, but you don’t have to do the obvious. Small towns and cities can be both comforting or ominous, according to what you emphasize. When a horror writer describes a house or woods, there are no blue skies and birds singing unless they’re used as a counterpoint to an innocent facade where the reader knows evil is brewing. I went to hear Shirley Jump on a panel once, and she said that when she first started writing humorous romances, she made a list of “funny” words to remind herself to go for the humor in every sentence/paragraph that she could. She even started one of her novels with her protagonist dressed up in a banana suit when she meets Mr. Hunk. (http://www.amazon.com/Virgins-Proposal-Romance-Shirley-Jump/dp/0263191788)

In a series, authors often keep the tone of each book consistent. Their voice is their voice. That’s going to be the same. But every Kate Daniels book, by Ilona Andrews, smacks the reader in the face with Kate’s attitude, adds healthy doses of humor, and lots of action. Readers expect and crave that tone. Patricia Briggs’s Mercedes Thompson series has a distinct tone of its own. She uses action, too, but Mercedes isn’t as in-your-face as Kate. When I read an early novel by Patricia Briggs, though, When Demons Walk, I fell in love with the brashness of her protagonist, Sham. Briggs’s voice was still there, but the book had a fun, sassy tone.

For me, then, the protagonist is a big part of what sets the tone of the book. If we’re in her POV, the way she views life is going to creep into the story. If she’s a woman who’s had a hard life of struggles that’s worn her down, her outlook isn’t going to be innocent and sunny. Her voice–the character’s voice–might be world-weary, harsh, or brittle. Some cynicism probably creeps in, too. Or maybe she’s just given up, doesn’t care anymore. That view will tinge every aspect of what happens to her and how she reacts. We want to hear her, and that sets the story’s tone.

An author’s voice, I think, will be consistent. It’s how she writes. But tone can vary from story to story, depending on the mood you want to set and the protagonist’s POV. It’s the difference between the author’s voice and the character’s voice.

Hope you have an awesome August, and happy writing!

My webpage: http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/
https://www.facebook.com/JudithPostsurbanfantasy
on twitter: @judypost

Writing: 2nd Books

I’m working on rewrites now. It’s the second time I’ve tried to fix my romance so that my agent likes it. I thought I had. I was happy with the changes I made. My agent wasn’t. One subplot still bothered her, so I ripped it out. I trust Lauren’s judgement, and if she says it still doesn’t work, it doesn’t. She said “Kill your baby,” so I did. Baby’s dead and buried. I told my brain to think of something different/better, and it did. I hope. Thank you, brain. So by the end of this coming week, I should have the rewrites finished and ready to send out again. This time, I hope Lauren likes them. And now, I have a better feeling about what works and what doesn’t. So while I wait to find out, I’m planning on starting a second romance. And therein lies the big, lurking pressure.

The problem with second books, for me, is that if people liked the first book, the second one has to be even better. There are things to keep in mind. People who liked the first book probably liked its VOICE. Yeah, voice makes a big difference. When I pick up an Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels book, I want the smart-ass attitude, the “I want to kill something” mentality, the heart, the action, the humor–the entire package. And all of that sets a certain tone. If all of a sudden, that tone shifted to something lighter or darker, to more serious or philosophical, I’d be bummed. I don’t buy a Janet Evanovich for beautiful language. I buy it for snark and humor. If I want beautiful, lyrical language, I buy Sarah Addison Allen. If I want to force my poor, little gray cells to consider deep questions, I look for Neil Gaiman, and if I want to ponder mysteries, I reread Agatha Christie. Even then, a Hercule Poirot has a different tone than a Miss Marple. So a second book, in my opinion, has to stay true to the voice and tone of the first book. But it has to up the ante.

Series are popular now, so I decided to make my romance novels into Mill Pond romances. The setting will be the cohesive that holds the series together. And of course, characters of one novel will pop up in a new one, but as background characters, not MC’s. The trick, then, is to deliver the flavor of the first novel, but delve deeper into the stories, to make the setting almost a character that draws readers in and to let early characters grow and develop their own story lines. My friend, Julia Donner–whose writing I love–writes Regency romances. She developed a series around the friendship of a group of men called “The Eligibles,” because every mother wanted her daughter to snag one and marry a rich, gorgeous, powerful man. Once Rave met his Cat, he became a background character in the rest of the series. Once my favorite–and yes, I’m prejudiced–Perry met his Elizabeth, he was relegated to the background, too. (http://www.amazon.com/Heiress-Spy-Friendship-Book-ebook/dp/B00HGQCAYU/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1426356471&sr=1-4&keywords=julia+donner)–(just in case you want to meet him). Perry’s brother, the incorrigible Harry, gets to shine in The Rake and The Bishop’s Daughter before being relegated to minor character status. The thing is, it’s fun to see your favorites in the new novels, while a new hero and heroine get to shine. BUT, the stories have to be as good or better than the ones that came before them. Not so easy to do.

That’s why I want to start my second romance now, before Lauren has a chance to send out Cooking Up Trouble or to tell me to make it into an e-book. I’d like to have Opposites Distract finished and polished before I hear back from anyone. That will be less pressure. I won’t have a deadline. I can fiddle around with it all I want. I’ve seen so many authors who spent FOREVER writing their first book that sells write a second book with a tight deadline, and the second book isn’t as good. They’ve been too rushed. I don’t want that. In theory, by the time you write your third book, you’ve found your groove. Right? The third should be a breeze:)

Of course, I might find out that my brilliant strategies are a bunch of St. Patrick’s Day malarkey. Maybe more time won’t make any difference, and the pressure of writing a second book can buckle a writer because we think about it too much. Who knows? I’m about to find out. So wish me luck.

Happy writing, and may the luck of the Irish shine on you on St. Patrick’s Day!

(P.S. I put all five parts of Freya’s story on my webpage, so it’s finished, ahead of time. What can I say? No patience. But now I can concentrate on romances:)
http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/freyas-story–part-5-the-end.html

Writing: Settings Can Hook Me On Series

My friend, Paula, and I are buddy-reading Julia Spencer-Fleming’s newest mystery, The Evil Days.   Fleming’s books are as much character driven as plot driven, which we both love.  For me, that’s what distinguishes a literary mystery from a straighforward mystery.  That, and the use of language.  But the other reason we love the series is Millers Kill, the location of the stories–a town in the Adirondack region of upstate New York.

In the best books, settings become integral to the storyline.  If the author picked up her characters and dropped them somewhere else, the whole tone of the story would change.  Sharyn McCrumb wrote mysteries about the Appalachia region with its folklore and traditions.  She took the same coast as Fleming, but painted it with a Southern voice and got an entirely different feel.   Martha Grimes named her novels after English pubs, and Elizabeth George nailed the tone of the English mystery and Scotland Yard.  P.I.s walk the “mean streets” of big cities–like New York, Detroit, or L.A.  When I think about V. I. Warshawski, I think about Chicago.  They’re almost synonymous to me.

Fantasy writers have always had to create a world for their characters to inhabit, and the more real the world–whether it’s dystopian or imaginary–the stronger the series.  In Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels novels, Andrews gives us a world where magic and technology clash with each other.  Sometimes, magic rules and technology goes down.  Other times, technology hums along and magic recedes.  That creates an interesting challenge for her heroine, who uses magic, but knows that sometimes, her energy will surge, and sometimes, she’d be better off with a weapon.  All urban fantasy writers take a world, much like ours, and people it with supernatural characters.  The trick is defining the rules for each supernatural and staying true to those rules.   Some writers only let vampires roam when the sun sets.  Others let them sparkle.  If they can make it believable and consistent, it doesn’t matter.

I’m always happy when a setting becomes almost a character in the stories I write.  It doesn’t always happen, but it did in the Babet/Prosper novellas.  River City is loosely based–and I do mean loosely–on a trip I made to New Orleans.  That city had an essence I haven’t experienced anywhere else.  I wanted to incorporate that feeling in my writing, especially since I wanted to have witches, voodoo, and succubi treading its nooks and crannies.  Faith Hunter cranks New Orleans up even more to give her Jane Yellowrock series its gritty feel.

Emerald Hills came alive for me in a completely different way.  In my mind, it takes place in Nashville, Indiana–with I.U. and Bloomington close by, the Brown County national park a stone’s throw away, and wineries within corking distance.  I could picture the quaint, unique tourist shops, but those can be found many places.  What makes Emerald Hills special is the magic that seeps into the bonbons, shoes, and garden gnomes that are sold.  When I write those novellas, I can almost picture Tinkerbell’s magic dust sprinkled over this shop owner or that.

Some stories are universal.  They can take place anywhere.  The characters and plots are enough to carry them.  But I always love it when a setting sticks in mind–a place so real, I want to return to see what’s happening there.  It’s something to consider when you start your next book.

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Writing a Series

I’ve been told that, for marketing, it’s smart to write a series instead of stand-alone novels.  If people like the characters in your first novel, they’ll want more stories about them.  They’ll want to see them grow and change.  Adding a romance helps.  The protagonist and his/her romantic interest can butt heads for a book or two, get together in the third or fourth, and become a team after that, with the usual complications that come with coupledom.  I have to admit, my favorite mysteries are almost all series.  I loved Nancy Pickard’s Jenny Cain, even though the author finally moved on to someone else.  Elizabeth George has shamed Thomas Lynley, married him, killed his wife, and emotionally beaten him up.  Once in a while, I wonder if she still likes him.  Same with Martha Grimes and Richard Jury.  It must be hard to come up with book after book with the same characters. Maybe sometimes, you’re just irritated with them.  But look at J.D. Robb or Sue Grafton.  Series characters are done all the time, and as readers, we like going into a world we know with characters we like.

My favorite urban fantasy authors write series.  A few of them write more than one.  Maybe that’s a good thing–when you’ve had it up to here with one protagonist, you can switch to a different one.  For urban fantasy, not only do the characters grow in each successive book, with more intense relationships in more complex arrangements, but the world they inhabit becomes more detailed and real too.  With each book, I learn more about Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock and how she and her puma share the same body, but I also learn about vampires and their society, the politics of “others” who dwell in the same city, and the origins of how vampires started.  The paranormal becomes more real the more books the author writes.

When I decided to write my novellas, I kept those things in mind.  I wanted to write at least four stories for each series.  But I wanted to use more than just settings to distinguish them from one another.  I wanted a different focus for each series too.  So, I put a strong detective slant to the Babet/Prosper stories and gave them Agatha Christie-type plots.  For One Less Warlock, I wrote a locked room mystery–with witches. For A Different Undead, I wanted to write about a person who’d died and suddenly appeared on the streets again–but instead of faking his/her death, I wanted to put a magic twist on the tale.  For Magrat’s Dagger, I wanted a stolen, prized relic, like the Maltese Falcon.

I won’t bore you–I hope–with too many details for each series, but I wanted the Loralei and Death series to have more of a poignant feel, while I tried to focus more on light and quirky romance, with a smidgeon of magic, in the Emerald Hills series.  For Dante and Ally, I made an effort to incorporate more mythology into the plots, but I let the medieval castles set the tone for the Christian and Brina stories.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that when you sit down to write, it doesn’t hurt to have a series in mind.  And settings help define a series, yes, but most have the same tone of voice too.  Is it humorous?  Dark?  Melancholy?  Or adventurous?  And they not only have the same character or characters, they often have a similar, underlying theme or feel.  Minor characters can grow into bigger parts.  So leave yourself some wiggle room.  At the end of your book, which is a big enough feat to accomplish in and of itself, what else could happen to those same characters in that same world?  Because you might have to live with them for a while.

Writing about Place

I got the brilliant idea (at least, it seemed like it at the time) to write four or five different series of novellas, and I wanted each one to have a slightly different flavor.  To achieve that, I used settings to distinguish one set of stories from another.

For the Babet/Prosper series, I set the stories in River City–a place of gumbo, po’boys, and magic.  Witches and Weres feel comfortable on its streets.  A succubus runs its bordello.    Voodoo mingles with juju, and a bogeyman might stop for a visit.  There’s an “anything goes” type of vibe to the place.

I wanted my gargoyle/gorgon series to have a different feel.  Gargoyles are guardians of cities and churches.  They take themselves seriously.  River City would scandalize them.  So I put them in an urban area, filled with good, solid citizens who need protected from the “others” who are up to no good.  Paranormals shift to look like mortals, to blend among us.  And no bad deed goes unpunished.

For my Loralei/Death series, I wanted a smaller, more personal setting, so Loralei lives in a cozy, stone cottage at the end of a long, winding drive.  If someone visits there, it’s because they’re desperate.  And they’re willing to pay a price for Death’s favors.

The point is, when you choose a setting for whatever story you’re working on, the setting becomes an integral part of the plot and characterization.  Why does the protagonist live there?  Why does he stay instead of leave?  What sort of flavor does the setting have?  Does it suit the tone of the story?  In my Emerald Hills novellas, the town itself becomes a minor character that drives the stories.  It has magic tucked in different tourist shops.  It calls people to it.

Cozy mysteries usually take place in small towns, whereas P.I. novels favor big cities.  There’s a reason.  Settings contribute to the pulse of a story.  Choose them carefully.  And make them real–so that we can smell the gas fumes or the cinnamon and sugar at the donut shop.  Are there wide expanses of cement and skyscrapers or striped awnings and brick streets?  And why is this particular setting important to the protagonist?  Does he love it or hate it?  Feel at home or trapped?  The setting and how the protagonist responds to it helps to create the mood of the story.

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