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Category Archives: Plot and Characters

Creating suspense in fiction

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

How many books have you read where the plot seems to flatline? Maybe the characters get too chatty. Maybe the description of characters or setting reads more like an expository. Maybe the scenes themselves are mundane. Do you then yawn?

Those spell boredom for the readers. And I see it happening in novels that are supposed to be mysteries. A village scene, instead of creating some touch of menace or at least some suspense, reads more like a slice of village life. Not all authors can do the village scene as well as the late Agatha Christie did.

There are ways your novel can get a life readers will want to read about. And just to clarify. Suspense doesn’t only equal mysteries and thrillers. All fiction needs some suspense – and that includes romance novels with their relationships. In fact, the twists and turns of relationships in any novel are fodder for creating suspense. Characters are at the core.

Here a few tips to create suspense in fiction:

  1. Start your story with something to draw in your reader. If you must have your village scene, get inside your main character’s head and show her take on the scene. Perhaps she dreads the town council meeting, the gardening club meeting, the tea, etc. Why? Or something terrible happens at the beginning at that meeting. Here’s a quick example. Marion would never call Fairfax council meetings boring again.
  2. Dialogue is good – reveals and develops characters and their interactions, as well as moves the plot forward. Unless your characters get overly chatty and go on and on for pages about religion, politics and more mundane things. All three might be relevant to your story, but add some spice, some suspense. Maybe one of the characters chatting is not making sense, seems to be high on something. More to the point, have a character reveal something startling to move the plot forward. Or have the dialogue interrupted by something happening. Depending on your story’s genre, could be somebody unexpected bursting into the room and creating chaos.
  3. Character descriptions. Forget the long expository but blend it in with the storyline and reveal something or several somethings about the POV character and other characters in this scene. In Beyond Blood, PI Dana Bowman meets Det. Sgt. Donald Fielding for the first time when her house is broken into. I show it from Dana seeing Fielding from the feet up as he comes down the basement stairs. The two clash. Dialogue and action show this and builds suspense about what could happen later on with two strong personalities trying to solve crimes when they can’t even agree on what crime happened in Dana’s basement. You can also have characters make snide remarks about another character’s hair or clothes. That would tell you something about both characters. Some narrative is necessary, but don’t drone on.
  4. Same can be said for settings. Nothing is more boring than reading paragraph after paragraph describing the main street of a town or the town itself. You aren’t writing a travel piece: you’re writing a novel or short story. In my Beyond mystery novels, I don’t just describe the town of Thurston, Ontario (fictional town), but have Dana  or her twin PI Bast  actually drive down a street, Suspense could be someone following Dana or better still she thinks someone is following her and dodges all over town to ditch the person. Or there is a collision – accident or intentional? Or if one of the twins goes into a shop or restaurant, I work in the location and relevant characters inside. “Relevant” is the key word. .

Visualize what you want and then write it for the reader to get the picture Remember: show, not tell the reader.

These are just a few suggestion. I also suggest you read published books by authors in the genre you are writing – authors who know what they are doing to create suspense within the mundane. Sometimes the latter is the most frightening.

If you click on the Beyond Blood novel above it will take you to more information about my Beyond books.

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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Writing fiction from anger

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection. Click on it for publisher's website

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection.

Do you get angry at the crap that happens in your life? Some stupid motorist running a red light nearly hitting you when you cross the street? You or a family member keep getting sick or suffer a serious injury? You get a lot of “junk” phone calls and/or emails? Some utility has messed up your bill? Your garbage isn’t being picked up but all your neighbours’ garbage is? And customer service for the latter two is rude and unhelpful. You get the picture. You feel a swirl of emotions and often anger is at the core. Maybe you even want to kill the person causing the problem – or making it worse.

Don’t do that.Instead  write about it. I don’t mean a play-by-play of your situation – but fictionalize it. One way to do this that can work very well is writing a noir satirical short story.

I do that all the time. Many of my stories in Beyond the Tripping Point are based on something bad that happened to me or someone else or something that really makes me see red, purple, and blue. Examples from BTTP include The Couch, For the Love of Wills, and No Breaks.

Currently I am writing a short story about something I have been (and still am) inundated with – telemarketers. Usually I ignore them or pick up the phone, get sarcastic and tell them off, then bang the phone down. But many of these telemarketing calls are also scams and are computer-generated, so you get a recording – which if you don’t pick up the phone will actually go to your voice mail.

So, I’m writing about telemarketers and two women’s revenge of one telemarketing company. But as I write mysteries, it is not that straight-forward. The characters are not me or anyone in particular in my life. However, I have used one tactic that I did in No Breaks – two female friends, but not the same two friends. And I make it humorous, quirky and yes sarcastic. Does the telemarketer get just desserts? I’m not telling – that will come out whenever the story gets published.

To get started on that you need to develop your quirky characters. One or both are victims of the problem and one is usually not so smart or sophisticated as the other. It works better to tell your story from the point of view of the victim who isn’t as savvy as the other one. And you need a villain or two – and if writing a mystery you need some red herring type of villains. Depending on your story you might need a police officer. In my telemarketing story I do have a police detective Larry Hutchinson, who made his first appearance in “For the Love of Wills” in Beyond the Tripping Point.

You also have to develop a plot – based on your characters and their situation.

As regular readers of this blog know from previous posts, I am a seat-of-your-pants plotter. I take my characters, my idea, figure out a few plot developments and then run with it. I let the characters (particularly the POV one) take over, along with what happened to me in real life – which is also in my mind.

I also keep focusing on how much fun I am having with the bad guys getting their come-uppance.

Of course, the plot isn’t that straightforward – like real life it gets messy and goes on tangents. But in the end if the baddies get their come-uppance, that is good. Because in real life that often doesn’t happen.

As an old boyfriend once said, “Life is not fair.”

That’s why we have fiction – to at least right some of these wrongs.

And as usual,if you click on the book cover at the top of this post, you can link to more info about it and Beyond Blood.

Cheers.

Sharon

 

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Writing the right story beginning

Amazon.com link to Sharon A.'s short story collection

Amazon.com link to Sharon A.’s short story collection

If you have ever started to read a novel and became bored by the end of paragraph one, it might not be that the story is dull. There is a good chance that what you are reading isn’t really the story’s beginning.

One story beginning, particularly with novels, that has me yawning is the big character background story. Or the big travelogue of a city or a town. As my old journalist and creative writing instructor would say, “So what?”

You can start with character or setting or both together. The trick is to bring in something about your story. Something that will grab your reader. You need a good lead (or “lede” as it is sometimes spelled), as we old journalists call it.

I was a freelance journalist for 35 years and writing a good lead for my articles was very important. Otherwise it was impossible to write the rest of the story. The lead lets the reader know something about what the story is going to cover and teases them in to read all the details.

So when I write fiction or edit other authors’ fiction, I always pay attention to the lead. Sometimes the lead is hidden a few pages later or even a few chapters later. One author’s novel’s actual lead was a chapter near the middle. She needed to pull out that chapter and a few after it and bring them to the front. And then do some rewriting.

Rewriting, of course, is always necessary when writing fiction and ho-hum leads can be fixed then.

Off the top of my head here is an example of a bad story beginning.It is made up and not from any client’s fiction or any of mine.

Ellen was born in 1960 in the town of Crystal, the third in a family of four siblings. Her mother was an Osborne before her marriage to James Clark. She was a shy child who didn’t say much in school but she always got good grades. Her mother was also quiet and her father spoke in a loud boisterous voice. Ellen’s two older siblings, Daniel and Robert, teased her. Her younger sibling, Gail got on better with her brothers.

And on and on ad nauseum.

Do we really care about Ellen and her family?

Let’s see what we can do with that beginning – if we want to get some family background in and make it relevant to the story. If we want to make the reader care about Ellen and her family and read on. Something like this:.

Ellen Clark had always been shy and withdrawn. Until now. If her older brothers, Danny and Robbie, could see her now, they would be sorry they spent her childhood teasing her. They would be proud of her for what she just did for them, for her, and for the rest of the family. Especially Gail. Poor Gail. Best friends with Danny and Robbie had not helped Gail.

Ellen smiled as she looked down at her feet and what lay there.

Or something like that. Hey, I write mystery fiction. Anyway, let’s compare the two story beginnings. We still have Ellen, her shyness, her two brothers and the fact that they teased her and her sister Gail hanging out with the two brothers. We don’t mention Ellen’s birthday year or the town,  or her parents names or their main traits. That can come later. We have woven in a few things to tease the reader in. What did Ellen do just now? How did she go from being shy and withdraw to taking some kind of action. And what about Gail or the parents? What is lying at Ellen’s feet? Or should that be “who”?

This is the type of lead to draw in the reader. Even if you are not writing a mystery, a story needs some suspense, which could  very well be about the relationships in that Clark family. Or it could be something else – whatever your imagination conjures up.

I’ll end with the beginning of one of the short stories in my mystery collection Beyond the Tripping Point as it does have some family background woven into it. And I’ve used another technique to start the story and then pushed into the family background.

“The police can’t find her, Ms. Bowman,” Robin Morgrave says.

Rosemary Morgrave has gone missing and I’m putting on a brave smile for her twin brother. Robin sat on the other side of the desk in The Attic Agency’s third floor office. Only my twin brother, Bast, nodding, stops me from losing it. Ever since David, my seven-year-old son, was abducted last August, I’ve been living in Panicville.Sure, we got him back, but how much of him returned? He follows  Bast around like an investigator-in-training. His brown eyes stare right through my soul.I wish he’d just say how he feels. But since his return, David hasn’t opened his mouth except ti swallow liquids and food. He doesn’t even cry. (Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright Sharon A. Crawford, published  by Blue Denim Press, 2012).

You can pick it apart and try to guess what will happen in the story. Or you can read it. If you click on the BTTP icon at the top of this post, it takes you to my Amazon profile as well as to information about Beyond the Tripping Point and the novel (with the same three characters) Beyond Blood.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

 

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Working birthdays into your novels

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

Probably because today is my birthday it got me thinking about how to work in birthdays for your main fiction characters. Doing something different in the plot instead of just the character having a birthday party. Or in the case of the fraternal twin PIs Dana  Bowman and Bast Overture in the current Beyond mystery (which I’m still rewriting) who turn 40 in the book. I am avoiding the cliche throw a 40 surprise birthday party. I have also added in that their birthday is December 31 so we have New Year’s Eve as well. Double celebration here, but not just party- party – there are plot twists and revelations and I’ve put all this birthday/New Year’s Eve stuff at the end of the novel. And it is not only December 31, but December 31, 1999 so going into the new (then) 21st. century.  Bast is a computer geek so some of us will remember the big Y2K scare at that time. Yes, that’s involved but I’m not saying how.

What I am saying is there are ways to incorporate typical life happenings and events into your novel but be unique in your plot about it. Another example from this Beyond book is the pushing 40 syndrome, although in 2016 it might be “pushing 60” not 40. Remember my book set in late 1999. Yes, the twins have some anxiety about reaching the big 40, but it’s more than that as both have life intervening events that play a part in their angst. Especially Dana.

And I’m not saying what. Just a few tips to sum up how to incorporate normal life events into your fiction.

For specific holidays, have something different about them and I don ‘t meant just the location. Christmas is a big one. I jump from mid December to New Year’s Eve with just a sentence referencing Christmas in that chapter. While I love Christmas movies – olnd new – I think Christmas plots have been overdone, at least in film. “Different” is the key word here.

For characters birthdays, again, make it different and that can be done by tying it into the plot. Your character pushing 40, 50 or whatever, can help them decide to make a big change in their life – but what is the change? Depending on the genre, they might want to let their inner desires come to the surface and act on them. Use your imagination for what that can be.They might be so fed up with their life situation (which will be in your plot) they decide to disappear for good. Instead of telling your story from the other, main characters about after the character disappears, why not go with the disappearing character and what he or she is dealing with. Is it as he or she expected? Or different?

“Different” again is the key word here. You don’t want to write the same old, same old. So brainstorm. Let your mind wander. This often works best when you are doing something else. You know when you are trying to think of something (with me it is people’s names, a sure sign of getting old(er), don’t think about it and it will come to you.

Having said that, just the act of sitting at your computer and creating and getting in that well, creative – out-of-your-normal- world zone can also bring about some interesting and different plot ideas. Is your character directing this? Maybe. Sometimes I think Dana Bowman is in my head. She certainly thinks she is.

Happy and creative writing.

Cheers.

Sharon

And the  usual, click on the Beyond Blood graphic at the top to go to my author profile and books and where to purchase. Christmas is only 25 days away.

And I don’t have most of my Christmas decorations up. Too busy writing and editing.

 

 

 

 

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Following your muse when rewriting novels

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

The more I rewrite my third Beyond mystery book, the more I learn about fiction writing. It is not all about making sure plot line works and is consistent and that characters are believable. The muse, that nebulous creative force does factor in. And not only when you are sitting at your computer, but when you are busy doing other things.

I can be making dinner, going for a walk (although not too much of that lately with our November weather) or even be asleep, when suddenly something will pop into my head to include in my novel. Sometimes it is an answer for some plot and/or character problem. But often it is something completely different that will work. Sometimes it is a reminder about what is missing.

The latter that happened with me is about my main character, PI Dana Bowman and is about including more emotion with her, especially after she suffers a severe trauma at the end of Part 1 in the novel. The novel’s first chapter has her feelings upfront and centre. She is feeling down and the weather (rain in November no less) is making it worse. She also runs into Don Fielding, the Detective Sergeant she met in Beyond Blood and where she ignored their attraction to each other. So, that comes up in the beginning of the new novel.

I have included the aftermath of her traumatic experience – emotional and physical but something still needs to be included near the end and the end of the novel. And so, the elusive muse brought this to me as well as an idea of how to write it.

Lesson learned? Let your mind (and body, too) go on to non-writing activities and get some sleep to give the muse the space to show up.

We writers need all the help we can get. Unlike some writers who claim they hate writing, I love writing, no matter how difficult it can sometimes get. What I don’t like is all the other stuff I have to do and the time it takes.

Well, now I have found something positive about doing housework, but with a disclaimer here. I do like to cook (and eat too), partly because it is something creative.

So, does doing one thing that is creative help another thing that is creative?

Speaking about Muses and being creative, a reminder for those in the Toronto, Ontario area. This Saturday, November 26 I will be participating in the Toronto Heliconian Club’s Gifts from the Muses Show and Sale – selling my Beyond books and reading an excerpt from Beyond Blood at the end of the 2 p.m. entertainment session – I’m after the musician then. More details here.

And if you can’t make it, the Beyond Blood icon at the top of this post links to my amazon profile – which also shows the Beyond the Tripping Point short story collection. Might make good Christmas gifts.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Gift of the Muses Show and Sale

Gift of the Muses Show and Sale

 

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Writing a new short story finally

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

I am finally writing a new mystery short story. And I am amazed that I actually found time. Despite my good intentions to try to tame time, except for perhaps a couple of areas, it has not been working. Most of the blame is what I refer to as “outside crap.” Included in that is even more and new computer problems. I won’t go into the sad saga here now, except for the one that is connected to this author blog.

WordPress in its “infinite wisdom” has a Set Featured Image feature. Technically (pun intended) it should work for only the actual blog post you are writing for the image withing the actual post and is not the image (my headshot) that appears at the side outside all blog posts. That one stays. But if it the image is in a blog post and you set it as an “Update” you now have two photos the same side by side on your live post. If you delete one from the one post when you are in Edit Post for update mode, it deletes all the same image on all the posts that have it. Those with another image in the post seem to keep that image.

What were the WordPress designers thinking?

For the ongoing computer crap problems, you will have to check my personal blog, for future postings on it. Meantime, my son the computer techie will be helping me remotely to resolve some of these computer issues later today.

As for the time management plan – the actual writing is getting in there, although not as much time each day as planned and hoped for. I have cut back my email time to 20 minutes a day (using a timer), except for family. All email replies and even new ones with promised information are being prioritized according to content date. So, something happening the end of the month doesn’t get priority over something happening today. I use a timer. So I can write. We writers are driven to write.

Someday I’ll write a noir satire mystery on computer problems and time management, but not in this new story. The story does take something from the news (no, not Trump’s election to the US presidency) but something else that has already been satirized on satire websites. So, I’m not doing satire here. I’m taking the news item and going on a “what if such and such happened? What if the character was like such-and-such?.

And so the story goes. But I’m not writing a fiction based on fact, something writers have to clarify when they are writing; Just because I’m writing fiction doesn’t mean I don’t need to do research. Besides the news stories, I have to research the laws connected to their content, medical issues connected to content, police procedure and most important develop my characters. I have two – a new one and the Toronto Police Service Homicide detective Larry Hutchison from “Missing in Action,” one of my short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012),  Both stories take place in the same time period – NOW. I have wanted to put Detective Hutchinson in more stories, so this is my first go at that. .

I am also trying something new for me. Telling the short story from two different viewpoints – the new character and Hutchinson to develop the cat and mouse suspense.

It is interesting. I have to follow the fiction rules – one character’s point of view per scene with extra line space and/or asterisks in between scenes.

In some future posts I’ll go some more into the ins and outs using two characters points of view in short stories.

For now, it’s back to writing the actual short story…I hope. There better not be any more computer problems.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

And for this post, the Beyond Blood icon a the top does take you to Beyond Blood at Amazon.

 

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More on your setting in fiction

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

Besides actual location, setting also includes information peculiar to what is happening in the location. For example, in my novel Beyond Blood, the main character PI Dana Bowman goes sailing with Detective Sergeant Donald Fielding. Fielding has been sailing for years but this is Dana’s first time aboard a large sailboat – more like a small yacht. So I combined my limited sailing background with checking in with an expert in this area and also some reading online and in books about sailing..

A few years ago I wrote a newspaper story on a fellow, a seasoned sailor, who was planning to sail at least partway around the world. His “sailboat” (the small yacht type) was anchored in the Harbourfront area of Toronto Harbour. I made an appointment to interview him for the story and met him on his boat. When I arrived he was swabbing the deck.

I told him I was also going to ask a few extra questions for background information for a novel I was writing. He gave me the boat tour – it is amazing what can be packed into the small enclosed area below – everything from a small kitchen to a bathroom to a place to sleep. He was very informative but he did not take me out on Lake Ontario. So, I had to go back a few years when my son, still a child, and I went sailing with my friend and her boyfriend – for the feel of it, to remember you always wear a life jacket when on a sailboat, to how the winds affect the sailing, to falling into the water. No, I (who can’t swim) didn’t fall in, but my friend, a good swimmer did. She was okay with her life jacket on and just laughed about it as she swam the short distance back to the boat and climbed back aboard. But it gave me information for Beyond Blood although no one falls in the water.

So when Dana first goes out on the water with Fielding, I work it in as a friendly lesson while avoiding making it an expository or Sailing 101. Here is a short excerpt:

“Here put on a life jacket.” He handed me one which I donned. Fielding put on the other one and shoved the cooler under the floor. “Please sit down while I hoist the sail.”

” Need any help?”

“No.” He looked into my face. “Fine, but you have to obey orders if you want to crew.”

“Aye, aye sir.” I saluted,

Fielding moved away and moved into what resembled a cockpit, lowered the centreboard and removed the tarp, exposing two sails.”

“Here, store the tier below deck.”

“Huh?”

Fielding pointed to where the cooler rested. Taking hold of the tier, I folded it and placed it below deck.

“Maybe I’ll just watch this time.” I sat down on one of the benches.  (From Beyond  Blood, copyright Sharon A. Crawford, 2014, Blue Denim Press)

Dana does help more a bit later. The whole chapter is not about learning to sail as Fielding and Dana also use the time to find out more about each other until…

Well, I’m not going to say what happens or how this chapter ends.You’ll have to read Beyond Blood to find out. Click on the book cover at the top to find out one of the places the book is available. For now,  I’ll just say that later in the novel, Dana has to use her sailing knowledge to try to save a family member. So, the first sailing episode was not just a respite from all the murder and mayhem, but also served a purpose – showing how Dana learns something about sailing so that when she has to use it in a life-threatening situation, it is not a skill pulled out of air with a quick explanation such as “I (Dana) learned to swim a few years ago” tacked on to it.

That is something else to remember. You may have more leeway in a novel to go off on so-called tangents, but make sure they have something to do with character development and plot – especially in mystery novels.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

 

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