Thursday, July 28, 2011
That’s a little bit tough. Murder and death are not uplifting concepts, nor are they something an ordinary person happens upon time after time. The writer doesn’t have the fallback of a professional crime-solver to explain the proximity of murder to the sleuth...or even the explanation of why the sleuth is involved in solving the crime in the first place.
My first mystery series is a hybrid—soft-boiled with romantic elements. Lola Cruz is a smart, sexy Latina PI. Easy to keep her involved in crime solving since it’s her job!
My second series, A Magical Dressmaking Mystery series has a definite lightness to it. It’s not funny the way the Lola Cruz books are, but it’s not dark suspense, either. It’s small town, feel good, and is as much about the community of people as it is about the murder. But the sleuth is a Dressmaker—so how do I keep her involved in murder after murder without the whole thing becoming too far-fetched?
Of course there’s a degree of suspension of disbelief, but I like to be as authentic and realistic as I can in a book’s setup. In a murder mystery, mayhem must reign supreme—it just has to function within the book’s world. In Pleating for Mercy, the first book in A Magical Dressmaking Mystery series, the sleuth is Harlow Cassidy, a fashion designer who’s been away from her hometown of Bliss, Texas for a good long time. But when her great-grandmother, Loretta Mae, passes, and Harlow inherits the old yellow farmhouse off the square (actually, she’s owned it since she was a baby, she just never knew it—there are a whole lot of secrets in Bliss!), she leaves Manhattan and goes home to stay.
She opens Buttons & Bows and her new dressmaking business is born. But mayhem ensues when an old childhood acquaintance shows up needing a wedding dress made, then a dead body is discovered and it’s all a little too close to home for Harlow. Who said small town life was quiet? They’ve never been to Bliss!
Pleating for Mercy comes out on August 2nd. I loved, Loved, LOVED writing this book and can’t wait to get to my computer every day and get back into the world of Harlow, Nana, Tessa (Harlow’s Mama), Will Flores, Loretta Mae (who’s still hanging around the old farmhouse as a ghost), and the town square. It’s become a comfort to me, and truth be told, I’d like to live in Bliss, Texas. If only it existed outside my head and the pages of my books!
Crafting believable killings within a book series is tough, but getting to spend time with Harlow (who’s a descendent of Butch Cassidy and is charmed) is so much fun. I’m getting ready to start book three, a holiday installment, and can’t wait to see how Bliss comes alive for the holidays. Murder and mayhem aside, there’s just something great about cozies and books which have characters you see as friends.
I’d love to hear about some of your favorite books, favorite characters, and favorite book communities. How do your favorite cozy authors handle their sleuths happening upon murder after murder after murder?
Melissa Bourbon, who sometimes answers to her Latina-by-marriage name Misa Ramirez, gave up teaching middle and high school kids in Northern California to write full-time amidst horses and Longhorns in North Texas. She fantasizes about spending summers writing in quaint, cozy locales, has a love/hate relationship with yoga and chocolate, is devoted to her family, and can’t believe she’s lucky enough to be living the life of her dreams.
She is the marketing director at Entangled Publishing, is the author of the Lola Cruz Mystery series with St. Martin’s Minotaur, A Magical Dressmaking Mystery series with NAL, and is the co-author of The Tricked-out Toolbox and two romantic suspense titles to be released in 2012.
Visit Misa at:
The Naked Hero: http://thenakedhero.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/misa.ramirez and http://www.facebook.com/AuthorMelissaBourbon.MisaRamirez
Twitter: http://twitter.com/melissabourbon and http://twitter.com/misaramirez
Killer Characters (on the 22nd of each month): http://killercharacters.com
Entangled Publishing (publisher of my upcoming romantic suspense novels and the 3rd Lola Cruz book, Bare Naked Lola): http://entangledpublishing.com
Thursday, July 21, 2011
No, I’m not talking about the fashion police coming after you. I’m talking about those little errors and bad habits that creep into your manuscript, weaken your message, and add up to an overall feeling of amateurish writing. The good news is that, unlike the more critical creative flow of ideas for plot and characters, these little bad habits are easy to correct, resulting in a much more polished, compelling manuscript.
1. Take out wishy-washy qualifiers like quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, really, etc. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Take them out. Even very is to be avoided – it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”
2. Show us, don’t tell us how your characters are feeling. Avoid statements like, “He found that funny,” or “The little girl felt sad.” Show these emotions by their actions, words, and body language: “Eyes downcast, shoulders slumped, head down, she refused to answer as she pushed her food around the plate.”
3. Avoid colorless, overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus (or use the MS Word one. Hint: look up the present tense: walk, run, eat, say, etc.) to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, or bolted.
4. Avoid –ing verbs wherever possible. Use -ed verbs instead – they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power.
5. Keep adverbs to a minimum. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.”
6. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of adjectives in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose” that is melodramatic and overly “flowery.”
7. Dialogue tags – Stick with the basic he said and she said (or asked) wherever possible, rather than “he emphasized” or “she reiterated” or “Mark uttered,” etc. These phrases stand out, so they take the reader out of the story, whereas “said” is almost invisible. However, I like dialogue tags that describe how something is said, as in he shouted, she murmured, he grumbled, she whispered. You can often eliminate the dialogue tag altogether and just use an action beat instead: He picked up the phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the cops.”
8. Describe the stimulus, then the response: When writing an action scene, make sure your sentence structure mimics the order of the actions. The reader pictures the actions in the order that she reads them, so it’s confusing to read about the reaction before finding out what caused it. So describe the action first, then the reaction: Instead of “He yelled when the dog bit him,” write: “The dog bit him and he yelled.”
9. Avoid the passive voice: For greater impact, when describing an action, start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Also, avoid empty phrases like “There is”, “There was,” “It’s,” “It was.” Jump right in with what you’re actually talking about.
10. Avoid negative constructions wherever possible – they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”
11. Avoid frequent repetition of the same word or forms of the same word. If you’ve already used a certain noun or verb in a paragraph or section, go to your thesaurus to find a different way to express that idea when you mention it again. Also, avoid repetition of the same imagery. Whether you’re describing the setting, the weather, or the hero or heroine, vary your wording.
12. Avoid formal sentences and pretentious language. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up alienating them. As Jessica Page Morrell says, “if a reader is constantly consulting a dictionary when reading your prose, you’re dragging him from the story. Words in manuscripts such as capacious, accretion, plangent, occluded, viridian, arboreal, sylvan, obdurant, luculent, longueur, rubescent, and mendacious always pull me from the story. Just say no to showing off.”
As Morrell points out, “Simple words are close to our hearts and easily understood…. simpler words are unpretentious, yet contain power and grace….Pompous words are alienating, boring, and outdated.”
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Copyright © Jodie Renner, July 2011
Resources: Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, by Jessica Page Morrell; Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon; How NOT to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman.
Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. Her services range from developmental editing to light final copyediting, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at www.JodieRennerEditing.com and her blog at http://JodieRennerEditing.blogspot.com.
Jodie is a member of International Thriller Writers (associate), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Backspace: The Writers Place, The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and The Editors Association of Canada (EAC).
Jodie has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. In fact, Jodie loves traveling so much, she’s thinking of changing her tagline from “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing” to “Have laptop, will travel.”
Thursday, July 14, 2011
At the time of Katrina, I was working at a print shop in Niles, Illinois, just north of Chicago. My parents, who lived in New Orleans East, pretty close to the Lower Ninth Ward, evacuated a day early, going to Baton Rouge with my grandmother to stay with my sister. They only took enough items for a two-day stay.
The levees broke and my family couldn’t leave Baton Rouge. That is when a life changing reality set in; my hometown was under water. My experience was a lot different than my parents and those who still lived in New Orleans. I was saddled with the guilt of not being with them and of my life not being turned upside down and the deep sadness of knowing that the home I grew up in was no longer.
My parents lived in the same house in New Orleans East since I was three. I moved out when I was eighteen and my grandmother moved into my old room. After I graduated from the University of New Orleans, I waited tables in the Quarter until I moved to Chicago for a job at twenty-six, about ten years before Katrina.
New Orleans East was a lower-middle class area that was mostly black, with some gangs, but overall, not the worst neighborhood to live in. There were shootings and robberies that you would hear of, but luckily, my parents were never involved in a crime statistic. After Katrina, my parent’s house, which was two blocks off Lake Pontchartrain, had about five feet of water and was totally ruined.
So, at this point, my parents and two grandmothers were staying in my sister’s cramped one bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge with her husband and child and they had no where else to go. I could only imagine the heartbreak and tension they were feeling, not knowing what their future held or what they had to go back to. They had no clothes and their medicine was all back at the house.
The following weekend, I took off work and drove down to Baton Rouge. I don’t know why I did this to myself, but I listened to New Orleans and Mardi Gras music and I found myself crying at different moments during the thirteen hour drive. It became scary when I hit Jackson, Mississippi, as every gas station off the interstate had long lines of cars waiting for gas. For a while I didn’t know if I’d have enough gas to make it, it was getting dark and there was no cell phone reception.
Along the way, I encountered many service vehicles, fire engines, and such heading down. There were campers and SUV’s with Katrina relief written on them. When I finally made it to the apartment complex, I ran up to my family and hugged them and cried, trying to tell them it would be okay, but here I was, feeling that guilt; feeling like an outsider, but this wasn’t about me, it was about my parents and my sister and the hell they were going through.
I stayed with them for a few days. There was nothing for me to do but offer support. They told me I shouldn’t have come, but what could I do? I needed to be there with them, if nothing else, but to be a distraction. When I left, we hugged and cried again and I continued to cry on the way back to Chicago. The total shock of all of these events and the adjustment to a life to follow was going to take a huge toll on them. This was a long way from being over.
As soon as people were allowed back into New Orleans, I drove down to help my parents try to retrieve any items that might have been salvageable. It was extremely creepy driving into our neighborhood as it was a ghost town. It reminded of a typical Stephen King town when there was something evil afoot. There was no law and every time a vehicle came by, we had to be ready to defend ourselves. We’ve heard terrible stories of robberies and murders from people offering help.
We looked around the house first, wearing rubber gloves and facemasks. There wasn’t much to save. Everything was lost; pictures, greeting cards, everything made in elementary school by my sister and me. It was all gone. Gutting the house was a gut wrenching experience, but I couldn’t let it show. Eventually, we had dragged everything we could to the curb. This was a requirement of Road Home buying the house.
My parents, grandmother’s, sister, her husband and child had lived in the one bedroom apartment in Baton Rouge for a while. I called constantly, getting updates on how FEMA’s assistance was coming along. A month or two into it, my parents managed to get their own apartment within the same complex and that saved their sanity for the short term.
My sister had the patience of a saint, dealing with the entire situation. She called FEMA everyday, making sure my folks wouldn’t fall through the cracks. One of my grandmothers was able to move into a FEMA trailer on her property in Slidell while my other grandmother continued to stay with my parents.
Eventually, FEMA came through with Road Home money and my parents started a new mortgage on a house in Baton Rouge and my sister also got her first home just a mile away from them. There were a lot of New Orleanians that stayed in Baton Rouge.Although they are still adjusting to a new life, their new home is in a better neighborhood than the old one and the house is nicer, but it’s not the same, so they tell me. They miss their old life, as would anyone. However, the way I see it, Baton Rouge has gained a lot of character.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
What was it about Chandler's book that appealed to me? Well, in one way it seemed that Marlowe was a romantic. There's poetry in him, and a great sense of humor. Though he's a bit jaded, he still knows right from wrong. When he has to, he puts his life on the line. He's an individualist, irreverent, an investigator who left the police due to insubordination. Plus, he's good at what he does. Very good.
Years ago Joseph Campbell recorded a series of conversations with Bill Moyers and George Lucas. Campbell, as you probably know, wrote extensively about myth, and how myths inform our writing today. (Check out Campbell's book, HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.) Lucas, who created the STAR WARS saga, was a devotee of Campbell's.
But myth structure is not only for science fiction. When we look at Raymond Chandler, we see how he uses the story of the knight-errant. (In fact, before he settled on the name of Marlowe, Chandler had called his private eye Mallory, the same name as the author who wrote MORTE D'ARTHUR.) And Chandler's private-eye-as-knight-errant goes forward to this day.
So, what's a knight-errant? They are warriors, highly skilled, who travel the countryside. They are knights who may or may not have a king to command them. They are men (and these days, women) who look for trouble. Who were some of the famous knight-errants?
Amadis de Gaula
The Ronin of Japan can fit into this category of hero, (the Japanese film by Kurosawa, YOJIMBO, based on the Hammett novel RED HARVEST) as well as the American cowboy (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, based on YOJIMBO – talk about coming full circle!).
Are there modern equivalents to the knight-errant?
At the Indiana Bouchercon I had a pleasant conversation with Lee Child, and we talked about myth and its importance in writing. Mr Child talked about the myth of the knight-errant, and its impact on his writing about Reacher, a warrior and a loner, who wanders the countryside, righting wrongs, and rescuing fair maidens. Sound familiar?
I see my private eye, Willis Gidney, as a knight errant. For me, the journey of the hero is a means of self-discovery. This is one of the changes in modern detective stories – that the mystery to be solved is not exclusively that of the detective's client, but also, in part, that of the detective him/herself. That, instead of the private eye as an immutable character, she/he changes over time, grows, and maybe even learns something.
I think Tony Hillerman did a wonderful job when he wrote about Navajo Tribal Policemen Leaphorn and Chee – you can see them progress and change from book to book. There's a psychological variant on the detective story: in the film LETHAL WEAPON, the detective is suicidal, but over the course of the story learns to overcome (some of) his self-destructive tendencies. In THE SEVEN PER CENT SOLUTION, Holmes must rid himself of cocaine addiction, while solving a baffling case.
When I write about the private eye in STEAL THE SHOW, I'm writing about a guy who had been abandoned as a child. His first six years of life are a blank. And this affects his actions, the cases he takes, the reasons for doing what he does. You and I might not go down the paths Gidney travels but, as the writer, it's my job to help you understand why Gidney chooses certain paths over others.
How about your hero? Can you relate him or her to this classic myth?