"Commit the Perfect Crime: Writing Mysteries & Thrillers"
After taking a break during the busy holiday period, the Northwest Author Series hosted by the Wilsonville Library resumed this month with April Henry , an Oregonian and a New York Times bestselling author.
April is the author of the Claire Montrose series that began with her first published book, Circles of Confusion. She's since gone on to publish young adult mysteries and teamed with Lisa Wiehl for adult mysteries.
April didn't so much present information that was new for me as she did reinforce good guidelines that I've read and heard before. Her recommendations for writing mysteries apply to any genre of fiction. Create characters that the reader will invest in, and keep cranking up the problems for the main character to create page-turning tension. Good advice no matter what type of fiction you're writing.
April defined mysteries as "why?" and thrillers as "how?" Elsewhere I heard the distinction described as the reader learning clues along with the protagonist in a mystery, while thrillers often give the reader more information than the protagonist. April described mysteries as often occurring in a limited setting, while a thriller moves to the outer world and generally moves as a faster pace.
April began with plotting; where she gets her ideas and how she develops her main plot. The story inspiration may come from anywhere - news articles, magazines, photographs, overheard conversations, music lyrics, etc. Next she brainstorms "what if?" Whether it's a huge over-arching issue or a minor irritant, she mulls over what type of situation or what issues she strongly cares about that would make her take action outside her comfort zone.
As for "writing what you know," April said we all know how we've felt in various situations throughout our lives. For example, that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when your car loses traction on black ice. We may not have personal experience with all the situations in which we place our protagonist, but we all know that creepy feeling in the dark when we hear a board creak behind us. So even though you've never been a Boston police officer or an archeologist in the jungles of New Guinea, you can apply genuine responses to your imaginary settings.
The reader must care about the protagonist before you place your hero or heroine in jeopardy. This ties in with Larry Brooks' Story Structure and Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. They explain the first quarter of the book as Set Up -- gaining the reader's involvement with the main characters and preparing the reader for the wild ride ahead.
As for creating and maintaining tension, April provided a long list of ideas: the ticking clock (Ever notice that all the bombs on TV have a digital timer that is periodically flashed on the screen?), each time the heroine overcomes an obstacle replace it with a worse one, make the protagonist unable to take action (Lincoln Rhyme, anyone?), use our universal fears (darkness, spiders, etc.), have evidence disappear or be disproved, have the protagonist lie, eliminate the prime suspect as the killer, etc. To keep your readers up all night, end the chapter with an unresolved issue.
Dropping clues (this is what we came for!): Misdirect the reader by spending lots of time on the false clue while glossing over the significant clue. Reveal a clue that appears meaningless at the time. Surround the big clue with minor clues. The motive for the crime isn't the one originally believed (the clearest motive isn't the murderer's). Something is missing from the crime scene that should be there.
Here are some of my favorites from the session:
*Read, read, read.
*Write, write, write. Keep a journal, write your story for however many minutes a day you can squeeze in, use story prompts from books on writing to get you started if not working on a novel.
*Story Prompt: This is a story about _____ (main character) who wants _____ (story goal) more than anything else in the world but is prevented by _____ (obstacle) until he or she does something to overcome it.
*"How can I make it worse for the protagonist?"
*Don't be afraid to interview an expert. Most people love to talk about their areas of interest. Some may give you the cold shoulder, but others will give you more than you expected.
*Give every character in your story a goal.
*Even the villain is the hero of his or her own story.
*Pit your protagonist's personal values against each other. Give her or him an impossible choice between two desirables or two evils that must be made.
*Every character in a mystery has a secret, just not the secret. What do they do to conceal their personal secret that throws suspicion on them?
*There is no one single method for every writer. April has made outlines before beginning the first draft as well as started writing to discover the story. Do what works for you.
*"Show don't tell" - Watch movies and television to observe how emotions and characterization are shown to the viewer. Take notes for your own writing so you can show rather than tell the reader what the characters are feeling.
*You can always edit crap. You can't edit nothing. (See "write, write, write" above).
*Attend author readings at book stores. You'll learn something from every writer you observe and you'll discover that published authors are folks just like you.
And my favorite of the day: "Tenacity is as important as Talent."
As busy as she is with her own fiction, April also teaches writing on occasion. Visit her web site for more information about April and her best selling books.