Monday, May 10, 2010

Finding A Way

By Carolyn Hart

I would love to say after publishing 44 books that I have captured the magic elixir and that I toss off books as easily as a conjuror pulls a rabbit from a top hat.


Writing is hard. Always. Every book is a challenge. If I knew more about magic and top hats, very likely I would realize that producing a rabbit is always a challenge, too. Nothing worth doing is easy.

Every book is like climbing a new, taller, more dangerous mountain, a crevasse here, a slippery rock there, an unexpected overhang blocking the way. But when a writer reaches the top, that rarefied perch with the earth spread below, the writer has gained in skill. I don’t pretend to have many answers, much less all the answers, but I can share some techniques that I have learned over the years in writing classic puzzles.

Long ago as an aspiring writer I was informed that YOU MUST OUTLINE. That is not true for many writers. For some, for those whose minds can entertain the far flung needs of a story from the outset, an outline is essential and their way to begin. For as many authors, myself included, there will never be a formal outline.

Here is what I know when I begin: the protagonist(s), the victim, the identity of the murderer and the motive, the setting, and a working title. I am a "what if" writer. The story happens as I write. To me, that affords joy in writing. In Death of the Party, Annie and Max Darling go to a remote sea island to investigate a death which occurred a year earlier. Early in the book, Max decides to take a walk about the island. On a path in the woods, he hears someone approaching. As he comes around a bend, he meets a burly, muscular, middle-aged man. I had no idea what Max would find when he set out on the walk. I was as surprised as he at the unexpected encounter. The new character becomes very important in the book and I didn’t know he was coming.

I am suggesting that you can discover a book by letting your main character take a walk or pick up the phone or run after a taxi or climb a fire escape. What if . . .

Be particular about your characters’ names. I try to have each name begin with a different letter. I have so many recurring characters in the Death on Demand series that occasionally names will begin with the same letter, but it is rare. Make it easy for readers by using names that sound and look different.

Present clues fairly to the readers while hiding them in plain sight. I have a short passage in Deadly Valentine in which I describe an older man who is a murder victim. The reader will not be surprised because his unpleasant personality was described. The description also included the inference that he was impotent and that was a major clue. However, to the reader the emphasis was on his nasty disposition.

Readers are accustomed to attending movies and sorting out the hero and the villain by the action. You don’t have to tell readers. Let them see for themselves. Often when I write a scene, I summarize too much because I’m focused on the main point I want to achieve. I find that I’ve told the readers. I go back and rewrite and let the readers see and hear and feel what led up to the important action in the scene.

When I had written about 23 books, I had a Eureka moment. I don’t outline before I start, but I outline as I am writing. That way I have a breakdown of the action and can easily find a certain passage if I feel it needs changes. I write the outline by chapters in a yellow legal pad. In the left margin, I write the day and time and, if important, weather. I also write the ms. page numbers.

As I write, I make notes about what I want to add or subtract or modify and I have many, many scraps of paper floating around. It isn’t orderly, but it captures fleeting thoughts that can make a difference in the ms.

When writing a scene, I am always aware that the protagonist has a goal and I as author have a goal. Annie Darling in the opening pages of The Christie Caper is thinking about getting ready for a marvelous party to kick off her conference in honor of Agatha Christie. That is her goal. My goal is to introduce important characters to the reader.   

Treat editors with courtesy and respect. They are editors because they love books. On occasion an editor will not be helpful, but most editorial suggestions will be helpful. The editor can see the forest when the author is lost in the trees.

I have been blessed with extraordinarily good editors. Sometimes I decline to make a suggested change, but often I see that I can indeed improve the scene. In Deadly Valentine, the editor suggested that I introduce the main characters before Annie Darling encounters them at a Valentine Ball. I had Annie’s ditzy mother-in-law invite Annie down to the dock where Laurel casually inquires about the residences ringing the lagoon. As Annie describes her neighbors, the reader meets these characters before the crush of the ball. The editor made the suggestion that the characters be introduced. It was up to me as the author to figure out how to accomplish that task.

The challenge in writing is that it is always hard. The joy is that once the first draft is done, writing is fun. At that point, you have the book. Take that ms., mold and smooth and straighten and correct. When the work is done, be proud. You have created a story that no one else could have written.

God Bless.
An accomplished master of mystery, Carolyn Hart is the author of over forty crime novels in three different series.  Her books have won multiple Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards. Her latest release is Laughed 'Til He Died.  She lives in Oklahoma City, and is one of the founders of Sisters in Crime. Visit her website at:


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your method with us. It is always great to see how other writers go about finishing their work.

E. B. Davis said...

When I wrote my first ms, a friend who wasn't a writer, asked if I used an outline. It never had occurred to me to use an outline and I felt silly. I'm so glad to hear that you only use a modified method. Now I write a story line by chapter.
I love your new ghost series, but still miss Henrie O. Elaine

Dean James said...

Carolyn, your books are so finely crafted, it's fascinating to get a look behind the scenes, as it were, of the author at work. Thanks for sharing your experience with us, and the fact that it never gets easier, no matter how accomplished you are. As I struggle to finish a book, I'm very heartened by your words.

ramona said...

I love that your Eureka moment came after you'd written 23 books.

Thanks for the tips, and for sharing your process.

Betty Gordon said...

Carolyn, 44 books -- Wow!! Thanks for sharing your expertise. I've enjoyed your writing in the past and look forward to future publications.

Betty Gordon

Mare F said...

I love to hear how you manage to put your stories together. And I really enjoy Henrie O. Fabulous character.

vp chandler said...

Thank you for your insights. I can't imagine trying to write a novel with out an outline. My story changes so much I seem to spend just as much time on my outline! Writing a chapter outline is interesting. I think that will keep my story moving along at a better pace. Thanks!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for sharing! Like you, I don't outline (I don't always even know whodunnit when I start), but I do create an outline as I go.

Thanks too for all the hours of reading pleasure you've given us all!

amy said...

Thank you for taking time to explain how you write your books! It's a relief to read that someone else works similarly to me. I especially appreciated hearing that you don't have all the details when you start.


Kaye George said...

Thanks for sharing your process, Carolyn! And for pointing out that what works for one writer doesn't work for all of us.

Carolyn Hart said...

Bless each and every one of you for your kind and generous comments. I am glad, though not surprised, to know that many of you also find the book as you go. Thanks for writing wonderful mysteries. All best wishes - Carolyn Hart

Leann Sweeney said...

Hi Carolyn. What a wonderful blog. And since I cannot find your email, I want to thank you for your mention on pg 141 of my "backlist" in your new book. I was BLOWN AWAY to see my name there. THANK YOU!