Writer, Stretch Yourself (Like a Big Black Cat)

 

My own green-eyed black cat, Sylvie

I’m on summer vacation. No, I’m not taking any beach trips, darn it. I enjoyed a fun birthday/writing retreat in Nashville at the beginning of July, and spent the weekend of the 16th in Cincinnati with my parents for their 57th anniversary, instead of going to Thrillerfest. Mostly my vacation means I’m making only occasional excursions to social media, and I’ve given my daily blog a rest. Okay, the rest is really for me, not the blog. Oh, and I’ve been writing a novel.

Yes, that is what I do for work, too. But somehow writing this novel feels less like work and more like a summer enrichment project I might have worked on for fun when I was a kid. (One elementary summer I did a public television school math course where we had to order the workbook by mail, and I loved it. Geek much?)

For years I’ve wanted to write a cozy mystery. My existing novels are so far from being cozies that when I tell people of this desire, they give me looks that range from alarm to puzzlement. But for me, it’s just a matter of wanting to try something new. The novel I’m publishing with Mulholland Books next year, ONE LAST SECRET, is straight suspense, without any supernatural elements–and that is new for me. The cozy I’m working on is simply me trying another new thing.

Have you ever done a modeling writing exercise? I had a workshop teacher who often gave us exercises in which we would try to write in the style/voice of a famous writer: Flannery O’Connor, Dashiell Hammett, Hemingway. Hemingway was my favorite. We wrote as less distinctive writers, too. It’s an excellent exercise for emerging writers because it’s rather like walking in the shoes of the greats. Those shoes never fit, of course, but it’s as fun as being a four-year-old in Mom’s high heels. It’s useful, too. Developing one’s singular writing style takes a long time, and the exercise puts you immediately into the head of an established voice.

While I’m not particularly mystical, I have a strong belief in Things Happening For A Reason. So when my good writer friend, Carolyn Haines–who has written around 850,000 books and stories in the past few decades–said she was in search of writers to be a part of her new black cat detective mystery series, Familiar Legacy, featuring Trouble, the black cat detective, I said I’m in! before I’d even heard the details.

I mean, why not? I’d never written a black cat detective mystery, but I sure wanted to try.

The Trouble books have a familiar formula that includes girl meets boy, and a mystery-loving critter. Trouble the cat is the son of cat-hero detective, Familiar, who was the star of of Carolyn’s long-running Harlequin Intrigue book series, Fear Familiar. She rereleased many of the Fear Familiar books this spring, and launched her first Trouble novel, Familiar Troubleon July 10th. The second in the new series, Trouble in Dixie by Rebecca Barrett, comes out in August.

My first job was to come up with a synopsis, and a title. The synopsis blossomed into a detailed outline. For me, it was a very detailed outline. I usually write skeletal outlines for my own books, but I rarely know how the book will end before I start writing. Then there’s that messy middle bit. For Small Town Trouble I pretty much know every turn, from beginning to end. There have been a few changes as I write, but nothing too substantive. And they’ve enhanced and deepened the story.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to imagine complete stories, but then told myself that since I knew the ending it would be boring to write it out. With this book, I’ve found the complete opposite is true. It’s a huge challenge for me to follow a story I’ve put together ahead of time–but it’s also a huge amount of fun. When I sit down to write, it’s a relief to take out my outline and note which scene I’m going to write, because I’ve already done the hardest part. It relieves me of those fearful blank moments, the ones in which I’m not sure what I’m about to write–if I can write anything–is going to move the story along.

The other big challenge is to keep the voice of Trouble consistent. The good news is that Carolyn is such a pro that the voice is clear and vibrant throughout her book, so I have an excellent model. That’s where my love of the modeling exercise comes in–it’s enjoyable to have the voice ready-made for me. I simply keep Familiar Trouble open on my desktop for reference. Carolyn has read my first chapter, and approved the voice, so I’m headed in the right direction. I’m only halfway through the writing, so let’s hope it sticks.

I’m loving this new challenge. I feel like I’m growing as a writer. Learning to write in a different style grows bran cells. I’m sure of it!

I’m anxious to finish writing Small Town Trouble to see how my first cozy experiment has gone. I could write more here about how writing this book is different from others I’ve written, but I’ll save that for another day, perhaps on my own blog, Notes From the Handbasket (you can go there even though I’m on sabbatical–I think I have 8 years’ worth of posts).

Do tell. What new projects have you taken on to encourage yourself to grow as a writer?

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

13 thoughts on “Writer, Stretch Yourself (Like a Big Black Cat)

  1. I was once a semifinalist in the imitation Hemingway contest. It’s so fun to write in his voice, it is a good voice, it is a voice like the bull he fought in Spain that summer, when the sun was good and hot and the beer was warm, and Stein joined him.

    Ahem.

    I have two series of short stories. One is about a vigilante nun and they are fun to write. These are done in 3rd person. The other is a series of boxing stories, done in 1st person. The latter are in the style of the men’s pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s. While that is not a particularly large market these days, I enjoy doing that voice, because I like the character and it is a fun stretch. I am going to do more.

    • I see what you did there, JSB!

      It makes all the difference sometimes to just do things for fun. As kids we learned through play–and I think it’s good to remember that as adults. A vigilante nun, eh? You’re full of surprises!

  2. When life gets stressful and the world is falling apart, cozy mysteries are such a lovely escape. I’d been writing urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and I was reading cozies to relax for a while. Paranormal cozies feature ghosts, psychics, and witches. I wanted one with dragons. Like, little, friendly shape shifting dragons that solve mysteries and talk to animals and don’t have the sexual baggage of the shifter genre. I couldn’t find any. So I had to write one. My mom, a hardcore cozy reader, loves it. My kids are begging for more. So I’m going to have to write a bunch of them. (And the first one sold like crazy!)

    • What a great story, Kessie. And you’re absolutely right. Cozies are excellent de-stressors. I love that you wrote something for a niche that appealed to you. Yes–go write more!

    • Yes, but you’re a very wise writer fool, lol. I learn from your writing and your publishing expertise everyday. I’m so thrilled you dropped by!

  3. I have my science fiction series, but I’ve also written different types of fantasy. More recently, I’ve started a paranormal mystery and a cozy mystery. The first needs some research done to make it believable (not on the paranormal element, but on legal elements), and the second is missing one small element that will cement it, once I find it. I’ve even got an historical non-fiction growing, the research for which can sometimes help me focus on writing, when nothing else can.

    I’ll try anything, really. I’m not a fan of big-R romance or non-genre fiction, so I’m not as interested in trying those. I like humour, and have a couple of humorous short stories I’ve been sending around. I even tried a picture book, once, just for fun, but it will probably never see the light of day (just the text is written – there’s no art as yet). Almost everything I write has some sort of mystery in it, though – especially the science fiction. I just prefer some sort of puzzle and a bit (or a lot) of action to go with it.

  4. Years ago, I wrote what I thought was a light “chick lit” mystery. I even finished it. Thought it was the bees knees. My agent couldn’t sell it. Even my publisher rejected it. I thought I was being funny and when I read it now, it still has some good material. But my dark heart beat steady throughout it and I just couldn’t switch gears. Made me deeply respectful of those who write humor or in a lighter mood. All my rejections from editors had the same comment: “It is neither fish nor fowl.” I couldn’t nail a consistent tone.

    But I do find that short stories are like a good stiff cleaning rain. Love doing them. And they make me really break a writer-sweat. Have had seven placed in anthologies but am trying to work on one now and getting nowhere. It never gets easier if you are doing it right.

    • You gave it a helluva shot, Kris–and no writing is ever wasted. I hope you’re keeping the material at hand. Short stories are a palate cleanser for me, too. In many ways I find them harder than a novel to construct.

  5. Hi. I like to experiment a little with short stories. This may not stray too far from my usual genre, but I sometimes try out a new character voice, setting or time zone. This gives me challenges as I work on my novel length manuscript and, I like to think, helps me develop as a writer.
    Thanks for your post today.

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