Where to Start Your Story – First Page Critique – “Harm to Come”

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Below is an anonymous submission of the first 400 words of a brave author’s work in progress. Read and enjoy. My feedback is on the flip side. Please comment with your constructive criticism. Thank you.

***

On the floor. Broken and alone.

The image had haunted Kit Paterson’s mind for days. No one should die alone.

Viewing Rachel’s crumpled body in her head was harsh enough. Seeing it for real would have been unbearable. Rachel, neighbor and friend, had been thirty-two, eighteen years younger than Kit.

A dog’s sudden barking sent Kit to the windows of her dinette. It wasn’t MuMu’s usual bark. This howl sounded angry.

Kit knew MuMu’s owners weren’t home. She peeked through the blinds to the backyard beside hers. While searching for the Bogarts’ shepherd-lab in the near-darkness, she noticed the next house over, Rachel’s house. A glow came from the living room in back. Kit was certain she’d turned off all lights after boxing Rachel’s possessions for the day. Apparently she hadn’t. She grabbed her keys from the kitchen counter.

Beneath a streetlight, Kit smelled the aroma of smoke in the brisk October wind. She smiled. Smoke from someone’s chimney made autumn official. She wrapped her cardigan close.

MuMu’s frenzied yowls continued.

Feral cats must be prowling the woods, Kit thought. Or maybe coyotes again. She increased her speed.

As she approached Rachel’s one-story home, brightness from the windows on each side of the battered front door caught her attention. The radiance wasn’t steady like a lamp’s. This light danced.

Fire!

Kit snatched her phone from a sweater pocket. She punched 911. The operator asked, “What is your emergency?” Kit shouted the situation.

A drought had dogged Atlanta since spring. What if the fire jumped to the Bogart’s property? To the woods? To the neighborhood behind? The fire station was only a mile away, but she couldn’t wait. MuMu agreed.

Kit tore across Rachel’s lawn, past the garage, toward the rear of the house, where she collided with two people dressed in black. The taller one shoved Kit away. He and the shorter figure dashed to the road.

Kit stood stunned, until the stench of smoke slapped her awake. She ran to the patio off the living room.

A coiled garden hose laid below a faucet, unattached. Kit’s fingers trembled as she placed its end to the spigot. After several attempts, she connected the fittings and spun the faucet wheel to the left. The smell of burning wood and fabric began to overwhelm. Kit covered her nose and mouth with a hand while MuMu crashed against the chain-link fence, raising holy-hell.

FEEDBACK:

I had to reread this one a few times before I got the picture of the action. The brief memory and back story introduction of Rachel’s death had me following a path in the action until I realized there had been a detour back to a barking dog and something happening next door. One of the best tips I ever received from another author—and I’ve certainly read about this tip here at TKZ—is to “Stick with the action.”

The brief flashback to the body of Rachel is too important to gloss over and it’s a distraction from what’s happening in the present. It reads like the dead body is immediately on the page until the reader finds out this is a flashback and back story at the same time. I almost want this story to start with the body and how Kit discovers her dead neighbor. That would sure raise the hair on my neck if the author can put the reader in the moment. Very creepy.

This submission doesn’t do that. It quickly jumps into a dog barking and a fire starting next door, another good place to start. Either could be pulled off effectively, but the combination of both of them gives me the feeling that this intro is rushed and neither approach has enough meat on the bone, so let’s flesh this out.

DEAD BODY START – If the author moved the start of this story back to when Kit first discovers her neighbor Rachel’s dead body, there would need to be a setting established to put the reader into it. Why had Kit gone next door? When did it start to get creepy and why? Picture a harmless reason to call on a neighbor until Kit sees a door cracked open. Stick with the action and draw the reader into every aspect of that frightening experience. Did she scare off the killer? How much did she see of the body?

From there, where would the author go? Kit questioned by detectives, reporters, and the intrusion into Kit’s life. What does it feel like to find a body of someone you knew well and considered a friend? Kit’s reaction might cause her to overreact when a dog barks the next night and she runs to find the house on fire.

The bottom line is that this story seems to have a beginning off the page and only hinted at in the first few lines. That raised questions with me as a crime novel reader. I wanted to know what Kit saw? The dog barking and the fire can be exciting, but what happened to Rachel?

DOG BARKING/FIRE START – If the author decides to start the story at the first sound of a dog barking, that can work, especially if when Kit goes to check on the fire, she finds Rachel’s dead body and the shadow of someone running from the house. Then it would be OFF TO THE RACES.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING – Whether the author chooses to go with the dog barking or the dead body to start this novel, setting can help to titillate the reader’s senses and give meat to the bones of this introduction. This intro is a little sparse for me. Try answering these questions by writing a solution into the introduction and see how much better it will read. It’s important to tease the reader with all their senses to put them into the scene.

Setting Questions:

  • What time of day is it? The first hint of time is in the 5th paragraph where the author references it’s “near-darkness.” We have control over every aspect of this scene. Why not pick total darkness? Anyone setting fire to a house would want to do it under cover of darkness.
  • What is the weather? In the paragraph starting with “Beneath a streetlight,” there’s mention of a brisk October wind. Instead of making this fact add to the mood of the scene and foreshadow what’s coming, the author made the choice for Kit to smell wood burning in a fireplace and it made her feel good. So picture a cold wind making Kit think twice about going outside. It makes her uncomfortable and forces her to bundle up. She’s already at odds with the weather, but her curiosity outweighs the biting chill.
  • What does Rachel’s house look like? Does it foreshadow what Kit might find? If Kit found a body there, going back would make her relive the shock. How would that make her feel? A house where good memories used to be might be cast into a sinister feel if Kit found Rachel dead inside.
  • How does the barking dog react when Kit approaches? If Kit’s going because she’s worried about the strangeness of the dog’s bark, how does the dog react as she approaches? A frenzied dog yapping would put me on edge and cause my adrenaline to hit the red zone, especially if I thought someone lurked inside.
  • How can the setting layer in the feeling of anticipation that something bad is about to happen? Make the reader feel the ramped up tension by layering the dread of something about to happen. Hitchcock was a master at building the anticipation of something bad. He knew how to build and layer. Once the reader (or moviegoer) saw what was behind the door, the tension was gone.

TENSION-FILLED DIALOGUE – Kit is alone for this intro, except for when she calls 911. Instead of focusing on Kit’s side of the call, while she’s frightened and unsure what to say, the author only writes what the calm dispatcher says, “What is your emergency?”

The author also uses a “telling” way to express Kit’s emotion by saying ‘Kit shouted the situation.’ Showing is a more effective way to get the reader engaged and have a visceral reaction to the action in the scene.

Imagine what Kit is feeling and how she might report the fire or a dead body. Her heart would be racing, her adrenaline would be off the charts, and she’d be panting as she tried to find her thoughts. She might speak in short spurts and stumble over words or ramble. What the author envisions for this scene, focus on the most emotional aspect of it—that’s Kit.

PLAUSIBLE ACTION – Toward the end of this intro, Kit encounters two people dressed in black. One of them shoves her. Instead of Kit being fearful of these two people, she races for a garden hose. That didn’t seem rational to me. If I ran into two people who obviously were up to no good, I would be afraid for my life. I wouldn’t be worried about a garden hose. Let the firemen do their job with their big hoses. (Everyone knows they have big hoses.) How gutsy does the author want Kit to be? Does she fight these people? Chase them? There are options for her behavior, but grabbing the garden might be last on Kit’s list if she is a gutsy, smart character.

For Discussion:

  • What constructive feedback would you give to this author, TKZ?

The Darkness Within Him – $1.99 Ebook

FBI Profiler Ryker Townsend is a rising star at Quantico, but he has a dark secret. When he sleeps, he sees nightmarish visions through the eyes of the dead, the last images imprinted on their retinas. After he agrees to help Jax Malloy with a teenage runaway, he senses the real damage in Bram Cross. Ryker must recreate the boy’s terror in painful detail—and connect to the dead—to uncover buried secrets in the splintered psyche of a broken child.

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Settings as Inspiration

Nancy J. Cohen

Settings can provide inspiration for a scene, a story, or even a character in a book. For example, I’ve used old Florida estates as models in at least three of my novels. Body Wave, book 4 in my Bad Hair Day Mysteries, launched yesterday as a newly revised Author’s Edition.

BODY WAVEeBook

Marla, my hairstylist sleuth, goes undercover as a nurse’s aide to care for elderly matriarch Miriam Pearl. As Publisher’s Weekly states, she “agrees to help her snake of an ex‑husband, Stan Kaufman, who’s been arrested for the murder of his third wife, Kimberly, find the real killer.” Stan believes one of Kim’s relatives might be guilty. Most of them reside at the Pearl estate. Marla, feeling a sense of obligation to Stan, agrees to his scheme. She dons a nurse’s uniform and accepts a part-time job assisting the wealthy head of the family.

So what stately mansion did I use as the model where Marla goes to snoop? A drive along our coast will show you many stately homes, any number of which could have served as the model for the one in Body Wave. Bonnet House (http://bonnethouse.org/) was the model for cousin Cynthia’s seaside Florida estate in Hair Raiser (book #2 in the series). It’s a historic site with lush tropical grounds abutting Fort Lauderdale Beach. There’s the Flagler Museum (http://www.flaglermuseum.us/) in Palm Beach, which I’ve used in an—as yet—unpublished mystery.

P1000847 (640x480)

And then there are the haunted sites that coalesced into Sugar Crest Plantation Resort on Florida’s west coast for Dead Roots. I enjoyed researching the Breakers (http://www.thebreakers.com/), the Don Cesar Beach Resort (http://www.historichotels.org/hotels-resorts/loews-don-cesar-hotel/), haunted sites like the Kingsley Plantation (http://floridafringetourism.com/listings/ghosts-kingsley-plantation/), and other locales for their ghost stories and spooky ambience. A stay at the haunted Cassadaga Hotel (http://www.cassadagahotel.net/) set among a town of certified mediums lent authenticity to Died Blonde.

These are mainly historic estates and grand resorts. I’ve used Florida theme parks as the model in several of my stories, not to mention numerous towns that Marla visits to interview characters or to investigate an angle in a mystery. Florida has a wealth of diverse settings that inspire writers in many ways.

How about you? Have old houses played a part in your stories?

Check out my Contest Page for a chance to win free books: http://nancyjcohen.com/fun-stuff/contest/

For more details on Body Wave, go here: http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com

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Key Ways to Layer Depth Into Your Scenes

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane





I’d been writing for awhile before I heard the term “layering.” It was a writer craft thing I was doing instinctively in my rolling edits, but I’d never heard it called something specific until I attended a writer’s craft workshop and saw examples.
 
Most scenes are written in a bare bones fashion, like erecting the framework of a house before the walls are finished. The general structure creates a flow of what is happening in the scene, but usually the depth is lacking in things like character development, setting, body language, action, and reaction. Since I had limited time at my former day job to think about my writing, I would break away for lunch on some days and focus solely on dialogue like a script. I wanted the voices of the characters and what they said to be strong and not be trite or too conversational. For scenes where there is conversation between characters, I found it easier to use the dialogue as my framework to hold the flow together.
 
The right amount of layering can enhance your voice, but there needs to be a balance. Every writer should come up with their own method for what works for them. Below are the highpoints to layering, from my experience. I’ve also included an example from my WIP, The Last Victim, with the layers added in highlights.
 
Key Ways to Layer Depth:


1.) Dialogue – Avoid chit chat lines. Even if you hear voices in your head (something you should talk to a doctor about), the lines should move the plot forward and mean more than talk about the weather.


2.) Setting & Senses – Dribble in a touch of setting to color the scene. (The scene below is sparse due to space for this post, but I’m a believer in an atmospheric setting. The mood was set in this scene earlier.) Be sure to utilize the senses of your characters to put the reader into the scene, triggering their senses.


3.) Body Language & Action – Frame the scene with key body movements and action to have the characters doing something. The scene below is tight for space purposes, but I am a fan of characters saying one thing, but their body language shows something else, like chess players not wanting to give away their next move. And with action, there is no time for too much internal monologue if bullets are flying. Stick with the action and explain later, in that case.


4.) Backstory – Backstory can be filtered into the book. A frequent mistake is the devilish “backstory dump” where the author expounds on details the reader doesn’t need to know all at once. Backstory dumps slow the pace. It’s best to sprinkle the backstory in throughout the story, sparingly. Give the essence, and even unravel it as a mystery, to enhance the telling of it when it’s necessary. Never underestimate the power of a good mystery.


5.) Introspection/Voice of Character – This is the fun part. Try to give your character an attitude about what he or she sees. That attitude will serve to reflect who they are, as well as the other people in the scene. Don’t waste a room description and make it seem like an inventory. Color the description by allowing the character to express what they think and make it fun or memorable.
 
 
Partial Scene – The Last Victim (WIP):
Below is basic dialogue lines to start a conversation between my FBI profiler and an Alaska State Trooper sent to help him:


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine. Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me. I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”
 
 
Layers added for Setting/Body Language/Backstory:


When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.


Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.


“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped. Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”


 
Layers Added for Character Voice/Introspection:


When a vehicle rumbled to a stop behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to see a white Ford Explorer with the Alaska State Trooper blue and gold logo on the door. The words ‘Loyalty, Integrity, Courage’ were painted on the rear panel. I locked eyes with the trooper and nudged my chin in greeting before I grabbed my bag. By the time I got to the truck, the driver had boots on the ground, showing me an ID badge.


“Alaska State Trooper, Sergeant Peterson. Justine.” She grasped my hand. “Are you Special Agent Townsend?”


“Senior Special Agent, yes. Ryker. Thanks for meeting me.” I fished out my credentials and showed her.


Even off-duty and out of full uniform, Trooper Justine Peterson was clearly law enforcement. She carried a holstered weapon on her duty belt and had on jeans, well-worn hiking boots, and a navy polo with the Trooper’s emblem on it. Her windbreaker and cap bore the official logo, too. Clothes and weapon aside, the tall blonde had a no nonsense attitude and a slender body, lean with muscle. She had a penetrating stare that had sized me up.


If I were a fish in Alaskan waters, she might’ve tossed me back.


“I’m here to search the residence of Nathan Applewhite. Deceased. We positively identified his body yesterday outside Seattle in the Cascade Mountains. He’s a victim of a serial killer my team’s been after.”


The trooper’s expression turned harsh and unyielding.


“It’s been on the news. Everyone on the island is talking about it. Word even got out about you coming here,” she said. “I was the one who notified his ex-wife. Too bad you didn’t stop whoever did it before he got to Nate.”


The woman glared at me, without backing down. Although I hadn’t expected a show of hostility from someone in law enforcement, I didn’t take it personally. Hearing about a murder made it easy for those who knew the victim to lash out in frustration.


Justine had to know Applewhite. She’d called him Nate.


“The body count is fourteen. That’s why I’m here. This killer has to be stopped.” Since I needed her cooperation, I let her show of attitude slide. “Applewhite had a post office box for his mail, but I’m assuming he lives near here. How far is his place?”


The woman let her eyes drift down my body and back to my eyes again. It had been a long time since a woman made me feel like a porterhouse steak.
 
Since we have so many wonderful writer followers at TKZ, I would love to hear examples from your WIP for my favorite layer: Voice. Show me some attitude, TKZers.

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Fried catfish and grits

By Joe Moore

Grail_Conspiracy_coverFirst, some shameless promotion. This Friday, August 24, Amazon will feature two of my thrillers (co-written with Lynn Sholes) on their Kindle Daily Deal. For one day only, you can download THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY or THE PHOENIX APOSTLES for web-version-250only $1.99 each. Both ebooks were featured on the Daily Deal in 2011 and made it to #1 on the bestselling Kindle book list. If you didn’t take advantage of the reduced price before, be sure to do so on Friday. Enjoy!

_________________

I recently read THE LOST ONES by Ace Atkins, a terrific story about a local county sheriff dealing with gun runners in North Mississippi. In addition to being an excellent storyteller, Atkins has an enviable talent for creating a strong sense of place—a vivid setting. By the time I finished the novel, I felt like I was so familiar with the back roads of Tibbehah County that I probably should be paying property taxes. And it gave me a big hankering for fried catfish, buttermilk cornbread and grits at the local diner.

So today I want to build on Joe Hartlaub’s Saturday post on Location and offer a few tips on creating a strong setting in your book.

Setting is integral to any story. As a writer, you’ve developed a unique plot and a strong set of characters. Now you must consider the setting. You can’t split the plot and characters from the setting and expect to produce a believable piece of prose in which your readers can relate. Why? Because like real life, your characters don’t live in a vacuum. Just like all of us, your characters are constantly affected by and reacting to their surroundings. For instance, how would your night scene be different if it took place in broad daylight? Rather than the scene being hot and dry, what if it was pouring rain? Would the weather and other natural elements change the dramatic impact of a scene? How would the setting make a scene spooky or funny or dangerous or calming?

Think of some classic scenes in your favorite books or movies and imagine them in different settings. Would they be as strong? Would Indiana Jones being chased down the streets of New York City by a big truck be as powerful as being chased by a giant rolling boulder through a cobwebbed ancient tunnel deep in the jungle? Would Clarice Starling’s interviews with Dr. Lecter have worked as well if it had taken place in a bright, modern chrome and shinny white prison rather than in the bowels of a dark, dungeon-like mental hospital for the criminally insane?

Beyond what your characters say and do, you must consider how their actions and reactions contrast or blend with their surroundings. And the best way to do that is to consider your setting as another character playing a part in the story. Setting is not just walls and doors and sky and grass, it’s how their surroundings interact with your characters, and their inner and outer actions and reactions to it.

Another element of setting is how characters live within it. By that I mean how they manage the common functions of life such as eating, sleeping, and other natural human processes. Most of us are familiar with the highly successful TV series 24. Even within the twenty-four-hour premise of each season’s show, people still had to take a deep breath once in a while. While 24 was a rare exception, most novels span more than one day. So during the course of the story unfolding, writers must manage their human characters with time to eat or sleep or at least rest for a moment. If the pace is so intense that the characters never get a break, the reader will become fatigued. Thrillers and mysteries are often described as rollercoaster rides. But even the longest coaster ride has peaks and valleys. Give your reader and your characters a break now and then by using the elements of the story’s setting.

And don’t forget about the passage of time as being an element of the setting. How does time passing speed up or slow down the plot or pacing? Is your story’s passage of time realistic? Or is it too compressed or expanded to be believable. Remember, unless you’re H.G. Wells and your book is called THE TIME MACHINE, be sure to manage your story’s clock so that it doesn’t get in the way of the story and give the reader a reason to pause and question it.

Setting is more than the location in which your story takes place. It’s all the external elements that affect your characters and their goals and objectives. If you treat your setting as an additional character, chances are your story will be fully developed.

Now let’s all go out for some fried chicken and collard greens.

How about you? Do you plan your settings ahead of time? Or let them develop as the story progresses. And readers, what was the most memorable and realistic setting in your favorite book?

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First Page Critique: Beware the Wolf

By Jordan Dane
Please enjoy Beware the Wolf, an anonymous submission for critiquing, My thoughts are on the flip side.

***
Hoards of onlookers pushed and shoved to the front as they congregated behind the yellow tape, all hoped to see the mutilated body. Police huddled, compared clues, and discussed the who, the how, and the why of the crime. They may work and eventually answer who and how, but the why will always be a mystery.

Derek Mitchell reached for the tape, ducked below it and entered the crime scene. He waved a moth from his face as he stepped around the temporary lights.

“Hey.” A scowling officer pointed at him.

He held up his ID. “I have authorization to be here,” he said in a low voice. The man retreated.

He turned his head, and studied every detail of the park. Hours before the killing, children played on the slides and swing sets feet from where the body now lay. Oak trees and crepe myrtles surrounded the area, which provided ample cover for the attacker to wait for a victim. The location would indicate a random murder. Only, he knew this victim wasn’t random. The why is what he needed to understand in order to stop future killings.

Uniformed officers searched the flora with flashlights looking for clues, bagging every gum wrapper and lollipop stick, while two detectives stepped back from the corpse and waved the medical examiner forward.

He arrived too late. He needed to examine the body and area before the authorities arrival to detect fragile clues. He approached the examiner. “I need a few minutes to examine the evidence.”

The man nodded and walked back to his van.

He took a deep breath and raised the crimson stained sheet. It appeared to be a wild animal attack. The skull peeked through deep gouges of skin and muscle. The throat open, exposed the larynx, which was the source of blood that now seeped into the ground. Eyes, wide, stared into nothingness.

A shiver ran down his spine. To the human eye, a dog or wild animal killed her. Only he knew the truth. One of his people killed her.

***

Critique

The author sets a dark tone from the start – a crime scene with a dead body—but the punch of the last couple of paragraphs might work better if their essence were moved to the front of this scene to put the reader right into the action as seen through the eyes of a different kind of detective. Derek could be looking right down at the body and gathering “clues” in his own way.

With Derek walking up to the crime scene—and with the scene description so generic without details—these parts could always be described later during the course of the next narratives, if they are still important to the scene. Readers of crime fiction are familiar with aspects of a crime scene. To write it so generally is almost like waving a red flag that the author is glossing over details they may not be as familiar with. This sentence is a good example of too generic with POV problems: Police huddled, compared clues, and discussed the who, the how, and the why of the crime. Derek would not know what’s in the heads of the police or what they’d been discussing, so this reads like a bit of author intrusion.

If the author clues the reader in from the beginning that Derek isn’t quite human, he/she can build in his “abilities” to read a crime scene like a wolf. Derek could sense the fear from the crowd as he searches the bystanders. (Killer sometimes watch the cops work at scenes where they killed.) He could search the faces through the eyes of a predator at night, for example.

Sniffing the air, he could be drawn to the smell of blood and the splatter before he even sees the body. He might overhear snippets of distant conversations between the human detectives mixed with chatter from the crowd, since he has wolf instincts. Don’t go too crazy with this. That could slow the pace. Tease the reader with the set up, but leave more for later. For now, the author should “think” and “react” like a feral wolf. Since dogs/wolves can recognize scents off specific animals, does he have the same ability? Does he “mark his territory”? (Just kidding, but you get the idea.) Use your imagination on what his instincts are and why he’s a cop working “special cases.”

Another point – the author describes the park, right down to the oak trees and crepe myrtles as making “good cover.” Trees and shrubs could be cover, but why mention the variety? This reads like the author is using Derek’s POV to set the scene in a manner that would not be natural for a cop. It’s forced.

I’m also not sure how Derek would know from the start that the victim wasn’t a random kill. He’d have to establish a relationship between the vic and the killer, which is typical cop procedure that is backtracked after more is known about the victim’s life and a timeline of her activities that led up to the killing. But the first step in any investigation is to ID the victim, which isn’t mentioned here either.

If the attacker hid behind cover and waited for any victim to show up, that’s random, yet Derek seems to have an unexplained reason for knowing this wasn’t a random act of violence. Rather than spell all this out in the first 350 words, the author might focus on Derek’s instincts and his ability to read a crime scene in his feral way and leave the details/clues of the case to be discovered later. The intriguing part would be Derek, his instincts and abilities, and the conflict he faces being an outsider to both worlds—as a cop who isn’t human.

The author mentions that Derek “arrived too late,” but I would venture an opinion that he could detect far more than the average human who needs specific evidence to build a case. He wouldn’t need a human ME’s opinion of what happened and fragile clues would be his specialty. Is Derek trying to stay ahead of the cops to wield his kind’s brand of justice? Does he keep secrets to that end? Or does he work with human cops to keep the peace? Derek is the ultimate “lone wolf” cop.

There is definitely enough here to make me turn the pages. There are inherent conflicts in this scenario of an outsider cop working his own cases, sometimes at odds with humans and perceived as betraying his own kind. Plus he’d be tracking a killer with greater abilities to evade pursuit—a classic outsider theme that could be fascinating to explore. Good job of conceiving this plot, character, and conflict!

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Books and Movies: Forever Entwined

By John Gilstrap
NOTE: I’ll not be much of an active participant in my own blog day today because I won’t have access to a computer or even my iPhone.  Why, you ask?  Because I will be getting a VIP tour of the Navy SEALs compound in Virginia Beach, and they don’t let you take cell phones with you.  For the record, that’s not a moast.  That’s a pure neener-neener outright brag.

Now, on to today’s post:

Reading Joe Moore’s excellent post on Wednesday about the importance of setting, it was interesting to see how many examples of setting were in fact taken from movies.  In the context of Kathryn Lilley’s great post about Finding Your Voice, I got to thinking about how much movies have influenced books over the years.

As a writer of commercial novels (not to be confused with lit’rateur (read that word with a New England elite accent)), I am obsessive about pacing, imagery and snappy dialogue–the holy trinity of screenwriting.  I think in scenes, making every effort to begin and end on action.  I believe in jump cuts, taking the reader from one scene to another quickly.  Even my contribution to the voice discussion focused on “camera placement” as a means of keeping POV consistent.

So, how does a writer fulfill the goals of pacing, imagery and snappy dialogue?  It’s all about voice, baby.  And voice is inexorably linked to point of view.  Consider these two descriptions of the same scene:

1. Finally, he arrived at the desert.  He stepped out of the car, stretched his back and closed his eyes, letting the heat and the dry air soak into his skin.  If he used his imagination, he could smell the aroma of purple coneflower and Easter lilly cactus carried on the constant breeze.

2. He’d arrived.  There was no putting it off anymore.  He climbed out of his car into the blistering moonscape, somehow sensing that he’d stepped two rungs lower on the food chain.  Between rattlesnakes, scorpions and a climate that sucks the moisture from your bones, this was a place for the dead, not the living.  It’s no wonder that we tested nukes here.

To my eye and ear, those examples illustrate how an author’s voice simultaneously drives action, imagery and characterization–in this case in the form of inner monologue.  At least, I think that’s what it’s called.  Through description alone, filtered through the voice of the POV character, we get a glimpse at two entirely different personality types.  In both examples we learn that we’re in the desert, and that it’s hot.  The rest is all characterization.

And for me, all else being equal, I have all I need to know about the setting for this moment in whatever story this would turn out to be.  I’ve given the reader enough to take it from here and develop it further in his or her imagination.  This is a stylistic thing for me, but once that scene is set, it’s time for the character to do something, lest the pacing slow.

People are used to experiencing thrillers–my genre–on the screen.  In order to compete, I need to provide that same kinetic experience on the page, but with the addition of deeper character development.

What do you think? Do movies affect the way books are written?  Is our addiction to entertainment from the screen the reason why thrillers from the past feel sorta slow when we read them today?

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Setting the Stage

James Scott Bell


We all know the importance of details in fiction. Whether it’s the description of a place or person, the details should always do “double duty.” They ought to go beyond the mere painting of a picture and contribute to the mood you’re trying to create.

When you set up your story world, this is especially important, for the following reasons:

* Setting helps establish the fictive dream

Details make or break verisimilitude. Lisa Scottoline sets her books in her native Philadelphia for just that reason. “You can really help support a character if you understand the setting,” she said in a Time interview. “So for that reason I generally write about Philadelphia. My experience is that people extrapolate it. If you write specifically enough, they extrapolate it to their hometown, wherever that is, even if it’s Amsterdam. By the same token, if you don’t write specifically enough and you have generic Anywhere U.S.A., then nobody feels anything. The whole bottom drops out of the story.”

• Setting establishes motifs

You are wasting an opportunity if you do not find motifs in your settings. A motif is a distinctive visual that repeats. Like the green light in The Great Gatsby. It carries symbolic weight and deepens the reading experience.

For L.A. writers such as myself, the city provides a wealth of these icons. One of my favorites is Angels Flight. Allow me to riff on it just a bit.

Angels Flight is a funicular railroad (two cars going up and down in balance) that was built in 1901. It was to bring the folks living in the fashionable burb of Bunker Hill down a steep grade to the shopping area of Los Angeles. That saved them a long walk down and up steps, or getting the horse and buggy all rigged. For a penny, you could ride the cars.

Bunker Hill began to fade as the years went on. Post WWII, especially, it became a place of run down tenements and flophouses for cons and criminals to gather. But Angels Flight remained right there on 3rd Street, doing its thing.

It was going to be torn down in the late 50s, a victim of redevelopment. But a grass roots movement sprang up to save the old girl. My dad, an L.A. lawyer, was part of this. He even brought his young son downtown to ride on it in front of news cameras and the L.A. Times.

So, in a small way, I helped save Angels Flight. The city preserved it, moved it half a block south, and reopened it. An unfortunate accident took it offline for several years, but earlier this year it started running again.

I have used Angels Flight in a novel of the same name. This novel was mentioned in a great pictorial history of Angels Flight by Jim Dawson. Several film noirs have featured it over the years.

If you’re ever in downtown L.A., take a ride. You catch it on Hill Street, between 3rd and 4th, directly across from the Grand Central Market. Up at the top you can get a great view of the city of angels.

Talk about your settings. Do you have a favorite? Do you visit your locations and purposely work in the details?

Here’s a short trip on Angels Flight for your viewing pleasure.

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Put Away Your Passport

by Michelle Gagnon

A fellow writer asked during a recent Sisters in Crime meeting if we felt it necessary to visit every location where our books are set. A debate ensued between the people who said it was absolutely critical to see a place in order to convey an accurate sense of it, and those who thought that having to visit a place in order to describe it might end up limiting the scope of your story.

Here’s an anecdote that came to mind: I attended one of Martin Cruz Smith’s readings a few years back. Someone asked how long he’d lived in Russia prior to writing Gorky Park, since he had done such an amazing job of nailing the feel of the place, from the muddied politics to the bathhouses. His response? A week.

How on earth did he manage to develop a sense of the place in a week? The person asked.

Smith shrugged, and said, “Actually, I barely saw anything when I was there. Most of it I just made up.”

That story always stuck with me, since as a writer the travel question is something I constantly grapple with. I would love to spend half the year jetting around to exotic locations (wouldn’t we all?), but pragmatically speaking there’s no way that will ever happen (and frankly, I would prefer to steer clear of some of the places where my books are set. For God’s sake, CRIME happens there).

Of course, I could make my life easier by setting stories in the Bay Area – I can’t explain why I developed such an unfortunate tendency to set my books on the east coast, or pretty much anywhere that I’m not currently living.

THE TUNNELS took place at my alma mater. I would have loved to have made a trip back while I was writing the book, but financially there was just no way (and my reunions always seem to conflict with Bouchercon).

Same with BONEYARD: I spent a summer living in the Berkshires, but that was nearly two decades ago. I still remember what the place felt like, but in terms of landmarks, much has probably changed.

For THE GATEKEEPER, which jumps from location to location across the southwest, this became particularly problematic. I’ve never been to Houston, yet a considerable portion of the book takes place there.

And the book I just started takes place almost entirely in Mexico City. While I’d love to justify a visit south of the border, it probably won’t happen this year.

So how do I handle this? I improvise. I read guidebooks. I spend hours scouting places with Google maps (special thanks to them for their satellite view option- that feature has been life changing for me). Boneyard revolved around a particular section of the Appalachian Trail, and I read online journals and blog posts by people who had hiked that section. With each book I probably end up doing as much location research as investigating how to build a dirty bomb, or neo-paganism, or whatever else gets incorporated into the story.

Of course, there are times when I wish I was Cara Black, able to write off a month-long Parisian vacation by setting my books there. But I believe that your story finds you. I’ve never once sat back and thought, “I’d really like to set the next book in the Berkshires.” Whatever germ of an idea I have, it always seems to be one that could only take place somewhere specific. And that somewhere has yet to be a place that I live (Freud would probably have a field day with that).

So my question is, do you think that passport has to get stamped in the interest of verisimilitude? Or will Google maps suffice?

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