Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: writing techniques

Courting Inspiration

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By Wendy Tyson

It was cold the morning I wrote this. Three degrees according to the deck thermometer. Of course, in Vermont there is a saying (to be fair I think it’s a saying everywhere winters are cruel) that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. Nevertheless, I eyed our snowshoes with suspicion. I’d rather be writing by the fire than traipsing out in the woods, but traipsing we would go. Hopefully by then it would be closer to ten.

We’d promised my fourteen-year-olds and one very large Labrador we’d go hiking. The forest can be a magical place, and watching the twins get lost with their canine companion in the white-coated outdoors reminds me that they’re caught between childhood and manhood. For them, Inspiration exists in the icy inclines, snow-covered clearings, and giant, uprooted trees. For a while they can forget the pressures of high school and pretend—or just be.

While I cherish the family time, I also needed to get out of my head. After several tight deadlines and three rounds of work travel, I was feeling fried. It’s one thing to be productive on a tight schedule, but it’s another thing to court Inspiration. With a blank page in front of me—Greenhouse Mystery #5—I needed the thrill of Inspiration, not the pride of accomplishment.

I’m often asked where I find my Inspiration. The truth is, I don’t always know. I can’t tell you the exact moment when the universe comes together and an idea begins to take shape. I can only tell you that Inspiration isn’t something I wait for—I have to court it. And I have to be able to recognize it when it appears. Like my boys in the woods, it helps if I nurture my imagination, allowing myself to dig deep into its recesses, into that untamed part of my consciousness that will spot a great concept and develop it into something bigger. I have to be willing to go out into the wild.

But how?

The process is different for everyone, but here are a few techniques I’ve found helpful for finding and capturing Inspiration.

  • Connect with the page. I mean that quite literally. There is something visceral and real about writing the old-fashioned way, using pen and paper. When I want to connect with what author Natalie Goldberg calls “wild mind,” I pull out a notebook and a favorite pen and free write. There are no rules in free writing. I don’t think about grammar, spelling or themes. I don’t care if what I write makes sense. The idea is to dig deeper, find something that will resonate and possibly lead to a story. This almost always works for me—and I use it when I am stuck on a novel as well.
  • Silence the critic, court the muse. I don’t know about yours, but my inner critic is quietly insidious, almost diabolical. She whispers mean little sound bites into my ear, pouring vinegar into every sensitive open writing wound I have. When I want to find Inspiration, I have to shut her up, allowing her more timid sister to visit instead. Free writing helps with that, and writing early in the morning, before my inner critic is fully awake, helps too. I find that Vivaldi lulls the critic into silence, and a change of scenery can mask her voice (a bustling coffee shop or a busy ski lodge, perhaps). Sometimes it’s pure will that puts my critic in her place. “You’ll have your time when I’m revising,” I tell her. Occasionally she even listens.
    • Hit the road. I love to travel. Not the highly scheduled travel I do for work, but the kind of off-the-beaten-path travel that invites reflection. I find leaving my comfort zone, even for a little while, offers a change of perspective and new ideas. Some of my best concepts have come to me while on a train or driving along an unfamiliar stretch of foreign roadway.
  • Go outside. Leave your cerebral nest, don a jacket and sneakers (or in my case this morning, four layers of long underwear and down alternative), and enjoy Mother Nature. I’m convinced that Inspiration lives in the woods and at the beach, in the snow-covered rocks, under the icy river water, on the rough sand and in the fallen trees. When you need to find her, get out of your head for a while and play, unapologetically. Remember what it’s like to be a kid. You might be surprised—Inspiration just may come to you.

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Wendy Tyson is a writer, lawyer, and former therapist whose background has inspired her mysteries and thrillers. Wendy writes two mystery series, the bestselling Greenhouse Mystery Series and the popular Allison Campbell Mystery Series. Wendy’s short stories have appeared in literary journals, and she has short fiction in two anthologies, Betrayed and the forthcoming The Night of the Flood. Wendy is a member of Sisters in Crime, Penn Writers, and International Thriller Writers, and she’s a contributing editor and columnist for International Thriller Writers’ online magazines, The Big Thrill and The Thrill Begins. Wendy and her family live in Vermont.

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How do you catch a reader’s attention? With the first sentence.

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Editor’s note:  Writers Who Kill is unlike many book blogs or book websites.  Articles submitted to it are read and carefully edited before they are published.   The site features reviews of new mysteries, articles on the craft of writing and writers’ experiences researching and writing, interviews with authors and more.  A talented team of writers are regulars on the site and they host occasional guests.  The following column of  mine appeared on the site last month.

Where to begin? I agonized over this question when I wrote my first mystery novel. For my first sentence should I go for something literary, something clever, a play on words? Trained as a journalist and a nonfiction writer for years, I was tempted to write a first sentence that summarized the story or the theme. And I did. Then came my second novel—the just-released Desert Kill Switch—and I decided I needed a new way to start.

One of the most significant ways that writing fiction has influenced my recreational reading is that I pay closer attention to first sentences. Sometimes they can put me off a novel immediately. Or draw me in. I’ve become a student of first sentences.

When writers and editors put together lists of best first sentences, the work of classic novelists tends to cluster at the top, Austen, Melville, Dickens, Orwell. They provide excellent examples, but are they suitable for a murder mystery? “Call me Lyle,” (one of my main characters) is not memorable, except perhaps as a riff on Melville. “It was the best of times for Lyle.” Nope.

A first sentence is like a first impression when you meet someone. Does a person’s verbal greeting or looks attract your attention and encourage conversation? Like someone going out with a highly touted blind date, a writer is eager to make a good impression.

One of the best first-sentence writers around, Stephen King, offered this advice in The Atlantic Magazine in July, 2013. “There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s a tricky thing….But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Anne R. Allen, mystery writer and co-author of How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide, agrees. “On that first page, we have only a few lines to grab the reader and keep her from putting the book back on the shelf. We have to present an exciting hook…but not overwhelm [readers] with too much information.”

One item of information that may be extraneous in first sentences is weather. It’s become clichéd thanks to the familiar “dark and stormy night” penned by British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton 187 years ago. “Never open a book with the weather,” is the oft quoted line from Elmore Leonard. Yet years before Leonard offered his advice, Raymond Chandler used weather in the first sentence of The Big Sleep. And I think he got away with it:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

Mystery writer Lilian Jackson Braun used weather to begin The Cat Who Tailed a Thief in 1997. “It was a strange winter in Moose County, 400 miles north of everywhere.”

Adding to my confusion, I discovered this advice Ernest Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos in a letter* in March 1932: “Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.”

Can’t ignore Hemingway. What to do? I turned for help with my first sentence to noir master James M. Cain. He used a short but telling sentence to begin his famous depression era, The Postman Always Rings Twice. With nine words the narrator tells us he’s a less-than-first-class traveler and perhaps disreputable, too. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”

Sometimes unusual or intriguing sentences are best to grab your interest. Ross Macdonald, one of the best stylists of the detective genre, started his 1954 Find a Victim this way: “He was the ghastliest hitchhiker who ever thumbed me.”

Since most mystery, crime and detective stories involve murder, you could begin with that. “Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.” That’s how Graham Greene began his dark 1938 tale, Brighton Rock.

Ultimately, I abandoned the weather, decided a reference to murder could wait for the second paragraph of my novel, and went with an intriguing first sentence that conveyed action.

“Lyle Deming braked his Mustang hard and aimed for the sandy shoulder of the desert road.”

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Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961, Carlos Baker, editor, Scribner Classics, 2003; original copyright 1981 The Ernest Hemingway Foundation, Inc. and Carlos Baker.

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Mark S. Bacon began his career as a southern California newspaper police reporter, one of his crime stories becoming key evidence in a murder case that spanned decades.

After working for two newspapers, he moved to advertising and marketing when he became a copywriter for Knott’s Berry Farm, the large theme park down the road from Disneyland. Experience working at Knott’s formed part of the inspiration for his creation of Nostalgia City theme park.

He taught journalism as a member of the adjunct faculty at Cal Poly University – Pomona, University of Redlands, and the University of Nevada – Reno. Bacon is the author of business books and his articles on travel and other topics have appeared in newspapers from the Washington Post to the San Antonio Express News. Most recently he was a correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle.

To read comments posted after this article appeared,  go to:  http://bit.ly/2AclALH

 

 

Parting the gauzy curtain of misdirection

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Murder mysteries

What is a mystery novel without a puzzle? Guest writer Daniella Bernett explores some of the elements that make up the puzzle.  Bernett’s second mystery in the Emmeline Kirby-Gregory Longdon series, Deadly Legacy, debuts tomorrow, Sept.24, from Black Opal Books. 

Why is the question that my mind whispers when I dip into a deliciously intriguing mystery. For me, it’s always been about the puzzle. A desire to find out how and why a crime was conceived and executed. To figure out who the murderer is before the sleuth.

deadly-legacy-daniella-beDoes it sound cold-blooded and calculating? Perhaps it is. But I rather like to view it as a diverting challenge. I have to be sharp because the author has deliberately set me off on the wrong path. The only way to uncover the right clues that will reveal the truth is to part the gauzy curtain of misdirection. The author is not completely cruel, though. He or she always leaves a strand or two dangling in the wind. It is the reader’s job to grasp it quickly before it drifts away.

Another thing that helps the reader tremendously on this quest for answers is understanding human nature and all its foibles. In my opinion, Agatha Christie was the master at peeling back the layers of the psyche to reveal greed, jealousy and pure, naked evil. Knowledge is power. With knowledge, the reader can navigate the twists and turns of the tale to see justice prevail, as it always must. Continue Reading →

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