Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Guest author Susan Oleksiw: Opening Lines

Susan Oleksiw
Susan Oleksiw is the author of the Anita Ray series and the Chief of Police Joe Silva/Mellingham series. Her most recent book is When Krishna Calls: An Anita Ray Mystery. The Anita Ray series grew out of Oleksiw's lifelong interest in India, where she lived and studied. Susan is well known for articles on crime fiction. She published A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery (G.K. Hall, 1988), and served as co-editor for The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999). 

There are as many ways to open a story as there are storytellers, but all have the same goal, to pull the reader into the tale. The opening lines establish tone also, dark or light, humorous or not. The general rule is to establish a normal world that is upset, and the results of the “upset” are the story. For example, Dashiell Hammett opens The Maltese Falcon with a description of Sam Spade.

“Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller v. His yellow-gray eyes were horizontal. . . . He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.”

We get a very clear impression of Sam Spade, and we read on to find out just how much like Satan he really is. But we are warned that the story will have a light hand, a little humor, as we go.

Anthony Trollope gives us a different kind of opening in The Eustace Diamonds, but his own view of his heroine is there also.

“It was admitted by all her friends, and also by her enemies—who were in truth the more numerous and active body of the two—that Lizzie Greystock had done very well with herself.”

We surmise that Lizzie has risen above her station, and not everyone approves of her or how she’s achieved this. Trollope reinforces this view of her throughout the introduction, so we know exactly how he feels, along with everyone else.

By contrast, M.C. Beaton introduces her private detective in Dishing the Dirt this way.

“After a dismal grey winter, spring came to the village of Carsely in the Cotswolds, bringing blossoms, blue skies and warm breezes.
“But somewhere, in the heart of one private detective, Agatha Raisin, storms were brewing.”

This is a gentler lead-in but the promise is there. Into this bucolic world of natural beauty comes darkness, and a woman determined to combat crime. This gentle opening is the opposite of that in Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast.

“Running, running, stumbling, running.
“Arm up against the wiry branches whipping his face. He didn’t see the root. He fell, hands splayed into the moss and mud. His assault rifle dropped and bounced and rolled from sight.”

In these short lines, we feel the terror, the sense of desperation and helplessness, and the danger compounded by falling.

All the beginning lines are tight, focused, and revealing of the way the story will be told. This is what every writer hopes to achieve in his or her opening. Sometimes this means rewriting the passage a dozen times.

In my current work-in-progress, I struggled with the opening lines. In the end, as I neared the climax of the plot, I could see better how to link the end with the beginning. And once I had that, the opening also became clearer. The first line I settled on is this:

“On the third night Felicity lifted the shotgun from its place in the cabinet, and this time she loaded it.”

The following lines describe the previous two nights, and why this night she is loading her weapon.

I rarely begin a story or novel with a perfect opening line. Instead, I return to the first sentence again and again, as the story takes shape and the direction becomes clearer. I might rewrite the opening a dozen times, but when I finally get the perfect first line, everything else falls into place.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Google--my new best friend
I'm old enough to remember when you had to go find an actual book, preferably the Encyclopedia Britannica, if you wanted to research a topic, but I would be lying if I said that I'm nostalgic of that particular part of my past. I've become a Google junkie and I use it copiously to define words, sift around for the precise word that I need to set a particular tone, and to answer questions that come up in the course of my writing. I'm working on a crime-based story right now and some of the questions I have had to ask have been a little bizarre. Just today I typed into a Google search bar:

  • Do identical twins have identical fingerprints
  • Which countries do not have extradition treaties with the United States
  • An undetectable poison
  • How long before it takes effect
  • Where do police carry handcuffs
It's one of those times when I really hope that no one (read the FBI) has cause to look into my Google search history. It's comforting to know that I am not alone. Based on the predictive Google hints that appear, I am not the first person to research many of these topics.

Are internet searches a part of your writing process?

What are some of the more bizarre searches that you have conducted?

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thankful for Being Robbed?

My husband and I enjoyed all our major visits—Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado,

Antelope Canyon,

Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River,

and friends in Arizona, and Big Bend National Park in Texas.

All the RV parks we found for camping in our fifth wheel had supply stores, full hook-ups for water, electricity, sewer lines, and television stations we could access for news, sports, and movies.

Nothing fell off the RV, no tires shredded, and the refrigerator hung onto its cooling system on this trip. We were on a roll (literally) compared to previous trips. But we still had a few stops left. What are the sayings? It ain’t over till it’s over. It’s not over till the fat lady sings. Don’t count your chickens…

In San Antonio we left our movable vacation home at a delightful RV Resort in the south part of the city,

told the two cats to take care of it while we were gone, detached the Ford F-350 diesel pick-up, and drove to downtown. Our first time in San Antonio, we had to visit the Alamo and the River Walk.

After a leisurely afternoon of tourist pursuits, we arrived back at our parking lot around six o’clock that evening. Dinner fixings and a little relaxation awaited us in our RV.

Have you ever arrived at your vehicle and discovered it has been broken into? It’s a creepy feeling. The contents of our center console and glove compartment were either missing or scattered over the floor and seats. We searched to find out just what had been taken. As if by instinct, I cast glances around the dusky parking lot in case someone would poke out from behind a car or around a brick wall.

My husband gave me a look when I told him our camera, a phone charger, and a bag of snacks from the back seat had been taken. “We’ve got bigger problems,” he said.

I eyed him with skepticism. What could be worse than losing our best vacation photos? I’d once had one of my photos chosen for the cover of a Kansas City Star vacation photo supplement, for heaven’s sake.

He stuck his key into the ignition. The truck didn’t start.

“Oh no, they tried to steal the truck.” I have this tendency to state the obvious, but such nefarious designs against my property didn’t easily cross my mind. And I write mysteries!
“You call the police, and I’ll call the insurance company.” My husband got busy while I fumbled with how to call the police for a case like this. Was it an emergency? Yes, I decided, and dialed 911. Have you ever tried giving a 911 operator the address of a parking lot in a strange city? It took a walk to street signs and a detailed description of our parking spot and truck.
After that, I spent many minutes on the phone with a locksmith trying to determine if someone could repair our ignition that very evening. A police officer came, and I gave him all the details for his report while Hubby continued his phone conversations with insurance claims people and a tow company receptionist.

Officer Morales stayed and gave me moral support while we waited to find out how we’d deal with a truck that wouldn’t start on a Saturday evening in a gritty parking lot after dark, miles from where we needed to be. He told me stories about robberies in the area and how crooks targeted Ford F-250’s and F-350’s pick-ups because they were good for smuggling and usually contained guns.


“In San Antonio, everyone who drives a pick-up has a gun in it,” the officer said.

“We don’t have a gun. We have an RV,” I said with a crooked smile on my face, thinking those idiot crooks should have picked a truck with Texas plates.

“Always park near the street, not back by a wall, in a tourist area,” he said. Too late for that advice.
In the end, the locksmith started the truck and had us drive to his shop in the far northern part of San Antonio where he installed a new ignition. Hungry, tired, and three hundred dollars poorer, we returned to the RV by ten o’clock that night. It could have been worse. Thank goodness, because of the security key fobs we carry on our key chains, the crooks were unable to start the truck. Thank goodness for the friendly, skillful, twenty-four-hour mobile locksmith who welcomed us to his shop as if we were cousins.
This was an experience we’ll always remember, and I’m using part of it as the basis for my next Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mystery. You’ll meet the good Officer Morales in that book and the locksmith of Middle Eastern descent. Can a person be thankful for being robbed while on vacation?
Now, as for the truck breaking down on the highway near a small town in Oklahoma on the way home… I’m only thankful that the town had a tow service open on Sunday and a Ford dealership that could fix the truck in only two days.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Let's Talk Turkey. Or Pilgrims, or Macy's, or TV Dinners, or...

Image by annca, Pixabay

          My family seldom lacks things to discuss when we gather around the table on Thanksgiving Day, but just in case there’s a lull in the conversation on Thursday, I intend to regale everyone with some interesting facts I’ve learned about the history of Thanksgiving in the United States and around the world. So if anyone in my family is reading this, stop! You’ll get the live version in two days.

            Everyone else, keep reading!

1.      Of the 140 people who took part in the first Thanksgiving (50 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians), historians believe that only five were women. Very few women survived the first difficult year in the New World.

2.      The woman who convinced Abraham Lincoln to declare a national day of thanksgiving was Sarah Joshepha Hale, who also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

3.      The largest pumpkin pie ever baked was 2,020 pounds. Bonus fact: I don’t like pumpkin pie.

4.      The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade took place in 1924 and didn’t have any of the floats we generally associate with it. Instead, 400 Macy’s employees marched in New York City with live animals from the Central Park Zoo.

5.      Female turkeys are called hens and they don’t gobble.

6.      The word “Pilgrim” didn’t come into common usage until 1820, when Daniel Webster used the phrase “Pilgrim Fathers” to refer to the people who settled in the New World in 1620. Those people referred to themselves as “Old Comers” or “First Comers.”

7.      The Pilgrims probably celebrated the first Thanksgiving sometime between September and early November, since the feast took place commensurate with a plentiful harvest. The fourth Thursday in November would have been too late in the season to gather a large harvest.

8.      Historians believe that the Pilgrims probably did not invite the Wampanoag Indians to the first Thanksgiving—instead, it’s more likely that the Native Americans came to investigate all the noise the Pilgrims were making in celebration of their harvest.

9.      In 1953 the Swanson company had 260 tons of extra turkey. A salesman (who hopefully got a raise for his genius) suggested the company package the turkey into aluminum trays with assorted side dishes. The rest, as they say, is TV dinner history.

10.  Snoopy has appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade more often than any other character in history.

11.  The United States is not the only country that celebrates Thanksgiving: Canada, Germany, Grenada, Korea, Japan, and Liberia, among several others, also observe a national day of giving thanks.

12.  There were no forks at the first Thanksgiving! They weren’t introduced to the Pilgrims until about ten years later.

I wish you and yours a safe, healthy, relaxing, and wonderful Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

15 Ways to Rescue Your Scene

Make your scenes shine! In This Scene Sucks: 15 Screenwriting Mistakes to Avoid, Timothy Cooper shows writers how to do just that by describing the screenwriting mistakes he most often sees. Of course, the same principles apply to fiction writing.

Here are the problems Mr. Cooper, an accomplished screenwriter, most often sees:

1. Characters are described in excruciating detail
2. Characters have androgynous names.
3. Character names begin with the same letter, and/or look similar on the page.
4. The scene begins at the very beginning of the exchange, rather than the middle.
5. Typo.
6. People say exactly what they mean.
7. The actual action of the scene is unclear.
8. We’re introduced to too many characters on the first page.
9. Formatting issues. 
10. Much of the information is impossible to actually show on the screen.
11. Long chunks of text.
12. An unimportant character is given too much weight.
13. No major conflict.
14. Unnecessary parentheticals. 
15. Clichéd dialogue.

#4, “The scene begins at the very beginning of the exchange, rather than the middle” is one of my favorites. Timothy Cooper expands on his statement:
Yes, many conversations begin like this in real life. But on the page, it’s crushingly dull. Instead, enter the scene mid-conflict by jumping in as late as possible (without being confusing). Then, make sure to exit the scene before it’s all wrapped up neatly. This leaves some tension to push the reader into your next scene.
I also like #8, “We’re introduced to too many characters on the first page”:
Introduce us to just a few characters at a time. It’s like going to a party: If the host tells you everyone’s name at once, you won’t remember a single name. But if you start by talking with just two or three people, then move on to the next small group, you’re way more likely to get to know and care about each individual. 

I just purchased a used copy of The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer, by Sandra Scofield. The author offers this advice about scene openings:
It is possible to pull the reader into the heart of the story, beginning in media res without getting lost, if your opening lines offer enough details of situation, setting, and potential conflict.
Sandra Scofield offers an entire chapter to scenes with many characters. As I tend to populate my story with lots of characters (a curious writer trait, as I’m pretty much of a loner) I’m going to pay close attention to this advice.
Can you add pet peeves to this list? Tell us what you’ve done to rescue your beloved story.
Read Timothy’s Cooper’s entire article here.
For more on The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer, click here.