So what happened? Is the overturned tombstone a sign of a Halloween prank? Vandalism? An epic battle between good and evil?
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At the American Christian Fiction writers conference, I attended Jennifer Dornbush’s session “Everyone Can Spot a Fake” on how to write gripping crime fiction.
Ms. Dornbush taught us how to “corkscrew your story”, creating twists and turns in the plot that bring some kind of change, whether minor, medium, or major. She discussed how writers can use the tropes of crime fiction to do this.
Tropes to Corkscrew Your Plot
- Explosions — Including a literal — or is it literary? — bang in your story should create an exciting twist.
- Dead body — Any time a dead body is discovered the plot must change.
- Bad character revealed to be good and vice versa — This can be used in any genre. But I would use this trope with caution. I have watched TV shows where a character does all sort of despicable things and then declares himself a good guy. I don’t but it. The actions can be amibiguous, but if they are too awful, the character’s sudden unmasking won’t be convincing.
- Harm to investigator — Either threatening harm or actual harm that actually is inflicted on the investigator.
- Innocent dies — Similar to a dead body, but much more powerful.
- Important person goes missing
- Evidence lost or tampered with
- Investigator is taken off the case — If the investigator is a govt. official, then a superior pulls her off. If the investigator is a private detective, then the client fires him. In Sandra Orchard’s A Food and his Monet, the author does an unexpected variation on this trope.
- Investigator makes mistakes — He or she can do this in two ways.
- From personal experience — Something in his past, like fears, prejudices, or experiences, leads him to a wrong conclusion.
- From misinterpreting the evidence — She simply gets it wrong
Ms. Dornbush recommended dropping in clues every 10-15 pages, which will give writers many opportunities to “corkscrews the plot. She also stressed that the investigator should have conviction for the case he is working, and the writer should give her an opportunity to grandstand and celebrate when she closes the case successfully.
I found this session fascinating and wished I hadn’t had to miss the beginning of it. When I sit down to write the murder mystery I have in mind, I will know I will refer to Ms. Dornbush’s great advice if my plot becomes flat.
What other tropes of crime fiction can “corkscrew” the plot?
Since October seems to be the perfect month for mysteries, here are some resources for crime writers I learned about at the ACFW conference in September.
I just bought Forensic Speak by Jennifer Dornbush because she presented a session at the conference. She comes by her expertise in this area uniquely. Her father was the medical examiner fir a rural Michigan county and grew up discussing autosies and means of death.
The book has eight chapter covering everything from weapons and DNA to who’s who in the courtroom. For each term, Ms. Dornbush provides three headings to explain it: “What is it?”, “Where do I see it?”, and “How can I use it?” What I think is very helpful are the exercises listed at the end of each chapter.
Because the book is written specifically for writers for crime fiction, I find it easy to use. I’ve already learned there’s a difference between “blood spatter” and “blood splatter.”
Life of a Patrol Cop and Weapons
I also attended a session led by former police officer Joseph Courtmanche, who is a new author in the world of Christian fiction with his novel Assault on St. Agnes.
His session was about the work of the patrol officer. I was completely absorbed, barely able to take notes fast enough.
The biggest change in police patrols since Mr. Courtemanche left the force in the 1980’s to work for a federal agency is the amount of technology loaded onto the patrol car. I don’t know if this ti true for every police department, but many patrol cars now have computers mounted in the front and back which scan every license plate within a certain distance and check them against a database.
Since my book is set in rural West Virginia, I asked what is the biggest difference between city patrol work and rural patrol work. Mr. Courtemanche said that in the country, police officers are often alone and will not take as many chances as their counterparts in the city,.
Mr. Courtemanche said the best way to understand this kind of police work is to ride along with on-duty police in a patrol car or watch Live PD on A&E. He was also doing a presentation on weapons, such what kind of weapon would a criminal be likely to carry. When I told him I could not attend that session, he said I could learn just as much if I subscribed to Gun Digest for a year. I did a quick search on the site for Gun Digest and could access a lot of articles without being a subscriber.
If you write crime fiction, what resources have you found helpful?
I have two favorite memories of Halloween.
The first is trick-or-treating my grandparents. They lived out in the country so they never had neighborhood children come to their door. My family lived in a nearby town. Once we were done with our local trick-or-treat, my three sisters and I would pile into the car with my mom and head into the dark countryside.
The only lights on the rural road were from the houses. My grandparents were so glad to see us. Besides the treats they bought for the holiday, my grandparents always had a candy dish filled with chocolate candy because my grandpa liked chocolate. I have that candy dish.
My other favorite memory is trick-or-treating in the tiny town where my kids go to school with a group of friends from our church. We all live in the country and come in to town to let the kids trick-or-treat. Everyone in town seems to be involved in the holiday.
The fire department offers hotdogs and other food and let everyone examine their equipment, a child’s dream come true. Several homeowners create their own haunted houses in their yards and porches, free of charge.
I love walking the dark streets with friends, watching the kids race from house to house, the feeling of community present on the face of each person I meet.
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Lately, when it comes to managing my time so I can write, I feel like the narrator in Patrick F. McManus’s story “Controlling My Life” from the book Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink!
“I just read a book on how to get control of my time and therefore of my life. My time has always had a tendency to slip away from me and do as it pleases. My life follows it, like a puppy after an untrained bird dog. Come night, my life shows up, usually covered with mud and full of stickers, exhausted by grinning happily. My time never returns.”
Here are two different views on how to schedule time to write. The first post is about “binge writing”, setting aside a large block of time to get a lot written in one session. The second advises setting a small daily goal and writing every day.
I know I am not a binge writer. I like variety in my life. So doing an hour or two a day while the kids are at school is perfect for me. But I haven’t been able to find that hour or two with all the demands of running my home and taking care of my kids and husband, whose job is demanding and has irregular hours.
While I have been able to keep up on my blog, I haven’t found the time to revise my first novel or make much headway on a new one.
So I am interested in other people’s writing schedules. How do you find time to do the writing you must do and the writing you want to do?
I’ve run into a problem with my YA novel The Truth and Other Strangers. I have written two different first chapters and don’t know which is better, starting slow or starting fast.
This versions begins slowly, building tensions, raising questions, and introducing characters, a few at a time. Below are the opening paragraphs:
As the church service let out that wet morning in July, I had just one thought on my mind — get going and get gone. The longer we were out in public, the better the chance of stirring up suspicion.
My brothers’ and sisters’ comments bombarded me as I picked up my brother Damon-James, who was two, and herded the rest of them out of the pew.
“‘Junior, I gotta go to the bathroom.”
“Junior, it’s still rainin’.”
“Junior, where’s my hat?”
That caught my attention because it was a man’s voice instead of a kid’s.
The rest of the chapter has Junior trying to get out of the church but he’s delayed by a retired lawyer and his brother Nick almost getting into a fight. In the next chapter, the family drives home where the sheriff, who hates their family, is waiting for them.
The second version starts with Junior driving the kids home from church and finding the sheriff waiting for them. I introduce the characters as the main plot unfolds.
As I forced our ancient van onto the steep, rocky drive to our trailer, I was only thinking about lunch and how relieved I was that we had gone to church without raising anyone’s suspicions. Every trip into town ran a risk of somebody noticing something wrong.
Ignoring the groans of the Deathtrap, as we loathingly called our van, I drove over the last rise to the only flat spot on the mountainside and stomped on the brakes, throwing myself and my eight brothers and sister forward. And all thoughts of lunch and relief out of my head.
Voices chattered around me, but I couldn’t tell the words. All my senses could take in was that a sheriff’s car was parked into front of our work shed.
I have had positive and negative remarks about both beginnings. I am reading YA novels, and some start quickly, throwing the main problem out in the first sentence, and others have prologues or slow starts, so you can get to know the characters before the plot kicks in. I personally prefer slow starts, but then I like characters. I will put up with a fairly lousy plot if the characters engage me.
So which do you think is better to catch the attention of YA readers?
… a football game or another fall sport.
As a former high school band member, I attended a lot of football games.
The sight catches me first. The artificial lights attempting to burn away the night, too harsh to be real or too give warmth. Then the noise, all the voices ebbing and flowing, like a tide, changing from murmurs to roars depending on the success of the teams. The crisp air traces red on my cheeks.
But nothing send me back to my high school days like the smell of a game — fried food and cigarettes, smells so strong I can almost taste the grease and smoke.
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Over the past few years, I’ve been working, off and on, on the Halloween murder mystery I described last week. I hadn’t touched it in several months when I sat down to work on the first draft last Friday. I felt a great reluctance to start writing.
During the past year, most of my writing consisted of blog posts and revising my first novel. Sitting at my kitchen table last week, doubt gripped me. It had been so long since I had done original fiction that I wondered if I had anything left to say. Maybe I just had one book in me. I had lots of ideas, but that’s not the same was writing them done and then pounding them into comprehensible structure.
I thought of so many others things I needed to do like laundry, and weeding and cleaning out our home office. I was afraid to make myself write for fear no words would come.
But I forced myself to stay at the table with my pen and paper, ignore the demands for clean clothes and orderly flower beds, and with great anxiety, I WROTE!
And the words came.
Maybe not great words, maybe not compelling words, but ink on paper is better than no ink on paper.
And I enjoyed myself hugely, diving into my imaginary word with some characters I’ve known half my life.
I learned that when when writing is a burden instead of a joy, KEEP WRITING! Eventually the joy will return. But it never can if I quit.
The picture below sums it up perfectly.