Winging It: Our Ever-evolving Mystery Writing Method #3

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Another reason for keeping the planning loose is that secondary characters sometimes “demand” a bigger part. The character of Julie Flynn was originally going to be killed by mistake, and it was her murder that would expose the killer. She was introduced when Frank brought her a drink, which lead to her running off at the mouth. Here’s an excerpt:

“Hey, if you don’t like me, just say so.”

“I like you fine,” I said. “I’ve had a rough day and I just want to relax and finish my beer.”

“Okay,” she said, settling back into her seat. “You wanna hear a story while you drink it? This is my story. Get your hankie ready.”

“Okay,” I said, “let’s hear your story.”

“So,” she continued, “we, me and my mom, came out here in ’41 when I was 15, my mom chasing some Army officer who was never going to leave his wife and marry her, but mom couldn’t see it. Mom was a starry-eyed romantic and a loser magnet to boot. If there was a loser within sniffing distance, she’d be hopelessly attracted to him. Except for the Major. He was decent enough, but like I said, he wasn’t leaving his wife.”

“Where’s your father in all of this?” I asked for something to say.

“Who the hell knows?” she said, snuffing out her cigarette and reaching for another.

“Help yourself,” I said, sliding my Zippo across the table.

You get the idea. By the time she was finished, I liked her so well I didn’t want to kill her. Yes, I know that it’s advised that we “kill our darlings,” but I had other plans for her—she became the title character in the second Frank Keegan mystery, The Cheongsam Bombshell.

I started the writing The Cheongsam Bombshell on November 1st, 2013. I know the exact date because it that year’s book for National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, a yearly event that challenges writers to complete a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days.

Aki was doubtful about a story centering on Julie, but I needed a story for November. Plus, I had something in mind and I want to run with it. In fact, I began the story from Julie’s point of view, which I couldn’t maintain, but it got me started.

The Kindle version of The Cheongsam Bombshell, starring Julie Flynn in the title role, will be available tomorrow. Download a sample and check it out.

Winging It: Our Ever-evolving Mystery Writing Method #2

Red_Betsy

The three characters essential to a murder mystery are the victim, the killer or villain, and the detective (or detectives). I read both third-person and first-person mysteries, but prefer to write in the first-person, so our narrator, ex-Navy cop Frank Keegan is at the center of A Halo for Red Betsy; he’s telling the story. For better or worse (as one reader noted, it’s not always fun being inside Frank’s head, but it is always interesting because you never know what to expect.).

Some books on mystery writing advise having, even starting with, a well-developed, diabolical killer, and that is certainly one way to go (James Moriarty and Hannibal Lecter come to mind), but a vague, shadowy killer that the detective much discover also works well. As noted in “Winging It: Our Ever-evolving Mystery Writing Method #1,” we were so vague about the killer that we were able to change him in midstream with no ill-effect (I suspect our villains will become more flushed out as we perfect our craft). Good examples of both abound, so either works well depending on what the writer is trying to do. The killer in The Cheongsam Bombshell, the second Frank Keegan mystery is both more developed, but still hidden, which he or she needs to be in a first-person narrative (Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest being a notable exception).

In A Halo for Red Betsy, our victim, Navy Nurse Lieutenant Elizabeth “Betsy” Vale, was killed the night before our narrative begins, and so in one way, was not a character at all (we didn’t use flashbacks, so she had no dialog). Speaking parts notwithstanding, the victim is also central to the story since without his or her death, the detective has nothing to do except gaze at his navel and contemplate the finer things in life. In the case of Lieutenant Vale, as Frank learns of her and her life from those who knew her, he becomes more determined to find her killer.

This is another place where our method of winging it really paid off since when we started, we knew very little about her. We knew how and why she became a Navy nurse, and we knew that she had been killed (though we didn’t know why she’d been killed!). We came to know her when Frank did. In Red Betsy, all who knew her told more or less the same story, though Frank did get sidetracked by one unreliable storyline (this is device I want to exploit more fully in future books).

As with the villain, some books on mystery writing will tell you to develop your victim before starting, but we enjoyed developing the character as we told ourselves the story.

Planning, Plotting, and Tying it All Together

Red_Betsy

In response to “Winging It: Our Ever-evolving Mystery Writing Method #1,” another writer asked for hints on tying everything together and making sure there are no loose ends.

The authors of some books on plotting recommend calculating the number of scenes based on desired word count, then dividing the scenes to fit into a three-act structure, or a five-part structure, or whatever formula the author is employing. It not doubt works for some writers, but if did that, I’d never finish anything. It looks too much like the word problem from hell.

Some writers plot out all of the scenes and then write each scene, which are then pieced together—I can’t speak for Aki here, but that’s too organized to work for me. Our method (which is probably driven by my random thought processes) consists more bullet points noting where we want things to go. This “list” then evolves into a standard Roman numeral, Capital Letter, and Number outline format as we go. This outlining is a latter step, coming when we need more details to move the plot forward. Basically, we tend to solve problems as we go.

Yes, we had a plan for A Halo for Red Betsy, and we maintained a number of the original elements, but we didn’t used a more structured method because we didn’t want to be tied to any particular element. At least, I don’t.

For example, as I noted in the previous post, we had a killer, a motive, and a solution (how the detectives, Keegan and Takeda, figured it out), but as we developed the character of the killer, we realized that our assigned motive didn’t fit with his personality. That left us with one of two options: change the killer’s personality or find a new killer. Changing the motive could have been a third option, but we didn’t consider it.

This character was pretty well developed by the time we realized that there was a problem, but we also liked the character as we had created him and so didn’t want to make that change. Plus, his personality as developed tied into another aspect of the story that we wanted to keep, so that wasn’t going to work.

Which left us with either introducing a new killer early on (no surprise killer coming out of nowhere for us), or enlisting one of the existing characters. We chose the latter, which then required making changes to that character, including more scenes.

Given that we use a method by which we are not tied down, how do we tie everything together?

We read it, then read it again, and keep reading it, always considering how things fit. It works something like this: Frank did X on page 36, but now the situation on page 112 is such that Y would have been the better choice. And so, I go back and change X, and subsequent references to X. Then re-read it some more to be sure everything fits. It’s like frosting a cake; it looks messy, you get it smoothed out eventually.

A Halo for Red Betsy, available in paperback and on Kindle.

Our Mystery Writing Method #1

Red_Betsy

I got the idea for this blog while reading Alicia Dean’s Find the Magic – How to Plot a Story in 10 Easy Steps, a $0.99 Kindle book that I like for a couple of reasons. First, it’s short and to the point (Here’s what I do, here’s how I do it.), and bereft of the excess verbiage (and excessive self-promotion) typical of such how-to books. Second, while some of her steps are what one expects to find in such a book, in some cases, she is less conventional. For example:

“Get to know main characters, at least a little. For me, I don’t really know them until about a third of the way through the story. Whether you know yours thoroughly or partially is up to you. I personally dislike lengthy character questionnaires, profiles, interviews, and so forth.”

BOOM! My approach, exactly. Still, her system is more methodical then how we (my co-author, Aki Liao, and myself) went about creating A Halo for Red Betsy, the writing of which was a haphazard affair. As was the writing of the second in the series, The Cheongsam Bombshell.

However, I’ve been reading books about plotting because we’re considering a more complex story for Lost Daughters, the working title of the third Frank Keegan mystery. Plus, we’re hoping that more planning will shorten the overall writing time.

How we came to write A Halo for Red Betsy is recorded there, so I’ll skip that story and jump to the process of writing it.

The basic structure of a mystery requires a crime (with murder being the most common), a setting, and a detective or detectives. We first conceived this project back in 1998, so I don’t recall which came first in our planning, and I’m not sure it matters since moving forward requires all three. Some books name the perpetrator as the fourth essential element, but we managed to get going without being particularly clear on this point.

Naming the killer did come next, however, even though we ended up with different killer by the time we finished it (explaining that would give too much away). We also thought that developing a solution to the crime at the beginning would help the process, but that changed with the killer. Then our beta-readers so hated the new ending, so we had to rewrite it anyway.

From this I learned that while planning has advantages, letting the story develop “organically” also proved fruitful. And not that difficult (a lot of text did end up in the trash, however). I’ve read many mysteries and know what’s suppose to happen; the conflict in the story needs an ebb and flow. For me, that works something like this:

The last conflict occurred X number of pages ago—time for my detective to run into some trouble. As I said, haphazard, but we’ve made it work. Twice.

We took the same free-wheeling approach with our supporting cast and our clues (and red herrings), but I’ll save those discussions for future posts.

A Halo for Red Betsy, available in paperback and on Kindle.

The Exile Has Ended

 

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The previous name of this blog was “Tokyo Exile,” but now that the exile has ended and I’m back in Hawaii, I’m renaming, and re-tasking, the blog to serve a new function.

I returned to Hawaii to write, and specifically to write mysteries. My co-author, Aki Liao, and myself have so far written two historical mysteries set in post-WWII Honolulu. The first, A Halo for Red Betsy, was begun in New Jersey, and finished in Tokyo and Taipei (where Aki currently lives). The second, The Cheongsam Bombshell (due out in March 2015), was written entirely in Tokyo and Taipei.

However, writing about Hawaii from outside of Hawaii was proving to be more difficult, so, when the opportunity to return presented itself, I took it.

So now I’m on the Big Island working on the third Frank Keegan mystery, which will also take place mostly in Honolulu (Frank may have to go to the Philippines). So yeah, I know, living in Honolulu would make more sense than Hilo, but this is where I am.

This new blog, Winging It, will be dedicated primarily to discussing my writing process, and our (mine and Aki’s) approach to mystery writing.

Green Flash

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I stand on the beach, staring out at the flat sea, thinking this is how must have first appeared to Magellan. The movement of the water lapping at my feet is almost imperceptible.

A band of gray clouds hang over the sea, but the horizon is a straight line. As the sun breaks through the clouds, angelic shafts of light cast a blinding slick upon the sea. The clouds then thickened, pushing the perfect red yoke of a sun toward the now burning sea.

“Hey,” I hear Josie yell from behind me, “c’mon or you’ll miss it.” I turn to see her heading up the beach, to the iron stairs bolted to the nearly sheer cliff.

I’d moved the California the previous month, fleeing the small Midwestern town where I’d grown up; I’d left the day after I graduated from high school. My mom had come west after divorcing my dad a few years earlier, but I had stayed to finished school with my friends. My dad re-married and by my junior year, I knew I’d made a mistake, but decided to stick it out. Even that was a bad choice, but thanks to Josie, I can now live with it.

“Miss what?” I yell back. She keeps running, her tie-dyed skirt flowing around her.

Josie is the daughter of one of my mother’s friends. I met her the day arrived and fell for her immediately, but didn’t know to gauge what she thought of me. Back in high school, I was one of those loner kids who were frequently bullied and awkward around most people, especially girls, who would seldom give me the time of day anyway.

Josie was different. She didn’t care that my hair was short, my glasses square, and that my clothes looked as though I’d just walked off the farm. To her, everything was beautiful and groovy.

I reached the top to find her sitting in the grass at the edge of the cliff. I sat next to her and asked again, “What am I missing?”

“Shhh,” she said, smiling and point out to sea. “Watch.”

So I watch. The clouds and the sea had turn lavender, separated by a strip of yellow ochre. The ragged clouds higher up are bright splotches of bittersweet pink—higher still, I can see the slightest sliver of a moon.

Then, as the last light of the drowning sun ranges the spectrum and ducks beyond the waves I saw it, the green flash.

We don’t speak, and as the night and stars enveloped us, I finally take her hand.

coyote go see whats what

coyote_pretends_to_be_a_cardboard_box_by_hoaxeye-d5r85hb

coyote he hungry powerful hungry
and they tall-walkers they movin’ in
tearin’ up the ground  scarin’ off
rabbit and snake they timid folk
don’t like much coyote anyway
squirrel and mouse they stay
coyote still powerful hungry

yeah they tall-walkers they
movin’ in buildin’ they strange
hutches, they bright hutches
makin’ rabbit get gone snake too
they bring some big others
some not so big others
some small others too

coyote but not puma but not
easier than rabbit sometimes
sometimes not
still tasty but too few

so coyote go down
down to the strange canyon
with the hard ground and
the big movin’ run you down
you not careful yeah coyote
go down and see what’s what
tall-walkers they dangerous
but they tall-walkers
they always have food

 

This piece came to me pretty much as is, and pretty much all at once, upon hearing an audio presentation of Calvin Forbes’ “Talking Blue” about a raccoon in New York City. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/242274

The photograph, Coyote Pretends to be a Cardboard Box, is by my friend, James Sorby, AKA, hoaxeye on Deviant Art: http://hoaxeye.deviantart.com/art/Coyote-Pretends-to-be-a-Cardboard-Box-348060863

The painter of the mural is unknown to me at this time.