Don’t miss this new romantic suspense by Marcia Meara! FYI: She’s awesome.
In the market for a new, great How-To book on writing? Well, look no further. I keep my eye out for these because they tend to be a wealth of knowledge and experience, packed with interesting ideas and exercises. And I’ve found one that I recommend highly. It’s a quick, efficient read that’ll definitely get your story-brain working.
I’ve been a fan of mysteries for a very long time, from the classics concocted by Conan Doyle, Chandler, and Christie, to modern doozies from the likes of Lehane. Well into my thirties at this point, one of my favorite novels is still a middle-grade cozy puzzle mystery I read in elementary school, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Even as a middle school literature teacher these days, I read that novel with my 6th graders as part of a larger unit on the mystery genre. And as someone who fancies himself a writer, I’m always on the look out for useful insights from published authors to help guide the way.
Nancy J. Cohen is an award-winning author who writes romance and mysteries. Her humorous Bad Hair Day mystery series features hairdresser Marla Shore, who solves crimes with wit and style under the sultry Florida sun. Several of these titles have made the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association bestseller list. Coming in April 2014 is Hanging By A Hair, #11 in the series. Nancy is also the author of Writing the Cozy Mystery, a valuable instructional guide for mystery writers.
With Writing the Cozy Mystery, Nancy presents an easy-to-follow and engaging framework to developing your own Cozy mystery, stand-alone or series. Her expertise in the area lends credence to the useful tips throughout the book, and she provides thought-provoking writing exercises to try. Also, her collection of active Writer’s Resources supplies an additional wealth of knowledge beyond just her own well-informed and experienced take.
Nancy defines a Cozy Mystery as “a whodunit featuring an amateur sleuth, a distinctive setting, and a limited number of suspects, most of whom may know each other.” What makes these types of mysteries fun is:
The story presents a puzzle that challenges readers to solve the mystery.
Chapter by chapter, Nancy leads you through the entire process of writing a cozy mystery, providing a useful framework for this specific style of storytelling. Among her chapters, Nancy details an approach to the ever-important world building, including how to establish setting and how to narrow the details using sensory language. I found the Creating the Sleuth chapter and A Web of Suspects to be particularly insightful regarding character development.
Her savvy sections on story structure and suspense truly provide a peek at what it takes to create a successful and sellable mystery. She suggests a three-act approach and preaches patience when crafting The Grand Finale. Throughout, she drops useful tips to help the writing process.
Remember to follow action sequences with reaction and reflection.
Nancy wraps her discussion by offering valuable guidelines on developing Series Continuity and creating Organizational Tools. She acknowledges writing a cozy is a complex task, and one that will take attention to detail and patience. However, now that I’ve read her book, I feel like I have a better grasp on the approach and will try my hand at making one of these wonderful puzzles. Don’t miss Nancy’s blog, either!
I remember many of the writing teachers I’ve studied under promoting the virtues of “showing” and not “telling”. But what does that mean? They meant that you don’t have to tell your readers that the old woman on the park bench is sad; you can show them:
The old woman on the park bench wept quietly.
Actually, you don’t even have to tell your readers that she’s old:
Wearing a shawl around her shoulders, the woman on the park bench wept quietly, wisps of gray hair escaping the woolen cap, frail bony fingers clutching her handkerchief.
Annie Dillard, winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for her work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and author of the incredibly insightful The Writing Life, is famous for her ability to “show” and and “tell”. In her autobiography, An American Childhood (1987), Dillard doesn’t tell the reader that building a road through the Everglades between Tampa and Miami was an arduous job; she shows the reader:
To build the road, men stood sunk in muck to their armpits. They fought off cottonmouth moccasins and six-foot alligators. They slept in boats, wet. They blasted muck with dynamite, cut jungle with machetes; they laid logs, dragged drilling machines, hauled dredges, heaped limestone. The road took fourteen years to build up by the shovelful. -An American Childhood
A well-chosen verb not only heightens the drama of a sentence and makes its meaning clear but also sends a message to the reader that the writer has crafted the sentence carefully, that the idea matters.
The overuse of the linking verb “be” is a common signal that a writer is telling rather than showing. “The old woman is sad.” “The old woman is old.” “Building a road through the Everglades between Tampa and Miami was an arduous job.” It might be surprising when in checking a paragraph or two of your own prose how often you’ve used a form of be as the main verb. An abundance of such examples-say, more than two or three in a paragraph, constitutes a clear “revise” message.
The potential drama and meaning of your prose are weakened or missing altogether when the verbs don’t pull their weight. Sometimes the culprit is one of our other common, garden-variety verbs, such as have, make, go, do, get, take. Because there verbs have so many nuances of meaning, you can often find a more precise one. For example, where you have a selected the verb make, you could probably express yourself more exactly with constitute, render, produce, form, complete, compel, or create.
It’s important to note, too, that these alternative to make are not uncommon or esoteric words; they’re certainly a part of a reader’s active vocabulary. Unfortunately, however, the precise vern doesn’t always come to mind when you need it–especially when you’re composing the first draft of something. Rather than stop right there in midsentence or midparagraph to find it, just circle the word you’ve used–or highlight it in someway. Then, during the revision stage, you can take time to think about it again.
For more on this subject, check out Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray.