Sitting at my desk in mid-January, I observe my window thermometer resting at five degrees above zero. That’s actually a little better than early morning when I took the recycling out to the end of the driveway and the mercury reported two degrees below zero. If I had stood still very long, I would have become a frozen lawn ornament.
I realize, as I glance at my computer screen, that I haven’t done a great deal of writing since the new year began because I’m in a waiting period with my publisher. But I did resolve that I would get more blog posts up in 2016, so I am writing. Bear with me, readers. A great deal is out of my hands. Currently, I am in the planning stage of a new project, and my second book in the Endurance series, Marry in Haste, will not be out until November, 2016. Patience is not a virtue I hold in large quantities—one of my human failings, I’m afraid.
In the meantime, I am working on a novella that will fill in the gap between my first and second books. As I make lots of initial decisions, I am reminded of some of the readers’ questions I’ve heard lately.
“Are there some kind of written directions for writing a mystery? If so, where?”
“Can you tell me how you write a book?”
“Of course you can write books. You’re an English teacher. Well, so you’re a retired English teacher. Don’t you just know how to do that?”
The short answer to all three questions is “no.” Books about the writer’s craft in general or specific topics like dialogue, in particular, are out there. Writers read those all the time to become better at their craft, but no magic directions exist to tell them how to write a book. I’m not sure most authors could explain how they write a specific book, but they can tell you about some of the decisions they had to make. Often those initial decisions change as the writing continues.
As for my career choice, I might mention that I never set out to be an English teacher. I was a history major in my undergrad years, so most of my books have some historical aspects in them. I read voraciously since I love to read, and I don’t believe you can be an author without reading. Over several decades (soooo many), I’ve read thousands of books. But as an English teacher/author, I have a dark secret: my worst English problem is commas. As my editor, Lourdes, and my proofreaders, Jan and Hallie, will tell you, I am a minimalist comma-user. It gets me into trouble all the time. When in doubt, I get out my grammar book from 1977, or I rely on the three of them to catch my errors.
There. My secret is out.
When I do write, I make a number of decisions before ever beginning the first chapter. Currently, I am planning a novella, or short novel that fits in, time-wise, between my first two books in the Endurance mystery series. My main character will not be Grace Kimball—another decision I’ve made. Instead, I want to explore the earlier years and experiences that shaped TJ Sweeney, the 39-year-old, biracial police detective who used to be Grace’s student. I’d like to put myself in her shoes for a hundred pages or so. What early experiences caused her to have some of the attitudes she now has? How come she never settles down with a guy, but simply appears to use him? You might say, “Well, you should know those things already. You created her.”
True, but she has not been my main character, and I’ve only visited a couple of scenes from her early life. I know much more about her earlier life, but what I know ended up on the cutting room floor. A novella will offer me a chance to fill in some of those details, but only if the mystery that resides at the heart of the story reveals the answers to those questions.
Then, since I love history, I need to consider a period of time from Endurance’s history for one of my settings. Right now, my first choice would be the 1940s, when my parents were dancing to the Big Bands at the rooftop dance venue of a large downtown building in my home town. That history will have something to do with the mystery that TJ tries to solve.
However, ALL of this could change by the time I begin the novella. Right now, all of these thoughts are simply churning in my brain, sorting themselves out, and revealing whether or not they will work. Much of the work of writing takes place in an author’s head before it ever ends up on the page. Over the next month I will finish my mental exercises, research, and get a good start on this novella.
What do we have so far? TJ Sweeney, the 1940s, a mystery, the small town of Endurance, dancing to the Big Bands, and the uncovering of a grisly discovery. Stay tuned.