Ways to be Wicked

The current writing project is gathering steam. It will be my third mystery and I hope to have an easier time with it than the last two. They say third time’s the charm, right? To that end, I have been doing a lot of plotting and planning. I’m finding Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron a blessing, particularly when it comes to fleshing out my killer.

I wanted this killer to be unique to St. Pete, where the book is set, and where I’m lucky enough to be currently holed up alone while my husband works in Detroit. Al should be here soon, but I want to nail down this bad guy (and it usually always is a guy, in books and in real life) before my good guy gets here.

My main character and her sidekick have been fleshed out for ages. I know almost everything about them. I know all about the murder victim, too. But I only have the slightest inkling of what makes my villain tick. I know the motivation for the murder, what drove him to do it. I’m fairly new to writing crime fiction, but it seems to me there  are so many ways to be wicked.

Acting out violently when experiencing negative emotions like hatred or jealousy is one way. Covering up a lesser crime by getting rid of a witness is another, more cold-blooded way. Revenge is an evil motive for killing if ever there was one. It brings me to the mind of the killer: sometimes the bad guy is psychologically damaged. Sometimes he’s without empathy, a sociopath. Not all sociopaths go psycho. Many sociopaths get along just fine in the world without murdering anyone, but everyone has to be a little crazy, at least in the moment, unless it’s self-defense or in the line of duty, to kill.

I’ve heard it said that we all have it in us: the ability to kill. Is that true? I’m not sure. A mother might kill if someone is harming her child. As a mom, I would not hesitate. A soldier will kill in war. A society may deem some crimes punishable by death. There’s the crime of passion. That one got a lot of men pardoned for murdering their cheating wives, and not so long ago. Here in Florida, “Old Sparky” is itching to get the Parkland school shooter in his electric chair.

If our president has his way, teachers would get “little bonuses” for carrying guns and shooting domestic terrorists who prey on schoolchildren. I’m a former teacher and find that a chilling idea. But it might make a good story. Think of all the ways arming teachers and paying them bonuses to kill could go wrong. Two teachers having an affair, one or both are married to other people. One, let’s say the guy, pressures the woman to leave her spouse and she refuses. She breaks up with him, even. He pulls the fire alarm and says he saw a woman wearing a red sweater and carrying a semi-automatic weapon heading to his ex-lover’s classroom. He shoots his ex, who’s wearing a red sweater and is also armed, because that’s what teachers do in this new world when the fire alarm goes off. Spurned lover claims he believed she was the intruder intent on harming kids.

That’s a pretty lousy plot and I won’t be writing it. I’ve got my own murderer to try to understand. Peeling back the layers of a killer’s life, dwelling on the evil within, is not exactly my favorite part of mystery writing. I like everything else better: pulling the plot together, fleshing out the other characters, getting the setting just right, having a theme or two humming under the surface. All of these are cake compared to writing a killer. But having a believable murderer, one who is exactly right for the book, who feels real, is high priority. He needs to scare the crap out of me. And readers, if I get lucky and get it right.

Hidden Things

I’m at the most difficult part of writing my next novel: imaging a deadly crime and how someone (almost) gets away with murder. There’s much work to be done off the book, work unknown to all but the writer, at this stage of the game. Maybe that’s why I’m consumed today with the idea of hidden things.

Most of what is observable in the universe is hidden, so it shouldn’t be surprising that large chunks of our lives and our world are unknowable, too. Astronomers say that 95% of the universe is either dark matter or dark energy, neither of which they know much about. Almost everything in space is a mystery to us here on earth.

Our own corners of the planet can hold hidden secrets, dangers of which we aren’t even aware. Hiding places are everywhere, just ask the tiny ants that come from nowhere into my kitchen. You might think, well these are tiny ants, so sure, they can hide in cracks in walls or windows not observable to the naked eye, or so my exterminator tells me.

Yet right outside my home, there’s danger lurking in the bayou. My husband, Al, likes to walk the nature trails on the shore of the bayou. I shudder when contemplating joining him on these hikes. There’s a sign saying “enter at your own risk” and another further on with a picture of an alligator and the word DANGER. Those gators are hiding just under the bayou surface, waiting for the unaware, for the less vigilant hiker.

This week I finally consented to take a walk with Al, something I hadn’t done for several years due to my fear that a gator would rush out of the water, grab my ankle with his sharp teeth, and chomp. It happens. We all know it. Somehow we convince ourselves we are safe. We are the lucky ones who can enjoy nature without colliding with its evil elements.

On our walk, Al told me the hilarious story of another time he’d been hiking and gradually became aware of a six foot long snake walking beside him. Al said the snake was bobbing along, maybe three feet of him raised tall, as if they were pals out for a stroll. When Al flicked his eye toward the snake, it went belly-flat and slithered away. Snakes are really smart about hiding in plain sight. And that will be my last walk on the nature trail for awhile.

I’ve got a crime novel to write.

Writing seems to me much safer. Yet, crime novels, too, feature plots that are hidden behind the surface of the words, action, setting and characters. The hidden plot, the one the reader will never see, is that of the murderer. His motives, machinations and methods may never be fully revealed, but the author must write a complete hidden history in order for the visible plot to flow.

Compelling Minor Characters

Lily White, the protagonist of my WIP, lives in Detroit and works as a P.I. She used to have a very different life, in Blue Lake, my fictional tourist town on Lake Huron in northern Michigan. Lily started as a minor character in my first Blue Lake novel, Blue Heaven. Even in that book, she threatened to take the story over. She was a little brat, just 17 years old, a damaged runaway. The way I tamed Lily for that story was to tell her someday she’d have her own turn.

Then I forgot Lily until I began writing Love and Death in Blue Lake. Searching for a subplot, I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to bring Bob and Lily back after they’d graduated college? I wanted to see what would happen to them. I kind of figured they’d get their happy ending. Sometimes plots don’t go the way you plan, but I was pleased with the way Love and Death ended. It felt right somehow. Lily got into a whole lot of trouble, and she settled some old scores. When she rode out of Blue Lake leaving a broken-hearted Bob behind, I had no idea where she’d end up.

CynthiaBlueLake Series

Sorry for the spoiler about Bob, but it is a very minor one. He gets his own story in my upcoming (November 2016) release Blue Lake Christmas.

Lily of course couldn’t let Bob have his own story without demanding a bigger, better one of her own. Well, to her it’s a bigger city, Detroit, and a better mystery, because she’s the one solving it. I’ll be working on Lily’s story for the next several months. If not years. Lily has layers and I’m taking my time uncovering them.

And yes, she’s already insisting that she should have her own series. I’m not sure about that, but what I do know for sure is compelling minor characters can take your stories further than you’d ever imagined.



The Rocky Road to True Love

Got through 30 pages of revision yesterday. Five hours of steady work. And then last night, I realized they were all wrong. Really wrong. Like, unfixable. In need of swift deletion. The saving grace was that I also knew exactly how to fix the scene sequence. I didn’t have the words yet, but I knew the pattern and how they would follow the romance in a way that makes sense in the overall scheme of the novel.

In writing romance, for me at least, the most difficult, delicate part of the plot is keeping the lovers apart for most of the book, and for very good reasons. No misunderstandings or coincidences or other contrived devices will work these days. They are too cliched. So it’s tough to come up with something original that also feels true. However there is one thing a romance writer can do to sort of illuminate the path, and that is track the romance.

My romance was up and down and a bit desperate near the end when I was pursuing word count instead of story content. I want my lovers to progress forward in a smoother way, a more honest and believable way. There are bumps, but the times when my characters find each other, lock into their attraction, and connect in deep soulful (I hope) ways should, every time, ratchet up the love a little more.

Looks like this: first contact, first touch, first kiss, maybe another kissing scene just to keep things interesting, and then, the scene I almost totally messed up yesterday, the very important “almost” scene. And the “almost” scene is exactly what it says. They “almost” have sex. Or as we like to say in the romance biz “make love.”

Thank stars I realized the problem in time. After the “almost” scene, it’s smooth sailing to the already finished love scene I worked on for a very long time. The editor enthusiastically approved that scene and the black moment that follows. From there it’s a short ride to resolution and happy ever after.

Were yesterday’s hours wasted? No. They showed me what was wrong and where I had to go to correct things on the rocky road to true love.

The Plot Behind the Plot

Read the first five chapters of Frey’s how-to this morning and realize I have work to do. Work that will not be adding to the 150 or so pages I’ve accumulated in the WIP.  Yes, the stuff I need to do will inform my story, but most of it won’t be a part of the book. My murderer needs a better backstory. I have a hazy idea of the way his mind works. I know who he kills and why. I cut a photo out of a magazine that looks like him. But that’s all I’ve got.

Frey says I need more.

So far, my murderer has been mostly off the page, but he’s about to become more obvious in the second act. Not obvious as the murderer, because Frey gave me the excellent tip that although he should be evil, he should appear to be good. In Act One I had him drop in maybe three times as a kind of background thing. He needs to come to the foreground now. It’s time.

Frey calls the murderer in a mystery the “character who pushes the action.” He’s the “author of the plot behind the plot.” The plot behind the plot is essentially why he murders, whom he murders, and how he intends to get away with it. “The murderer’s motive is the dirving force, the engine” of the mystery.

I do have all of that mostly worked out.

Am going to somewhat reluctantly delve into a more complete bio of this evil dude over the weekend. According to Frey, for a well-rounded murderer, I need to figure out his physiology (how he looks, how his body works), his sociology (his background, where he grew up, how he became wounded), and his psychology (how his mind works, including his ruling passion).

The “ruling passion” is a “dramatic force that is driving the character’s personality.”

I don’t have that, or the three descriptions of the well-rounded character, yet. I need to give it some thought and some ink.