Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this special Mystery Month installment of our Publishing U series, Rachel Howzell Hall (Trail of Echoes, 2016) offers some motivation and inspiration for aspiring mystery authors who have done their homework and are ready to become ink-stained avengers.
By now, you’ve read a lot about query letters, literary agents, and non-compete clauses. By now, you know not to leave your prepositions dangling . . . off. You’ve been warned of adverb abuse, exposition that causes brain-freeze and using any dialogue tag other than said. And if you write mysteries (or plan to), you know that Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and Writers’ Police Academy are great conferences where you can meet writers and experts.
There are a few things, though, that you need before ANY OF THIS. You can’t buy them from Staples. They cost nothing but you must embrace them to write The Great Mystery.
It takes gumption and ambition to write 80,000 words over 400 pages. You gotta love writing. You gotta bleed words. You have to be “ride or die.” Does your favorite gift card come from Office Depot? Do you turn your nose up at ordinary ballpoint pens? Would you write if no one was around? Is writing your church? Yes? Welcome. Have a seat.
Assignment: Find a pen. It should be a pen you’d hoard and lie about when someone asks, ” Do you have a pen I can borrow?” If you use computers, find a pen anyway. No one ever said, “The computer is mightier than the sword.”
You need fear—you can’t be brave without it.
What’s going to happen to that kid chasing the ball into the street? Why didn’t the wife want an autopsy on her dead husband? Is that her husband? Don’t ever turn off your “why” button. Mysteries are one big WHY. What happened to Amelia Earhart? Why did all those people die in Jonestown? Why can’t I turn away from police tape? Sure, some people find you and your encyclopedias and your search engines and your 54 unwatched episodes of The First 48 clogging up the DVR annoying. But writing a mystery is nothing but one why after another. Even before the guy shoots the other guy. WHY did he buy the gun? What kind of person buys a gun?
Assignment: Find your tribe, the other people who ask “Why,” and “How come?” Love those who will never erase those 54 unwatched episodes of The First 48 without your expressed consent. Let them use your pen in dire emergencies.
The world sucks. Sometimes, you feel powerless. That’s why your detective, or PI, or knitting-shop owner exists. What ticks you off? My list is long. Domestic violence, racism, sexism, abused children, overworked-underpaid, cancer, the Kardashians. Set your antagonist to right those wrongs. Vent through your writing. Attack the problem, find justice.
Assignment: Identify the issues that are important to you. It’s your book—what do you want to get off your chest? Being PASSIONATE fuels your creativity.
You need fear—you can’t be brave without it. I was scared to write a police procedural because I wasn’t a cop, an attorney, or a forensic pathologist. I’ve been affected by crime but haven’t known many criminals. Still: I wanted Detective Lou Norton to exist.
No one likes that kid who gets it right all the time.
At thirty-three, I was diagnosed with a rare breast cancer while also pregnant with my daughter. That was fear. Writing words? Scary, but after my last lumpectomy, I knew worse things could happen in life.
You’re scared of failing? That’s okay. Remember, though, that failing is healthy. It gives you another chance to get it right. And it makes you more interesting. No one likes that kid who gets it right all the time. No one relates to that kid. (We all love J.K. Rowling’s publication story.) Fail, okay? Then, dust off, get back up and let ANGER, CURIOSITY, and PASSION carry you through.
Assignment: Think about one thing that used to scare you. How did you overcome that fear? Was that scarier than writing? What’s one thing that scares you now? Is writing scarier than that?
Eyes and Ears
Everything is material. Drunk uncle? Material. Cheating spouse? Material. A secret admirer? Heck, yeah. (Especially for a mystery writer: is he crazy? Is he watching me? Is he a stalker?) You don’t need to look far to find interesting things. If you sit near Auntie Anne’s Pretzels at the mall, you’ll be able to confirm that people are crazy, people are beautiful, and people do strange things when they don’t think others are watching. The mall: it’s where America shops.
Assignment: Find your old diaries. Read them. Blush at the bad poetry and the pining for Prince. (R.I.P., I still can’t believe it.) Wince at how you were so catty to that girl—you know the one. Read about the good people you’ve met and all those tics that made them unforgettable. Build your story’s foundation or a character on those people and those experiences. Then, write a scene using the twenty-first day of July as your guide. That playground bully? Dump him on the side of the road (on the page, on the page), then, as your detective investigates the murder, bring out all his dirty laundry and reasons you’d want him dead.
Use What You’ve Got, to Get What You Want
Have a day job? Your lunch break is your only time to write? Then, write. Put pads in your car and scribble your thoughts as you drive. The hour before you clock in? Sit in your car and write. Doctor’s appointment? Dentist’s appointment? Soccer practice? Drip . . . drip . . . drip . . . . Words add up. Don’t believe me? Just look at the counter on the lower left-hand side of your Word document.
Assignment: At your lunch break, go to your car. Take one chapter (or your outline), a pad (or your Macbook) and a pen. Write. After that break, return to your desk and eat your sandwhich while you work. Eating lunch as you work is no different than eating that morning bagel at your desk. And look what happened: thirty to sixty minutes of writing!
You can do this. You must do this. It’s your job: you write mysteries.
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Rachel Howzell Hall is the author of the Detective Elouise Norton series. The third novel in the series, Trail of Echoes, will be published this May. Land of Shadows (2014) and Skies of Ash (2015) were included in the Los Angeles Times’ “Books to Read This Summer” for 2014 and 2015, and the New York Times called Lou Norton “a formidable fighter—someone you want on your side.” A featured writer on NPR’s acclaimed Crime in the City series, Rachel also served as a mentor in AWP’s Writer to Writer Program and is a member of the Mystery Writers of America. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Visit her website at www.rachelhowzell.com.