One of my favorite weeks of the year, Southern California Writers Conference Week, has arrived! This weekend’s event in Newport Beach promises to be a great one, with new workshops and a very talented and esteemed group of faculty, editors and agents.
Speaking of which, last week, we met six crime, mystery and action thriller writers to whom I’ve given a playful
nickname, The Sleuthsayers. All have written excellent novels (for most, more than one), and have developed great insight not only on their plots and writing voices, but also on the craft itself.
This group includes Jenny Hillborne, author of The Jackson Mystery Series (Hide and Seek, Madness & Murder); Frank Ritter (The Killing Games), Gayle Carline (Peri Minneopa Mystery Series, including Hit or Missus and Hot Mess), William Thompson Ong (Kate Conway Series, including The Fashionista Murders and The Deadly Buddha), Claudia Whitsitt (The Samantha Series, including Intimacy Issues and Identity Issues), and Wes Albers (Black & White).
In this blog, our six novelists talk about how they keep track of the many elements in their work, why these books are such big hits with readers (crime, mystery and thriller genres dominate fiction and e-book sales), and aspects of their personal backgrounds that give us clues as to the stones they turn in print.
Three of these writers will be on hand Friday through Sunday, Sept. 20-22, as faculty at the Southern California Writers Conference – Claudia Whitsitt, Gayle Carline, and Wes Albers, who is the conference director. A fourth, Jenny Hillborne, will be at the Readers and Writers Fair in San Diego this weekend.
WORD JOURNEYS BLOG: How do you keep track of the various narrative and character threads you run through your books?
Wes Albers: I save all my outlines, drafts, cards, lists, and notes, and all kinds of general refuse that comes with writing. Mostly I keep it all rattling around in my head but then I use all those other things as resources to remember where I was going, what I wanted to do, things I might want to do in one book, and things I might want to do in another.
Gayle Carline: I “reverse outline” – I have an Excel spreadsheet (why yes, I am a geek) with several pages. I list characters with their descriptions and brief notes, keep track of my word count, and I have a page where I give a brief synopsis of each chapter after I’ve written it, along with whose POV it was written in, and even who is in the scene(s). I use this page in a lot of ways, one of which is to map out the tension/action points of the book. It helps me see, at a glance, whether I’ve got too many chapters of clue gathering/expository stuff that slow the pace.
William Thompson Ong: Most of these I keep in my head. However, I keep a running diary of key elements at the end of the manuscript where I can get to them fast. Once I have my plot and characters under control, I try not to depend on those eternal lists we’re all supposed to keep. If it’s right and it fits I’ll remember it.
Jenny Hillborne: I do a lot of re-reading, and I keep character bios that I constantly refer to.
Frank Ritter: Storyboarding. I use 3×5 cards cut in half and pinned to the storyboard. I move them around to better build plot and characters. It was The Godfather novel that showed me that I had to storyboard, because Mario Puzo stole his own suspense with his handling of the death of Sonny, in which Sonny’s death is sprung out of nowhere. It is nearly 200 pages before the reader finds out what happened to Sonny, and by then, who cares? The movie fixed this problem. Also, he lost track of his plot with Sonny’s girlfriend in Las Vegas – nearly fifty pages to handle a one-page introduction of a Las Vegas doctor. The movie deleted the entire scene, as it should have. My comparison of this book to its movie taught me a great deal about writing thrillers.
Claudia Whitsitt: My husband! He’s read all of my work at least a dozen times and has a great head for details. He’s a great resource. I also record chapter summaries as I write, so that I can easily refer back and remind myself what I’ve covered and where I’ve covered it.
WJ BLOG: Why do you think these genres are such a hit with readers?
Whitsitt: Mystery/suspense novels pull us away from our real lives and transport us into a world of intrigue. Experiencing new characters, solving the mystery, reading on the edge of the page, and being sucked into the story is what readers of this genre love. It’s also a safe way to experience the fear of our own mortality.
As a reader of mystery and suspense long before I became a writer, I love the conquering hero, good overcoming evil, and ordinary folks faced with extraordinary circumstances. There’s nothing more entertaining than a great page-turner.
Ritter: They are fast paced, well plotted and give satisfaction to the reader when the bad guy gets it in the end. They also introduce the reader to far-off lands and cultures without being a travel guide. Finally, I think they give the reader a personal-heroic-lack-of-frustration feeling that the good guys can win, and that it is OK to break some of the rules to achieve that end.
Hillborne: Who doesn’t love a good mystery? We love to solve puzzles and pit our wits against the bad guys (and the cops).
Ong: We offer the reader a rare steak instead of a full-course dinner. And usually that steak is dripping blood. We come up with characters that charm you one minute and stick a stiletto between your ribs the next. We keep the reader guessing right down to the end.
Carline: I think we like to feel smart. We like to go along with the hero/heroine and feel like we’re helping them solve the crime.
Albers: I got into law enforcement because I wanted an adventure. I was already interested in writing when I took this job but what I didn’t anticipate is the perspective it would give me. I have been able to be present during the absolute best, worst, funniest, cruelest, most compassionate, and volatile moments of thousands of people’s lives. I was able to be an insider in a way that few will ever experience, or if they do, it is once or twice in a lifetime.
People are drawn to this genre for that very reason. It lets them be an insider. The intimacy of a book lets them feel like they are there and witnessing something they don’t see in their daily life. It also lets people do it safely. There is no doubt there is a drive to see the good, but there is also a pretty persistent draw for people to see the bad and the dark.
WJ BLOG: Finally, any personal background that lends itself to the stories you write?
Albers: Well, there is obviously the nearly quarter century of law enforcement but there has also been my years with the Southern California Writers’ Conference. I wasn’t always the Director. I started many years ago started as a conferee there to learn from all the other writers. When I say writers, I do not necessarily mean authors. We’ve had many of those there as well, people who have realized their dream of publication and are there to help others or to talk about how they got published, but what I’m talking about is the group as a whole. We are all writers, some accomplished, some highly published, but many who just like to write, or who are trying to be published. Everyone has stories and experiences and perspectives and thoughts. It has been my contact with this group as a whole that has helped me create the stories I write.
Carline: Well, my protagonist is a former housecleaner, and while I’ve never been a professional, I’ve been known to sacrifice a manicure to scrubbing grout. And anyone who knows my husband knows that he is possibly the most laconic man on the planet, so my sleuthing skills are constantly put to the test as I try to figure out where he is and what he’s doing.
Hillborne: My stories include many elements of truth. To protect the innocent (and the guilty), I can’t reveal which bits are fact and which are fiction.
Ritter: I was a bodyguard for decades and a private investigator for nearly forty years. In addition, I write in six genres and am a multiple-award winning playwright, which helps immensely with dialogue. I have chosen to write my novels in the “Adult Thriller” genre because it is the closest to the world I worked and lived in, i.e., this genre furthers both plot and characters with R-rated action and X-rated sex and passion … just like the real world.
Whitsitt: Teaching for thirty-seven years as well as mothering five children plays a huge role in all of my books. (Talk about writing material!) I’ve been devoted to children my entire life as well as personally experiencing their struggles. My main character, Samantha, is a teacher, mother, and champion for children.
Ong: My years spent as one of the original Mad Men gave me a lot to write about when it came to the Human Struggle—the false ideals and the hypocrisy, the lying and the cheating, the occasional triumphs versus the stunning defeats. It was an industry rife with alcohol and sex, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, broken promises, broken dreams, and broken hearts. In other words, it was the perfect training ground for someone seeking the stuff that makes fictional characters live and breathe.
They say you should write what you know. But if you have known love and death and marriage and divorce and have lived long enough to feel the tremendous ups and downs of life—you will be rich in the stuff writers need.