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The Sleuthsayers: Six Crime, Mystery & Action Thriller Novelists Discuss Their Work

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THEY PRESS ON WITH THEIR DAILY LIVES, watching everything. Stories percolate constantly in their minds. They sit for hours, days, weeks and months, cooking up good characters and bad, and plots with more twists and turns than a mountain switchback road.

Frank Ritter

Frank Ritter

Meet The Sleuthsayers. These crime fiction, mystery and action thriller authors specialize in compelling page-turner books that exemplify solid storytelling and characters that jump off the page. They kill people, injure others, fall in and out of love, and solve one tantalizing mystery after another. In many cases, they carry the same lead character from one book to another.

Recently, I put a few questions to authors Jenny Hilborne, Frank Ritter (also an award-winning playwright), Gayle Carline, William Thompson Ong, Claudia Whitsitt, and Wes Albers, who is also the director of the Southern California Writers Conference.

These people are very good writers. Their average collective ranking on Amazon.com? 4.8 (out of 5). And on Goodreads? 4.9 (out of 5).

Other interesting trivia tidbits: Remember the 1980s TV series Simon & Simon? The series was loosely (or not so loosely) based on Frank Ritter and his brother, private investigators at the time. Ritter’s expertise really shows in The Killing Games. Our other on-the-job expert is Wes Albers, a longtime member of the San Diego Police Department. Meanwhile, Tom Ong is one of the original Mad Men from the New York advertising scene of the early 1960s.

I hope you enjoy what they have to say – and buy their books, either for yourself or for a favorite crime & mystery fiction lover on your Holiday shopping list. Now, let’s get the roundtable started …

Jenny Hilborne

Jenny Hilborne

Q: First of all, give us a snapshot of your most recent books.

Jenny Hilborne: The Jackson Mystery Series, which can be read as standalones. They include Hide and Seek and Madness and Murder.

Frank Ritter: The Killing Games, an adult thriller (now available), and The Devil’s Crib, another adult thriller, which will be out in Spring 2014.

Gayle Carline: I write the Peri Minneopa Mystery Series. A couple of titles include Hit or Missus and Hot Mess.

William Thompson Ong: I call mine the Kate Conway Series – The Mounting Storm, The Deadly Buddha, and The Fashionista Murders.

Claudia Whitsitt: The Samantha Series: Identity Issues (Book 1) and Intimacy Issues (Book 2).

Wes Albers: Black & White is my first published novel. It’s a look into the life of a street cop, told through the eyes of veteran San Diego Police Patrolman John Hatch.

Q: Do you set up your plot twists before you begin writing, or do you let characters and situations take you there?

Albers: I do a little of both. For Black & White, I didn’t start out with anything. I simply sat down one day and started writing. I let the story take me where it wanted to go, until I hit a point where I needed to get to a logical conclusion. It became necessary to start doing some plotting and outlining as I went along, but mostly so that I could drive the story where I needed it to go rather than any creative plot twist.

Gayle Carline

Gayle Carline

One challenge in writing about street cops is that their job doesn’t necessarily flow like a typical story. The thought of having something fall along the lines of Act I, Act II, and Act III is kind of contrary to how the job works. Not every story in a cop’s life resolves. Instead, a street cop’s life is often more a series of scenes.

Whitsitt: Plot twists–what I live for! I do some pre-plotting. It’s best to know where I want the story to wind up, but I’m always willing to let the characters take over. I find a mix of planning/free-form works best for me. The story sometimes stays on track but often the twists are created along the way as a result of my character’s personalities and the ways in which they handle situations. The story evolves through the writing as I continually play “what if”. And my characters have minds of their own—feisty crew that they are!

Ong: I set up a basic plot with plenty of twists and turns in every chapter. But once I begin writing, those unexpected plot twists and turns will come flying at me from every angle and provide the spice for my story. While writing my first novel, I learned two very big lessons: 1) the best way to create plot twists is to ask your characters what’s the worst thing that can happen to them; and 2) believe in your characters and they will help you steer the plot, taking you to places you never thought possible.

Carline: It depends upon the book. Sometimes I just know how everything’s going to work and sometimes I get the idea as I’m writing. I try to do a very general outline. For my first mystery, I was so frightened of having any loose ends or conflicting clues, I stuck to my outline like duct tape. I thought writing to an outline would be my system. Then in the second mystery, I got bored with a scene, so I hit Peri over the head with a golf club and abandoned the outline. The third mystery was a hybrid of outlining, then ditching the outline, then re-outlining. I’m now writing a fourth book, and there is no outline.

William Thompson Ong

William Thompson Ong

Ritter: I story board not only my books but also my plays. All plot twists, locations and even some character traits are worked out on my story boards. I also do a personal profile of each major character and their traits.

Hilborne: I write whatever comes into my head at the time. My characters drive the story.

Q:  How much pre-planning do you put into your characters’ spoken voices, so that their dialogue is distinctive and forward-moving?

Hilborne: I’m not a planner. I hear their voices as I write the dialogue.

Ritter: I work very hard at making my dialogue match each character’s background and speech patterns so that each has his/her own voice. I study slang usage, speech patterns for an American locale I may need, and the speech patterns of those for whom English is a second language, if needed.

Carline: Of all the pre-planning, my characters are my biggest focus. I write up a study of each one, what they look like, their occupation, likes and dislikes, even astrological signs. Then I write a journal for each one. I let them tell me what’s important to them. By the time I start writing the book, I know who they are and how they sound.

Ong: Dialogue is not something that can be wasted. It must either establish character or further the plot. Before writing I make sure each character is

Claudia Whitsitt

Claudia Whitsitt

fixed in my mind—from what makes them tick right down to those quirky little details that are so important—and voice here is key. Then, before each scene, I write a brief outline that describes the action along with snippets of highlighted dialogue. Then I write the scene. I rewrite again and again. When I think I am finished with a novel I go over it carefully, looking for places where sharp dialogue can replace those author descriptions that are too long.

Whitsitt: I wrote a L.O.O.S.E. character sketch before I began writing the series, but I mostly hear my characters’ voices; it’s quite instinctive on my part. I simply step into their shoes and voila! Dialogue! (Don’t tell anyone I hear voices. Please!)

Albers: Dialogue thus far has been a pretty natural process for me. Often it is the easiest part of storytelling. I have an image of the character in my head and any distinct voice for a character just seems to develop as I work.  When I’m not writing but simply daydreaming about the story and where I want it to go, sometimes I’ll get a flash of something unique that I want to attribute specifically to a character.  The sergeant in Black & White is a good example. When I started writing him I had lots of examples of bad managers, or supervisors, from my past so I simply had him strike an elitist, condescending tone and the words just came naturally, his voice developed organically. I must have struck some chord because readers have consistently reacted to him as an accurate reflection of a bad boss that everyone has had at some point.

Q: Out of all the books you’ve written, what are two of the most surprising in-story developments that you did not know would happen when you started writing?

Wes Albers

Wes Albers

Albers: The first was in another unpublished story. I had a bad guy tied to a tree who was about to be executed. Hope was lost, from his perspective. When I originally started writing the chapter, I intended it to be more about the events that would ultimately lead to his surprise release, but as I wrote, it developed into an internal dialogue where this vicious and foul person started reflecting on the tragic path that led him to that tree. Suddenly, he became human and relatable.

The other was the start of Black & White. I didn’t set out to write police stories. In fact, I actively resisted them but someone encouraged me, and then repeatedly pestered me until I made an attempt. I never expected the first line of Black & White would ever survive to print, but in an instant, I found the voice of veteran of the streets, a voice that spoke with the authority of experience.

Whitsitt: My main character, Samantha, has experienced deep moments of profound sorrow. I was surprised how moved I was by those events and the lingering effects her grief had on me—losing loved ones I hadn’t intended to “kill” before I began penning the book. Writing those scenes is exhausting!

The other in-story surprise that has occurred is how much I enjoy writing male characters, (I guess my five brothers are worth something after all!), so much so that I’m considering a new series focused on one of those men.

Ong: At the end of The Mounting Storm, I originally had one ex-wife fire all six bullets from a Colt revolver into the body of the villain. At the very last minute, I switched the revolver into the hands of the other ex-wife. That gave the ending the unexpected wallop it needed.

In The Deadly Buddha, I changed the outcome of the scene where Kate survives the shooting in Central Park after Zack throws his body across hers and Zookie’s and nearly dies in the process. It then became a scene where a very  confused Kate realizes how much she loves the guy—and decides to marry him instead of keeping him waiting another 50 pages.

Carline: The first one came with the first book, Freezer Burn. I had imagined one character, Benny, as an immoral lout (this was before I started all the character development techniques). After the first scene, I saw him for what he was: an obsessive-compulsive man who was confused by the world around him and needed help.

The second one that truly surprised me didn’t happen when I was writing the book, but it happened when I was journaling one of the characters of my current work. I had thought of the crime, figured out the who/what/where, but while one of my characters was telling me about his life, I discovered the motive for the murder. It was completely different than what I was planning.

Ritter: After I story board, I then begin my plot and location research. In the case of The Killing Games, although my research had developed the needed information to make the climatic explosion at the LA Coliseum really happen, I altered this information so as to not be giving out factual instructions to any idiots or truly bad guys. Other than that, because I story board, the only in-story developments while putting pen (computer) to paper have been characters that I grew to truly like and had to either hurt badly or even kill them off. Honestly, when that happens, it really hurts. In The Killing Games, the bad guy rapes a woman and later he rapes her 12-year-old boy. Those scenes were very hard for me to write realistically, but they needed to be there to set up later actions and character developments.

Hilborne: All of my books have surprised me. The endings are never how I might imagine them. The most surprising element for me is the themes readers pick up in my stories. I never intend a message, but readers have pointed them out.

Read Part 2

 

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“Calculate Less”: Keynoter Derek Haas’ Message of Writing Success

You may not know much about Derek Haas as a person, but if you like westerns or action thrillers, then you know some  films he’s screenwritten: 2 Fast 2 Furious, 3:10 to Yuma, and most recently, Wanted. On the reading side, you might also know Columbus, the “protagonist” of his bestselling action thriller novel, The Silver Bear, and its two sequels.

Derek keynoted the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego in an unusual but refreshing way: after spending 20 minutes tracing his ever-growing career, he took questions from the audience of nearly 300.  Leave it to Southern California Writers Conference directors Michael Steven Gregory and Wes Albers to march off the beaten track (after all, the tongue-in-cheek motto of this particular conference series, at which I love to teach, is “We’re going to help you suck less”) and find yet another writer who never forgets what it took to succeed — and the pearls of wisdom he gathered along the way.

A humble man, Derek possesses a genuinely caring nature for his fellow writers. Even after spending years dealing with the buzzsaw that is Hollywood filmmaking. “Most screenwriters won’t give any credit to the uncredited writers who help out on a film,” he said. “But a film is a collaborative process, and I’m happy to give credit and tell you how good any writer is who collaborates on a film I’ve been involved with.”

The writing bug first bit Derek when he was 12, and the story is as cute as full of generational clash at it gets. “When I was 12, I took a Stephen King book off my dad’s nightstand. I turned on the closet light in my bedroom — my parents thought I was asleep — and I read until I was finished. That’s when I knew that I had to do this. For my next birthday, I got a typewriter. Then, when I was 17, my dad looked at my love of writing, and my talking about writing as a career, and he said, ‘Do you want to eat hamburgers or steak?’ Look into business school.”

Derek’s career reads like most success curves of author/screenwriters. He and his screenwriting partner, Michael Brandt, met while in graduate school at Baylor and found they “liked similar things and laughed at the same jokes.” They caught a break early on, when one of their screenplays was handed to Brad Pitt and he decided to star in the movie. However, that ended when Brad joined Julia Roberts on another picture. He then co-wrote 2 Fast 2 Furious, the second of the now four-movie car action thriller franchise, followed by 3:10 to Yuma, based on a short story by his personal idol (and mine, too), Elmore Leonard. “I really liked the 1957 movie with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin,” Derek told the audience, “but when I received the screenplay to look at a remake, I realized it didn’t have a true second act.” So Derek and Brandt, along with others, refashioned the movie into a tight western with modern sub-themes that starred Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

After 3:10 to Yuma, when filming The Double (to be released later in 2011) in Detroit, Derek received a call — from Elmore Leonard. He thought at first it was a joke, but then accepted Elmore’s invitation to a barbecue. Derek had just started the popular website Popcorn Fiction, his attempt to bring back the glory years of short and pulp fiction — one of Derek’s two major nostalgia trips. (The other is radio westerns from the 1930s through 1950s, like Gunsmoke). Popcorn Fiction features short fiction from screenwriters. After getting through a little star-struck spell at the master craftsman’s house, Derek worked up his nerve. “I asked him if he had anything he could contribute. He gave me 15 unseen, unpublished stories, dating back to 1953. One was not good, one was OK, and 13 were gems. We’re working through his agent on getting them published.”

Also, unbeknownst to any of his Hollywood colleagues, Derek was working on a book. It became the bestselling The Silver Bear, featuring a contract killer lead character, Columbus — who appears in a pair of sequels, the latest of which comes out later in 2011. The Silver Bear opens with, “I don’t want you to like me.” Derek explained this by offering some of the best advice I’ve heard in awhile on characterization: “To me, the key to good characters is leaving a little gray. If you have an antagonist, make him do something good to bring the readers in. If you have a protagonist, make him do something that pushes the reader away a little bit.”

Besides answering questions about his movies, Derek received a few specific craft- or mission-based questions about the writing process. One particular exchange, which should be printed in every magazine and every blog, concerned an author’s question about keeping an eye on trends and readers’ concerns as you write your story.

“Calculate less,” Derek said. “That should be a motto for writers.”

He then elaborated. “I can’t tell you where Hollywood is going with trends. Look at 3:10 to Yuma. I thought it was a pretty good film, a great story, with great actors, including Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It only made $60M in the U.S. and practically nothing — $16M — overseas. So they said westerns are dead … and along comes True Grit that makes $170M. They were saying the same thing twenty years ago, and then you had Dances With Wolves. You can’t write to what’s hot or not hot in Hollywood or in the bookstore.

“Write what’s in your heart. What’s in your heart doesn’t have to be a memoir. It can be an action thriller, or a romantic person, or a contract killer. Write the story that comes from your heart.”

The major craft point he gave is something that is life-or-death to screenwriters and playwrights — and novelists, for that matter: knowing when to begin and end scenes. “My screenwriting partner likes to call it the ‘cup of coffee’ syndrome,” Derek said. “Bad writing is having two people come into the cafe, look around, describe the setting, grab menus, find a waitress, be seated, look over the menu, order two cups of coffee, stir the coffee, take a sip and then start a conversation. Good writing starts with the conversation. It’s really important to not start your scene too early or end it too late.”

Finally, he talked about the polishing process. All weekend long, as we worked with authors’ manuscripts, the mantra of the faculty was the same: “polish until you can’t perfect it any more — then have someone go over it. Then send it.” So many times, unrefined manuscripts are sent to agents and publishers. So many times, writers have just lost their best opportunity. “My partner and I have one rule between us,” Derek said. “Make it better.”

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