Saturday, March 26, 2016

I Just Can't Write Normal

When I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to write stories like the ones I read. My favorite year of school ever was sixth grade, because we had to turn in a new short story every Friday for a good part of the year. At that time I was reading science fiction, horse stories, and some of the classics. Now, back then you couldn’t admit to reading science fiction, much less writing it, so I never wrote any sci fi stories for my homework. But I envisioned myself writing those stories some time in the future, just like Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The same with mysteries. Although I read Nancy Drew and Ellery Queen, I didn’t write mysteries, either.

I don’t remember what those grade school stories were, which is too bad. The only one I do remember was a rip-off of Jack London. I’d read “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” as well as To Build a Fire (still one of my favorite stories) so it was natural that when it came time to write the next story, I would be writing about a semi-wild dog trekking through the snowy wilderness. When I turned it in, I felt a twinge of guilt, and half expected to get a failing grade because it was so obvious what its origins were. I was surprised when I got an “A” on it. I always felt that grade was unearned.



In the past, I’ve written about my decades-long hiatus from writing. Maybe that was necessary for me to become the writer I am today. Maybe not. Regardless, there’s nothing I can do to change that now.

When I came back to writing, my taste in reading had changed from science fiction to mystery. SF had disappointed me when it changed from “hard” science fiction to what I called psychological stories. Instead of a story turning on one or more scientific facts, or a group of young people jumping into a space ship and exploring the galaxy, SF became more character-based, even more about social issues. Not my cup of tea at that time, so I started reading stories that were puzzles I could try to figure out.

Stephen King said, when asked how you become a writer, “Read a lot. Write a lot.” Countless others have said, “Write what you know.” Since I was reading mysteries when I decided I wanted to write a novel, it was clear that I would first try writing a mystery.

So I did.

It was a long slog (which I’ve written about before), and I revised and rewrote that novel several times over many years before I figured out that it was unfixable. It was my “under the bed” or “trunk” novel, the one (and often more than one) which the writer uses to learn her craft, but is so fundamentally flawed that it will never be publishable. I took classes, joined Sisters in Crime, read books on writing craft, and wrote a few more novels. I almost despaired of ever writing a complete novel that was any good.

But I persevered because I had set a goal of completing a novel and having it published before I died. I’m the kind of person who, once she makes a commitment, sticks to it. Sometimes long after I’ve figured out there’s really no need to fulfill that commitment. I got better at telling stories, better at avoiding rookie mistakes, better at coming up with ideas. And a lot of that was due to trying to write a novel just like the ones I read.

When I came up with the idea for “Faith, Hope, and Murder,” I knew it was something special, even though I thought I was creating another novel just like the ones I was reading. Well, not quite. I hadn’t read very much Christian fiction, but I assumed it would be similar to the book I was writing.

After the first draft was done, I knew I should find out what the Christian fiction market was like. I’d learned a ton about mysteries from Sisters in Crime, so I found a Christian fiction writers group and joined that. It didn’t take very long for me to discover that the books they were writing were very different from mine. Not knowing the “rules” of the genre, I’d broken several of them in my book. I decided to publish it anyway.

“Faith, Hope, and Murder” has gotten good reviews and bad reviews. Enough people liked it for me to keep going with my Community of Faith mystery series. But it’s never become a big seller and, because I wanted to earn money from my writing, not spend money on a hobby, I decided to write something a little more commercial, a series not so far out of the box.

That’s how the African Violet Club Mysteries were born. I came up with the hobby of growing African violets as the hook for the series, a senior sleuth I knew I’d have fun writing, and a general feeling that I’d write novels similar to the Murder, She Wrote series and Miss Marple. A nice, standard genre. I felt very comfortable that this would be a series that I could sell.

Then I started writing “True Blue Murder.”

Now, I outline my novels because I get nervous about not knowing how the story develops. I’ve tried writing by-the-seat-of-the-pants with very mixed results. Sometimes the story flows smoothly. All too often, I get stuck, panic, and have to abandon the novel because it’s so bad.

But the outline is for the mystery plot. I know who gets killed and who the murderer is, the major scenes, and, with any luck, the clue that reveals whodunnit to my sleuth. This sometimes changes as I write, but I’ve got a roadmap to follow so I won’t get lost and panic.

The subplots are a lot less clear. I’ll have some vague idea as to what they are—the romance between Faith and John in the Community of Faith series for example—but the details come to me as I’m typing. Actually, these subplots are often more fun to write, because I’m not worrying about hiding clues and yet being fair to the reader while writing them.

So there I was in November of 2013, tootling through “True Blue Murder” as my NaNoWriMo novel that year, over half-way done with the book and feeling mighty good about it, if I do say so myself, when my muse threw me the ultimate curve ball.

I finished the scene, then sat back and said, “What the…”

This book was not going to be like Agatha Christie. Well, it was, but Dame Agatha would never have added a fantasy element to her mystery novels.

I liked it, but would readers? And how did this fit into my plan of writing a traditional mystery series that would sell?

I did what I always do when faced with a writing dilemma: I consulted my fellow Sisters in Crime members. Everyone told me to go for it. So I did. In fact, that element has become a subplot in the two sequels as well. I think it adds fun to the series, even if it is a bit unconventional. Okay, a lot unconventional.

Who wants to be normal anyway?

If you’d like to read the first two chapters of “True Blue Murder,” check out my Kindle Scout campaign at https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/2KYBFROAXTPOH . If you like it, please consider nominating it. Thanks!
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