Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mystery Plots

A priest hanging from a bunch of helium-filled balloons disappears. A caller reporting child abuse at a polygamist compound can't be found. A mail carrier catches a baby who falls from a second story window. The daily news is a great source of "plot bunnies" for mystery writers. It's just a matter of choosing a subject that will hold your and your readers' interest for 100,000 words.

With the advent of 24-hour cable news and the Internet, today's writers have access to an endless stream of interesting stories and events. Unsolved murders, missing persons, haunted houses, treacherous weather, family feuds, dangerous jobs, and unexplained events are wonderful building blocks for your next mystery novel. Many writers keep a notebook filled with plot ideas; others, like me, file the information away in memory for future use.

It's time for "Evelyn David" to start a new book. Since there are two writers involved we not only have lots of plot ideas, but have to negotiate with each other to narrow the choices. Sometimes one of us will take an idea and run with it, writing a few pages to see if we can truly turn the idea into a viable storyline. I have at least five such partial stories parked on my desktop – everything from a sequel to our short story, I Try Not To Drive Past Cemeteries, to a children's story involving Jesse James loot, to a couple who run an antique store and solve murders in their spare time. From time to time I write a little more on each, depending on my mood. I'm not sure any will ever make it to a publisher's desk, but maybe.

How to start? I bring up a blank sheet of paper on my computer screen. I type a working title. Then save the blank page. (Note: it's always wise to save your work every half page or so. I haven't lost any work yet to a power surge and I don't intend to – bowing my head and offering a silent prayer.)

It's usually best to start in the middle of the action – the scream of the baby falling, the ring of the anonymous call, the man hanging from the balloons drifting out of sight. You want to start with the "good stuff" then back up and describe your setting and your characters. Some people work off of an outline. My co-author and I don't – or at least we don't have a hard and fast one. Later in the writing, as the subplots develop and begin to take on a life of their own, we start structuring the chapters and the scenes.

We keep a running list of character names, descriptions, occupations, etc. – all the details you don't want to forget (i.e. your hero drives a Ford Bronco on page 20 and suddenly leaps into a Chevy Tahoe on page 187.)

As I mentioned earlier, it's time for Evelyn David to start a new book.

The sticky tabs on the diaper held. Twenty pounds of screaming baby dropping two stories at the speed of gravity. Only fragments of seconds to act. Reaching up, my fingers found purchase between the leg opening and the waistband. Pampers were tough. And on sale at the local super center. Strange the thoughts that run through your mind at times like these.

Dead silence. The baby and I looked at each other in amazement. My heart felt like it was going to explode; I couldn't seem to take a deep breath.

The baby had no such problem. The noise was deafening.

I got a better grip. The sudden moisture on my hands had me checking the baby for injuries. There were none.

The diaper was strong—but not leak proof.


Okay, not great. But it's a start. Maybe I need to watch CNN for more ideas.

Good luck with your own writing!

Evelyn David

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