Mystery Mondays is back with Judy Alter, author of Kelly O’Connell Mysteries and Blue Plate Café Mysteries, is here to discuss writing instincts? Let us know in the comments hor you use your instincts when writing.
Listen to your instincts
by Judy Alter
The writer’s world today is filled with advice for using computer programs to track your characters, follow the time elapsed in your WIP, keep track of plot episodes, and even plot. I don’t use a one of them. Partly because I fear a steep learning curve but more because I am not only a pantser but what you might call an unstructured writer. I simply sit down and write. Somewhere along the way I may make a list of characters—helpful in book five to go back to the book two list and see what that guy’s name really was (I once wrote a children’s three-book series in which Jeb was featured in the first two but became Josh in the third. “Who’s Josh?” my editor wrote). I generally have a loose idea of where the novel is going, but then a character surprises me, or an idea comes out of the blue, and the whole thing changes course. That’s why I hate having to write a synopsis until the book is finished.
I’m not sure I believe writing is a precise craft. I think it’s an important art in which the words should flow as they come to you, rather than you getting them from a spreadsheet or folder of incidents. I remember Erma Bombeck writing that she’d rather scrub floors than face an empty computer screen (or was it a typewriter page in her day?). I’m sure artists feel the same way about a blank canvas, but few paint by numbers.
Old wisdom says “Listen to your characters, and they’ll tell you what’s going to happen.” I know few successful writers who don’t adhere to that maxim. Sometimes it may surprise you; sometimes, as it recently did with me, it may require rewriting whole sections—or a whole book. Sometimes a minor character will try to take over a book—let him or her. They were probably meant to be more prominent. My favorite example is not a mystery: it’s the award-winning The Wolf and the Buffalo, by the late Texas novelist Elmer Kelton. Kelton started out to write about a buffalo soldier—a recently freed slave who joins the army and is sent to Texas. But a Comanche chief kept intruding on the story, and Elmer couldn’t quiet him. The book turned out to be equally about them—the chief representing a dying culture, the buffalo soldier representing new opportunity.
I once sat at a stop sign, looked at the house katty-corner from me, and thought, “There’s a skeleton in a dead space in that house.” And that was the birth of my novel, Skeleton in a Dead Space. Another time I was three-quarters of the way through a novel, and I still didn’t know who the bad guy was. One day it came to me—and I had to go back and write him more prominently into early parts of the story.
One more example: I was working on a novel tentatively titled Murder at the Mansion, a title I found very ordinary though I was pleased with the way the novel was progressing. One day as the protagonists drove onto the mansion grounds, suddenly there was a peacock. The whole flock of peacocks became central to the plot, and the title was Murder at Peacock Mansion. A whole lot more interesting, and it led to a gorgeous cover, one of my all-time favorites.
This is unconventional writing advice, and I recognize it. It may also be why I’m not a best-selling author. But it works for me.
An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, Danger Comes Home, Deception in Strange Places, and Desperate for Death. She also writes the Blue Plate Café Mysteries—Murder at the Blue Plate Café, Murder at the Tremont House and the current
Murder at Peacock Mansion. Finally, with the 2014 The Perfect Coed, she introduced the Oak Grove Mysteries.
She is also the author of several fictional biographies of women of the American West, including Libby Custer, Jessie Frémont, Wild West Show roper Lucille Mulhall, pioneer physician Georgia Arbuckle Fix (in Mattie), and Etta Place of the Hole in the Wall Gang. Her latest book, just released, is The Gilded Cage, set in late nineteenth-century Chicago.
Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame.
Judy is retired as director of TCU Press, the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of seven. She and her dog, Sophie, live in Fort Worth, Texas.
And on to a oten about Sleuthing Women:
Sleuthing Women is a boxed set of ten, first-in-a-series books by ten different authors. It offers readers a chance to meet ten authors they may not have discovered before and to read over 3,000 pages of murder and mayhem—all for the low price of $2.99. The set launched May 1. Award-winning novelist Lois Winston (the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries came up with the idea not only as a way to introduce readers to new voices but also as a way to attract new readers for fellow authors. She figured if a reader was hooked on the first book, he or she might well want to explore additional books in the series. Each series represented has at least three titles.
I’m delighted that Lois included my first published mystery, Skeleton in a Dead Space. It introduced Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, and there are now six books in the series. Each takes place in the Historical Fairmount District of Fort Worth, Texas, where Kelly O’Connell is a realtor and renovator of Craftsman house, a single mother of two, and the ex-wife of someone she decides she never really new. A skeleton, an unsolved old murder, vandalism, and a new murder plunge Kelly into the amateur sleuth role in spite of the stern warnings of Neighborhood Police Officer Mike Shandy. I had fun writing it, and I hope readers have fun reading it.
Other authors and titles in the set include:
Assault with a Deadly Glue Gun, an Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery by Lois Winston—Working mom Anastasia is clueless about her husband’s gambling addiction until he permanently cashes in his chips and her comfortable middle-class life craps out. He leaves her with staggering debt, his communist mother, and a loan shark demanding $50,000. Then she’s accused of murder…
Murder among Neighbors a Kate Austen Suburban Mystery by Jonnie Jacobs — When Kate Austen’s socialite neighbor, Pepper Livingston, is murdered, Kate becomes involved in a sea of steamy secrets that bring her face to face with shocking truths—and handsome detective Michael Stone.
In for a Penny, a Cleopatra Jones Mystery by Maggie Toussaint—Accountant Cleo faces an unwanted hazard when her golf ball lands on a dead banker. The cops think her BFF shot him, so Cleo sets out to prove them wrong. She ventures into the dating world, wrangles her teens, adopts the victim’s dog, and tries to rein in her mom…until the killer puts a target on Cleo’s back.