Writing books help solve mysteries of fiction

A friend asked me what books I would recommend to get started writing fiction. Two recent reads immediately came to mind, Hallie Ephron’s  Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel and Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. 

While I tend to be a “pantser” when it comes to writing fiction, I’m not opposed to at least working up background for characters, and Ephron provides this and more. Her tips and advice prove useful for any genre, not just mystery.

Her section on plotting and the three-act structure is one of the clearest I’ve read to understand that particular approach to structure. And while it might sound like I’m advocating a formulaic approach, all great fiction, all great writing needs some foundation to build on.

Ephron has written several best-selling novels, including the Dr. Peter Zak series. She comes from a family of great storytellers that includes the late director and screenwriter Nora Ephron.

Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but spent most of her life in Europe. She is the creator of conman and killer Tom Ripley.

In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Highsmith, who died in 1995, discusses basics like plotting and generating ideas common in most writing books. But it’s her last section that stands out, as she leads you through the processes she talks about by describing how she applied them to writing her novel The Glass Cell.

She also recommends naps as a way to restore the creative juices. That, in and of itself, is good advice. Who doesn’t like a good nap?

Buy Now Button


Please note the donation button above or on the sidebar. If you like what you’re reading, please consider showing some love.


The Glue of Truthiness

Doing some self-directed training at work made me think about our current controversy over alternative facts. And that, in turn, made me think about an insight from fictional detective Harry Bosch in the novel The Black Ice by Michael Connelly. As Bosch pieces together the clues to a cop’s murder, he recalls something he was told early in his career: you can have all the facts you want, but facts mean nothing without figuring out the glue holding them together.

That’s a great insight on Bosch/Connelly’s part (Connelly was an L.A. Times crime reporter before turning to fiction). What is the glue that holds the facts together? If you investigate deeper, you piece together the meaning, the truth.

Of course, we all have deep convictions we often hold onto no matter the contrary evidence. We are all also guilty of reacting to contrary evidence by clinging even stronger to our convictions. Or we cherry-pick stuff that supports our convictions.

But, what if we dig deeper? Will we find the facts and their truths are as flimsily held together by edible Elmer’s paste as a kindergartener’s art project? Or will we discover a solid bond held together with Krazy Glue?

I love questions like this. It’s one of the reasons I love fiction and believe fiction is truthier than nonfiction. Of course, it’s usually also much more entertaining. And that’s a fact!

— Todd

Origins: Jamie Schultz on Premonitions

premonitions cover

A member of my writer’s group, the North Texas Speculative Fiction Workshop, Jamie Schultz has published his first novel, Premonitions. It’s a fast-paced urban fantasy and crime novel that blends modern-day thieves with magic, dark gods and cults. What could go wrong? Here’s Jamie to tell you a little bit about how he came up with this book:

She drove west, foot to the floor, trying not to look at the thing in the passenger seat.

That was the original first line of Premonitions, my new urban fantasy novel about a group of occult thieves that gets in way over their collective head. The line didn’t survive to see the finished first draft, and neither did the scene containing it, but the damage had been done, and the whole book fell out of there. You can almost see it between the words of the sentence: she’s got something terrible in the passenger seat, and she’s driving like hell to get away from something even worse.

I should back up. Premonitions is an odd sort of genre mix—a heist novel dressed up in its very finest urban fantasy gear, and probably wearing horror underwear. It’s loaded with well-meaning crooks, terrible demons, nefarious crime lords, and the very nastiest of black magic. The horror and fantasy elements were things I’d already been working with for awhile, but for the crime stuff, you can blame Charlie Huston, and Don Winslow, and Tom Piccirilli, and Elmore Leonard, and—well, let’s just say I’d been reading a lot of crime fiction at the time I started writing. I had been reading so much of the stuff, in fact, that I never actually made a conscious decision to mash that type of thing into my work. It seemed completely natural, and it was only after I’d finished that I stepped back and thought, “Dear God, what have I wrought?”

In retrospect, it seems like a good fit. Urban fantasy tends to draw lightly from each of noir and horror to begin with, lifting tropes with gleeful abandon and putting them to its own evil uses. I think I might just have cranked that dial up more than is typical, especially from the noir side. The bad guys aren’t all-powerful, and the good guys are crooks, and while the characters spread out quite a bit along the good-evil spectrum, nobody’s hat is exactly white. The characters are flawed, often frightened or desperate, and sometimes they make bad decisions.

Anyway, having steeped myself in that type of reading, that first sentence rattled loose from my keyboard. She drove west, foot to the floor, trying not to look at the thing in the passenger seat.

What next? Well, I knew that I wanted to work with a larger cast than I had in the past. There would be a central character, but instead of a lone figure, she’d be part of a group. The heist setup practically wrote itself. It just needed one more thing—motivation. Why should a reader be sympathetic to a bunch of thieves?

There are lots of ways to make this work in typical crime fiction, but with fantasy, I had a broader palette to work from. Make the main character see the future, I thought. Just glimpses. Hallucinations, really, superimposed on and indistinguishable from her regular perceptions of reality. Then make them get wildly, horribly out of control if she doesn’t keep them in check with a grotesquely expensive black market concoction. Poof, there it was: A great reason for her to need stupid amounts of money, combined with a plausible reason for her success at a difficult, illegal, and typically unhealthy occupation.

Of course, everybody knows that the heist at the center of a good heist story is doomed to go wrong… but now I’m veering off origins and on to spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that.


The book is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon or at local booksellers. Check it out.


*Editor’s note: Origins is a semi-regular feature where writers can tell my audience about how they came up with their books. I try to largely concentrate on science fiction and fantasy writers, but, if you are interested in writing a piece on your book, let me know.