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Author of the young-adult thriller Shock Point, as well as five other mysteries and thrillers.
Statistics for So many books, so little time
Number of Readers that added this blog to their MyJacketFlap: 35
I'm close to finishing a murder mystery. But I realized I needed more suspects for the reader to consider.
While I had presented a number of theories about who did it, several of them weren't concrete enough for the reader to grab onto. For example, the amateur sleuth in the story, Olivia, thinks a hitchhiker might have been the one who killed her parents years ago, or a crazed person they met in the woods. While those are both good possibilities, they're not suspects she can meet now and speculate about.
So I came up with two new suspects. One is Nick, a businessman who is a real estate mogul now, but who back then was a drug dealer. I'm partially modeling him on someone I went to school with, a guy who looked like a success on paper but who hadn't left his past behind. (When I googled him, he turned up in an article about prisoners making wooden toys for children.)
I also decided I wanted to have Ben, a homeless man whose descent into alcoholism and homelessness began around the time of the murders.
Now I could have gone back to the book and thought of places to force Nick and Ben into the narrative, but it turns out they already kind of exist. I had briefly mentioned a guy in a suit and tie at a gathering. He has become Nick and now has a longer description. And I had a homeless guy hanging around in a cemetery in a scene that, now that I think about it, wasn't doing enough anyway. Now he's Ben and he's going to pass on some information.
The businessman can show up at a party I've half written, and the homeless guy can bring in cans to the grocery store where my main character works.
What I'm doing is called reincorporation. Basically, it means bringing back people, places, and things you’ve previously mentioned in your story. It makes your plot feel more organic.So if you get stuck in your story, read back what you have already written and see what you have to work with. I truly believe we
subconsciously leave our future selves clues. That canoe you mentioned your characters walking by? That bus driver your character talks to every morning? The nosy neighbor who only pretends to be watering the flowers? They might just be there for a reason. What does your story already have that can be reincorporated now? What clues did you leave yourself?
This week I'm talking to over a thousand students in Missouri. And I think the most important message I have for them isn't about reading, writing or research. It's about not giving up on your dreams.
I'm not the best writer out there. But - and this is an important but - I one of the most tenacious. I think in most things in life, tenacity can be just as important as talent.
When I first started writing, I took a class with two people named Jane and Tom. They were both better writers than I was. (In fact, Tom used this one clever framing device to describe a character that I have since borrowed a couple of times.) They both approached a few agents, and both got rejection letters.
And both, at least the last I heard, gave up writing.
The thing is, those agents didn't really have the power to tell Tom or Jane they weren't good writers. All they could say was that they did not want to represent those particular books.
The only one who can really take you out of the game - whether that game is writing or acting or dancing - is you.
I have had four times in my career as a writer where it looked like I might never be published, or published again. I still have a big fat file that stinks of sadness that I labelled submissions/rejections. There are probably over 100 items in that file. But I did not take no for an answer. Or at least not "the" answer. I kept pushing, writing new books, tweaking old ones, looking for as much advice and inspiration as I could get.
So if you really want something, be tenacious!
(When I spoke at a school in February, a teacher came up to me afterward and said that after listening to me, she had decided to go to massage school!)
Welcome to YA Scavenger Hunt! This bi-annual event was first organized by author Colleen Houck as a way to give readers a chance to gain access to exclusive bonus material from their favorite authors...and a chance to win some awesome prizes! At this hunt, you not only get access to exclusive content from each author, you also get a clue for the hunt. Add up the clues, and you can enter for our prize--one lucky winner will receive one signed book from each author on the hunt in my team! But play fast: this contest (and all the exclusive bonus material) will only be online for 72 hours!
Go to the YA Scavenger Hunt page to find out all about the hunt. There are SIX contests going on simultaneously, and you can enter one or all! I am a part of the BLUE TEAM--but there is also a red team, a gold team, an orange team, a red team, and an indie team for a chance to win a whole different set of signed books!
If you'd like to find out more about the hunt, see links to all the authors participating, and see the full list of prizes up for grabs, go to the YA Scavenger Hunt page.
Leave a comment on this post to be entered into a separate drawing for a special wilderness whistle with the logo for The Point Last Seen series.
For the hunt, I am hosting Melissa Landers, who estimaes that she has eaten 37 tons of guacamole in her lifetime. Melissa is a former teacher who left the classroom to pursue other worlds. A proud sci-fi geek, she isn't afraid to wear her Princess Leia costume in public--just ask her husband and three kids. She lives outside Cincinnati and writes contemporary romance as Macy Beckett. For more information, or just to say hello, visit melissa-landers.com.
* * *Greetings, scavenger hunters! I’m Melissa Landers, author of the ALIENATED series, and today I’m thrilled to share with you an exclusive excerpt of “Until Midnight,” a free short story releasing in December that takes place after Alienated ends and before Invaded begins. Don’t forget to add “Until Midnight” on Goodreads, because it will also include a multi-chapter sneak peek of Invaded. In the following excerpt, Aelyx has very special plans for his last day with Cara aboard the L’eihr transport.
* * *He knocked on her door, and she answered with a bright smile that told him she’d enjoyed some much-needed sleep. The puffiness had faded from around her irises, leaving behind the clear, vivid blue he’d grown to adore. The affection gleaming behind those indigo eyes made his heart flutter. He loved it when she looked at him this way—like he’d lit every star in the heavens with a mere snap of his fingers.
He loved her.
“Mornin’,” she said, pulling her long red hair into a ponytail. “I’m ready for our mystery date. What’s on the agenda?”
Aelyx lifted a pair of new boots he’d borrowed from storage. “Once you change into these, you’ll find out.”
She glanced at the boots already on her feet. “But—”
“Just take this pair,” he said. “They’re better.”
“If you say so.” She sat down and unlaced her boots, then took a new one from him and tried to put her foot inside. As intended, she didn’t get very far. “Is there something in here?” She tipped the boot upside down until several leafy stalks of l’apoh fell out. Picking one up, she studied it with narrowed eyes. “Is this some kind of alien celery?”
“Surprise,” Aelyx said, splaying both hands for effect. “We’re celebrating Christmas a week early!”
“Okay.” Her ivory brow furrowed. “But what does that have to do with veggies in my boots?”
He shook his head at her. As intelligent as Cara was, she should’ve made the connection on her own. “On Earth, children put vegetables in their shoes on Christmas Eve, then leave them on the doorstep for Santa’s reindeer.”
Her pink lips curved in a smile. “You sure about that?”
“Of course I am,” he said, indicating her laces. “Now, hurry up. Your letterblanket is getting cold.”
“Really, Elire,” he chided. It was her holiday, not his. “The cookie in the shape of an ‘S’ for your family’s last name. You’re supposed to eat it the night before Christmas, but since we don’t have any sweetener, it’s not truly a cookie anyway. More like bread.”
Cara finished tying her boots and joined him in the hallway. “Sounds great, but I still don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”
He fished a bundle of imitation viscum album from his pocket. “Are you familiar with this? You’re supposed to kiss me if I hold it over your head.”
“Mistletoe,” she said with a grin. She lifted his hand above her ponytail and moved close enough to put a hitch in his pulse. “Now that I recognize.”
“Finally.” He was beginning to wonder if he’d misspelled a word in his internet query. But when Cara looped both arms around his neck and rose on tiptoe, his mind shut to everything but the intoxicating sensations of her mouth against his and the tip of her soft tongue skimming his upper lip. He groaned and opened to her instantly. The scent of spiced citrus filled his head, the warmth of her body heating his blood as they explored and claimed each other all at once. Soon he found a better use for his hands, and the mistletoe fell to the floor.
The first is new, the second was written by my friend LK Madigan.
I thought as I got older that things would become more static. After all, I've been married for 28 years (and it's still growing strong). I left my job nearly seven years ago. I thought things would go along more or less the same.
But the whole static thing - that's not happening.
First of all, this week marks the first anniversary of my mother's death. I guess I had known theoretically that my mom could die. But she had been around all my life, been there long before me.
But when she really did die, it rocked my world. After my dad died in 2003, we had become close friends, talked on the phone daily.
I spent the last three weeks of her life with her after she chose to go on hospice. I passed many long hours in the quiet house while she lay on her bed, not really napping, not really anything. The clocks ticked in unison, then opposite each other, then back again.
Toward the end the hospice nurse had me buy diapers, and later mom told me that by the time she needed them, she hoped she wouldn't give a shit. And then we both laughed. She was sharp and funny. The last sound she ever made was a laugh, after my brother claimed I was trying to kill him when the cot I had set up in her room collapsed under him.
There was a lot of laughter. Also I ate and ate and ate, chips, ice cream, weird frozen dinners from Grocery Outlet. And I hid in the laundry room or my old room and wept. I went for runs with tears streaming down my face.
When she died, she was the first person I wanted to tell.
In March, I ran to my kung fu weapons class. And then I attempted to run back again. But my right leg hurt, like someone had jammed my knee backward. (The class had not involved anything that hurt.)
And then I started having a pain run down my leg. So bad I wasn't sure how I would go to Detroit, make it through airports, sleep in a hotel bed, and do a ton of school visits. I managed it, but since then my leg and knee have been not been good.
When I first went to PT back in March, I was told my insurance would cover 77 visits a year. I laughed. Who needs 77 visits? I was sure it would be cleared up in three or four.
That pain down my leg? Not my IT band like I thought. Pinched sciatic nerve. Finally got on top of that after some sleepless nights and many, many sessions of PT.
And I haven't run since that day six or seven months ago. When I tried, my knee always hurt to some degree. I kept asking about when I could run again, ignoring wrinkled noses, suggestions of sticking with walking, or maybe if I got lucky possibly running on a cushioned track. I had been logging a thousand miles a year running in my neighborhood, and I didn't want to change.
I had an X-ray, then recently an MRI. I started asking questions about that MRI. Then wished I hadn't. Arthritis in all three compartments of the right knee. Moderately bad in two. More severe behind the knee cap. But, my doctor said, both knees looked the same in the X-ray (which was news to me, and not good news), so who knew? And he had seen people with bone-on-bone knees, the cartilage completely gone, who didn't feel pain.
I made the mistake of asking about my own knees in that regard. I'm only 55, so I figured the answer couldn't be bad. But it turns out I'm close to bone on bone. My PT and my doctor have talked of trekking poles and canes and even knee replacements. Only I barely heard them because I was mentally curled up in a fetal position. Down the line, I'm thinking, because it hardly hurts now. I'm doing all the exercises, taking all the supplements someone has every suggested: turmeric, fish oil, ginger, Vitamin D, Move Free, tart cherry juice, and pectin dissolved in grape juice.
And I'm definitely not asking about Brazilian jiujitsu or kung fu. Because while I can substitute walking for running, I'm not interested in substituting tai chi for more active martial arts.
Working at home
I've been lucky enough to work at home since February 1, 2008. Before that I had worked in a cubicle or a shared office and written a book a year (while also parenting, cooking, exercising, housekeeping, and wife-ing. I learned that while you will be always be crappy at something, the trick is to rotate your area of crappiness). To a large degree, this was made possible by my husband bringing home a paycheck every two weeks and covering our health insurance.
Working at home is a real luxury, if at times a lonely one. I talk to myself a lot. If I feel really tired, I'll allow myself a short nap. My husband works llong hours, so he's usually gone from the house for over 12 hours at a time.
But Friday is his last day on the job. He's going to do freelance graphic design. Luckily, our kid is going to college in LA, so he can have an office and I can use her room as an office. But what about talking to myself? Will he look down on me if I nap? Will we drive each other crazy?
The first half of this year, I was amazingly productive. I turned in one book February 19, started writing a second book February 20, and turned that book in June 1. Each book was prounounced by the respective editor to be the best book I had ever written for them.
Since June 1, I've made some progress on a new book, but not nearly at the level of the first five months of the year. I was lamenting that fact, but then I realized the first five months of this year sucked. I would lie awake every night doing the math, dividing the number of words I had yet to write by the ever smaller number of days I had left to write those words in. I worked evenings and weekends. I wrote in hotel rooms, on airplanes, and in the passenger seat of cars. I wrote on "vacation." I wrote when I was in the hospital for that misdianosed kung fu injury.
So, I don't want to repeat that, but I do want to try to write more. But as Yoda said,"Do. Or do not. There is no try."
Some things that work for me:
- Pomodoro method. Write for 25 minutes, take a five-minute break, write for 25, 5-minute break, repeat for a total of two hours. Then take a longer break.
- Turn off the Internet using MacFreedom. (You can use this to help you with the Pomodoro method.) The longest I can consistently go is 45 minutes without a break.
- Go to a coffee shop without Internet (or if it has Internet, don’t ask for the password and stick you fingers in your ears if someone else asks for it).
- Go to a hotel - someplace where there is little to do but write. Writing on planes can also be good, especially if you are like me and too cheap to pay for inflight Internet.
- Turn down the screen brightness until you can’t see it or cover the display with a tea towel. This forces you to write without editing.
- Tell yourself, I’m not really writing right now, I’m just getting ready to write. It might seem less stressful and less scary.
- Write when you first wake up. Harder still: No coffee until you’ve written a certain number of words.
- Use writeordie.com to meet a goal of X words in X minutes. I usually set it for 500 in 15 minutes. Half of it will be crap, and some of it will be brilliant.
Methods other people swear by:
What works for you?
- Write in long hand.
- Write with a friend or in group. Be serious about not talking.
- Put on a CD without lyrics and do not get out of the chair until it’s over.
- Do 1k1hour sprints on Twitter.
- Time yourself and see how much you can do. Set a stretch goal for yourself.
- Stop writing and talk through it. Read out loud what you’ve just written, then step away from your and start talking out loud about your topic, as if you are in front of a class room.
- Limit how much you write. Allow yourself to write only for a half hour. Stop as soon as the half hour is over, even if you are in mid-sentence.
- If you don’t know something, do not stop to research it. Write TK or make something up and fix it later.
- Begin each day with a furious 500.
- Before you go to sleep, take five minutes to write down a few notes about what you might write the next day. Feel stuck? Ask this question: “How can I make things worse for my characters?”
- Write a 200 word nightcap.
- Break off in the middle of a sentence.
- Write the easy parts. As soon as you feel you have worked a scene as much as you can, move on to another section that is appealing. And repeat.
- Try doing a mind map on a page of paper turned on its side to help you see new directions to go.
My kung fu school now offically offers Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Today I spent my lunch hour doing BJJ with one guy who weighs 225 and has a green belt in judo and our sifu, who weighs less but knows more.
So far, these have been my stages in doing BJJ:
As in kung fu, sometimes the best thing seems like the worst idea. Like getting closer to the guy holding the knife can be the best thing, or rolling toward the person who was just behind you choking you.
- I don’t know what this guy is doing and it might hurt. Better tap.
- I know what this guy is doing and it hurts. Better tap.
- I know what this guy is doing and I try to get away. But he just cinches in tighter. I tap.
- I know what this guy is doing and I try to get away. But he gets me in a different position. I end up tapping.
- I know what this guy is doing but I have a game of my own. I try something. He gets away. He tries something. I get away. But eventually I can't escape, and I tap.
- Just like the above, only sometimes I get the other guy to tap!
After class, Sifu asked me how many books I had written and how the process has changed over time. The answer was 17 published + 2 done but not yet published + 1 half-done + the 3 I wrote before I got published + the 3 I wrote after I got published but that never found a home.
That equals 26 books! Which explains why I can now write a book in a compressed timeline and without a super-clear idea of where it's going and still pull it off. So the more you write, the more you know about writing. And the more you grapple or do kung fu, the more you know about grappling or kung fu down in your marrow, deep down past thought. The more you trust the process.
Like in my current WIP, The Girl I Used to Be, I needed this character Jason to be a tweaked-out trucker. And I could write him tweaked out and paranoid or I could write him talking to his ex-wife about who might have killed their old friends years ago, but I couldn't write both parts of the chapter. They refused to go together, even though it said in my outline that that should happen. And I realized I had to listen to my characters. Like there was no way if Jason acted that crazy that Heather was going to give him the kids for the week, no matter what their custody agreement called for. Also, they wouldn't have discussed anything. They would have been at each other's throats. And once I trusted my gut and stopped thinking and stopped insisting the book had to follow my outline and just wrote, it worked itself out. Just like going into grappling and thinking I am going to do this one cool thing I want to do and missing plenty of opporutnities to other great things and never even doing your butterfuly choke.
Every day or at least every month, I'm getting to be better at kung fu/BJJ/writing. But I don't think I'll ever be this good:
I got exciting news this week! Scholastic has bought a bunch of copies of The Body in the Woods, the first in my new series. Girl, Stolen and The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die have been Scholastic bestsellers, so I'm hoping this book meets the same fate.
I got the idea in April 2012 when a friend told us her teen was a volunteer with Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue. Our local SAR does what all SARSs do—find people lost in the wilderness—but ours is unique in two respects. First, it is an all teen-led organization. Adults can volunteer, but they can't be elected to leadership positions. Second, about 30% of what these teens do is search for evidence at crime scenes. Evidence they have found has been credited with helping solve dozens of murders. The more I learned, the more I was sure I had found what I had long sought: a realistic hook for a teen mystery series. The teen volunteers receive about 300 hours of training. They meet every Wednesday evening as well as go on weekend outings once a month. I have gone to trainings with them, most recently a unit on "man tracking," which is what they call it when you follow someone's tracks. It's a real art, and the only clue that someone might have been there can be as small as a broken twig or a few grains of sand on top of a leaf. (I told folks at my kung fu school that I was learning to man track and another lady said, "Oh, don't worry, honey, I can set you up with somebody!")
How to write about something you
don't know much about
I stared first where I always start: at the library. I checked out books about Search and Rescue. I even bought a few manuals (which were expensive, even if they weren't that much bigger than a book. I don't understand why textbooks and such always priced so much higher.)
I interviewed the girl who was a volunteer, and she showed me all the things you have to carry in your pack and on your person when you are called out for SAR. After signing a criminal background check, I started going to meetings, including an orientation meeting, where I took notes and talked to people. But the best thing I did was to make the acquintance of Jake K., a guy in his early 20s who had volunteered for SAR since he was a teen. Like many SAR volunteers, SAR is Jake's passion. But he's also willing to answer a million questions by email.
And slowly I found my way to a story. Actually I found my way to ideas for about a dozen stories, but i picked one and worked on that.
First up: the Body in the Woods
Alexis, Nick, and Ruby have very different backgrounds: Alexis has spent her life covering for her mom’s mental illness, Nick’s bravado hides his fear of not being good enough, and Ruby just wants to pursue her eccentric interests in a world that doesn’t understand her. When the three teens join Portland County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue, they are teamed up to search for a autistic man lost in the woods. What they find instead is a dead body. In a friendship that will be forged in danger, fear, and courage, the three team up to find the girl’s killer—before he can strike one of their own.
Next in the series: Blood Will Tell
This last weekend, I turned in the final draft of the next book in the series. The working title was Blood Will Tell. The amazing thing is I think the publisher kept it. I think the last time that happened was 10 years ago.
In Blood Will Tell, Nick, Alexis and Ruby are well on their way to being full-fledged members of Portland’s Search and Rescue—and to being friends. When a woman is found stabbed to death, their team is called out to search for evidence. Suspicion begins to fall on a guy who lives nearbyr, an awkward kid who collects knives, loves first-person shooter video games, and doodles violent scenes in his school notebooks: Nick Walker. As the evidence against their friend mounts, Alexis and Ruby must decide where their loyalties lie—even if it puts them in danger.
Awards and honors
- A Junior Library Guild selection.
- Kirkus: "A fast-moving and well-constructed mystery... A quick, thrilling read that doesn’t skimp on characterization."
- Publishers Weekly: "The author’s expertise at plotting a murder mystery and knowledge of police procedure are evident."
- School Library Journal: "A pervading sense of threat and danger."
- VOYA: "Henry has created not only a gripping mystery, but rich and detailed characters as well."
Click here to read the first chapter
For Alexis Frost, Nick Walker, and Ruby McClure, it all started with a phone call and two texts. It ended with fear and courage, love and loathing, screaming and blood. Lots of blood.
* * *
When the classroom phone rang in American history, Alexis Frost straightened up and blinked, trying to will herself awake as the teacher answered it. She managed to yawn without opening her mouth, the cords stretching tight in her neck. Last night had been another hard one.
“Alexis?” Mrs. Fairchild turned toward her.
“Yes?” Her heart sped up. What was it this time? The possibilities were endless. None of them good.
“Could you come up here, please?”
Mrs. Fairchild was looking at Alexis as if she was seeing her in a new light. Had it finally happened, then, the thing she both feared and longed for? Had something happened to her mother?
* * *
Nick Walker’s thumbs were poised over the virtual keyboard of the phone he held on his lap. He was pretending to listen to Mr. Dill, his English teacher, while he was really texting Sasha Madigan, trying this angle and that to persuade her to study with him tonight. Which he hoped would mean lots of copying (on his part) and lots of kissing (on both their parts).
The phone vibrated in his hand. Mr. Dill was busy writing on the board, so Nick lifted it a little closer to his face. It wasn’t a reply from
Sasha but a message from his Portland Search and Rescue team leader.
Search in Forest Park. Missing man. Meet time 1500.
His first SAR call-out! He jumped to his feet.
“Nick?” Mr. Dill turned and looked at him over the top of his glasses. “What is it?” Mr. Dill had a lot of rules. He had already complained about Nick’s habit of drawing—only Mr. Dill called it doodling—in class.
Nick held up his phone while pointing at it with his other hand as if he had been hired to demonstrate it. “I’m with Portland Search and Rescue, and we’ve been mobilized to find a man missing in Forest Park. I have to leave now.”
“Um, okay,” Mr. Dill said uncertainly. Someone in Wilson High’s administration had had to sign off on Nick being allowed to join searches during the school day, but maybe the information hadn’t filtered down to his teachers.
No matter. Nick was already out the door.
He just hoped someone from class would tell Sasha. A text wouldn’t do it justice.
Nick Walker, called out on a lifesaving mission.
* * *
Ruby McClure felt her phone buzz in her jeans pocket. She waited until the end of chemistry to check it.
Fifteen hundred made so much more sense than three P.M. Ruby preferred military time. No questions about whether “nine” meant morning or night. No having to rely on context. No one getting hung up on whether 1200 had an A.M. or a P.M. after it, which was a ridiculous idea because A.M. meant “ante meridiem” and P.M. meant “post meridiem” and meridiem was Latin for “midday,” and twelve noon was midday itself.
It was 1357 now. Which meant she had an hour to get home, change into hiking clothes, pick up her SAR backpack, and meet the rest of the team at the Portland sheriff’s office.
Piece of cake.
Ruby pulled out the keys to her car as she walked to the office to sign herself out. On the way, her phone buzzed again. It was Nick, asking for a ride.
I love all things zombie. 28 Days Later. 28 Weeks Later. That great book, The Girl with All the Gifts (you must read it!). And of course, The Walking Dead, which I've been watching since the first episode aired. And then there's Zombies, Run!
Zombies, Run! is a phone app that lets you run for your life from a horde of zombies.You can use it walking or on a treadmill, but I use it to run (until my recent ouchy knee, anyway. Now I walk). You listen to a storyline (you're Runner 5 and you are sent out on various missions) that is interspersed with your own music. My favorite part is that you can turn on zombie chases that last for a minute. If you don't go 20% faster than you were before the chase started, then the zombies close in. Interval training, anyone?
But now I love Zombies, Run even more because I wrote Episode 43 in Season Three!
It all stared when I was listening to an episode about nine months ago. In the episode, the survivors (who are all English because the game is set and taped in England) had made contact with survivors in Toronto. And the person they made contact with said that in the pre-zombie-apocolypse days, she had been a poet and novelist. Then she said her name was Margaret Atwood. I laughed out loud in the middle of my dead-quiet early morning neighborhood. I just figured Atwood was famous enough they could "borrow" her. But the more the character playing Atwood talked, the more I realized it might actually be Atwood. When I got home, I googled and it was her!
So I tweeted about it, and Naomi Alderman, who created the app and is a novelist in her own right (which is how she knows Atwood), responded and asked if I wanted to write an episode. You can see how long I took to respond.
But how do you write what is basically a radio play? It was tough! Nothing but dialog and maybe a few sound effects (mostly zombie moans). If you want listeners to "see" things in their imagination, then one of speakers has to describe it. "Do you see that pine tree up ahead?" or "It's behind the zombie with the missing arm."
The other thing that made it had was that I was basically writing a mission that was about 50 missions ahead of where I was. There were references that needed to be woven in to events and people I didn't have any knowledge of. That's where Naomi came in.I did a couple of drafts, but she took the last draft and wove in the continuity.
The second half of Season 3 was released a few weeks ago, so of course I had to listen to my mission even if it was way out of order. You can't imagine what a thrill it was to hear my words being said by voices (Phil Nightingale as Sam Yao and Eleanor Rushton as Janine) that I would recognize anywhere.
If you would like to hear a teeny-tiny snippet, check out my website: http://www.aprilhenrymysteries.com (scroll down the page a bit)
This was the fifth year of the Writers Police Academy. I've been to four, so you can tell how much I love it. The first year, most of the attendees hadn't been published. I remember looking around thinking, "Why isn't everyone here?" Now the event sells out in a few hours.
Where else are you going to be able to:
This year I won the jail tour. This included a stop in the Seg Unit. Prisoners shrieked and shouted obscenities, pounded on the plexiglas and metal doors, stared and made gestures. The deputy said, "Don't worry. We are perfectly safe." But of course I had seen enough horror movies to know that you NEVER say that.
- ask questions a Secret Service agent
- hear a guy who spent two years deep undercover with the Mongols motorcycle gang (and said frankly that he would never have done it if he knew how it would blow his family up and put a price on his head - forever)
- put on a firefighter's turnout and work a fire hose
- watch how firefighters and EMTs handle a mass casualty accident
- search a building (and maybe get "killed" if you don't search well enough
- talk to an expert in biological weapons
- learn how forensic artists work their magic
- hear from a domestic violence investigator
- watch experts breach doors with explosive devices
- have drinks with all the experts in the bar at night
- use a firearms training system and learn what it's like to make life or death decisions in a split second
- watch divers recover evidence underwater
- and a million more things
I know it's Labor Day, not New Year's, but I'm declaring it officially the start of a new year. This last year was the hardest year I have ever had in my life. Good things happened too, I'm not saying that, but I would trade those good things to reverse some of the bad. A year ago today, I was involved in a horrific car accident, then moved home and took care of my mom while she was on hospice, and then ended up in the hospital.
We were driving to dinner. September 1, 2013. I had my hand on my husband's knee and we were smiling and talking about nothing.
Past his shoulder suddenly: a dog. Appearing so out of nowhere it's like magic. A black lab running flat out toward us. Pink tongue streaming behind. Black leash streaming behind.
It looks totally happy. Happy and clueless.
No time to scream. No time to brake. No time to react.
A second after we first see it, the dog and car meet just past the driver's side front bumper.
And then we are screaming.
We pull over in the gravel, still screaming. It has to be dead. It has to be. Oh my god. It seems like we are a long ways away, blocks and blocks, but later I see it's not even half a block.
I get out. It's worse than I thought.
Not one dog, but two.
Two dogs lying on their backs in the street, paws in the air.
I've never seen dogs lying like that. Cars are already stacking up. A young man kneels by one, a young woman by the other. Screaming, crying, begging. What will these people think of us? We killed their dogs.
As I get closer, I can see they are street kids. The girl with red-gold dreads and pants made of patches. The guy with red-gold hair and a black T-shirt. (I later found his picture online.) They carry their dogs to the side of the road. The guy is begging. "Aldo! Aldo!" The black lab is moving a little. And then it dies.
The little dog is still alive and whining.
I try to look up Dove Lewis, the emergency animal hospital, on my phone. I keep typing the wrong letters, and the harder I try the worse I get. The lady who answers says to bring the dogs in. I tell my husband to get the Subaru.
These two kids are wailing. Stumbling from one dog to the other, shaking, weeping so hard that snot runs down their faces.
The guy lifts the lab into the back - even though we all know it must be dead - and then climbs in beside it. The girl sits in the back with the little dog and I pick up their two huge packs (they were setting down their packs when they lost control of the dogs) and bag of groceries and somehow manage to shove them all in the car.
And then we drive. Too fast. I keep telling my husband to be careful, that the guy is just loose back there.
Otherwise, the car is mostly quiet. The guy is curled over the dog, weeping soundlessly. The girl is trying to reassure the little black and white dog, named Karate Kid. Neither of these two are that much older than our daughter. But somehow they've gone from being someone's precious babies to two kids living on the street with their dogs.
At the vet hospital, a tech in blue scrubs comes out to the parking lot, puts her hand to the lab's neck and shakes her head. She's a tall girl, broad-shouldered, and she manages to carry his body in by herself. Three hours later, we are looking at X-rays of the smaller dog. (It turned out that another car actually hit him.) The ball on one hip joint has been turned into paste. Everything has been pushed to one side.
And after they say goodbye to both dogs, both kids stagger back out into the waiting room. Eyes nearly swollen shut with weeping. We were strangers thrown together, sharing a nightmare.
Becoming an orphan
Eleven days later, I drove down to my home town on a few hours sleep. I had gotten back from a business trip to North Carolina and New York City the night before. My mom had declared that September 12 was when she was going on hospice. She had congestive heart failure and interstitial lung disease and had been put on oxygen a few months before.
I think she had hoped that the magic of going on hospice would cause her to die right away. But then the hospice nurse said she might live for months. My mom and I exchanged horrified glances while the nurse prattled on, oblivious. It took her a long time to figure out that Mom wanted to die and soon.
For years, my mom has been dying on the installment plan. She was ready to die. There was nothing unsettled, nothing unsaid. She thought it was funny when, after she had decided she would go on hospice, her fortune said, "You are soon going to change your present line of work." She firmly believed in God and and afterlife, although she had no preconceived ideas about what it would be like.
When you hear hoofbeats, don't look for zebras
Doctors have a saying. "When you hear hoofbeats, don't look for zebras." In other words, it's probably a cold, not a rare fatal virus.
Or in my case, just before Christmas when my leg turned red and started swelling up, it was probably cellulitis. And when it didn't respond to three different antibiotics, they decided it was MRSA cellulitis, and I ended up in the hospital for three days. In case I was contagious and might pose a danger to people who were already physically sick, they put me on the psych unit. Let's just say, that was interesting. Then I had a rare reaction to IV Vancomycin called hand-foot syndrome. First my hands and feet felt like they were on fire. Then eventually all the skin peeled off. Oh, and somewhere in there, the doctor thought I had a blood clot in my heart that was throwing off bits. It was a month or so of suck.
I did a LOT of lying on my back, staring at white acoustical ceilings, and crying. And wondering whether I would lose my leg or die. I actually came out okay (except a scar from a biopsy). It turns out that an errant kung fu shin clash probably led to something called traumatic panniculitis (dermatologist's theory) or a crush injury (orthopedic doc's theory). Unfortunately, even though everyone eventually agreed I never had cellulitis, they couldn't agree on what I did have, so I coudln't be featured in the NY Times' Think Like a Doctor series. I couldn't even persuade the hospital to not charge me my copay, since they never tested to see if I had an infection.
Write or die
I like that program, Write or Die, for forcing you to write, forcing you to create instead of criticize or dither.
This past year was write or die for me. I turned in a book February 19th. February 20th I started a new book and turned that in June 1, despite doing school visits and events in St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago and Houston. Both editors said the books were the best I had ever written. And I sold a new book over Memorial Day. I'll finish it in November.
So that's it. The highlights of my year. I hope to have a much quieter one this year.
What happens when you try to be a mom and a wife, and have a full time PR job and write a book a year?
It ain't pretty.
But there is one secret. You will at times be a crappy writer, a crappy mom, a crappy housekeeper, a crappy cook, a crappy wife, and a crappy exerciser. The secret is to make sure you rotate your area of crappiness.
When I still had a day job, I was on the go constantly, and as a result, I often left my brain behind.
In the flipper of flapjacks part of my life, I became a not very good housekeeper or cook. I learned you can clean pretty much any area of the bathroom with a wet piece of toilet paper. When she was three, my daughter told me we didn't have to pick up the living room, that we could simply "step over" stuff. This became my new mantra. And when it came to cooking, there was the time I made my famous cinnamon rolls and grabbed the chili powder instead of the cinnamon. Did you know you can wash dough?
Hooray for Literacy!
I basically spent a good part of my life playing catch-up, never quite hearing what anyone said. I was always multi-tasking. I was in the middle of doing something else about a dozen years back, when I was asked to attend an event. I was in the process of saying no, when she mentioned it was for adult literacy. My imagination caught fire. Now here was an event I could get behind: adults who had just learned to read. I said yes and immediately went to work preparing my talk. When I showed up, I was surprised to find 200 people. All of them looked middle class. I mentally berated myself for stereotyping folks. As I looked around the room, I was thinking, "Wow! Just a few weeks ago these folks couldn't even read a street sign." There was a bookseller there, and I was concerned that all of the books she had were novels. I asked why she didn't have some smaller, less intimidating books. This was about five minutes before I was to go on stage to address the crowd. I had my speech all planned out, one that praised their courage. The bookseller looked at me like I was nuts. The event, she explained, was part of the library's summer reading program. Any adult who checked out six books over the summer was eligible to come. It encouraged adults to read. So there I was, with a stack of index cards addressing the completely wrong issue.
Keys, keys, who's got the keys?
In the first three years after my first book was published:
Panties in a twist
- I lost my keys.
- I left them in my car.
- I drove my ancient Subaru, which had optional four-wheel drive for use in the snow, in four-wheel drive at freeway speeds, and wondered why it was handling funny.
- I drove back from the mall, complaining loudly to my daughter about people who drove cars that obviously needed a tune-up, when finally my daughter pointed out to me that the bad burning smell was coming from our car. I had left the emergency brake on.
On DorothyL, a listserve for mystery fans, there was a big argument a few years back. One person accused another of getting their panties in a twist. Others chimed in with different versions of this (in England they say "knickers in a knot"), while some felt it was a rude thing to say at all. In the middle of all this I was having one of those crazy days I often had. All day I had the nagging sensation that something was wrong, but I wasn't sure what it was, and I didn't have time to think about it. About three in the afternoon I was in the restroom when I glanced down between my legs. There was a tag in the crotch of my panties. A tag that is normally on the side. I realized I had put my underwear on sideways that morning. I had one leg in a leg hole, one leg in a waist hole, and one leg hole around my waist. Which was why I wasn't comfortable.
But looking down I did realize one thing. It is possible to get your panties in a twist.
Three years ago, I read a news story that I new immediately would make a great jumping off point for a new book.
It was the winter of 1985 when Diana Robertson was killed, and near her body on a snow-covered Lewis County logging road was a manila envelope with the handwritten words, “I Love You Diana.”I couldn't stop thinking about what might have happened. And what it would be like to grow up thinking your dad probably killed your mom - and then to learn that wasn't true at all. I started working on my version of the story right away, but a few things intervened, like other deadlines, starting a new series, and taking care of my mom while she was dying. I took chapters of it to my critique group, but it didn't meet very frequently, so I made slow progress. But the story stayed with me. It's about half-written. I moved the story to Southern Oregon, where I grew up. I know the answer to my imaginary puzzle, and it's surely not going to be the answer that happened in real life. I treat real-life inspiration the way Law & Order did - you might recognize the initial set up, but that's it. This spring, I gave my agent a short description. What follows is about half of it. The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry
The case was perplexing, and police later found her 2-year-old daughter outside a Spanaway K-Mart store. But she didn’t provide any clues, and reportedly told investigators her mommy was in the trees.
Police said the girl’s father, Michael L. Riemer Jr., might have been the man responsible for the murder. But they couldn’t find him, despite an initial search with more than 50 people, statewide news coverage and a 1989 feature on “Unsolved Mysteries.”
On Tuesday, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office confirmed a skull found there last month was that of Riemer, who hadn’t been seen in nearly 26 years. [Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
I used to be a little girl.
Now I’m 17 and an emancipated minor.
I used to be blonde.
Now my hair is brown.
I used to be named Ariel Benson.
Now all of my ID says Olivia Rinehart, the last remnant of an adoption that didn’t work out.
I used to have a mom and dad. And then I had a long string of adults who wanted me to call them some variant of that.
Now I’ve got no one.
I used to think I was the child of a killer and a murder victim.
Now I know I’m the child of two victims.
I used to hate my dad and pity my mom. Now I only have one desire: to find the person who killed them both.
I was three years old, dirty, covered in scratches, and all alone, when a sales clerk found me curled up in a Wal-Mart, sleeping on a blanket of white cotton “snow” underneath an artificial Christmas tree.
The authorities didn’t figure out who I was until someone recognized me from a photo of a family missing nearly 200 miles away, in Southern Oregon. A mom and a dad and a little girl, who had gone out in the woods to look for Christmas tree. When they asked me where my parents were, all I could tell them was, “Mommy’s dancing.”
Two weeks later hunters found my mom’s body in the forest. She had been stabbed to death. And my dad—who had never been married to my mom and sometimes fought with her—was missing. Later, his truck was found parked at the Portland airport, wiped clean of prints. Everyone figured they knew what had happened: my dad killed my mom, dropped me off, and then ran away.
Today, nearly fourteen years later, the cops came to tell me that they had finally located my dad.
And he wasn’t hiding out under an assumed name. All these years, my dad has just been a body in the woods, like my mom.
Or not exactly a body. Not that they can find, anyway. All they have so far is his jaw bone.
And what everyone knows to be true has changed.
This is the truth. The real truth.
Someone killed both my parents. And whoever did it must have thought I was too young to tell on them. So they dropped me off at the Wal-Mart instead of killing me, too.
I had to have spent several hours with the person who murdered my family. But I don’t remember a thing—not about my parents or what happened that day in the woods.
But I’ve started having these dreams. Dreams filled with blood. What if I remember more than the killer thought? And will the person who murdered my parents kill again to keep their secrets hidden?My agent showed my editor. And this was the result:
Last week, we had our floors redone. Behind a built-in drawer, Mark, one of the floor guys, found a cache of toeless hose, which brought back a lot of memories.
In May 2000 I went to Washington, DC, to attend a fan conference called Malice Domestic and to find out if my first book, Circles of Confusion, had one of the big mystery awards, the Agatha Award.
That year, Circles of Confusion was also short-listed for the Agatha Award and the Oregon Book Award. Both the Agatha and the Anthony were for best first novels. It's a lot easier to get on those award lists, because there are probably fewer than 200 first mysteries published each year. After that, there are no "best second mystery" contests. Instead, you are competing against everyone else for "best mystery" - and the competition is much stiffer.
That year about 700 mystery fans, as well as about 100 authors, attended. Every hour there were two or three panels, where four or five authors talked about "Mystery's Bad Girls," or "Humor in the Mystery." And you could also mingle in the bar with your favorite authors and buy them drinks. (I drank more in three days than I have in probably a whole year - that's what happens when you're neither driving or paying.)
It was strange being a demi-celebrity, and having trembling strangers ask if it were okay to take my picture. (Now that everyone carries a phone that doubles as a camera, I hardly ever get asked if it's okay, but this was back in the days of actual film cameras.)
How toeless hose helped me make friends
Since Malice Domestic is always held on the east coast, I knew no one at the conference. And everyone already seemed to be friends, standing in little groups, laughing and joking.
But I had a secret weapon that I wore to the big banquet where they announced the awards. It was the latest thing - toeless pantyhose. My friend Vicki had seen them on Good Morning America, and she said I absolutely had to have a pair to wear with my silver sandals. That way my legs would look smooth (the pantyhose) and I would still have toe cleavage (the toeless part).
I ordered them off the Internet (they were not yet in stores), only to learn they would ship in six to eight weeks - well after the banquet.
I figured it didn't hurt to ask, so I called up and explained what it was for. A team of people at the company Fed-Exed me three pair in a range of shades the day before I left.
At the banquet, I made a point of going up to little clumps of people and showing off my pantyhose and my silver toenails (I still have some polish permanently imbedded on my bathroom floor all these years later). The hose made a great icebreaker.
Find your own toeless hose
I've since realized that most gatherings of people look so intimidating to outsiders. Everyone else appears to be friends and having fun, and you're standing there all alone.
So what you need is a good icebreaker, like toeless hose.
At Wordstock one year, I really wanted to meet the author Stewart O'Nan, because I love his books. There was a party at Weiden & Kennedy for the authors, and I showed up primarily for that purpose. I had googled a photo of him, but he was wearing a baseball cap. So I would go up to groups of people and ask if they had seen Stewart O'Nan.
Everyone said no, but we still ended up talking. I met the most interesting people, ranging from a French guy who had just made a documentary to another author named Stuart to the people who were providing the beer and had no idea what the event was even about.
It worked so well that I've thought of searching for Stewart O'Nan (who actually never came) at every big event.
Or if you are at an event you've attended before, one where you already know people, try reaching out to a few people holding their glasses and smiling uncertainly. You might just make a new friend.
This morning, I was walking (my current substitute for running until my knee decides to be in a happier space) when I looked across the street and saw a man lying on the sidewalk. A couple of people were gathering around him. As soon as the light turned I hurried across to see if I could help.
A thin man in his late 50s with close cropped hair lay on his back. He was wearing running clothes and the white buds of his earphones lay next to his ears. His eyes were open, but unfocused. His skin looked pale. He was breathing rapidly, and with very exhalation he made a noise that was a cross between a grunt and a sigh. A neighbor was on the phone with 9-1-1, who advised giving him an aspirin. The lady ran inside to get an aspirin (makes me kind of wonder if I should keep some in the house - I know they help thin the blood if there’s a clot of some kind).
Another woman said she was his wife and that he had been running and suddenly collapsed. She wore what looked like pink house slippers, so I’m not sure where she came from or if he collapsed right outside where they live. She said he had an implanted defibrillator. She seemed kind of oddly distant from what was going on - not talking to her husband or kneeling by him.
A third woman was kneeling by him. She said she worked in medical imaging and knew CPR (but seemed uncertain of what to do since he didn't need CPR). She had her hand on his wrist and said his pulse was not too bad. A man showed up with a blanket which was put under his head.
We got him half up and I think he managed to swallow the aspirin. He mumbled that his defibrillator had gone off, which might have accounted for how shock-y he looked. And just then, thank God, the fire department showed up (they are first responders in Portland). An ambulance was not far behind.
While I wasn’t particularly scared, I did feel uncertain about what to do, especially since he was breathing but was clearly in bad shape. The last time I took a CPR class was in 1990. And I took an advanced first aid course in college where we learned how to deal anything up to severed limbs. But that was 30 years ago. I’m sure a lot of things have changed.
So what should I/we have done:
- Called 9-1-1 (which was done)
- Sat him in the 'W' position:semi-recumbent (sitting up at about 75° to the ground) with knees bent.
- Told him to chew the aspirin
- Asked him if he had any medications on him
- Monitored and took note of his breathing and pulse rate (the medical imaging lady was checking his pulse only, and I’m not sure if she was noting it)
If he had been or had become unconscious, we should have:
- Shouted at him: 'Can you hear me?' or 'Open your eyes'.
- Gently shaken his shoulders.
If he didn’t respond, checked if he was breathing by putting a cheek right above his mouth and look, listening and feeling for breath.
If he was breathing, we could have put him in the recovery position until help arrived, which is basically turning him on his side and lifting his chin forward to open his airway.
If he hadn’t been breathing, one of us could have put the heel of one hand between his niles, placed our other hand on top of the first, kept our arms straight and used our body weight to do press straight down on the chest at least two inches, 100 times a minute (using the old BeeGee’s song Staying Alive as a guide). There’s no need to do rescue breathing if you haven’t been trained.
My local Red Cross offers a CPR/first aid class. I'm going to sign up.
I used to write books just for me. No publisher was waiting for them (although I certainly had the fantasy that once publishers saw the finished book they would fight each other to publish it). And the books were done when they were done.
Now most of my books - I’ve had 17 published in 15 years - are written under contract, which means they have a fixed due date. (Although I still sneak off to work on a “spec” book now and then, like a married woman making out with some hot guy from her Body Pump class in the parking lot of the gym.)
My current writing process is:
- One year before the book is due: I have plenty of time. And I deserve to relax after how hard I worked to get the last book done. I might make some notes and brainstorm a little. After I clean out the basement.
- Nine months before: This plot idea is intriguing. The characters are starting to seem like real people. Maybe I should create a thorough outline instead of just plunking away at it.
- Six months before: The outline is finished. This is going to be so easy. I should outline all the time! I’ll just take it step by step, like paint by numbers. The book is practically going to write itself now that I have all the hard work done. I think I’ll call my friend and go out for ice-cream to celebrate.
- Three months before: Holy crap! This outline doesn’t work at all. And why do my characters keep doing things I never planned on them doing? This one guy was meant to be a secondary character, but for some reason he thinks he’s the real love interest. And my main character refuses to do this one dangerous thing the outline says she should do. She says it’s a bad idea.
- Two months before: I will never be done in time. Never. The only way I can do it is to write two thousand words a day, every single day. Didn’t manage more than three hundred today? No problem, I’ll make it up tomorrow.
- Two weeks before: There’s too much blood in my caffeine stream. I’m writing like a mad woman. But I can do it. If I just give up on this sleeping thing.
- Due date: There. Finished. Is it any good? I’ve read it over, but to be honest, I have no idea. I hit the send key. I really should celebrate. Or work on that other book that’s due. But how long has it been since I swept behind the couch?
If you’re going to write mysteries, thrillers, horror novels, or many other types of books, you’ll need to decide how to approach writing about violence and physical harm.
There are at least three ways to approach it:
1. Slow it down. Each step makes it clear just how bad it is.
2. Make the readers fill in the blank. Their solutions are usually far more affecting than yours, because they will think of the things that frighten them the most.
3. Underplay it. Use short, simple declarative sentences. Think Hemingway.
A couple of years ago, I was running in my neighborhood when I fell, cracking the bridge of my nose, and scraping my face, hands and knees. I knew it was bad when I saw the expression of two guys I waved down to ask for help. Here are three ways to describe what happened.
Slow it down
“Running up 45th, April’s toe caught a crack in the sidewalk. The next thing she knew, she was in the air. Time slowed down, the way it did when you reached for a glass and knocked it over instead. She got her hands up in front of her as the sidewalk tilted at a crazy angle. Her palms skidded along the dirty concrete, but her momentum wasn't slowed.
Oh no, she thought, not her face! – then there was the solid surprise of her nose meeting the unmoving sidewalk.
And still April fell. Her front teeth hit the concrete, wavered, decided to stay put.
Finally she was still, face down, unmoving on the cool Sunday morning.
Make the reader fill in the blank
One minute April was running, mentally writing her next blog entry. The next thing she knew she was flat on the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong. Her face felt wet.
The woman standing by the side of the road was frantically waving her arms. At least Josh thought it was a woman. Her face. Jesus Christ, what had happened to her face?
Underplay the prose
She ran up the hill. It was a Sunday morning. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
The sidewalk had lifted at an expansion joint. Her toe caught the crack. She fell very hard. She lay on the cement. Maybe she was okay. It was just a fall. She started to move but something grated inside. Her mouth tasted like rust.
Next to her was a bush with white flowers. She stared at it. Her vision was growing dark at the edges. The bush would look good in her garden.
She closed her eyes and was still.
More examples of fill-in-the-blank
I think the fill-in-the-blank idea can be the most powerful of the three. Here are two examples, one short and one long:
Five miles up the road, he opened the window and threw out the first of Karen Reid's teeth.
—The Intruders, Michael Marshall (the book does not say anything else about what he did to Karen Reid - but doesn't your mind supply a few details?)
She swam against the grain of the ocean, using a short and sharp stroke and a smooth kick.
She did not see the murky shape drifting toward her. It was more than half-submerged, and it had eyes. When she barged into it, the silent mass reared up.
Her scream was muted, most of it locked in her throat.
On the beach, her sons threw sand at each other and the man with the device unearthed a nickel. The lifeguard rearranged his legs in a way that the girls below could see the filled harness under his neon swim trunks. A stray cloud blotted some of the sun.
One of the boys pointed with his shovel. "Look at Mommy."
—Widow’s Walk, Andrew Coburn
I’m on a board for people whose write about murder and theft, poisons and fires. In addition to writers, there are a lot of professionals on the board - people who are or have been cops, paramedics, FBI agents, firefighters, PIs, and more.
A writer recently posted a question about what kind of gun her character should get. She said she knew nothing about guns, and she wanted to know what her equally ignorant character would experience if she went to a gun shop and asked for help.
At which point I (and several other writers) chimed in. Why not just go into a gun store and explain what she was working on and ask their advice? This was one real-life situation (unlike questions about, say, the best undetectable poison) where it would be easy to experience it.
And experience will give a writer so MUCH more than reading about it ever would. She’ll be able to describe the shop without trying to google images of “gun shop.” She’ll know the heft of a gun, and the feeling of the grip, learn it’s surprisingly heavy even though parts of it appear to be made out of plastic. There may be smells and even tastes she would not expect. Since her character and the writer herself are both coming from the same place (not knowing much about guns) she’ll be able to ask the questions her character would and hear the answers her character would as well.
I have found that almost everyone likes to talk about themselves and what they do to an interested person. I have interviewed teens, death investigators, DNA experts, and curators. In some cases, I have gone in cold (as I would in the gun situation above). In others, I have done the professional the courtesy of learning as much as I could before I went to them. With Dr. Dan Crane, the DNA expert, for example, it would be a waste of his precious time to sit down and say, “What’s DNA?” Instead I learned a lot on my own and asked about Y-STR and familial DNA testing.
When I was working on the end to The Body in the Woods, I knew it took place in Forest Park. And I knew my bad character would be armed, and my good characters wouldn’t be. They needed something they could use as a weapon. But what? I took the same walk they would have to get into the park, past nice homes, and I photographed everything I thought they might consider for use as a weapon. Real life thought of many more alternatives that I did.
Sometimes people ask me where I get ideas. All you need to do is watch the news, or read a newspaper or online newspaper, or just watch what's happening around you.
Did you hear about the case of the porcelain dolls being left on the doorsteps of girls to whom they held an eerie resemblance? At least eight families received the dolls, and all of the girls were around 10 years old. It turned out that an older woman who attended church with the girls, and she wanted to give her collection away in what she thought would be a fun surprise. But what if someone else was
behind it? Wouldn't that be a great beginning to a book?
Or how about this story from the Oregon coast? A few months ago, KGW reported: "A retired police officer found a decomposed human hand while he was walking along the beach in Gearhart with his 9-year-old granddaughter Friday evening, police said. He moved the hand away from the approaching water before calling police so it wouldn’t wash back into the ocean." In real life, it turned out to be a decomposed seal's flipper.
But what if it hadn't been?
Or how about the clean up on the campus of the National Institutes of Health which turned up vials of live smallpox virus, forgotten since the 1950s. Smallpox is only supposed to be in two sanctioned high-containment labs in the world - and that certainly wasn't one of them.
So what if a bad guy were to figure out there were other forgotten vials?
Or this story, about a local 17-year-old girl who left a message in her journal before vanishing: “If you’re reading this, I’m either missing or dead." (She was
eventually recovered, but it sounds like she was sex-trafficked, told by her abusers that her parents and boyfriend would be killed if she didn't cooperate.)
I'm not sure I would do it from the girl's POV, but what if she had a friend who tried to find her?
Once on my run, I saw a bored security guy standing on the sidewalk outside a condo. He told me the parking garage's gate was broken, and until it was fixed, they would have security stationed outside 24 hours a day. He wasn't armed, just a guy in uniform with a clipboard.
What if he saw something a little strange, a little off, across the street? Not strange enough to require the involvement of the real cops, at least not yet, but enough that he decided to do a little investigating of his own...?
Back in 2005, I started writing a book based on something that really happened: a blind girl who was briefly and accidentally kidnapped when her parents left the keys in the car and someone stole it. Only in my book, the thief kept the girl and she had to figure out how to escape.
My editor at the time felt that kidnapping books were overdone. He suggested I rewrite it from the POV of the kidnapper. That didn't seem right to me. How would readers understand what it was like to be blind? So I kept the book as it was, and my agent sent it out to a bunch of editors. Christy Ottaviano at Henry Holt loved it the way it was.
What I hadn't thought of at all - what I think no one thought of - was that schools like to have students read books about characters with disabilities. So that helped the book to find a wider audience. Also, it's about as clean as a YA can be, which I think also helped. The third thing that helped the book be assigned is that I tend to write books that test out at a fairly low grade level (even my adult books are like that, probably because I used to have to write to a certain grade level when I wrote in health care) and that are about high-interest topics (sometimes known as hi-low books).
I started getting requests for a teachers' guide, and with the help of a teacher, I put one together. You can see it here.
Since it was published, the book has been the winner or a finalist for 9 state awards. Now I get emails every day from kids who have read the book because they were assigned it at school.
Or I see posts on Amazon like this:
A few years back, I found out the secret my grandmother had hidden all her life, a secret that explains all about the kind of woman she was - and maybe about the kind of writer I am. Perhaps I should have guessed there was a secret. As a writer, I know that the way a character acts can be traced to backstory.
My grandmother, Effie Satterwhite, was a bitter, mean woman. But I never thought to wonder why, to think that people don't start out that way. I never thought to question why she didn't marry until she was 32, in 1920, at a time when many of her peers were probably becoming grandparents. If I did give any thought to it, I must have chalked it up to no one wanting to marry such a judgmental person.
Then, four years ago, in an idle moment of Googling, I found her name in an Arkansas State Supreme Court decision. It upheld a lower court's ruling that found my great-grandfather guilty of assault with intent to kill.
According to the court records, when she was 17 and living in Hope, Arkansas, Effie started seeing a man named Jim Wallis. One night they went to an “entertainment,” and returned at 11 pm. The following is from the court transcripts.
"She put her hands against him and pushed him away"
“She started to go in the house, but was stopped by Wallis who reached out his hand and drew her to him and kissed her. She put her hands against him and pushed him away. They walked to the end of the porch, and stood there talking until the clock struck eleven. Wallis looked at his watch and then turned and kissed her again. He then left the house.”
Effie went inside, heard a door open, and then saw her father “going down the steps with a gun in his hands.” She heard the shot, and tried to run to Jim. Her father grabbed her, and said it was all her fault.
Finally he let Effie go to her boyfriend, who lay bleeding in the street. Jim told her that he was sure he was dying.
"Relieve her of her virtue"
At the trial, Effie’s brother testified that a year earlier he had seen Effie and Jim together “in a very suspicious attitude, conducting themselves in what he thought a very unbecoming manner on the front porch.” Gus ordered Effie inside, and told Jim to never come back. But Jim did, the next day, and told Effie’s brother that he loved her. They continued to see each other until the night he was gunned down. He lingered for months, finally dying in a Texarkana hospital.
My great-grandfather’s defense was that he was sure Jim “was trying to seduce his daughter and relieve her of her virtue.” But the jury found that the two intended to marry.
Effie lived with her parents for many more years. How did her family treat her? Her town?
I'd like to do a story that reunites the lovers in present day. A ghost story. Which is different than anything I've done before.
But Grandma Effie's spirit calls to me.
Do you see a family resemblance?
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- Read, read, read.Try well-reviewed books in genres you wouldn’t normally read - fantasy, historical novels, even westerns. Don’t be afraid to put something aside if it’s not working for you - but first try to pinpoint why it’s not working.
- You don’t have to write what you know. Write what interests you. Do I know anything about kidnappings, murders, drug dealers, being blind, assuming a dead girl’s identity? No. But I’ve written books that have gotten starred reviews, awards, and have hit the New York Times bestseller list.
- You can write a book in as little as 20 minutes a day. I know, because I’ve done it. Make writing a habit. Don’t wait for inspiration. Once you are published, you’ll need to make deadlines. Write every day, or at minimum every weekend.If you don’t know what to write about, start by getting a book with writing prompts, like Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg or What If by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.
- You can always edit crap. You can’t edit nothing. Sometimes you have to force yourself to write. Sometimes you’ll find your back against the wall when you need a solution or a resolution to the story. Make yourself write something. Anything. And often what you come up with turns out to be surprisingly good. (Sometimes I use www.writeordie.com to force myself to write 15 or 20 minute.)
- You don’t have to outline - but you can. If you don’t plot in advance, just keep raising the stakes for your characters. Set up initial goals, throw some obstacles in the way, and see if your characters sink or swim. And if your characters do swim, send a few sharks after them!
- Tenacity is as important as talent. Many fine writers have given up after getting a few rejections from agents. I still think about Jane and Tom, people I took a writing class with about a decade ago. They were the stars of our class, far better writers than I was. I was just one of the drones. Both Jane and Tom gave up after getting a few rejections from agents. If they had persevered, I think they would have been published.
- Show vs. tell is something most writers struggles with. In movies and on TV, they can’t tell you anything. Everything is visual ie - they have to show you. How do you know someone is upset, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc.? Watch movies and TV and write down facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures, etc. Use these to describe your own characters when you're writing. This is a good way to learn how to show emotion instead of telling it.
- Revision has gotten a bad rap. It can actually be the most fun. Most of the hard work is done - so you just polish things up, trim away the fat, make characters a little larger than life, and reorder your ideas. The best way to start a revision is to let the book lie fallow for at least a week. A month is better. Six months would be ideal.
- To really see what needs fixing, read it aloud. Yes, all of it. It’s even better if you can read it to someone, even if it’s a toddler or your cat. Or imagine an editor or agent is listening.
- Go to readings at bookstores. You’ll learn something from every writer you hear. You’ll see that published writers aren’t some exotic species. And they’ll be glad to see you even if you don’t buy a book.