Plotting and Writing a Mystery with Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written more than 30 mysteries in four bestselling series and she generously shared writing tips with a bunch of mystery writers.

Her tips included:

  1. Writing is an art, and it’s also a business. Know your competition! This could be a challenge given there are 1,400 mysteries published traditionally each year.
  2. Know your genre. Are you writing a cozy (no violence or sex), psychological suspense (the character is tested to the limit), hard-boiled (tough view of the world) or soft-boiled, which is also called a traditional mystery (think Sue Grafton)?
  3. The first chapter needs plot movement. Something has to happen – and quickly. If you want to learn to plot, she recommends creating a chapter by chapter plot summary.
  4. What is your point of view? She said writing with a third-person narrator is the most popular view in mysteries.
  5. Are you writing a stand-alone mystery or a series? She noted that thrillers tend to be stand-alone books. Whatever you write, Elaine recommends not killing off popular characters. She said, “Murder with restraint.”
  6. The middle is the most dangerous part of the book. “You need to have surprises,” Viets said. “You have to keep the plot moving with plot twists and red herrings.”
  7. Each chapter should end with an unanswered question or with a cliffhanger so the reader will want to go to the next chapter.
  8. The main character has to have a private life and a flaw. “Wounded people look for answers,” Viets said.

Do Your Clues Add Up?

Elaine VietsI sometimes take for granted what I know, at least as it relates to crime.

Don’t worry: I’m not a criminal, but I did spend more than a decade as a spokesperson for a law enforcement agency.

Now that I am writing mysteries, I sometimes forget to include the details that will make the story stronger — the very details I learned on the streets.

Fortunately, I’m a member of Sisters in Crime, and we recently heard from Elaine Viets, who has written more than 30 mysteries in four bestselling series.

Crime details she reminded me about included:

  1. A privacy screen prevents people from gawking at the body. I was always astounded at the number of individuals hanging around a crime scene.
  2. Clothing gives you an idea of lifestyle but it can’t be used for identification. Do you ever switch clothes with a sibling? Think about it.
  3. You can’t give family members all of the details of the murder. Initially, they are suspects, too.
  4. It is blood spatter, not splatter.
  5. Clues might include whether the lights are on or off or whether there is mail in the house or food in the refrigerator.
  6. Bodies can be identified many ways, including through dental records, X-rays (reveal broken bones), fingerprints, DNA, implants (which carry serial numbers) and tattoos.

I need to go back and investigate my crime scene details.

Where Authors Write

I’m fascinated when I watch a movie or TV show and someone is curled up on a couch writing. That doesn’t work for me. I’ve tried it. I need a pillow on which to prop the laptop. But then the pillow wobbles, and I have to readjust it. My legs get tired of the position, and I have to stretch. Before I know it, I’m doing yoga on the couch and no writing is happening.

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Where you write matters. (Photo by Cynthia Price)

My best writing is done sitting at a desk with few distractions. And yes, sometimes that means I don’t write, but I clean the desk. Once the surface is clear, I happily write away.

Of course, if I’m really struggling to focus, I can find distractions. That’s when I like to go elsewhere. On occasion, a coffee shop works. Usually, though, I go into the stacks at the Library of Virginia and find a desk. I stay for about three hours and write the entire time. I’m always amazed by how much I accomplish in that time.

I was curious to know where others write so I reached out. Here’s what I learned:

Javacia Harris Bowser, founder and editor of See Jane Write, a website and community for women who write and blog, said, “I probably do my best writing in my home office surrounded by the art and affirmations I’ve put on the wall to inspire me.”

She also is a freelance writer and blogger, and added, “I trained myself long ago to be able to write whenever, wherever.” Don’t be surprised if you see her writing on her phone while waiting for a food order!

She inspired this post with one of her own, 365 Blog Post Ideas and Writing Prompts (see prompt #36).

One of my favorite authors and friend, Adriana Trigiani shared: “I do my best writing at my desk at home, in Greenwich Village. I like a sunny day when the light comes through the window; but I also love a rainy day, as it slows me down, and imposes a natural rhythm on the work.”

By the way, be sure to check out Adriana’s “Very Valentine,” which airs June 8 on Lifetime.

Heather Weidner, author of the Delanie Fitzgerald mysteries, said, “My most favorite place to write is on the beach.” I have to agree with her on that one.

Of course, she said most of her writing is done in an office that she shares with two crazy Jack Russell Terriers.

Christine Ennulat, a content manager by day, author around the edges, said, she, too, liked to write first thing in the morning in a “dog-eared blue chair in my living room, before anyone else is up.” You will also find her writing while walking her dogs (aided by a voice recorder app on her phone).

Marianne Wolf-Astrauskas said she writes “long after everyone in the house is fast asleep.” She “cherishes the silence at night.”

Marianne, who is the current president of the National Federation of Press Women, especially enjoy researching and writing about the dynamic women who were the founders of both the Illinois Woman’s Press Association and NFPW.

“Seeking clues to their histories is best done after the moon rises and the neighborhood is quiet,” she said. You can learn more about her writing at her website.

Where and when do you do your best writing?

Cy Wakeman’s Ditch the Drama

What would “great” look like?

It’s a question that Cy Wakeman asks her staff and her clients. She asks the question because the average person spends 2.5 hours per day in drama.

She identifies three sources of drama –

  • I hired it
  • I allowed it
  • I am it

Most of us don’t want to admit we are a source of drama, but if we look closely, we’ll likely discover we play a role.

To help individuals overcome the drama, Cy leads a digital 30-day “Ditch the Drama” program, which I recently completed for the second time. I find it inspirational and a good reminder of how important it is to step up. Last year, my team participated.

SympathyPart of ditching the drama includes learning resilience, which you develop by facing a challenge instead of blaming your circumstances.

She encourages leaders to use empathy and not sympathy with their teams. “Sympathy soothes the ego by agreeing with its narration and assigning blame,” Cy said. “Empathy bypasses ego, shares an observed reality, and makes a call to greatness.”

EmpathyAnother point she emphasized is to separate the facts from your story. Too often we make up stories about our reality, and those stories cause suffering.

To overcome drama, Cy said individuals should —

  • Expand their network
  • Explore what’s exhausting them
  • Reflect
  • Say yes to new opportunities.

In meetings, she encouraged individuals to add their expertise and not their opinions. “Opinions are often used to stop the action and talk about why it won’t work,” she said.

She also said it’s important to recognize the reality of our constraints and to stop enabling poor behavior.

Another point she made is to choose to be engaged. “What is one thing I could do to help right now?” she asked.

The 30-Day Challenge is not easy, and it’s easy to misstep or step down. That’s when Cy encourages us to redirect our energy.

Why I Won’t Marie Kondo My Books

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Photo by Cynthia Price

I am a semi-practitioner of Feng Shui, Marie Kondo, minimalism, and anything to do with making my environment Zen.

Books, though, will always hold a special place and are not likely to be removed.

As an author who aspires to be published, I am inspired by the authors I meet. I enjoy hearing what drew them to writing, where they find their characters, when they write, and where they write.

I enjoy attending author lectures and book signings. I’ve become quite savvy at navigating the queue for the book signing so that I’m not waiting hours.

Almost every author I have met has not only signed my book but has offered writing tips, suggestions to find an agent, and groups to join.

I learned about Sisters in Crime through Janet Evanovich. It was many years later before I connected with the group but I always knew I would because she had recommended them.

Whenever I see Adriana Trigiani she reminds me that the best writing advice is simple, “Write!”

At a Malice Domestic conference, I bumped into Michael Connelly and, to make a long story short, he paused to chat with me for about five minutes. This was when he only had a few books to his name and their was no Prime show called, “Bosch.” He didn’t hesitate to encourage, offer advice, and share a story or two.

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Lisa Scottoline signs my book and offers advice. 

The other week I heard Lisa Scottoline speak as part of All Henrico Reads. I joined a small queue to have my book signed during a pre-event. The next thing I knew she was offering advice as we posed for pictures. Her inscription in my book inspires, too. She wrote, “You go girl!”

As I sit and write, I look across my desk to a bookcase filled with books signed by the authors. No matter how much I downsize, I won’t downsize my inspiration!

Invest in Yourself

If you receive a tax refund this year, what are you planning to do with it?

20190421_173625One of the best things you can do is invest in yourself. Think of it as human capital.

Join a professional group. “The importance of professional organizations is taken for granted,” says Dorie Clark, author of Reinventing You and Stand Out. As a member of a professional group, you have opportunities to develop new skills and to lead an organization, all of which can help your career.

Attend a conference. If your company limits conference attendance, you may want to invest in one yourself. Conferences enable you to stay current about trends and to develop contacts.

Obtain training. Maybe you are thinking about venturing into a different field. Use your refund to learn valuable skills. I plan to work full-time as a coach in the future. I want to be sure I set up my business legally and efficiently so I invested in a full day seminar on how to start my own business.

Pay for tuition. Use the refund to pay for tuition, whether it’s to learn a new skill related to your current job, to learn a skill for another career, or simply to learn about something you’ve always wanted to know more about. Learning is always a good investment.

Investing in yourself can pay off for years because of an increase in your paycheck and greater job stability.

You’re worth it!

How to Successfully Flex Your Networking Muscles

Do you know how many people you are connected to on LinkedIn? When is the last time you reached out to most of them? For that matter, when have you last been in contact with anyone in your network?

I know there are about a dozen individuals in my network with whom I consistently in staying in touch. But after participating in a webinar with Jordan Harbinger as part of the Career MasteryTM Kickstart 2019, I realized I was woefully neglecting my network.

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Photo courtesy of Jordan Harbinger

Fortunately, Jordan, who is a podcaster and radio personality, had great advice to share. The Jordan Harbinger Show “distills untapped wisdom from the world’s top performers.”

To reengage your network, Jordan said to send a text or email, noting where you met the person, asking what’s new with them, and letting them know there was no urgency with a follow-up. Most often the individual responds fairly quickly.

Networking often has a negative connotation, but it shouldn’t because it plays an important role. “If we are not generating relationships, we are not immune to the consequences of isolating ourselves,” Jordan said.

As you get closer to the top of the corporate ladder, networking becomes even more critical. “The more senior you get, the more you have to interact with other companies,” he said.

When you need the relationship, you have an agenda, Jordan said, which is why it’s important to pave the way by being generous with your own social capital. Jordan also suggested making a list of 10 to 15 people you would connect with to solicit their advice if you were laid off. The time to reach out is now when you don’t have an agenda. Jordan said, “It kicks the rust off our networking muscles.”

When you are networking at conferences, he suggested several questions to begin the conversation, including:

  • Why are you at this conference?
  • Who did you come with?
  • What are you looking forward to hearing?

He also encourages individuals to be systematic and opportunistic with network maintenance. I know my network is due for a tune-up. How about yours?