The Muddle in the Middle

Somewhere in the middle of my current WIP, I froze with hesitation. It seemed as though I could finish the book within the next fifty pages, and I had one hundred pages to go. Where would I find enough material?

I staved off a full-blown panic attack by realizing this same fear struck me with every book. And each time, I made my word count without a problem. So how do I slug through to the end? And what if you get stuck? How can you take the plot in a new direction?

Raise the body count.
This is especially easy in a murder mystery. Just throw in another dead body. Who is dead and why? Who could have done it? How does this deepen the primary mystery? Could two different killers be involved? What if this victim was your prime suspect? Who does that leave?

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Have an important character go missing.
If a character disappears mid-point in your story, that’s going to disrupt everyone’s plans and theories. Is this person in jeopardy, or are they guilty of perpetrating the crime? Did perhaps one bad guy betray another and do him in? Or is this act meant to manipulate a good person into obeying the kidnapper’s demands? How do people feel about this missing person? Was he loved or despised? How far will the hero go to get him back?

Create a new character who shows up unexpectedly.
What is this person’s role in the mystery? How does his appearance change the hero’s theories? Who was keeping this character’s pending arrival a secret? Is it someone who was presumed dead or who has been missing for years? What tipped this person off that it was time to appear? This would be the time for that secret baby to come to light or the past husband no one knew about or a former girlfriend with a grudge. Or it’s someone who’s heard about the case and wants to cash in somehow. Could they be a fraud? How does his arrival affect the other characters?

Cherry

Build on secrets and motives already present.
If you’ve laid the proper groundwork for your story, your characters have enough secrets, motives and hidden depths you can explore as you move the story along. Write down each loose end as you review the high points and make sure you go down each trail until that thread is tied.

You’ll usually find you have enough material if you just keep writing. Snippets of suspicions your characters mention can be plumped out until laid to rest. So give your people enough layers that peeling the onion takes the entire book. Except just when you thought you knew it all, throw in another twist like one of the points above.

What are your tips for getting through the muddled middle?

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Increase the Chaos. Engage the Reader.

Increase the Chaos. Engage the Reader. by Julie Anne Lindsey

Chaos is one of my favorite things about fiction. This is especially true in a cozy mystery. I truly enjoy the insane amount of juggling required by the heroine. As a woman, I can relate to the pressure and frustration of handling too much- minus the murder investigation, of course – and it’s fun to see the scenarios unfold on someone else for a change. I can relate. It’s no secret women handle unthinkable amounts of responsibilities while maintaining the peace and meeting unreasonable expectations of others. We hold down the household, punch a time clock, volunteer in the community, date, please our family, entertain our friends and so much more. (We really are the more miraculous portion of our species. In my humble opinion). Which is why we all deserve a good book and a break from time to time.

As writers, it’s our job to connect strangers with a character we dreamed up. Chaos is a common ground we can use to our advantage. When I fall into a great new cozy or amateur female sleuth series, I immediately connect with the heroine if she’s got her hands full. I nod along and smile, thinking, man-oh-man am I glad it’s not me this time. My heart goes out to her. It’s hard keeping things afloat, and honestly, the chaos can be pretty entertaining when I’m not on the business end of things. Murder-Comes-Ashore-jpg

As I write each mystery, I want my heroine overwhelmed, well-liked and spread paper-thin. I want readers to feel the pull of hands on her time and person. So, as I plot and scheme a fun new investigation, I ask myself “What do I do every day?” and then “What do my friends do?” What keeps us so busy? The snowball method takes over from there because the short answer is we do too much.

Piling up the trouble is a great writers’ tool. It’s a fun and easy way to increase the chaos and pacing of a story. It keeps the pages going and stops the story from stagnating. I spend extra time on my outlines peppering in all the commitments my heroine, Patience, has to maintain in addition to surviving the wrath of a provoked killer and exploring the leads in her investigation, not to mention all the people she wants to please.

Add responsibilities to connect readers to your heroine. Give her problems they can all relate to, like family and romance. Those things are complicated. Messy. Real.

In my newest release, Murder Comes Ashore, I’ve piled up the everyday things that make a woman bananas. As my heroine pursues her investigation, (the crux of the story), she’s drawn away repeatedly by phone calls from clients, impromptu visits from family and a frustrating love triangle she’d prefer not to think about. She’s running from a killer, volunteering at the grade school and questioning birders about anything unusual they might have seen since the murder. Local law enforcement is running a parallel investigation and they get in her way, too.

Adding reality to the fiction anchors readers to your story. Who can’t related to a boss that expects us to show up on time? Or a sister who takes it personally if you’re five minutes late for dinner? The predicaments don’t have to be fantastical because they’re fiction. Take the things that make you the craziest and share them with your heroine. It is fun to move the burden onto someone else and it bridges the gap between you and women readers everywhere. Hey, it’s no fun when I have to fold laundry, check homework assignments and explain to my mom why I haven’t called all week, but when those things fall to a character, I smile because we share common ground. And us XX chromosome types have to stick together.

If you’re looking for a fun new mystery to cozy up with, I hope you’ll consider my new release, Murder Comes Ashore. It’s packed with chaos and a heroine who understands. Besides, who couldn’t use an island escape right now?

Murder Comes Ashore

Patience Price is just settling into her new life as resident counselor on Chincoteague Island when things take a sudden turn for the worse. A collection of body parts have washed up on shore and suddenly nothing feels safe on the quaint island.

Patience instinctively turns to current crush and FBI special agent Sebastian for help, but former flame Adrian is also on the case, hoping that solving the grisly crime will land him a win in the upcoming mayoral election.

When the body count rises and Patience’s parents are brought in as suspects, Patience is spurred to begin her own investigation. It’s not long before she starts receiving terrifying threats from the killer, and though she’s determined to clear her family’s name, it seems the closer Patience gets to finding answers, the closer she comes to being the killer’s next victim.

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About JulieJulie Lindsey

Julie Anne Lindsey is a multi-genre author who writes the stories that keep her up at night. She’s a self-proclaimed nerd with a penchant for words and proclivity for fun. Julie lives in rural Ohio with her husband and three small children. Today, she hopes to make someone smile. One day she plans to change the world.

Murder Comes Ashore is a sequel in her new mystery series, Patience Price, Counselor at Large, from Carina Press.

Learn About Julie at:

Julieannelindsey.com

What If? Plotting Made Perfect

The words “What If?” are at the heart of every plot. Currently I’m in the throes of plotting my next Bad Hair Day mystery. Having already written the draft of a synopsis, I welcome the “what if’s” that are flying into my brain.

What if the rivalry between ranchers Hugh and Raymond has a personal basis involving Hugh’s dead wife? What if the murdered forest ranger’s spouse had gotten turned down for a loan to start a business? Would that have induced her to take out a life insurance policy on her husband? What if the bad guy is selling his valuable ore to terrorists who resell it in exchange for weapons? What if….?

Once the story elements are in your head, your subconscious goes to work and new ideas keep popping up. Some are viable. Others get discarded as unrealistic. It’s wonderful when you get to this stage because the connections start snapping together. Pieces of the puzzle coalesce into a whole, and your story is ready for writing. But how do you reach this pinnacle of inspiration?

You begin with a story premise. In a mystery, it might be the victim. Who’d want to kill him and why? You sketch the suspects in your mind. Friends, family, and business associates who might have something to gain go on your list. What if suspect A’s wife was having an affair with the victim? And what if the husband discovered their liaison? What if suspect C owed the victim money? Or maybe the victim was extorting money from a colleague, knowing something that would get the guy fired. You examine their motives, seeking the secrets these people would do anything to hide.

Keep in mind that plot is not story. Plot is the background, the secrets everyone is keeping, the motive for the murder, the devious scheme created by the villain. You are creating a tapestry that leads to the opening scene. That’s where the story starts and moves forward.

In a romance, you’ll want to determine the first meet between hero and heroine. They’re attracted to each other but initially sparks fly between them. What if…they had a history together? Or what if she hates him because…? What if they have to work together in order to…?

Or a thriller: What’s at stake? Who is behind the dastardly scheme for world domination this time? Who’s the hero? What resources does he possess? How is he going to hit the ground running? What if…he’s semi-retired and he first gets wind something is wrong when…? He’s recalled to duty? He meets his old girlfriend and she says….? Or what if she’s in trouble? What if he receives a cryptic note from her?

Whenever I get ideas relevant to the plot, I jot them down in a plotting file for that book title. I may use them or not, but this way I don’t lose them.

Being a plotter and not a pantser, I write a complete synopsis before I begin writing the story. This synopsis may go through numerous drafts before I get it right. I pass it through my critique partners and make more changes. I ask my husband to read it so he can evaluate the logic. He’s good at catching things that don’t make sense or need clarification. In the case of my current WIP, I’m consulting my cousin who lives in the area where the story is set. She’s been invaluable in pointing out what works and what doesn’t.

I’ve been doing research on the Internet as I go along. I have a whole page of links and topics to explore. It comes to mind that I’ve been calling the law enforcement officer in the story a sheriff. Is this appropriate to the location? What’s the difference between a sheriff and a police chief? Does a sheriff only work for the county? Does this apply to a state other than Florida? Another item to research goes on my list.

Meanwhile, what other motives might people have for doing in the victim? What hidden connections might exist between my characters? Often these secrets reveal themselves during the actual writing process. New angles spring to life, taking the story in a new direction. But before you get there, you have to lay the foundation.

These story details possess you and take over your mind. You think about them all your waking moments. The plotting threads sizzle, curl, and snap in your brain like writhing snakes until one bites you. What if…?

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Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you figure out these details as you write or before you begin the story?

THE PLOTTING BRAIN

You’ve put aside the first draft you have just finished so you can gain some distance on the work before tackling revisions. It’s a great time to clean your office, sort your files, and write a few blogs. But your mind starts seguing into the next story. 

 Here’s what floated into my mind, even when I’m trying to take a break:

 My next hero is a Tsuran swordsman who has been disgraced on his home world and shunned by his people. What dastardly deed did he commit? He protected a family member by taking the blame for a murder that she’d committed under duress. Thus close family ties mean a lot to him. Now bring in a heroine who is trying to escape from her family obligations. Conflict! 

Add another element. Say our hero, Lord Magnor, is protecting his sister who killed her abusive husband. After he was incarcerated, he learned that she’d been cheating on the man. Betrayal!

Now he’s a sullen, mysterious loner forced to join a team of warriors because they’re the only ones who will accept him. How will the heroine differ? She has to be a people person, outgoing, gregarious, generously reaching out to others. Maybe she gives of herself too much and has overextended her limits. Perhaps her last boyfriend left when she put her dedication to various causes before their relationship. She doesn’t want another man who’ll be so selfish and who lacks compassion. So why does this fierce warrior appeal to her?

Before I delve further into their GMC, what is the hero’s main mission for this story? He has to find the secret weapon that will destroy the evil Trolleks who’ve invaded Earth (it’s a paranormal romance). How will he proceed? Even though I have a list of plot threads from previous installments that have to be tied up in this volume, I’m stumped.

I give up and start cleaning out my files. Oh cool, here’s an article on archetypes. You know what I mean: marriage of convenience, rags to riches, twins, secret baby, prince in disguise, etc. Hey, what if I mix one of these into my story? Imagine the sparks if these two characters had to wed. What if (yes, we plotters use What If? a lot) the heroine enlists Magnor as her fake fiancé? Nah, that’s been done to death already. So how to put a modern twist on the old marriage of convenience tale in a way that would suit my story?

   ideaGenius strikes. My bad guys are using theme parks to recruit humans as their mind slaves. Magnor goes to Las Vegas to follow a lead.  What else is Vegas if not one huge theme park for adults?

I’m getting excited.  I can envision my hero striding down the Strip in his cloak and sword. He encounters a woman who drunkenly boasts to her friends that she can snag any man who walks through the door. Guess who it is?  Yep, our hapless hero.  But he doesn’t fall for her allure right away. Nope, he recognizes the watch she wears as being significant to his mission. And when they end up in a wedding chapel, our warrior from outer space has no idea what it means. They wake up the next morning together in a hotel room, and…you get the picture. Cool set up, huh?

Now I have to figure out why the Norse goddess Hel releases her “Dead Walkers” so the hero has to brave the underworld to stop her. It could be another ploy for dominance by the evil demon, Loki. He’s manipulating the Trolleks, and… well, I don’t want to give too many spoilers. In case you haven’t guessed, this series is based on Norse mythology.

As each idea comes to me, I jot it down. It’s all jumbled right now. Next I’ll sit down and do my Character Development and Romantic Conflict charts, figure out the plot progression, and write the synopsis. It just has to brew upstairs a while longer.

What do you think of my story idea so far?  Any suggestions?  When you finish a book, how long of a break do you take and how do you approach the next story to get started?

STORY PROCESS

STORY PROCESS

Writers who are plotters know what is supposed to happen going into a scene. At least, we know what we want to happen to our characters when they move from Point A to Point B. How they traverse that distance often comes as a Bookssurprise and may require a leap of faith.

For example, in my latest paranormal WIP, I entered a scene knowing what information my characters had to obtain. It seemed too easy. Were they just going to stroll into the lion’s den, get their scoop, and leave without opposition? Something bad had to happen. Haven’t we been taught to toss our characters into situations that test their mettle? So what could happen to them to throw them offguard?

Jennifer and Paz split up inside a fictional theme park in Hong Kong. Theme Parks are a key element in my paranormal series. What could be creepier than a happy place where everyone seems to be having a good time but something evil ferments below the surface? Both Paz and Jen each have an objective to accomplish. Starting with the heroine, she obtains the information she needs with relative ease. But just as she figures she’s got the goods and can leave, a ride attendant stops her. What ensues developed from the plot and my notes, but I hadn’t seen it coming. It introduces information important to the next books in the series and adds a new layer to the story. This twist was in my head all along. I just needed faith that the scene would carry forth the logic I’d built until now.

Ditto for the hero, who risks going deeper into bad guy territory to get what he needs. As I entered his viewpoint, I wondered how to complicate matters for him. Was Paz just going to jump in, collect his data, and leave so readily? Of course not! Yet I had not foreseen what would happen to him either. Just as it does with Jen, this twist ties in with later events.

I’ve blogged on Story Magic before, but these are perfect examples of how the blank page gets filled in via unexpected ways. It’s the writer’s subconscious at work, mulling over plot details, and these new twists pop up when we’re least expecting them. I thought of the heroine’s situation while driving in the car with my husband at the wheel (See Blog below about The Writer’s Mind). This is the glorious creative time when the story almost writes itself. Compare the plot outline or story synopsis to a skeleton. The creative process fills in the flesh on the bones.

Now if only I can figure out how Paz and Jen will free the dragon trapped in a cave.

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BRITTANY MURPHY

As a mystery writer, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. Well, here’s one for you: how about the local newspaper? Consider this story: Celebrity actress found dead at home; no signs of foul play; pneumonia following flu-like symptoms suspected as cause of death. Within months, husband dies from possible heart attack. Strange coincidence or not?

My mystery mind goes into high gear. If I were writing this story, how would it play out? Naturally, the celebrity (and it doesn’t have to be a movie actress. It can be anybody like a famous chef or athlete or stage star) leaves a substantial estate. If someone knocks the husband out of the way, who stands to inherit? I’m not familiar with all the hangers-on of the rich and famous, so I’ll have to make up my own list of fictional suspects. Disclaimer: This is totally fiction and made up from my own devious creative mind:

The Crooked Manager, who wants to cover up that he’s been pilfering from the celebrity’s funds.

The Greedy Relative, who inherits the estate because the celebrity couple is childless.

The Jealous Best Friend, who discovered the celebrity was having an affair with her husband.

The Financial Advisor, who’s in cahoots with the manager, and who needs money to feed his gambling habit or to pay for his insurmountable medical bills for the illness he’s been hiding.

The Makeup Artist, whom no one would suspect but who was always around the couple. She hates the celebrity and is getting revenge for a past wrong.

You get the idea? Who would you add to the list and why?

We have the Motives. Now we need Means and Opportunity. How would someone kill these two to make it look like natural deaths? Poison comes to mind. It would have to be something not detectable in toxicology texts, perhaps a substance that dissipates in the body. It cannot be injected so has to be absorbed either through ingestion or the skin or even eyedrops.

I like this! If my new mystery series gets picked up, you’re looking at book number four.

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PLOTTING CONUNDRUM

My hero is locked in a dungeon behind a heavy wood door with a rusty lock and a cross bar on the other side. Food is delivered through a hinged door in the bottom. His prison mate is a dwarf who has the ability to turn inanimate objects into gold. How do they get out? The dwarf has hidden a chisel, and the hero still has his electronic gizmo. If he breaks the lock with the chisel, there’s still the wood bar to lift on the other side.

Options:

Hero uses his gizmo to levitate the bar.

A secret ally knocks out the guards and unlocks the door.

The hero uses the old trick of pretending to be sick or dead and the dwarf hollers for help.

They dig a tunnel.

The dwarf turns the door into gold. Then what?

Look up properties of gold at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gold                  Gold crystals

Gold is very malleable in its pure form. Turn the door into gold and then kick it in? It would have to be very thin.

Turn just the lock into gold, punch it through, then wriggle a hand past the hole to the other side, and unlatch the bar? That’s a stretch, but it could work. It gives both characters more of a role than just having an ally do the dirty work.

You tell me. What would you do to have them escape?

MYSTERY PLOT POINTS

What are the turning points in a mystery? When we plot romances, we have certain emotional plot points, like first kiss and big dark moment. What about the traditional whodunit mystery? For example, is it necessary to have a dead body in chapter one? Does the crime always have to be a murder? How many suspects is too many? How can the sagging middle be avoided?

Each author will have a different answer, and they’re all right. I’ve read mysteries where no one gets killed for the first hundred pages. You can guess who might get the axe and are often right, but everyone you meet until that point becomes a suspect. This works if the sleuth leads such an interesting life that you don’t care about when the body shows up, or the author’s voice is so catchy and engaging that you’ll read along just for pleasure. But for beginning mystery authors, placing the body up front is often the best bet.

After writing ten mysteries in my Bad Hair Day series, I found a pattern that I find comfortable. This isn’t to say I follow it every single time. But my loose structure might help others who are wondering how to plot those turning points. Keep in mind that other writers might reverse the order, jumble it up, or not include these items at all. The crime might be a stolen object of value, a missing person, a kidnap victim. It doesn’t always have to be a murder. But for a mystery in the traditional sense, the story usually involves a murder with an amateur sleuth in a confined setting, which may be a small town that has its own unique flavor. So these are the plot points I might employ:

Dead Body

Introduction of Suspects

Secrets: Every suspect has something to hide

Second dead body

Attempts on sleuth’s life as he/she gets closer to truth

One suspect turns out to be a red herring and has led sleuth down the wrong path

Secrets are exposed and suspects are eliminated

Final clue leading to killer

Through all of this is the personal subplot, often a romance or other relationship, that leads the sleuth to experience a revelation about herself thus providing character growth by the end of the story. This is the hook to make your reader buy your next book. She has to care what happens to your sleuth, and it’s the personal relationships, the sleuth’s quirky outlook on life, and the distinctive setting that will draw readers back for more.

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