USA Today and Amazon bestselling author Lois Winston began her award-winning writing career with Talk Gertie to Me, a humorous fish-out-of-water novel about a small-town girl going off to the big city and the mother who had other ideas. That was followed by the romantic suspense Love, Lies, and a Double Shot of Deception.
Then Lois’s writing segued into the world of amateur sleuths with her humorous Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery Series, which Kirkus Reviews dubbed “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” The series now includes twelve novels and three novellas.
Lois has published twenty-one novels, five novellas, several short stories, one children’s chapter book, and one nonfiction book on writing.
Like it or not, AI is here to stay, and there is much to worry about. It’s one of the major sticking points in the writers’ strike, which is still ongoing as I write this, and which many predict will last through the summer. It’s scary to think that all of us writers can be replaced by a series of algorithms, and even scarier when you hear that those algorithms often get things wrong. I’m not sure what’s worse, AI that makes mistakes or AI that gets things so very right that they fool us humans in ways that can result in great harm.
Will writers become obsolete? Many are worried it’s only a matter of time. Why should publishers pay royalties when they can hire someone to sit at a keyboard to input a few parameters into an AI site, and a minute later, the computer starts churning out all the company’s upcoming titles? Think it can’t happen? The future is already here. I’ve heard that AI novels and nonfiction books are already showing up on Amazon and other e-tailer sites at an alarming rate. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Rather than sit around worrying, I did a bit of experimenting recently and concluded that AI has a long way to go before it replicates my creativity or that of any author. That doesn’t mean any of us can breathe easy, but AI isn’t going to take over publishing tomorrow.
My experiment involved ChatGPT. I told it to write a manuscript in the style of the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries by Lois Winston.
Artificial Intelligence is supposed to be able to analyze text and produce new work in the style of the author. My books are widely available online, both on my website and at various e-tailer sites. All include the first chapter of each book, the covers, and the back cover copy. Anyone who has never heard of me or my books can type in my name or the series name and readily find this information for the twelve books and three novellas in the series.
In less than a minute, ChatGPT started spitting out chapters for the book it decided to call Murder and Mayhem in the Crafting World. However, AI did an extremely poor job of analyzing my books. There were glaring errors in the first sentence, and it only got worse.
I write in first person. The ChatGPT-generated mystery was in third person. Not only did it get my protagonist’s occupation wrong, but it morphed her Shakespeare-quoting African Grey parrot into her uncle! How intelligent is artificial intelligence if it can’t even discern the difference between a parrot and a human? We’re not talking rocket science here.
Worst of all, ChatGPT didn’t come anywhere close to capturing my voice. My readers would know instantly that I didn’t write Murder and Mayhem in the Crafting World. I write humorous amateur sleuth mysteries. Anastasia is a Jersey girl with a Jersey girl’s outlook on life. Publisher’s Weekly compared her to Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon from Thirty Rock. Kirkus Reviews called her “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” The chapters that ChatGPT created were devoid of any humor. The writing was so dull it could be marketed as a non-pharmaceutical remedy for insomnia.
However, perhaps I was partly at fault. I had asked the AI to write a manuscript “in the style” of my series. So I decided to try again. This time I asked it to create a book in the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery Series by Lois Winston.
The result, A Deadly Yarn, was no better. ChatGPT did a terrible job of researching my series. Not only did it get my sleuth’s profession wrong a second time, but this book transformed Anastasia’s mother’s white Persian cat into another human. So not only can’t AI tell the difference between a parrot and a human. Apparently, it can’t tell the difference between domestic animals and humans.
Ralph, the parrot, appears within the first pages of the first book in the series. The cat doesn’t show up until Chapter Five, where she’s introduced as “Catherine the Great, my mother’s extremely corpulent white Persian cat.” Since ChatGPT scanned enough of the first book to pick up the cat’s name, how could it not figure out that a white Persian is a four-legged furry feline and not a human being?
There are three pets in the Pollack household, a parrot, a cat, and a dog. There’s an illustration of them on the page of each ebook on Amazon. I thought about trying a third experiment to see if ChatGPT would morph a French bulldog into another human but decided I had better things to do with my time.
Artificial intelligence is something to worry about. Silicon Valley and our government need to develop regulatory measures to prevent a real-life Battlestar Galactica or Wall-E from occurring. However, for now, I’m not going to worry about AI taking over my series. At least not yet. It’s still got a lot to learn about what goes on in my brain.
Post a comment for a chance to win one of several promo codes I’m giving away for a free download of either the audiobook version of Decoupage Can Be Deadly, the fourth book in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery Series, or A Stitch to Die For, the fifth book in the series.
A Crafty Collage of Crime – An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 12
Wherever crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack goes, murder and mayhem follow. Her honeymoon is no exception. She and her new husband, photojournalist (and possible spy) Zachary Barnes, are enjoying a walk in the Tennessee woods when they stumble upon a body on the side of a creek. The dead man is the husband of one of the three sisters who own the winery and guest cottages where Anastasia and Zack are vacationing.
When the local sheriff sets his sights on the widow as the prime suspect, her sisters close ranks around her. The three siblings are true-crime junkies, and thanks to a podcaster who has produced an unauthorized series about her, Anastasia’s reputation for solving murders has preceded her to the bucolic hamlet. The sisters plead for her help finding the real killer as Anastasia learns more about the women and their business, a host of suspects emerge, including several relatives, a relentless land developer, and even the sisters themselves.
Meanwhile, Anastasia becomes obsessed with discovering the podcaster’s identity. Along with knowing about Anastasia’s life as a reluctant amateur sleuth, the podcaster has divulged details of Anastasia’s personal life. Someone has betrayed Anastasia’s trust, and she’s out to discover the identity of the culprit.
Craft project included.
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Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog: www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com
As a high school forensic science teacher, Pamela Ruth Meyer discovered inventive ways to solve crimes and was inspired to write mysteries. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Romance Writers of America, and the Historical Novel Society. Her debut manuscript was a Page Turner Writing Award 2022 Finalist.
Pamela’s Pitch: Kate Belli’s Gilded Gotham Mysteries meets Bones in this turn-of-the-century love story wrapped in a historical mystery intricately solved by a woman who would one day change the face of forensics for all time.
Journey to Finding an Agent
One day I read about an art exhibition featuring the creations of a woman who’d helped shape forensic science. Poof, the idea for a historical mystery materialized. I dreamed it and spoke it to anyone who’d listen. It was with me when bike riding or showering. And I wrote it—had my first draft. Exhilarating.
I thought I was done. I signed up for a Writer’s Digest (WD) Querying Workshop with an agent I was sure would love my story. She requested the full manuscript, provided I fulfilled the romance genre’s major requirement—change the ending to a happy one. Challenged but hungry, I took to the keyboard. Months later, I had draft #2. Unfortunately, the agent had run into trouble, and most of her staff had quit. I never heard back from her.
If you fall off the horse, you get back on, right? Enter WD Querying Workshop 2. I read the agent’s reply, heart pounding. POV? Head-hopping? I’d never heard of these things. The very skeleton of my story would need to change—the revelation was bone-crushing. A year later, I had a story told from five distinct POVs. Next step … pitch the manuscript at the 2020 WD Annual Conference. I signed up, hefty price tag and all. But then Covid punched. I was to make a video of my pitch for agents to watch remotely. It must’ve been pretty good because 7 out of 8 agents requested submissions. Surely at least one would love it and offer representation.
Alas, no. But their rejections gave helpful tidbits about the manuscript’s weaknesses along with spoonfuls of encouragement. Now with actionable feedback, I could fix it. Novel-writing classes, conferences, workshops, and contests followed—an enthralling and enlightening process that helped me realize how very far I’d yet to go on the journey to publication. Humbled and aware, I figured out something important—I needed a professional editor. Said editor recommended using fewer POVs and taking out the multi-chaptered thread that had been the original spark of the idea to write the story in the first place. Devasted, I cried for days. But I tell you now, not even for an instant did I consider giving up. I bucked up and tore down what I’d built to make room for what would become. My story got better. With it, I entered the query pit in full force.
Out of 60 agents, only a few had requested pages. Slap. Pow. Bam. Crickets and crickets and crickets. That was the moment I could have given up. Of course, I did the opposite. I paid the largest fee to date and struggled through the month-long lessons of the Algonkian New York Pitch Conference. Slowly, it seeped in. My story needed something a gazillion other mystery stories didn’t have—a unique selling point. The facilitating agent’s personalized and razor-sharp insights made that blatantly clear. Weaving that necessary thread into my plot would take serious mental gymnastics. But I’ll tell you I’d already learned the most important thing I think a writer can learn—trust your subconscious to deliver an answer. Solutions came. Words came. Write, write, write, I did. Now, I thought, I have a story they’ll want.
2022 WD Annual Conference. This would be my first live pitch. The line extended the entire hotel-length hallway. Inside, I’d spend the precious hour waiting in an agent’s line until I reached the front. Then, 90 seconds to pitch and 90 seconds for feedback, including submission instructions. Then repeat. I’d done my research and ranked agents in order of most likely to want my story.
An announcement. My #4 and #5 agents didn’t come. Darn. The doors opened. I dashed to agent #1. She requested a submission. Next line… Time was called, and home I went, four requests in my pocket. Surely, one of these will love it.
The next day WD sent a link to query the absent agents. I did. A week later, my agent #1 responded. She’d found my writing “pedestrian.” My tears from this experience filled buckets. With none of the other agents requesting more, I turned to rewrite #6. My subconscious brain started niggling me about my story’s ending not fitting with my characters. As fate would have it, it’d take months of mulling it over.
Before the final ending took shape, agent #5, who’d been absent the day of the Pitch-Slam, requested the full manuscript. She’d be abroad, so I shouldn’t hear back from her until a given date, at which time I was to ‘rattle her cage.’ Two days after that date, I did just that. Then I went out to buy a lottery ticket—the prize a staggering billion dollars.
Fifteen minutes later, while standing in line, my phone pinged. It was her! I’ll trade the billion dollars for her. ‘Yes,’ I pleaded to the sky. Expensive, no doubt, but I swear to you that was the best deal I’ve ever made. She loved my story. Further, she knew and loved my characters almost as much as I did. Elation… I have an agent! Her only concern had been the ending. Lucky me, I had changed it. We’re now awaiting word from several editors, leaving me with an interesting mix of agony and euphoria up here in the clouds. I promise to let you know what happens next along our path to finding my story’s forever home. Until then, wish me luck.
Proudly represented by AKA Literary Management: www.akalm.net/
Blogger Intrusion: Check out the fantastic miniature Pam sent me:
Susan Van Kirk is the president of the Guppy Chapter, the online chapter of Sisters in Crime, and a writer of cozy mysteries. She lives at the center of the universe—the Midwest—and writes during the ridiculously cold and icy winters. Why leave the house and break something? Van Kirk taught forty-four years in high school and college and raised three children. Now that the children are launched, she writes.
Her Endurance mysteries include Three May Keep a Secret, Marry in Haste, The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, Death Takes No Bribes, and The Witch’s Child. She also wrote A Death at Tippitt Pond. Her latest Art Center Mysteries include Death in a Pale Hue and Death in a Bygone Hue from Level Best Books. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.
Thanks so much for inviting me to answer some questions about my writing on your blog, George. My latest book, Death in a Bygone Hue, just launched from Level Best Books. It’s the second book in my Art Center mysteries. Death in a Pale Hue, the first mystery, came out a year ago.
Death in a Bygone Hue When Jill Madison returns to her hometown to become executive director of a new art center, she never dreams unexpected secrets from the past will put her life in danger. Her parent’s old friend and Jill’s mentor, Judge Ron Spivey, is murdered. He leaves behind more than a few secrets from the past. His baffling will makes Jill a rich woman if she survives the will’s six-month probate period.
She finds a target on her back when the judge’s estranged children return. They form an unholy alliance with a local muckraking journalist who specializes in making up the news. According to the judge’s will, if Jill dies, the family inherits.
Jill and her best friend, Angie Emerson, launch their own investigation, determined to find the judge’s killer. In the meantime, Jill must run her first national juried exhibit, launch a new seniors group, and move the weavers guild into the art center. Easy peasy, right?
What brought you to writing? A few years prior to finishing a thirty-four-year stint teaching in high school, I decided to write a memoir about my teaching life. I’d written one story, and it was published quickly by Teacher magazine. So, I added fourteen more stories and self-published the creative non-fiction book. It did very well, and that led me to my decision to write mysteries once I retired (after another ten years of teaching at the college level.) Mysteries are my favorite genre to read, so why not try my hand at writing a few? I just finished #8.
Has an association membership helped you with your writing? I joined Sisters in Crime and soon discovered their Guppy Chapter. That has been a delightful experience, and I’ve learned so much. They have craft classes, critique groups, manuscript swaps, a brilliant newsletter, a fantasy agent project, and many more programs designed to help mystery writers. I was elected to the Steering Committee, served three years, and became President for the past three years. I’ll be stepping down at the end of this month. This is a fantastic organization to help new mystery writers.
How long did it take you to write your first book? That would be the teaching memoir. It probably took over a year, but I was also working then. Once I retired, my first mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, took about four months.
How long to get it published? The older I get, the more I realize that many serendipitous events are a case of luck and timing. I sent my first mystery manuscript to Five Star Publishing, and it landed in the hands of Deni Dietz, senior editor. She told me since I followed directions, she put my submission at the top of her stack. (Now that’s a low bar.) Within two weeks, she emailed me to say they wanted to buy my manuscript. I was afraid I hadn’t suffered enough, but Five Star closed their doors to mystery publishing after two of my books were published. I don’t think I brought them down, but I felt fortunate that they saw something in my writing. But now I was orphaned.
Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? I do use one or two subplots with each book I write. Usually, they have a connection to the main plot. In Three May Keep a Secret, a subplot involves an employee of a sports bar who decides to blackmail a killer. The main plot involved the search for that killer. Secrets were the connecting idea. In Marry in Haste, a book with two plots, the main one takes place in the present, and the subplot in the past. Both involve women who hide a similar deadly secret. They share the same Victorian house—one hundred years apart. Their stories mirror each other. Each book I write contains at least one subplot that comments on the main plot in some way. Often it is a theme relationship.
My current art center mysteries often have subplots that involve the kinds of work and projects done at the art center. While Jill Madison is investigating a murder, she also has an art center to run, so the daily grind of doing that job is one of the subplots.
Weaving subplots into the main plot is tricky. Pacing makes an enormous difference as far as placement of a subplot. Often an event in the main plot leads to a scene with the subplot. A writer must think long and hard about the relationship between the plots and how they fit together in the scheme of the whole novel.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I am both. The world is far from black and white. I make a basic outline of the chapters. Then I fill in the details as I go along.
What kind of research do you do? This depends on the book. For The Locket: from the Casebook of TJ Sweeney, I did a great deal of DNA research. It was key to the plot. I also went back to the 1940s and the Big Band Era and researched the Roof Garden, a dance venue in my hometown where Big Bands played during the early war years. My local library had so many anecdotal stories about that time and place. I even interviewed an elderly lady who went there and met her future husband. The murder victim was last seen there. The novella takes place in the present with the murder of a cold case.
My newest series about an art center has involved extensive research since I’m not an artist. I’ve learned about how the local art center lifted the floors of an 1870 building to make it safe for its patrons. Researching, I’ve learned about how to install artwork, how to transport it for forensic testing, how to do forensic testing, how to detect fraud, and how national exhibits are run. I’ve even learned about the FBI Art Fraud Division. Whew! I’m learning a great deal about a world I never knew much about.
Thanks for having me on, George.
Jill Hedgecock is the author of four suspense novels and writes monthly book reviews and pet columns for a Bay Area newspaper, The Diablo Gazette. Her work has appeared in Bark Magazine, Books N’ Pieces Magazine, and American West. Jill twice received the Distinguished Service Award from the Mount Diablo branch of the California Writers Club and has been selected by the Club to receive the 2023 Jack London Award. Her novels include the award-winning Rhino in the Room, Queen of the Rhino, and Between Shadow’s Eyes. When Jill isn’t writing, she dabbles in the fine arts and competes in dog agility. To learn more about her books and her developmental editing services, visit www.jillhedgecock.com. Jill lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with three rescue dogs.
Finding the perfect ending to a novel is hard. Just ask Hemingway, who wrote 40 different endings to A Farewell to Arms. Readers will often overlook slow pacing, lackluster characters, and seemingly endless descriptions. They will sometimes tolerate purple prose and melodrama. However, their patience will evaporate if, when they turn the final page, the author fails to deliver a gratifying ending. In this post, I will discuss:
- the importance of endings,
- six different types of endings,
- some dos and don’ts, and
- when the writer should know the ending
The Importance of Endings
Readers are more likely to take issue with a novel’s conclusion than any other part of the story. They have invested hours of their time and want the time spent to be worthwhile. If the ending delivers, fans will sing their praises about the brilliance of the novel. But if the ending disappoints, readers will consider all their hard work to get to that final page was all for naught. But not all reader’s expectations are the same. Some readers are content to allow the author to leave the conclusion open-ended. Others are interested only in the author’s version of events and feel cheated if a character’s fate isn’t revealed.
Dickens learned first-hand how failure to deliver a suitable ending can incite outrage. Because of public outcry, Dickens reworked the ending of Great Expectations. To this day, most readers only know the second ending. Dickens wrote of the revised ending: “I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could, and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.” Even with the rewrite, the controversy continued, though. George Bernard Shaw said of Dicken’s chosen ending for Great Expectations: The novel “is too serious a book to be a trivially happy one. Its beginning is unhappy; its middle is unhappy; and the conventional happy ending is an outrage on it.”
Six Ways to End a Novel
- Full Circle. In general, all beginnings in novels should link to the ending. But in this type of ending, the opening and closing similarities can be literal. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton opens and closes with the same sentence.
Hemingway used the same setting to employ a circular technique in For Whom the Bell Tolls:
Beginning Line: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.”
Ending: “He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”
Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie comes close to a nearly verbatim conclusion:
Beginning Line: “The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves.”
Ending (in the Conclusion): “The last class of my old professor’s life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves. The class met on Tuesdays. No books were required. The subject was the meaning of life. It was taught from experience. The teaching goes on.”
- Open-Ended. Vague endings are often used in series to allow for stories to continue or in standalone novels to allow readers to fill in the blanks. This approach is also frequently utilized in literary novels. The extreme version of this option, the cliffhanger, isn’t usually advisable because readers hate cliffhanger endings, especially in a series where they feel manipulated into having to purchase the next book.
Some novelists have taken this approach so far as to conclude their books with an incomplete last sentence. The Castle by Kafka ends mid-sentence. However, this wasn’t the author’s intention—Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1922 before the book was finished. But there are other books where the unfinished sentence is intentional, such as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, where the ending suggests the grandfather composing a letter to his grandsons has died before he completed writing his letter.
- Metaphorical. If done with finesse, metaphorical endings can be brilliant. Richard Wright employed a shining example of this method with his metaphorical and circular ending to Native Son using the sense of sound. In the opening scene of this novel, Bigger Thomas, a poor, uneducated, twenty-year-old black man in 1930s Chicago, is startled awake by an alarm ringing (“Brrrrrrriiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinng!”). The book concludes with a metal door clanging shut, another jarring sound. These opening and closing lines are in complete balance with the violent nature of this novel.
- Thematic Conclusion. Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild, which chronicles her journey hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail, provides a great example of a thematic conclusion. In the beginning, the narrator admires the view from a mountaintop and describes herself as taller than the trees, setting up the idea of a “human versus nature” theme. The novel closes with the sense that she is at peace with the wild nature of the world.
- Revelation/Surprise. Character-driven books often end with a revelation about themselves or the human condition. Mysteries and thriller genres are conducive to surprise endings. But literary fiction has also employed this technique. In Sara Gruen’s. Water for Elephants, the novel opens with an elderly man trying to remember his age and closes with a more confident man who knows that he’s 93 and that his age doesn’t matter. Twists must always be set up throughout the novel and well-executed to work.
- Ironic/Rhetorical. Rhetorical or ironic endings, especially those that end in questions, are usually aligned with an open-ended approach. However, a writer that relies on rhetoric should be aware that this approach can result in two-dimensional characters and weak plots. Just like ending a novel with a twist, using rhetoric to wrap up a book can be a slippery slope unless done exceptionally well. Humorous novels, such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the main characters ironically head toward the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, have successfully pulled off this type of ending.
Dos and Don’ts
While there can be exceptions, there are general dos and don’ts a writer should abide by when drafting the conclusion of a chapter. A writer should also be aware of expectations specific to their genre. For example, romance novels must end with a happily ever after or happy-for-now scenario. A humorous novel can end with the punchline of a joke. Still, that approach would most likely be an inappropriate concluding line in the murder mystery genre, especially if the narrator is a somber detective.
- Tie up loose ends and resolve the main conflict
- Keep description to a minimum
- Show how characters have changed or not changed
- Include trivial details early that will play a role in the finale
- Continue the story after the climax
- Introduce a new character or subplot in the last 50 pages
- Create an Improbable Ending (don’t leave the reader with an eye roll)
- End with “It was all a dream.”
When Should a Writer Know the Ending?
It’s best to have a solid sense of your novel ending at the outset, but don’t be afraid to shift directions and allow yourself to trust the process. It’s worth repeating that finding the perfect ending to a book is hard. A great exercise is brainstorming ten different endings to your novel and then selecting the best one. If you’re stuck, try writing ten endings that wouldn’t work. Regardless of what type of ending you ultimately choose to wrap up your book, make sure that you resolve the main plot and tie up the loose ends of your subplots.
As I said at the beginning of this post, finding the perfect ending to a book is hard. But with a little bit of brainstorming and by understanding the various ways to wrap up your prose, writers can find that killer ending that will leave their readers happy, satisfied, and searching for your next book.
A similar version of the content in this blog post appeared as an article in the May edition of Books N Pieces Magazine.
ARTICLE: How to Write Chapter Endings That Make Your Readers Turn the Page and a Book Ending that Leaves Your Readers Satisfied – Books ‘N Pieces Magazine
Current Secretary and Past President of the Upstate SC Chapter of Sisters in Crime, Sally Handley is the author of the Holly and Ivy cozy mystery series and the stand-alone suspense novel, Stop the Threat. Additionally, she writes a series on the new Kindle Vella platform entitled The Adventures of Trixie, written from her faithful companion’s point of view. Finally, Sally writes an occasional blog entitled “On Writing, Reading and Retirement” at www.sallyhandley.com. Also a member of PSWA, she is currently busy writing the sixth book in her cozy series entitled The Toxic Blooms Mystery
On Genre – I consider myself primarily a cozy mystery writer. That is the genre I love to read, so it was just a natural choice for me when I started to write. But after I attended a local Citizens’ Police Academy, I was motivated to write a suspense novel based on a discussion we had with the School Resource Officer. The question of arming teachers came up. I asked myself, “What might really happen if we did that?” And that question led me to write my first suspense novel.
On Writing Process – So my writing process is not very complex. Once I get an idea, I mull it around in my head for a bit, but then I just sit down at my kitchen island and start typing. For me, the story evolves based on the things the characters say and do. When I get to a point where I’m unsure about what comes next, I take a legal pad and pen, and a big mug of coffee over to the couch and plot. I ask a bunch of what-ifs and consider where the story might go depending on the scenarios I consider. That usually gets me back to work. Admittedly, it sometimes takes more than one mug of coffee.
On Characters – Next to plotting, character development, to me, is really the key to engaging the reader. In writing a series, the challenge is creating characters your readers enjoy spending time with so they’ll want to continue reading the series. In Stop the Threat, I had a huge cast of characters ranging from School Board Members to teachers to students and their parents. The challenge there was creating a cast of intriguing characters with whom the reader could identify.
You ask if my characters ever disappoint me. Never. But they do surprise me. I’m better at writing dialogue than description, so oftentimes, my characters will say something, and how another character reacts can be rather unpredictable, taking the story in a whole new direction.
On Association Membership – When I moved to South Carolina, one of the first things I did was join the Upstate SC Chapter of Sisters in Crime. The first person I met was Judy Buch, another cozy mystery writer. We hit it off and formed our own critique group, which now includes fellow authors Wayne Cameron and Cindy Blackburn. They are my most trusted and treasured resource. Because writing is mostly a lonely endeavor, having like-minded partners to read and assess your work is invaluable. And, since all writers are subject to bouts of self-doubt, it’s great to have folks cheer you up and keep you from succumbing to the depths of discouragement. Also, I recently joined the Public Safety Writers Association and have already gotten answers to questions about how police would handle a certain situation from author Michael A. Black. My advice to any writer is join a writer’s group. You won’t regret it.
On Research – I’m not a traditional researcher, but I am frequently amazed at how the information I sometimes didn’t even know I needed just comes to me. My cozy mystery sleuths, Holly and Ivy, are look-alike sisters who like to garden. Their knowledge of plants helps them solve crimes. A few years ago, I took a day trip to an arboretum in North Carolina. Lo and behold, they had an exhibit entitled Wicked Plants, based on a book of the same title by Amy Stewart. That book helped me select the perfect poison in book 4 of my series.
My favorite research story happened very recently. I attended a wedding in New Jersey last November and stayed at a hotel in Morristown. They just happened to be hosting a Goth convention at the hotel the same weekend. Amazingly, in the book I’m currently writing, I have a Goth character. I can’t really say why I chose a Goth character. I just sort of pictured her when I was writing. Anyway, it occurred to me that I really didn’t know very much about Goth culture. So, I introduced myself to a guy on the elevator, explained what I was doing, and asked if he’d be willing to talk to me. Ever so graciously, he invited me to join him and some friends he was meeting in the lobby. I spent about an hour with them. I learned a lot. Talk about serendipity!
I have to say that Stop the Threat involved more research than my cozy mysteries require. I interviewed the School Resource Officer and did lots of online research about guns and gun training. I also read everything I could about schools who had armed their teachers. My critique group and my book club friends were wonderful in forwarding any articles they came across on the topic – another reason to be part of a group. (Wish I had known about PSWA back then.)
The book I’m working on now involves GMOs, and my working title is The Toxic Blooms Mystery. When I began writing this book, I realized, to my horror, that a basic idea that I had about GMOs was erroneous. I knew I had to step back and do some serious research. Then I remembered a young neighbor of mine, who once did some clerical work for me when I was a marketing consultant. She’s now a biology teacher, so I contacted her. We scheduled a Zoom call, and within an hour, she helped me develop a basic plotline for the book. She also agreed to be a beta reader when I’ve finished my first draft.
So, reflecting back on what I’ve written here, I realize there’s a well-known adage that ties it all together –“it’s not what you know, but who you know.” For me, associates, topic experts, and beta readers are the best resources a writer can have.
Where to find me:
• Website: www.sallyhandley.com
• Blog: https://www.sallyhandley.com/blog/
• Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sally.handley1/
• Linked-in: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sallyhandleyinc/
• Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16850782.Sally_Handley
• Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/sally-handley