Saturday, April 25, 2009

First Chapter Study: Murder with Peacocks

This is the second on a series of blog posts analyzing the first chapters of cozy mystery novels. Murder with Peacocks is the first in the successful Meg Langslow series, written by Donna Andrews. This book won the Agatha Award for best first novel. (First person POV.)

Meg is awakened by multiple phone calls regarding three weddings she had agreed to be maid-of-honor for, each requiring her organizational ability. She packs up her iron-working studio, and takes off to concentrate on them.

There is no hint of a mystery, and no description of the setting (she's not even there yet)--just an introduction to the main character and a quick sketch of most of the major characters. But Meg is an vibrant, engaging character and quickly draws the reader in. There is also fair amount of conflict and a bit of tension developed--just not relating to a crime. But you know that Meg is not going to get through all these weddings easily. It's going to be uphill. In the snow. Both ways.

In-depth analysis:

First paragraph: I had become so used to hysterical dawn phone calls that I only muttered one halfhearted oath before answering.

"Peacocks," a voice said.

Okay, technically two paragraphs. But they're short.

You can read more here:

Okay, I have to admit, there's a bit of a hook there. An almost cloak-and-dagger type draw. Who is calling her hysterically? And what is this cryptic, almost code-like word: Peacocks? The unanswered question draws the reader forward, instantly engaged.

Paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of first three pages:

3-6: The time as 6AM It's Samantha, her brother Rob's fiance. She needs peacocks for the upcoming wedding. Meg believes Samantha thinks the whole world revolves around her wedding. Another draw--who hasn't been around a bride-to-be and heard them gush ad-naseum as they plan their 'perfect day'? Instantly identifiable.

7: Meg imagines what Samantha might want peacocks for.

8: Samantha explains

9: Meg writes down "Peacocks" in a notebook. But this is really a gem of a paragraph. The use of words is stellar, and Meg explodes off the page. She lets her future sister-in-law "rattle on." Rofl. I think my character lets her mother "rattle on" too. I think Joanne Fluke lets Hannah's mother "rattle on." It must be a trend. Andrews also uses the hyphenated phrase "notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe." Ok, you learn a lot from that. She is organized--a planner. And even more--personality. People with vibrant personalities make up their own words. Great voice. Make me want to read more.

10-13: Meg reins Samantha in, they decide to try to rent peacocks if possible.

14: More excellent word choices. Meg lets Samantha 'gush.' Interior monologue reveals that Meg might not be so happy about this upcoming union.

15: Mutters, showers, and goes into her iron working forge--a very concise paragraph.

16-25: Megs mother calls and starts a confused conversation about the color blue, before revealing that she's thinking about redoing the living room. This is a great 'showy' paragraph showing that the mother is a bit dotty, and that she also relies on Meg as an organizer.

26: Bit of backstory. Meg's parents are divorced (amicably) and her mother is planning on remarrying.

27: Meg considers the blue room, revealing that her father was well off, but she had no idea about her mother's fiance Jake. And she doesn't know him, or doesn't like him, because she referred to him as "what's-his-name." Again, a wonderful choice of words.

28-30: Meg agrees to ask "Eileen," get swatches, and they can talk about it in a few days.

31: Meg adds blue to her planner, picks up a hammer and the phone rings again. Nice comedic touch.

32-36: Eileen, Meg's friend and business partner calls. Meg is her maid of honor too, and she too has a problem with her wedding plans. Meg reasons with her.

Page 4

Meg gets one more phone call, shuts up her studio, and gets ready to leave to concentrate on all these wedding she is helping with.

First Chapter Study: Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder

The first in a series analyzing the starting chapters of popular cozy mysteries. This book by Joanne Fluke is the first of a highly successful series of cozies featuring cookie-shop owner Hannah Swensen. (3rd person POV)

Fluke takes her time building her cozy world, developing her characters, and giving their backstory. We meet multiple people from the town, with an extensive introduction to the protagonist's cat. (Cozy readers like cats.) We learn the name and geography of the town, a little about the family of the protag, and meet several other townspeople. There is no hint of anything amiss until near the end of the chapter, when they notice that their milk delivery is late. Checking on the truck, Hannah discovers that the driver is dead, shot.

What engages the reader? There is not much suspense, drama, or even conflict at the beginning to draw the reader in. Perhaps the thing that engages most (and this is subjective) is the identifiable nature of the protag. She feels inferior. She can't remember when she had a date, and her mother drives her up the wall. Her sister outshines her. The target audience is female for a cozy, and what woman can't identify with that?

The town is another factor--a lake with tourist cottages, a town with a main street. Even the business names-- Cookie Jar, Cozy Cow, Kiddie Korner-- evoke that small-town feel.

The strategy here seems to be to engage the reader in the characters and the setting before beginning the mystery plot. This is the main character moving about her normal world.

In depth analysis:

First paragraph: Hannah Swensen slipped into the old leather bomber jacket that she'd rescued from the Helping Hands thrift store and reached down to pick up the huge orange tomcat that was rubbing against her ankles. "Okay, Moishe. You can have one refill, but that's it until tonight."

Okay, first impressions--not a lot of tension there. The introduction to the character includes a hint that she is either thrifty, or not very well off financially. And there's a cat, a common fixture in cozies. But this cat is unlike the regal beasts used by other cozy writers. I can't say this is a hook, per se. She's starting with character introduction. Let's take a look at what she accomplishes in the rest of the chapter, which, for copyright purposes, I will not reproduce. But you can read the beginning of it here:


2nd: Backstory--how she got the cat, and an implication that Hannah doesn't get along with her mother.

3rd: Telly paragraph in which cat catches a mouse, and Hannah picks it up and throws it away. She also has a drooping African violet she forgets to water--reminding me of the withered herbs in my protags window. I like details like that, but again no 'tension.' Info--she lives in a condo.

4th: Says goodbye to the cat, gets ready to leave, and the phone rings.

5th: Establishes time, 6AM, and another hint that the character is thrifty or poor.

6th: Backstory--cat hates the mother.

7th: Dialogue: Can't talk now.

8th: Dialogue: No, didn't give Norman my number.

9th: Brief flashback: mother tried to fix her up with Norman, romance tease.

10th: An internal rant about her frustrations over her mother's matchmaking. Nicely introduces her age as almost 30.

11th: Rant continues: Hannah is the eldest daughter, and Norman is an older, balding dentist.

12th: Cat flips over his food dish.

13th: Hannah uses the overturned food as an excuse to get off the phone, spoils him rotten, and rushes out the door.

That takes me to the end of the third page....

page 4: Hannah climbs in her truck (backstory of the truck, and we learn she owns a cookie shop). She relays a message to her neighbor, Phil Plotnik. As she drives, we are introduced to the geography. The town is called Lake Eden, which is near Eden Lake. The state is Minnesota. The air is nippy, which allows her to establish the time as the third week of October.

page 5: The summer tourists are gone, and the town population is down to about 3000. A milkman, Ron Lasalle, is delivering milk. He looks like he is thinking about something. Hannah will ask him later when he comes into the shop, as usual.

page 6: Ron waves. Ron is cute. Ron was injured in a highschool footback game, ending his pro aspirations. Hannah drives slowly, so she doesn't get a ticket from Herb Beeseman.

page 7: She parks, and does not plug in her car to keep it warm--not needed yet. Claire Rodgers parks next to her. It is rumored that Claire is having an affair with the mayor. Claire just got in a new shipment of party dresses. She suggests that Hannah stop in and pick up something for the holidays.

page 8: Hannah can't figure out where she would wear a cocktail dress, and doesn't remember the last time she had a date. Hannah starts mixing dough. Lisa Herman will be in to help at 7:30.

page 9: Hannah makes coffee, and reflects that the Cookie Jar is a meeting place for the town. Lisa arrives and starts baking.

page 10: Lisa is 19, a full-time employee, and they now work as a team. Lisa's father has Alzheimers, and has forgotten he is Catholic. They open the shop.

page 11: Hannah's sister Andrea arrives, looking gorgeous. Hannah feels inadequate. Andrea is married to Bill Todd, a deputy sheriff. They have a four-year-old daughter, and Andrea works as a realtor. Hannah gets Tracey (the daughter) a glass of milk, and Andrea explains that she needs to run for a hair appointment. She is showing the old Peterson farm later.

page 12: Mr. Harris is interested in the farm as a hobby farmer, fixing it up and hiring others to do the work. Hannah thinks Andrea is a hobby wife and mother. Andrea asks Hannah to watch Tracey for an hour until daycare opens.

page 13: Hannah and Lisa give Tracey a cookie. Lisa worries that Ron hasn't come yet with the milk.

page 14: Tracey saw the truck drive past, and heard a bang--like a backfire. Hannah goes out into the alley to check.

page 15: Hannah sees Ron's truck at the end of the alley, and his legs are sticking out. She assumes he is working on it, and offers to call a tow truck.

page 16. Ron is dead (shot), holding a cookie in his hand.

First Chapters

Someone was asking me how my WIP was going, so let me give you a little status report. The draft is finished. And it is dreadful. But that's okay. It is supposed to be. I've been taught to get it on paper and fix it up later. And that's what I hope to do. And to that end, I got my first professional critique from a writer a week or so ago. One big comment: my first chapter lacks tension.

He's probably got a point. I think. But after attempting to fix it, which I presume will involve tightening it up and/or adding content that increases the tension, I have seven new versions of my story, none of which are any better. I also have a handful of hair, and several new bald spots. But if I comb it just right and spray it... You get the idea.

How much tension do I need in a cozy mystery anyway? (And yes, there is a little bit of a whine mixed in with the question.) Unlike their suspense, thriller, and even mainstream mystery cousins, cozy readers are looking for other things. They want a cozy environment that they can crawl into, and a character that engages them. Cozy readers are perhaps the most tolerant of lull in action, but only up to a point. Perhaps (and this is only a guess) what I need is not more tension, but more SOMETHING that will engage a reader, especially in the first chapter. Or perhaps there is something inherently wrong with my structure that causes the reader to feel he is being drawn away from the story. Maybe it's more than one of these things.

So rather than pull out any more hair and create more versions only to crumple them up later, I need to step back and take some lessons. It's time to go back to school. So, the next few blog entries will consist of the analysis of first chapters of the first books in successful cozy mystery series. How does the author engage the reader? What draws me into the story and makes me want to continue? And how does the writer spend those precious few first words for the maximum effect?

If you're reading this blog, feel free to do these exercises with me, or comment if you have insights that I've missed. Even if you don't have the books in question, most of the first chapters can be found for free on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Stay tuned...

Police Academy III...No, Still Not the Movie

Last post of pictures from my trip last week to the Mad Anthony Writers' Conference and Writers' Police Academy in Hamilton, OH. These are all from the second day, which included a number of courses on various aspects of police procedure, and included some hands-on show-and-tell sessions.

Assorted handcuffs and leg-irons. Quote of the day: "Yeah, you can try them on. Did anyone bring a key?" Note the three-hinge model on the left.

I was taking pictures of all the various objects in the show-and-tell session, most of which were being held by police officer and novelist Mike Black, who probably went home with spotted vision and a feeling of being stalked.

And it's Tazer time. Bright yellow to clearly show that it is not a gun, it is often holstered on the side opposite to the more lethal firearm. And yes, apparently cops have pulled their guns when they had meant to pull their Tazers. The firing mechanism has been removed for safety reasons. A tazer is a less-lethal weapon, but it is not non-lethal. People have died, but primarily people with other health reasons, especially drug users. A Tazer differs from a stun gun in that a tazer fires its electrodes from a distance, and a stun gun must make direct contact.

Another less-lethal weapon is the sock-round. I guess the term "non-lethal" is no longer used, since just about anything can kill or do serious damage if it hits the right place, or a person is just sensitive to it. These look like tiny little beanbags made out of a sock-like material. They seemed pretty innocuous sitting on the desk, but I can imagine they pack a quite a punch when projected at high speeds from a gun.

And these are definitely NOT non-lethal weapons, except for the orange one on the far right. Assorted revolvers and semi-automatics. One oft-repeated piece of info, "Revolvers do not eject cartridges." Police for many years carried revolvers, often with speed-loaders, so they could load all the chambers at once. But now most carry semi-automatics, with pre-loaded clips. These unloaded guns were available for us to handle after class. It made me wish I had not sat in front. The cops were great about only pointing weapons in safe directions. Some of the writer types, not so much. I don't care if it's been checked seventeen times and it's not loaded. Looking into the barrel of a gun is scary.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Police Academy II...No, Not the Movie

Of course, I mean the writers' police academy. I meant to post this yesterday, so for all those waiting with baited breath, try Altoids. ;)

But anyway, after departing the morgue, we headed off to the police station. Now if my choice of pictures seems odd, it is because I was trying to get pictures of things and places that I might have to describe, at some point. So oddly enough, there were some notable people of whom I have no pictures at all.

View from just outside the Hamilton police station. Some things not in the picture--to the right is a small garden/picnic area. To the left is a garage where they can house cars for further investigation--search and fingerprinting.

How to store that pesky evidence? There is a large shelf filled with vials and baggies and cardboard boxes for weapons, and a cheat sheet on how to do it all properly. Not shown here is an evidence drying room, should items come in wet.

In high school, I always had the locker I could never open. Well, there are instructions on these lockers on how to lock them, but not how to unlock them. Why? They are evidence lockers, and they only unlock from the other side, where a clerk receives the evidence and will properly store and preserve it.

People, on the other hand, are stored here. These are holding cells. Not sure if they were occupied at the time, or not. We weren't actually allowed in here. They were slightly more spacious than the evidence lockers, but not much.

I believe they called this the 'duty room,' although by this point, my brain was a bit overloaded, so don't quote me on that. My fellow attendees are looking around. At this point there was a swat call, so it was quiet around the station for a while.

And I'm stealing these handcuffs--well, not really. I have one scene were my protag, after being questioned by the police, sits down on a hard wood bench in the hall. I'm going back to that scene and adding the handcuffs. They caught my eye, and I think they'd add a nice touch.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Writers' Police Academy

I had a great time at the Mad Anthony Writers' Conference and the Writers' Police Academy. It was a long trip, and I was hoping it would be worth the expense and the time, and I think it was. I learned a lot and had a fantastic time.

Friday was spent in presentations and tours. This is the best picture I could get of the canine part of the canine unit. I have three other pictures of various stages of blur. Although the dog (for some odd reason) spent a good portion of his time in our general vicinity, he would not sit still. Which is good, since apparently that is what he does when he detects drugs.

And later we headed to the morgue. That is Butler County Coroner Richard P. Burkhardt who allowed us in for a tour--a very interesting experience. Leaning in the door is Verna Dreisbach, literary agent and former California Highway Patrol Officer, who contributed one of my favorite moments of the conference when she told a busload of us that she was really good at drunk driving.

This is the cold box. Yes, at the morgue. We did go inside, but I didn't take any pictures--it somehow didn't seem appropriate. I think I need one of these in my own house. And I'm trying to figure out how my menopausal protagonist might wander into one in the midst of a hot flash. Hmmmm.....

No, you don't
want to be there. What Dr. B is saying at this moment that if the customer on the table is Jewish, they put the plug in to preserve the blood for burial. But, if the poor departed is only a Christian...

And yes, what a beautiful pancreas!

Next we toured the police department. More pics tomorrow.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Spoonful of M.C. Beaton

Many of you already know that I read mysteries for two purposes: 1) I enjoy them. 2) I study them to help me write my own. For that reason, while these entries often have some aspects of a book review, I usually veer off at some point and talk about writing.

This book is a later addition to a series of which I have only read the first two books. I picked it up because it was the book of the month for a new book club I started attending--the Thursday Thrillers at the Barnes and Noble--which meets at the Niagara Fall Blvd location in Amherst on the second Thursday of every month. I very much enjoyed my first visit, and hope to learn much by what other mystery readers have to say about the books they read.

Agatha Raisin has changed a bit since the first two installments. Apparently the glimmer of romance that sparked my interest in the first two panned out, at least a little, because the 'dashing neighbor' I knew is now her ex-husband. Oh,well. Such is life, I guess. And Agatha has advanced from being an amateur to a pro. Detective, that is. She's now a private investigator.

Hopping into this one after not reading the middle installments was a bit rough. There are regular people in here that I do not know, and some story lines have advanced to the point that they were a bit tough to figure out. Not a fault of the book--just of the way I approached it. But I like when strands of the protag's personal life intermingle with the latest mystery. I think that is what keeps a series alive. The case is solved, but you wonder what is going to happen next to Agatha.

What Beaton does masterfully though, is create a heroine with interesting flaws--enough to get her into trouble and keep her in trouble through a whole series. Far from a Mary-Sue, Agatha is self-deceived, insecure, and downright selfish sometimes. Readers take turns liking her, pitying her, and hating her. But whatever they do, they are emotionally engaged with her character--so there is the master stroke.

But how can you bottle that? And how can I apply it to my fledgling character?

Here's where I feel my hands are a bit tied. My character is a preacher's wife. And while I have struggled with making her imperfect and have tried to give her some qualities that will get her in trouble, there are some who want to push her into a stereotype. They get very uncomfortable when she says and does things that they do not expect a pastor's wife to do. I tell them that is the point. If she always acted and reacted in the ways an ideal pastor's wife should, she wouldn't get into much trouble, would she? And she wouldn't be a realistic character either. Still, it has given me a very narrow playing field, and something to think about when developing future characters.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Editing, Editing, Editing...

I was reading an email loop the other day, and a couple of writers were saying how much more they enjoyed rewriting than writing. They said, now that the book had taken shape, it was much easier to work with the raw materials they had. It kind of makes sense. Now that the back-breaking frame of the story is done, doing some of the smaller things to fix it up should be much easier. After all, which is easier? Framing the studs or painting the walls?

I'd like to point out one thing. THESE PEOPLE ARE INSANE!!!

Just kidding... well mostly. I'd imagine that all writers differ, and that's fine. But I couldn't agree less. I hate editing.

First of all, editing brings some striking new revelations as soon as you begin. Revelation number one: what I have written is not perfect. There is nothing like finishing your work, and approaching it after it had rested for a little while, to make all your mistakes loom large and menacing on the horizon. Cue the scary music. Not only is what I have written not good--it's dreck. And I would do better service to the human race if I burned all the paper copies, and deleted all the electronic ones. Hey, why not throw the laptop into the flames too, and take up needlework instead. Yeah, that bad.

Second of all, not only is the work not perfect, but I can't seem to get a handle on the whole thing. After all, a novel is not an essay or a short story--where you can line up all the pages on the dining room table and see it all in one view. I have to admit, I've forgotten half of what I have written. There are passages in my book that I only have vague recollections of--which is why Patty is also Pattie, and Mrs. Golanka is Mrs. Golenka, and Michael changes abruptly from being a health food nut to a junk food junkie. It wasn't long after I had typed "the end" that I realized I had dropped several red herrings without even developing them.

Third of all, even the passages that I have edited several times still have mistakes in them--mistakes that I cannot see. (After all, if I could see it as a mistake, I wouldn't have made it, would I?) But I spent hours poring over critiques, and reading the chapter out loud--making changes until I thought it was perfect. I printed it out. My husband picked it up casually off the couch, glanced at it and said, "You know, you have a typo here." Grrrr. Yeah, that kind of crazy.

Fourth of all, no one has a definitive manual on how to edit. I wish there was one--"Thirty Days to Perfecting Your Novel." So, I'm just doing what I know--getting critiques (which are often contrary to each other--what one person hates, another person loves), and reading through every chapter carefully. There are things I know I need to check--for example, I still have my random apostrophe problem. So I'll do a search for apostrophes and double-check that they are all used correctly. And I also did a search for 'ly,' in an attempt to reduce my adverb usage. Perhaps when I'm done, I'll write that book about how to perfect your novel. But I have a feeling it is going to take a lot longer than thirty days.

Especially when I don't want to look at my manuscript ever again. Have I mentioned that I hate editing?