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Saturday, May 9, 2009

First Chapter Study: Summary

So, the analysis of first chapters ends at three. Why? I think I got it. I opened a few more cozy mysteries, skimmed them, and I'm beginning to see a pattern. So I abruptly stopped researching, and started rewriting my first chapter. But I think it might be a good idea to revisit what I've learned.

Recipe for a beginning a Cozy:

1. Start with character. Without exception, the cozies I surveyed began by introducing a character--a compelling, complex character who, although he/she doesn't know it yet, is about to have an adventure. Right out front, it seems important to engage the reader in the character's main goals, and obstacles to those goals. These may not have anything to do with the mystery that is to follow. This is not back story, although select elements of back story might be included. (Advice to other newbies: when sprinkling on back story, make sure you keep the top on the jar.) The character should be flawed, or at least struggling, in order to engage the audience.

2. Start before a change. The biggest challenge I had was knowing where to start. While it may seem intuitive to start a mystery at the scene of the crime, this might be counterproductive in a cozy. Once the reader knows that someone is missing or dead, taking the time to introduce your amateur sleuth will be perceived as taking them out of the story. Many of the cozies I surveyed had no hint of a crime in the first chapter. And those that did, popped the crime in unexpectedly at the end.

3. Add a cast of characters. Now is a great time to introduce a handful (don't go overboard) of the people that will feature in the rest of the book--relatives/friends, the sidekick (if there is one), an antagonist (there should be at least one), the victim, and a suspect or two. The introductions should be dynamic, not static: the protagonist and the supporting cast should be in motion and be interacting with each other in the cozy environment.

4. Generate tension from the conflict of the goals and motivations of the characters. This might be intuitive, or it might take some work. For me, it was like pulling teeth, but I hope it improves with practice. What helped me get a hold of this was developing a chart highlighting the handful of characters I had chosen, getting into their heads to determine what their goals were, and then brainstorming how these goals could cause them to clash. The result was a chart:

And while I didn't choose to develop all the potential conflicts I identified, I was able to pick out a few that seemed to add a little more interest.

5. Up the stakes. Oft-repeated sage advice is that it is not good enough to get your protagonist up a tree, you must throw rocks at him while he tries to figure out how to get down. Now, these can be rocks or pebbles, but the key is, they must matter to the character. It could be anything from a stab in the back to a snide comment to a broken nail. Now, the reader may glaze over if your character breaks a nail. But if she was about to visit her domineering, critical mother who badgered her for years about biting her nails, and she had spent the last six weeks breaking that habit, and had just returned from her first manicure... Now the broken nail is important. That's raising the stakes.

6. Sprinkle in details. Add enough sensory detail to aid the reader, but not too much, or you'll smother them. Balancing this will come from practice. I hope. But now is the time to start building the cozy environment, and the best way to do that is as the characters move through it.

Those are the challenges I've been working on. What are you struggling with in your writing?

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