Saturday, May 5, 2012

Keeping It Straight

First, thanks to Jeff and the MMA readers for inviting me along and letting me share my thoughts! My Peg Herring Blog Tour for May (actually, a dozen stops in May and one in June) consists mostly of interviews with Seamus, the Dead Detective. Sprinkled among those posts are a few on writing itself, like today’s topic, “Keeping Things Straight.”

The next stop on the tour will be at The Stiletto Gang’s Blog on May 3rd. A complete schedule is posted at my blog at After the tour is over, (June 11th) I plan to post the complete Seamus interview there, so even if you miss a post, you can still read everything the dead guy has to say.

“How do you make it all work out?” People often ask when they learn I write books.

My Dead Detective Mystery series is paranormal, though I don’t particularly like that term. No creeping vampires or rotting flesh here. Seamus is dead, but he’s mostly over it. From necessity he operates inside the heads of the living, which, I find, complicates things for me, the writer.

Problem #1: Seamus has his own thoughts, but he’s also privy to the thoughts of his hosts. As the writer, I have to help the reader keep straight who is thinking what. Fortunately, my editors are really good at (in fact, I think they relish) saying, “Peg, we can’t tell who’s thinking here.” I’ve learned that he thought is every bit as useful and unobtrusive as he said. Thoughts, of course, don’t come in complete sentences, so they might look a little strange. I use italics to make it clear that what is on the page at a given point is someone’s thought. Keeping that straight requires a lot of thinking on my part, too.

Problem #2 is keeping straight who knows what, and when. Often there are two dead detectives operating in a story, and each one picks up things from various hosts as they head-hop. I have to keep track of who learns what and how they share that information with each other. (They can’t share what they know with the living, at least not much.) It’s frustrating sometimes, and I have to remind myself that I made up these rules, so I can’t blame anyone else.

Finally, there are two plotlines in each book: the mystery that’s being solved on earth and the victim’s process of adjusting to the idea of being dead. I’ve found that it’s easier to write these separately, as if they were completely different stories, and then weave them together. Before I did this, my editors found a lot of repetition. I’d leave Story A to write a segment of Story B and lose track of where I’d been in A when I returned to it. Writing them separately lets me keep each one straight, and I think it helps when I blend them, too. I can look at the two subplots and put parallel events near each other, which might increase tension at some points or the reader’s curiosity at others.

All the work it takes to keep things straight makes me admire the great writers even more than I used to. Think about authors you studied in school who managed to keep the various story threads straight and weave them together to perfection. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is a great example. Every single thing the reader learns in that story meets nicely at the end to create a satisfying conclusion. If we simply trust Dickens and keep the events in mind, we’ll come to exactly the right point at the end of the story. That’s because great authors are masters at keeping their stories straight.

Mystery writers have to really work to keep things straight, because our stories focus on one result: the solution to a crime. We must provide a believable motive, well-drawn characters, an exciting plot, and good writing, and all of that must work toward a single end. I work hard on all my mysteries, but in the Dead Detective series, I also work to help readers effortlessly follow the unusual scenario. If I keep things straight, my readers will have a great time traveling with Seamus as he visits from the Other Side to provide answers—if not justice--for the victims of murder.

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