Welcome to today’s guest Terry Shames, author of the Samuel Craddock mysteries!
Discovering the Story
I’m in the middle of writing my next Samuel Craddock mystery, and I’m feeling paralyzed, wondering how I’m ever going to make a good story out of what looks like a complete mess. I’ve put several threads in motion, but right now none of them seem to be easily resolved. And they also don’t have anything to do with each other. Furthermore, at this point they don’t seem all that interesting. But I’ve been here before. I know that I have to just keep putting words on the page, letting the characters go about their business, and basically let “the magic” happen. The magic doesn’t happen by accident, though. I have to set the stage for it. For a while I can let myself meander, being indulgent, poking into places that seem interesting, taking a closer look at what characters are up to. But eventually I have to remind myself that if I want people to read the book, I have to make it into a good story.
So, what makes a good story? When I pick up a mystery my first hope is that I will be drawn to the characters. The best story in the world won’t hold my interest unless the characters are worth getting to know. They have to have some trait I can identify with. Are they scared, but brave? Are they cowardly? Are they tough-minded, weak, ordinary, deliriously happy, mopey? Whatever is going on with someone, I want a clue right away. That dovetails with a good set-up. It doesn’t have to be especially dramatic, but the character has to be up to something, or thinking about getting up to something. I’ve noticed that even in books that start with somebody just philosophizing about life or their past, pretty quickly the reader understands that the character wants something or plans to do something. There has to be a potential for action.
In short, the opening has to make me wonder who I’m going to read about (am I reading about the protagonist right away, or am I reading a minor character?), where I am (on a boat, in a car trunk, in an apartment, out in the open?), and what is at stake (life or death, a fortune, a reputation, a mission?)
Once the characters and the initial situation are established, the body of the story has to move forward relentlessly, organically, and in a way that makes sense. The characters and opening have told the reader what to expect, and those expectations need to be met—preferably with serviceable prose. In the end, the main conflict has to be resolved. But one resolution isn’t enough. The story needs a series of smaller conflicts and payoffs regarding either the main plot or sub-plots. The protagonist has to overcome unexpected issues that arise in the course of reaching the resolution of the main conflict. These issues can be anything from discovering a lie, a false assumption, or character conflicts. And they all have to bear on the final resolution.
Going with that model, because I write a series, the characters are usually “the regulars” with a few new ones to spice things up. And the set-up is what made me decide to write the particular book I’m writing. And I know how it’s going to end. It’s that pesky middle part that makes it hard. In every book I have written, at some point the obstacles I’ve set up are so great that I can’t figure out how Samuel Craddock is going to reach the goal. My solution is to keep writing, trusting that at some point I will have an “aha” moment that will give me the solution I need. In a way, it’s as if I’m reading the book while I’m writing it. And I hope the author, that elusive self that writes my books, has already worked it out. Now all I have to do to discover it is keep reading….or rather, writing.
Terry Shames writes the best-selling, Samuel Craddock series, published by Seventh Street Books. The books are set in small town Texas and feature chief of police Samuel Craddock. MysteryPeople named Shames one of the top five Texas mystery writers of 2017. An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, January, 2017, has been nominated for a Lefty Award. Her latest book, A Reckoning in the Back Country, received a starred review from Library Journal. Kirkus called it, “…an enjoyable, often disturbing, read.” Terry is a member of Northern California Sisters in Crime and MWA. www.Terryshames.com.