Recognizing Endings

A writer friend of mine recently commented that she needed 15k more words to end her book.  But when she was 10k words farther along, she realized she needed yet another 15k words.

I had the opposite experience with the last two books I wrote.  Each time I thought I needed another 15k words to the ending, and then on further reflection, I realized that I was actually in the ending.

All of this makes me wonder:  how do we recognize an ending?  We know we have to resolve the main plot of the story, and in crime fiction that means loosely to restore order.  We solve the mystery, we release the tension of suspense, we account for justice  and the criminal in various ways, depending on subgenre.  But there’s more to an ending than resolution.

1.  Endings are also about timing.  When is the time right to end?

In short stories, the form dictates tightness.  In novel length, there’s room to wander after interesting plot threads.  But in the end, all those threads should come together.  In my last book, I realized that extra words really didn’t contribute to the wrap-up in the end.  It was just a detour, a way to put off writing the end.

2.  Endings are also about type.  Is it a “final” ending?  Or is it a pause?

In a stand-alone novel, all plot threads need to be wrapped up or at least suggested.  In a series novel, the ending is more like a pause until the next book.  While the main plot needs to be resolved, some plot threads carry over, to be resolved in later books.  The last book of the series hopefully resolves the questions accumulated throughout.

3.  Endings are also about tone.

When a story is light in tone, it will be punchy and more effective when its ending comes sooner rather than later.  More serious stories with more complex characters have room to grow, wandering down side paths that drive home the point.  There’s a risk in leaving these stories too soon, before the reader is emotionally ready to give them up.

4.  Endings are also about balance.

Long books can accommodate longer endings (defined as that portion of the book that takes place after the climax ends).  But when a shorter book has a longer ending, it feels out of balance, and it just seems to ramble on and on…

It’s not always clear when a book should end.  Endings make us scramble to find resolution and give meaning to what went before.  But one ending that IS clear is the end of our calendar year.  Here’s hoping the end of your year resolves exactly the way you meant!

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Pets Are Family, Too!

We love our pets.  So much so, that in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, people don’t “own” pets.  We are guardians of pets.

Personally, my family has guarded a wide range of pets (except for reptiles–I have to draw the line somewhere).  One of our most memorable furry family members was a ferret, who now rests in peace in my rose garden.  I have fun resurrecting her in my Nell Letterly mysteries.  Ferrets make a perfect mystery character because they are drawn to shiny things, and they like to hide them away in their secret nests.

Cats are a traditional favorite in mystery stories.  For many interesting years, we were the guardians of a Siamese-Torti, who was all Siamese in attitude.  Here she is, supervising my gift wrapping efforts with her opinion:

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They say that cats are roommates and dogs are companions, and we’ve guarded our share of dogs, too.  Meet my granddog, whose portrait I tried to paint, trying to capture her sheer joy during our family exercise:

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Pets have their own unique personalities, and it’s fun to include them as characters in mysteries.  We care about them because they’re family, too.  One of my thanks on this eve of Thanksgiving is the joy of our pets.

Do you enjoy reading mysteries with memorable pets?  One of my favorite pet mysteries is Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series.  What are some of yours?

Families in Chaos

I like to write about families in chaos.  That chaos ranges from the lighter side–such as teen angst and mischief from the pet ferret–to the darker side, such as kidnapping and betrayal.

None of this means that my own family is in chaos!  Trouble always adds spice to fictional life, when real life is–thankfully–less “spicy.”

Sometimes we have to extrapolate to put drama into our stories.

I’ve written about overworked moms, which is something I know firsthand.  But when I fictionalize my overworked moms, I take them to the extreme to see what could happen when their dedication to their different jobs costs them precious family time.  And oops!  Kidnapping and maybe a murder or two have happened.  My heroines get their villains in the end, and order is restored.  But that order doesn’t come only in the form of justice to society.  Order is also restored to the family.

And speaking of villains…

Last month I posted about how I was trying to identify the villain of the story I was working on.  This month I’m happy to report that I’ve found the villain, and wouldn’t you know?  It’s a family connection.

Which leads me to wonder why families are so powerful to use in mysteries?  Maybe because…

  1. They provide a strong motivation for the sleuth to sleuth when a family member is threatened.
  2. Families will provide terrific inside information, if they’re in a position to do so.
  3. Families hide skeletons in their closets (personally, I love this one!)
  4. Domestic violence provides crime fodder (although I personally don’t write this dark).

Can you add more reasons?  Do you have a favorite?

Identifying the Villain

I’m in the middle of writing a new mystery story now, and honestly, I don’t have a clue whodunnit.  I am counting on “magic happens” to unveil the villain for me as this story unfolds.  Right now, I scarcely know what happened.  Being a pantser is a messy writing process, and it usually costs me countless revisions.  I’ve tried to reform myself and write to outline.  And failed each time.

So…

What’s a pantser to do?  When a cast of characters shows up to your story, how do you know which one of them did it?  They might all appear well-adjusted on the outside, but the villain needs to harbor a dastardly darkness within, making him or her capable of villainy.  It’s not always so obvious.

So I have to walk myself through the steps of what I need in a “good” villain.

I like to start by looking at the 5 W’s of good journalism:  who, what, when, where, and why?  And I absolutely add how.

  • Who = villain (unidentified thus far)
  • What = the crime performed by said villain
  • When = opportunity, when villain was able to carry out his/her villainy
  • Where = setting (this defines the villain, otherwise, why is s/he there?)
  • Why = motive (usually harkens back to some form of the 7 deadly sins, i.e., plot)
  • How = modus operandi (how does the villain do it and with what means?)

The characters who show up for my casting call start talking to me, and I let them carry on and act out before reining them in.  This usually reveals secrets that answer some of the questions I’ve raised from the 5 W’s.

After this month’s discussion on fictional villains, I can also add some takeaway points.  Thanks, Ladies!

  • Every story has a villain, Liz reminded us, so I know he or she is out there.
  • A villain needs power, Peg suggested.  (Of course! That makes him or her capable.)
  • Villains participate in story, Kait said.  (Therefore, I can’t pull someone out of the hat at the end.)
  • Twists make villains more interesting.  The rest of us have said this in various ways, including changing perceptions, betrayals by friends, villains who don’t look like villains, silent villains like disease, sabotage by our own selves, or…  Could my villain be hiding behind attention-deflecting earrings??

In the end, I trust that the villain will be unveiled through means, method, motive, and opportunity.  And it all has to make sense.  It isn’t magic after all.

The Quiet Villain

Villains come in many packages.  They range from greedy megalomaniacs, mad scientists, princes of darkness, angry misanthropes, cat-torturing perverts, or…that quiet neighbor next door who’s never gotten a speeding ticket.

Some years ago at a writers conference, Ann Rule–the queen of true crime–explained why she liked to write about villains like the boy-next-door typeTed Bundy instead of [insert name of whatever sensational, crazed psychopath pops up in the daily news].

What I understood her to say was that villains are more interesting when they don’t look like villains.

She was talking about her own projects within true crime, but my brain got stuck on this for story potential, especially for mystery and suspense fiction.

I think it’s true, too, for fictional villains.  They are more complex characters when their  evil is hidden.  And it makes it more fun for the reader, either trying to guess whodunnit in a mystery or understanding the whydunnit side in a suspense novel.

Interesting villains are those who outwardly look like your average joe or jane.  Inside, they harbor the depths of darkness.  Outside, they blend in with a crowd.  They act normal in public, and they do their villainy under wraps.  What makes them tick?

Make no mistake:  villains certainly act villainous, but “the quiet villain” is way too crafty and clever to make his or her villainy obvious.  They aren’t easy to spot in a crowd.  They know how to behave in a socially acceptable manner in public so that they blend in and slip through the dragnet, making it all that much harder for our hero.

Villains are so wily that they test the metal of smart sleuth.  The villain is the only character capable of possibly winning a match against the protagonist sleuth.  Will this be the book where the villain wins this time?  It keeps us reading the next book in order to find out!

Dazzled, Late at Night

We just returned from a fabulous European river cruise, and I am so dazzled, I have no words.  But I do have a photo or two (or maybe a thousand?)

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Oh, the lights we saw!

Castles and palaces, monuments and churches filled us with wonder along the way.  At night, they lit the river banks, and by day they rose through magical spirals of mist.

We started in Budapest, and with the tunes of Strauss, we sailed the Danube.  Then we turned on to the canal, which connects the River Main, and we carried on through charming Bavaria.  By this time, three stories that want to be written were calling to me, desperately trying to catch my attention.

But I pushed them aside as we finally sailed on to the mighty Rhine.  One of the purposes of this trip was to recreate the journey my German great-grandmother made when she immigrated to America in the 1880’s.

Yes, research.

Hers is another story I want to write, and there is much to learn.  She was only a teenager when she started her journey all alone, sailing the Rhine after leaving her family behind forever.  What must she have been thinking?  What did she see and feel along the way?  What was it like to live in her world at that time?

I’m pretty sure I’ve inherited some of her adventuring spirit, but I’m not sure I could’ve made the decision she made to uproot herself so completely and face the vast unknowns that lay ahead of her.

Could you?

Inspiration, “Late that Night”

Melanie and I were best friends during that year our fathers’ tours overlapped in the same city.  We were twelve years old, and there were no other girls our age in our community.  Being twelve, we were not allowed a very long reign, as we were living in a new place.  We stayed close to home, and we were schooled through correspondence study.  We didn’t get out much.

So we relied on each other, as best friends do.

Once per week we were allowed slumber parties at each other’s houses.  There was no TV, so our entertainment came mostly from books.  We were both fans of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and my personal favorite, Kay Tracy.  Melanie and I swapped books and chatted endlessly about them.  But our supply was limited.  We read everything our little community library had, and there was no more.

So we made up our own stories.

Nighttime is always the best time for making up stories.  Nighttime invites mysteries.  Melanie and I spied on the “late at night” goings-on of the people in our neighborhoods.  To us, theirs was furtive activity.  What on earth could anyone be doing outside late at night?  They must be up to no good!  Imagining, we made up the stories.

Mysteries, of course.

Our fathers went on to different posts, and Melanie and I ended up losing touch with each other, as it was so easy to do in those pre-internet days.  I only know pieces of her family’s story, and I’ve always wondered what became of my friend.  I wonder if she became a mystery writer, as I did?  Thanks to those “late at night” stories, I was inspired to keep on making up more stories.