Sunday, March 3, 2019

Who says tv isn't educational?

When my critique group read the only murder scene I've ever written, they were surprised by the creepiness. You see, I've never been one to watch violent movies or read violent books, much less murder a character. Many years ago, I had to watch "A Clockwork Orange" for a college literature class, and found it incredibly disturbing. That movie turned me off violence as entertainment for a long time. Until now, that is. I have a confession. I have recently begun watching a variety of true crime stories on the Justice Network.

During my recent crime-watching spree, I've picked up a few techniques and themes for killing/solving a murder. I'm not quite sure how I'll incorporate this into my writing, but I may be able to develop some plot twists that will keep the reader wondering "whodunnit."

Here's what I've learned so far:

If the female victim is married, the husband probably did it.

If the male victim is married, the wife probably did it.

Don’t pay a hit man in full until after the act is completed. One husband (see, I told you it was always the husband) paid a hit man $30,000 up front to kill his wife. He drove her to a predetermined spot on a deserted highway, and the gunman was supposed to pull alongside the car and shoot the woman to make it look like a random drive-by. 

Due to the fact that the husband was an accomplice/witness, the hit man also needed to eliminate the husband, and because he already had his money, that "random drive-by" was now a double murder.

If you are going to murder someone, remove every hair from your body, and don’t eat or drink anything from a dish, glass, or silverware that can be collected and tested for DNA. One suspect used only one set of silverware that he carried with him at all times. He slipped up by smoking a cigarette and tossing it into a trash can, which was immediately picked up by law enforcement and taken to a lab for a DNA sample. That's how he was caught.

Hefty is in the crime-solving business. It’s true. If you kill someone (in your book, of course) don't go to the kitchen and pull a garbage bag off the roll in order to wrap the body, and then put the rest of the bags back in the cabinet. Get rid of all the bags. Forensic experts can match the plastic in the bag to the roll in your kitchen. Who knew? 

If you take video of yourself to prove your whereabouts during a crime, don't doctor the date/time stamp, and don't edit pieces of the video together to make it look like one cohesive scene. If you video yourself before and after the crime, the sun will have travelled across the sky so that the light and shadows change. This will be obvious to anyone who is looking to see if the video has been doctored.

Finally, don't take out a life-insurance policy within a few months of murdering someone. It won't prove that you did it, but it begins to point a finger in that direction.

So, there you have it, everything I've learned about murder in the last couple of months. This information is to be used only in the realm of make-believe, and not in the real world. If you actually murder someone, I'm not going to bail you out, and I'll probably plead the 5th.

Write soon,


Thursday, January 3, 2019

Kill your darlings

In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs said everyone wants to go to Heaven, but no one wants to die to get there. Unfortunately, we all die, and so do many of our characters. Death in literature is a common theme because it's a part of life, but the way we write these deaths can add layers of insight to the character, theme, and plot.

Death is not only about the dying. Death can catapult a story into overdrive as characters scramble to figure out how their lives will change. Experiencing the drama and pain for those around the dying can drive an entire plot. Pay careful attention to the words used to describe the event. What is the mood or tone? Is it more effective to keep it simple, or do long, quiet conversations fit the characters and the mood? I've seen both done well, and each depends on the type of story you create. I've chosen a few examples of death portrayals to help you write your next scene.

The first one comes from my unpublished novel, but will give readers a little insight into the killer's frame of mind. The set-up is that the woman he drugged and tied to a sinking boat is facing the wrong way, and the only thing he is upset about is that he can't see her face.

“I’ll plan more carefully next time,” he said, as he picked a small blue flower to place in the lapel of his jacket folded neatly in his car. In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway also leaves out the emotional aspect of death, but for a completely different reason. "After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain."

In Dead Poets Society, the sound of the gun firing off camera leaves no room for doubt. Neil's father, the man we loved to hate, suddenly becomes vulnerable as the death of his son fills his house, destroying both of their lives.

Describing a death using figurative language can also be effective. In The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton used the sentence “Like a candle with the flame gone,” to describe the body of Johnny Cade, who died a heroic death saving children from a fire.

 Is death quiet, loud, or lonely? Does it take place on a battlefield, or in an empty hospital room? Is the dying subject surrounded by a spouse and large family, or a former lover no one knew about? Perhaps a childhood friend, or the son or daughter who hasn't been heard from for decades shows up for reasons not quite clear until making a shocking confession.

Showing who cares about an impending death, and who is there only to be seen by the others can explain character motives. A frail figure in a deathbed may work as another character reveals how the dying character hurt her, and share how much she enjoys watching him suffer. Or a seemingly devoted wife watches helplessly as her husband grows weaker by the day, until the writer reveals that she prepares his favorite meals with a little bit of salt, pepper, and poison.

Edgar Allan Poe said, "The death, then, of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world." Poe's life was full of death, and often the topic of his work. A symbol of death may be small, as when a drop of blood appeared on the lip of his beloved wife as she sang. Death had announced itself through that tiny red dot, but the implication was huge, for he knew in that moment she had tuberculosis.

If your character dies at the hands of someone else, what does it say about both of them? Choosing the right weapon can be instrumental in determining the type of betrayal or pain felt by the attacker. Strangling or stabbing is intimate, while shooting from across the room isn't as personal. The death may also explain a code of honor the victim or attacker lived by, or whose love was unrequited.

Death is simple for the dying, but complicated for everyone else. The next time you write a death scene, determine how the death affects the entire story, and not just the victim.

Mary Horner earned The Writing Certificate from the University of Missouri, and teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

I am Spider-Man (at least for a little while)

If you've ever cried or felt your heart pound while reading a book or watching a movie, then you've experienced what I call "reality blocking"--the process of becoming so engrossed in a story that you ignore your own feelings and adopt those of a fictional character. In the real world, nothing has happened, but your brain processes the information you see or read as if it were real, which, in turn, causes your body to react as if it were true. You "become" the character and see the world through his or her eyes.

Good writing focuses on shared emotions. Regardless of whether you write fiction or nonfiction, tapping into the emotions that make us human can improve your writing. Readers will root for the boy to get the girl of his dreams because we have all loved someone, and readers will empathize with the athlete who loses the race because we have all worked hard for something important, and suffered defeat. We feel the character's pain or joy.

So when I follow a fictional mother down a long, dark hallway toward her children's bedroom because she heard an unearthly noise, my fear increases with every step. She begins to sweat, and I begin to sweat. I relate because I worry that something bad might happen to someone I love. Because I care, I want to know what happens, and will continue to turn pages or sit through a movie that scares me. 

This also explains why I care about alien invasion, Spidey Senses, or a wizard who casts away evil. None of these things will ever affect me (probably), so why am I not content to sit at home and pet my cat and work on a craft project? Instead, I willingly spend my time and money sitting in a dark theater, or curled up in a comfortable arm chair to experience a world that looks nothing like mine. 

Through empathy, I can put myself in Spider-Man's shoes (does he wear shoes?) and think about what I would do in his situation. Would I feel guilty for Uncle Ben's death? Probably. I can relate to that emotion because I have experienced my own guilt and sorrow. 

Audiences will care when they know why the main character cares. If there is no emotion behind the action, then we are just watching a guy in a spider suit. Although I will never spin a web from my wrist, I connect to his emotions and put myself in the center of the action, which makes me believe that I am Spider-Man (at least for a little while). 

Here's a link for more information:

Mary Horner is a freelance writer, editor, and author of "Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing." She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Cue the Romance!

How do you write the "falling in love" scene? For tips, follow the link to my Women on Writing blog post!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The devil is in the details!

Read about the mistakes I've made regarding using too many details!

Friday, December 16, 2016

WOW The Muffin

I am now blogging for The Muffin!

My friends at Women On Writing, a great website resource for any writer, invited me to be a regular contributor last month. I am so pleased to be part of a wonderful group of writers, and you can find my thoughts on writing twice a month. Here's a link to my second post!

Write soon,


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Macaroni and cheese

The act of crafting a great beginning sends many writers to Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon Prime and/or the bottle for answers, or a way to procrastinate. Personally, I Googled how to begin a novel so I could begin this blog post about how to begin writing.

The answer? There is no perfect way to begin. There are many ways to craft a beginning, and each rule or strategy has its merits, but every writer has to find his or her own way depending on the piece. However, I did learn that writing a great beginning can be difficult, intimidating and frustrating. 

Regardless of whether we follow the rules or break them, the way a writer begins a book, article or a blogpost gives the readers a path in to the world he or she created. In the speech class I teach, it's called an attention-getter; and in journalism, the lead (or lede) or hook. Regardless, each is a strategy designed as a preview of what's to come. Each word, line and paragraph work together to encourage the reader to continue. A great beginning creates desire. A great beginning creates the need to find out what happens, or explore the "what if?" A great beginning is essential.

That's a lot of pressure.

While watching a cooking show, I started to think about how the chef began the process. There were lots of utensils, equipment and ingredients scattered about. But if you go back before the the process began, the ingredients and equipment were scattered about a store, and before that, possibly scattered around the world. And before that, maybe the chef was a kid who grew tired of plain old macaroni and cheese and wanted to switch it up. So how do all these factors come together? With time, patience and desire to create something wonderful.

Every chef knows that his or her mac and cheese is not like anyone else's, and that's what makes the world an interesting place. And the recipe has probably changed from the first effort, and maybe quite a few times. What's right for one chef may not be right for another.

So when readers enter a world that may be self-contained, or spread out like the ingredients in a great dish, the writer has to find the right way in. He or she needs to guide us through the one door that will take us right to the heart of the story, and make it clear and interesting while asking questions and presenting options. The effort to begin the story effectively may be long and difficult, or maybe not. Maybe the simple blue box of macaroni and cheese is the secret comfort food your favorite chef craves, and that's OK.

Here's how authors began a few of my favorite books:

"Four hours out from Los Angeles I drove into nothingness."

            Jory Sherman, from The Ballad of Pinewood Lake

 "This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun."

            Mitch Albom, from The Five People You Meet in Heaven

"Begin here. It was raining." 

            May Sarton, from Journal of a Solitude

"Jack is the church I have joined, but he is a church without ceremony."

            Martha Bergland, from A Farm Under a Lake

So I've learned that it doesn't matter how we find our way in, but that we are more likely to find the way that speaks to us. And the rules are followed, and they aren't, and sometimes the method that should work doesn't, and what shouldn't work does. Why? Because writing, like life, is complex and difficult and we all have a unique perspective, just like a favorite macaroni and cheese recipe.

Write soon,