Note by Note and Scene by Scene–Suspense Novels: Part 2

DSC00735

Memorable characters

The characters you create live the story. There will be major players—the protagonist and her adversary the antagonist, several second tier characters who make appearances to enhance the unfolding drama, and perhaps a host of mostly nameless folks who flit in and out of various scenes.

The major characters, and some of those on the second tier, will face challenges that escalate as the story progresses. Those challenges need to be logical for each character, given their personality strengths and weaknesses.

Each character should have strengths as well as weaknesses. No person is perfect. Neither should a fictional character be perfect—not perfectly charming or perfectly evil. Even the antagonist must have some redeeming qualities.

This is where some folks shake their heads and ask, “Exactly what is redeeming about Jay Pack?”

I admit he’s pretty far gone. But as his story is revealed, it’s obvious that he’s been the victim of bullies around the world. We can empathize with the boy Jay, and realize that bullies can create monsters more sinister than themselves. Jay also has a soft spot for his mother.

The Name Game

Once during a read-around at a writer’s meeting, I shared the opening scene of Sundrop Sonata. Afterwards, another writer came up and insisted, “You have to change her name. There really WAS a Nola Pack in Winfield when I lived there.”

I gave this some thought and decided not to change the name of this minor character. After all, I didn’t personally know a Nola Pack. The person she referred to was an acquaintance from forty or fifty years previously. I picked the name “Nola” from the title of a piano solo I have enjoyed since my teen years, and the “Pak/Pack” name was selected from a Korean/English dictionary as one that would easily be anglicized.

About the same time, I was reading a novel by my friend Mary Coley, in which the bad guy had the same name as my first father-in-law. Was I offended? Certainly  not. After all, Mary could not have known this name meant anything to me.

As writers, we have the glorious opportunity to select names for a whole host of characters. Parents agonize over names for their newborns. Multiply that agony by the number of characters in a book and you begin to see what a challenge naming characters can be.

I have a few guiding principles for selecting names. First, I want to stay away from names of people I actually know, or that are identifiable. Second, I don’t want to pick something so unusual nobody can pronounce it. With billions of people on the planet, the idea of picking names that are unique—that belong to nobody in real life—is a long shot. How many people share your name already? Have you ever done a search on Facebook for yourself? I share my  name with a dozen or so other women on Facebook alone.

In the selection of character names for Sundrop Sonata, I chose some common first names paired with surnames that sometimes show up in my family history, or in a dictionary, or are cities on a map. Traveling often inspires new words and names for use in the stories writing themselves in my head.

If you encounter a book with character names you recognize, don’t take it personally. Just enjoy the story.

PICT1062

Viewpoint

Somewhere in the writing process, the writer must decide which character, or characters, will tell the story. I struggled a long time with this, writing and re-writing the opening scene about fifty times over the course of eight years. I couldn’t seem to get beyond chapter one.

Then, in a writing workshop, I encountered the idea of using several viewpoints, and even different voices. The use of three viewpoints answered my challenges. Izzy’s first person narrative is mingled with the thoughts, plans and dreams of two others in third person (Laura and Jay). There were just too many things Izzy would not have known that were crucial to the story. Yet I found it impossible to tell her story in anything but first person.

Thus, Sundrop Sonata is written with three viewpoints and a mix of first and third person voices.

A good friend reviewed the novel in the Piano Technician’s Journal. In her review, she raved about the “sonata” format, using this trio of voices. A sonata is defined as “a musical composition, usually for solo piano, in three or four extended movements contrasted in theme, tempo, and mood.” With the three different voices filtering through the story, each chapter becomes a literary sonata, or sonatina, with the entire novel a sonata.

The sonata idea worked quite well in several ways. I’ll share some of them in Part 3, Conflict and Suspense.

Walnut Valley Festival

Find Sundrop Sonata here:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AZUMTZS

 

Inside the “Sonata,” Part 2

(This is a continuation of the previous post about the story behind Sundrop Sonata.)

How did you decide on the “sonata” structure?

The term “sundrop” has almost always been part of my working title. The “sonata” part kind of fell into place after writing friends axed earlier titles. For years, I thought of the novel as The Sundrop Conspiracy. The “conspiracy” part was a bit much, so I tried Ebony, Ivory, and Mystery. That didn’t seem quite right either. On a whim, I proposed “Sonata.” A musical term, ripe with metaphorical implications for real life, “Sonata” seemed to stick.

IMG_0033

What drew you to the suspense genre? How did you approach the particular challenges of that genre? How did you build your plot?

I didn’t actually choose the suspense genre. I think it chose me. This story grew in my mind and I was compelled to write it. People kept calling it a mystery, or a cozy mystery. But it wasn’t exactly a mystery. I had a story and I wrote it, then I had to figure out what kind of novel it was.

Denver hotel
Denver hotel lobby

The plot built itself. My imagination went to work on that road trip long ago, and by the time we were home again, the story was basically there. Given the recent terrorism against the US, I wondered what other forms of attack might be possible? What might those with a grudge against the country be able to dream up that would remain unnoticed by the population until it was too late? What kinds of things might be smuggled into the country? I knew that many pianos in today’s market are imported. I also knew there are lots of places to hide things inside a piano.

"The gate is open."
“The gate is open.”

I have found interesting additions in quite a few pianos, though nothing sinister to the best of my knowledge. But what if someone with an ax to grind had access to pianos heading into the country? What if they slipped something inside those instruments? How would anybody ever know? The same would be true for automobiles, or electronic equipment, or anything that is imported from other countries.

I re-wrote the beginning of Sundrop Sonata about fifty times, learning something not to do each time. I went to writing workshops, joined writing clubs and critique groups and listened to what everyone had to say. After outlining the story structure, I went to work with daily writing sessions, and revised the original many times to come up with the published version.

OWFI
Kansas writers at OWFI

Who are your biggest literary influences?

I love to read many kinds of books and greatly admire writers who can spin a fascinating tale that is hard to put down. Some of my favorites over the years include M.M. Kaye, (http://www.mmkaye.com/), Dan Brown, (http://www.danbrown.com), Nicholas Evans, (http://www.nicholasevans.com), Barbara Kingsolver, (http://www.kingsolver.com/), Jenna Blum, (http://jennablum.com/), Paul Bishop, (http://www.paulbishopbooks.com/), Mary Coley, (https://www.marycoley.com/), Sue Monk Kidd, (http://suemonkkidd.com/), William Bernhardt, (http://www.williambernhardt.com/), JK Rowling, (http://www.jkrowling.com/), Suzanne Collins, (http://www.suzannecollinsbooks.com/), and John Grisham, (http://www.jgrisham.com/), not necessarily in that order, and not necessarily a complete list. In fact, I just enjoy reading.

PICT1062
Prairie Fest

Any advice for others interested in self-publishing?

The literary world has changed a lot since my attempts to write during my young adulthood. I realize I no longer have decades left to piddle around. I finished writing Sundrop Sonata as well as In the Shadow of the Wind, years after their seeds were planted. I revised and edited them many times, trimming, tightening, and clarifying each time.

Stage 1 at the Walnut Valley Festival
Stage 1 at the Walnut Valley Festival

I pitched each book to editors and agents at conventions and workshops and actually had several professionals express interest. Each book attracted small presses and I was offered contracts. The contracts had me doing all the footwork and editing, but the publisher would get all the rights and 85% of the royalties.

I figured if I was doing all the work, why not take the next step and independently publish? It’s fairly easy to do that these days. Many big name authors started out self-publishing and some continue to publish and represent their own work. I was fortunate to have an experienced mentor, Paul Bishop, a California author with many detective novels to his credit, (and a cousin-in-law of mine as well). Paul gave me excellent advice and guided me through the steps toward the Lionheart press.

To self-publish, you need to be clear on your motives for writing. If you are doing it for the money, don’t. If you are writing because you enjoy the process and you have a story to tell, give it your best effort and offer it to the world of readers. There are lots of readers out there, but there are also lots of books to choose from. Take the time and effort to make yours the very best it can be, offer something different, but still polished. See what happens.

You have to believe in yourself first. I have always thought Sundrop Sonata was a good story—a great story. I put my best effort into it and I enjoyed it very much. After all, I write first for myself. I hope to spend my retirement years doing something I thoroughly enjoy. If others enjoy the story, that’s a great reward in its own way. If other women, other piano lovers and music lovers, or those with adventurous hearts rave about the story, that is a bonus. I am honored when enthusiastic readers tell their friends about Sundrop Sonata.

Walnut Valley Festival
Walnut Valley Festival

Will there be other novels?

I certainly hope so. I have some threads of ideas percolating for about three more in a Sonata series of novels. I just hope they don’t each take a dozen years to arrive! I better get busy.

Red Spider Lilies
Red Spider Lilies

(If you are curious about what the Walnut Valley Festival, red spider lilies, music on the prairie, and open pasture gates have to do with pianos, murder and mystery, read Sundrop Sonata to find out. If you enjoy the story and you think others would also, post a review on Amazon or share this blogpost with your friends.)

Sundrop Sonata Cover

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AZUMTZS

 

 

 

Field Trip!

DSC00169

Quite by accident the other day, I stumbled upon an exciting place and an equally exciting way to promote a book. I met my writing friend and naturalist, Mary Coley (marycoley.me) for lunch in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Like me, Mary has spent much of her adult life occupied with making a living wage and raising a family and has returned to her love of fiction writing in recent years. She is the author of Cobwebs, Ant Dens, Beehives and soon to be released The Ravine. The day was perfect, a rare break in the nagging winds which have blown from the north one day and the south on the next for nearly two months. I drove through greening hills in my Kansas County, crossing into the rolling hills of Oklahoma. I met few other travelers between Winfield and Pawhuska.

After lunch and a long chat to catch each other up with events in our writing lives, Mary asked if I’d have time for a tour of Pawhuska.

A tour! Of the setting of her 2014 novel Cobwebs? Of course I had time to tour the setting of a book which won a 2015 Creative Woman of Oklahoma award and was a finalist in the New Mexico/Arizona book awards as well. And I’m glad I did.

 

Check out her books and her blog at these locations:

www.marycoley.com

www.marycoley.me (blog)

Mary is skilled at weaving local history and places into her books. I soon realized why she selected this sleepy little town. Pawhuska, Oklahoma is the perfect setting for a mystery. Touring the town with the book’s creator made the story come alive. Though the story takes place largely in Any House on Any Street in Pawhuska, there are several locations that figure significantly into the plot.

Along the way, I became captivated by the fascinating history of Pawhuska itself. Places Mary showed me included the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, where Cobwebs protagonist Jamie Aldrich went to find solace after puzzling and frightening events unfolded around her.

The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Pawhuska, Oklahoma
The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Pawhuska, Oklahoma

I lingered on the steps leading to the Osage County Courthouse, where so much drama between the Osage Nation and white opportunists occurred a century ago. (See marycoley.me/2014/09/05/pawhuska-means-white-hair-a-mysterious-setting/)

Osage County Courthouse, Pawhuska, Oklahoma
Osage County Courthouse, Pawhuska, Oklahoma

We drove through the cemetery where in the book Jamie discovered that her new friend Sam had also lost a spouse in recent years.

Pawhuska Cemetery
Pawhuska Cemetery

We turned around in the parking lot of the little grocery store where Jamie was snubbed by a local woman and had no idea why.

Grocery store
Grocery store

We drove by the Pawhuska Museum. Mary described a real fire that temporarily closed the local museum where she had written about an arsonist’s handiwork in her fiction book. The museum provided much background for protagonist Jamie to uncover chilling details that helped explain events that brought her to Pawhuska.

Museum
Museum

We cruised through the city park where Sam revealed to Jamie that she has a blood connection to the Osage Nation.

DSC00162
The picnic table in Pawhuska City Park where a fictional conversation occurs between characters.

The tour was energizing–an excellent way for Mary to promote her book! If you ask, perhaps she’ll schedule a tour for you. I’m looking forward to a personal tour of the locale covered in Ant Dens (Sante Fe, NM area) and Beehives (Osage Hills State Park, Oklahoma). It makes me wonder about settings in other books I’ve read. Several locations in my own Sundrop Sonata are based on genuine places I have been, but they are scattered over a much broader area. Still, a tour. . .makes you wonder, doesn’t it?