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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Story Behind The Story

A really great mystery or suspense novel whisks me along the protagonist's journey as she unravels clues, escapes from danger, or lands smack in the middle of trouble all over again. (Hey, if it's smooth sailing, that gets kind of boring.) An excellent writer makes this trip seem effortless. When I read a book by one of my favorite mystery/suspense authors, I careen along through the book just for fun the first time through. Then, I try taking the story apart to see how it works.

One thing I've discovered is that a mystery/suspense writer must tackle two story lines: the version the reader gets, and the story behind the story. What the reader doesn't know, but will...eventually...

This story behind the story is the murderer's journey. Maybe they don't think they've made a mistake in covering their trail. Maybe they're a little over-confident. "No one will suspect me." Yet no crime is exactly perfect, and it only takes one slip-up for the murderer's scheme to unravel. That, plus an intelligent sleuth.

Before I wrote the synopsis for my book, I figured out the murderer's story line, from the first time they felt disgruntled, to the time they were pushed over the edge (yes, to the Dark Side), all the way to their cleanup and coverup after the wicked deed. In the murderer's mind, they feel they're partly if not completely justified in their actions, even for an instant in a crime of passion. Paying attention to the murderer was vital to my story, because I would have no novel at all if it weren't for the unseen villian.

But, someone might ask, what if the murderer's point of view never enters the story? Knowing the murderer is just as important as knowing the protagonist. Although my novel, A Suspicion of Strawberries, is in the heroine's point of view, I traced the murderer's trail while I followed Andromeda Clark's attempts to figure out who killed Charla Rae Thacker. The murderer is smart, but I believe Andi Clark is smarter.

And one day, readers will know The Rest of The Story.
Happy Writing~

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Step into the world of a cozy mystery

Stop for a moment and think about your favorite cozy mystery and the hero/heroine. What makes you love their story? If we took a poll, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the main things that draws the reader in is the setting and the characters. The characters are bigger than life, quirky, fun, and perhaps a bit eccentric. Maybe they are someone you’d enjoy chatting with over a cup of tea.

Think about Lilian Jackson Braun and her The Cat Who. . . series. Jim Quilleran with his perceptive mustache, love for reporting, and most importantly, his Siamese cats, Yum Yum and Koko. Or what about Cabot Cove’s favorite author, Jessica Fletcher who manages to solve real life mysteries as well as she pens them.

Here we have our amateur sleuths with the added dimension of a setting that becomes a character in itself. In The Cat Who Turned On and Off, for instance, Quilleran finds himself in Junktown, that’s not only a haven for antique dealers and collectors, but full of odd suspects. Murder She Wrote’s setting is a cozy spot in Maine. The kind of place that makes us want to come and stay for a long visit.

If you’re interested in writing a cozy mystery, one of the first things you need to do is develop your hero. Typically, you will want to give your amateur sleuth a special insight or ability that helps him/her solve the crime. Miss Marple had an uncanny intuition, Father Brown had religious insight, and as a reporter, Jim Quilleran had a knack for playing the role of detective. Think of fun and unique hobbies, jobs, or skills that will work well in solving the mystery.

In my upcoming release with Barbour, Recipe for Murder, Pricilla Crumb is my quirky heroine. She’s a cross between PBS’s Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances and Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote.

Pricilla is a fantastic cook, who, tiring quickly of retirement, goes to work for her son at his upscale Colorado lodge. In the first chapter she’s certain she’s killed the victim and rushes to the police to confess her crime. Throughout the book Pricilla gets into trouble for opening her mouth at the wrong time, but you can’t help but love her endearing personality as she’s determined to save the reputation of her son’s lodge and find out the truth, thus beginning her unofficial career as a novice detective.

One last point when it comes to developing your super sleuth’s character. There needs to be something at stake for him/her. Yes, it’s important for her to be a bit nosy and a busybody, but give her a motivation for sleuthing. Set the stakes high enough and make them personal enough so that she has something to lose if the case isn’t solved quickly.

In Recipe for Murder, Pricilla Crumb has not only her own reputation at stake as a cook extraordinaire when she fears her salmons tartlets have killed one of the guests at her son’s elite mountain lodge, but she’s afraid that she’s ruined the reputation of the lodge. As she sets out to solve the case, this also puts her at odds with the detective in charge of the case who’s also trying to prove himself to his uncle on his first big murder case. (adding conflict to the story)

And let’s not forget the victim, the antagonist (the guilty suspect), and your entire list of suspects. Each suspect needs to have a secret and a motive. They need to be a cast of characters that add to the cozy feel of your story. And your victim shouldn’t be the beloved neighbor from next door. Normally, this role goes to someone that everyone is happy to see depart to the other side.

Have fun writing!


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Interview with John Robinson

Today we welcome, John Robinson, the author of the popular Joe Box mystery series, published by River Oak. (See his bio and list of books below.) http://www.johnrobinsonbooks.com/

Scrape That Gum Off Your Shoe!

Private investigators. What goes through your head when you picture one? A tough guy in a trench coat spouting gruff, side-of-the-mouth dialogue that’s sharp enough to shave with? Brassy, wisecracking dames in distress? Fistfights, gunfights, and dark, glistening city streets, all put to the music of a lone, wailing saxophone?

Well … yeah.

I do, anyway. Matter of fact, most of us do. But somehow over the years that mythos turned into a stereotype, and we are all poorer for it. Because make no mistake, there are some gems to be found. The masters from the early years showed us how to do it: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, even Mickey Spillane all had their moments. A lot of their work was magic.

And then, beginning in the sixties, private eye fiction began to fall out of favor. Only in the last decade and a half or so has the reading public decided to give it another try. Thankfully some good writers have stepped up to the plate. A cursory perusal of a bookstore’s mystery section showcases such talents as Robert B. Parker, Loren Estleman, James Lee Burke, Robert Crais, and others. These writers all expanded the borders of PI fiction. Now we have lady PIs, gay PIs, midget PIs, kid PIs, part-time PIs, handicapped PIs, just about everything under the sun … except for spiritual PIs.

Until now.

At the risk of blowing my own horn, I’ve tried to address that. My PI is named Joe Box. He’s a transplanted Southerner, a Vietnam vet, an animal lover, a widower, and a former cop.

He’s also a brand-new Christian.

The tension comes from following Joe as he seeks to balance his new walk of faith against his admittedly gritty profession. The first three titles are Until the Last Dog Dies, When Skylarks Fall, and To Skin a Cat (the last one due out this fall, 2006).
Can a Christian private investigator hold his own in a secular market? Why not? Lord knows there’s a need. But in the spirit of equal opportunity I’ve come up with a second series featuring a character named Mac Ryan. Mac has strong convictions that are his moral code. He’s a combat veteran of the Iraqi war and, like Joe, hails from the south. I’ve left his spiritual condition a mystery (for now). His first adventure, and a hairy one at that, is called Consumed. It’s being considered by some New York ABA houses. All that to say, the future for private eye fiction looks bright, no matter what brand of gumshoe you favor.

Now, enough jawing. Somebody get this dame off my desk, hand me my heater, and cue the sax …

John Robinson is fifty-four years old, married thirty-two years to the finest woman on the planet, his wife Barb. The father of two grown sons and grandfather of two, he’s also the retired owner of a successful financial planning firm. John hopes to eventually go into full-time writing, and as the author of the popular Joe Box mystery series, is well on his way. He’s made some good friends in the Christian publishing world, including Karen Kingsbury, Al Gansky, and Christy-winner James Scott Bell, all of who used their talents to help John hone his craft.

John’s books include:

Until the Last Dog Dies (RiverOak, June 2004)
When Skylarks Fall (RiverOak, October 2005)
To Skin a Cat (RiverOak, September, 2006)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Where Does a Murderer Lurk?

...or any other kind of villain?

Believe it or not, it might your neighbor next door, the one hovering over his barbecue grill. Or she might have a cart stacked full groceries in the line beside you in Wal-Mart. Maybe she's the one standing who thumps the cantaloupe as she contemplates how to get rid of the body in her bathtub. All the while, you're across from her in the produce aisle, selecting apples for a pie.

One thing that intrigues me about mysteries is the proof of human nature. What is it that pushes an ordinary individual to commit a crime, then try to drift back into the life around them without being caught? What mistakes do they make that lead a sleuth to their doorstep?

I believe the more we study human nature and its fallibility, we can craft characters that pull readers into the story world and don't let them out until the story's done.

I claim no expert knowledge. I'm not a lawyer, police officer, forensics specialist, or detective. But I'm a people watcher, and one of my favorite questions to ask is, Why do people do the things they do? Perhaps it's because of greed, revenge, unforgiveness, rage, jealousy, or even fear.

Negative qualities, yes. But also reminders of how much we need the grace that God sheds on all who are willing to accept His gift. We always have a choice. So like my friend Lisa Harris said, that's the message of my stories.

Happy Sleuthing!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Cozy Mystery vs. Suspense

For my blog time, I thought I'd share with you a bit about what makes a cozy mystery. Not only are alot of writers writing them, there are alot of readers are reading them which makes it great for sales. But for the writer, I've found that there is often alot of confusion as to what makes a cozy mystery. I'm currently teaching a class on line for American Christian Fiction Writers and here's what we came up with this past week.

Defining the Cozy mystery:

• A cozy mystery is a puzzle to be solved by the h/h and may revolve around any crime, not necessarily a murder victim, though a murder victim is common.
• A cozy mystery is often filled with humor
• A cozy focuses more on the hero/heroine solving the crime.
• A cozy is one in which the problem solving is done by someone other than the police. An amateur detective where the h/h does the sleuthing.
• A cozy is a puzzle where the answer is hidden until the end with a lot of red herrings along the way. (To add to this Barbour Publishing says, “Avoid surprising the reader. On the whole, readers do not enjoy when information is withheld. If the Protagonist leaves out an afternoon in which they engage in important activities that allow them to solve the crime, waiting to reveal this until the end is unfair to the readers. Readers like to participate in the solving and deserve to be included in the process.”)
• Cozy main characters need to be ordinary people, not professional crime solvers, and have some reason that compels them to try to solve the crime. It helps if they are nosy, but also they should have some connection to either the deceased or the main suspect or something of that nature, that puts them in the middle of it when ordinarily they would let the police handle it.
• A cozy is a whodunit murder mystery with a continuing cast of primarily nice friends and neighbors in a small town setting, one of whom is the amateur sleuth who accidentally gets involved in solving the mystery.
• In both genres, the sleuth is an amateur. The murder generally takes place off-stage. This eliminates the visual blood and gore that often is part of a regular mystery and/or suspense.
• The reader has to distinguish between real clues and red herrings, and the heroine solves the problem/crime by the end of the story.
• Cozy mysteries are fun with settings in unusual places with characters who have personalities that make them somewhat "nosy"
• Cozy mysteries are set in small communities either village type settings or within a community of people with the same interests i.e. retirees, gardeners etc. (Closed setting)
• Not gruesome or morbid.
• The characters are always interested in what's going on around them and know their neighbors. Has more of a human element such as basic emotions rather than evilness.
• In a cozy, good always wins out in these gentle mysteries that tease the brain and comfort the soul’.

Defining Suspense:

• Suspense involves a character in peril and has more of an element of danger.
• A romantic suspense is typically darker than a cozy.
• Suspense has an antagonist who is "out to get" either the hero or heroine and is the one creating the problems. The antagonist is usually a "dark" character who may or may not be known until the very end.
• Romantic suspense focuses as much (or nearly as much) on the developing romance between the hero and heroine as it does on the suspense plot line which may or may not involve murder but where the plots twists and turns eventually threaten the heroine's life (the damsel in distress part).
• The suspense plot line focuses more on disarming the danger than solving a puzzle.
• Suspense is just that. Keeps you on the edge of the seat. Crime is gruesome and involved and the main character may be dragged into it rather than be just curious. More graphic descriptions.

Barbour has a great basic definition of the two genres. “A Mystery is set up as a maze to be navigated by the protagonist or solver. A Suspense is best represented as a coil that tightens in around the protagonist. A simplified generalization would be to say in a mystery, the protagonist is on the offensive-actively searching and solving, while a suspense puts the protagonist on the defensive-running and evading the villain as time runs out.”

So, if your trying your hand at a cozy mystery right now, stay tuned for more great insights into the cozy mystery!



Friday, June 09, 2006

Interview with James Scott Bell

We are privileged to have James Scott Bell as our first Keep Me In Suspense guest. He is the bestselling author of Presumed Guilty, Glimpses of Paradise, Breach of Promise, Sins of the Fathers and several other thrillers. He is a winner of the Christy Award for Excellence in inspirational fiction, and is currently fiction columnist for Writers Digest magazine. His popular book Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure is from Writers Digest Books. (His full biography is at the end of this interview. His website is: www.jamesscottbell.com)

As an attorney, you have the enviable position of “insider” information. How much does that really help you in writing suspense?

When it comes to legal suspense, it's invaluable. You get to know the guts of a system, the ins and outs. That doesn't mean that I still don't have to do research. I want every detail to be right. So when I need some specialized information, I find lawyers I know who can help me out.

For example, the other day I needed some research in the area of capital cases. I've never tried of murder case. So I called friend I knew who put me in touch with a lawyer, a public defender, who does only capital cases. She was happy to have me come down to the courthouse and talk about what she does.

I've found that professionals love to talk about what they do, if you are trying to appreciate it. And readers like to read about specialized work. So if you can make a character's work come to life, your book will come to life for your audience.

Where would you recommend a “non-lawyer” go to research legal procedure for their suspense novel?

One good resource from a Writers Digest Books is called Order in the Court. It's a basic primer on the legal system. You can use that to formulate intelligent questions to ask a lawyer.

If you are focused in your questions and show the person you're not going to waste his time, more than likely you'll find someone to sit down with you or maybe answer questions over the phone or by e-mail.

How much do legal procedures and the law change from state to state on criminal matters?

Every state has its own penal code and code of criminal procedure. And even the local courts in the various cities will have different ways of doing things. That's why it's important to do research in the locality of your setting.

You not only write, you teach writing, so what would you say is the classic mistake new writers make when writing suspense or mysteries?

A couple of things spring to mind. First, it's starting out the story too slowly. Warming up the engines. Many first chapters I read are all about setting up things, introducing characters, and not getting to some trouble. It's essential in a suspense novel to at least get a sense of foreboding in the opening pages.

On the flip side, some new writers will pour on the action sequences in what becomes a circus of explosions and corpses and chase scene. Character also counts. In fact, the stronger your lead and opposition characters, the more suspension will generate because readers are going to care about what happens.

Of all your suspense novels, what is your favorite and why?

It's hard to say. Breach of Promise worked out well as more intimate kind of suspense, what happens to a normal guy whose wife tries to take custody of their daughter. The suspense comes from the terrible family law system we have, where money talks.

On the other hand, Sins of the Fathers dealt with an almost impossible situation – a mass killing by a 13 year old boy. How is a lawyer going to handle that? I set myself a real challenge in the premise, but like how it came out.

In what way(s) do you think suspense or mysteries might explore some aspect of our faith that a romance novel would not?

I'm not sure there's a real distinction there. The great thing about fiction and characters is that you have an infinite universe of themes to explore and can put them in any context. What will differ is the tone and feel of the story.

What trends do you see in CBA suspense and mysteries that you didn’t see just five years ago?

The writing is much stronger now. Part of the reason is that the standards for CBA fiction have gone up, and talented writers are putting in the hard work of learning the craft. This is all a very good thing.

What changes (if any) would you like to see in the CBA suspense/mystery market?

I think things are developing nicely. There is really no area of life that cannot be dealt with in CBA fiction now. Presumed Guilty has both the porn industry and some fallout from the Iraq war in it. Ten years ago, I don't think the book would have been published.

Most CBA suspense writers have a favorite ABA suspense or thriller writer that they love. Who is your favorite and why?

Probably Michael Connelly. His detail work is superb, and he does great characterizations. For past authors, I love the paperback crime novels of John D. MacDonald from the 50's, and of course Raymond Chandler.

If you were able to gather all the CBA suspense and mystery writers into one room and tell them two things to help them, what would those two things be?

Don't resolve anything too soon. Suspense is all about stretching out uncertainty. And make sure death is an imminent possibility for the Lead at all times. Death can be physical, professional or psychological. If the Lead can't die in one of these ways, the stakes aren't high enough.

JAMES SCOTT BELL is the bestselling author of Presumed Guilty, Glimpses of Paradise, Breach of Promise, Sins of the Fathers and several other thrillers. He is a winner of the Christy Award for Excellence in inspirational fiction, and is currently fiction columnist for Writers Digest magazine. His popular book Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure is from Writers Digest Books.

Jim attended the University of California, Santa Barbara where he studied writing with Raymond Carver. His student screenplay, Freshman Year, won a Corwin award. He graduated with honors from the University of Southern California Law Center, and has written over 300 articles and numerous books for the legal profession. He has had two screenplays optioned for feature film production and is on the faculty of Act One, the Hollywood screenwriting program.

A former trial lawyer, Jim now writes and speaks full time. He appeared as an expert commentator on Good Morning America, CBS radio, and in Newsweek magazine during the O. J. Simpson murder trial. His book on search and seizure law is the leading authority in its field, used extensively by lawyers and judges throughout California every day. He lives in Southern California with his wife, son and daughter. His website is www.jamesscottbell.com.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


I’m Lisa, and I’m thrilled to be a part of the Keep Me In Suspense venture. I recently sold book one in my Cozy Crumb Mystery series to Barbour publishing’s new mystery line. Recipe for Murder will be released this coming February. I’ve always loved a good mystery, so getting the chance to write one has been a blast.

After I received my contract, a friend of mine asked me how a murder mystery could have a strong spiritual theme. It was a good question, because honestly, I had to ask myself the same question.

How do you combine a good old-fashioned murder mystery with a strong spiritual theme? The answer quickly became clear to me. I want my books to not only to entertain and present my readers with the best cozy I can write, but to remind the audience that God is good. No matter what the world might throw at us, or what measures Satan might use to attack us, God is in control, and His word still holds true today.

Look at the world around us and you will see all the pain and suffering that people endure everyday, from illness to natural disasters, to poverty, to AIDS. . .The list could go on and on. Working in southern Africa has opened my eyes to many of these very things. Everyday I’m faced with issues like poverty, children who have lost family members to AIDS, high unemployment, crime, and the very fact that life is full of sorrow and struggles.

How can we KNOW that God is still in control when He seems so far away and everything seems to be going wrong in our lives?
Psalm 46 speaks very powerfully on this subject. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.” Then in verse 11 continues to say, “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

In a mystery, life is often turned upside down overnight by a sudden turn of events. Fear, confusion, and despair become emotions that often mirror reality. What happens when the coil begins to squeeze in around the protagonist, there’s a villain on every corner, and solving the ‘mystery’ becomes a matter of life and death?

And what about in our own lives. Do we ever feel despair over our children, job situations, sickness, or depression? Authors of inspirational fiction desire to bring a message of hope to the world using stories to communicate that no matter what happens around us, God is still in control.

This will be the message of my stories.

Have a blessed day!


Saturday, June 03, 2006

Welcome To Our Blogspot

I'm Candice. I write cozy mysteries. I'm happy to be a part of Keep Me In Suspense.

We want to be your one-stop resource for everything suspense/mystery/thriller in the CBA. We have wonderful things planned for you. In the next few months, you’ll hear from some fantastic CBA suspense, mystery, and thriller authors and editors. We’ll also have regular posts from the Keep Me In Suspense team members.

Our website will be growing, as well, to include information about publishers, resources, and a list of mystery/suspense/thriller books published by month.

The Keep Me In Suspense blog and website is a combination of the visions of two good friends. Me and Wanda. I saw the need for a CBA suspense author blog. Wanda saw a bigger picture—the need for a place where inspirational writers could go to find the resources they need to write mystery and suspense. And a place where CBA suspense and mystery authors could go to discuss what they’re doing, reveal their latest books, and share their thoughts. So a marriage of our two ideas was perfect.

We are joined by Lynette Sowell, who is a long time member of ACFW. She served on the ACFW board, is multi-published, and has recently contracted a cozy series. Lisa Harris, along with her husband and family, are missionaries in Africa. She’s another long time ACFW member. She has a lengthy publishing record and recently sold a cozy series. She’s presently teaching a class for ACFW about writing cozy mysteries. (She’ll be sharing some of that with us on the blog.)

One of the things I will blog about is basic police procedure for writers. When I started writing mysteries, I was stumped by questions like, what kind of gun does a police officer carry? (Hey, I'm a girl. What do I know about things like that?) What happens in what order at a crime scene? Is it really like CSI? (In a word? No.) Anyway, I realized I was in over my head and needed somewhere to learn stuff. I heard about the Citizens Police Academy and looked into that at my local city police, then at the county sheriff's office. I took both. (I heartily encourage every writer to ask your local police department or sheriff's office if they have this program. Many do. It's awesome. You even get ride-alongs. How cool is that?)

Last fall, during the sheriff's office CPA, I inquired about volunteering. When I mentioned that I had lots of secretarial skills, the police academy coordinator jumped at my offer to help. After a background investigation and drug screening, I began working at the academy office. I've been there for almost five months. The things I've learned are invaluable to my writing. I even get to participate in training scenarios for the recruits and the deputies. (I've been arrested seven times in one day. I can personally attest to the fact that handcuffs are not comfortable. Neither is lying face down on the floor.) I love every minute I spend there.

So without talking about my sheriff's office specifically (which I can't do), I'd be glad to share some of the basic police information that I've learned. Your questions are welcome. Ask in the Blogger comment feature. Because I'm not an expert and don't have all the answers, I hope that other people with expertise will also reply to questions in the comments. If answers aren't immediately forthcoming, I will be using your questions as topics for future blogs. The whole point of Keep Me In Suspense is to pool our resources.

So, come back. The Keep Me In Suspense blog will begin to get active this week.