We are thrilled to have James Scott Bell, the award winning author of both suspense and historical intrigue, on our site today. His book on writing, Write Great Fiction: Plot and Structure, is one of the most popular writing books available today. Here’s what he had to say in a recent interview with KMIS.
LISA: Tell us some of the background behind the idea for this new thriller series and give us a blurb for Try Dying.
JIM: It looked like a freak accident. A guy shoots himself, falls off a bridge, and hits a car driven by a young school teacher, killing her. She is engaged to the lead character, Ty Buchanan. When he gets information that it may have been murder, he is forced into the mean streets to find out what happened. Because no one believes what he comes to know is true…and there are plenty of people who want to stop him from finding out any more.
The idea for the book came out of a news item I saw. A man in South Los Angeles shot his wife then drove to a freeway connector, shot himself, and fell 100 feet to the traffic below, killing a woman in a car. It just stuck with me.
LISA: Could you tell us a bit about the research required for one of your thrillers?
JIM: Usually I have to brush up on the law and legal procedure, as there are criminal justice issues. I also like to visit each setting and take photos, to make them as true as possible on the page. Some I make up, then the research is quite easy.
LISA: What advice could you share with fellow authors on the research process?
JIM: Nurture experts who can help you, by not wasting their time, being smart with your questions (which means doing some research on your own first) and following up with thank you notes. If they've been particularly helpful, a small gift (like a Starbucks card) is nice.
LISA: What do you see as the essentials elements in a suspense/thriller?
JIM: You have to start with a great lead character. In fact, with any fiction, you have to have a lead people will care enough about to follow. Then you need an opposition character who is stronger than the lead, and has a really good reason for wanting him dead.
If you look at the master, Alfred Hitchcock, you'll find this over and over. The innocent man who is caught up in terrible danger through some fluke. And the villain is always formidable. My favorite Hitchcock villains are Joseph Cotton in Shadow of a Doubt; Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train; and James Mason in North by Northwest.
Oh yeah, and death. That has to be an imminent possibility for the suspense to work. But as I point out in my book on writing, Plot & Structure, there are three kinds of death: physical, professional and psychological. You have to have one of these as a possibility or the suspense will fall flat.
LISA: What is the process you use when writing a mystery/suspense? In other words are you a plotter or more of a seat of your pants writer. (We have many unpublished authors coming to our site to learn more, so anything you want to include here would be great.)
JIM: I need to know where I'm going, though not all the turns I need to get there. So I map out my first act, to my first "doorway of no return" (I talk about this in Plot & Structure). I have to know who did the bad thing and why and how the lead gets pulled in. Then I have "signpost" scenes I know have to be there. This is a fun thing to do, BTW. Just sit for half an hour and make up random scenes (put them on cards) and then shuffle them and see if any make sense. Find spots for the good ones.
LISA: What is your system to keep the story, clues, and characters organized?
JIM: I wish I had one. I just keep hoping I remember stuff.
I do use the comment feature on Word a lot. I'll drop in comments and ideas. I've also used these for a sort of "running outline" of the book. That's a good idea, too. Keep a summary of the story going as you write.
LISA: In developing your characters, are there any key elements you see as essential in the process?
JIM: I have to see and hear my characters before I can write. So I'll cast them. The nice thing is we have the whole history of movies to draw from, and no one is the wiser. I can combined actors, or even use an actor of the opposite sex for awhile to get some different aspects cooking. I did that in Sins of the Fathers. I had a female criminal defense lawyer for my lead, and wasn't quite connecting. Then I case Joe Pesci in the role. Now she came alive! I played with that for awhile.
I also do a "voice journal" for my main characters. It's free form journal of just them talking. I do this until I start to hear their voice. When I can, I'm ready to write.
LISA: I find in my own writing that I often grow alongside my characters, especially spiritually. Is there a character who you relate to in Try Dying, or who made an input on your life?
JIM: I think the character of Father Bob is the one who is going to provide a lot of insight, kind of like Meyer did for Travis McGee in the series by John D. MacDonald. He becomes a kind of moral weathervane for Ty Buchanan, who is somewhat adrift.
LISA: As the author of Plot & Structure, can you give us a plug on this book?
JIM: If you have a look at the amazon.com page, you'll see the comments. I wrote it to be helpful, but I never expected such an outpouring. It warms my teacher's heart. We're all in this thing together, writing better and better books. Let us go forth and do it.
A special thanks to Jim for being a part of our site!
As a BONUS
, he's offered to answer three or four of your questions in an exclusive question and answer post. So here's your chance to ask that burning question to an expert. Leave your questions as a comment below. We will then choose several questions from the comments that will be posted with his answers in a separate post next week.