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Writing Genre Fiction, Part 8: Historical

The term historical does not actually refer to a genre, of course; instead it is a descriptive word used in conjunction with any genre set in a historical period, such as historical romances or historical mysteries. And yes, you might even find historical science fiction or historical comedy. What makes writing anything historical tricky, of course, is as a writer you really need to do your homework to get whatever period in which you’re writing right.

See the source imageAnd there will always be somebody who catches you out if you get something wrong. Not too long ago, my mom was reading a historical romance set in Victorian England, and the child in the story had a favorite Teddy bear. Only one small problem—the Victorian period was June 20, 1837 to January 22, 1901, and Teddy Roosevelt, for whom the “Teddy bear” was named, didn’t become president until September of 1901, and Teddy Bears weren’t invented until 1902. It may seem like only a little thing, yes, but anytime you as a writer make this kind of mistake, someone will notice—my mom did!—and the writer loses credibility.

Technology and Worldview

The “when” of the story matters greatly, and the two areas that catch us most by surprise when we’re writing historical fiction are the changes in technology and worldview. Communications, transportation, energy, building materials, geographic names, medical issues, plumbing . . . all these things and more change drastically over the years, but it’s more than just a question of whether or not your characters can get from point A to point B in a timely fashion. Worldviews change as drastically across time as across cultures, and you need to prepare for that in your storytelling.

Will your hero have only one shot, or does he have a revolver? Is your African safari in Northern Rhodesia or Zambia? Have antibiotics been discovered yet, or will a character die from an infection? Can your heroine get there by train in a day, or must she take a coach over several days? Does your detective have a cell phone on his belt or a pager? They say, “The devil is in the details,” and as writers, we know they really do matter!

Worldview is just as important when it comes to historical fiction. Are you old enough to remember going out to the gate to meet incoming passengers at the airport? We live in a post-9/11 world, and our views on security and terrorism have changed dramatically over the past eighteen years. Is your story set before 1950? How do your characters cope with emergencies without a credit card? Is the teen in your story expected to go to college, or will he need to start working for a living following the eighth grade? Did she even have the opportunity to learn to read and write? How often do people bathe in the time period of your story? (This last is why I rarely read historical romance beyond the Victorian era!) Does everyone still smoke in your world?

Do your research.

I won’t repeat myself here, but if you’re interested in research for historical fiction, do read my previous posts on the topic:

October 19, 2018 – Research Is Your Friend, Part 6: “The Details That Help Build a Story: Historical Stuff”

November 2, 2018 – Research Is Your Friend, Part 7: “The Details That Help Build a Story: Time-sensitive topics—legal, medical, and technical stuff.

March 22, 2019 – Writing the Story, Part 4: When: Timing Is Everything

And always: read, read, READ!

Just as important as research can be reading what other writers have written. When you read a lot of historical fiction and think about what you’re reading, you can get pretty good at picking out the really good writers from the bad or even the mediocre. You’ll see which authors have done their research and which don’t mind taking a shortcut. Don’t stop with contemporary authors. When writing about the nineteenth century, read novels written in the nineteenth century. While you are writing for a contemporary audience and using contemporary language to tell the story, these historical works can help you to see how people actually lived, worked, and communicated—between friends, family members, classes, races—during the period in which you want to write.

Finally, always keep in mind the period in which you are writing and keep your characters in that time. I find little more frustrating than a historical novel or movie in which everything seems spot-on for the period only to have the characters speaking in contemporary “American.” You don’t need to write with an accent—and probably shouldn’t try for a contemporary audience—but watch your slang, jargon, contractions, vocabulary, and word order so you don’t leave your audience questioning the “when” of your story.

Have fun!

Whether you are writing a time-travel fantasy (like L. Sprague De Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall) or want to delve deeply into a period that really interests you (like Francine Rivers Mark of the Lion series), historical fiction can be a lot of fun to write. But it does take work—and a whole lot of attention to details—if you want to do it right. Unless you have a PhD in a specific historical period, count on a lot of hours spent on research. On the other hand, for those who love to write historical fiction, the research is half the fun!

Next time, we’ll look at the hidden traps of writing a contemporary story.


by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links  

Questions? Email karenburkett.editor@gmail.com  

 

 

Christian editors · Christian ghostwriter · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 7: Romance

See the source imageBoy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again—and they live happily ever after! This is perhaps the oldest plot synopsis in literature, but we keep coming back for more. Just how it works varies from culture to culture, publisher to publisher, writer to writer, but we human beings do like our romances.

According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance fiction is a $1.8 billion industry (2013) and owns 34 percent of the U.S. fiction market (2015). That’s a lot of love—and good reason to write in the genre. There are a number of romance subgenres—from contemporary to historical, paranormal to suspense, erotica to young adult—but the important thing to remember is what makes a story a romance. Again, according to the RWA, “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” In other words, the romantic relationship is the core of the story, and happily-ever-after is a must.

Is it a Romance, a romance, or a love story?

There is, of course, a wide range of how a romantic relationship is portrayed in fiction, from “sweet” to “extremely hot.” Here’s my take on it:

In what I call a “capital-R” romance, there will be explicit scenes early and often. Marriage is not out of the question, but if it happens, it will be toward the end of the story—or even after it’s over. When the characters are not actually acting on their physical desires, they’re generally thinking about doing so, and that passion remains central to the relationship, the character development of both parties, and the plot throughout the story.

In what I refer to as “little-r” romance, passion is certainly not off the table, but it is generally not the complete focus of the story, will happen later in the plot, and authors will usually leave the reader at the bedroom door. The relationship between the two characters is built on much more than physical attraction, and while “love at first sight” is not out of the question, the relationship that develops throughout the story will generally prove a lot more complex—and, in my opinion, much more interesting—than that found in the “capital-R” romance.

The love story is all about a growing interpersonal relationship between a man and a woman that leads to a lifetime commitment. I always think of love stories as those in which the focus is less on “falling in love” and more on “being in love.” In other words, the relationship comes first, and the romance comes out of that relationship. That does not mean sparks won’t fly between the two characters from the very beginning—in fact any love story would be pretty boring without them—but friendship comes first, romance follows, that final step will for sure wait until after marriage, and the reader will not be present for it.

Should every work of fiction with a love story in it be considered a romance?

Absolutely not! Remember the RWA talks about “a central love story.” In other words, if you take the love story out of a romance, there’s nothing left. But if you take the love story out of another genre story, the plot can hold.

I love romance, and I generally have at least one in every fictional story I write. Are all my stories romances? Not at all. I actually have only two novels that I consider romances, because if I were to take the love story out of either of them, there wouldn’t be much of a story left. For the others, however, the love stories contained therein, while certainly a big part of the story, are not critical to the main plot. For example, in one of my science fiction novels, Jane and Captain Konner don’t have to fall in love, following the starship captain’s rescue of the kidnapped earth woman—the rest of the story would work without that relationship blooming—but it was really cool that they did when I wrote it, and their love story made the novel more fun for me to write. But The Stars of Dreams (Book 1 of The Commonwealth Chronicles) is not a science fiction romance; it is, rather, science fiction, because the story would work perfectly well, if the two characters hadn’t fallen in love at all.

The same can be true of any hybrid genre story. Whether fantasy, mystery, suspense, science fiction, western, Christian fiction, or historical—whatever the primary genre—a love story can be present without turning it into a romance. It all depends on how critical that love story is to the main plot, and whether or not the plot can stand on its own without it. If it can’t, then you have written a romance!

The next time, we’ll look at historical fiction.


by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com 

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 6: Christian Fiction

Crucifix With A Crown Of ThornsI am certain there are those among you who will be amazed to learn that though I am both Christian and a novelist, I find the Christian fiction genre one of the most difficult to write about. This is probably because there are as many opinions on what constitutes Christian fiction as there are those who write it, making “it depends” a fitting answer to the question, “What is Christian fiction?”

Why I Am Drawn to the Christian Worldview Story

I personally like to write about Christian people, because to me they are just more interesting, well-rounded characters than people who don’t believe in anything beyond themselves. If someone believes in God and a life beyond this world, they are simply living larger than those who can’t think about anything but what they can touch or taste or see or hear in the here and now.

There is also the hope that something I write in a Christian story will help, in some small way, to bring a nonbeliever to at least consider what God can do for them and the world. In writing my novel, A Chance For Life, I had hope that a reader somewhere would come to see adoption as a viable option to abortion but also come to understand that the Church is not just a building with a steeple and a cross on it but a place where someone lost and in crisis can find both physical and spiritual support. When I write a Christian worldview story, I want to tell a story beyond good people living their everyday lives, going to church, and abstaining from drinking, smoking, and other bad behaviors. I want to help my readers to get at least a glimpse of God in a realistic scenario in which none of my characters are perfect, but all are striving to follow their Lord in community with one another.

What Constitutes a “Christian Worldview” Story?

This question is not as simple as it might sound, because there are so many and varied sects within the Christian faith. Even if you’re only writing for the American market, the outward and visible signs of Christianity range from high church Catholic (Roman or Anglican) to low church Nondenominational—and everything in between. All Christians, by definition, can agree that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, but there are many flavors to that basic tenant, which will change a story, because how people worship God will affect their behavior and habits as well as how they think about the world and how they interact with others.

For example, church attendance may be required at both ends of the high church/low church spectrum, but attending Mass weekly—where Holy Communion is the center of worship—is an obligation for both Roman Catholics and Anglicans, but for many Protestant churches, Holy Communion is not a weekly occurrence. And, of course, a Christian’s attitude about the very nature of the Holy Sacraments also varies greatly between denominations, and this, too, can change the story. So beware of writing all Christian characters into the same mold, and be prepared to do your research!

Focus on Your Audience

The key to writing Christian fiction is really no different than writing in any other genre: You must know your audience’s expectations and fulfill them. For example, if you are writing books you hope will sell in the many evangelical book stores, then your characters will absolutely not serve wine with dinner and any romance should remain low-key with marriage as the ultimate goal. On the other hand, I know of a real-life Anglican congregation that actually serves wine at coffee hour, so the use of alcoholic beverages in a story, among other things, will definitely depend on the religious beliefs of your characters—and your intended audience.

Christian fiction is one of those genres where it remains critical to write what you know. If you are going to write of Christians who are not of your own denomination, then you will need to really do your research. For example, I tend to write Roman Catholic or Anglican stories, because I’ve been an Anglican all my life, and that’s the church I know. It is not simply a matter of doctrine or worship style either. For every denomination, you also need to understand how the church works if you are going to set a story within a church family. I can easily write Anglo-Catholic stories, because I understand the relationship between a priest and his congregation, his wardens, his bishop, the diocese, and the national church; I understand where lay people fit into all that—how vestries work, what the altar guild is doing, and what is meant by baptism and confirmation. On the other hand, I have attended Missouri Synod Lutheran churches off and on for a number of years, and I still don’t understand how the church hierarchy works or what it means to be an elder. I would be equally in the dark if I decided to write a story set in a Southern Baptist church.

I have written several Old Order Amish stories, but for those I did literally hours of research to get it right. And you have to get it right, because your credibility as a writer is at stake. I have read several Amish stories for which the authors obviously did not do the necessary research, and I’m unlikely to ever read another of their books, because they showed me they didn’t care enough to do the research.

Christian Storytelling

Whatever you decide about writing your Christian story, the important thing is to tell it in such a way that it can have the greatest impact on your readers. Whenever you have something important to say and want to use storytelling to say it, be sure to let your characters do the talking. Whatever you want to convey about God and faith to your readers, you run the risk of sounding preachy if the narrator is the one to bring it up. Like followers of Christ in real life, fictional characters need to live their faith to be believable, both to the other characters in the story and to your readers. You need well-developed, three-dimensional characters who show Christ to the world through their actions, not just their words. And if you want them to be completely believable, give them the same doubts and uncertainties we all face from time to time. Even fictional Christians can’t be perfect if they’re going to be believable!

Finally, watch the rhythm and timing of your story. For example, don’t be too anxious to have that lost soul convert and be saved. I have a friend who is writing her first novel, and the man in her heroine’s life converts completely only a few chapters into the story. While my friend says all her Evangelical friends don’t have a problem with his quick conversion, it doesn’t work for me for two reasons. First, my reasoning Anglican self can’t help but recall the parable of the sower and wonder just how deep the soil is in which the seed was sown, if the guy converts so early in the story. And second, as a storyteller, I have to wonder, if the romantic lead is converted in chapter four or five, why would anyone continue reading to the end of the story? Shouldn’t such a high point in the plot be the climax? As with any secular plot line, faith-based plots need to rise and fall, with hints of what’s to come and an occasional set-back to keep the story interesting, and the climax should be toward the end.

I do believe in God’s miracles in real life, and if I’m going to write about one, I want to be sure to set it in a really good story so my readers might be drawn to believe in it too. For a writer, the storytelling comes first. Write a good story, and readers will get the message.

The next time, we’ll look at Romance.

Christian editors · storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 5: The Western Novel

See the source imageThough western fiction represents only a small category in fiction sales, this market holds an intriguing place in Americana. Susan Brooks, an editor with WordPress.com, writes,

There are several categories of western novels, but the general definition is fiction set in the 19th century frontier or Old West America, west of the Mississippi. The characters are strong and self-reliant, and the stories usually involve cowboys, cavalrymen, lawmen, and outlaws. Generally, western novels focus on themes of individualism and adventure. Westerns generally feature a lone hero (usually male) who reluctantly answers the call to adventure, rescues damsels in distress, and brings the bad guy(s) to justice. The hero is idealistic and driven. (https://susanbrooks.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/western-fiction/)

But is this really an American invention? Robert Wood, in his “The 3 Golden Rules of Writing a Western” says, “It’s not about the cowboy hat,” and in fact, American westerns owe a great deal to the samurai narratives from Japan. Central to both is a character who is a fundamental, traditionally masculine hero, whose old ideals tend to clash with the changing landscape around him. Rather than give up those ideals, he uses them in such a way as to show they may be old-fashioned, but they hold a strength, a value, that is timeless. The western hero may be a drifter, a gunslinger, a bounty hunter, or a marshal, but at his core, he is a good man who won’t let the changing world change who he is.

Think of Rooster Cogburn in Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit. As the seemingly restraining rules of modern law and order spread throughout the American west, this old-time marshal is after true justice, which requires killing a murdering snake, rather than taking the chance that he could get away with murder while the wheels of this new-fangled justice system slowly turn. For Rooster, evil must be defeated with a gun; anything less cannot be called justice, and hang the consequences.

The real trick to writing a western—as opposed to writing a detective story or a sci-fi adventure with the same kind of masculine loner who is a traditional justice-minded character—is the setting. At the center of the western is a character who rides a horse in America’s wild, wild west. And if you’ve never been around horses or cattle; if you’ve never ridden a horse in a western saddle; if you’ve never experienced dust storms or thunderstorms with no shelter in sight; if you’ve never been west of the Mississippi River to experience the wide-open spaces; if you’ve never actually fired a rifle or a revolver, then maybe writing a western is not for you.

Write What You Know!

I’m not saying you can’t, or even shouldn’t, write a western without all that first-hand experience, but if you really want to write a good one, you have your work cut out for you in terms of research. In my October 19th post, I wrote about “The Details That Help Build a Story: Historical Stuff,” in which I discussed finding primary documents on American history. That would be a place to start, as you investigate what it was really—as opposed to Hollywood facsimile—like to live in the old west. The good news is the Internet abounds in historical images and documents. There are also a plethora of videos on everything from saddling and riding a horse to drawing and shooting a gun.

If you’re really intent on the western genre, however, I would suggest actually visiting the location. For your next vacation, take Route 66 from Chicago to LA or follow parts of the Oregon Trail; visit historic sites and camp—and I don’t mean in some RV park. I mean experience primitive camping, so you know what it’s like to sleep on the hard ground and fix your breakfast over a campfire. Or you can make a reservation at one of the many ranches that teach riding and roping, herding cattle, and living on the trail. You can fake it as a writer with enough research, but if you make yourself sit on the back of a horse for five or six hours a day for a week, you’ll know what it really feels like to be saddle-sore!

I, personally, have not tackled the western genre, though my science fiction novel, The Stars of Home, comes close, as the first half of the book takes place in the eighteenth-century American west, when my Commonwealth pilot crash lands there. Most of what I talked about above, however, is not beyond my own realm of experience. I grew up next door to a farm and spent hours there riding horses—both bareback and saddled—helping to gather eggs and “herd” cattle that had gotten out. I know first-hand what it’s like to try to tighten the cinch of a western saddle on a pony that doesn’t want to be ridden that day! And in my teens and twenties, back-country hiking and primitive camping were my favorite kinds of adventure.

I have also crossed this country by car multiple times, including the last time in 1996, when I was on my way to library school, travelling from Washington State to Indiana, and came too close to running out of gas while crossing Wyoming. You simply cannot know how big and how empty that part of the country is until your gas gauge is on the “E”, and there isn’t a sign of human habitation in any direction as far as the eye can see! And while watching movies and reading books can help, if you want your readers to really feel the experience through your writing, give your characters some first-hand experience through you.

Go for It!

So, if you’re drawn to the traditional values and honor of the old west, and decide to write about it, go for it! But do your research first, because these stories are about more than a guy with a cowboy hat and a six-gun. They are about “real” men, heroes with a deep-seated honor, who are struggling to stay true to what they’ve always believed in the face of a changing world. And doesn’t that sound like a great place to start a story?

The next time, we’ll look at Christian fiction.


by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links 

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com 

storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 4: The Many Facets of Science Fiction

See the source imageScience Fiction comes under the general heading of “speculative fiction,” a genre that pushes the “what if” scenario to the wall. According to Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2007), the term was coined in 1851, and it was in 1927—in Amazing Stories (Jan. 974/1)—that Jules Verne was called “a sort of Shakespeare in science fiction.”

So what is science fiction, and what separates it from fantasy? In simple terms, it is a story set in a place or time different from our own “in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in a scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms” (Brave New Words, p. 171). In other words, science fiction is a genre in which gadgets are employed in telling the story, while fantasy utilizes magic in the same way. For example, Donn Kushner’s The Book Dragon (Avon Books, 1987) is a fantasy about a dragon in our time who protects a New England bookstore from destruction by an evil developer. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, however, is from a science fiction series about a colony of humans stranded on a far planet where there are alien creatures that happen to look like the dragons of old earth mythology.

Robert A. Heinlein broke it down even further when he wrote, “There are at least two principal ways to write speculative fiction—write about people, or write about gadgets. . . . Most science fiction stories are a mixture of the two types” (“On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy: 20 Dynamic Essays by Today’s Top Professionals, New York: St. Martin’s Press, p. 5). I would postulate that the gadgets make it science fiction, while the people make it good storytelling. If the focus is on the gadgets—the technology—then it would be what’s known as “hard” science fiction; if the focus is on the people, then it would be known as “soft” or “social” science fiction.

There are those writers who will attempt to dabble in science fiction by simply moving a story idea into a science fiction setting, but just placing a romance on a space ship or on another planet does not make it science fiction. One important thing to remember when writing sci-fi is that for a story to be science fiction—whether it also be a romance, a mystery, a thriller, or any other type—it must be so thoroughly integrated into the science fiction universe in which it is set that it could not be told in any other setting.

For example, in my novel, The Stars of Dreams, my protagonist is kidnapped by some bad guys, rescued by some good guys, and eventually falls in love with the leader of the good guys. If this were the main plot of the story, there would be no reason to set it in space, because it could happen at any time or place here on earth. But The Stars of Dreams  is not a romance because the bad guys in this case are aliens out to destroy a Commonwealth of Planets located toward the center of our galaxy. The kidnapping and subsequent rescue of the Earth woman is only the catalyst in the plot that alerts the good guys to a military coup under way. Yes, the story has elements of action adventure, mystery, and even romance in it, but Dreams is not about those things. It is about defending a Commonwealth of Planets from destruction, and that’s what makes it science fiction.

There are actually about a dozen science fiction sub-genres. Here is a partial list, in no particular order, with an example for each:

  • Hard Science Fiction/Gadget stories [military, cybernetics, robotics, biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI)]: Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

  • Soft/Social Science Fiction [social commentary]: just about anything from Star Trek

  • Time Travel: [forward or backward]: H. G. Well’s The Time Machine (future); Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (past)
  • Alternative History [such as, What if the South had won the Civil War?]: Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain (from the Southern Victory series)
  • Parallel/Lost Worlds:  Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core

  • Space Explorations [man goes into space]: A. C. Crispin’s Starbridge

  • Extraterrestrial [aliens come to Earth]: David Weber’s The Apocalypse Troll

  • Dystopia/Utopia/Apocalyptic [Earth doesn’t do well in the future]: Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des Singes (The Planet of the Apes)
  • Space Opera [just what it sounds like]: think Star Wars

  • Steampunk [future worlds with Victorian mores and technology]: Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The key to writing good science fiction is the same as the key to writing well in any genre: Always remember the story comes first. However fantastic your gadgets—your starships, your aliens, your alien worlds—you need to create a balance between your gadgets and your characters. And as in creating magic in fantasy, you must be consistent with your gadgets. For example, however futuristic faster than light travel is, if you write about a technology that allows a starship to travel that fast through space, you also need to create the rules that allow the technology to work and then stick with them.

As in any fictional writing, you don’t want to forget to “show don’t tell,” but while it might help to be technology minded (so you can “write what you know”), you don’t have to be a technical expert to pull it off if you can imagine it well enough. C. S. Lewis, when speaking of the technology in his science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, said, “Obviously it was vague because I’m not a scientist and not interested in the purely technical side of in. . . . In my case it was pure mumbo-jumbo, and perhaps meant primarily to convince me” (in Lewis’ Of Other Worlds, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966, p. 87). I describe the technology in my Commonwealth Chronicles (The Stars of Dreams and The Stars of Home) in much the same way. The characters from Earth are civilians from a relatively primitive planet, so as long as I describe the technology through their eyes when they end up on a Commonwealth starship, it works. Like Lewis, it’s “pure mumbo-jumbo” to both me and my characters, but that’s okay because a person from Earth in either 1996 (Dreams) or 1874 (Home) is not supposed to understand how Commonwealth technology works!

The next time we’ll take a look at the Western novel.

writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 3: Mystery/Detective Fiction

See the source imageHave you ever wondered what the differences are between a mystery, a suspense novel, and a thriller? Recently, I found myself pondering this question as I was exploring my options for the sixth episode of my Cat & Mac Mysteries. Are my Cat & Mac stories actually mysteries, suspense novels, or thrillers?

According to a brief though clarifying article from a Curtis Memorial Library online newsletter , it’s all about the plot.

“In a mystery novel, the focus of the story is on solving the crime. Almost all of the action takes place after the crime has been committed. In a suspense novel, the focus is on preventing a crime from happening . . . [and] . . . thrillers are just suspense novels taken up a few levels in the scope of the plot.”

Within these three major sub-genres, the article continues, reside any number of sub-sub-genres “running on a continuum from cozy, with minimal violence, to forensic, which have more gruesome details.” Along the way you’ll come across the same types of themes found in other genre fiction, such as legal, medical, psychological, or political, that require additional research—or the writer’s own personal experience—to fill in the details. And, of course, there are stories that provide a cross-pollination between any of the previously-mentioned suspense genres and historical, romance, science fiction, or fantasy stories.

Satisfying Reader Expectations

Of all the genres, suspense seems to have the most rules. That is, readers read them with particular expectations about the plot—the murder, the bad guy, the detective (professional or amateur), potential victims, the clues, and how they all fit together in a way that keeps the reader guessing “who done it” all the way to the end. But you also have to strike a balance between these expectations and originality. Step too far off the anticipated path, and you’ll lose your readers; but be too predictable, too cookie-cutter, and you might do the same.

The principal trick to writing a good mystery in whatever sub-genre to my mind is the hook. How can you start your story in such a way as to grab your readers with that first sentence? There are some real doozies out there, and here are a few of my favorites from my own bookshelf:

“The girl was just plain amazing with a knife.” (Julie Garwood, Mercy, Pocket Books, 2001)

“Someone is following me.” (J. T. Ellison, When Shadows Fall, Harlequin MIRA, 2014)

“The killer waited patiently for the target to emerge from the cabin.”  (Jayne Ann Krentz, When All the Girls Have Gone, New York: Jove, 2016)

“There was no doubt about it. He was dead.” (Elizabeth Lowell, Dangerous Refuge, Avon, 2013)

“The heel of one of her high-button boots skidded across the stream of blood that seeped out from under the door.”  (Amanda Quick, The Mystery Woman, Jove, 2013)

“‘Tell me what you did with her body.’” (Mariah Stewart, Last Look, Ballantine Books, 2007)

Each of these opening lines strikes a unique tone and draws the reader in. They all clearly set up a murder mystery, and they’re intriguing enough to compel the reader to want to take a chance on reading the rest of the book.

Why Write Mysteries?

While I’ve been an avid reader of mysteries and thrillers for years, I didn’t start writing them until 2016 when a writer friend of mine convinced me I needed to start writing and publishing e-books. She also told me the best-sellers on Kindle were short mysteries in a series. Hence, I sat down to write my Cat & Mac Mysteries. Whether or not short mysteries remain best-sellers, I couldn’t say, but I am enjoying finally writing in this genre I’ve been reading for years.

And of course this is where any writer must begin when writing in any genre: you must read, read, READ books and stories in any genre you want to write. You have to know what readers expect in order to provide it. As David Corbett of Writer’s Digest put it . . .

The suspense genres in particular have a number of seemingly hard and fast rules that a writer defies at his peril. And yet the most satisfying mysteries, thrillers and crime stories find a way to create a new take on those rules to fashion something fresh, interesting, original.

Like any creative endeavor, whether painting with a particular technique, composing music in a particular style, or writing in a particular genre, you have to know the rules before you can break them effectively. So read—a lot! Then when you’re ready, have fun writing it!

The next time, we’ll look at the many facets of science fiction.

Christian ghostwriter · storytelling · writing fiction · writing tips

Writing Genre Fiction, Part 2: Fantasy

Image result for image fantasyI’ll begin this exploration of genre writing with one of my personal favorites, Fantasy. Literary Terms  tells us, “Fantasy, from the Greek ϕαντασία meaning ‘making visible,’ is a genre of fiction that concentrates on imaginary elements (the fantastic).” This may sound overly simplistic, but it does cover the genre. The fact is, fantasy literature runs the gambit from other-world epic heroic fantasy (e.g. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) to magical or paranormal powers connected to our world (e.g. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter) to simple contemporary stories that might have just one little fantastical element, such as the assumption that dragons are real (e.g. Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven).

What makes it fantasy is the appearance of alternate worlds, mythological heroes, fantastical creatures, magical powers, the supernatural—anything that doesn’t exist in the real world that is made real in a story. Of course, you still have to have a good story—it’s not enough just to create a fantasy world, though there are dozens of contemporary authors who have done so with varying degrees of success. You also have to tell a good story within that fantasy world, because without the story, the fantastic is not enough to keep readers turning the page.

When Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth,” he perhaps unknowingly described fantasy fiction as well as anyone ever has, because while a coming-of-age story can be set in a contemporary American community, how much more effective might it be to follow a Hobbit (Tolkien) or a Sheepfarmer’s Daughter (Elizabeth Moon) in a world of fantasy. And, yes, we can talk about elephants and rhinos and whales, but how much more fun might a story about endangered species be if the wildlife refuge is called Dragonhaven (McKinley), and the endangered species in the spotlight is the dwindling dragon population? And there are plenty of news stories today about small businesses in small towns being ousted by wealthy developers who want to burn them out to make way for a new resort, condo, or shopping mall. These stories of courageous contemporary Davids standing up to these modern-day Goliaths threatening their homes and livelihoods are riveting, but how much more fun might it be if the “Davids” are helped out by A Book Dragon (Donn Kushner) who is protecting his treasure in a tiny antique bookstore?

This is the fun of fantasy! It is taking the truth out of the mundane common world and putting it into a fantastical setting. Fantasy is, in some ways, both easier and more challenging to write. It can be easier because a fantasy is set in the author’s original world where the sky’s the limit for the writer’s imagination. But it can be a lot more challenging, especially when writing alternate-world fantasy, because the author has to create everything—from species to geography to cities to political systems to world history to religions. If you read Tolkien or Moon, you will find the most incredible of alternate worlds. Every single detail, from the shoes the characters wear to the animals they ride to the weapons they use to the languages they speak, is otherworldly. Yet there is, underneath the fantastic, an element of “truth” to these fantasy worlds, for even fantasy needs to contain some truth in order to draw readers into that necessary suspension of disbelief.

One of the best examples is found in Elizabeth Moon’s The Deed of Paksenarrion (a single volume containing the first three books in a so-far eleven-book series, starting with The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter). Paksenarrion runs away from home to join a mercenary company. What makes Moon’s fantasy work particularly well, when many other authors have come up short in similar tales, is Moon was a U.S. Marine, and her military knowledge brings a realism, or “truth,” to the story’s training, marching, and battle sequences unmatched by other fantasy writers who do not have Moon’s first-hand experience. The very human Paks is fighting all sorts of fantasy creatures: orcs and gnomes, black elves and rock creatures—the stories abound in strange and magical creatures. But at the heart of the fantastic is a coming-of-age story of a young woman seeking more to life than to be sold into marriage by her father to a neighboring pig farmer. This is high heroic fantasy at its best as we follow Paks from refugee to fighting mercenary to sword-wielding magical paladin of Gird—all set in an entirely fictional world complete with social, religious, and political complexity.

Of course there’s nothing new about fantasy. Aesop’s fables (6th century BC) and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (AD 19th century) are full of fantasy, not to mention folklore from all over the world, in which talking animals, vampires, witches, shapeshifters, fairies, ghosts, and goblins interact with the human race. Many a contemporary writer has cashed in by writing a new version of a traditional fairy tale, and even if you don’t want to rewrite a known tale, you can still write in the fairy tale style, using many of the creatures and themes found therein.

But you should do your homework before you write, because while your elves (for example) don’t have to be exactly like the elves of Middle-earth (Tolkien)—and in fact, they shouldn’t be—elves do have their origins in ancient Northern European mythology, and they have certain characteristics and powers that prove fairly standard across cultural lines. Though like any other mythological creature, elves vary somewhat from culture to culture, your readers will expect elves to look and act a certain way, and in order to keep your readers in your story, you will want to meet their expectations for all your fantastical creatures by thoroughly researching their origins before you write.

 The next time, we’ll look at what readers expect from mystery/detective stories.


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by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

 

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