In his 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Edgar Allan Poe laid out a hefty challenge for short story writers—a pronouncement that likely still threatens to humble many of us today: Speaking of how a “skillful literary artist” should approach craft, Poe wrote that “having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step.”
At first, the killer seemed so exciting—exactly what I’d always longed for, what I’d often sought but never found. I didn’t see the dangers until it was too late. Even then, I should have tried to break free. I should have just walked away. But I couldn’t. I was hooked. Somehow, I had to find a way to make this work.
All mystery writers yearn to come up with killer first paragraphs, ones that jump off the page, seize hold of readers, and pull them in deep. I tried to write that sort of first paragraph for Interpretation of Murder, and I think I succeeded—at least, it feels like a killer to me. But sometimes killer first paragraphs, like other kinds of killers, make us feel trapped. Sometimes, when we focus on packing as much drama as possible into a first paragraph, writing the follow-up paragraphs gets tricky. My killer proved so problematic that I came close to cutting it and looking for a blander way to begin. I couldn’t do it. I liked the paragraph too much. Did I make the right decision? Frankly, I’m still not sure.
I am so excited to be with you today to talk about how the first two pages of my cozy mystery novel, Well Read, Then Dead, came to be. I believe the story’s beginning enticed folks to read further and resulted in the book being recently nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel.
A few years ago I decided to write a cozy series set on the barrier island community of Fort Myers Beach on the Gulf Coast of South Florida. Now Fort Myers Beach is a real place, and I wanted to keep true to this fantastic beach and resort community, but I still needed to invent a fictional location within Fort Myers Beach for my characters to use as a base. It had to be a warm, welcoming place smelling of delicious food and filled with books and sunshine. So I invented the Read ’Em and Eat café and bookstore owned by protagonist Sassy Cabot and her “bestie” Bridgy Mayfield.
I’m a big believer in bringing the reader into the setting as soon as possible. I like to start in media res (smack dab in the middle of the action), but that can disorienting if you have no idea where you are as a reader.
My goal is to let the reader know WHO’s here, WHERE they are, and WHEN the scene is happening. I always attempt to get all five senses into every scene. I can’t do that every time, of course, but I try. I’m skipping the sense of SIGHT because every scene has to include that.
Here are some of the ways I try to do all this. The very beginning of CHOKE, the first Imogene Duckworthy mystery: