Two days ago I talked to four groups of fourth graders at an elementary school. They were surprisingly well informed about writing and fiction (hats off to their teachers!). I asked them if it was a story if I described a walk through the woods and described the trees and undergrowth and animals. They said no, so I asked what it would take to make a story. They answered “rising action,” a problem, etc., but the thing they most consistently said was, “A hook.”
I’ve always been a believer in “hooking” the reader from the first sentence. I’m admittedly a pantser, having always thought outlines were for all those research papers I did in graduate school. So if I can get that first line done, be it a blog, book review, short story, or novel, I’m usually on my way.
I’ve written one really gangbuster opening in my long career. The Perfect Coed opens with this short paragraph:
Susan Hogan drove around Oak Grove, Texas, for two days before she realized there was a dead body in the trunk of her car. And it was another three days before she knew that someone was trying to kill her.
Readers of historical mysteries like myself enjoy nothing better than being transported from our mundane twenty-first century existences into the exotic realms of the past. We’re huge suckers for the transportive power of the classic fairy tale opening of “once upon a time” merged with the immediacy of “one day” when something happens to change everything. So that’s the effect I strove to create in the opening lines of my Joseph Haydn mystery, A Minor Deception:
On a chilly December morning in the year 1766, the inhabitants of the little town of Eisenstadt bustle about in a state of feverish anticipation. Eisenstadt might be no different from any other obscure free town in Royal Hungary; too insignificant to merit a spot on the postal route. Nevertheless, it has drawn the attention of the entire Empire upon itself.
The widowed Empress Maria Theresa is to grace the little town in her Hungarian domains with a visit in three weeks, bringing to an end a year-long period of mourning for her beloved husband.
But the man whom the town credits for this remarkable event is at this very moment beginning to fear something might go amiss in the weeks to come.
Several years ago, I wrote the first sentences of what would become PILLOW STALK, the first of the Mad for Mod Mysteries:
“What about Doris Day?” I asked.
Six sets of eyes stared me down like it was the worst suggestion they’d ever heard.
I admit that I was a bit in love with the whole project—interior decorator who models her style and her business after a Doris Day movie and ends up involved in a homicide investigation when women dressed like the actress start turning up dead—and when the book was finished and polished, I sent it out and sat back, waiting for the offers of representation to pour in. I had some nibbles, too, requests to see the first 100 pages, requests to see the entire manuscript, but none of the nibbles resulted in what I wanted: a gushing endorsement that what I’d written was unturndownable, leading to an offer of representation.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with my Kim Reynolds mysteries, I’ll mention that THE BAD WIFE is actually the fourth novel in the series and the most recent. Each novel in the series features the same main characters. However, each novel stands alone as a unique and complete murder mystery. In addition, the main characters are not static. Like real people, they lead changing lives and have complex personalities. Kim Reynolds, an academic librarian who is also a reluctant sleuth and psychic, has been romantically involved with Lieutenant Mike Gardner, a homicide detective. It comes as something of a shock to both Kim and him discovering that he is still legally married.