The First Two Pages

Every Tuesday, a mystery writer explains how he or she faced the challenges of those brutally difficult–and vitally important–first two pages.

Hunted by the Past PSY-IV Teams #1

Jami Gray

I started my writing career weaving tales of magic and mayhem in the Urban Fantasy genre. Three books in on my UF series, I decided it was time to shake things up by tackling the first book in my Paranormal Romantic Suspense series, The PSY-IV Teams. HUNTED BY THE PAST came about because as a writer the best way for me to stretch my creative muscles is to try new things. These self-imposed challenges can range from telling the story from a difficult point of view, creating a unique or unusual setting, switching up my genre, or adding twists even I couldn’t predict.

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Farm Fresh and Fatal

Judy Hogan

Monday Morning, April 1, 2002.  A fight broke out during the second market, but the first day of the first farmers’ market in Riverdell went relatively smoothly.  The third market was when the murder occurred.

Penny and Kenneth were searching madly for snails in the lettuce when Nora Fisher, their new market’s manager, drove her yellow pickup in and parked near their garage apartment.  “You go talk to her,” Kenneth said.  “I’ll keep checking the Romaine.  The red lettuce was the hardest.  All those curlicues.”  He was moving slowly on hands and knees down the rows they’d cultivated with the rototiller only the night before.

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Following Where the Road Leads

Art Taylor

When I first wrote “Rearview Mirror,” the opening story in my novel in stories On the Road with Del & Louise (currently a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel), I had no idea that these characters would have life beyond that initial adventure. The goal in my mind was to finish a single story, not to start a whole book.

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Beginning with Backstory

B.K. Stevens

We all know we’re not supposed to do it. But I did it anyway.

Almost all Creative Writing 101 classes caution us against beginning with backstory, and so do most books on writing fiction. In Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, for example, Hallie Ephron offers a definition and a warning. “Backstory is information about how a character arrived at this particular place and time,” she writes. “It’s a sure sign that the novel is written by a novice when a load of backstory is dumped into the opening chapter.” I don’t doubt she’d say the same thing about a load of backstory dumped into the first two pages of a short story. In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block credits his agent with giving him “the best advice I ever received”: “Don’t begin at the beginning.” These “five precious words,” Block says, made him decide to switch around the first and second chapters of Death Pulls a Doublecross, so that the novel now begins with the protagonist lugging a body wrapped in an Oriental rug through the streets of New York City, with not a word of explanation about how he came to be in possession of the body in the first place. Now, that’s avoiding backstory.

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Red Flags: The First Two Pages

Tammy Kaehler

The opening lines of my books tend to come to me well in advance of writing the rest of the story. That was certainly the case for my newest Kate Reilly Mystery, Red Flags. About four months before sitting down to actually engage on the novel—as I was trying to let things like the plot, the villain, the victim, and the supporting cast cook in my head—I heard the first line in my head. It brought with it the identity of the victim, long before I knew exactly why he’d been killed. And I should note that I originally wrote it as “I looked down at my cousin’s face and tried to care he was dead,” which got fixed up (and anonymized) in the editing process.

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The First Two Pages: Should Have Played Poker and Comic Relief

Debra H. Goldstein

Why do people giggle in stressful situations? Some say the snicker is a nervous reaction that relieves the tension of the moment. Whether suppressed or a full chuckle, the laugh distracts both the person making the sound and the one hearing it. Different senses are impacted as the tee-hee is heard, the movement of the giggler’s body is felt or observed, and the thoughts and reactions being experienced are disrupted. In a written work, the addition of a scene, character, or even a single line as comic relief serves a similar purpose.

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The First Two Pages of Yeti

Richard Edde

My novel, Yeti, is sort of a sci-fi action thriller set in the remote mountains of Mongolia.  My protagonist is a paleoanthropologist searching for early human fossils.

This novel has some important scientific information especially in the first few chapters as the plot unfolds so the challenge was how to open the book in an interesting and gripping manner in order to hold the reader’s interest and draw him/her into the story.  Of course, this is every writer’s challenge but for this novel it seemed particularly crucial.

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Setting the Hook

Ginny Fite

Ben Cromwell was murdered in the narrow alley between the casino parking garage and the ramp to the stables behind the Charles Town racetrack. Murdered is the nice word for it. Slaughtered is more apt. Eviscerated. Chopped into pieces scattered in a ten-mile radius from the murder scene that had been carelessly scuffed over with dirt, straw, and cedar chips before anyone realized that spot might be critical to an investigation.

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Hunting Inspiration With a Club

Vinnie Hansen

Usually I write a short story and then try to find a market for it. By nature I’m more a pantzer than a plotter. I don’t trust myself to spill a good tale unless it starts from the font of inspiration.

Many of these “inspired” stories eventually found homes. But waiting for a muse can be limiting. Jack London once remarked: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Last year I got out my club. I tried writing to specific prompts and for specific markets. My success surprised me.

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The First Two Pages: Judy Penz Sheluk

Judy Penz Sheluk

When it comes to short fiction, you probably don’t have two pages to capture someone’s attention. You certainly don’t have the luxury of a prologue to hint at the backstory, or an entire chapter to start outlining what’s coming and who’s who. At best you have a few paragraphs. If you can hook the reader with those, you have a fair shot at keeping their attention. Let’s take a look at the opening of my short story, Live Free or Die, which is included in LIVE FREE OR TRI: a collection of three short mystery stories, published January 2016.

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The First Two Pages of: “The Drop”

Alan Gordon

The van pulled up and parked three blocks up and one over from the club. The side door opened, and a young man jumped down to the curb and immediately started walking, never even acknowledging his ride. He wore a black blazer-hoodie combo over a burnt orange tee with “SHALOM BITCHES” emblazoned on the front. Rocco jeans, skinny tight but broken in. Wouldn’t stop him from dancing. Wouldn’t do his balls any favors when he did.

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