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.

In Media Res: Journey of Strangers

Elizabeth Zelvin

In medias res, ( Latin: “in the midst of things”) in narrative technique, the recommended practice of beginning an epic or other fictional form by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events; the situation is an extension of previous events and will be developed in later action. – Encyclopedia Britannica, available at http://britannica.com

I must have heard the term in media res as a college English major a hundred years ago, but it made an impression on me as a fiction writer when I was working on Voyage of Strangers, my first historical novel. Its protagonist was Diego Mendoza, a young Jewish sailor who accompanied Columbus on his first two voyages to the Indies. Diego’s sister Rachel became a second point-of-view character.

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Engaging Old and New Readers

Gigi Pandian

Writing a series is tough. I’m not talking about a lack new ideas to keep the books fresh. I mean the challenge of how to hook two different types of readers right away: existing readers, and those who’ve never before encountered my characters.

As an author who writes two not-quite-cozy mystery series, I want any reader who picks up one of my books to have a satisfying experience. How can I strike the balance for what will appeal to both old and new readers?

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Keeping Readers Guessing

B.K. Stevens

The first sentence of a newspaper article, experts say, must answer five basic questions, usually referred to as the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why. Some people say the first page of a novel or short story must provide the same sort of information. As soon as possible, writers should let readers know who the protagonist is, what he or she is doing, and where, when, and why all this is happening. I’ve had a contest judge tell me my first page doesn’t work because it doesn’t include a physical description of the protagonist; I’ve seen agents and editors on conference panels toss first pages aside because they don’t precisely identify the threat the protagonist faces. If you Google “first page checklist,” you’ll find confident assertions that the first page must establish the plot’s central conflict, reveal the protagonist’s primary motivation, and do eight or ten other things as well.

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Catch ‘Em and Keep ‘Em

Edith Maxwell (also known as Maddie Day)

I’d like to break down the first two pages from Flipped for Murder, the first Country Store Mystery and my sixth published novel. It came out a scant two months ago from Kensington Publishing under the pen name Maddie Day.

Here’s the first paragraph:

My heart beat something fierce as the bell on the door jangled. It was make-or-break time. I’d been preparing for this day for weeks. I thought I was ready, but if I slipped up, I’d be in major hot water. Or financial ruin, as the case may be.

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The First Two Pages: Blood Diamonds

Melissa Yi

Mystery writer Kris Rusch/Nelscott ran a mystery workshop where she first asked us what historical time periods we felt familiar with, even if it was only through the movies. Then she told us to write a historical mystery set in that time period, with bonus points if we wrote about a crime that was no longer a crime, e.g. during Prohibition, you couldn’t sell alcohol, but now it’s legal.

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Enter the Scene Late; Leave the Scene Early

Erik Therme

“Enter the scene late; leave the scene early.”

I can’t remember where I originally heard those words, but it’s possibly the best writing advice ever, and it’s especially apt for beginnings of books. I’ve never written a novel where I haven’t gone back and cut anywhere from 2-20 pages from the beginning. Case in point: The original draft of my debut mystery, Mortom, began with siblings Andy & Kate driving into the small town of Mortom on a deserted road. Sure, there was some fun banter, they saw some semi-interesting scenery, but nothing really happened. I ended up cutting the entire scene, and there was no question it was for the best. The new and improved beginning has Andy & Kate arriving at their destination—a dilapidated house in the small town of Mortom—which gets things moving along much more quickly.

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Jewish Noir: Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds

Making Light of Noir

Michael J. Cooper

“I never sleep well under mortar fire. Last night was no exception. The flares hadn’t helped either, night shining like day.”
So opens my contribution to the Jewish Noir anthology, Good Morning, Jerusalem 1948. Presented in the first-person voice of 26-year-old Yitzhak Rabin, I sought to establish within the first couple of pages a number of features that, for me, are central to Noir fiction. These include the tension between darkness and light, the first-person narrative voice, and the protagonist’s tragic character arc. Additionally, since the anthology is dedicated to the sub-genre of Jewish Noir, the story is set in a historical and thematic context, which reflect aspects of the Jewish experience.

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Incorporating the Inciting Image

Paula Gail Benson

Sometimes a strong image inspires me to write a short story. Watching a PBS cooking program where the chef tied his meat with twine, placed it on a spit, and roasted it over the blazing fire in his kitchen’s wall-length hearth resulted in “Only the Sacrifice Knows,” a Thanksgiving mystery published online by Kings River Life.

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Entering a Cozy World

Kaye George

Fat Cat Spreads Out is the second book in the cozy Fat Cat series. Cozy mystery lovers expect specific things from the genre. First and foremost is comfort. These are feel-good books, in spite of the dead bodies. The bodies are not dwelt upon, or even described in detail, leaving the purpose of the murder to be furnishing a puzzle for the reader to try to work out before the sleuth does. The pace has to move along, but the reader doesn’t need to be slammed with nail-biting tension at the very start.

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The First Two Pages of “Devil for a Witch”

R.S. Brenner

“Devil for a Witch” is a title I’ve been hoarding for years on my brain shelf, waiting for the right match. It’s from a southern expression: You trade the devil for a witch. Not an attractive bargain either way. A good title (maybe only a working title) is akin to calling an unborn baby by a name. If not the “real” name, then one off a list of names. A title is my mantra to repeat while I conjure its hidden dimensions. I begin there.

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Opening on the Past: The Challenge of Writing Historical Series Fiction

Susan Spann

The start of a novel is always critically important, but the challenges multiply when the book is part of an ongoing series.

I write the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Although the books are standalone adventures, in the sense that readers don’t have to have read the previous installments in order to enjoy each book, a large percentage of my readers are also returning fans of the series—which creates some additional challenges in writing the opening pages.

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The First Two Pages of “A Blind Eye”

Jane Gorman

Opening lines are tough. The first line of my first book – well, that was a killer. I was rewriting my first two pages after the book had been through a string of editors. After it was formatted. After I got the proof, read through it one more time – and changed the beginning yet again. Not major changes, really. Just changes that (I hope) gave my readers a better sense of who the main character is. What the promise of the story is.

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Starting with the Bad Guy

B.K. Stevens

Usually, in the opening pages of a whodunit, we have to hide our bad guys— make them look harmless, blend them into a pool of red herrings, or keep them out of sight altogether. The plot of my recently released young adult mystery, Fighting Chance, offered me a rare opportunity to put my killer at the center right from the beginning. To start building an ominous tone from the first sentence—it felt irresistibly tempting. But whenever we start with the bad guy, we face special challenges, and we have tough decisions to make.

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The First Two Pages of “The Sacrifice of Isaac”

Steven Wishnia

“The Sacrifice of Isaac,” my story in Jewish Noir, opens with the sound of breaking glass. It’s a sound used in a couple songs I love, just before the noisefest explodes in the Velvet Underground’s “European Son” and to herald the first line—“broken glass everywhere”—in Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s seminal hip-hop record “The Message.”

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