John M. Floyd
One of my favorite quotes about writing came from author Margaret Lucke. She said, “You can’t protect your characters—the words protagonist and antagonist have ‘agony’ built in.” She was right. Especially about the protagonist. As fiction writers, one of our primary goals should be to heap a heavy load of misery onto the shoulders of our hero or heroine, and to do it as soon as possible.
This author believes that properly staging each scene of a novel is vital, and the first scene the most critical of all. Imagine you are watching the opening of a play. The stage is dim, a wind is blowing, a female figure walks alone on a deserted street, she appears worried–you know immediately this is not a comedy, probably not a cozy. THE SEA HORSE TRADE is a novel about human trafficking, and though it is not without humor, I wanted to set the mood and the stage in the first paragraph.
Paula Gail Benson
I write short stories. For me, two pages may be a fifth of the tale I’m telling.
Within the first two pages, I need to introduce the main characters, setting, and situation confronting the protagonist as well as inserting a few hints about how the matter will be resolved. I have to establish relationships and conflict so that readers are already wondering what’s going to happen next.
My story, “The Train’s on the Tracks,” recently published in FISH OR CUT BAIT: A GUPPY ANTHOLOGY (Wildside Press, April 2015), takes place on the floor of a State Senate during a filibuster over a controversial bill. Thanks to CSPAN, news programing, and movies, readers have some familiarity with how a legislative chamber looks and what happens during a debate, but this story presents a different perspective from what they are used to viewing.
James M. Jackson
I strive to write openings that resemble a hunk’s rippling abdominal muscles: strong, taut, and without a layer of fat—your prototypical six-pack. Producing that effect does not come without great effort. To develop an opening six-pack, I incorporate six design elements.
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.
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: