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The Sirens of Suspense




A lifelong Chicagoan, Patricia Skalka is a former Reader’s Digest Staff Writer and award-winning freelancer, as well as one-time magazine editor, ghost writer and writing instructor. Her nonfiction book credits include Nurses On Our Own, the true story of two pioneering, local nurse practitioners.

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item1 The Hot Bath-Cold Martini Approach item1

Years back, when I first fantasized about writing mystery novels, I read an anecdote describing Agatha Christie’s approach to writing mystery novels. According to this story, she sat in a tub of hot water and sipped a martini while dictating the plot into a tape recorder. The image had instant appeal. If this method worked for the grand dame of mystery, why not for me?

Fortunately, by the time I left my nonfiction writing career and set off to become a writer of mysteries, I realized that the combination of booze and hot water would lead to nothing but death by drowning. Mine, not that of a character in a novel.

I had to find another way.

I wrote DEATH STALKS DOOR COUNTY the first in my Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series, propelled by the knowledge of who did it and why and little else. It was the only way I knew to start. Using a chapter-by-chapter approach, I tackled the story. The method seemed to work fine but it left me with numerous holes to fill. After plenty of fits and starts and a disappointing first draft, I abandoned the chapter approach and rewrote by trying to link one scene to another. This was better but there were still plenty of detours and dead ends, and the book was several years in the making.

Then the magic happened. I stumbled on John Robert Marlowe’s Self Editing Blog and his “beatline” guide to plotting a novel. Although Marlowe is a script writer, he said he also used the process in writing fiction. It made sense to me. So, figuring I had nothing to lose, I tried it. This is not a chapter-by-chapter, or a scene-by-scene approach, but rather a detailed action-by-action plotting of the story from the beginning to the end.

When I started DEATH AT GILLS ROCK, the second volume in the series, I knew the overall arc of the story but little else. Using the “beatline” concept, I created a road map of the entire novel. First this happens, and then this and then this. It was tedious and hard, but I forced myself to stick with it – no cheating, no saying – oh, I’ll figure that out when I get to it. Every wrinkle was smoothed out, every snarl untangled, every dead end circumvented before I started to write. At the end of nearly three agonizing weeks of doing nothing but plotting the story, I had a twenty-three page, single-spaced road map of the book. And eight months later, I had a very solid first draft.

For me, completing a novel is this amount of time was nothing short of miraculous.

On a panel, another mystery writer challenged me: Doesn’t knowing how everything turns out make it boring? Absolutely not, I said. Knowing makes the writing fun. Gone are the depressing hours of staring at a blank page, wondering what now? No more: oops, how did I get here and how am I going to get out of it? No issue of losing track of an important character, no long stretches short on action.

There are many excellent authors who write by the seat of their pants. They get an idea and go with it. Bless their word processors. I don’t function like that and maybe you don’t either.

In fact, as I’ve matured in my new career, I’ve come to view fiction and mystery writing as a two-part process. Step one is plotting. Step two is writing.

Plotting demands logic. The story has to make sense. The action has to unfold seamlessly and hold together. These are the innards that form the skeletal framework upon which to build the story.

Writing demands creativity. Writing is the reward you’ve earned for all that hard work in thinking the story through. And if you know the story, if you aren’t focused on figuring out what comes next, then you are freed up to devote your attention to the telling. You’re like the architect putting the finishing touches on a building that has all the elements in place. Or a gourmet cook whipping up a tantalizing meal, with all the ingredients at the ready – no worrying if you forgot the fennel.

I used this same roadmap approach to write Death In Cold Water, my third mystery which debuts this fall, and went back to it again for the fourth book which is a work in progress.

The allure of the hot bubble bath and the cold martini lingers on. Sadly, I realize this approach will never be part of my writing routine but perhaps I’ll be able to use it in a future book – working it in, step-by-step.





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