What compels me to write? Maybe it’s in my DNA, like my pointy nose and near-sightedness. My new book, Cold Heart, is dedicated thus: “To my mother, Juanita H Williams, who would’ve liked it.” She was a journalism major at the University of Kentucky for two years until she married my dad and took a ten-year break from her studies to produce four children. She went back to school for a PhD in psychology, and wrote a ground-breaking text book that still, after thirty years, generates a trickle of royalties. She was an excellent writer. Her mother, Anna Hingst, wrote many charming stories about her girlhood in Lottie, Louisiana. They are funny, sad, heartfelt, and charming, and publishing them is on my to-do list. My daughter, Adrienne Bashista, started a press to publish books for children adopted from Russia, and books about adoption and parenting. She’s a wonderful writer. And my youngest writing relative is my granddaughter Amelia Solum, who is 13. She recently wrote an essay for a VFW competition that won first in the city ($100), first in the district ($100), and third in the state ($300). That’s $500 for one page. Not bad!
My education was in math and engineering, and at work I wrote all the time. Technical writing follows this formula: Tell them what you’re gonna tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them. That kind of writing couldn’t be further from fiction, and I had a lot to learn. With the help of critique groups, writing workshops, classes, and the MFA program at the University of Southern Maine (hi, Linda!), I unlearned those bad-boy habits.
Why mysteries? The mystery genre comes with something wonderful for a writer: a skeleton, a frame. When I first thought I’d try to write a novel, I was terrified of the structure problem. Where to start? When to stop? But in a mystery novel, there’s a murder, and someone figures out who dunnit. That’s three characters right there, each with a goal; a story’s beginning and an end. Throw in friends and relations (all with secrets) and setting, and you have the basic ingredients for a novel.
I don’t want to make it sound easy. There’s still all that writing to do.
I am envious of pantsers. They sit down and the words flow from their fertile right brain. They just need inspiration to get the creative juices flowing. Maybe I’m too left-brain (math and engineering, remember), or maybe it’s that a mystery novel is inherently complex. It has to be logically consistent. There’s the underlying story of what actually happened, and then there’s the novel’s story as the sleuth figures it out. Drop clues, not too many. Reveal the sleuth’s backstory, and weave in a related subplot or two. The only way I can keep track is to write a synopsis, which I frequently revise, and a scene list, which I choose from each writing session.
My writing habits aren’t the most disciplined (and it’s okay!). Day-to-day, my family responsibilities and my bed & breakfast business absorb my time and attention. But my writers’ group has to be fed new pages every month, and that’s enough motivation to put fingers to keyboard, nearly every day. I write best, and most productively, when I can escape to Weymouth, or to the beach, off-season with my writer friends. On this dark and cold February day, the sand and warm waves of Oak Island beckon. Is it too early to start planning?
Karen Pullen lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina, where she runs a bed & breakfast and pens mystery novels. Her second Stella Lavender mystery, Cold Heart, was published by Five Star Cengage in January. She’s also written award-winning short stories, and her collection, Restless Dreams, will be out from GusGus Press in September. She has an MFA from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine in popular fiction, and serves on the national board of Sisters in Crime.
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Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of In the Context of Love, adult contemporary fiction, a 2017 Sarton Women’s Book Award Finalist, 2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist, 2016 Readers’ Favorite Finalist, 2016 USA Book News Best Book Finalist, and Great Midwest Book Festival Honorable Mention.
Angelica Schirrick had always suspected there was something deeply disturbing about her family, but the truth was more than she bargained for.