February’s Featured How-to Author: HALLIE EPHRON!
This monthly series is your opportunity to dig deep and ask how-to authors your hot questions.
Post a comment today – and you may win:
- A signed copy of WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, How to Knock ‘em Dead with Style, by Hallie Ephron
- A Lecture Packet from me, Margie Lawson
As promised in the promo, Factoids and Funtoids about Hallie Ephron!
- Author of the standalone psychological suspense novel, NEVER TELL A LIE
- Writing teacher and author of WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, nominated for Edgar and for Anthony awards
- Author of 1001 BOOKS FOR EVERY MOOD
- Award-winning Book Reviewer of crime fiction for the Boston Globe
- Hallie lives near Boston in a house furnished with items she and her husband picked up at yard sales
Starred Review in Publishers Weekly for NEVER TELL A LIE:
An innocent yard sale jump-starts this stunning stand-alone thriller from Ephron, author of Amnesia and four other mysteries written with Donald Davidoff under the name G.H. Ephron (and one of the Ephron writing sisters), as well as two nonfiction books.
Ivy and David Rose, happily married high school sweethearts, are trying to clear out the junk the previous owner left in their glorious Victorian in Brush Hills, Mass., before the birth of their first child. Among the bargain hunters is Melinda White, a high school classmate who's also pregnant. Considered an oddball in school, Melinda worries about “more bad luck” after nearly knocking over a large mirror. When Melinda disappears and no one can remember seeing her leave the sale, the evidence suggests the couple murdered her. Ephron doesn't miss a searing beat as she plunges the Roses into an abyss of suspicion. A surprise toward the end provides the perfect twist to this deliciously creepy tale of obsession.
Hallie Ephron Interview
By Margie Lawson
ML: In WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, How to Knock ‘em Dead with Style, you provide thorough and logical steps outlining how to write a mystery. How closely did you follow your own advice when you wrote your psychological thriller, NEVER TELL A LIE?
HE: I confess, I disregarded all of my advice about staking out the plot, structuring the book in three acts, and so on. I just started with my premise, made a few sketchy notes, and started writing. The result was an ugly, three-year-long process. Having said that, I’m thrilled with the result. Which just goes to prove something, I’m not sure what.
For my new book I have a contract and a deadline, so my writing process is much more systematic and hopefully will be a lot faster.
ML: In the chapter on Writing Investigation: Clues, Red Herrings, and Misdirection, you share some pointers under the heading, Investigation: Observing and Interrogating. What do you caution mystery writers NOT to do?
HE: The biggest “don’t”: “Don’t spoon-feed the reader.” I hate over-narrated books where every little observation the detective makes is explained ad nauseum.
For example, suppose your sleuth notices white lines scarring a woman’s wrist--you don’t have to deliver the obvious news bulletin: she survived a suicide attempt. Your readers are smart. Let them do some of the work connecting the dots.
ML: In the Innocent Suspects' chapter, you listed thirteen devices to make innocent suspects look guilty. What are your top five?
HE: Here you go:
1. Has an obvious motive (e.g. had been blackmailed/jilted/cheated/etc. by the victim)
2. Stonewalls (says he can’t remember or refuses to answer questions)
3. Is overeager to answer questions (provides bushels of information that implicates others)
5. My favorite: Displays contradictory behavior (e.g. a self-professed tea-totaller is seen drinking in a bar a few hours after the murder; or a gun control advocate has an NRA membership card in his wallet)
ML: Genre writers know they have to hook the reader with a dynamite opening. In mysteries, that killer opening is often a body drop. You recommend opening with a murder or an out-of-whack event that has a mystery element. What are some examples of out-of-whack events and what made them work well?
HE: My new book, NEVER TELL A LIE, opens with a brief news story about the disappearance of a pregnant woman who was last seen at a yard sale. Then, Chapter 1 dramatizes the yard sale where she was last seen, four days earlier. The reader knows that the woman is going to go inside that house and she’s not going to come out. So what might be a gentle suburban scene takes on a layer of tension and suspense. The woman’s disappearance is an out-of-whack event that derails my main character’s life at just the point when she and her husband seem to be the couple that “has everything.”
Here are examples of other openings I love because they throw the characters off balance:
- A baby is left on the steps of a church (Julia Spencer-Fleming, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER)
- A detective is thrown from the sixth-floor window of a burning hotel (T. Jefferson Parker, THE FALLEN)
- A murder suspect greets her attorney: “Pleased to meet you, I’m your twin.” (Lisa Scottoline, MISTAKEN IDENTITY)
ML: Your chapter on Writing Action is power-packed. Could you share four ideas with our blog guests on how to make action passages spare, effective, and riveting?
HE: Verbs, verbs, verbs, verbs. Seriously. Make them active and pick them carefully to **show** the action you’re trying to depict. Hold the adverbs. And use internal dialogue and description only if you’re deliberately trying to slow down the action.
ML: In the chapter on Staking Out the Plot you identify several ways to plague your protagonist. Which are your favorites, and why?
HE: My favorite: raising the stakes. As the book barrels toward its conclusion, insert ticking clock. A deadline when something bad is going to happen. (In NEVER TELL A LIE, it’s childbirth.)
ML: Mystery writers rely on research for authenticity. What sources do you recommend for mystery writers to get forensics right?
HE: I rely on my local police to get the police procedure right. On general police procedure and crime-scene investigation and ballistics, I often ask Lee Lofland (www.leelofland.com) whose wonderful blog The Graveyard Shift is full of great information.
Lee Lofland wrote THE BOOK on police procedure (POLICE PROCEDURE AND INVESTIGATION). Also D. P. Lyle, MD (www.dplylemd.com/) answers any and all questions from mystery writers about medical forensics and has several books out there, including FORENSICS: A Guide for Writers (2008).
ML: Switching to a question about your time-line of writing your novels: How long does it typically take you to complete a first draft? How long do you spend on revision and what does your revision process entail?
HE: When I’m cookin’, it takes about six months to write a first draft, another six weeks or so to revise it and send it to my agent. She always has comments that need to be addressed, and we go back and forth -- add another six or eight weeks before it’s completely cooked.
ML: Hallie, Here’s a tough question. Were there times when you were writing NEVER TELL A LIE that you got stuck? If so – how did you move forward?
HE: More times than I can count…usually I knew what was “supposed” to happen next but couldn’t get the characters to go there. I’ve learned to listen when that happens. I never want my plot to “herd” my characters. I have lots of strategies that sometimes work and sometimes don’t:
- Brainstorm…try to imagine as many different things that could happen next instead of what I thought was going to happen next
- Revise the preceding 50 pages and see if that helps
- Mind map – make a diagram of my plot and see if that triggers ideas
- Give it to my writing group and beg their advice
But honestly, it’s when I’ve been trying and trying to move forward and then stop trying (take a shower, drive to Connecticut, swim, fry chicken…) that the Aha! comes to me and I know how to move forward.
ML: You love revising. What’s your favorite part about revising?
HE: For me revising involves both paring away (wherever I told the reader something they could have figured out or where I repeated myself) and adding (usually I need more inner dialogue, characterization, or a few more beats to stretch out a dramatic moment). My favorite part of revising is reading what I’ve written, and realizing that I’m close to being done.
ML: Here’s your final question. WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL was published four years ago. If you were writing it now, what would you add?
HE: That’s easy. I’d add a chapter on secrets. I wrote about clues and red herrings, but what I’ve come to realize is that secrets are what make a crime novel work. All the characters (victims, suspects, villains, even the sleuth) have them, and they lie (to others and to themselves) to cover them up. Clues and red herrings can feel mechanical, but secrets are integral to characterization. I give a workshop called “Plotting: The Secret is in the Secrets” and people have found it enormously helpful, both in creating a taut, compelling story and in addressing the problem of “the mushy middle.”
Hallie, I appreciate your expertise, your insights, and your candid responses. Thank you for being our guest today – and for taking the time to respond to blog questions and comments.
With your how-to book, WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, and the how-to forensics books by Lee Lofland and D.P. Lyle, writers will have the power tools needed to write a page-turner.
FIVE SCRIBE BLOG VISITORS:
Chime in! We’ll have two winners today!
1. A Lecture Packet from me, Margie Lawson
2. A signed copy of WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, How to Knock ‘em Dead with Style.
Interesting that Hallie mentioned two of her authentic research sources because we rely on them too. Join us March 25, 2009 when Lee Lofland, author of Police Procedure & Investigation, will be our featured How-to Author. Then later in 2009 D.P. Lyle, M.D. will be our guest How-to Author as he answers questions about Forensics: A Guide for Writers (2008).