Showing posts with label Sherry Harris. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sherry Harris. Show all posts

13 March 2018

The Plot Thickens

Welcome Sherry Harris

Sherry Harris, author of a cozy amateur-sleuth mystery series, is our guest today on SleuthSayers. In addition to writing the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries, Sherry is vice president of Sisters in Crime National and immediate past president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Her first novel, Tagged For Death, was a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her fifth novel, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, came out from Kensington on February 27th, and she has more books under contract. I've been lucky enough to work with Sherry for a few years, and I'm happy to let her share her thoughts on plotting and plot holes– evil, evil plot holes– with you today.

— Barb Goffman

The Plot Thickens
by Sherry Harris

Plotting is not something that comes naturally to me. It reminds me too much of outlining papers for school. No fun. What’s an author to do?

Since the second book in my Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, Barb Goffman has been my independent editor. One of the many things she’s done to improve my writing is to encourage me to plot. When I gave her my sixth book to edit last spring I expected the usual notes on upping this or that. What she gave me included a list of TWENTY-SIX questions that I hadn’t answered in the manuscript. TWENTY-SIX!
book 1 in the series

That meant I had a lot of rewriting to do. We all know that saying, all writing is rewriting, but this time it was crazy. Not only that, but she said she’d figured out who did it near the beginning of the manuscript. Barb had never said that to me before. And she had one more bit of advice: Maybe you should sketch out your plot before your write the next book.


How does my editor at Kensington figure in to all this? Some editors want a five-to-ten page synopsis or outline before they sign off on a book. For the last four books, I’ve only turned in the briefest ideas – some only a couple of sentences, some a paragraph. I turned in a synopsis after I’ve written the book – it’s a lot easier that way.

When I started book seven I attempted to take Barb’s advice, so I wrote out a page of who did it and why they did it. I referred back to that page as the book progressed. I have to admit it was helpful because if I started off on a tangent, the page would keep me on track. This time the manuscript came back with fourteen questions. And most of them weren’t difficult to fix, so I didn’t have to spend a ton of time rewriting. Whew! Maybe there is something to this whole plotting thing.

Sherry's latest book
Now I’m starting the eighth book. When I wrote my Kensington editor it was more of a “Hey, I want to try this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done in a cozy before.” He said, “Go for it.”

But now I’m facing the blank computer screen. I’ve started to try to plot. The nugget of information that leads me down the writing path has been a bit different in each book. Sometimes I start with the victim, sometimes the type of crime. This time I know who the killer is, but I don’t know who they killed or why.

I’ve been making a list of potential victims and writing why after each one. It’s a very different process for me and so far I keep drawing a blank. Instead I’ve been sketching out other aspects of the book – things like who are the suspects (which may sound crazy considering I still don’t know who dies), where Sarah is in her personal life, what time of year is it, what kind of garage sale will she deal with. While I do that I keep wondering if I can pull off what I want to and then circle back to the list. I stare at the list and then play a game of solitaire. A call to Barb to work through all of this is imminent.

Any advice? How do you manage your plot?

23 May 2017

Don't Settle on Any Old Setting

by Barb Goffman

I was recently reading a comment on a novel on Amazon in which a reader said that she didn't like books set in fictional towns if the setting plays an important role in the plot. If the setting is important, she wrote, the author should take the time to research and properly use a real place. Not to do so is lazy writing.

Well, that stopped me.

I can think of a number of reasons why an author might choose to use a real place, a fictional place, or a fictional place based on a real place in his/her books. And none of those reasons are lazy reasons. But rather than expound on this point myself, I figured I'd go straight to some author friends who take different approaches to see why they do what they do. In all cases, they chose their settings with care.

Let's start with LynDee Walker's Headlines in High Heels mystery series. It's set in Richmond, Virginia, and features newspaper crime reporter Nichelle Clarke. LynDee lives in Richmond and chose to bring her adopted hometown to life in her books. She loves exploring the city and learning about, and sometimes using, local history as she works to get the details in the books right, she said.

But using a real city can be tricky. "I try to avoid mentioning specific businesses when I can, largely because if a place closes, it dates the book," LynDee said.

And she also doesn't want to make any real businesses look bad. "I get creative with made-up, non-specific, or abandoned public places for body discoveries. I would never put a corpse in the freezer at Capital Ale"--a popular Richmond pub--"or have someone get poisoned in a real restaurant. I don't want to hurt anyone's reputation, even if I am making it all up and it's clearly marked as such."

Sasscer Hill, author of the new Fia McKee mystery series, mostly uses real places in her books too. Doing so adds realism, but it also adds to the workload.

"The difficulty about writing a real place is you must get it right," Sasscer said. "That takes research by phone, internet, and road trips. If you don't carefully check for the accuracy of your setting's description, there are plenty of readers who will be happy to point out that you got it wrong."

Sometimes authors choose to use a made-up setting to avoid making inadvertent mistakes, as well as to avoid angering real people. Maya Corrigan is a good example.

"With a fictional town, I don't have to worry that the place where I set a scene (restaurant, secondhand shop, clothing store), will go out of business before my book is published," said Maya, author of the Five-Ingredient Mysteries series set in a fictional town on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "Also, with a fictional place, I won't get irate messages from actual town police and county sheriffs because my character interacts with less-than-ideal law enforcers."

These are legitimate reasons for choosing to make up a setting. But with these pros comes the possible con that readers familiar with the area in real life might find it hard to accept the fictional town.

"My main problem with a fictional location is with the interface between it and real places," Maya said. "How long does it take to get from Bayport, which doesn't exist, to Baltimore or Annapolis? I can't leave it vague because timing can be crucial in a mystery. I'm afraid a reader familiar with the area may complain that a twenty-minute drive from some real location will put me in a cornfield or in a real town, not my fictional one."

To avoid Maya's cornfield problem, some authors try to straddle the line. They make up a town to set their series in, but that town is based on a real place. And sometimes the fictional town is set in exactly the same spot on the map as the real one.

Sherry Harris, author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mystery series, sets her books in fictional Ellington, Massachusetts, including the adjacent fictional Fitch Air Force Base. Readers won't recognize these places by name, but they may by description.

"Ellington is based on the real town of Bedford, Massachusetts," Sherry said. "Fitch AFB is based on Hanscom AFB, which adjoins Bedford. Anyone familiar with Bedford or Hanscom will recognize places they know in the books. But by making a town fictional, I can move things around, add things, and change how buildings look as needed."

As any author knows, being able to manipulate the setting can be important. But it also can be dicey.

"People are very proud of their towns. Moving things around can cause outrage," Sherry said. "By fictionalizing Bedford I can add businesses, rearrange the base a bit, while staying true to the real versions. I wouldn't want a murderer to work at a real place and have the real place take offense (or legal action). I do use real places in the books, though. Sarah goes to Concord, Lexington, Bedford, and Boston."

Barbara Ross took a similar approach with her Maine Clambake mystery series, set in fictional Busman's Harbor, Maine, which is based on Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Barbara chose to create a town based on a real one "because I wanted to move some things around, borrow some shops and restaurants from nearby towns. The pros are that when I need a new business downtown, like a frame shop or a jeweler, I can add it to my Main Street without any worry. The con is, I am sure the bookstores and libraries in my town and other nearby towns could attract even more readers if I used the name of the real town."

So in Barbara's case, we see the author choosing to fictionalize a real setting in order to enable her storytelling to work better.

Sasscer Hill took that approach with two specific settings in her first series about a jockey in Maryland.

"Shepherds Town was based on Charles Town Racetrack in West Virginia, and Dimsboro was based on the old Marlborough Racetrack in Upper Marlboro, Maryland," she said. "Charles Town racetrack was significantly upgraded and rebuilt while I was writing my stories, and I wanted to write it the way it was, not the way it became. The old Marlborough Track, before it was torn down, had turned into the seedy training track I describe as Dimsboro. I didn't want to anger people who had fond, nostalgic memories of Marlborough Racetrack before it went downhill."

Jack Getze, author of the Austin Carr series, also relishes the freedom of writing a fictional town based on real places. "My fictional Branchtown is based on several towns near the ocean in central Jersey--Red Bank, Eatontown, Long Branch, Rumson, Sea Bright. My characters say bad things about a few of the local police and other authorities, much of the criticism based on real lawsuits and criminal trials. I figured I'd skip the chance of libel," Jack said. Plus "I like the 'feel' of my Branchtown encompassing all these different areas. Different kinds of people. [...] I wanted the fictional [town] to sound like one single town, not a conglomeration, and thus the wrong streets are in the right locations, and the police and fire houses are where I need them to be for my story."

And these are all excellent reasons why authors choose their settings. Whether their books are set in actual places, completely fictional places, or fictional places based on real ones, these authors all chose their settings with care. And that's really what's important when writing fiction. When making the decision of when to use real places and when to make them up, the goal should be serving the story. In the end, that serves the reader.

So, dear reader, do you have any books with settings that you find memorable? And are they real places, fictional, or fictional places based on real ones? Please share in the comments.

24 May 2016

A Rose By Any Other Name ...

I've been so busy getting my house ready for sale (and it just went under contract!), that I jumped at the chance when my friend Sherry Harris offered to do a guest blog in my place today here on SleuthSayers. Sherry is the author of the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mystery series. Her newest book, All Murders Final!, came out in late April. Take it away, Sherry!

--Barb Goffman                        

A Rose by Any Other Name ...

by Sherry Harris

Which comes first for you, a title or a story? If you change the title, does the story change too? Last Friday I turned in the fourth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, A Good Day to Buy. Hitting send always makes me feel relieved and nauseated at the same time. An hour later I heard back from my editor. He loved the first chapter, would read the rest over the weekend, and hey, would I have any serious objections to changing the title to the planned title for the fifth book? What?!

I sold the series to Kensington on proposal, which means I came up with story lines and titles before writing the books. When I wrote the proposal, the titles of the first three books were Tagged for Death, Marred Sale Madness, and Murder As Is. Tagged for Death is the only title that stuck. Marred Sale Madness is hard to say so it became Deal or Die, which my editor wasn't crazy about so he came up with The Longest Yard Sale. And Murder As Is became All Murders Final.
When I sent the proposal in for the next two books, the titles were A Good Day to Buy and I Know What You Bid Last Summer. I had very specific plot lines in mind for each story. So when  my editor emailed about wanting to change the title of my next book, I closed my laptop (maybe with a little more force than usual), slightly concerned that the book I just wrote didn't match the proposed title. But my concern soon turned to intrigue. Could I pull it off? Ideas started percolating that might make the title work without massive rewrites. I called, emailed, texted, instant messaged, and sent smoke signals to my friend and freelance editor Barb Goffman. (Just kidding. Barb doesn't do smoke signals.) She came up with a great suggestion that worked perfectly with what I'd been thinking. 

Titles and matching plots are very important to me--especially with a title like I Know What You  Bid Last Summer. I wrote my editor and asked him if I could have the manuscript back. I told him I thought with some tweaks to the book, the plot would go along with the title. He agreed. I rewrote five scenes, and they weren't even complete rewrites, just plugging in a few things and changing a few paragraphs.

When I finished, I was happy, relieved even. The plot for book five is going to have to change, but I didn't really want to write the back-and-forth story (last summer, this summer) that I'd envisioned. We've already scrapped A Good Day to Buy as the title for the fifth book so if anyone has a suggestion for a title where "buy" can be plugged in for "die," let me know. Fair warning--my editor has already rejected Buy, Buy Love and Buy Another Day.

Readers: Do you have a favorite book title?
Writers: Which comes first for you, title or plot?

22 March 2016

Dynamic Duos - Part Two

by Barb Goffman and Sherry Harris

Songwriter Paul Simon may be an island, but for many authors we know, writing works better when people work together. Whether it comes from an editor or a critique group, feedback and brainstorming can be a hugely important part of writing. They also can be an important part of sleuthing. Characters usually need feedback as they try to figure out whodunit, which is one reason why the sidekick character is so prevalent in crime fiction.

Yesterday on the Wicked Cozy Authors blog, author Sherry Harris and I discussed dynamic duos in the writing process and how we've worked together. We also talked about dynamic duos in fiction, including my character Job and his unusual sidekick, God, from my story "The Lord is My Shamus" (available in my collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even). Sound interesting? Pop on over to the other blog by clicking here. But then come back, because now we're going to wade into Sherry's fictional duos and then discuss some of our personal favorites by other authors.

Sherry, in your books, your main character, amateur sleuth Sarah Winston, has two friends who serve as her partner, but they both play very different roles. Can you talk a little about Carol and Stella?

Sherry: Sarah has known Carol for twenty years. They met right after Sarah met her now ex-husband, and they bonded as military wives. Fast forward to the present, and they've ended up living in the same town, Ellington, Massachusetts. Carol is invested in Sarah and her complicated relationship with her ex. She likes going to yard sales with Sarah, and Sarah knows that Carol will always be on her side. It's this long-time friendship that has prompted Sarah to step in when Carol is accused of murder (The Longest Yard Sale), and it's why the two work so well together when Sarah needs to think things through. And Carol's the kind of friend who tosses her car keys to Sarah without hesitation when Sarah's running away in All Murders Final! (coming out from Kensington on April 26th).

Stella is a new friend and Sarah's landlady. She isn't judgmental, listens, and is thoughtful with her answers. Since Stella is also single, she's usually up for a last-minute adventure, whether it's going to a karaoke bar or heading out in the middle of a blizzard. Because Stella is a new friend, Sarah sometimes feels more comfortable doing things with her that she'd never do with Carol, simply because their friendship is built on different interests. As you pointed out recently, Barb, the three of them have never hung out together--that might be something for a future book.

Do you have a favorite duo in a series, Barb?

Barb: There are so many great ones, but a duo that jumps immediately to mind is Stephanie Plum and her friend Lula in Janet Evanovich's seminal series about a New Jersey bounty hunter. Lula is always up for anything (especially going through the drive-through at Cluck-in-a-Bucket). If
The book that started it all
Stephanie needs to go on a stakeout, Lula's there to serve as a second pair of eyes. If Stephanie needs to find and capture someone who skipped court, Lula's there to help with the takedown. And if Stephanie needs to eat a snack, Lula is definitely there to eat the leftovers, and then some. Having a fearless friend when you're a bounty hunter is awesome. And having a friend who's a hoot is great when you're the star of your own series--readers love humor. What about you, Sherry? Is there a duo that stands out to you?

Sherry: I love Stephanie and Lula too. Another interesting duo is in Chris Grabenstein's John Ceepak mysteries. (Chris, if you are out there, please, I'm begging you, write more!) (Barb here: Me too!) The duo in this series is John Ceepak and Danny Boyle. John is a West Point grad and military
The first John Ceepak mystery
veteran with a strict moral code that he won't deviate from. Danny is a part-time cop, part-time party boy. Their relationship starts out with John as the mentor, and Danny idolizes him. But Danny brings something to the relationship too--smarts and a zest for life. They both approach the world very differently, but ultimately they learn from each other.

Barb and I both love the relationship in Julia Spencer-Fleming's Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mysteries. Here is a completely different way to approach a duo from our first two examples. Barb, what makes them work?

Barb: Chemistry. It's one of those rare things that's hard to teach how to do, but wow, does Julia Spencer-Fleming do it well. These two characters are so wonderful together. They start out as friends, a sexual tension grows over the series, and then as their lives change, their relationship changes and grows. (I'm being vague because I don't want to ruin things for anyone who hasn't read the series yet. Go forth and buy all the books right now. You won't be disappointed.) Russ is the local police chief. Clare is an Episcopal priest. They're fun characters to spend time with--not
We love this book!
preachy. They both care about people and their town and are willing to stick their necks out for others, and for each other.

Sherry, am I missing anything?

Sherry: I love that Clare was an army helicopter pilot before she became a priest. It adds another layer of depth to her character. Also that Russ is married--that dynamic--priest and married police chief--is brilliant. I wish I could think of something as interesting and pull it off like Julia does. The first book in the series, In the Bleak Midwinter, has one of the best opening lines ever written.

It's amazing to us how different each of these examples are, yet how well they all work. Readers, do you have a favorite fictional duo?