The Chicks are very excited to welcome Pam Clark, author of Shoot if You Must, to the blog today! Pam has kindly offered a giveaway, too, so please read on to find out how to be entered.
Tell The Truth—But Tell It Slant
I love reading Chicks on the Case and am thrilled to be a guest blogger. I met three of the Chicks at the ill-fated Left Coast Crime last March. I shared my first pandemic “handshake” with Becky Clark and toasted the conference-that-might-have-been with Cynthia Kuhn, Kathy Valenti and others. The next morning, instead of being a panelist, I was flying back to the East Coast…on Friday the 13th!
But writers don’t let little things like global pandemics get them down, or at least not for long. We plop in front of our computers and write, trusting that the strategies which have worked before will do so again. My two best strategies involve being alert to my environment and mining personal experience.
I frequently go exploring with my dog, Kirby the Amazing. (I don’t know what that sticker is doing on his nose. Kirby is not for sale.) Those walks often prove very fruitful.
Typically, walking’s a prime time to let the mind wander, imagine connections, and gather details. For example, we came upon this abandoned water bottle.
Somebody probably just forgot it, but my writer’s mind disagreed. Had someone been kidnapped or bushwhacked? But Kirby, being a writer’s dog, took it a step further—alien abduction. When we watched Independence Day this 4th of July, he really liked Randy Quaid’s character, the whacked-out former fighter pilot who believed he’d been abducted. (The dog Boomer got a paws up, too.)
Kirby slept in the backseat of the car for this next one. I went to withdraw money from the ATM, and this receipt was hanging out of the slot. Again, writer’s mind brimmed with questions, including—who keeps an available balance of $158K? Mobsters? Money launderers? Bill Gates? And if so, what was he doing in WV?
My second go-to strategy for priming the writing pump involves reworking personal experiences. Currently I’m noodling away on a sequel to my first novel, Shoot If You Must, which debuted just before the new year. Like Cynthia, I am an English professor. And like her, my protagonist is also an English professor. Prior to the murder of her most promising student, Professor Meg Adams attends the local Citizen’s Police Academy and meets Lieutenant Ty Raleigh. Horrified and guilt ridden when the student is murdered while completing an assignment for Meg’s American Lit class, she butts into Ty’s investigation. Meg’s best friend notices sparks igniting between the two and encourages her friend to make play for Lt. Tall, Dark, and Handcuffs. Oh, and did I mention that the cop has a fifteen-year-old daughter who had been best friends with the victim? And found her body? If his spunky, snarky child has her way, that romance is a non-starter. Yeah, right. But romance aside, the novel is more of a police procedural than a cozy.
Why am I telling you how these characters met? Because it’s an example of mining one’s personal experiences. I was 57 before I ever got married. Since that fact piqued people’s interest, it seemed like an engaging plot point. In fact, I met my husband while we were both attending the local Citizen’s Police Academy. Sound familiar? Except Max is an engineer not a cop. And he’s single due to divorce while Ty is a widower. Plus, Meg and Ty are in their 30s. You’ll have to ask my best friend how much she “encouraged” me. Her name’s Joan, as is Meg’s bestie. I reprised this photograph in the novel, including it among the photos in Meg’s office. It made Ty chuckle.
Which brings me to my next strategy: Tell the truth, but tell it slant—an idea I stole from Emily Dickinson. Down home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore we have a similar saying: Don’t mess up a good story with the truth. Writers do use experiences from their lives, but we change them up, embellishing them or altering some details. I’ve taken to keeping a journal of memories that might be woven into a story one day. Here are some examples:
- Walking with my nephews (ages 4 & 6), spotting some decomposing roadkill, and having one of them ask me, “Is that what’s happening to Grammy now?” My mom had died of cancer the week before
- Spending the night in my grandmother’s house, being woken by sirens, and watching out the window at the top of the stairs as a nearby vacant hotel burned to the ground.
I could use either of those snippets for a character’s backstory or flesh it out into a scene.
How about you? What have you seen on your rambles that could be reworked to become the kernel of a mystery? What incident from your past would make an intriguing plot detail? Why not give it a try right here in your comments? I’ll give a signed copy of my book to the one that most piques my interest.
Pam Clark grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in a hometown of 300 people. She holds a Master of Arts in Writing from John Hopkins University. Also a poet, she attended juried workshops with Billy Collins and Sharon Olds. In 2016, she won the Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza contest, billed as the American Idol for books, at UNM’s Summer Writers’ Conference. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. One of her short stories has been published in an anthology—Crossing Borders—published by the San Diego chapter of SinC, and another has been accepted in the Chesapeake Chapter’s anthology Magic is Murder, due out in 2022.
You can follow her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pamclarkmysteries