I’ve heard a couple of writers say they never, never ever, read the books of others. What a shame. They’re missing some fine entertainment, but more importantly for an author, they’re missing some great lessons. When reading someone else’s book that they’ve put their blood and sweat into, you can learn what to do and what not to do. That sounds way too easy, but it’s true.
I learned a lesson of what not to do, but in this case it wasn’t from reading someone else’s story. It was from writing my own book.
Timing can be everything in a story. I once wrote a book where Sandi Webster’s day would have had to be at least thirty hours long to accomplish everything she did in one day, and she wouldn’t have had time to sleep, eat or take a potty break. Fortunately, at the time I had a terrific editor and she called me on what I’d done. I had to go back and rework parts of the story and move events around so it made sense.
I’m what’s called a “pantser”. That means I don’t use an outline, but write by the seat of my pants. I tried outlining, but I couldn’t stick to it – not even close. So keeping track of time is important to me.
As a reader, how do you feel when you read that the main character decides a new roof is necessary on her house, and the next morning – poof! – the new roof is miraculously in place? Was the character able to call a roofer and find one who was sitting around twiddling his thumbs, so he came right out and worked overnight to put the roof on? Really? I want his number.
We can accomplish a lot in one day. Ask any mother. However, when writing a book, the author needs to keep some semblance of realism in mind as the story unfolds.
How about a protagonist who finds a dead body, discovers who all the suspects are, hunts them down and interviews them all in one day, has a tussle with the killer and turns that killer over to the police in a period of, oh, say twelve hours. Let’s make that eighteen hours, just to give the hero or heroine the benefit of the doubt. Don’t forget that this character probably stopped for food, or at least a cup of coffee, and maybe had a romantic interlude along the way. He or she might have answered calls on the cell phone, and one of those calls may have been Aunt Tillie with a family emergency that had to be handled by the protagonist. Oh, I forgot about the traffic accident that tied traffic up for a few hours, leaving the character stuck in the middle lane.
I know I’m exaggerating, but a writer has to remember that timelines are important. Yes, an entire mystery might take place in the span of twenty-four hours, but the protagonist probably wouldn’t be doing anything other than solving the crime. (Now watch someone come along and prove me wrong. There are exceptions to every rule.)
I believe, and this is just me, that most crimes need to be solved within a few days or a week – two weeks, tops. That’s not always the case, but many times the danger will build to the point of exploding if a crime in a book isn’t solved quickly. The killer may cover his or her tracks and disappear. Also, the longer it takes to solve the crime, the more chance the main character has of being knocked off because he or she is dragging their feet when they’re too close to the truth.
Everyone has their own trick for tracking time. I type, in large red letters, the day of the week at the beginning of each chapter, and sometimes the time of day. Works for me, and I simply delete the large red letters before I submit the book.
Other authors write out a timeline and some use an outline. We each use what works best for us. No matter what process you use, watch the timeline.
Until next time, if you’re a reader, I hope you discover a good book, and if you’re a writer, I wish you more hours in the day – or at least the days in your book.
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The last Sandi Webster mystery, What Are the Odds?, involves a strange house out in the desert.
The newest story, Choosing One Moment – A Time Travel Mystery, involves the year 1909 and some unexpected situations.
The last Bogey Man book was titled, How Now Purple Cow, and involves some old-time spies.
Take your pick and enjoy a good story.