Monday, October 15, 2018

An Extra Degree of Difficulty

I read a lot, mostly mysteries, and so often the protagonist goes through plenty before solving the case. He or she may be threatened, beaten, run off the road, locked in a dark room, or any number of things. What happens when the protagonist has something else working against them besides a bad guy?

How many books have you read or movies you’ve seen where the sweet young thing is being chases through the woods, trips and falls, and sprains an ankle. It’s been done over and over. However, I have a feeling if someone was chasing me I might not see the tree root sticking out of the ground, or the hole some critter dug, and I’d probably trip, too.

Now let’s take this to a different level and add the extra degree of difficulty. What if the character has a sprained or broken ankle before the chase? He or she is going to have to be pretty creative or there won’t be a chase. What this means is the author is going to have to be pretty creative.

Let’s say the character is sitting out on the patio, babying a bad case of allergies. She’s sneezing, sniffling and blowing her nose. Her ears have stuffed up from all the sniffling.

Now the bad guy is sneaking around the side of the house, weapon in hand. I’m going to say the protagonist lives in the desert and has a yard full of gravel rather than grass. (Grass doesn’t do well in the desert heat.) No matter how hard the antagonist tries to be quiet, the gravel crunches under his feet. He stops and listens, but all he hears is a sneeze. Onward bad guy.

Meanwhile, between the sneezing, blowing and stuffed ears, our innocent allergy sufferer doesn’t hear his arrival. Oh, and let’s say she doesn’t have any pets who might warn her of the impending danger. What’s a girl gonna do?

The bad guy leaps around the corner of the house and comes after our girl. Here are a few things she could do. She could throw her box of tissues at him, but that probably wouldn’t do much good. She could wait until he’s close enough and start squeezing her nasal spray toward his eyes, repeatedly. Or, since this is a mystery and she may have had some idea that something might happen, she could reach for her own weapon which is lying conveniently in her lap or on the patio table next to her. The bad guy has a knife and she has a gun. Never bring a knife to a gunfight. Well, she could have a container of mace or something similar. I’m partial to a can of bear spray. It’s supposed to spray for something like thirty feet.

Changing the scenario just slightly, our female is still blowing her nose and sniffling, but this time she has a dog who’s sitting next to her on the patio. Through her teary eyes she sees the dog stand and stiffen. The hair on his back stands up, and although she can’t really hear him, she can tell by his face that he’s emitting a low growl. The bared teeth are a dead giveaway. When the bad guy steps round the corner of the house, he finds a woman with a gun or bear spray pointed at him and she has a phone in her hand. She’s just called 9-1-1.

I realize these examples are silly, but sometimes making the protagonist more vulnerable makes the story a bit more exciting. What if, as I mentioned before, he or she had a broken leg before the confrontation? Remember the Hitchcock movie, Rear Window? If you’ve never seen it, you might want to check it out. Very creative self-defense. However, unless your protagonist is accident prone, I wouldn’t overdo it. One broken leg per series would be plenty.

Would you like to know what brought on this particular post? My daughter sprained her ankle yesterday when her thick-soled flip flops twisted and she fell off of them. Once again, real life sparks ideas.

Until next time, I hope you have a healthy week with no falls, no allergies and no bad guys.

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Here’s hoping you’ll take the time to give One Adventure Too Many – A Sandi Webster Mystery a try. The biggest accident in this story is a visit from Sandi’s busybody mother and aunt who want to help solve a murder.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The End

In vintage movies, when the story was over you’d see The End on the Screen. You knew without a doubt that the movie was over. It was time to leave the theater. How is it done in books?

I’ve read many articles that tell writers they need to start their story with a hook. You need to grab the reader right away. That’s true. When I wrote Awkward Moments – A Bogey Man Mystery, I started the story with the panicky voice of an eight-year-old boy calling to his mother while digging a hole to bury a dead bird he’d found.

            “Mother? I think you’d better come see this.”

As a mother, I’d go running based on his tone. Most mothers would. Why would a child be upset about digging a hole in the ground? They love doing that kind of stuff. The use of Mother, instead of Mom, was always a dead giveaway for me, too.

But what happens after the reader is hooked? You’ve written a good story and kept the reader entertained, but what about the ending? I’ve read books that leave you hanging so you’ll buy the next book. Sorry, but in most cases I don’t care for that type of ending. It’s fine to leave an opening for another book, but when I read I want a conclusion – a very definite conclusion. Wrap up the story. Make sure all the loose ends are neatly tied up. Let your characters take a deep breath and ready themselves for another day and another dilemma.

Believe it or not, Awkward Moments ended with a short line; “We left quietly.” Sometimes less is better.

Let your reader feel fulfilled when they put down your book. If they enjoyed the story, they’ll look for another book you’ve written. Let the ending be as good as the hook you opened the story with, and you’ll be glad you did.

Which of these two endings would you prefer?

“Okay, we solved the case. Now what? Wanna go to dinner?”


            Too bad the authorities didn’t know about Wolf Creek. Annie and the others might have lived to a ripe old age. But what happens in ghost towns, stays in ghost towns. (From Old Murders Never Die – A Sandi Webster Mystery)

Here are a few endings I enjoyed:

The Dark Wind by Tony Hillerman: “I won’t tell,” Horseman said. His voice was loud, rising almost to a scream. And then he turned and ran, ran frantically down the dry wash which drained away from the prairie-dog colony. And behind him he heard the Wolf laughing.

The Snow Queen’s Collie by Dorothy Bodoin: The Snow Queen’s collie. Rejected by her breeder, sold for a pittance, rescued from an unthinkable fate. Her story was just beginning.

The Ghost and the Dead Deb by Alice Kimberly: I’ll see you in your dreams, baby, he whispered. Then I felt the cool kiss of his presence temporarily recede, back into the fieldstone walls that had become his tomb.

This post isn’t something earthshaking. It’s just a reminder about closing lines. Make them as interesting as opening lines. I believe the ending can be every bit as important as the beginning, even though the mystery has already been solved.

Any comments? Yes? No? Indifferent?

Until next week, think about some of the books that had memorable ending lines you loved.

CLICK HERE to visit Marja McGraw’s website
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Need a good laugh? Try One Adventure Too Many – A Sandi Webster Mystery and see if you like the last few lines.

Coming one of these days (only ten chapters done so far): People Lookin’ Half Dead – A Bogey Man Mystery.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Jean Henry, Guest Author

This week I’m welcoming my friend, Jean Henry, for a visit. I’m in the process of reading her latest book. I’ll let her tell you about it since I haven’t finished it yet. I know you’ve had a rough time thanks to a huge storm, and I’m amazed to see a new book already. Thank you for joining us this week.

Thanks, Marja, for this opportunity to talk about my latest release, Girl on the Precipice.
While I was writing the novel, Hurricane Harvey flooded my home as well as my computer, and thanks to Marja saving a rough draft of the book for me via the Internet (ahead of the storm), I was able to reconstruct and complete the novel since returning to my native California.

When I began writing Precipice, the Me Too Movement had yet to begin, and although my book only hints at sexual abuse, it does feature physical and emotional abuse first enacted by my protagonist’s husband, Todd. It also focuses on a lack of respect for women, an age old problem.

Lauren Mason Bleaker is a young southern California woman who is transplanted on a Wyoming mountaintop ranch when she marries a sailor in Long Beach, after her adopted parents are killed. So far, the story is more or less autobiographical.

The ranch is referred to as the concentration camp because Todd strings eight closely-woven barbed wire stands around the ranch when Lauren tells him she’s lonely, bored and wants to leave. Todd becomes her jailer and is increasingly abusive. Then, unbeknown to Lauren, he’s stockpiling contraband in the barn where she’s forbidden to go.

Lauren manages to adjust to the foreign way of life until Todd’s mother dies and Todd’s demeanor changes dramatically. She’s then so miserable and depressed living in a decrepit old ranch house without television, phone, Internet or modern appliances, she stands on a precipice at the ranch and contemplates suicide. But Lauren decides at the last moment to attempt an escape instead. What she encounters afterward is a story of suspense when Todd’s criminal partners get involved. 

A bit of humor and new friends’ loving relationships weave their way through the plot, so I assume the novel could be considered romantic suspense.

I wrote the book as Jean Henry due to a recent divorce and the fact that it’s easier than trying to fit the name on a book cover than Jean Henry Mead. I hope my readers will stay with me despite the name change and the ever-increasing stockpile of books on the Internet. : )

Thanks for stopping by.

Lauren watched an eagle glide across the rock-studded canyon, wishing she had that freedom to escape her miserable life. Tenting her fingers, she closed her eyes to beg forgiveness for what she was about to do. The sound of a rattle stopped her mid-prayer, prompting an instinctive jump aside. The coiled snake threatened from a few feet to her right. If she were going to leap, now was the time. A snake bite was a painful way to die. It was better to get it over quickly. Removing her headband, she flung it at the rattlesnake to distract it. Realizing too late that the snake would interpret that as an act of aggression, she immediately dropped to slide over the precipice.

The rocky canyon wall sloped outward far enough to prevent her from jumping straight down, so she slid on her backside a few yards from the edge, She then grabbed a stump of juniper to stop her forward motion when she noticed jagged rocks littering the canyon floor. No more than sixty feet deep, the chasm represented what her husband Todd referred to as the snake pit. Why hadn’t she remembered that until now? There had to be a better way to end her life. 

Todd would arrive home soon. Cringing, Lauren imagined him stomping into the old ranch house from the south pasture, covered in tractor grease and mud, expecting dinner. A feeling of revulsion overcame her, causing Lauren to reconsider her  leap. 

Life on the isolated ranch had become a nightmare in progress, steadily growing more unbearable as time crawled by. The eight strands of barbed wire had been so closely strung that she was unable to climb through the fence; the gates padlocked and topped with even more wire. Wire cutters and other tools were locked in the barn and Todd wore the key on a chain around his neck. The only unfenced area of the ranch was along this canyon where he obviously thought she wouldn’t attempt an escape. She was a prisoner without a phone, TV, or Internet in her husband’s desolate concentration camp.


Jean Henry, aka Jean Henry Mead, began her writing career as a news reporter and photographer in California, later serving as a staff writer and magazine editor in Wyoming, while a correspondent for the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine. As a photojournalist, her magazine articles have been published domestically as well as abroad and she worked as editor of two small presses. Girl on the Precipice is her 23rd book. Her publications include mysteries, suspense, children’s mysteries, historicals and nonfiction.

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