Monday, March 9, 2009

Inside the Mind of a Mystery Writer: Challenges

© Susan Whitfield 2009 all rights are reserved

Murder mystery writers must fashion not only likeable protagonists and minor characters, but also villains—killers of every kind. I’m no different, although I sometimes feel abnormal when other people read my writing and look at me as though my last name is King! People sometimes give me a guarded look even though I am, I hope, a quite normal person who likes the mystery genre. I have fun with my characters, but I also want to challenge them and have them challenge me back.

My first attempt at writing a murder was GENESIS BEACH. Logan Hunter, a young woman who is interning for a North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) position, pursues a prime suspect right up until she finds his decomposing body. She soon realizes the killer is still around, and what she learns in the end is that she can’t trust anybody regardless of his station in life. Even so, the book is mild as mysteries go, showing more deceit, greed, and jealousy than getting into the mind of a killer. Challenges with this book began with what SBI stands for. I took for granted that everyone knew, and that all states called their state investigation agency by the same term. I was wrong. I now make certain that I explain this term and similar ones that might not be clear.

Even before I started to write JUST NORTH OF LUCK, I had already determined that I wanted to challenge myself as well as my characters. A serial killer was born. After editing and rewriting many times, I finally decided to go with my gut and start the novel from the villain’s point-of-view. I struggled for weeks, trying to make him believable and somewhat sympathetic. Otherwise, I figured the reader wouldn’t care what happens or why he is a monster. I gradually began to carry him around with me both day and night. I stepped into his mind and tried to figure out what made him tick, and more importantly, what ticked him off. This horrible character didn’t drop by to visit me; he moved in! Once the story’s rampage started, he and I both knew it would continue until someone stronger came along and put a stop to it. Enter Logan Hunter, one tough lady, who had proven herself at Genesis Beach, had toughened up and grown up, leaving no cartridge unspent during an investigation. Sure, she made mistakes, but she figured it out quickly and got herself back on track. Getting into the killer’s mind was crucial to make this book work. I had many sleepless nights, but I captured enormous satisfaction in the process.

HELL SWAMP offered another challenge: going home. Returning to my roots to write about a house and river I grew up around offered its own set of circumstances. How would my friends and family take this piece of fiction? Would they be offended by words, dialogue, redneck characters with little education? Deer hunters as prime suspects? Children as suspects? What about the gruesome manner used to kill the victim? I, once again, struggled with my plot, wanting to tell the story within me, and at the same time, stay true to my roots. Having set HELL SWAMP at The Black River Plantation on the river about four miles from my childhood home, I conjured up so many memories from the past, entangled them with my imagination, and set the story in motion. I have had the great pleasure to meeting the owner of the plantation who gave me a key to go inside the mansion and write whenever I wish. What a great gift that is!

Even with three books under my wrist, I continue to have new challenges present themselves. The novel I’m currently writing—title not yet determined—takes me to an uncomfortable topic, to places I’d rather not write about, and into emotions I’d rather not stir. But, this particular book is pulling me along, about like a noose around the neck. I can’t not write it. Do the challenges ever end? I hope not. I think my writing improves with each book because I refuse to be complacent. I continue to seek knowledge about writing—the processes and its rewards. Getting the book out is certainly a challenge. However, the prevailing challenge is promoting what you have written. Getting the word out is paramount to success. I challenge you to give it your all!
About the Athor:

Susan Whitfield has lived in North Carolina her entire life. She grew up in the small town of Atkinson, married at age 19, and now lives in Dudley with her husband, Doyle. She has three degrees from East Carolina University:
B.S. degree in English
M.A. Ed. In Educational Administration
Ed.D. in Educational Leadership

Whitfield taught high school English for thirteen years and moved into high school administration for seventeen years. She was principal of East Duplin High School from 2000-2004.

Whitfield is a member of Phi Delta Kappa, Mystery Writers of America,
North Carolina Writers’ Network, The Author’s Society, and Sisters In Crime. She has written and published mystery novels, GENESIS BEACH, and JUST NORTH OF LUCK. HELL SWAMP, the third novel, will be released by publisher L&L Dreamspell on February 21st. Whitfield is currently writing GATOR CREEK, set along the Cape Fear River in Wilmington.


~Sia McKye~ said...

You do have an interesting mind, ma'am. I do like the idea of starting a story with the villain. I can see where this would feel like the killer moved in, lolol! he sorta has to so you can get a handle on who and what he is and his motivation.

thanks for sharing this food for though article.

Marta Stephens said...

Susan, welcome!!

I really enjoyed this article. We are a unique bunch, aren't we? :)

I haven't started any of my novels with the criminal, but that's where I start my research. I have to understand everything about the criminal's mind, his/her motives, and most importantly, his/her weakness, before I can think about the rest of the book.

Mary Daly said...

I am an avid reader - not a writer. I have read Just North of Luck by Whitfield. Her writing is so chilling that it leaves you days later with that feeling that someone is watching and waiting just beyond your view!

I cannot wait to get my hands on Hell Swamp, but I suspect I will have to read it with the lights on and the doors and windows locked and covered.

Unknown said...

really enjoyable article thanks so much for sharing

s.w. vaughn said...

Hi, Susan! Great post. I always smile when I see someone discussing the challenges of making villains sympathetic and believable. So far, that's been my favorite aspect of writing. :-)

Good luck with your latest novel!

Cheryl said...

Excellent article, Susan. In some ways it's comforting to know that even after you've published multiple books there are moments of uncertainty; and then other times it's almost depressing. LOL!

I've never heard of either of those locations in North Carolina. I'll have to pull up a map. We vacation on the Outer Banks every year. Just love it!


Chester Campbell said...

Enjoyed reading about your writing process, Susan. I found your approach to the villain intriguing. Most of my books tend to have multiple bad guys, usually one triggerman but surrounded by others.

Kim Smith said...

Hey Susan! Good to have you on MB4. No the challenges don't stop, and that is a good thing!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

Your books sound truly interesting--and a little creepy! I've never started with the mind of a serial killer. I'm usually with the detectives from point of view. Although I've done a number of short stories from alternative viewpoints. It's interesting to compare techniques.

All the best,

Jacqueline Seewald
just released: THE DROWNING POOL

Anonymous said...

I appreciate all the wonderful comments. Thank you, Marta and Murderby4, and all who stopped by.

Ellen said...

Wonderful posting, Susan! And your books sound too good to pass up :)


Sheila Deeth said...

What a fascinating article. Loved it.