Top Ten Tips On How NOT To Become a Mystery Writer…

 Becoming a mystery writer? I’m still working out the kinks. NOT becoming a mystery writer? Boy, do I have some experience there, which I lay out in this blog in The Strand Magazine, and reproduced below.

Top Ten Tips On How NOT To Become a Mystery Writer…

Are you a mystery lover with a yen to write your own novel but unsure how or where to start? Do you have a great character or winning plot in mind but just can’t get past an opening chapter or two? Rest easy: banishing such dreams is easier than you think. Over the years, I’ve developed several tried-and-true tips to keep from ever putting pen to paper or fingertips to keys. Follow these suggestions and I guarantee that your book, no matter how surefire the idea, will never see the light of day. Without further ado, I present my Top Ten Tips On How NOT To Become a Mystery Writer.

No. 10: Do NOT read and read and read for enjoyment and edification but also to study the techniques of other writers. Do NOT delve into not only mysteries but a myriad of other arenas such as science fiction, westerns, fantasy, literary fiction, romance, young adult, poetry and—don’t even get me started—the universe of nonfiction. Much better just to see what’s on Netflix tonight.

No. 9: Do NOT haunt your local library, weekly if not daily, to check out reams and reams of

books on all the above topics and more, books with which to fill your bookshelves, coffee tables, nightstands, kitchen counters, piano benches, living room chairs, and tops of the toilet tank (not to mention your e-reader, CD player, and phone). Spend your time noodling around on the Internet instead.

No. 8: Similarly, Do NOT frequent bookstores, especially independently owned shops, and whatever you do, NEVER pledge not to leave such an institution without having purchased a book. Doing so will only serve to remind you of the value of the written word while allowing these stores to insinuate themselves into the fabric of a community as mainstays of writerly fellowship and intellection conversation, not to mention fun places to get coffee and talk favorite authors.

No. 7: Do NOT make a practice of reading books about writing, and especially books about the craft of detective and mystery fiction, since there’s no better way to learn the traditions of the genre, develop your own style, and absorb tips for writing efficiently and creatively. Good examples of books you should NEVER read include Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir; Writing Mysteries by the Mystery Writers’ Association of America; Lawrence Block’s Writing the Novel from Plot To Print to Pixel; P.D. James’s Talking About Detective Fiction; and Books To Die For, edited by John Connolly and Declan Burke.

No. 6: Do NOT attend readings by authors, writing workshops or crime fiction conferences where you can hear from professionals in person, not to mention have the chance to ask them questions at breakfast, in the elevator, or hanging around the bar—and often all three—and then suffer through their responding with compassion, good humor, and heartfelt hopes for your success. Never, EVER attend events such as Magna Cum Murder in Indianapolis; Killer Nashville in, well, take a guess; and any event hosted by a Sisters in Crime chapter.

No. 5: Do NOT read mystery blogs and subscribe to mystery magazines (especially, for goodness’ sake, The Strand Magazine); do NOT follow writers you admire on Twitter; and do NOT join listservs, Facebook groups, and other online communities dedicated to mystery writing. Doing so will only make you feel part of a greater conversation, give you multiple sources of support, and lead to a sense of shared solidarity when the going gets tough. Please—just say no.

No. 4: Do NOT, when you finally start writing, dedicate a goodly and consistent amount of time every day to your efforts, whether it be early in the morning, late at night, in the middle of the night, on your lunch hour, or riding the bus, Uber, or train. Instead, take a casual and erratic approach to “jotting down some ideas” from time to time. This is a proven method to avoid making headway; I recommend it highly, and from experience.

No. 3: Do NOT hesitate to tell your partner, spouse, friends, parents, workmates, second cousins, and persons you meet at cocktail parties about your work in progress. Since nothing drains the life out of an unfinished piece of fiction faster than talking about it at length, this is the perfect way to ensure you never complete your first piece of crime writing. (Did I mention also talking to the mail carrier and your favorite bartender?)

No. 2: Do NOT make writing a priority in your life after family, work, and friends. Whenever possible, add commitments to keep you from composing, including but not limited to: sending a record number of Christmas cards; hosting this year’s family reunion; volunteering to keep the neighbors’ elderly dog while they’re in Europe; eradicating every gosh-darn dandelion from your yard; and coaching in the underprivileged kids’ polo league. The more, the merrier!

And finally, my No. 1 tip for on how NOT to write a mystery noTop Ten Tips On How NOT To Become a Mystery Writer...vel: Do NOT devote not just months but years to honing your craft, developing a style and working and reworking manuscripts. Growing a thick skin and adopting the mindset that you’re involved in a life-long creative endeavor is one of the best ways I know to achieve success. Avoid this at all costs. The alternative, after all, could well be publication.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins has been trying not to be a mystery writer since he accidentally pulled one of his mother’s Erle Stanley Gardner paperbacks off the top shelf at age eight. Despite his most sincere efforts, The Hunt, his fourth novel about an ex-Ohio State quarterback turned private eye, will be published April 15.

Picture This: Using Images to Make Your Scenes Come Alive

A picture worth a thousand words? Sometimes more than that, especially on deadline. Taking pictures of real places that may end up in one of my mysteries has helped me along the way, as I explain here in a guest blog for D.P. Lyle‘s The Crime Fiction Writer’s Forensics Blog, and reproduced in full below.

I’m sure I stood out on that sunny Sunday afternoon, standing in the parking lot of a shuttered convenience store, still dressed in church clothes, as I used my phone to take pictures of the park across the street. It’s not a part of Columbus, Ohio, I’d be comfortable spending much time in, and I wasn’t sure what interest my presence might attract. But I needed pictures of that park. A police officer had identified the green space as a prime location for prostitutes and their customers. I wanted to know what it looked like when it came time to describe such a corner in my latest mystery.

With reporting as my day job, I’m accustomed to relying on notes and observations to describe a scene or landscape. I try to do the same when writing my private eye series set in Columbus (the latest installment, The Hunt, arrives in April). Increasingly, though, and thanks to the ease of smart phones, I’ve added photographs to my descriptive tool bag.

I learned the value of pictures researching a pivotal scene near the end of my first mystery, Fourth Down And Out (2014). In the climactic chapter, my private eye protagonist, an ex-Ohio State quarterback, returns to Ohio Stadium for the first time in two decades. Once a popular and successful player, Andy Hayes fell into the gutter of public opinion after a point shaving scandal his senior year that cost him his college career and his team the national championship. For many fans, the sight of Hayes stepping foot on the stadium’s hallowed grounds would be the equivalent of watching Benedict Arnold strut down the streets of Philadelphia after the Revolution. For the purposes of my fiction, I wanted to get the facts right about his return visit. Given the outsized nature of Ohio State fandom, I also had to be sure I didn’t commit any flagrant fouls when it came to describing the stadium and its environs.

Thanks to the generosity of the university athletic department, I toured the inside of the stadium for an hour one day, taking pictures of the views Hayes would see as he made his approach, from Gate 18, where he’d show his ticket, to the walk along the inside concourse, to the entrance into the stadium itself—all the way to the particular luxury box Hayes was headed to for a culminating show-down with the man who’d helped facilitate his fall from grace. These pictures, combined with my notes, came in handy many an early morning as I put the finishing touches on my manuscript. They also reminded me that while the Internet and its many eyes are a wonderful thing, there’s still no substitute for being there and recording the exact images you need.

I took a similar approach with my second book, Slow Burn (2015), in which Hayes tries to solve an arson fire in an off-campus neighborhood that killed three Ohio State students. I walked the streets in question many times, during the day and at night, to get a feel for the houses and their architecture. I took plenty of notes. But there’s no way what I jotted down could have captured in full the elements I was able to get with a few snapshots of some of the archetypal houses, with their dark brick porch pillars, second-story window filigree and multiple chimneys sprouting from roofs like something out of the Mary Poppins chimney sweep scene.

Ironically, the most pictures I took were for the third book in the series, Capitol Punishment (2016), set in the Ohio Statehouse. It’s a place I should be able to describe in my sleep after reporting there for many years. And for some of the scenes, those set in committee rooms or the windowless first floor known as the Crypt, that was largely true. But once again, photos were crucial as I explored some of the lesser known nooks of the building, including the Cupola, the Greek revival structure at the top where the book’s finale plays out. The pictures captured details like the rough wooden bench circling the room and some of its carved signatures dating back to the 1870s—such as “J. Cook,” whoever that was.

That leads me back to The Hunt, in which Hayes searches for a missing prostitute at a time a serial killer is stalking and killing street women across the city. I didn’t try anything so crass as sneaking pictures of such women, though, sadly, it wasn’t all that hard to see them, sometimes in full morning light, driving to work through a depressed neighborhood not far from downtown. Aside from those visual observations, the pictures that helped the most were street scenes of the type I captured across from the park; abandoned houses on the city’s east side which Hayes and his assistant visit during their investigation; and photos of derelict grain silos—including interior pictures, thanks to a helpful engineer who’d been inside—that come into play during the novel.

IMG_2752
Grain Silos

Of course, verisimilitude has its limits. “This book is a work of fiction. That means I make things up,” Harlan Coben says at the end of Darkest Fear. Photos help me get descriptions correct where they count, but they should be signposts, not traffic barriers. If a plot point requires a shifting of the time-space continuum in the form of a fake in a real neighborhood or a building never erected on an otherwise familiar corner, so be it. In researching Capitol Punishment, I took pictures of a glass Statehouse cabinet filled with mementoes of the building’s earliest days. That helped me describe a scene in which characters pass by the cabinet, turn the corner and come across a commemorative gavel “fashioned from a two-hundred-year-old oak tree that got hit with lightning last summer in southern Ohio.” If you visit the Statehouse, you’ll find that cabinet without a problem, but you’ll look in vain for the gavel. No matter: the plot needed both. Despite the advantages that pictures provide, sometimes images must reside forever in the imagination.

Andrew Welsh-Huggins works for The Associated Press in Columbus and writes the Andy Hayes mystery series for Swallow Press, featuring an ex-Ohio State quarterback turned private eye.

https://andrewwelshhuggins.com/

The Hunt-Cover

Booklist review of “The Hunt”

Booklist calls The Hunt, my new Andy Hayes private eye mystery, “a fine procedural based on human trafficking.” Here’s a link to the full review of The Hunt, out next month from Swallow Press.

Stay tuned for details on my launch at Gramercy Books in Bexley, Ohio, on May 5.

A few thoughts on Writing Mysteries and Living in Columbus …

Check out my interview with David Weaver, executive director of the Ohioana Library, out today on CiTYpulse, and reproduced below in full. And don’t forget to mark your calendars for the Ohioana Book Festival on April 8 in downtown Columbus!

David: You’ve had a very successful career as a reporter for the Associated Press in Columbus, covering everything from politics to the drug trade. What made you decide to turn to fiction, and particularly mystery?
Andrew:
I’ve been a mystery fan my entire life, dating back to the day when I was eight years old and pulled one of my mom’s Erle Stanley Gardner Perry Mason paperbacks off the top shelf. It had always been a goal of mine to write some of my own. It just took a lot of living, including getting married and becoming a parent, moving several times and establishing myself professionally, to reach a point where I was ready.

David: How did Andy Hayes come in to being? Was there a particular book or writer that served as an inspiration?
Andrew:
I’ve always been attracted to the private eye novel, and as a younger man inhaled the works of Rex Stout, Robert B. Parker, Loren Estleman, Stuart Kaminsky and Ohio’s own Les Roberts, all of whom created iconic fictional private eyes. More recently, I’ve been delving into the classic trio of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, with some of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee thrown in for fun. I knew I wanted my private eye to follow in that tradition: the wounded warrior with the world on his shoulders, trying against the odds to do his best. Since I was writing about Columbus, there was no question my character’s backstory would involve Ohio State. That’s why I made him an ex-OSU quarterback who disgraced himself and his team his senior year, and now two decades later is still trying to live that episode down in-between his investigative adventures.

David: Has your training and experience as a journalist been a help in writing fiction?
Andrew:
The discipline of writing for a living has helped enormously: there’s no such thing as writer’s block when your family’s depending on you. I also rip many plotlines from my own headlines, since much of what I cover involves criminal justice. The types of writing, though, are very different; the analogy I use is that working for the AP is like running track, with constant sprinting and stopping and starting, whereas writing novels is like training for a marathon.

David: When you’re not busy working, what do you do to relax? If Andy Hayes was taking you and your wife out for a night on the town – or vice versa – where would you go?
Andrew:
We relax by bike riding, seeing movies or plays, listening to jazz at Brothers Drake or just having a night of Netflix. We love places like Land-Grant in Franklinton or the Thurber Bar downtown, and any food truck festival. If Andy was buying it would probably be beers and sauerkraut balls at the Hey Hey Bar & Grille on Whittier, which is fine by us.

David: You’ve appeared at many of the past Ohioana Book Festivals and will do so again on April 8. What do you enjoy about this event? And what’s in it for the young professionals who may be interested in attending?
Andrew:
Ohioana is special because of what ties it together: writers who make Ohio their home or write about it, or both. That, plus the diversity of authors and genres, from poetry to literary fiction to cooking to sports to mysteries and beyond. It’s a wonderful place to meet and greet authors, with all of us happy to talk to visitors about their own interests, personal and professional.

David: What advice would you give someone thinking about writing her first mystery novel?
Andrew:
The most important thing you can do is develop a strategy for how you’re going to write, and then focus on what you’re writing. In other words, first commit to writing daily at a specific time—before work, on your lunch hour, after the kids are in bed—and stick to it as closely as possible. This is especially important if you’re also working full-time, but it’s true regardless of your schedule. Once you’ve given yourself permission to write every day, then you can start focusing on your characters and plot.

David: Finally, you’ve written so much about Columbus. How long have you lived here? What do you like most about the city? And what, if anything, would you change?
Andrew:
I’ve been visiting Columbus since my wife, Pam, and I attended Kenyon College in the early 1980s. After living elsewhere for several years, we moved here permanently in 1998. We like the city’s vibrancy, cultural diversity, affordability and growing reputation as a cool American city as demonstrated by Columbus’ appearance on just about every Top 10 list you can think of, from food to fashion to music to sports. As Pam says, Columbus now is “the edge of the middle.” If I could change anything it would be to put light rail back on the table; add some more independent bookstores (Ann Arbor clobbers us in this regard, though The Book Loft in German Village is great and Gramercy Books in Bexley is a fantastic newcomer); and bring in another pro sports franchise: a WNBA team, anyone?

Meet Andrew Welsh-Huggins at the The 2017 Ohioana Book Festival, taking place Saturday, April 8, from 10:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Sheraton Columbus at Capitol Square, 75 E. State St., in downtown Columbus. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.ohioana.org

Natalie Babbitt and “The Search For Delicious…”

I was saddened to hear of the death of writer Natalie Babbitt this week at 84. She was probably best known for Tuck Everlastingabout a family grappling with immortality. But I knew her more from The Search For Deliciousone of those books from the shelves of my youth that I still occasionally take down for another perusal. In it, a kingdom’s prime minister enlists his 12-year-old messenger, Gaylen, to help avoid a civil war by polling the citizenry on the best definition for “delicious” for a new dictionary. Not all the books you loved as a child return that love on re-reading decades later, but this is one that does, and I’m grateful for that and to Babbitt for writing it.

It begins:

“In his workroom at the top of the tower, DeCree, the Prime Minister, was pacing up and down. Occasionally he would pause, throw up his arms in a gesture of helplessness, and then resume his pacing. From her perch, his cockatoo watched with beady interest, turning her head this way and that as he crossed and recrossed before her…”

 

“The Hunt” cover is here . . .

Publication is a few months off still (mark your calendars for early April), but I’m excited to show off a sneak peek of the cover of The Hunt, the fourth installment in the Andy Hayes private eye series from Swallow Press. It’s a nice way to kick off my trip to Indianapolis this coming weekend for the Magna Cum Murder mystery writers’the-hunt-coverconference and then the Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster, Ohio, the following Saturday, Nov. 5. Hope to see people at one or both!