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Monthly Archives: June 2017

What if?: A Writer’s First and Most Important Question

Every author has been asked: Where do you get your ideas? The short answer is: Everywhere. Something you see or read germinates an idea and a story unfolds. Sometimes the story comes together quickly, but most often weeks of building mental scenes and snippets of dialog, setting, and action must be waded through before pen meets paper.

An overheard conversation might be the spark. Or a couple talking/arguing/laughing at a nearby restaurant table. Maybe an odd character strolling down the street. Perhaps an idea simply pops into your head from wherever those thoughts arise.

Okay, so you have an idea. Now what? An idea isn’t a story. Ideas are a dime a dozen. They are literally everywhere. The key is to find an idea that can stand up through a 100,000-word manuscript. No small trick.

To do this, the original idea must be refined and fleshed out. An idea can become a scene, but to be a full-length novel it must evolve and expand. It must become a premise, or what many call “The Central Story Question.” It’s what the story is really about.

To become a premise, the original idea must ultimately lead to the question: What if?

What if this happened? What if that person did this? What if that dude in the shabby clothes was actually a rogue undercover agent with a deadly agenda? What if the restaurant couple was planning a murder? What if that briefcase contained state secrets? Or an explosive device? Or a deadly virus?

From those two words–What if?–stories arise.

The power of your story’s What If? can’t be overestimated. If it is done correctly and not lost in the writing. A good What if? states the main character, the situation, the stakes, and, most importantly, the central story question.

It is the answering of this question that is the story.

Okay, so our restaurant couple is planning a murder. Who, what, when, where, and, most importantly, why? It’s always the why that makes a great story. Is it to get out of a messy marriage and save all that alimony money, or to cash in that million-dollar insurance policy, or to cover an embezzlement from a company they work for, or to seek revenge for some act? Even though the original idea was a couple planning a murder, each of these scenarios generates a different story. Each will lead your sleuth, who must solve the murder, into a different world.

What if a forensic evidence and criminal behavior expert must track down a seemingly average couple who murdered the killer of their only child, dumped their entire lives, and disappeared?

This is the What If? for my third Dub Walker thriller, RUN TO GROUND. See how it introduces the protagonist and states the major story question? Will Dub be able to find the couple and what will happen if he does?

The What If? should be stated in about 25 words or less. The one above is a little long but it works. Because the What If? is brief, it’s often called the elevator pitch or the agent pitch. It communicates your story in the most efficient terms. We’ve all heard writers respond when asked what their story is about by saying things like, “Well, there’s this guy who lives on an island. And he hates the water. And a big shark is killing people and this is threatening to shut down the town’s beaches on a holiday weekend. And then there’s this other guy who is a shark expert and he has a really cool boat. Oh, I forgot, the first guy is the chief of police.” Yawn.

What if a hydrophobic, island-community police chief must go out on the water to kill a predatory shark to save the town’s summer economy and to prove his own self worth?

What if an FBI trainee must exchange personal information with a sadistic serial killer in order to track another serial killer and save a Senator’s daughter?

What if the youngest son of a mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather, losing his own soul in the process?

These are of course Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, and The Godfather, respectively. See how these What If?s reveal the protagonist and cleanly state the story premise? Read these books or watch the movies and you will see that each scene moves toward answering the story’s What If? Each of your scenes should, too. If not, consider cutting, or at least reworking, those that don’t.

Many authors consume weeks creating the What If? for their story. Constantly refining it, making it more on point. You should, too. It’s that important. It concisely states the Central Story Question.

Here’s a tip: When your What If? is completed to your satisfaction, print it out and tape it to your computer or the front of your writing pad so you will see it every time you sit down to write. Before writing each scene, read your What If? and ask yourself, “Does this scene help answer the Central Story Question?” If you do this, you will never lose sight of what your story is about. Particularly in the dreaded middle, where so many stories get lost in the jumble of character, and backstory, and cool dialog, and all the other stuff that goes into a manuscript. The What If? keeps you focused, and on track.

The What If? is essential for novel-length manuscripts, but it is also useful for short stories.

What if a good, God-fearing couple is threatened by the man that killed their only son, forcing them to plan the man’s murder and their own disappearance?

That’s the What If? that drove my short story, “EVEN STEVEN,” which appeared in the  International Thriller Writer’s anthology THRILLER 3: LOVE IS MURDER.

But the “story” didn’t end there.

After “EVEN STEVEN” was completed, I sent it to my older sister, a retired school teacher and accomplished storyteller herself. She read it and then asked me: What happens next? My response was: What do you want to happen next? She laughed saying she wanted to make sure that I intended for the story to have an ambiguous ending. I did.

Then over the next few weeks, I asked myself: What does happen next? That of course generated the What If? that became RUN TO GROUND.

Do you see the difference between the What If? for “EVEN STEVEN” and the one for the RUN TO GROUND? The short story focused on the couple so they are the protagonists, while the novel focuses on the investigation with Dub Walker as the protagonist.

And from this What If? you can generate the jacket blurb for your novel.

RUN TO GROUND Jacket Blurb:

What would you do if someone brutally murdered your only child, got off on a technicality, serving only months for a minor infraction, and continually taunted and threatened you from behind bars? Could you hide your growing rage from family and friends? Could you gun the killer down? Could you change your ID and leave behind your entire life—family, friends, jobs, home—and disappear?

For Tim and Martha Foster the answer to each of these questions is yes.

This is the scenario that faces Dub Walker in RUN TO GROUND.

Excerpt from RUN TO GROUND:

“I can still smell him.” Martha Foster inhaled deeply and closed her eyes.

Tim stood just inside the doorway and looked down at his wife. She sat on the edge of their son’s bed, eyes moist, chin trembling, as were the fingers that clutched the navy blue Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt to her chest. It had been Steven’s favorite. He had slept in it every night the first month until Martha finally pried it away long enough to run it through the wash.

Behind her, a dozen photos of Steven lay scattered across the blue comforter. A proud Steven in his first baseball uniform. A seven-year-old Steven, grinning, upper left front tooth missing, soft freckles over his nose, buzz-cut hair, a blue swimming ribbon dangling around his neck. A playful Steven, sitting next to Martha at the backyard picnic table, face screwed into a goofy expression, smoke from the Weber BBQ rising behind them. Tim remembered the day he snapped the picture. Labor Day weekend. Just six months before that day. He squeezed back his own tears and swallowed hard.

Martha shifted her weight and twisted toward the photos. She laid the sweatshirt aside and reached out, lightly touching an image of Steven’s face. The trembling of her delicate fingers increased. She said nothing for a moment and then, “I’m taking these.”

Tim walked to where she sat and pulled her to him, her cheek nestling against his chest, her tears soaking through his tee shirt. He kissed the top of her head.

“He’s gone,” Martha said. “Everything’s gone. Or will be.”

Tim smoothed her hair as details from a room frozen in time raced toward him. A Derek Jeter poster, a photo of Steven’s Little League team, and his Student-of-the-Month certificate hung on the wall above his small desk. A crooked-neck lamp spotlighted a history text, opened to the stern face of Thomas Jefferson. His baseball uniform draped over the chair back, sneakers haphazard on the floor. Exactly as it had been the day their lives jumped the track.

They had been through this dozens of times. What they could safely take. What must be abandoned? What could be traced back here? They had scrutinized everything they owned. Their marriage license, birth certificates, engraved wedding bands, the calligraphed family tree Martha had painstakingly drawn and framed, and boxes of family keepsakes. Any photo that showed their home, cars, neighbors, family, Steven’s friends, teammates, or school, had to be abandoned. As did Steven’s Little League uniform. Each of these could undo everything if seen by a curious eye.

Tim had always won these what-to-take-what-to-leave arguments, but now, with the end so close, he knew he could no longer resist her.

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Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Writing

 

Luminol and A Malarial Drug Team Up to Find Hidden Blood

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Sometimes blood shed at a crime scene is easily visible but at other times less so. Maybe it’s a very small amount, or perhaps soaked into a patterned carpet, or secreted in the gaps between tiles and baseboards. Perhaps the killer has cleaned up the crime scene, thinking that if the blood is not visible, it’s not findable. Maybe he even washed the blood off is hands and watched it circle down the drain. Gone forever.

Or maybe not. Things such as luminol can uncover these hidden stains.

Luminol is actually quite sensitive for finding blood. Spraying it on a wall that has been wiped clean of visible blood, or often even if painted over, and then turning out the lights will reveal the glowing pattern of the blood splatter. This helps not only to locate the blood but also to identify patterns, which, in turn, might help re-create the crime scene. Such reconstructions are critical in bloody homicide investigations.

From FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES:

Reconstructing the crime scene from bloodstains 

Contaminated evidence is no evidence at all, so investigators have to document bloodstain and spatter patterns in a timely and logical fashion. Police, fire, and rescue personnel can alter or contaminate the blood evidence, as can any unnecessary foot traffic at the crime scene. For that reason, investigators need to take control of the scene immediately and consistently. 

Unless they’re high‐traffic public places, indoor scenes usually can be preserved long enough for investigators to obtain needed information. Outdoor scenes, however, are subject to environmental influences, and public places require investigators to gather information more urgently. 

Investigators carefully photograph bloodstains. Initial photographs capture an overall view of the scene. Subsequent pictures gradually move in on individual stains. The photographer takes pictures of individual stains close enough to reveal all needed detail, and should include a ruler or other measuring device to provide a scale reference. In homicide cases, investigators check out the body and any associated bloodstains or spatter first. After the body is removed, investigators turn their attention to other spatters. 

Some bloodstains are latent (invisible to the naked eye). Investigators often use luminol to expose these hidden stains. Luminol is a chemical that reacts with the hemoglobin in blood to produce a complex substance that luminesces (glows). Luminol is extremely sensitive, detecting blood in concentrations as low as one part per million. Investigators darken the room and spray luminol over areas where they suspect blood to be. When blood is present, stains glow a bluish‐white, and the photographer takes pictures of the glowing pattern. 

Luminol also can reveal bloody tracks that indicate the perpetrator’s movements or escape route and drag marks that show whether anyone moved the body. Luminol is so sensitive that it can uncover blood in cracks, crevices, and even areas where someone has tried to clean it. 

It’s important to note that many substances can interfere with or confuse luminol pattern analysis. Bleach and other cleaning agents, certain paints and varnishes, and even some fruit juices are examples. 

After photographers take an adequate number and variety of photographs, crime‐scene analysts complete their analyses and create a report that may include implications of the victim’s and assailant’s locations at each stage of the crime, the number and types of injuries inflicted, and the exact sequence of events (see the next section to understand how analysts gather this information).

But, as mentioned above, there are things that interfere with this chemical process. Certain fruit juices, bleaches, horseradish and turnips, and other chemicals will also react with luminol and this can confuse the issue.

A recent study reported in Science Daily suggests that a new method might help solve some of these problems. Combining luminol with the antimalarial drug Artemisinin seems to reduce this cross-reactivity and therefore more specifically display the true blood spatter pattern. Obviously, more research is needed, but this is a potentially useful tool.

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