Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Years Eve! by Laura Childs

Guest blogger, Laura Childs, is the New York Times bestselling author of the Tea Shop Mysteries, Cackleberry Club Mysteries, and Scrapbooking Mysteries.


Happy New Years Eve!  While many of you are tipping back an eggnog or two, or looping arms around friends and trying to remember the words to Auld Lang Syne, I’m doing what I inevitably do on holidays.

I sneak down to my computer and dash off a few paragraphs.

Can’t help myself.  I just love to write.  I mean, there’s a reason I’ve written 29 books in 11 years.  But please believe me, it did not come easy.  There were many starts, stops, and hiccups before I was finally able to push through and finish a complete manuscript.  
And it wasn’t because I’d had a manic breakthrough or a transcendent bop on my head.

No, as a mystery author I owe a tip of the hat (click of the mouse?) to innumerable mystery and thriller authors whose fine writing spilled little puddles of light to help illuminate the way.  John Sandford and his terrific Prey series comes to mind for textbook-perfect gritty yet wholly believable characters.  Michael Connelly is a master at deft plotting with beaucoup subplots tossed in for good measure.  Jeffery Deaver taught Forensics 101 to all of us writers. And Mary Higgins Clark continues to demonstrate that ordinary women can so easily be ensnared in dangerous life and death situations.  (I also have Mary to thank for sharing her agent with me.)

But the one author that regularly knocks my socks off is Stephen King.  When I met King years ago, he talked about how his stories always began with a what-if.

What the heck is a what-if?

Well, it’s an author’s basic jumping off point.  In one of King’s earliest books, Salem’s Lot, he asked himself, What if vampires invaded a small New England town?  In The Green Mile he posed the question, What if a death row murderer possessed paranormal powers to do good?  In Misery, his what-if gave us a hapless, damaged mystery writer held hostage by his biggest fan.

What-ifs are a lot like log lines for a TV show – or an elevator test for a killer sales pitch. They’re short, punchy summaries.  In novel writing, what-ifs help you hone in on a single, compelling premise that forces you to confront the very essence of your story line.  A what-if premise strips your story down to bare bones, preceding even words and internal architecture.

Which means that, after much mumbling and stumbling and analysis of other author’s novels, the proverbial light bulb really did flicker on above my head.  And I realized that I, too, needed to figure out a what-if, then lay out the premise of my novel like a hapless leopard frog in a biology lab.  And once I did that, the blue print was there!

In Skeleton Letters, one of my Scrapbook Mysteries, I asked myself, What if a scrapbooker tasked to design a haunted house interior encountered a flaming body tossed from a third floor tower?  That launched me head first into a first chapter filled with non-stop action.  No fussy back story, no long-winded character introductions.

In Agony of the Leaves, my new Tea Shop Mystery that comes out in March, I asked myself, What if my tea shop owner, bored with serving tea and scones at an aquarium grand opening, wandered off to peak at a new ocean wall exhibit and discovered a floating body tangled in a net?

I want to tell you, that crazy what-if premise really works like a charm.

And now, as I’m hunched over my computer, strains of New Year’s festivities tinkling down from upstairs, a few snowflakes tick-ticking at my window, I smile to myself and think, Thank you, Stephen King.  Because my brain just binged out another what-if idea that ought to jump-start my next chapter from zero to sixty!

Happy 2012 everyone!  Peace, health, and best wishes!


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Laura - Welcome!!!

Have to admit being happy to hear you're busy writing, I'm one of your biggest fans. And this is a great cover!!!!! Can't wait to read it - this series transports me to one of my favorite cities on God's green earth. Thank you. And Happy New Year to you too. Wishing you nothing but good things in 2012.

Phyllis said...


I have never read anything by you until today. BUT I resolve to remedy that very early in 2012. In fact, I am going online to see what the Champaign Public Library has of yours and make requests asap. Thanks Kaye for introducing me to a new author. What if I had never found you? Happy New Year!