NOT YOUR USUAL SUSPECTS

A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments and often have guest bloggers. All our authors can be contacted separately, too, using their own social media links.

We find our genre delightfully, dangerously, and deliciously exciting - join us here, if you do too!


Julie Moffet . Clare London . Cathy Perkins . Jean Harrington . Daryl Anderson . Nico Rosso . Maureen A. Miller . Sandy Parks . Lisa Q Mathews . Sharon Calvin . Lynne Connolly . Janis Patterson

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

BIRTHDAYS AND CHARACTER

by Janis Patterson

Today is August 23. It’s the birthday of two of the most important people in my life. Unfortunately we all live far apart, so our celebrations are now confined to postal, electronic and telephonic mediums, but we have the memories of more exuberant parties in the past. Happy Birthday, my dear ones.

Which – since I am first and foremost a writer all the way down to my bones – started me thinking about how birthdays affect character. It is a fact that everyone has a birthday. It’s a given of being a human being, along with the fact that someday everyone will die. However, everything else is different for every person, and it is those differences that give your character depth and personality.

Does the character even know his birthday? Did he have fantastic parties with mountains of presents, bounce houses and pony rides? A family dinner with a few presents and a homemade cake? Just a cupcake and a song? Or no celebration at all? Whatever the character had affects what he is presently and what he regards as normal, for good or bad.

No, you don’t have to put the history of his birthdays in your story, but that history affects the way he behaves, and you have to know it, just as you know his history of school and everything else in his prior life. Was he a straight A student or a sullen dropout? Did he date a lot, or not at all? Did he have an allowance or work for pocket money or did he have to work to support the family? All these affect what he (or she) is now.


I repeat, none of these facts have to appear in your story. The character doesn’t have to sit and remember on the page how Ella Sue turned him down when he asked her to senior prom, engendering in him a life-long hatred of blondes who wear glasses. On the other hand, he can – just remember it’s your story and you must write it the way that is best for that story. I’m just saying everything that happened to your character in all of his life before the story starts makes him the person that he is, and you must know it. Our past affects our present. Our past makes us what we are now, and that goes for fictional characters too.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Raise the Stakes

There’s a scene in the 1987 film The Untouchables (written by David Mamet) where a streetwise beat cop played by Sean Connery explains to Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness about how to fight the mob. “They pull a knife,” he says, “you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

This advice also applies to the structuring of action elements in a story. If the obstacles and enemies that the heroes and heroines face are uniform throughout the book, then the trajectory will remain flat and the reader’s involvement will be threatened.

With a lot of the character types we write (military, law enforcement, street hardened, etc.) it’s important that the person is capable of holding up to a threat. We want them to be good at what they do. And that’s why a solid escalation is very important.

Through the course of the story, the threats need to be one step ahead of our characters, always one level beyond their capabilities. So when a hero shows up carrying only a knife, the villain has a gun. Our heroine is in a car? The bad guy drives a semi truck.

And then the next time they meet, things are ramped up once again. The hero learned his lesson and brought a gun along. Now the villain is armed, with two henchmen at his side. Or the bad guy in the truck is now in a helicopter.

By raising the stakes like this throughout the story, you’re not making your hero and heroine less heroic, you’re actually highlighting how strong, brave and resourceful they are. If they had simple, even threats to overcome, it would seem too easy. But if they’re forced to keep fighting against apparently insurmountable odds while at a disadvantage, the reader gets to see what your characters are really made of. The hero and heroine dig deep in their struggles, and when they finally succeed in defeating the threat, it’s all that much more satisfying because victory was never certain.  

These shifts in the power dynamic don’t always have to be as overt as gun vs. knife. I could be your villain is on to your heroes and moves his critical information from a safe they’re currently cracking. Or it could be an escalation in emotional manipulation from a bad guy that is still trusted by the hero or heroine.

Raising the stakes is one of the main reasons I like to plot my books. Having pre-planned these escalations allows me to track the overall rise in tension in action while building to the main climax of the piece.

Do you have any techniques for tracking the rising action in your books? Or as a reader, how challenged by the villainy to you like your heroes and heroines to be?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

MT. EVEREST, ANYONE?


I confess. This is about as close as I’ll ever get to deep sea diving. I admire all those adventure junkies out there. Those zip-lining, skydiving, roller-coastering thrill seekers. My idea of recklessness is going five miles above the speed limit. Even as a kid I would look at all those kids at the waterpark climbing 100-foot towers to some waterslide of horror, while I would just shake my head and turn towards the innocent little pontoons in the placid canal.

Well, my WIP takes place in a deep sea cave. The logistics pose a challenge for me, but I look to the words of the great Nora Roberts for comfort. A decade or two ago I attended an RWA conference and she was teaching a class. She said, “Look at my desk. You’ll see little piles everywhere. Neat little stacks. Look at this pile right here.” She held up three sheets of paper, and said, “This is my research for THE REEF. Do you think I’ve actually been diving?”

If I stuck to my knowledge wheelhouse, I’d have only managed to release maybe three books. I have to broaden my horizons--horizons that are now taking me down…down…down. Glug, glug, glug. The research is fun. Some of the underwater caves are absolutely exquisite, and my bucket list has increased tenfold. Here are a couple I'd like to see.

Neptune's Grotto in Italy
Blue Grotto, Italy


As a writer, have you ever been forced out of your comfort zone in the spirit of expansion? As a reader, do you like to read about things you've never done before, or probably won't do?




Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Do You See What I See?


My guess is every reader envisions the hero and heroine differently than the author did. I often start a new story with a vague image in mind, or maybe I find a picture that is like my mental picture, but somewhere along the way, that character changes, taking on a life of his or her own, that is just a little bit different from my first impression. Their personality becomes more distinct as their image becomes less so!

The reader can create their own images!


And cover art? Nope, it never matches the one I begin building from the moment that character walks on the page—even my own covers! Though I did like that the images Carina Press used were more silhouette than actual discernible people. 

Add your own head!
Speaking of cover art, I love the headless bodies myself—that way I don’t have these images that never match my vision cluttering up my mind every time I pick up that book (one added benefit of an e-book—I only see that cover image once!) 

Sometimes I create a mental image before the author describes the character and rarely will I change that mental picture to match the authors! Call me obstinate, but once I have that mental picture I just can’t erase it. Heck, I’ve totally ignored some characteristics if I don’t find them personally appealing (hair color, facial hair, weight and height have all been modified in the world I create out of the authors original story).

As a writer, I don’t mind readers creating a different look than I had for my characters—if it makes the story more real for them, go for it! Every reader brings their own biases, experiences, and belief systems that color every book they read. Hopefully they enjoy my stories no matter who they place in the starring role.
This may, or may not be my hero for book four...

So, have you found yourself creating different characters in the books you read, or is it just me?

About Sharon:

Sharon Calvin writes contemporary romantic suspense and is currently working on book three of her Gulf Coast Rescue series about the men and women of the US Coast Guard.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Detective Fashion for Dummies

Today’s the day! FASHIONABLY LATE, my latest Ladies Smythe & Westin mystery, has hit the catwalk. My fellow Not Your Usual Suspects bloggers may not realize this, but I am now quite the fashion expert—in the realm of fictional detectives, anyway. (No snickering, please.) And I have to point out that some of our favorite sleuths are on trend and others are—how can I put this delicately?—in rather serious need of a stylist. So I’ve put together a quick run-down of a few sleuths who really stand out on the Hot list—for better or for worse.

Unlike most hardworking, real-life detectives who dress for the job, many of their book and TV counterparts spend a lot of time in the public eye, running around chasing suspects in expensive leather jackets and killer heels. And then there are others, including my odd-couple sleuths Summer Smythe, an impulsive twenty-something, and Dorothy Westin, a practical seventy-something, who might consider upping their fashion games. (Truth: the most fashionable character in FASHIONABLY LATE is a 6-year-old with a subscription to Vogue.) With that said, here we go:


Those Seventies Guys: Okay, so maybe the 70s weren’t known for fabulous male fashion. Kojak with the lollipops, Columbo with his rumpled trenchcoat, and Jim Rockford with the crazy-plaid sportcoats (you rocked anyway, Jimbo!). But the real-life Columbo cleaned up rather well for the Academy Awards with costume designer Edith Head:


Nancy, Nancy, Nancy: Let’s get this hem straight: No one puts the teen queen detective in a fashion corner. She dressed impeccably and appropriately for every occasion, from speeding after crooks in that cute roadster to her equestrienne pursuits to being trapped in attics. But sometimes, well…her tastes ran a little on the boring side:


Luckily, French illustrator Albert Chazelle had a different take on Nancy and her friends. Très chic, n’est-ce pas?


Lob-stah Bibs and Liberty Scahves: Like Nancy, mystery writer and amateur sleuth extraordinaire Jessica (“J.B”) Fletcher’s style was also well-suited to every activity. Plus, she managed to look stylish and keep her cool as a female TV star in the 80s, so she gets extra points. Oh, and Angela Lansbury. Super-bonus points.


V is for Velma, Veronica, and Va-va-voom: Velma, honey, we admired your colorfully-groovy choices in Scooby Doo. But may we suggest taking a few fashion notes from equally-unique fellow V-girl Veronica Mars?


Nick and Nora Charles: No question, these two were always in high style, especially with cocktails in hand. Maybe substituting a few higher-energy outfits for those chic dressing gowns and smart PJ sets would be…Oh, never mind. 


Plain Jane: Yes, Miss Marple, we know those tweeds and Wellies are all the rage for kickin' it in St. Mary Mead. And you may give Jessica and Nancy a run for the roses in the practicality department. But with all those house parties, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to live a little:



Summer Smythe and Dorothy Westin: This odd-couple sleuth team recently hit the holiday fashion show circuit in glitzy Milano, Florida—and picked up a few game-changing (and lifesaving) style tips. Reindeer sweaters, awkward fishtails, and merry widow ensembles aside (don’t ask), there may be hope for these two yet!



About Lisa:
Lisa Q. Mathews lives in New England but sets her series The Ladies Smythe & Westin in sunny Florida. Her closet most closely resembles Jessica Fletcher’s, with a handy yellow slicker, an all-season trench, Bean boots and plenty of scarves. Her titles include CARDIAC ARREST, PERMANENTLY BOOKED, and the very latest, FASHIONABLY LATE. 

Do you agree with our Detective Fashion Police—or have any other sleuths you’d like to nominate for a fashion intervention? (Remember, we’re talking fictional characters here, not (ahem) writers!)




Thursday, August 3, 2017

What Makes a Great Story?

I was looking through photos from my hubby’s trip out to Zion National Park last weekend (I’ll post a picture at the end), then the procrastination bug hit and I wandered into other photo files. I came across this charming black and white photo of a little boy on a bench taken over thirty years ago. It was in a collection from several friends taken during a year when our spouses went to school together.

I’m not sure who the child is or even who took the photo, but it reminded me of a talk presented at a writers’ convention last week. The topic was “What is a Story?” based on the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron. One piece of wisdom she imparted that resonated with me is that the plot is the surface of the story, but what brings it to life is what is hidden under the surface. It is this underneath portion made up of the main character that is the real story. The way the character changes and moves forward is what creates the plot that will unfold.

This little boy is looking out upon the world, assessing and gathering in knowledge of all he sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells. He, like all children, will collect this endless flow of data to build a life vision, but is unable to evaluate it with the wisdom of years. His experiences will color his world as he grows. What if when your protagonist was young, he dreamed of being a soccer player and mowed lawns to earn money for a special sport camp staffed by his superstar hero? If someone in his household stole his money so he couldn't attend, he might lose trust in family and grow up stingy or distrustful of those who supposedly love him.

Intuitively, I develop a loose plot idea and have the character’s backstory fleshed out in my head, but sometimes having the obvious pointed out can save time in plotting the character’s arc. Lisa’s point hit home, when recently I had to trade out the main character of book three in a new series. I had shifted the timeline of the series and thus the place where the adventure would occur. My original politician-handling hero went from being in Washington D.C. to the jungle, and his growth arc simply didn’t fit with flailing around in humidity and thorny undergrowth. Thus, I snatched up another secondary character from book one (who turned out to be perfect for the job) and planted him in the jungle…but then the story shut down. Why? Because as Lisa noted, the character is the story and he drives the plot. I hadn’t fully fleshed out the new character’s early life and backstory. What made him into the man he is today and how can he grow through the book? Once I developed that, the story, plot, and characters were off and running, just in a slightly different direction than the first hero.

Think back through some of your favorite books and figure out how the hero or heroine changed through the story and how their experiences and beliefs from childhood affected the storyline. I bet you discover no matter how complicated the plot, it is the character’s growth that made the story stand out.

Happy reading!
Zion National Park


Sandy Parks writes action-adventure thrillers with capable women and tough heroes with some quirky sidekicks thrown in. Coming next year is the start of a new romantic thriller science-fiction series. Check out her books at sandyparksauthor.com.

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