I’ve been a graphic designer/illustrator/cartoonist for most of my adult life, but as I approached fifty years on this earth, I finally began writing. The first things I wrote made no sense because I had no idea what I was doing. My writing experience had involved writing headlines and snippets of ad copy, as well as a stray brochure here and there.
What I learned from this transition was that different forms of writing are like creating artwork in various media.
Take writing a novel, for instance. I compare that to making an oil painting on canvas. First, a sketch and color study is made of the proposed image. The paint is selected and applied according to the artist’s plan. If alterations, changes, or corrections are needed, oil paints can be very forgiving as they take quite a while to dry.
The artist may want to repaint a section or replace parts that don’t work. While the rest of the painting can remain undisturbed, one can use little paint thinner or turpentine in a cloth, and voila, the area can be repainted, over and over until it is just right. Some parts of the painting may be finished, but others may still be in a rough state. Keep in mind; the oil paints take a long time to dry – days sometimes weeks to be totally dry. A novel is much like that in that the writer has many pages to develop the story and create the story arc or arcs, while other parts of the story can develop separately until it is blended, shade, and glazed, and it all comes together.
A short story or flash fiction I compare to making a watercolor painting. While both appear to be somewhat spontaneous—although they aren’t. Much preliminary planning must take place. First, quality watercolor paper must be selected and what colors will be applied first. Watercolor paints dry very quickly. Certain areas must be given a few minutes to dry, so when transparent layers are added, the whole thing does not become a muddy mess. Once it is on the paper, that’s it! No going back and changing it.
Some stunning watercolor art can be created with proper planning and bravery on the artist’s part. Next time you look at a watercolor painting in a museum, look at how the artist makes the images with as few strokes as possible. In writing, plots need to be simplified, and the number of characters reduced because the story has to do its job with fewer words on fewer pages quickly. The story arc is going to be right up front. Next time you read a short story or flash fiction, look to see how quickly the writer has to make their point.
Each type of writing requires a different mindset. The same goes for painting in various media.
Now, how do these approaches apply to co-writing? Have you ever played the “Fold Doodle” game? Someone takes a sheet of paper and folds it horizontally into narrow sections then draws the head of a person or thing on the top section. They fold that section under and another adds to the drawing on the next section then folds it over and passed it on. This process continues until the paper is used up. It is then unfolded to reveal the drawing by many different hands. Sometimes it is hilarious, other times a disaster.
People have asked us many times how we write together, and the answer is communication and planning. Whether we are writing a novel, a short story, or a blog post, the best thing to do is check in with your co-writer along the way to make sure you are both in the right mindset for the story at hand and the results will be beautiful.
My husband, Will Zeilinger and I co-write the Skylar Drake Murder Mysteries. A hardboilded detective series that takes the reader to 1950s Los Angeles and other areas of the west. Our next book, GAME TOWN, will be available Spring 2019. Needless to say, at this time we are in the throes of writing and researching!
Someone said, “You can’t write about old Hollywood unless you experience it.” This is so true! Neither my husband nor I are from LA and didn’t experience gang infested 1950s LA. So we take field trips, such as the Raymond Chandler’s L.A. Tour. We research the clubs and hangouts of the time then visit the nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants (Turns out to be loads of fun).
To begin our journey for this series, (even before we started writing), we took a trip to San Diego and the Sheriff’s Museum. We called ahead and scheduled interviews with several retired policemen, including one that worked the L.A. beat in the late 1950s. This gentleman was a wealth of information on police activity in Hollywood and the surrounding area. Our first novel in the series, SLIVERS OF GLASS, takes place in spring, 1955 in Santa Rosa.
Research for STRANGE MARKINGS was mostly gathered on our trip to Molokai, Hawaii. Natives we interviewed told us about the many legends and what it was like living in the area in summer, 1955. As each person talked about their experiences, plots and subplots emerged for us.
We found people living in the areas at the time each book took place and interviewed them. Since DESERT ICE takes place in Las Vegas, Fall, 1955. We interviewed a dancer who worked on the, then new, strip. Will also had a college buddy who lived in Boyle Heights in the 50s, so we interviewed him and his sister for the same book where the first murder takes place.
SLICK DEAL takes place in Winter of 1955, is base on interviews with local people in Signal Hill, and Avalon, on Catalina Island all in southern California. After lengthy interviews my husband and I commented how the spoken word conjures up images and ideas so easily.
GAME TOWN, our fifth book in the series due for release in April 2019, takes place in spring, 1956. We decided to keep it in Hollywood for the first time. We recently took an afternoon and drove around old Hollywood looking for body dumps that would have been in existence in 1956. We stumbled upon a lovely apartment building, El Royale, circa 1929. We weren’t allowed in the building without permission from a resident, so we drove around and looked it up on the internet when we got home. What an amazing place for several scenes!
Whether writing about faraway places, or in a different era, visiting locations or places that imitate the area helps us develop plots. Interviews with those familiar with the time or location add “flavor” to our story. So if you are writing about a famous lodge in Switzerland, take a trip to a Ski Lodge close to you when it snows.
Question from a guest at one of our recent book events: “You two write crime fiction but how do you come up with some of your characters? Are they like, people you know—people like me?”
We get asked that question more often than you’d think, and the answer is that creating characters is probably one of the aspects of a story we spend the most time discussing.
Since we are co-writing the fifth book in the Skylar Drake Mysteries, our main characters are pretty much fleshed out. In each story, we reveal a little more about their personalities and histories. But these were developed before we ever wrote a word.
We made a profile of each character which included their backgrounds, their physical description, their likes and dislikes, and added any little quirks they might have. Please understand when we say quirks, we’re not mocking or making fun of a person’s physical or mental challenges, rather, some of the people we’ve known are downright weird.
This is the same process we’ve used for new characters in subsequent stories. Some of the “quirky” traits are more pronounced in some characters than in others, to the point that we always seem to find a character for our story who is plainly odd.
As to whether our characters are disguised versions of real people—We’d have to say, no. Not really. We like to “people watch” at malls, concerts, airports, the checkout line, at church and even in our writers’ groups.
When we were both working full-time, we found a never-ending supply of personalities and quirks in the people we worked with every day.
For instance, one of us worked with a person who would sit at lunch and eat in a circular pattern around his plate – usually clockwise. If you asked him a question or distracted him in any way, he would stop and return to the top or “12 o’clock” position on his plate and start over. This person had a management position but clearly qualified as quirky. We haven’t used this quirk yet, nor the one of the woman who would not eat or drink anything purple.
We’ve even drawn on classmates from childhood, high school or those we’d met on a few of our first minimum-wage jobs.
From our discreet observations, we write character sketches, talk about them and morph them into a unique personality.
These “people watching” experiences for character development also lead us to great conversational snippets that we use in some of our dialog. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You can’t write this stuff.” And in truth, sometimes great characters or dialog falls into our lap.
In our fourth co-written mystery, Slick Deal, you’ll see how Skylar Drake and Casey Dolan react with quirky characters to work out the murder. With our fifth Skylar Drake Mystery in the works, we are still discussing and creating characters for his latest adventure—and yes…we are still married!
My husband, Will Zeilinger, and I co-write the Skylar Drake Murder Mystery series, a hardboiled series that takes the reader to 1950s Los Angeles and other areas of the west. Our new book, Slick Deal, begins News Year’s Eve 1956 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the first murder and clues lead to Avalon, Catalina.
Having to research can be overwhelming, especially for period pieces. Because we write about the 1950s, research is a must for the reader to get the feel for the setting, decade and culture of the novel.
Since there are two of us, we want to make the most of the time spent at the library and/or museums. Splitting the work up and knowing what each of us is looking for needs to be planned rather tightly. Phone calls to the librarian asking how the information is filed can help. Also, the librarian, given enough time, will many times pull the material for you and have it ready when you arrive.
We still use pen and paper because of the rapid pace we research. Be sure your partner is situated at the same table. When we were researching SLICK DEAL at the L.A County Library in Avalon, I came across an article about the Catalina Grand Prix. It was held from 1951-58. I nudged Will. He read it, and his eyebrows went up. We were thinking the same thing…an unexpected subplot!
Then there are the meetings to decide what fits in the story. Several meetings and discussions followed by making lists of plots and subplots.
SLICK DEAL was released April 16, it is the fourth in the Skylar Drake series…and yes, we are still married!
My husband, Will Zeilinger, also a published author, and I decided to come together and write a 1950’s hard-boiled mystery, the Skylar Drake Murder Mystery series.
Without organization, nothing, and I mean nothing, would get done!
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Though we each bring different things/skills to the table when it comes to writing, I am the one who seems to get the organization together. During the early life of the novel, we start off brainstorming. No idea is too “outrageous” or “stupid” to write down. This includes characterizations, character names, background, and their part in the story.
From there come several plots and subplots. An in-depth discussion of each follows. We then find the main plot that may even be several subplots melted together. This comes about over several meetings, we try to limit them to five. If we need more than five meetings to get any one of the issues resolved, something is usually wrong with the characters, plot or subplots and we revisit it by going back through prior meeting notes.
Each meeting needs to have a specific purpose. Agendas are a great way to keep the discussions on track. When writing mysteries, like we do, this is an absolute must. We keep copies of all meeting agendas and decisions which helps with future reference, especially when we are stuck and can’t remember why we made the decision we did.
From this point, we set a timeline for when things need to be completed. If we do not meet a timeline that is a warning to get going and focus.
The results? SLIVERS OF GLASS, STRANGE MARKINGS and DESERT ICE. Our fourth book in the series, SLICK DEAL, will be released in February 2018…and yes, we’re still married.
Janet Elizabeth Lynn
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