In July, I was at the Book Passage Mystery Conference in Corte Madera CA. It is a wonderful four-day conference to help aspiring writers reach their goal of publication and covers forensics, craft, and the business side of the writing profession. The range of author faculty went from Anne Perry and Jacqueline Winspear to WhoDat (me). One of the jobs of the published writers was answering questions by individual attendees during panels, lunch, and over scrambled eggs at breakfast. In almost every case, the attendee was looking for that “Aha! moment”, the one that would get their story moving again.
We all have “Aha! moments”, whether we are beginners in the craft or far advanced. That is why the work is called a “craft”. My own usually have to do with characters. For my second book, I could not get the first chapter right until I listened to the co-sleuth, Brother Thomas, and gave him the first scene. As he told me, Prioress Eleanor got all the attention in the first book. This was his time. I caved, and the book took off. In another book, I wanted to introduce Eleanor’s oldest brother, Sir Hugh, and her old friend, Juliana, who had become an anchoress. The two were very strong personalities and seemed to fight constantly for space. (If you have never heard a crusader and an anchoress going after each other, you have missed a real soap opera.) At last, I got sick of this and threw Sir Hugh out. Juliana breathed a sigh of victory and became ever so cooperative. Mind you, I had to buy Hugh off with the promise of his own book, but he left with only minor grumping and promised not to blow up the anchorage.
Sometimes the “Aha! moment” is a matter of POV, style, or just trying to do too much. One person realized that he should tell the story like a journalist would. That was his profession, something he did well, and he had thought he should change his style for mysteries. Another was trying to tell the tale from the wrong POV. Once she switched, the story flowed. Sometimes we try to do too much with a story, like introduce too many interesting characters, cover too much time, or throw in too much detail from our research. Once the problem is seen, the “Aha! moment” is reached, and the story begins to work.