Author offers mystery-writing tips during August

By Wayne Bryan Published July 31, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Author Sylvia Dickey Smith talks about her books as she prepares for a class on writing mystery novels that she will conduct at the Garland County Library in Hot Springs.

HOT SPRINGS — Do you like reading murder mysteries?

The who-done-its are one of the most popular genres in American literature. If you are a fan of unsolved murders and the smart-talking, eccentric, but heroic, sleuths that solve the crimes, you might have thought about writing your own mystery novels.

On three Wednesday nights in August, a nationally published mystery author and Hot Springs resident will hold classes titled Twisting a Mystery, the basics of creating a mystery or suspense novel, at the Garland County Library.

Sylvia Dickey Smith, creator of the Sidra Smart mystery series, will talk about the premise, the crime, clues, red herrings and other ingredients of the murder mystery.

“The main characters are so vitally important,” Smith said last week during a visit to the library in Hot Springs. “The editors stress plot, plot, plot, but if the readers don’t care about the characters, they will not care about the plot or much of anything else.”

Smith has had four books in her series published, and a fifth is in progress. She has served as president of a Texas chapter of Sisters in Crime, an organization founded to promote the development and advancement of women crime writers. Smith has also taught writing and been a judge in mystery-writing contests around the country.

For the mystery writer, the setting of the stories is another important step to a successful paperback thriller.

“You have to capture the culture,” Smith said. “If done correctly, the setting of the story, especially in a series, can become a character in the stories. “

Smith sets her stories in the southeast Texas town of Orange. The city, a port on the Gulf of Mexico on the

Sabine River, with bayous, Cajun roots and a past filled with tales of smugglers, is prime country for mysteries, she said.

Giving a preview of her class, Smith said the plots, the crimes and the solution have to be believable.

“There can be no evil twin who turns out to be the murderer,” she said. “No ghost is going to tell the name of the killer, and no psychic is going to come along and solve it.”

Smith said being able to invent the crime is important, as well as knowing the killer. A rule of thumb is that both the protagonist and the antagonist need to show up in the first three chapters.

“We will also talk about how to put some twists in the plots, some red herrings and some misdirection,” Smith said. “There should also be some conflict at the end of each chapter to keep readers turning the pages.”

While the writer wants the plot and the actions of the characters to be believable, Smith said, it is important that the story not be too easy to figure out.

“If the reader solves the murder on their own, the writer needs to get a new job,” Smith said.

While Smith advocates that the writer should know the story and keep the plot and the characters in line, she said that sometimes the characters can move on their own on the page.

“Once I knew who the killer was, but that person was murdered by the killer,” she said, “so I had to find out who it was.”

Smith said she has also built a minor character who really came to life.

“I had a character who was an old codger in the bayou, but I changed him to an old woman,” the author said. “I liked her, and she became one of my favorite characters, and she grew in the story, so I also carried her over to the next book. There, she might be the center of a new series.”

Like with many mystery writers, Smith’s major character in the series is her alter ego.

“There is a lot of me in that first book,” Smith said. “I used a lot of my own experiences, the same life issues to work through. I gave Sidra a different job, and she had the strength to do what she needed to do, and that helped me, too.”

Smith said she never intended to write a mystery. When she began the story, she had a true crime story in mind based on a cold-case murder.

“Working as a therapist, I heard a tale of horror, and I was told the story as part of healing,” Smith said. “Years later, I wanted to write a book about the crime, but I had some circumstances that led me to fictionalize the story.”

So Sidra Smart was born. A 50-year-old divorced preacher’s wife now running a detective agency left to her by her brother, her first clients tell her a story of a murder that happened 30 years ago. Smith’s mystery, Dance on His Grave, was not yet in print when she was asked for plot summaries of the next two books in the Sidra Smart series.

Smith said getting Sidra into her head has been empowering for her, but Smith said the bad guys also get inside her mind.

“When I was writing about the antagonist, the killer, I felt dirty and evil when I was him,” she said. “I had to remind myself that this thing isn’t me.”

Smith said the lead character, especially in a series, should develop as a character with personal growth, and the writer must find the character’s voice.

“For Sidra,” Smith said, “her voice is mine.”

The mystery-writing class will meet from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Aug. 13 and continue Aug. 20 and 27. The course is part of the Garland County Library Writers College, and the fee is $15, due at registration.

For more information about the classes or the library, call (501) 623-4161 or (501) 922-4483, or visit the library’s website at gclibrary.com.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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