December 2012: Greater St Louis Sisters in Crime
Cheryl Denton. Midwest Mystery Authors & Their Writing Tips

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Cheryl Denton, Mystery/Suspense Author


Cheryl Denton’s debut mystery novel Among the Ashes portends great things for this author.  Among the Ashes is first and foremost a compelling story; it has the essential elements of good, satisfying mystery/suspense novels: intriguing plot; fast pace; complex, believable characters; and suspense.  It definitely keeps the reader guessing.  At the same time, the story encourages the reader to look at a serious problem, which is often not very well understood, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and its ramifications.  And, finally, this bundle of mystery, suspense, and psychological impairment is pulled together by an over-riding Christian set of values and perspectives.  All in all, Among the Ashes satisfies each of these areas.  In our interview, Cheryl shares with us how she crafted such a successful tale.

Cheryl Denton
First, she thinks about her over-all theme and then designs the plot and characters needed to develop that theme. In plotting her novel, she follows the Greek hero’s journey as a template. That is, the hero is asked to do something that she doesn’t want to do but in the end finds herself compelled to do it anyway. Cheryl tries to give her heroes at least three short-comings which must be overcome in order for them to succeed. For example, Harvey in Among the Ashes struggles with old grief related to his girlfriend's death, depression over his loss of career while taking care of his aging father, and restlessness caused by having to live in rural Moose Creek. He must address these short-comings if he wants to solve the mystery about what happened to his girlfriend the night the Lakeshore Inn burned to the ground.

In developing her characters, Cheryl uses a binder with a page for each character.  This allows her to cut and paste information, such as an image in a magazine that resembles her protagonist.  Character tags are noted.  For example, X always wears a sweat band and has a particular speech pattern or favorite saying.  She also has a list of first and last names, so as not to use names that look or sound similar and therefore, may be confusing to the reader.  Cheryl sets up each individual’s personal timeline with such information as when she was born and went to school relative to others, thereby maintaining consistency.  And, of course, she writes a back story on the main characters which provides and highlights a legitimate platform for their behavior.  It is due to this kind of attention to detail that allows the reader to trust in her characters’ behavior throughout the novel.  People do not suddenly behave in a way that is contrary to their personality.  Thus, no matter what the nature of the twists and turns in this mystery, the reader can be confident that the author isn’t cheating in the story telling by pulling a Dues ex machina.    

Cheryl Denton’s Writer’s Tips
Go out into the world & gain some experience. Cheryl draws a lot on her own life experiences in dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to abusive situations in her past.  She says, “I know a lot about PTSD and how it makes people tick.”  Plus, she’s studied psychology, and “has been on the receiving end of psychologists and psychiatrists that a lot of it just comes naturally to me.  I’ve also worked as a Steven Minister and my job was to sort out the people that came to me in the church; they wanted help with something they were struggling with.  I had to decide: ‘Okay this person is too mentally ill to be helped by one of our lay ministers, so we have to refer them to some other agency,’ or to make suggestions to them to help them get unstuck.”  In the latter case, she might work with someone for a period of time, listening to them and helping them deal with the loss of their parents, for example.

Edit. Don’t expect it’s done.  You’ve written your novel, reread it, and you’re ready to send it out into the world.  Cheryl cautions against such quick action.  She says you can expect to go through your piece as many as 30-50 times polishing it.  For example, when she finishes writing, she checks her writing against her plot plan, asking the question: is there anything that’s unresolved, unfinished?  She also goes through separately and on every page she:

·       keeps a check list of the five senses on each page and tries to work in at least one of them in some way;

·       makes sure she’s used some “really great metaphors;” 

·       looks for a sequence of events, that is, makes sure there’s a feeling and a thought before the character takes action. 

And then, there are the details of grammar, overuse of words, clichés, too many –ly endings, etc.  She goes through her work each time looking for just one thing at a time in order to improve the quality of the reader’s experience.

Enjoy!

Pam De Voe

For information about the Greater St Louis Sisters in Crime chapter’s activities visit our website: http://www.sistersincrimestl.org.   

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