Where Does Backstory Come in?

I’ve read one too many books that get a good story going then drop into the past tense to catch us up on why all these exciting events have happened.

I’ve just published a 20,000 word EBook on the subject of Writing Backstory in Your Mystery.  It’s the current one in a series of how-to books on topics for first-time mystery writers. The topic is much on my mind.


Backstory deepens an appreciation of the context of your characters and setting. Yes. Once they understand characters’ struggles, readers care about what happens next to them. They’ve seen cause and now effect. This has happened because of that.

But how much backstory do you need?

Imagine your heroine telling her life story to an attractive man she’s met on Match.com. She’s going to tell just enough to intrigue, yes? In fiction, she might let slip a nuance that foreshadows what is to come, or show us by inference what her driving needs are. For example, she grew up in an apartment and always wanted to own a home. What would she be willing to do to buy a house and make it her own? Would she kill? You want to make the reader curious enough to want to know the past and to find out by turning the pages.

Other than a huge indigestible lump moving like the elephant through the boa constrictor, here’s ways to deal with backstory:

  • Prologue
  • Research Summary
  • Flashbacks
  • Dialogue between characters
  • Inner dialogue
  • Narrative Summary of past action: exposition
  • Recollection—a pause to remember

For more on the uses and techniques of backstory check out my EBook on Amazon.



Cop Talk

I also blog on a site called LadyKillers where the topic turned to favorite expressions of our characters.

I’m not aware that the four main characters in my two series of mysteries have favorite expressions.  I’m trying and trying to think. You as readers will have to tell me.

I have favorite words that creep into my writing because I write as I talk.  I say “just” a lot, and “very” and “little.”  I’ll bet you do too if you think about it.  These are the unnecessary words I savagely delete in the editing process.

If you ask anybody a question in daily life they don’t answer, “Yes.”  They say, “Yeah, right. Like I said…So…yeah…like I mean, you know.” And they may chitter-chatter on about what the clerk at the DMV said and the cellphone plan they chose. And they never met a digression they didn’t like.

But you can’t do that when you’re writing crime fiction. The author can’t let any character prattle on about the perplexing dying patch of grass on the lawn, or the new receipt for broccoli cheese casserole they’ve got to try. Unless it matters to the plot. Or reveals something about their character, their motivations, or diabolical agenda. Or something particular about their speech pattern like an accent or a stammer.

The watchword in crime fiction—of the sort I write—gritty, psychological police procedurals is to write tight. No wasted words.

Cops have their own salty jargon the way any closed society does. So I’m going to use a colorful phrase I’ve picked up in my research and avoid the leached out, desiccated language of police report prose.

For example, “Back to the barn” – heading back to the police station. Or: “Cue ball” – a bad guy, especially a gang member, with a shaved head.

It’s fun pretending to be a hard-nosed cop and writing bad guy dialogue. I  write for entertainment–my own as well.

Check out my books at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=mar+preston


Whodunits or Thrillers?

Distinctions about what readers like to read and what writers write can be divided neatly. You can find my own subgenre of the mystery crime/suspense thriller genre on the police procedural branch of the subgenre tree.

Specifically, the whodunits.  I like the cerebral quality of following the detective in an investigation.

With a thriller you know pretty soon who the evil villain is and his big stakes plan to take over the world. Then it’s all a race against the clock to save the world as we know it. Granted this can be pretty exciting with a lot of car chases, steamy sex, and explosions along the way.

I like the mystery of the whodunits.  I am getting the clues to solve the mystery and nab the killer just as the detective learns them. I had a friend who reads the last chapters first so that she knows who the killer is because she can’t stand the suspense. She has to know whodunit.  I wanted to snatch my book out of her hands and beat her over the head with it.

I know the rules of suspense thrillers, and with a stun gun at my back I suppose I could write one, but would it be any good? We are drawn to one branch or another. Something in our psyche or backstory, or our world of experience takes a wisp of an idea and starts playing what if, what if?

In my case, what if led me to the second floor of the Santa Monica Public Safety Building shared by the Police and Fire Department. My detective has been Dave Mason for five crime novels now and I’m working on another. I lived in Santa Monica for a generation and saw the way it accelerated from a sleepy beach town to a city with a hot buzz that makes it now almost unrecognizable.

I write a second series set in the tranquil California mountain town where my security patrol officer heroine and an insufferable Bakersfield homicide cop deal with rural problems.  This summer it’s the opioid and bear incursion. Real life, by the way.

Mystery crime/suspense thriller? It’s a roomy branch on the subgenre tree. Detectives can vary from Lincoln Rimes to Anna Pigeon. I’ve always been fascinated by the lives big city cops live.  Never wanted to be a cop, or date a cop, or go to a cop bar, just observe.  I’m a watcher by nature, the one holding up the wall or looking at the bookcase at a party, talking quietly with one other person in the corner.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t imagine being a 5 foot 10 security patrol officer with curly hair chasing a bad guy (or a bear) down a dark alley at midnight?

See Holly Seabright (me) in The Most Dangerous Species. Murder in a cat rescue sanctuary. Definitely not a cozy.



Getting Published – A Long Story

I thought everyone could write if they just sat down and put their mind to it.  As my facility for words came easily to me, I never thought it was important.

A facility for manipulating numbers was more of consequence, because I spent more than a score of years as an academic researcher at two fine universities in Los Angeles. I would see my colleagues glance over a few pages of charts, tables, and graphs and  see a story line. Not so for me.

However, the University of Southern California offered me a free MFA degree for working there. The requirement for my MFA degree was a competent novel, which happened to be my third.

I had scored an agent with my first novel, pretty much my autobiography, which should surprise no one. It was dreadful and she was a dreadful agent, but she whetted my appetite for publication. The second novel was a little better, and once again I have a sad story about another agent. The fourth novel was much better, but by then the gateway to publication, which had always been narrow,  tightened.

It took me four full-length, finished and polished novels to teach myself how to write, and become profoundly discouraged about publication. By this time avenues to self-publishing were opening up. I wasted two years dithering about whether I was too good to self-publish.

However, I’m old and two years is a long time to waste. I had always loved mystery fiction and a crisis in my life opened up a huge block of time.  The dark side beckoned, and my first murder mystery came easily and so did the second. I self-published through createspace and it’s been the right choice for me.

I don’t think I could write three good books in three years to meet a contract with a traditional publisher. I like being in control of the process, the timing, and have only myself (and limited resources) to blame for the fact that I am not an international bestseller.

However, I like my mystery life, blogging, attending writing conferences, and finishing the fifth now of a series of short EBooks on the craft of writing mysteries.  Along the road of publication, I’ve picked up some fine writing friends who see the world the way I do. That’s an unexpected benefit of getting published.

Check out my cheap EBooks on Writing Your First Mystery.


Get Ready. Get Set. Write.

I’m the rank amateur in another blog that I contribute to called Ladykillers as far  as making preparations to write. Even though I’ve published 6 well-received mysteries and 4 EBooks on the subject of “Writing Your First Mystery” since 2010, it’s not because I’m so organized. Writing is the last thing I seem to have time for after all my commitments. Perhaps I have a touch of ADHD, whatever the term is nowadays for being scatter-brained. But somehow I’ve bumbled along in life accomplishing a thing or two.

I don’t have children or aging parents to care for as an excuse. I have a pet or two, yes, but except for those big eyes staring up at me as I eat at my desk, they don’t ask a lot.

I need a walk!

How do I ignore my political involvements? I go to meetings and write position papers and comment letters. How do I ignore the responsibilities of my executive position in the only environmental watchdog organization in our area? I have a big role in a play I’ve written. We’re in rehearsals now and I’m trying to memorize my lines.

I just took on a big editing job on a diet book. Somebody  is begging me to look at her book. I don’t really need the money but I like her. I spend far too much time playing Spider Solitaire and fooling around on social media.

Once in a while I make a half-hearted attempt at self-promotion.

I’m working on a 7th crime fiction novel now. Working? I wince when I write that because I haven’t touched it in weeks. I don’t know if I get to call myself a writer in the well-organized and productive company I’m lined up with here.

Life is short and we live in interesting times. Even life in a California mountain village. I don’t know how to ignore everything that interests me and stick to writing.

Here’s me out in a field of wildflowers wasting time on a sunny Sunday afternoon when I could be writing.

Yellow flowers favorite


The Best Thing I Ever Wrote by Mar Preston

So far it’s the series of short eBooks on “Writing Your First Mystery.” These five eBook primers on the architecture of the mystery novel are close to the best thing I’ve written.

ebook-bundlePartly because they seem to reach out to the solitary writers out there, maybe a beginner, who has a burning idea that tantalizes, and they don’t know what to do with it. Writing a novel, a whole novel from beginning to end, seems unimaginable. Were you not there once, my friends who have some novels to claim?

Amazingly, new writers email me with thanks sometimes, with questions other times. It’s a pleasure to respond, and keep in touch with them. I recognize the aloneness they feel with an idea burning bright and nobody to talk it over with. I live in a village with many writers, but none of them write crime fiction. While many of our writing issues cross over, problems like tight crime scene plotting don’t. Our reference points are different.

My heart and soul went into “Writing Your First Mystery”, then “Plotting …” then “Creating Killer Characters”, then “Editing …” then “Finishing Your First Mystery.” Everything I knew, the mistakes I’d made, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way went into them. It’s me, distilled down to the essence.

Recently “Editing Your First Mystery” was published.

editing-e-book-coverDo I feel this series is the definitive statement on writing crime fiction in our times? No, of course not. But they are mine. In these eBooks I spoke directly to the new writer captivated by an idea. I wrote about fear, doubt, and persistence. I insisted that mystery writers had to be readers across a wide range of our genre. I collapsed the plot issues of a crime fiction novel and dealt with the problems we all grapple with: who’s the detective, who’s the victim, who are the red herrings? What’s the inciting event and the thrilling chase scene that may be the second last chapter?

This series on the fundamentals of crime fiction writing allowed me to speak in my own voice. I could disagree with some current “rules” of crime fiction, and espouse others. I encourage new writers to listen to their own voices and avoid current “fashions” in crime fiction. I don’t think that established writers with the loudest voices are always right. We may have seen the lesson in the last Presidential election about the consequences of group think.

Maybe there is a place for adverbs and dialogue tags. Time will tell.

They are available separately or bundled together at https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Your-First-Mystery-Boxed-ebook/dp/B01IADAP6C






Escaping Winter

I’m escaping winter in my California mountain village. So I’m looking for a furnished rental place of some kind in Ventura, California.

It’s not so easy because I want to bring my two cats along. Landlords have had bad experiences, and I understand that.

Since I grew up in northern Ontario, I’m well aware this is baby cold. Nonetheless, it bothers me. I’m also looking forward to bright lights, a choice in restaurants, and places to go after dark. Like most villages, everything shuts down here after dark. And there are no streetlights. Sometimes I get tired of my own company, I must admit.


Sooner or later, my plan is to move to Ventura.

imagesVentura is warm and sweet and there’s somewhere to go after dark.


I’ve made a lot of friends on the California coast through Sisters in Crime. Moving means taking a look at the books I need in my life. I’m a fast reader and go through books way too fast. I’m always scrounging for something to read. Some of my books I want to keep, but which ones?

I mostly read fiction when I read actual books. I read nonfiction online, not that that makes a lot of sense. Since I write crime fiction, the fiction I read is—no surprise—crime fiction. But I’ve collected paperback and hard-bound reference books on police procedure, police science, and forensics. Those I keep.

Most crime fiction novels I read once. Some of them I read all the way through and enjoy. Those I pass on to my mystery reader pals at Sisters in Crime Bakersfield meetings. I go to writers conferences and there are always books available and books for sale.

I’m looking at my six book shelves now.

I’m not going to throw out the dictionary my parents bought me when I went away to university, or the Norton Anthology I used in my first English classes. This is where sentiment and nostalgia creeps in.  This must be suppressed ruthlessly. I don’t dare to go through the boxes of photos because of the avalanche of emotion.

When I was young and foolish, I thought that having books on my shelves told the world that I was smart. I don’t care anymore whether people think I’m smart.  That’s a freedom to put books in other people’s hands who will appreciate them now.

Some are going to the English teacher at the nearby correctional institute. Many inmates are poor readers, and using these books as teaching material makes me feel good about giving them away. Our nearest library is 18 miles away. Some will go to the Friends of the Library Sale.

I’m finally giving up my Guide to Literary Agents 2005. Some books don’t have any value to anyone.


I’d sure appreciate any help in finding a rental—and soon. Contact me at marpreston@frazmtn.com.


You might be curious about the crime fiction novels I’ve written. Payback is set in the village where I live. The others are set in glitzy Santa Monica.

A sequel to Payback, titled The Most Dangerous Species  is moving slowly through the publication process.  Sign up here for my yearly newsletter and I will notify you when it is released.

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Life Without My Dog

My beloved companion dog, Lily, died a week ago now. Over last weekend, I cried so hard for her I made myself sick. That phase of grieving has passed.

Most of us have lost a pet, so I can write about Lily knowing you will understand how hard and how completely you can love an animal.

It’s a love that is pure and unconditional. Animals return that love to you in the same uncomplicated fashion. Their love is not mixed in with hurts and disappointments, slights and petty offenses, misunderstandings and losses, as our human relationships can be. A loving relationship with an animal illustrates the best in us.

And the worst. We see animals hideously injured and wondered who are the people who do this? What sickness in them bubbles to the surface to starve or beat an animal? Where does it come from? I don’t want to linger there.


What has risen to the surface in me since Lily’s death is my old fear of The Axe Murderer. I live in a village in rural, mountainous California. Crime here is likely to be teenagers breaking in to vacant cabins, identity theft, property crimes.

Nonetheless, I am a student of crime and crime fiction, and dark scenarios dance in my mind when I wake in the night. It’s silent here, and dark. No streetlights. A breeze might blow up and sigh through the pines and the oaks. Occasionally I hear the yips and barks of coyotes. Yet the motion sensor light often goes on signaling some animal is padding around the house at the bottom of the stairs.

A raccoon, a bobcat? It could even be the mountain lion that is caught on wildlife cameras. The bears have been driven into town by the drought.

I’m much more afraid of the human variety of mammal. Lily used to bark frantically when she caught the scent of the bear. I knew her bear bark. As she grew old, she became deaf, her eyes clouded, and she couldn’t see well in the dark. Arthritis and Cushing’s disease took away her agility. I had to carry her up and down the stairs.

Still, I felt she protected me, even when I knew that was a fanciful notion. Cats can stare at a wall until you believe something terrible lurks behind the drywall. They can look over your shoulder and convince you a killer is behind you, a blade ready to strike between your shoulders.

When I first moved here, I had night terrors about The Axe Murderer. Stalking the back deck, he wore a long black cloak and had red eyes. Thank you, Stephen King. Thank you very much.

Then Lily came into my life and I forgot about him.

Now he’s back. My doors lock and I have a jam232butcher knife and a pry bar on my night table. In the state of mind I’m in right now, a gun would be foolish. I might shoot my foot off if the squirrel ran across the roof at night, or the cats sent something crashing to the floor.

It’s too soon to find another dog. I know that the right dog will find me, just as Lily did.

All is well. All is basically well. Time will pass.


Please see a related post: https://marpreston.com/writing-without-a-dog.html



Writing Without a Dog

jam227I no longer have to look behind me before I move my writing chair, because my life companion, my dog Lily, died on Friday.

Most of us with a human heart know what it is to love an animal, and the heartsick loss you live with when they die.

She was 14 after all, and I knew it was coming. But you bargain, don’t you? Then she fell down the stairs in the night. When I scrambled down to help her up, Lily slashed out and bit me. Then, darned if ten minutes later, she fell down the same set of stairs. I wrapped her up in a big towel and we were waiting at the vet’s office just after dawn. She made it into the vet’s office by herself, but fell and couldn’t get to her feet again. He picked her up and lay her down on the treatment table.

She never moved again. It was as though she had reached the end of the road. We both knew the time had come.


I scheduled my writing time around Lily. I live in the mountains and before the drought brought the bears and the mountain lions into the village, I felt easy about just opening the door and letting her out to do her business. I write first thing in the morning when my mind is fresh and uncluttered. She’d come right back in, eat her breakfast, and settle down at my feet while I wrote crime fiction.

When my concentration faded in the late morning, we’d go for walks in the forest. There’s dozens of paths along both sides of the main road and we knew them all. When she was young, I’d worry about the rattlesnakes when I would see her charge through the bushes, then stop and sniff. Once coyotes followed us. She was my protector at night. I could tell the difference between Lily’s raccoon bark, and her one-octave higher, “OMG, It’s a bear. It’s a bear outside.”

One of my proofreading disciplines is to read work aloud. You slow down when you read aloud and  catch more errors that way. I would read to Lily. She would be interested at first and look up at me, her head tilted, eyes bright. But crime fiction put her to sleep pretty quickly. I hope it doesn’t have the same effect on my readers.

When your companions are your animals, you talk to them. I have cats as well, but cats have even less interest in crime fiction. Great lines and thrilling chase scenes don’t excite them at all.

Lily liked to go places and pulled me away from the computer, got me out in the forest, and helped me fill in plot holes, and develop characters. I tried out my dialogue on her. We went to meetings and took car trips together.

She was my model for the dogs that always find their way into my novels. If only we were so kind to offer the end of suffering to the beloved humans in our life.

But that day is dawning. Here in California at least.


The Swag From A Writers Conference

A contrast in what I took home from two writers’ conferences I attended recently: the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA) conference in July 2016 in Las Vegas;





And, Bouchercon 2016 the worldwide mystery conference in New Orleans in 2016.





I’ve been to quite a number of writers conferences all over the US and Canada since I took up writing murder mysteries. The intent of these two conferences is quite different. The Public Safety Writers Association meeting I’d call a craft conference. Bouchercon is a fan conference.

It’s easy to lose yourself amid roughly 2000 attendees at Bouchercon, catching glimpses of Harlan Cobden, Michael Connelly, and Sara Paretsky. The panels are chosen to entertain, not instruct. Usually the conference is held in cities that have a lot of sparkle and interest.  Okay, PSWA was in Las Vegas, but Las Vegas in July.


PSWA was the conference I should have gone to first, back when I was writing my first police procedural No Dice in 2009. The one where I could have learned the most.

Half the writers registered are law enforcement types of one kind or another, most retired: fire fighters, EMTs, and forensic specialists. The other half are mystery writers who want to get it right. Right in the sense that the law enforcement aspect of your work makes sense.

The first day of the conference offered an intensive session on improving writing skills led by Mysti Berry.  Public safety types are moving out of their comfort zones and learning new skills. Imagine how difficult it is for experts in their field to become novices. The conference was limited to 50 participants. That way probably everyone got to be showcased on a panel.  For the writers it was a chance to pick out an informant you thought you might connect with.

I also liked the good mix of information on the publishing marketplace, the ever-present dilemma of point of view, writing short stories, and the many different types of editing. If you kept your ears open, no matter what your perspective and breadth of experience, you could learn something.

I don’t want too many more people to apply to this conference. Please. I like that it’s small. Over the course of three days, I could have talked to anyone. I just plain ran out of social energy at the end. I boldly suggested going out to dinner with people I didn’t know. I didn’t feel that intimidating force field of energy around big names and cliquish groups that scare me off being myself. We were all there to learn. And have a good time.  We all have war stories to share.


Bouchercon in New Orleans was great as well, but in a very different way. I could have chatted up Charlaine Harris in the lobby.  I didn’t because I don’t like intruding on strangers, but I could have.  You’re at Bouchercon to network, promote your latest book, see and be seen.  I came away full of good food and memories of the French Quarter: I met some terrific new people.

But if you’re careful of your travel budget, make sure before you register that you know which way the conference is tilted: fan or craft. It will make a difference what you take home besides a lot of books, bookmarks, and a tote bag full of swag.


PS   I came home to find my new book, 5th in the series of Writing Your First Mystery, proofread and ready for the next phase of production. Check out the boxed set of the series.