Friday, November 29, 2019

Finding Time to Read

One troubling thing about writing a lot of fiction is that I have less time to read. I not only write my own stuff, but I participate in a critique group in which we read one another's work weekly, and I manage my writing business. The latter does not interest me much, but if I don't do it well I sell fewer books.

Several years ago I began to read audio books all the time. I have them in the car and by my bed. That guarantees me at least twenty-four works of fiction a year.

I've finally begun reading books on my phone (in addition to a Kindle) because I'll always have my phone with me. I tend to make these lighter works, because I dive in and out of them in grocery store lines.

I haven't read much on paper for the last few years. After moving several times and giving away a lot of books, I made a conscious decision to largely buy ebooks. Of course, I use the library.

But several times in the last year I ended up in a situation where either Wi-Fi wasn't available or my phone battery was low. Nothing worse than waiting in a doctor's office with nothing to do. (I won't touch the magazines--think how many sick people have leafed through them.)

So I've started keeping books in the car again. My library has a huge used book room, so paperbacks are only seventy-five cents. I've finished a couple books in the last few months, and last week read an entire paperback on a train trip.

So many books, so little time...
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Monday, November 25, 2019

When Does the Back Story Need to Be Told?

            Until December 20, write a comment below this blog post and you're
                  entered to win a copy of my newest book, The Twain Does Meet.

Part of knowing a character's motives (for good or bad deeds) is knowing their past. I jot notes about where my characters were when, but I don't usually write pages. The exception would be for Scoobie in the Jolie Gentil series, and that may be why he strikes many as the most well rounded character in the books.

Common writing principles say the reader needs to know enough of the back story to understand why a character behaves as s/he does in the story. More than that and the reader will wonder why they have to wade through so many details that were not germane to the plot or relationships.

I had so much material on Scoobie (and Jolie) that I finally did a book called Jolie and Scoobie's High School Misadventures. Why stop there? Why not delve into the college years and the first part of their twenties? Because the high school years were when they were together prior to the start of Appraisal for Murder, and most relevant in their lives from that time going forward.

For some reason, likely a daft one, I wanted them to be the parents of twins. But I didn't want to bore readers, or myself, with 2 AM feedings that made Jolie too tired to pursue a clue or potty training that saw Scoobie with fodder for his poetry.

So the twins came into the story at age 3. That's also the point when I think kids become more independent and their senses of humor are more evident. Sometimes earlier, but it's also an age when parents can feel comfortable with a schedule that has the kids in day care or with friends -- not in the way of crime solving.

However, I had promised readers that I would tell the story of the twins' birth at some point.

I mulled that over for more than a year. Had to be funny, of course, but not syrupy or slapstick. I also didn't want Jolie solving a murder while pregnant. Not good for fetal development.

As I started The Twain Does Meet, I realized it was also an opportunity for readers to learn more about Scoobie's much younger brother, who had unexpectedly joined their lives. I needed to learn more about him, too.

Since a story needs to go beyond day-to-day activities, and I didn't want to include much on mood swings or stretch marks, there had to be meaningful action -- discovery other than finding a murderer.

The final criterion was that readers of the Jolie Gentil cozy mysteries needed to know they would be reading a fun story, but not a true mystery. I suppose that's in how I present the books to readers. I didn't want them to be disappointed if they didn't get the whodunit they expected. I think I've made it clear.

In any event, it's some fun backstory, and I had a blast writing it. I hope readers enjoy it when it becomes available December 20th. (For a link to all sites selling it, go to my website.
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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Making the Bad Guys Worse

Every author needs to be able to critique herself. My most consistent comment is that I resolve conflict too quickly. That's great in life, but not so good in mysteries.

After giving it more thought, I believe this is because I don't fully develop the villains of the story. In my head, I look at almost everything from one of my antagonist's point of view. I'll think carefully about how a murder takes place and the immediate reason, but not the ultimate why.

In preparing for a presentation on villains I considered several books and movies. Some portray the hero's life and motives so well we don't need  to fully understand the bad guy. Every year I watch It's a Wonderful Life (the Christmas story with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed). We see the clear angst George Bailey feels at having to remain in Bedford Falls and we understand why his wife Mary loves being there.

Slowly George comes to see himself as the town sees him, and he understands the full value of his life. But what about Mr. Potter? We know he's a skinflint, know that when he didn't return the Bailey Savings and Loan Bank Deposit it sets the stage for George's belief that the world would be better off without him in it.

But why is Potter a mean, miserly man? Is he angry that he ended up in a wheelchair? Did his parents abandon him? We don't know, and in that story, his actions matter more than his motives.

Consider the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope. The story opens with Darth Vader chasing the rebels to secure the return of the plans for the Death Star. Leia is important, but it's when Luke's aunt and uncle are killed on his home planet that he gets the drive to combat the evil of the Empire.

So did the theft of the plans start the action? I'd say no. Darth Vader was compelled to seek to quash the rebellion because, in his words, he felt "a disturbance in the Force." Of course he wanted those plans, but he knew how strong his weapons were. Surely he would have felt it possible to combat any threat.

Except the threat that challenged his very existence. As the story progresses through three movies, we come to fully understand his desperation.

Where does that leave us? It tells me I need to know the enemy's backstory, his or her motives, to develop an enemy as strong as Darth Vader and the Empire. Strength comes in many forms. I think the strongest ones are secrets.

How will this realization change my writing? I've  decided it will be okay to jot down ideas for a plot or the main characters (the antagonists, for me), but I won't let myself start another mystery without developing the entire story from the villain's point of view. I probably won't use all the material in the novel, but knowing it will created a stronger enemy for my sleuth to overcome.

I'll keep notes as I go and let you know how it turns out.
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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

It's More than What they Say

Possibly because I started out writing plays, dialogue is my favorite part of any story. I like to give characters fairly distinctive speaking patterns without going to extremes. If everyone has perfect grammar and diction, it can reflect a graduate class in literature, but not much about life in the real world.

When Annie Louise Bannon asked me to do a guest post on her blog, I titled it "How Characters Talk," and I used examples from the Logland Mystery series. Since it's a police procedural with a cozy feel (as opposed to a cozy mystery series) I can be more relaxed about what characters say. That doesn't mean they swear like sailors, but some of them are a tad raunchy.

Take a look at the post -- How Characters Talk -- and let me know what you think.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Recent Reading

I tend to blog less when I'm full steam ahead on writing. Because of audiobooks in the car, I don't stop reading.

 Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly puts his newest sleuth, Renee Ballard, with my favorite, Harry Bosch. I like the plot and the way the two characters work together. Close to seamless. Ballard comes across Harry snooping in her LAPD squad room as he works a cold case, and she's intrigued and signs on. I wondered if Harry would end up the hero because Renee needed help, but they each got the other out of a big jam. Intersecting subplots work well. The book had the added element of the solo Ballard book from a couple of years ago -- her internal dialogue about rampant sexism in law enforcement. It exists, it's important to tackle, and in the first book it was part of the main plot. In Dark Sacred Night, it came into play with an ignored call for back-up and other examples. I did tire of the internal dialogue about it -- and I'm a woman who was in the workplace (not law enforcement) when subtle sexism wasn't even recognized by those who exhibited it.

Escape Clause by John Sandford features my current favorite investigator, Virgil Flowers of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. This time he's tracking two rare tigers stolen from a Minnesota Zoo. Realistic (and funny) dialogue and an intense plot. The criminals are featured in the first scenes, and I usually prefer to solve the crime along with the sleuth. This works, but I hope Sandford goes back to his earlier methods. What's quite goods about the Virgil Flowers books are the way his personal life and the investigation intersect. In some books the personal seems extraneous. Here the blend works well. Grab any book in this series.

Back to writing. I need to finish The Twain Does Meet, a Jolie and Scoobie novella.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Deliberately Thinking Structure

I've been working on a Jolie Gentil novella, tentatively called "The Twain Does Meet." I'm shamelessly borrowing Janet Evanovich's phrase and referring to it as a between-the-numbers book. It takes place between books ten and eleven.

Why? By book eleven, Jolie and Scoobie have a set of three-year old twins. I've had a blast adding them to the mix. But I didn't want to include their birth as part of one of one of the mysteries. It siimply seemed that murder and newborns didn't mix.

"The Twain Does Meet" certainly has a lot going on, and some problems to solve. But, no corpse to find on a porch or under a pirate ship.

Since I was doing something a bit different, I spent more time on structuring the story than I usually do. My friend Leigh Michaels had recently sent me a reference to K.M. Weilland's wonderful website, which has many articles on writing. One series deals with structure, and I found it so useful I printed the posts (yes, printed, not just skimmed online).
Books as building blocks.
I found the article on the difference between the inciting event and the key event to be the most useful. I don't always see the distinction in my own writing. I have two distinct story lines in "The Twain Does Meet," and I realized I needed to have separate events for each.

What's the difference between an inciting event and a key event? Think about the first Star Wars film (technically episode IV). The inciting event is Luke's uncle buying the droids. The key event (which changes everything for Luke and propels his future) is the death of his aunt and uncle.

Enough said. You'll have to check out Weilland's site. Do.

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Learn more about Elaine and her writing at

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Thinking Like a Twelve-Year-Old

No, I have not been recently accused of this. I'm doing a Jolie Gentil short story (as yet untitled) that takes place in between books 10 (The Unexpected Resolution) and 11 (Underground in Ocean Alley). Why?

Book 10 sees Jolie and Scoobie getting married and an 11-year old enters their lives in the form of a half brother that Scoobie did not know he had (Terry). Skip forward 3 years and Jolie and Scoobie have 3-year old twins and a now-high-school-age brother with them. That's Underground in Ocean Alley.

I decided not to write the 'big baby event' of the twins' birth as part of a mystery, but I promised readers that they would see that moment in a future story. Of course, a story has to have legs, so there's a lot more involved than that.

However, having already written Terry as a high school age young man, I'm finding it difficult to depict his younger self. Generally my characters advance in age rather than regress.

These are some of the traits and attitudes I'm trying to imbue in 12-year old Terry.
  • Friends, and their opinions, are very important.
  • Sports are the best part of school.
  • Food, lots of it, is always good.
  • It's better to tease than be teased.
  • Waiting for a baby is good, because life will really be different when it arrives.
What have I missed? I'd love your ideas!
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