Monday, December 5, 2016

Setting a Book Where You Live

I envy people who lived in one place for years and had a natural following of friends. I've had that, but I move a lot, so the hometown elements vanishes. The friends I keep.

Then I had a major Duh Moment. If I set books where I live now, I meet more friends.I was a bit late for Iowa, the River's Edge series came out after my husband I left the state. (Still root for the Hawkeyes!)

2006 Ottumwa signing, with Alberta
Even so, my Iowa friends rallied for the first book in the 2015 series. KTVO television did a fun interview, and the Ottumwa Courier and Van Buren County Register in Keosauqua featured From Newsprint to Footprints. The book felt like home, even though home had moved.

It's not all about publicity. It's fun to have your friends read your books and ask how the writing is going. Especially fun when your book club reads them. You also learn a lot about your neighbors. The photo at left shows the late Alberta Lambeth. Because of a book that came out ten years ago, she invited me to her apartment to see some of her incredible craft creations. Art takes many forms, and I would not have seen hers unless I promoted my stories.

As I wished for more contact with reading and writing friends, I was starting a new book, Tip a Hat to Murder. For some (inexplicable) reason, I initially set it in Nebraska. Perhaps because of good-natured ribbing with a cousin who roots for the Corn Huskers.

Then I thought, "Why am I setting this in Nebraska? I live in Illinois now!" Thus was born the fictional town of Logland, Illinois, set in south central Illinois. Why Logland? Because Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, and I played with Lincoln Logs as a kid. The path through a writer's mind has many curves. Plus, the book is meant to be wacky.

So, I have now murdered people in New Jersey, Iowa, Illinois, and Bath, England. I only kill people in places I like.

I love to take pictures, which means local books are a big plus. Though my towns are fictional, the images in my head are not, largely because I drive through Iowa and Illinois a lot. Not so much New Jersey, but I asked a friend to take photos of the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk this summer, so I have a new crop to feed my imagination. As I start a new book in the Jolie Gentil series, those boardwalk scenes become even more delightful.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

When Characters Come Second

“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
—Ray Bradbury

I love it when a fresh idea wanders into my brain. Sometimes I'll write ten pages to give a spark to the concept. I have a drawer full of these first chapters.

A story only goes beyond the ten pages if a character threatens to strangle me if I don't bring them to life. I generally don't do complicated character back stories, but I do make notes so that their personality is clear. Then the character grows with the story.

I learn more from mistakes than successes, and I recently made a big one.

I had this great idea for a motive for murder. Say you worked in an eatery (elegant restaurant or greasy spoon) and you made a lot of money through tips. Then say the owner decides patrons would really like it if they paid just a little more for a meal but no longer had to leave tips.

What?! You'd make the same as the slacker who takes a bathroom break every time a family with three small children walks in the door.

That restaurant owner needs to stay away from sharp objects -- or at least not let the food servers near the steak knives.

The idea morphed into Tip a Hat to Murder, and I quickly wrote one of the best first chapters I've come up with. In my humble opinion. And then the story sloooowed down.

For quite a while this made sense -- I had a deadline for another book, so that came first. Then that book was finished. Then I needed some surgery -- that takes time, plus I swear anesthesia addles brains for weeks.

And the story still progressed slowly. Finally it hit me. The idea was good. The characters never took form except for their duties in the story.

I wanted them to do certain things, but had no idea what element of their psyche would make them want to do these things. Or maybe make them not want to.

I didn't have to go back to the proverbial square one, but I spent a couple of weeks pondering each character's life and motives. A number of aspects of the plot changed -- even the murderer! (The first one simply wasn't angry enough.)

The lesson is one I thought I had learned long ago. There is no good story unless there are well formed characters.

As I finished the first draft, I was ready to be done. Other stories are percolating. However, the characters have taken hold and I hate to leave them.

In fact, I meant this to be a stand-along mystery and am considering making it the first of a new series. Since I don't think I can balance three series, that likely won't happen. At least not now. No matter what, the characters in Tip a Hat to Murder are in my brain to stay. They should have been there from day one.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Making Your Fiction Better

Authors constantly look for ways to improve their writing. Even the best plot and characters who grab readers may not be perfect. Or they may be, but the author hasn't let them show it.

With much hard work and a little luck, we writers figure out how to apply fixes as we work or while in revision mode. Some of the 'quick fix' things I've learned to do through the years are:
  • Get rid of he-said and she-said. Readers need to know who said what. Generally, the designation can be made through action rather than constant repetition of words such as said, mentioned, exclaimed, replied, or told.
  • Watch for all forms of the verb 'to be.' These can dilute the punch of a phrase. After reading Jane Cleland's 2016 book (Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot), I searched for 'was' in the final draft of Demise of a Devious Neighbor. I changed sixty sentences! For example, "I was seething but tried not to show it"  became "I seethed, but tried not to show it." Some of the changes entailed a complete rework of the sentence, to put emphasis on the action.
  • Show emotions or frames of mind through action or adjectives rather than using adverbs to imply them. I won't go so far as to model Stephen King, who believes "the road to hell is paved with adverbs." However, saying, "Samuel studied distractedly while he waited for his mom," is lazy. More descriptive is: "Samuel unfastened all connecting paperclips in the drawer and walked to the window every three minutes. Study was nearly impossible as he waited for his mom." Sure, if Samuel is in a room with no paperclips or windows, the author needs to express distraction in different ways. It's the old axiom -- show rather than tell.
  • Give characters different speech patterns. A teacher may speak with perfect grammar and diction, but her high-school-age son probably won't.
As a largely self-published author I can change a book -- probably some kind of heresy. I did go back to some of the early books in the Jolie Gentil series and changed a lot of the "she said" types of phrases.

I usually had action in a segment -- "...she said, patting the dog's head." I moved a number of the phrases to precede the dialogue. "Jolie patted the dog's head" (as a complete sentence) would be first, then her dialogue. It's clear Jolie is talking and also gets rid of a gerund -- I find ing words almost as annoying as misused adverbs.

 The reader has a cleaner read.

 For a very early book, I did change some substance. In 2006, Author House (a firm for self-published books, long before Amazon's KDP) issued Searching for Secrets. It was a short mystery that put almost as much emphasis on a potential romance between the two main characters, a teacher and police officer in Iowa City.

After a lot of thought, I revised the book. The romantic elements of the older version seemed forced and took away from the plot. I liked the story, so I reworked parts of the book. Searching for Secrets is probably 90 percent the same, but with less focus on the characters' thoughts about one another. It flows better and emphasis is on what the characters do rather than think.

Some will call this sacrilege. I am much happier with the new version. A friend's note confirmed that the revision was a good decision.  He had just finished reading Appraisal for Murder and said, "It is a good read; much better than your first effort Searching for Secrets." Only a good friend will tell you something like that.

I believe the writer has a responsibility to keep working until a book is as close to perfect as it can be. We aren't just asking for a buyer's money, we're asking for a reader's time.

However, as a part-time writer with a very busy day job in the early 2000s, I didn't work with a critique group. I hadn't read a lot of books on writing or taken as many courses that focused on mysteries. But I had probably read twenty or more and attended a lot of writing workshops, which only serves to stress how much we can learn by doing more to improve.

An effective review technique I now use is to send a draft book to my Kindle. Seeing it as a reader does points out typos. It also emphasizes the pace of the book. Where does it lag? (It isn't always the middle.) I don't send it to Kindle until my Decatur critique group has reviewed it, but I read it on Kindle prior to sending it to beta readers.

Don't know how? Every Kindle has its own email. After signing in, check in the "Manage Contents and Devices" link at the bottom of your Amazon page. Look at your individual devices and you'll see the email. Send the book as a "doc" not a "mobi" file. Look for it in the documents part of the Kindle, not as a regular Kindle book.

 Are my books perfect now? No, but the reviews are consistently good. More important, I continually work hard to improve.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Writing a Stand Alone Mystery

What's a stand-alone mystery? One that is not part of a regular series. We all know P.D. James' Adam Dagliesh books, but she also wrote Children of Men, one of my favorites. If you are looking for some, Goodreads has a good list of stand-alone mysteries.

I write the Jolie Gentil and River's Edge traditional (cozy) mystery series, and love the characters and settings -- small towns on the Jersey shore and along the Des Moines River in Iowa.

This spring I finished the second River's Edge book and decided to try something different. I like humor in mysteries, though not if they have a lot of sitcom-style dialogue. Even zany characters need to be enough like real people for me to buy into a story.

I didn't initially have a specific idea or setting, but then it occurred to me -- why not set a book in Illinois? I moved to the state in 2014 and have been exploring towns in the south-central part of the state. And I do like small-town settings.

Once I'm thinking about something, ideas start to percolate. In this case, that's a great term, because Tip a Hat to Murder (out later in 2016) is set in a diner. A diner with a lot going on besides cooking hamburgers and hotcakes. Images of a cigar-shaped silver building, booths, and tiled floors began to dance through my brain.

Ideas about who would hang out there and what would lead to a murder in a diner took form. Sometimes I scare myself.

Now what? I have developed the characters in the two series so much that the their actions are almost second nature to me. We've been writing companions for years.

I decided to let the characters evolve. It turns out that's shorthand for "not sure who they are beyond their role in the book," which slows down writing. For example, the local police chief is pretty smart. Why is she in this small town? Oh, the author should know that reason. Simply the fact that the sleuth is in law enforcement rather than an amateur is also a switch for me. How much "police stuff" should be in the book to make it realistic?

The book was a slog-along affair until I grappled with these questions and figured out a few other things. Does Chief Elizabeth have friends? What other kinds of business owners are in that town, and how can they contribute to (or impede) solving the murder?

Now my mind is churning with future possibilities for these characters. So far, no plans for a new series. In fact, Tip a Hat to Murder has probably slowed down Jolie Gentil and crew in Ocean Alley, New Jersey. Time to get back to them.
      * * * *
Surprise! Tip a Hat to Murder became the first book in the Logland Mystery Series.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

What to Read When You Want to Write

Each time I finish a project I read a book about writing. In addition to learning, in general, the process is almost like an initiation to the next book that's percolating in my brain. Generally, I buy a paper copy rather than an ebook.

This list is certainly not inclusive, but these are some of the books I've kept. Since I write mysteries, most focus on them. Keep in mind that 'conflict' is part of any novel, so these books can help writers of most genres.

Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats by Jane Cleland happened to be published (April 2016) just as I finished the second book in my River's Edge Series. Cleland starts with the basics--consciously picking your genre, researching it well, and analyzing good writers. I found her best advice to be about pacing and using subplots without letting them overpower the plot. Cleland uses some of her own work as examples, but judiciously so. She also employs examples from masters of literary and mystery fiction.

The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri is a classic that focuses on script writing. However, its discussions on conflict and characters are some of the best I've read. I read the book thirty years ago and periodically pick it up again.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King has several editions, and you don't need the newest one. Though the title makes it clear they deal with revisions, the discussion on point of view is good for any stage of the writing process.

Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. You say you don't write murder mysteries? It reads like a novel and the section on Prohibition era poisoning (much through bootlegged alcohol) is gripping. Besides, if you read mysteries, this is fun background. One of the reviewers criticized some of Blum's chemistry, for lack of another term, so maybe you should double check a potion if you plan to pick your poison based on the book. (Smile)

Writing Murder: a Basic Guide to Writing Mystery Fiction, was edited by S.M. Harding and published by the Writers' Center of Indiana. I don't usually like books with myriad authors, as they tend to duplicate each other or simply not flow well. Not so this book. It is a good introduction to plot, building suspense, dialogue, pacing, and more. Plus, it's the most reasonably priced book on this list.

Story Building Blocks: Craft Your Story Using Four Layers of Conflict, by Diana Hurwitz. This is especially good for novice writers, and perhaps for those who give talks on writing. She devotes chapters to the components of all good stories (plot, characters) and then moves to discussions of almost any genre and how their structures vary -- or are similar.

You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts is a soup-to-nuts overview in 121 pages. If you are even thinking of writing a mystery, read this first. Sometimes longer books are overwhelming, or lead you (or at least me) to overthink character or plot development. Roberts taught writing and English, and writes the Amanda Pepper mystery series, among many books. Her experience in both roles is clear.

On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells by Leigh Michaels has sections helpful to any genre that has a romance element, especially character interactions. Michaels also covers the business angles of publishing well. I've read several of her books on writing, including Creating Romantic Characters.

What book about writing am I reading next? I just bought Joyce Carol Oates' The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art. As you can tell from the title, it is more reflective than how-to. Who better to learn from than the woman many believe is America's most talented living writer?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Peace by the Water

Chesapeake Beach, MD in the 1980s
    I have been intrigued by running water since my parents took my brothers and me fishing at Hains Point on the Potomac River in Washington, DC. I was all of five or six, and never wanted to touch the worms. I would sit by the metal railing and just stare into the river.
    Later, a friend and I bought a tiny cottage (a.k.a. falling-down clapboard house in need of much TLC) on the Chesapeake Bay. It sat high on the rocks, so no threat of flooding.
     I often sat on the back patio wrapped in a sheet so the mosquitoes didn't get me after dark.
    This lifelong love is probably why I was immediately enamored with President Kennedy's quote that shows how we humans tie to water.
    “All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea - whether it is to sail or to watch it - we are going back from whence we came.”
    The quote, which I knew I'd read but could not find (in the pre-Internet days) led me to the JFK Presidential library in Massachusetts. It was a good break from a business trip, and a great opportunity to read more of his writing and see many photos of JFK on the water.
    It's natural that my two mystery series are set near water -- the Jolie Gentil series at the Jersey shore and the River's Edge series along the Des Moines River in Southeast Iowa.
Des Moines River, Farmington, Iowa
    Lots of movies and TV shows depict the shore. My cozy mysteries are far less gritty than most. The ambience of an east coast beach town varies with the seasons, with most of my books set in the off-season. Otherwise, the setting would be much like any tourist beach town.
    I have sat by the Des Moines River hundreds of times in the last few years. A park in Bonaparte Iowa and benches by the water in Keosauqua are two favorite places. Just last week I found a batch of poppies along the bank in Farmington.
Keosauqua, Iowa
    River's Edge is fictional, but the series draws from many small towns in Van Buren County Iowa. Rural Iowa is corn, but it's also fall festivals and bike rides along the river.
    These river towns are small, generally less than 1,000 people. In fact, if you added up the items in the antique shops, there would be more antiques than people. But, that's part of the charm and why visitors are welcome.
    So that the River's Edge characters would have plenty of opportunities for trouble, I gave that town a population of 7,500. It has a thriving newspaper, old-fashioned diner, a plastics plant, and a meat packing facility. If there aren't places to work, there wouldn't be enough people to make the mysteries interesting.
    And probably not enough people to murder.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Thoughts on a Writing Career

Chris Redding, who writes the Nerds Saving the World series, asked me a series of thoughtful questions. With some variation, I thought I’d share the answers on my own blog.

How long have you been writing?
I wrote simply for pleasure for years, and in the mid-1980s I started taking classes, initially in play and screen writing. I wrote with the intention of selling at some point, but didn't have a timeframe. I wish I had set one earlier.
What was the best writing advice someone gave you? 
The late Davey Marlin Jones was a stage director and movie critic for decades. I took some classes from him at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD.

 It's pretty basic, but one evening when we were peppering him with questions he just looked around the room and said, "You know they call them shows, not tells." Anytime I get too wordy I think about that.

What was the worst? Did you know it at the time?
The 'write what you know' business. What I know is boring. Half the fun of writing is picking a setting or subject that you can learn something about as you write, or prepare to write.

How did you pick the genre you write in?
I think cozy mysteries picked me - though that's not all I do. My mother read all the women mystery writers of her day -- Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, some Agatha Christie. Then she'd talk about them, or mention her own ideas for how to fool mystery readers.  So I guess I was introduced to the genre early.

How many rejections have you received?
I could paper a bedroom, or a New York efficiency with the ones from the late 1980s to mid-1990s. A few with the first book of the Jolie Gentil series (a book that is probably 50% different than the way Appraisal for Murder turned out by the time  I revised a few times).

For a long time I kept the rejections, especially any that offered encouragement. At some point I decided that there was something to learn from the process, but it dealt more with publishing than writing. About six years ago I stopped sending anything out, and just wrote what I wanted.

I think my writing got better when I stopped reading publisher guidelines and trying to write to them

Why did you decide to self-publish some of your fiction?
I've published nonfiction with a traditional publisher, and it's neat to work with industry professionals and have someone besides me market my book. Initially,  I picked a setting (New Jersey beaches) and developed characters I wanted to work with over time, and I let some of my characters have a sense of humor similar to mine.

This is style I'm going to write for now, and I knew the Jolie Gentil series probably would not sell millions of copies, so why might a publisher buy it? If I had been 30 I might have been willing to shop it around for a good while, but I was 60, and I didn't feel like waiting.

I realize that sounds a bit arrogant, as if I assumed a publisher would want the books if I just pushed hard enough. I enjoy what I write, and people do buy the books.

Of course, all of this is possible because of e-books and print on demand. I would never have considered loading up my garage with 50 boxes of books and driving across country to sell them.

I’ve added the River’s Edge series, set in rural Southeast Iowa. These are still cozy mysteries in the sense that murders occur off screen, so to speak. However, the books are a bit more like traditional mysteries.  

The protagonist, Melanie Perkins, gets into autopsy reports and is less inclined to hang out with friends. Humor is still a component. I have a hard time writing mysteries without it. This series is with Annie Acorn Publishing, and I’ve just finished the draft of the second book.

Do you inject any real-world events in your books?
Interesting question, especially now. I had a low-grade hurricane in Any Port in a Storm, and I used the aftermath of Sandy in Trouble on the Doorstep. It was a life (and shoreline) changing event for the Jersey shore, and I thought that I would trivialize it by ignoring it.

For the River’s Edge series, I draw on what I learned living in Southeast Iowa, especially as it pertains to life along the Des Moines River. I don’t know any murdered newspaper publishers, as was featured in Newsprint to Footprints. However, I learned a lot about small-town papers from Van Buren County news editors.

An earlier version of this appeared on Chris Redding’s blog, and can be seen at