Monday, December 31, 2012

"C" Words for Crime Shows

I was considering the title for a new project and my mind wandered a bit.  It's an occupational hazard. Think of all the fictional crime shows that begin with the letter C.
  • Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) and its various offshoots
  • Criminal Minds
  • Cold Case
  • Criminal Intent (a Law and Order offshoot)
  • Car 54 Where Are You? (OK, a comedy mostly and I'm dating myself)
  • Castle
  • Columbo
  • Cagney and Lacey
 Makes you wish you had a psychology degree.  It also means I'll shy away from the word 'crime' in a title. If you know more C shows, feel free to add to the list.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Free Books Everywhere

Authors are always trying to attract new readers. With so many people getting Kindles, Nooks or another e-reader for Christmas or other December holidays, many authors are offering Kindle freebies for new buyers.  Here are my freebies for the next week, and a link to a page that has many mysteries noted.  That list is sponsored by Murder Must Advertise. Remember, you can read these freebies on your computer or in the cloud, and you can convert a Kindle file to another reader (see last item).

Free Dec 26-28.  Any Port in a Storm. Friends, humor, and murder at the Jersey shore. This is the fourth in the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series.  It continues to garner good reviews.
www.amazon.com/Storm-Gentil-Mystery-Series-ebook/dp/B0098CF7RC

Free December 26th. Caring for Treasures-Helping Your Parents Through Life & Death. Overview that's not overwhelming. If you have visited your parents for the holidays and think they may need some help with things they have traditionally handled, you may find this book really helpful.
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009YCWIXC

Lots of people start the new year with resolutions, and in my circle of friends that often means starting (or finishing) a book or other writing project.  Free December 26-27 and January 1, 2013, Words to Write By: Getting Your Thoughts on Paper.  It's a short overview on organizing your thoughts so you write more easily.
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B002UNN7GY

A list of free and low-cost mysteries is below.  Scroll to the right if you don't see the links to download/buy.  There are a lot of freebies.
http://murdermustadvertise.com/MMAAfterXmasSale.html  

Another Murder Must Advertise author provided info about downloading a book in Kindle format and then converting it for your Nook or other reader.  Go to http://calibre_ebook.com and click on the Demo tab to see how it works.  (Thanks to Rob Walker for the info.)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

That About Covers It

Every article or book on marketing your work says some of the same few things, starting with write something worth reading and followed by use a really good cover designer.  For some I've done the cover myself.  On one you can't tell but others you can.  So, after I'd sold a couple thousand books I began working with a wonderful cover designer named Patty G. Henderson, who does covers for a number of indie writers.

Sales immediately rose when she redid the cover of Appraisal for Murder, and I truly believe it is her cover that draws people to Any Port in a Storm, which is now the biggest seller of the Jolie Gentil series.

Now that the four books have been on sale for awhile I find that the second book (Rekindling Motives, which I loved writing) generally sells five to ten percent fewer copies and has the fewest reviews.  Why?  Look at these four covers.

What's the difference?  Drumroll...dark colors for Rekindling Motives.  The designer (Miss Mae -- also really good to work with) developed a cover along the lines we discussed.  What this reinforces is that the best way to let cozy mystery readers know that a books is not a police procedural or something dark is to have cheerful-looking covers. If the readers wanted gore they'd go watch a CSI episode with bugs.

This is not rocket science, but it was instructive for me. So, as I work on Trouble on the Doorstep, I'm thinking yellows and blues are good.  And they'll be needed to convey a light tone, as the books opens with a short scene during Hurricane Sandy. It is the Jersey shore, after all.  And the resilient spirit of those in the New Jersey beach towns is reflected in the book, which will be out in early 2013.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Help for Mind Numbing Marketing

I read a lot of articles and occasionally books on marketing ebooks.  I'm just starting to get more serious about paperback marketing.  Nearly every author shares what works for them.  I guess we're kind of like the 40,000 Musketeers. What I follow most consistently is the work of Dana Lynn Smith, the Savvy Book Marketer.  Her free monthly newsletter has many tips, and I have bought a couple of her publications -- very reasonably priced.  

At my request, Dana agreed that I could reprint one of her articles here. This is one I'm trying to make myself memorize.

By Dana Lynn Smith

Recently an author asked me "How do you stage an in-person book launch with a novel that's published as an ebook? How do you autograph a computer screen?"

Here are some suggestions for doing a live book launch event for an ebook:

Plan the event much like you would any other book launch party, except you will probably need to find a venue other than a bookstore. Try to use a venue that has some kind of tie-in with the book, and offer refreshments and perhaps some form of entertainment. See this article by Tolly Moseley for creative ideas on planning a book launch party.

Do a presentation based on the book's content, not just a signing where you sit at a table. Nonfiction authors can speak on their book's topic or plan an interactive activity based on the topic. Novelists can do a presentation based on some aspect of the book's story or do a short reading. Children's authors can read the book aloud, speak on the topic of the book, and plan fun activities for kids. All authors can talk about writing and publishing and take questions from the audience. Be creative and plan something interesting!

Print lots of bookmarks and handout several to all of the attendees so they can share with others. If you print your bookmarks with uncoated paper on the back side, you can sign the back of the bookmarks. See this article to learn more about using bookmarks for book promotion.

Encourage attendees to bring their ebook reading device to the event. They can download the ebook on the spot.  You could even provide a laptop computer where people can order the book if they don't have their ebook reader with them, but you'll need to make certain that each person logs out of their Amazon or other ebookstore account after using it.

You can "autograph" Kindle ebooks by using KindleGraph to send personalized inscriptions and signatures to the customer's Kindle ebook reader.

If your ebook is available on the Nook store, you may be able to arrange an event at a Barnes & Noble store. Last year B&N announced that they were going to offer autographing services for Nook Color devices, but it's hard to find any details on how to do it. Your local store event manager may have information on autographing.

Remember that you'll need to promote your event heavily. Suggested promotions include press releases to local media, emails or evites to your friends and local contacts, announcements on your blog and social media accounts, and postcard invitations. Ask others to help spread the word.
                                                         *      *     * 
Dana Lynn Smith, The Savvy Book Marketer, helps authors and indie publishers learn how to sell more books through her how-to guides, blog, newsletter, and private coaching. Get her free Top Book Marketing Tips ebook at www.BookMarketingNewsletter.com, visit her blog at www.TheSavvyBookMarketer.com, follow @BookMarketer on Twitter, and connect on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SavvyBookMarketer.



Saturday, November 24, 2012

Humbly Offering Freebies

There is something about going to museums that makes me want to say, "How could I even think of writing another book?  I'll never be as good as the many writers/painters/sculptors whose work I viewed today."  I do get over it and keep writing, but it's good to be humbled now and again.  Keeps me honing the craft.

Captosaurus dispar - Natural History Museum
I'm in the Washington/Baltimore area for the Thanksgiving weekend, and my husband and I made our traditional sojourn to some of the Smithsonian museums.  I am a huge fan of Eugene Boudin, who was Monet's primary mentor.  There were three of his works in a small exhibit of French paintings in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art--the most I've ever seen in one place.  They were in the modern art wing, so it is lucky my hubby wanted to go to the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit.  It was a retrospective of his sometimes irreverent look at the world, often using newsprint to create projects. 

So, I am now humbly offering two free books this weekend.  One is Words to Write By: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper, an overview of how to organize your thoughts so you are more comfortable writing about them.  It's free Saturday and Sunday.

On Sunday, Any Port in a Storm will be free.  It's the fifth in the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series.  Lots of humor in this one.

You might also enjoy an interview with me that author Chris Redding posted on her blog last week.  Or maybe you won't enjoy it, but most people won't say that. 

Enjoy the rest of the holiday!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Kennedy Library Votes for Pulitzer

Because there was no Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded in 2012, the Kennedy Library (Muncie, IN) book club decided to read the three finalists and vote.  The idea caught on and was opened to any patron; people could vote in person or on line.  The hands-down winner was Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson. This was also my personal choice.

The brief back flap material says:  Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is an epic in miniature, one of his most evocative and poignant fictions. It is the story of Robert Grainier, a day laborer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century---an ordinary man in extraordinary times. Buffeted by the loss of his family, Grainer struggles to make sense of this strange new world. As his story unfolds, we witness both his shocking personal defeats and the radical changes that transform America in his lifetime. Suffused with the history and landscapes of the American West, this novella by the National Book Award--winning author of Tree of Smoke captures the disappearance of a distinctly American way of life.

All of that is true, but what makes the book great is the vivid pictures of Robert Grainer's life as an orphan riding the train to his aunt and uncle's, his years working on the railroad, a raging fire that destroyed his home and dreams, and the rundown shack he built closer to the end of his life.  I can still see about ten of the scenes, all of them various places in rural America.When I can remember scenes from a book months later I know I'll remember it for years.

The writing is simple and deep. All of this, and it's a novella. Your library surely has it.  If not, make them buy it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Pulitzer Decision Looms

Drum roll...Thursday, November 8th, is the night the Muncie Library's Kennedy Book Club will vote on which of three Pulitzer finalists deserve the honor.  Why are we doing this?  Because the committee could not decide.  Hard to imagine.  The three books are:

    Denis Johnson's Train Dreams
    Karen Russell's Swamplandia!
    David Foster Wallace's The Pale King

One I loved, one I liked a bit and could at least follow the story line, and one led me to think someone counted the votes wrong.  I know, how rude! I'll tell you our tally on Thursday.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Magna Cum Murder Touches Many Topics


Mary Monica Ferris & Albert Bell
The Magna Cum Murder Conference in Muncie, Indiana was a great opportunity for authors and readers to mix as a number of mystery writers talked about topics including the competing roles of imagination and research in historical crime fiction, writing the cozy mystery in an age of 'noir and gore,' and alcohol as a poison.

It would take a notebook to give even a quick summary, so I'll pass on a few of the ideas that grabbed me.  Paraphrasing of course.

If you want to describe a place through the eyes of a character, it matters how familiar your character is with the setting. Unfamiliar eyes will see it very differently than a native.  (Terry Faherty)

What's the antitode for most alcohol poisoning?  Vodka.  (Luci Zahray)

A mystery is a hunt, a thriller is a roller coaster ride.  (John Billheimer)

Our brains are wired for stories. From the time people were writing on cave walls, we've been using stories to remember and pass along ideas.  (Michael Dymmoch)

Authors were a diverse group.  The photo shows Mary Monica Ferris about to sign one of her crewel mysteries.  Next to her is Albert Bell, who writes a series set in ancient Rome, which features Pliny the Younger.  S.J. Rozan was the guest of honor. Among her many books is one in which the books feature alternating points of view (Lydia Chin and Bill Smith).  It was interesting to hear her talk about what each character brings to the work.

One piece of memorable advice came from paranormal investigators Shelly and Andy Gage.  As part of their very professional overview of hunting in haunted places, they suggested that if you want to determine if a ghost is actually a hallucination, the first place to investigate is the medicine cabinet.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Jolie Gentil in Large Print

I have put the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series into large print paperbacks.  My mom lost most of her  vision in her early 50s, so I have been slowly working on this.  The prices are only one dollar more than the paperbacks, and I wish they could be the same.  There are so many more pages the sellers literally cannot permit me to sell them for less. Large print editions are only available via Amazon and Create Space -- if I opt for additional sales channels the price goes up a lot.  The two covers displayed are by Patty G. Henderson. Enjoy!

Large Print Editions

Appraisal for Murder
www.createspace.com/4083957

Rekindling Motives
www.createspace.com/3867620

When the Carny Comes to Town
www.createspace.com/4009363

Any Port in a Storm
www.createspace.com/4000568

Trouble on the Doorstep
www.createspace.com/4267743

Behind the Walls
 https://www.createspace.com/4864996

Vague Images
https://www.createspace.com/5261906 

Ground to a Halt
https://www.createspace.com/521192 

A page on my web site also has information on the audio books and the wonderful narrators who read them.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Chris Redding Offers a Kindle Freebie


 Welcome to Chris Redding, writer of intrigue and a generous colleague. Her blog features guest authors regularly and her thrillers keep you on the edge of your seat.

And check out Blonde Demolition...
 You just can't hide from the past...

Mallory Sage lives in a small, idyllic town where nothing ever happens. Just the kind of life she has always wanted. No one, not even her fellow volunteer firefighters, knows about her past life as an agent for Homeland Security.

Former partner and lover, Trey McCrane, comes back into Mallory's life. He believes they made a great team once, and that they can do so again. Besides, they don't have much choice. Paul Stanley, a twisted killer and their old nemesis, is back.

Framed for a bombing and drawn together by necessity, Mallory and Trey go on the run and must learn to trust each other again―if they hope to survive. But Mallory has been hiding another secret, one that could destroy their relationship. And time is running out.


    If that doesn't draw you in, check out this short excerpt.

   She glanced at Trey.
   He raised a dark eyebrow. "You used to know when I was near."
     "Been a long time since I've had to watch my back."
His long slender fingers spread across his chest. "That hurt."
     "Truth does."
     Cal looked her way from the beer tent, his brows knit. The carnies didn't often stop to talk to the firefighters. Cal moved his big frame in front of her as if she needed protection.
     She noted that he looked tired. Maybe she shouldn't bring up her idea about finding her parents today. It could wait until the fair was over.
     His pace was slow but steady as he moved toward her. He tugged Mark, the new guy, along with him.
The idea always amused her when they circled the wagons around her. It was sweet how they protected her.
     They had no clue she could defend herself armed or unarmed. That information didn't go along with her trust fund reputation. No need to enlighten them.
     Trey's words brought her back. "Have you thought about it?"
     "Yes."
     "And."
     "I didn't come up with an answer."         She wouldn't be rushed. She would decide this in her own damn time. Not on someone else's schedule.
     "Better soon."
     "You better move on, Trey."
     He glanced back at the firefighters who walked his way. A sardonic grin creased his face. "Well, well."
     "Leave, Trey. I don't want to see anyone hurt."
     "Me or them?"
     He walked past her as if she didn't exist.
     More, more, you want more!

You can get an electronic copy of Blonde Demotion or look for the paperback. Today, October 9th, Chris is offering the Kindle edition free.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Hardest Way to Write a Short Synopsis

Try to condense a long one.  That was the comment of  Tony Perona at an Indy Author Fair, in Indianapolis.  He, S.M. Harding, and Terence Faherty led a session on marketing the mystery.  Harding suggested telling yourself you have to summarize your story in something like 300 words, no matter what.  Her advice was met with skepticism, and there was a time I would have been skeptical, too.

How can the complexity of your mystery, the depth of the characters, the beauty of the setting be told in a few hundred words?

Try. If you can't make your point cogently, it will be hard for someone to want to read your book.

The synopsis is your hope to hook a potential agent or publisher. These busy people need to be able to capture the idea of your story quickly (including the ending). You want to surprise your readers, not your publisher.

What finally helped me learn the art of condensing something I was very close to was to force myself to write what I thought should go on the back cover of a paperback.  That's the chance to convince a bookstore to stock your book and a reader to plop down the money to buy it. True, the purpose is to entice rather than inform, but the rigor of condensing is similar.

I looked at the initial  synopsis that I wrote for Appraisal for Murder, first in the Jolie Gentil series. It read more like a summary. Once I wrote the lengthy piece, it was hard to part with some of the words, and took a long time to cut the length. 

Now, I start with the book flap version, so to speak, and add as few words as possible.

The more you practice writing brief synopses, the easier it becomes.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between a product description (the blurb you write for Amazon or BN to promote you book) and the synopsis for a potential agent or publisher. As with all writing, audience is everything.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

No Pulitzer -- You Decide!

There were three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction:  Train Dreams, by Dennis Johnson; Swamplandia, by Karen Russell; and The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace.  No prize was awarded.  Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, said that, "The three books were fully considered, but in the end, none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded."  That's the only explanation.

This has not happened since 1977.  Prior to 2012, the longest time between nonselections was between 1920 and 1941.  In 1941, the committee recommended For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.  However, the president of Columbia University (which administers the Pulitzers) said the book was offensive, so there was no award that year. 

The Muncie (Indiana) Public Library wants to pick up where the Pulitzer jurors left off.  The Kennedy Book Club is reading the books (one per month in September, October, and November) and we'll vote.  It's the least we can do.

We just finished Train Dreams, one of the most memorable books I've read.  And it's a novella.  We're on to Swamplandia.

I'll keep my friends posted.  All advice is welcome as we make this very weighty decision.  And we will decide.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Typos -- You'd Think I'd Learn

As it gets closer to the September 17th issue date for Any Port in a Storm (fourth in the Jolie Gentil series), I am once again grateful to those who critique a draft and those who review it to spot needed corrections.  In an effort to weed out these annoying errors (which tell a reader you are less than fully professional) I wrote an article on avoiding typos.  It's a slight variation of a blog post.  I always enjoy getting the Create Space proof, as something about the different layout helps me see errors.  I find I have a new one -- there were several sentences that use the word and three or four times.  If ever there are sentences that scream, "Edit me," those are they.  So, back to final page proofs.  Oh -- when I posted the initial blog post it had a typo.  I may be incurable.

Monday, August 27, 2012

"Any Port in A Storm" Coming September 17

Jolie Gentil and friends are busy putting the finishing touches on the 'Talk Like a Pirate Day' fundraiser for the food pantry and trying to figure out who's breaking into some of the houses Jolie appraises. When Jolie realizes a new face in town is leading high school kids into trouble in those houses, she's mad and lets him know it.  But Hayden offers to help her mind her own business, and a lot of people at the fundraiser hear her give him what for.  A hurricane's on the way to disrupt the fundraiser, and when a corpse turn up under the pirate ship the next day, Jolie's looking like a suspect.

Scoobie's pirate limericks can't solve a crime, so Jolie and her sometimes buddy local reporter George Winters look for the murderer and try to figure out who's trying to frame Jolie.  They need to stay ahead of whoever's mad at her and off the radar of the local police who tell Jolie -- for the hundredth time -- to butt out. For a cozy mystery with a dose of humor and a touch of romance, join Jolie and friends in Ocean Alley.

September 19th is the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day -- check to see if your local community has a fun event to celebrate.  If you can't find one (and even if you can!) join the celebration in Ocean Alley.

Book cover design by Patty G. Henderson. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Unique Beard Blue-Ribbon Winner at Iowa State Fair



Creativity comes in many forms.  Some people write books.  Some people enter their best calf in the state fair, others bring super-sized tomatoes.  Not Don Larkin.  For three years running his creatively decorated beard has won the blue ribbon for most unique beard at the Iowa State Fair.

This year's beard was a triple-decker ice cream cone, which he says is Fairlicious.  It's also patriotic -- note the red, white, and blue flag on the cone.

The beard decorations began in 2010, with a nod to the product the state is most famous for -- corn.  Larkin deemed that year's remarkably realistic ear-of-corn beard as "Hick on a Stick."  He and hair stylist Lori McNew of E-Clips salon in Newton, Iowa spent a lot of time designing his ear of corn, which was created with beads and bottomed off with a corn husk.

The state may be recognized for corn, but the Iowa State Fair is perhaps best known for its butter cow.  Never one to dodge an opportunity for attention, since 2011 was the 100th anniversary of the butter cow, Larkin and McNew created "Butter Beard."

Larkin puts a lot of thought into his beard entries.  "No one in my immediate family has ever won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair, and I wanted to end that non-streak.  I don't grow corn or make butter or ice cream, but I can sure can wear them."

The fair has always been a family event for the Larkins, with siblings coming from Michigan, Missouri, and Indiana to experience it again and son Joe taking photos.  And what does Larkin do with those blue ribbons?  He gives them to his mom.

Copyright 2012 by Elaine L. Orr.  Don Larkin is her brother-in-law.
Ice cream beard photo by Joe Larkin

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Family Reunion Yields Writing Projects

I returned yesterday from my annual sojourn to southwest Missouri for the annual Orr Reunion.  It celebrates a group of families that came to the U.S. between 1832 and about 1890 and had the foresight to begin getting together in 1937. I've written about the many diverse descendants in Orr, Camptell, Mitchell and Shirley Families: Descendants of Paul Orr and Isabelle Boyd in Ireland and America..  The best part is collecting the stories.

The book flap notes: From linen weavers and grain mill operators of Aghadowey Parish in Northern Ireland to the cities and plains of North America came the descendants of Paul Orr and Isabelle Boyd. While some did stay in Ireland, many came to America between 1832 and 1864, some in the mid-1880s. They worked in steel mills in Pennsylvania, helped build churches in Massachusetts and Missouri, farmed throughout the Midwest, taught school everywhere, and fought in two world wars on behalf of their country. Some died in the U.S. Army or its Air Corps, others in the RAF. The grain mills on rivers and creeks became flour companies in Missouri and they moved from one-room school houses to universities. The index of nearly 2,400+ names and many locations tells you how to find them, the stories told by their descendants bring the people to life. They began life in America in Lawrence and Jasper Counties in Missouri, Allen County, IN, and the Philadelphia, PA and Boston areas. The Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church of Mount Vernon, MO is modeled after Aghadowey Presbyterian Church.

Wilma Baker with her late husband Bill, 2004
For many years two of our our attendees have been Wilma (age 93) and Mary Isabel (97).   Mary Isabel always gets the flowers for being the oldest attendee.  Mary Isabel has identified dozens of people in unmarked photos, and Wilma has been sorting through the historical info her late sister (Mary Eleanor Coffield) collected.  Mary Eleanor was a dedicated teacher, active civic volunteer, and collector of family and local history materials.  Wilma kept telling her to sort through her many books, articles, and family history documents, but Mary Eleanor seemed to always have something better to do.  Really, who wouldn't?

Mary Lou Orr gives flowers to Mary Isabel Matteson.
Each year, Wilma gets more sorting done and brings photos and newspaper clippings to the reunion. At first she did it out of a sense of duty, but she soon saw how much some of the materials meant to others in this large family.  For the first time, after the reunion I went to her house, about forty miles away.   Laying across a double bed were neatly organized piles of historical information.  I carefully scanned a number of things, assuming she would not want to part with them.  Wrong!

I wasn't sure what she had should leave Southwest Missouri, but her final point was compelling.  She has no children and was the last of five siblings.  "When I go, this will all be thrown away."  Not on my watch.

It's more important to look ahead than behind, but it is rewarding to find out that a great grandfather and his daughters made some of the finest linens in their part of Ireland, or that a distant cousin is credited with many of General Electric's first advances in refrigeration technology.  Not that they would have used the word technology.

Much of Wilma's material relates to the Stemmons family of Jasper and Lawrence Counties, MO, and some is handwritten from the late 1800s.  It details family history back to the 1700s.  Accepting such materials creates an obligation to share it, so I see more family history books in my future -- they will be shorter!

Note: Wilma Coffield Baker died in December 2012. It appears she was right to insist that I take the materials. She was a neat woman and wonderful musician.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Midwest Writers Workshop is Invigorating

I spent three days at the annual Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana, and it was time well spent.   This is my fifth time and there is always a good mix of sessions on writing and marketing, and this year you could do a 45 minute one-on-one session on social networking.

Terence Faherty shared his concept of "two for one," talking about the two streams of plotting that he finds essential for his two mystery series (P.I. Scott Simon and failed seminarian Owen Keane) .  He plots out the murderer's story before the protagonist's, since the former is hidden from the reader during most of a mystery.  I always develop the bad guy's motive and back story, but I found Faherty's concept so helpful that I got home and wrote a three-page 'story' for my main bad guy.  And I wrote it from another character's point of view.  It was very instructive.

D.E. (Dan) Johnson discussed what he calls the heavy lifting of writing good fiction.  Simply put, it's that setting is not just a place, it needs to work as party of a tapestry that includes characters and plot.  A well thought-out setting can contribute to tone, tension, and (in a mystery) misdirection.  I have not read Johnson's books, all set in Detroit, and intend to.  From a quick glance at them, it almost looks as if the city is another character in the books.

There is always a great deal of marketing and how-to-publish info at Midwest Writers (#MWW12).  A continuing helpful reference for me will be Jane Friedman's blog on publishing.  The workshop offers five-minute pitch sessions with agents (four this year) and Chuck Sambuchino of Writer's Digest gave an instructive, and humorous, presentation on giving an effective one.  You'll want to check out his new book, Red Dog Blue Dog: When Pooches Get Political.

This mid-size conference is instructive and informal, with many opportunities to interact with faculty and other participants.  Come next year.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Language Can Wound Even if You Don't Think So

In 1985, the Section for Women in Public Administration sponsored and Marie Rosenberg Dishman and I wrote a booklet entitled The Right Word: Guidelines for Avoiding Sex-Biased Language.  The goal was not to beat people over the head with a pound of political correctness (in fact the PC term was not yet in use), but to offer alternatives to those who wanted to replace some long outdated terms.

I have written several other articles on the topic, and my favorite anecdote remains one from the first female astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride.  She was a commentator when Discovery Astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon, a physician, helped craft a device used in an attempt to retrieve a satellite.  It entailed several stitches made with a string and a sail maker's needle. A male astronaut, acting as Mission Control communicator with the shuttle, complimented Dr. Seddon on her "seamstress" work.  Ride said she wanted to correct that comment, and did so with a smile.  "That was the work of a surgeon," she said.

Gentle humor is an aid in many situations.  When it comes to sex-biased terms, some changes were just plain easier.  There is no longer a need to call a female aviator an aviatrix or an usher an usherette, and you would probably be locked out of  the office if you called your administrative assistant a 'gal Friday.'

There are other terms in relatively common use that could be offensive and we don't think about it.  Someone who has deviated from a long-held tradition or office policy might be said to be "off the reservation."  Think about it.  That term undoubtedly arose when Native Americans were forced onto reservations more than a century ago.

And what about the term "white trash?"  We know it's meant to be insulting.  Is a user saying people who are not white are more likely to "be trashy" and only some especially sloppy white people are?  Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred that insult is hurled with no racial intent, but it's still a hurtful term.

What brought such uses to mind recently was a series of emails among some fiction author friends.  One had circulated a draft of a new book cover, and several of us tossed humorous darts at the publisher (who since revised the cover - it was really awful!).  A couple of the others said the man on the cover was "so gay."  The man was the woman's boyfriend, so bad artwork or not, he was supposed to be heterosexual.

These were comments made among friends, not meant as hateful barbs.  Maybe the term was so 'neutral' to a couple of the other authors that they would use the expression around gay or lesbian friends.  However, I'm not sure a gay young man who was bullied in high school would find it funny, nor likely would his parents.

Taking the term away from a discussion of someone's appearance, it's impossible to ignore that the term "that's so gay" is now used to refer to something that is dumb or an excuse that is poor.  Clearly, it's an insult.  Why do we ignore the use when we would call out a colleague who uses terms such as 'spic' or 'kike'?

The thinking is likely, gee, I know they don't mean any harm, or I don't want to be a spoil sport.  It can be uncomfortable to be a 'language police officer,' and sometimes you have to pick your battles.  The best lesson can be in the form of a question.  When you ask someone why they use a term or phrase, it makes them think.  They may come to understand that language can offend whether it is intended it to be demeaning or not.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Favorite Books of James Larkin


Today's guest post is from a reader whose tastes roam through every genre and many books that defy classification.  Meet my husband, James Larkin.
This is a list of the best books I've ever read, in no particular order.  I made this list by quickly going through my library and being ruthless in the selection.  Undoubtedly, there are some important omissions.  I'm not so sure about mistaken inclusions.  I left out text books and so-called sacred writing (most of the books on this list are sacred to me).  

I included several books because of their "memory" to me, or, maybe more simply, what they meant to me at the time I read them.  I include many books by authors who have much more famous/successful works than the one I mention.  Tough nooglits.  

A quick note on noted short story writers.  I think all of them should be on the list, but I'll include a few at the end.  And maybe one or two authors will be included for their entire body of work.  Stephen King comes to mind for the body of work thing, although I'm way too much of a snob to have him on my list.  After all, he's sold one zillion books, so how good could he be? It goes without saying that you would do well to read any of these;  it'll feel like Disneyland on Acid, without leaving the farm.  

Again, no particular order, (the numbers are useful anyway):

1) The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom.  Ten Boom's family hid Anne Frank.  Life Lessons abound.

2) Pop: 1280 by Jim Thompson.  Jim's a soul mate.  Started reading this one weekend in Chicago and on Monday bought 3 more.  Carnage-o-plenty!

3) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I hate to do this but the recommendation includes referencing his "other" work.  This is so much better.  Period.

4) Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.  Trippy.  Pun optional.

5) Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  Never underestimate the power of stupid people in groups.  

6) Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow.  It was my first of Saul's books and I love him for it. 

7) Being There by Jerzy Kosinski.  He never uses 2 words when one will do.  

8) Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.  There are 2 kinds of readers in the world and if this isn't on your list you're the other kind.  

9) Ironweed by William Kennedy.  Sublime.  Time and place.  

10) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Prolific authors should sometimes be put to work.  
11) The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.  This might break the sacred work category, but I reference it to this day.

12) The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.  I will admit to reading this after seeing the movie.  It's on the very short list of Eastern-bloc writers who've made an impression on me.  

13) The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon.  Maybe more than most authors on this list, you should read something of Michael's before you read anything else.  You will be glad you did.  

14) Marathon Man by William Goldman.  William struck gold in Hollywood, but I don't hold it against him.  He actually wrote a sequel to Marathon, but I don't remember the name, even though I do remember the book.  It might have been called "Brothers", but don't quote me.  

15) I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb.  I read another of his long books, and I am currently reading a novella by Wally.  "This much is True" is an indictment.  

16) The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  This book deserves a place on this list for what it meant to me while I read it and for the crime that Hollywood committed in the name of this book.  PLEASE skip the movie, it has nothing to do with the book.  

17) Animal Farm by George Orwell.  I am proud in all the wrong ways that I read this book in 6th grade and could tell you it was about politics even then, before the internet.  Again, never underestimate the power of stupid people...

18) Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck.  They should be read together.  

19) Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.  They should be read together.

20) The World According to Garp by John Irving.  This was a new kind of writing to me when I read it.  Early '80's.  The worm has turned. 

Short Story Authors, and Writers notable for the body of work, in no particular order:
Jim Thompson
Raymond Carver
P.K. Dick
Harry Crews 
Scott Cremer
Travis Cremer

Poets, in no particular order:
Richard Peabody.  Rich taught me that "slinging the words" was ok.  Because of that lesson, I am able to put myself on this list:
Jim Larkin.

My favorite author writes words with her deeds as well as her keyboard, and she is my lovely wife, Elaine L. Orr.  Elaine writes "cozy" mysteries" and has earned a living writing most of her life.  Her lessons are innumerable, but how to practice love is at the top of the list.  I wish I was taught the value of creativity and quirkiness early in life.  These aren't Elaine's words, but they could be: 
TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL*

*as near as I can find Graham Nash is the author of Teach Your Children, by Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Some Ideas to Avoid Typos

There is no point in making a typo unless it gives someone a laugh. For example, I used to do some work in the public administration community, and you can guess what left-out letter caused the most eye rolls.  I thought I'd share, via Yahoo Voices, a couple of my tips for keeping typos in abeyance.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Revving the Creative Juices

I've been working on several projects, and every now and then a speed bump pops up.  When that happens, I read, usually a mix of fiction and nonfiction.  Nonfiction of the moment is Writing Mysteries, which Sue Grafton edited.  Not all edited books create a cohesive whole, but his one does.  It has three major sections -- Preparation, the Process, and Specialties.  

Topics include "Writing a Series Character" (Sara Paretsky), "Pacing and Suspense" (Phyllis Whitney), and "Revision (Jan Burke).  The thirty-five articles are concise, none more than twelve pages, making it possible to delve in and out of the book.  Though the publisher was Writer's Digest, it was prepared with the support of Mystery Writers of America.  

I read much of this book not long after it came out in 2002.  It was worth the time to browse it again.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Fabric of Our Lives

One of a series of occasional essays by Elaine L. Orr

My father was the sewer in our family.  It was not a common role for a man in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, but he was a natural.  For one thing, he was a sales manager at the local Singer Sewing Machine store for many years following World War II, so he pretty much had to learn.  And my mother could not sew more than a button. 

She sent me to a sewing class the summer after seventh grade.  I was far from the star pupil.  Our first project was an apron, just the bottom half.  Mine looked fine on the front, but when you turned it over there were lots of extra folds and tucks.  The family's 1946 Singer machine won every battle.

Dad enjoyed making things, whether with fabric or wood.  He reupholstered several chairs--we won't talk about the fabric he chose--and built everything from a rabbit hutch to an outdoor shed to a basement family room. 

Two things held him back from being a good sewer.  First, he was color blind.  The combinations he chose might have delighted Andy Warhol, but they embarrassed his children.  Second, he was incurably thrifty, wanting to use every piece of fabric or inch of thread.  He never understood why his sons did not want to wear blue jeans that had been patched with old pieces of a worn flannel shirt.  He did know better than to even try to sew for his daughters.

His two daughters have very different takes on the issue.  I did learn, and can do a respectable job at simple curtains or a vest.  I have no intention of making clothes again.  My sister has gone mother's route.  I remember a pair of pants she tried to hem when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter.  The woman who can compute the interest on a 30-year versus 20 year-mortgage almost in her head had created an impossible mix of knotted threads and tangled lines.  But I miscalculate my check book at least once a year, and she never does.

I don't see any sewers in the next generation.  I hope that one of my nieces or nephews decides to learn more than what is taught in consumer economics (what my friends and I called Home Ec), but I'm not very hopeful. After all, it's the 21st century.  Why mend when some designers actually sell paper clothes?  I wonder how they would respond to that old Singer?


Thursday, June 21, 2012

It Really is in the Details


All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.  If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.  Ernest Hemingway

I reread this Hemingway quote when I'm  twiddling the keyboard thumbs asking the proverbial "what's next?" question.   

There are books that I treasure and periodically reread. A newer one on this list is Pompeii, by Robert Harris.  The title gives away the setting, but it cannot convey the visceral reaction of a young engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, as he witnesses the brutality of slavery, or the racking heat as he leads disgruntled workers up the mountain to vainly dig for an underground spring. Every emotion is raw and every setting clear, but there are no flowing thoughts about feelings or flowery descriptions of wealthy homes.  Just Attilius' clarity of purpose as he understands more of what booming noises and drought mean when you live in the shadow of a volcano.  Revelations about his complex past grow with his convictions about Vesuvius' danger.  His desire to save the people he's grown to care about is matched only by the evil of others around him.  You won't be able to take a lunch or potty break.

I want to writer keepers.  I don't think they have to be complex or even long.  They can be funny or quirky.  The characters "just" have to matter to the readers more than they matter to me.  And I don't think it has anything to do with "what's next?"

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Electronic Books Outsell Paper Copies

As one who not only has an e-reader but sells books for them, I see reports of publishers getting more revenue from electronic books than paper copies and go "yippee."  At least I think I do.  Why is it that the book I read before bed is paper?  Because it's a wonderfully comfortable feeling.  Why do I carry a paperback in my purse?  Because it weighs a boatload less than my Kindle.  And why to I visit my library almost weekly?  Because a) I'm cheap, and b) I've moved enough times that there reaches a point when physical books are not my friend.  Or at least not a friend to my back.

But there is still the yippee factor. When I do want to buy a book I now look for an electronic copy first.  There is the "fewer boxes to pack if I have fewer books" factor and the "I'm cheap" factor.  There is also a sense of giddy anticipation to see all those books lined up on my Kindle.  So, yippee for electronic books, and keep that paper coming.  At least for now.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Eluding Contemplation

 First of a series of occasional essays by Elaine L. Orr
  
I'm looking for my creative voice.  It's around here somewhere.  Some days it's so loud I can't stifle it with a stuffed pillow.  And I never know what it's going to say. 

Perhaps I should be glad that it's missing today.  I can go out in public, certain that it will not pop up, as it did last week when we were riding the subway, to comment on a woman's pink and green hat.  Luckily, she had a sense of humor.

I do need that voice.  A writer does not live by white-out alone.  A search warrant is in order.  "Single white female in search of inventive perspective. Touch of humor and dash of whimsy essential."  Too dry.

"Brazen wench seeks bizarre attitude. Prefer voice that laughs so hard it bleats."  Better.

Perhaps the voice is simply distracted today, not sure when to show up or what to do when it gets here.  I can always tell when it's having an identity crisis.  Every speck of dust in the house stands out.  They insist on obliteration.  The dust distracters appear most often when I'm on deadline.  They are more likely the editor's nemeses than mine.  Perhaps the reincarnation of a story she killed earlier, determined to haunt my writing.

Wait.  The voice was thinking of meditating.  Damn.  I hate it when it hangs out with that crowd.  Comes back all mellow.  No bite at all.  Might as well stay in that darkened room with the silly paintings on the wall.  A woman with sprouts coming out of her head.  A man playing a lute as he rides a unicorn.  Should be a warning sign.  "Artist on meditation, hide the paint."

But, I don't think the voice is meditating today.  I'm too calm.  It usually only mediates after we've had a disagreement.  Like the time we debated whether "The Little Engine that Could" really exists, or if it was just the author's way of trying to brainwash a couple generations of kids.  I won, of course.  I often do.  Then the voice pouts.  Could be for just a few minutes.  Sometimes for as long as a couple of days.

It comes back.  I'm convinced it misses me as much as I miss its quirky incantations.  Where did I find it last time?  Ah yes. At the keyboard.  Actually, I think it was hiding in the computer screen.  I had finished DEP--dust elimination procedures--and tackled all the weeds in the flower garden.  Thought the voice might be in with the June bugs.  Couldn't think of anyplace else to look, so I just turned on that sucker, and there it was. 

"Where were you?" it asked.  "I've been waiting." 

I know its wiles.  Trying to make me forget I'm angry that it's been in hiding. 

Perhaps it's in there again today.  I approach the computer, sneaking up on its blind side, so the voice doesn't sense I'm coming.  Once you turn on the computer, the voice can't escape.  Can still hide, of course. 

Aha.  There it is.

There's always an excuse for being away.  "I've been collecting my thoughts," it says. 

"Collecting or concealing?" I ask.  And we're on our way.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jargon in Public Communication

I continue to merge my public administration and fiction personae by writing on a PA blog.  This month's post on jargon in public communication is a bit tongue in cheek.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Biding Time is free this weekend at Amazon.  It is a coming-of-age story of Frank Myers, a DC youth who is learning more about his late uncle (a Vietnam MIA) as he learns about himself.  Biding Time

Saturday, May 26, 2012

My Article on the Jolie Gentil Series

The blog Randomize Me posted a nice piece on the Jolie Gentil series today.  It was gracious of Hope to ask for the post for her Indie Saturday feature.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Starting the Summer Reading Season

Memorial Day weekend has its somber moments, as we commemorate family members by decorating their graves, but it is largely thought of as the beginning of summer.  As a pre-teen and teen, this meant that I spent a lot of time in the back yard sitting under a mulberry tree reading, with an apple in hand.  This was before air-conditioning was everywhere, but I don't remember feeling ridiculously hot.

I came by this passtime honestly.  With a bunch of small children, my mother had little time to sit.  Her treat was to make a tomato sandwich, pour a glass of iced tea and sit on the back porch with a book.  I feel sorry for people who grew up without books for fun, and sorry for young people today who spend hours with video games.  I'm told there are creative games, but the ones I've seen played don't require any imagination, just the ability to ruin your thumb joints.

But, I digress.  (I always wanted to write that.)  My summer reading plate is full.  I'll include a lot of mysteries, as you might guess from what I like to write.  Margaret Maron has a Deborah Knott book I've not read (Three Day Town), and I haven't gotten into the latests of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series (Explosive Eighteen) or Sue Grafton's latest Kinsey Milhone books (V is for Vengeance). I save my favorite books for treats.  I can read these when I finish the fourth Jolie Gentil mystery.

More than the books of these major authors I am reading some of the hundreds of mysteries that are published each month, some put out by smaller publishers, some by indie authors like me.  I like the Magnolia mysteries by Ellen Elizabeth Hunter.  They are set in North Carolina's coastal country and feature historical preservationist Ashley Wilkes (really).  Ms. Hunter has been publishing these since 2007, and is on book ten.  She has Margaret Maron's talent for depicting the south so that you learn about its history with the current mystery.  Other readers agree.  She regularly has a book in the top 100 for Kindle mysteries.  Murder on the Ghost Walk is the first in the series and I"m working my way through them.

The Lucy Guardino series features an FBI agent who balances a reasonable family life with some pretty intense FBI work.  You rarely see police procedural mysteries that paint home and work life well.  Often family members are more caricatures than characters. I've only read Snake Skin, the first in the series, and plan to read the second soon.  I would not have picked up the series if one of my book clubs had not chosen it, and I'm glad they did.

Edie Claire  wrote the Leigh Koslow cozy mystery series over many years -- so long ago that they were available only in actual paper from Penguin Books.  She has reissued them herself as ebooks, and added a new one that is set a decade after the last one, and Leigh has aged with the passing of time and acquired a set of twins.  I have not read Never Con a Corgi, the new one, and look forward to it.  The first book, Never Buried, is usually 99 cents on Kindle, a good way to start the series.  The books use animal characters well, something I strive to do.

Happy summer reading.  Feel free to share your favorites.



Thursday, May 17, 2012

Publishing for iBooks - Confusion Astern!

It has been an adventure to figure out how to direct people to my books for the iPad or iPod.  I have tried to publish directly with Apple, but after the second rejection I took the hint, and my books are on the ibooks sites via Smashwords.

 Initially the books were hard to find on itunes, but that's been remedied. You can see a list of nearly all of my books here:
itunes.apple.com/us/artist/elaine-orr/id467570687?mt=11

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Offering a Constructive Critique

In a prior life, I edited a great deal of nonfiction.  Much of it dealt with complex subjects, and often the pieces were written by people who were expert in the field and knew how to present information about it, especially orally.  The transition to concise written product, geared to a specific audience, generally worked, but needed  fresh eyes and occasionally restructuring.  The tough part was that I knew many of the writers, and they had often worked on the product as a team.  Surely if they thought a report was"ready to go" all I should do was make sure everything was spelled correctly.  Not always.

Yesterday I wrote a blog post on how your tone and word choice can affect your message when you are critiquing the work of others.  The process reminded of some of the concepts I used and shared with other nonfiction editors.  You can check out the post at the site of the American Society for Public Administration.

Today I am more likely to do a book review or comment on another writer's fiction.  If you think nonfiction authors can be a bit touchy about comments on their work, picture a hungry bear guarding her cubs and you have the concept of a fiction writer preparing him or herself to receive comments.

Though I tend to use the "top ten" format a lot, I stick with three basic principles for commenting on fiction.

1)  Always start with the positive.  There will be a character, setting, or aspect of the plot that is good and can be a point to grow from. This can be especially important for younger authors, whose helicopter parents may have swooped in every time a teacher sent home a report card with less than perfect grades.

2)  Consider how the different parts of the story weave together.  As an attentive reviewer, if you think interactions between two characters make little sense or one part of the plot is not credible, these may be the reactions of a reader who spends only twenty minutes before bed with that book.  That is unless it's paranormal or science fiction and there really are ghosts who like to be upside down or purple-headed creatures with sex appeal.  Readers are willing to suspend everyday beliefs when actions or character thoughts are consistent with the environment the author creates.

3)  Be accurate and concise.  If you spell a character's name wrong or write an epistle on how such-and-such a battle during World War II really didn't happen that way you lose credibility with the author and put them into the "whose story does she think this is?" mindset.  The writer can reject every point you make, but let your comments be judged on their merit, not on the extent to which you ticked off the writer as he reads your critique.

There are different levels of editing.  If you are asked to give an "overall reaction" critique that's a very different review than when an author asks for a detailed edit of a draft.  In this time of indie publishing, even if you are giving an overall reaction, if you see consistent spelling or grammar errors you'll be doing a service if you tell the author to look for certain kinds of errors.  Once you point out that a contraction is regularly misused, it helps the writer better review her own work.

The Writer's Center of Bethesda, Maryland once did a staged reading of one of my plays, and I handed a draft program to one of the staff and then went to browse the shelves of used books. Another staffer (who did not know me) came into the room, read the draft program, and made a snide remark about a spelling error.  The first staff member smiled at me and said, "We call it the Writer's Center, not the Speller's Center."   Kindness first.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Couple Freebies for Mother's Day


The second book of the Jolie Gentil series will be free as an ebook at Smashwords until May 27.  Rekindling Motives, can be downloaded as a freebie from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/101851. When you check out you put in this coupon - LJ76D . You can download it as a PDF, Nook, Kindle, or any other format.  If you like it, feel free to put a short review on your favorite bookseller's web site. 

Words to Write By: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper is a free electronic book this weekend -- May 12th and 13th.  It is a short work designed to help people organize their thoughts as they prepare to write.  While it is geared toward individuals who find writing difficult, and the focus is on nonfiction, Words to Write By is useful to anyone who wants to take a jumble of ideas and put them into a cogent memo or short story.  It will also be free on Saturday, May 19th, because Amazon was slow putting the freebie up today.  Glad I waited to do this post.

Happy Mother's Day to the moms and their children, of any age. 

H

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review of Eyes Behind Belligerence

I learn as I read, and recently reviewed a piece of fiction that was beautifully researched.  Eyes Behind Belligerence examines a group of Japanese families  who are forced from their island off of Washington state into internment camps.  The book is a realistic portrayal of of a shameful part of U.S. history, but it is done with poignancy and a bit of humor.  The two main characters are full of surprises.  Check out my review at Self Publishing Review.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Jolie Gentil in Large Print

I have been adding large print editions for the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series, something important to me because my mother had limited to no vision for many years.  She largely listened to books on tape (long before the digital age), since holding a book was also difficult for her.  The Library of Congress still operates the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), which lends Braille and some specialized audio materials free of charge to those whose need is certified by a designated professional. While there are no audio recordings of my books (yet), making them available in large print does permit more people to read them.  Unfortunately, when the type is larger there are more pages so the price must be higher.  I did the first book Appraisal for Murder (at Create Space or Amazon) in the same 6 x 9 size as the original, and it was more than 400 pages.  I wised up and did the second, Rekindling Motives, in a 7 x 10 size (at Create Space), so it stays in the 300 page range and I can price it a bit lower.  I'm experimenting, and may eventually do all in the 7 x 10 size.  To keep the prices reasonable ($9.99 for Rekindling Motives) the books are only for sale via Create Space and Amazon.  They would have to be at least $2 more to be available on other sites, and that does not seem reasonable to me.  (The cost would have to be the higher price on Create Space and Amazon as well.) 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Writing a Series that Holds Your Interest


I continue to add to my list of ideas for "Keeping a Series Alive and Lively" (an earlier version appeared as a guest piece on Chris Redding's blog).

Other authors write such wonderful mystery series it seems almost arrogant to create one, but I wanted one that had a clear protagonist as well as a couple of good friends and a humorous take on life.  It took me years to develop the setting (I love East Coast beaches) and characters for the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series and write the first two books.  I kept moving between the two, trying to decide who would play what role and how they would work together.  If I was to get lucky enough to work with the characters over a long period they had to hold my interest as much as a reader's.

Consider these points as food for thought for a cozy series.

  1. Will your characters maintain the same characteristics and perspectives throughout, or will they evolve?  Readers may not expect epiphanies from a light mystery, but they could lose interest if main characters repeat the same mistakes or remain stuck in a dull job.
  2. Even-keel characters aren't all that interesting, but you're going to work with the characters for a long time.  Consider if you want to spend time a lot of time with a hot head, heavy drinker, or practical joker.
  3. Will you get bored if your protagonist works as a real estate agent or librarian?  Maybe you'd rather hang out with a woman who explores shipwrecks or a man who creates components for the next U.S. forage into space.  You'll have to do research on their profession no matter what it is.
  4. Will your characters move around the country or globe or stay firmly rooted in their home town?  If they stay in the same town you can introduce characters in one book and have them play a bigger role in the next.  On the other hand, unless it's a really large city the consistent setting can limit how much trouble your characters get into.
  5. If there is something to learn in each book it can pique your own as well as reader interest. The challenge is to have new material without sounding as if you're writing an encyclopedia article. 
  6. Is there a love interest?  With books and television shows, if your protagonist enters a committed relationship or marries it changes more than how they interact with others.  There is no longer "relationship tension," plus they have to keep someone apprised of their whereabouts and respond to the partner's interests and needs.
  7. If you want to express a point of view -- political, religious, cultural -- consider writing an editorial.  If a particular opinion or piece of information is not integral to the plot or character it adds nothing and can sound like a sermon. 
  8. Will your characters age?  Not only would your protagonist age, so would those around them.  If you don't want a favorite uncle to die, he either has to start out younger or live to be really old. 
  9. How will your protagonist find time to solve a mystery?  Trust fund families are rare, and your hero can't be tied to a desk.  I made Jolie Gentil a real estate appraiser, which gives her some flexibility and has her deal regularly with different people.  
  10. There are only so many dead bodies that appear in our lives, and there needs to be a reason that your protagonist runs into more than her share.  Or maybe there doesn't.  It may be enough that each book has a good reason for encountering one.
I'll keep adding to this list, and would welcome your ideas.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Listening and Recording History

What used to be called genealogical research is now simply called family history, and broader communication tools make it so much easier to share information.  There were histories written about my father's mother's family and his father's family.  When my great aunt, Lettie Reed Cochran Grove, did detailed histories of her her mother's ancestors, she wrote hundreds of letters and visited local historical societies.  On my father's "other" side, the Orr Reunion Association did a history at almost the same time Aunt Lettie did -- the mid 1950s.  Those written histories are the starting point for those of us who may have done the library or on-site research initially, and now supplement it with the magical world of online records.

But what if you don't have someone else's carefully researched family history of 60 or 70 years ago?  The adage in family history work is "start with what you know."  Then you go looking for distant relatives, and hope there are some very old ones who are willing to talk to you.  Aside from the fact that this can be fun, you need a context for information you find online.  Almost every name in a census has a duplicate, and a lot of them live in the same state.  In my extended family there have been enough William Orrs to start a baseball team in the great beyond.

In the case of my mom's father's family, which had almost nothing written, my cousin Peg Pierson started the work and lucked out.  Not luck, really.  She searched hard for Rooney/Roney families in Kansas, Missouri, and Indiana.  She came up with two long-lived women, and in fact just attended the 100th birthday party of one of them (Alexis McCormick), and together we visited another, Eugenia Chandonia, who is 92.  I can say her age because she will brag about it to anyone. 

But it wasn't just the good fortune in finding these two women.  These are women who listened to the stories of those around them and were willing to share.  In Eugenia's case, her mother (Inez Roney Groff) had collected photos and names, and Eugenia continued the tradition.

Peg Pierson, Eugenia Chandonia, and Elaine Orr - Rooney/Roney cousins.
Peg and I are the daughters of two women who were cousins (so second cousins).  Eugenia's great grandfather is our great, great grandfather, so our relationship is more distant (second cousins once removed).  But you'd never know it to hear the three of us talk -- similar senses of humor and the same value of preserving family history.  Eugenia's mom (Inez) even kept copies of some photos of our great grandfather and some of his children, people Inez likely never met and who were dead long before Peg and I were born.  Because of Inez and Eugenia, Peg and I were able to scan these photos and load them on ancestry.com to share with other distant cousins. 

I hope you can find the Lexis and Eugenias of your family and spend time with them.  Don't wait.  You don't have to be as nutty as cousin Peg and I, who record and publish the histories (though future generations would be happy if you did).  Just ask and listen, and then share the stories with your children and cousins.