Saturday, January 16, 2021

Are You a Closet Outliner?

Other than fully outlining one book in 2006, I generally start with an idea, make some notes, and start writing what I think will be opening scenes. Then I pause and make more notes, eventually creating a chapter summaries document. As the name implies, I use it to track what I've done and plan future developments.

It might be better if I fully outlined at least the murder and how it is solved. I simply have trouble keeping my fingers off the keyboard.

As I finish one project I thumb through notebooks to see what else has been in my brain. I lose thoughts unless I write on a card and staple it to a notebook page or write thoughts directly in the book. Usually I can decipher what I meant. Sometimes not.

As I shipped the Unscheduled Murder Trip to the proofeader, I began the note review. What I look for are the half-baked (excuse me, half-developed) ideas that I jotted so I didn't lose them. Because I also make notes on books underway, I see I'm more of an outliner than I think I am.

It's About the Villain

Four basic points are always in my lists.

  • Who would have a reason to kill the victim?
  • How did they get to him/her?
  • What are the consequences if the killer is not caught?
  • Who besides the murderer comes under suspicion and isn't the culprit? (The red herring thought process.)

What's most striking (even to me) is none of these points relates to the protagonists and how they solve the crime. Of course I have notes about this, but they are not in the core list. Why? Because any mystery starts with the killer/kidnapper/ embezzler's motive.

In a thriller, readers may know the motive up front because the author puts readers in the minds of the perpetrator and the hero (who sometimes seems to have almost superhero talents). Much in these books deals with how close the villain comes to blowing up a damn (or whatever) before s/he is stopped. I read many thrillers and love them. 

However, my own writing tends toward solving the puzzle -- it's only possible when the sleuth can unravel the culprit's motives. But that comes near the end. In one memorable (to me) thought process, I changed the killer after I finished the first draft. The new murderer had a stronger motive. It's one of my best books, but I don't recommend the process.

The Full List Questions

The combined sleuth/killer list is, in my mind, the order of the action (though not usually the order of the book).

  • Who would have a reason to kill the victim?
  • How did they get to him/her?
  • How is the sleuth drawn into the crime-solving?
  • Why is it so important to the sleuth to identify the killer/kidnapper, etc.?
  • What are the consequences if the killer is not caught?
  • Who besides the murderer comes under suspicion and how are they absolved? 
  • What resources or assets does the sleuth have that others (perhaps law enforcement) does not have?
  • How is the sleuth's life changed by having been involved?

The crime and its resolution have to matter to amateur crime-solvers. Otherwise, they're simply busybodies or folks with too much time on their hands.

There has to be a reason the sleuths can solve the crimes when professionals can't. The killer may discount their abilities and thus reveal something that sends the sleuth down a path. Maybe they have tremendous resources and can buy a $1,200 airline ticket and hop on a plane to keep an eye on the bad guys.

Another option is to do something illegal (hack a computer, bug a phone) that police can't do without a warrant -- or at all. However, the reader has to feel sympathy with the sleuth's methods. I stopped reading one series because I thought the sleuth's actions (in the last book I read) were as unacceptable as the criminal's.

Your Questions May be Different

All the ads for fad diets say something like "results may differ for individual participants." Same goes for how you develop a book. Any approach works, as long as it's a conscious endeavor.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Turning the Page

 I love a good book metaphor, and "turning the page to 2021" is perfect. Anyone like 2020 enough to want to relive it? It would be interesting to look at lists of New Year's Resolutions prepared last January and see how many could be achieved.

My writing was off until the third quarter of 2020, largely self-inflicted slowness encouraged by worry. And we all know how effective worry is in relieving writing stress. Not.

The one full-length book I managed to finish was Least Trodden Ground, first in the Family History Mystery Series. Ironically, near the beginning of Least Trodden Ground the protagonist mentions the 1918 flu pandemic. Family historians sometimes try to figure out which ancestor succumbed to it. 

The book is set in Garrett County, Maryland, and Western Maryland had few cases of the 2020 coronoavirus as I wrote it. Easy to have references to masks or not hugging people.

As I finish the Unscheduled Murder Trip, lo and behold cases in Western Maryland (where many eschewed masks) have exploded. Now I wish I'd made the series timeless. I can't make the illness a focus of the book, but I will have to have a memorial service with few attendees, and now there's a sign on the door of an assisted living residence -- Mask It or Casket. 

I should do a blog post on choosing a time period for a book.

As 2020 finally draws to a close, I wish you enjoyable reading and a healthy 2021.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Makings of a Good Holiday-Themed Book

Some ideas come naturally, other times authors think hard about how to appeal to a certain audience or work an event or holiday into a book. A quick look at online booksellers (even more so than in bookstores) indicates how many writers incorporate a Christmas theme. 

Halloween is popular in genre fiction, especially relatively recently. This seems to have coincided with when more adults started celebrating it. 

The Christmas concept makes sense for a lot of reasons -- it's often a joyous period (who wants to write about bad stuff all the time?) and the season is a long one. In the U.S., the timespan goes from after Thanksgiving, at the end of November and runs through New Year's Day. A plot has a few weeks to evolve and there is a lot going on. And it can be just plain fun.

To hold reader interest any book needs conflict (in the sense of addressing and resolving something) and action. Action does not mean chase scenes, simply that something important has  to happen.

Think of the Christmas story many people read as children and continue to see -- Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Structurally, having Scrooge visited (in the form of his late business partner) by the ghost of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet To Come  is brilliant. More important, the visits give Scrooge the chance to learn a lot and evolve fairly quickly.

A problem gets resolved. Readers want something to be better because of action that took place during the Christmas season. 

Reaching to cinema, It's a Wonderful Life continues to play in living rooms every year. To be sure not to miss it,we bought a DVD. Jimmy Stewart shows us (also with a visitor from  the past) that what we do with our life matters, and we reap what we sow. Look at all those friends in the ending scene!

Dare I mention Elf? How did a film about a naive adult Santa's helper become so popular? If you're still asking the question, watch it. The plot revolves around Will  Ferrell's story, but who evolves? His reluctant father, the curmudgeonly Walter Hobbs, played by James Caan. And the people of New York rise together to save Christmas. What could  be better?

What makes it better is the juxtaposition of the routine life of rushing and commercialization next to Elf's unendingly hopeful nature. (And it is funny.)

Good stories have a strong plot. I strongly believe that the most important element of a seasonal story is to give readers hope by showing the characters doing something positive to help others. And succeeding, of course. 

Romance and mystery fiction are two adult genres that seem to explode with holiday stories each December. Just look at the covers floating by at a retail site. Pick an author you like, and see if they have a Christmas spirit story. I've taken to rereading Karen Musser Nortman's A Campy Christmas, which is one of her campground mysteries. The usual characters get snowbound and take on a different task. Someone ends up better for it.

If this year is more stressful than usual for you, read or watch a story you remember fondly, or pick up something new. The Christmas season can offer hope.

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Elaine Orr writes four mystery series and whatever pops into her head. Check out her books with holiday cheer or learn more at

Monday, November 23, 2020

Would you Like to Worry Less?

 Years ago I developed the idea for a book, The Art of Deliberate Distraction. I hesitated to finish writing and publish it because I'm no expert in counseling or anything similar. I can claim to be someone who tries to focus on positive thinking.

With the arrival of COVID-19 and the ensuing stress, this seemed like a time to tackle the project. The result is The Art of Deliberate Distraction. It's more an article than a book, so I've added my heartwarming novella, Falling Into Place, as a bonus.

What is deliberate distraction? Deliberate distraction offers a way to consciously refocus your thinking – if only for a few minutes – so you can feel more well-balanced as you handle tough events. 

If you're trying to work from home and keep kids on task for homework or remote learning, it's tough. I remember a cartoon from the beginning of the pandemic. I don't have the image, but it said something like, "Tried remote learning. Two boys were kicked out of class and the teacher was fired for drinking wine." 

After nine months, it's harder to laugh about the restrictions and separation from our families. As one who had pneummonia last year, I wouldn't want to tackle COVID-19. So while I don't like missing Thanksgiving with my Maryland family, I prefer to love from a  distance so I can live for next year.

There are simple things we all love to do -- take a  walk, talk to a friend, read a book, binge watch our favorite TV show. When we're stressed or extra busy, sometimes it feels as if we have an obligation to worry. We do have a responsibility to tackle problems if we can, but we can also give ourselves permission to take our thoughts somewhere else by practicing deliberate distraction.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or sign up for her newsletter. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Making Writing More Readable

Each writer has their own style and each character has their own voice. However, you (usually) want your writing to be read easily. A reader can  get frustrated if they have to go over a sentence or paragraph a couple of times to get the gist of it. Though if you want a character to be misunderstood, then you're golden. 

I have a mental checklist as I edit. I'm not talking about a read-through as you continue to write a story. These suggestions are for what I call polish editing.  

  • Watch for what a grade-school teacher called 'helper verbs' – especially any form of the verb to be. Was plus a gerund can usually be replaced by past tense. I was walking becomes I walked. Some authors believe that using gerunds makes an action seem more immediate. It can -- unless you do it all the time.
  • Use precise verbs. Words such as walk and look are often overused. Do a word search if you're editing online or use a highlighter if reading on paper.
  • Break up paragraphs—especially so that each character's dialogue is in a new one. A long paragraph can take up a full ebook page.
  • Avoid overly long sentences. If you use 'and' and 'but' a lot, consider shortening some sentences. Varying sentence length can be a good way to vary characters' speech patterns, so long-winded or clipped sentences, when used purposefully, can be useful. 
  • Avoid using similar names or having a lot of towns or characters whose names start with the same first letter. This especially helps when a book has numerous characters or there are many pages between mentioning a locale or name.
  • Avoid passive voice! The subject of a sentence should usually be the person performing the action. Instead of, "Those words were spoken by me," the phrase, "I said," is more direct.
If it feels as if polish editing inhibits a character's voice or makes your writing sound more like nonfiction, your approach may be too rigid. If you really don't get this, ask an editor to go over a few pages of your work and offer suggestions geared toward readability.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or sign up for her newsletter. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

The Craziest Thing I've Ever Done (in terms of books)

 What happens on Halloween? Kids dress like action heroes and adults act like kids. It's also the day that I issued two new books, Least Trodden Ground and Aunt Madge and the Civil Election. 

Who would be crazy enough to do that? Looking in the mirror, I recognize the face.

Least Trodden Ground has been in the works for months and had the benefit of my Decatur area critique group. (Thanks Angela, Dave, and Sue.) The book combines my love of family history with a mystery set in the Western Maryland mountains -- my home state.

Aunt Madge and the Civil Election is a story I promised when I wrote Underground in Ocean Alley. In that book in the Jolie Gentil series, Jolie tries to solve a murder while Aunt Madge runs her campaign. She dove into the race in her mid-eighties to promote sensible growth rather than see a big development change the character of the town. Election results are unknown at the end of Underground in Ocean Alley.

I knew Aunt Madge's camapaign would be fun to write about, but I needed to "hang the idea" on more than people running around putting up yard signs. And then the U.S. 2020 election came around, and I was tired of listenening to people argue. (Yes, I voted. Of course.)

Why not give Aunt Madge a worthy opponent, but have both candidates commit to a civil election? And throw in some humor. Why not indeed?

To write in a parallel timeline to the prior book, I muted the mystery (didn't want to give it away to people who wanted to read Underground) and wrote Aunt Madge and the Civil Election from her point of view rather than Jolie's.

It's a challenge to write a scene from a different POV -- to write a 17,000 word story that parallels a prior book. Of course there are many dozens of scenes in  this "long short story" that are not in the other book. But concurrent action can't contradict what happened previously. Whew! I made some small adjustments.

I was determined to publish Aunt Madge and the Civil Election before the actual U.S. election, so there were several 2 AM evenings followed by a 7 AM morning. And no input from my critique group! They make everything better.

So, today I have two new publications. Least Trodden Ground is available everywhere and the paperback can soon be ordered at Barnes and Noble. (It's on Amazon now.) Aunt Madge and her campaign are available at most online retailers and will be in paperback in a few days.

To add some extra fun, if you comment on this blog post you'll be in the running to win one of two copies of each book. Our black cat Stella will chooses the winners. They will be announced November 6th.

Now, calm yourself by reading (any) good book!

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or sign up for her newsletter. 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Dealing with Rejections

     You haven’t fully become a writer until you’ve had work rejected by multiple magazines or publishers. I’ve heard writers say they could paper their walls with rejection letters. Bottom line, if you don’t have a thick skin, find ways to toughen it. Just keep thinking, “Where do I submit next?”

     Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodor Geisel) submitted And to Think I Saw That on Mulberry Street (his first book) to twenty-seven publishers and received rejections each time. After what he decided would be the last one (because he wouldn’t submit again), he was walking down Fifth Avenue in New York and ran into a friend. He relayed his situation, and the man told him he had just become an editor at a publishing house and invited him to submit there. The rest is publishing history.

     Rejections don’t mean your writing is bad. 
They simply mean the piece isn’t right for that magazine at that time. They could also be because you didn’t pay attention to submission guidelines, or it could mean your story needs work. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some feedback. Take it with an open mind.

The important thing is to keep writing and submitting!

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or sign up for her newsletter