Monday, November 21, 2022

The Best Advice Top Authors Received

And some they offer to others. At the Prime Crime at the Columbia Club conference the last weekend in October, a stellar group of mystery and thriller authors shared advice on a range of topics. There was a lot of agreement, and occasional individual ideas that made others nod.

The authors were: S.J. Rozan (panel chair), C.J. Box, Ruth Dudley Edwards, John Gilstrap, and Reavis Wortham -- shown in order in the photo.

What Are You Waiting For?

Everyone is busy. And sometimes there are other priorities you need to address before writing. As John Gilstrap says, there are 1,000 reasons not to pursue a dream. If writing is to become more than a dream: sleep less, be online less, and simply risk doing it. Bottom line, “Never let voices of others deter your ability to make time.”

Ruth Dudley Edwards had the simplest advice – “Just do it. Don’t get advice, get it written.”

In true Texas style, Reavis Wortham said, “Put your butt in a chair, finish it, and put it in a drawer.” He isn’t saying forget about it. Time away from a manuscript lets you better evaluate it.

It’s Fiction. How Much Does Research Matter?

Another conference panel discussed research in depth, but Reavis Wortham had some specific advice. Readers notice what you get wrong, and it matters to them. If you don’t know a lot about guns, make sure what you say is accurate. Know the difference between a sheriff and the police force. 

I would add that if you don’t know what you don’t know, make sure you have some good cold readers who know a lot about a topic. Even if it’s not key to the story, why describe architecture inaccurately or say someone drove a Mustang in 1942?

Is it Plot or Characters and Setting?

No one will argue a plot has to be well thought-out and (for mysteries especially) offer twists and surprises. S.J. Rozan noted that while Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple may pursue criminals in a similar fashion in all the books, we read them in good part because of the setting and characters. 

C.J. Box added that a great sense of place is more remembered than a good plot. Readers like to revisit places they remember well.

Ruth Dudley Edwards was direct. “Plot is a nightmare. If you use the same characters, put them in new environments.”

How Helpful are Writers’ Groups?

John Gilstrap said critique groups can be good, but members have to give one another more than observations. Say why something doesn’t work well. Edwards emphasized having friends who will tell you when you’re wrong about something.

S.J. Rozan believes there are three kinds of groups. One type will say what you do is all brilliant. That’s no help. Another kind will say what’s good and what isn’t working. That's the kind of group authors need.

The third she deemed toxic. Comments either aren't helpful or (worse) some members put others down or try to tell them what to do. Don’t be afraid to leave a toxic group.

The All-Important Point of View Decisions

In some of my early writing, I used lots of points of view. I recognize now that I thought of points of view as the eye of a camera. A movie shows many people doing things. Eventually, I learned they didn’t all have to tell the story.  Thankfully, these were learning pieces I didn’t show anyone.

C.J. Box thinks establishing the point of view character is essential. If you bounce it around, it takes you (and readers) out of the story. It especially may not work to change point of view within a scene.

Gilstrap says he determines whose point of view is the most dramatic to make a scene work. Write it that way. If it doesn’t work, change the POV character.

You Say You Don’t Have Time to Read

You say you don’t have time to read? Here are some important reasons to read as much as you can, and suggestions to make time.

Reading gives you ideas. Don’t put it off. (C.J. Box)

Read what you love. If you think you don’t have time, decide to read at least a certain number of pages each day. (Wortham)

Read away from the computer. Think of it as part of your job if it’s the only way to be sure you do it.  (Rozan)

While you’re at it, meet other authors. You’ll get advice from peers if you need it. (Wortham and Rozan)

Market of the Moment

Gilstrap says fall in love with your characters rather than writing to the market. Besides, if divorced sleuths or PIs who are recovering alcoholics are in vogue now, they won’t be when your books is done. That’s not to say current books aren’t well done – just write your own.

Wortham stresses to find what you are comfortable writing. That doesn’t mean don’t try something different, but you’ll like the writing process more if you are comfortable with a topic or type of character. 

Ruth Dudley Edwards had some advice that rang especially true with me. “Don’t write something revolting. Do you have to write about cannibals in detail?” Maybe you do, she adds, but don’t do it because it’s the fashion of the moment.

A Few Other Great Quotes

C.J. Box had an interesting point about writing a series. Sometimes people will talk about what they plan to do in multiple books, or how characters will evolve. While it’s okay to look ahead, put all you have in book one. Then think about book two.

Reavis Wortham mentioned a familiar topic – rejection letters. “Never give up!” You’ll get past a low point. He wished he hadn’t thrown out a pile of rejection letters. They’d be reminders (not just to him) to keep at it. His first book was not published until after he retired from a previous career.

S.J. Rozan is always pragmatic. “If there's anything else you want to do as much as write, do that.”

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.  

Monday, October 31, 2022

Authenticity Plus Creativity = a Well Researched Book

The Prime Crime Panel "Research: Write What You Know or Study Up?" brought together four panelists and a moderator (me) to talk about our methods. Throughout the Indianapolis conference, other authors commented on their approaches. 

Some writers cultivate experts who are willing to share expertise on their work, whether it relates to details of solving a crime (Trace Conger) or Mayan civilizations (Julia Kellman). Carol Preflatish has visited the New England area on which her fictional Mystic is based (read Salem). For her first book in the Nathan Perry series she also did a lot of research on witchcraft. 

Karen Musser Nortman (who writes the Frannie Shoemaker campground series) knows a lot about camping, but has to research topics relevant to the plot of individual books. The Corpse of Discovery explored the death of Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Did he die of natural causes? Lots of historical research there.

A couple authors advocated having a clipboard with a blank page on top. Even the most reluctant source sees that page and starts talking. 

  Above right: Trace Conger, Carol Preflatish, Karen Musser  Nortman 

Authenticity is key. Conger believes it strengthens the relationship between author and reader. That doesn't mean a setting has to be a real place. John Gilstrap was one of many who said he doesn't want a reader to say that he put a business on the wrong corner.

I do as other some authors do and create a fictional town but place it near real towns. For example, Ocean Alley, home of the Jolie Gentil series, is near Ocean Grove and Asbury Park, New Jersey. Readers can get a better sense of place.       

Above left: are Elaine L. Orr and Julia Kelman

All panelists agreed that we do more research than finds its way into a book. It doesn't represent wasted work; rather good judgment so we don't overwhelm readers.

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.  

Photos by Phil Kellman.

Friday, October 28, 2022

A Panel on Research in Writing

As someone who did analytical research for years, I like to delve into almost any topic. If I'm looking for information for a book I'm writing, I need to be careful not to go down the research rabbit hole or I might not surface for hours.

What do I look for in a source?

  • Clear presentation. Run-on sentences, passive voice, and jargon send me back to a search engine.
  • Good information presented with an opinion. Otherwise, it could be the advice of someone on a soapbox in a park.
  • Links to other sources. I do go to Wikipedia as a starting point at times. If there are a number of reputable sources, I'll keep reading or use the online encyclopedia as a jumping off point.

I also appreciate authors who discuss their sources. Look at one of Erik Larsen's books -- nonfiction that tells stories as well as fiction. At the end of every book, he discusses his sources at length. 

I'm at the Prime Crime conference at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis and tomorrow I'll moderate a panel on research and mystery writing. Tomorrow evening I'll let you know what more I've learned.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

In a World Where Makeup Matters

I followed a link in something I was reading (can't remember what, truly) and it took me to a photo of an accomplished movie star. The person who posted it had a comment about the star's makeup not being as carefully done as usual.

Really? An often-nominated actor and the thing to comment on is makeup?

My next thought was, gosh, I hope I always have something else to think about. Then I recognized my snobbery. If we can all be interested in something beyond our daily lives, it broadens our perspective. But still, makeup?

Then I went to Goodreads (which now also houses Listopia) and put in books about makeup, with an option to be fiction. Check out the results.

Some deal with applying color artfully. Others deal with topics such as "Fiction on the Film Set" or "Fictional Stylists." Among the latter was Permed to Death by Nancy Cohen, first in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. I always enjoy her books.

Someday when I'm not working on two books, I'll explore this topic further. I should probably start with horror. Where would that genre be without disguises? And what about spy fiction? Spies in Disguise is a series for young readers that could draw anyone into reading -- though most kids probably like the Disney animated series.

Think to Follet's masterful Eye of the Needle. German spy Faber has created a meticulous identity, and of course has a backup. Disguise yes, not so much makeup. A lot more to think about.

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.  

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Why is it so Hard to Write Sometimes?

"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen."

― John Steinbeck

With apologies to Mr. Steinbeck, it doesn't always work that way. Plus, long-haired rabbits make me sneeze.

At the moment, I've figured out the basic elements of a new book -- lead characters, overall plot, timing for major events -- and so on. I even have a rough draft of the first couple chapters. So why am I not halfway to the middle? 

For me, it usually means I have a lot on my mind. I do, at the moment, but nothing insurmountable. 

I think about the action a lot, and the pause in writing has led me to come up with really good title for the thirteenth Jolie Gentil cozy mystery. I'm trying to do something different, which is to have a second point of view character, one who has been away from the series for a while. That's hard to do. But why hide from hard?

Apparently, I'm doing this post to figure out why I'm not writing more. So, I'll commit to having a full first draft by the first week in November. That's a scary thought. 

Don't let me off the hook.

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.  

Saturday, September 10, 2022

When to Keep a Secret and When to Tell Readers More

 Authors who write a series -- whether sci fi, fantasy, mystery, romance, or family saga -- grapple with how much to tell readers about what happened in prior books. The second choice is whether to do it through narrative or dropping pieces of information in dialogue.

A lot depends on whether you write in first or third person. Whether a book uses a narrator or not, those in third person can have paragraphs of description about current or past events. The main character(s) in first-person novels can ruminate or discuss events in the past, though the information has to be part of the flow and not a convenient dump of material.

As my longer series progresses, reviewers will sometimes say it helps to have read some of the earlier books rather than jump in at, for example, book ten. I agree, not so much because of the plot but because the characters' lives have changed over time. 

The bigger question, especially with mysteries, is how much to reveal about past books in the book underway. Readers don't always read books in order (I don't), and they may not want to go to book two if they learn what happened as they read book five. 

One of my favorites is the Virgil Flowers series by John Sandford. Flowers is a state investigator for Minnesota, so he works fairly independently. In each book the rich character development and subplots keep things moving. And I love the humor.

Sandford does refer to past cases, usually by having characters comment on Flowers' success. Sandford doesn't dwell on them, and if some time passes between reading the books, a fan likely wouldn't remember the prior references -- except for the Trippton school board, which comes up a lot.

A friend who read a draft of Any Port in a Storm commented that no one would read a preceding book because I'd told the bad guy's identity and what he did. I realized that I could refer to an important point in the prior book without giving anything away. Since then, I carefully watch for this.

However, when it comes to the characters' lives, knowing some past events or general history can be important. In the Jolie Gentil series, I always mention that she and Scoobie first met in high school and didn't see either again for a decade. Other aspects of their -- or other characters' -- history or life stories may come up now and then, but not too much. Even more rare are details of prior things Jolie has looked into.

I had pages of notes on the backstory for the Jolie Gentil series and kept wanting to mention some of it. But readers didn't need to know much of it. So, I wrote a prequel. Jolie and Scoobie's High School Misadventures pretty much got that out of my system.

Authors make hundreds of decisions as they write each book. The what-to-reveal choice is one of the clearer ones. Like most options, it's up to the writer, and whatever s/he decides will be right for the book underway. 

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Writing in First Person vs Third Person

I write four mystery series, two in first person point of view (Jolie Gentil and River's Edge series) and two in third person (Logland and Family History Mysteries). 

First person comes more naturally to me, and I like the idea that readers only know what the sleuth knows. There are challenges, mostly the flip side of what I like -- I can't reveal anything to readers unless the sleuth discovers it directly or indirectly.

There's no getting around that first-person cozy mystery amateur detectives (at least in series) can come off as nosy. Generally, the first book in a series throws the crime solver into the mix because something happens to her (or him). In some series she discovers a body and is blamed for the murder. Other times it's someone close to the sleuth and she doesn't want to see them convicted of a crime she is certain they didn't commit.

After the first book, the protagonist needs reasons to get involved in (usually) murders that may not directly pertain to her. I like to pepper the two first-person series with townspeople who can come to the forefront in future novels. Jolie knows them, so at some level she cares what happens to them -- or to the person who is accused of the crime. I also have her as a real estate appraiser, which puts her into contact with lots of people and businesses.

In first-person mysteries, the crime solver does a lot of internal musing. They can in third-person books, too, but since information can be revealed in more ways, the sleuth's thought process doesn't have to be as detailed.

I don't use a narrator in the two third-person series, so there is no lecturer to describe the scenery, history, or what characters wear as they enter a scene. I may have the sleuth spend time observing a setting, but even in third person, if a room is to be described there has to be a reason beyond the character walking into it.

What I like best about third-person books is that there can be multiple points of view. In the Family History Mysteries, I used Digger's POV only in the first book, and expanded to add Marty's (a reporter friend) in books three and four. 

There's also the most popular character -- Digger's Uncle Benjamin, a companionable (if sometimes annoying) ghost. He a good example of a device that can become part of the drama. There's no way Digger can know all local history, or who did what to whom over the last seven or eight decades. (She's in her late twenties.) Uncle Benjamin can provide background and point her in varied directions.

Some of my earliest writing (which will never see the light of day) had multiple points of view, sometimes in the same chapter. I didn't switch heads within a scene -- or I don't recall doing that. It's painful to reread the stuff. Over time, I learned that I used several points of view because it was easier for me than to figure out how to discover information when only one or two people did the thinking. 

Note I said for me. Lots of books have multiple POVs. I'm not about to say five or ten is too many if it suits an author's purpose.

Every time I read, I learn what an author does well. Occasionally I spot something that seems awkward, but that can be interesting, too. Bottom line, point of view decisions are complex ones. I enjoy the challenges.

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.