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.  

Friday, August 26, 2022

Remember When People Thought 50 Was Old?

My friends and siblings and I have discussed that we feel (and sometimes look) younger than our parents did at similar ages. Some of it's the increased emphasis on diet and exercise; add to that modern medicine and we can age more gracefully. 

If you're close to my age (which is 71), then your parents may have lived through the Great Depression and sorrows of World War II. Communal stress ages everyone.

We also define 'retirement' differently. Travel, new hobbies, maybe even a second (or third) career. When I swim at the Y, there are hordes of 'older' people exercising. At least a dozen white-headed people walking through my neighborhood daily -- usually more. If you're over a certain age, do you remember your parents exercising? 

And that, like most things, brings me to writing. There are plenty of young writers. However, there are also lots of people who write books after retiring.  As someone who produced a lot of stories on a typewriter, I firmly believe that the ease of production is at least partially responsible for the swelling ranks of published authors.

I started writing seriously in the mid-1980s -- first with plays and screenplays, later novels. I had a really busy first career and knew I'd have to stick with that for a good while. Sometimes when I was taking courses in fiction writing or working late to write a few more pages, I'd think of other things I could be doing. Like sleeping.

Other times, I'd be in an art museum and think of all the great talents in the world and wonder why I thought I could ever sell what I wrote. I don't know why art museums conjured that feeling more than libraries or bookstores.

The other side of that view was hockey player Wayne Gretsky's quote, which I placed near my home computer: "You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take."

I'm still aiming the puck toward the net.

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

My Family's History Contributes to Mysteries

 Each summer for twenty-seven years, I've headed to Southwest Missouri for the reunion of Orr and related families. I should say twenty-five years, because we did 2020 and 2021 on Zoom. Still fun and lots of shared stories.

The reunion began in 1937, which marked the 100th year that the first Orr family (that of my GGG Grandparents William Orr and Jennie Adams) came to Lawrence County, Missouri. They were joined by other relatives beginning in the 1860s, and there were eventually Orr, Knox, and Campbell families, as well as Shirley families in the east and the James Orr family in Indiana. And then they spread to 49 of the 50 states. Vermont must have been too cold.

For the first seventy-plus years, massive amounts of food were piled onto wagon serving tables and the signature lemonade came from hand-squeezed lemons.

Some lemons still get the benefit of upper body strength, while others provide their juice through an electric squeezer. The same bucket is employed today as in 1937, though supervision in 2022 passed from Bobby and Margaret Samuels to a community effort.

More fun than squeezing lemons indoors was Bobby and Margaret's lemonade making on the back of his pick-up truck. He had help from every child who attended.

Those of us who have become used to cool indoor homes rejoiced when the Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church (founded by Orrs among others in 1854) added an air-conditioned community room.

The food is just as good, but attendees don't wilt in the prairie heat. We're smaller than the initial years, when more than 100 people came from many parts of the U.S. This year we had only several midwestern states, but I expect that as COVID continues to wane the numbers and home states will rise again.

While this annual reunion may not seem to have a lot to do with writing fiction, the stories and time spent with relatives have a lot to do with my Family History Mystery Series. Not that I use direct experiences in the books. I wouldn't be able to return.

What I've learned is that large families and those they marry into have hundreds of tales. For example, when crops failed due to drought in Kansas, one gutsy widow brought a wagon to Mount Vernon and relatives filled it with corn. During the Civil War, large families in border states had sympathizers on both sides.

Because I post family trees on Ancestry.com, I had a call from an adoptee who learned a recently deceased man was her birth father and wanted a photo. (I obliged.) Another caller thought he looked exactly like a member of our clan and wanted contact information for potential half-siblings. (I didn't oblige, but they later figured it out on their own.)

Do either of these scenarios sound like fodder for a book? Maybe. More to the point, I've learned that there is no such thing as an unrealistic plot line when it comes to writing mysteries about extended families. If you can imagine it, it can happen -- and probably has.

My Family History Mysteries take place in Western Maryland, about 100 miles from where I grew up. But the trouble the characters get into could happen anywhere, in any family. Trust me, I've heard it all.
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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.  

Sunday, July 31, 2022

It's Fun to See Who Buys Your Books

 I often tout the benefits of selling my books at all online retailers (termed "going wide" by some). I sell books directly through Google and a few through Kobo or BN. But for the most parts, I sell non-Amazon books through Smashwords, an aggregator who puts my books on many sites. For this, they take a small percentage of a sale.

Smashwords also sells books directly through its own store. This gives me great joy. Every week when I look at books sold directly by them, I see the buyers' countries. Look at today, for example.

Other sites show me regions of the world and perhaps individual countries. However, I have to hunt a bit more for the information.

I believe this is my first sale in Antartica (The Art of Deliberate Distraction). In the past month, Smashwords sales have been for the countries shown, plus Nigeria, Canada, Mexico, Ethiopa, the UK, Philippines, and Portugal.

The site does show where books are sold on Apple, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble. However, these tend to be more my main four sales countries, U.S., Canada, UK, and Australia.

Smashwords recently merged with Draft2Digital, and one of the reasons D2D was interested in the site was the Smashwords Store. As you can imagine, I was happy to hear that.

I would be remiss if I didn't tell you how to find my Smashwords Profile and list of books.

Happy reading!

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

Saturday, July 16, 2022

The Frantic Finale -- Finishing a Book

I am a very methodical writer in the sense that it's my job and I keep at it. I like tying the book strings together to create a final package. I can handle glitches because I (usually) allow enough time for a project.

Not with Gilded Path to Nowhere, the fourth book in the Family History Mystery Series. With just a couple months before final publication, a few vertebrae in my cervical spine decided to sit on top of one another. With six weeks to go, I did a compression fracture of a thoracic vertebra -- the 12th, if you're keeping score. How? I sneezed.

To top it off, Blue Cross had a watering contest with one of the major clinics in Springfield, IL, and I couldn't go to my regular back doctor! My always helpful primary care doctor found another clinic, and when I realized how bad the cervical problem was, I found another specialist in St. Louis. It's only 100 miles away.

I finally ended up in the ER for the compression fracture, but I did get some nice drugs. Do you know how hard it is to concentrate when taking opioids? Or muscle relaxers? But this was not a "tough it out" situation.

It also was not a "delay the book" situation, since I had a few hundred preorders. But I could barely sit in a chair for three weeks and could do little writing or polishing.

This is when you know who your best friends are.

My husband is a trooper, my neighbors and Maryland family were very supportive. But my sister, critique group, and a few other writing friends made time for chapter reviews and more on short notice, with quick turnarounds. I'll never be able to repay them. The book will publish on time on July 29th.

I have learned something important. I always have a better-than-general idea where a book is going, especially in terms of character growth. But because decades of crafting nonfiction made me an efficient writer, I don't do a full outline. 

I work from notes and do brief chapter summaries as I go. From now on, I'm going to write the ending after I finish the first twenty percent of the book. Because you can't think straight when your brain is mush, and who knows when it will turn to mush again? 

The other option would be not to announce a publication date until the book is finished. However, I set it almost 90 days in advance when the book was more than half done. I use deadlines to ensure I do three books a year. Otherwise, it's easy to sit around and read books. 

So, that's my Summer of Frustration story. It will be more fun to describe when it's in the rearview mirror.

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