Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Very little fiction goes from your mind to the computer screen without some real thought and perhaps some research. I like to read about America of the past -- the present is fine, but I like to think about how we got to be who we are. So, when I start a new book I think about what I want to learn. With "Rekindling Motives," I picked the Prohibition era and created an old-time mystery with a current twist. When I started I didn't know the difference between a bootlegger and a rum runner. After reading a number of articles and a couple books, I knew enough to merge history with the mystery. I'm not too interested in clothes, so I would not set a story in New York's garment industry. The point is, unless your story takes place inside one character's head, you'll need to create an environment and set of circumstances that can interest a reader. Make sure you want to spend time with the topic.  (First published today on Squiddo.)

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bringing World War II Letters to Life

I am still building ideas for the fourth book in the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series.  In  the meantime, I decided to work on a book that will contain my father's poetry and some of the letters he wrote during World War II.  I don't know that the book will go beyond family and friends -- one of the many advantages of on-demand publishing.

While I had seen some of the letters he wrote my mom, whom he met when home on leave near the end of the war, these are some he wrote to my aunt and her family from 1943 to 1945. These just came to us from a cousin, after my aunt died.  A true gift.

Miles Orr was in the Army Air Corps in Africa and Italy. The letters, of course, cannot talk about what his bomb squad did or where they were. Unlike today's military, who have media "embedded" with them, in World War II everyone knew the phrase "loose lips sink ships."

It's interesting to read about the welder rigging a machine to make ice cream, or that he liked a book my aunt sent him. He could have written either of those things after a difficult battle or a near miss in the sky. To those at home, it sounds as if his biggest concern was the shower they rigged up that day.  (He characterized the single shower as a welcome change from bathing hit or miss, mostly miss.) The photo shows him in front of his pup tent in North Africa.  Pretty basic "quarters," aren't they?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Post on Keeping a Series Alive and Lively

This post originally appeared on the blog of Chris Redding, another mystery writer.  The topis is "Keeping a Series Alive and Lively." You can read the article here, and you can click on the link to Chris Redding's blogs to see other interesting articles.

Keeping a Series Alive and Lively
Elaine L. Orr

When we think of popular fiction mystery series today names such as P.D. James, Sue Grafton, Robert Parker, Janet Evanovich, and Margaret Maron come to mind.  I consider Adam Dalgliesh, Kinsey Milhone, Spenser, Stephanie Plum and Deborah Knott to be close literary friends. 

I have read mystery series since the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew (yes, both) and then Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.  I can't cite Sherlock Holmes as a favorite; there wasn't enough opportunity to solve the murder along with the sleuth.  After absorbing these and many other mystery series, I began formulating my own series in the mid-2000s.  Though I learned from many authors, I learned the most from J.K. Rowling, though most would not put her in the mystery genre.  The clues and foreshadowing she planted in The Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets show how clearly (and early) she thought out the evolving mystery of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort.

It is daunting to create characters you will work with (if you are lucky) for a decade or more.  As I developed the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series, I spent a lot of time considering what would be consistent in each book and what would change.  Consider these points as food for thought.

  1. Readers need to care about the characters as much as the mystery they solve.  Sure, that's Writing 101, but it takes a lot of thought.  Will your characters maintain the same characteristics and perspectives throughout, or will they evolve?  You're going to work with them a long time, so consider if you want to spend time a lot of time with a hot head or practical joker.  On the other hand, Stephanie Plum's  Ranger is hot -- it would be a shame to have him change too much.
  2. Will your characters move around the county or globe or stay firmly rooted in their home town?  You explore Boston with Spenser and Hawk, and after you read a couple of Margaret Maron's Judge Knott novels you can smell North Carolina tobacco.  The Murder She Wrote mysteries offer a mix of Cabot Cove comfort and global tour opportunities. `
  3. If there is something to learn in each book it can pique your own as well as reader interest.  Since a series' lead characters are the same, new settings or information can help keep them fresh.  Sand Sharks gives Deborah Knott fans a chance to learn about the culture of the North Carolina shore rather than the fields of Colleton County.  On the other hand, in Killer Market the level of detail on the furniture industry in North Carolina seemed as much like a data dump as part of the story.  
  4. Is there a love interest?  It's almost everywhere these days.  Sue Grafton does a great job of interjecting Kinsey's love life in some books but not others.  As with television shows, if your hero or heroine enters a committed relationship or marries it changes more than how they interact with people other than their partner.  There is no longer "relationship tension," plus they have to keep someone apprised of their whereabouts.  
  5. 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.  On the other hand, a book can contain a well crafted message.  Children of Men is different than most P.D. James' novels, and the broad message (to me) was that we humans are fallible and can be pretty intolerant of each other, and we better change.  P.D. James never "tells" this, she "shows" it through the story.
  6. Will your characters age?  Early into the series, Sue Grafton decided that Kinsey Milhone would stay in her mid-thirties.  This has served Kinsey well.  For one thing, if Kinsey got older her good friend and landlord Henry (and others) would soon be out of the picture.  Henry has survived well into his nineties, but it would be pushing belief to have him baking his breads at 105, and his loss would be a big one for the series.  Nancy Drew stayed the same age for decades, but she did eventually evolve.  Though she did not initially age, the original books were revised in the late 1950s and early 1960s to eliminate racial stereotypes and other outdated views.  The Nancy Drew Files presented her as an older sleuth, starting in the 1980s. 
After considering such alternatives I created a beach town for Jolie Gentil and populated it with diverse residents and a strong dose of humor.  After you think about these points for awhile, it just might make developing a plot seem like a walk on the beach, or haunted house, or dark and stormy night…

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Resource note:  If you think you've missed a book in a series or want to see what authors write in your favorite genre, the Kent, Michigan library has done you a great favor.  To search by series name or Author (by genre) go to  If there is a better resource I have not found it.  You'll need to go elsewhere to easily read book synopses.

Copyright 2012 by Elaine L. Orr

Thursday, February 23, 2012

February Doings

Each month I send a group of friends and colleagues an update.  My promise was to do it once per month and let people know they can opt out without hurting my feelings. It makes sense to post these on my blog each month.  Perhaps I'll make new friends.

The last couple months have been busy.  I just published When the Carny Comes to Town, which is the third book in the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series.  It's hard for me to promote what I write, but I am trying to get better at it.  It looks as if February will be the first month in which I sell more than 400 books on Amazon -- plus others on Barnes and Noble and other sites as well.  That's not a lot compared to well known writers, but I am building each month. 

Some good reviews have helped.  The review of Appraisal for Murder at LL Book Reviews provided a good boost. I really appreciate the friends who have taken the time to post reviews at Amazon and other sites.  It takes time to do this, and it means a lot.

I've been fortunate that a couple "real" stores sell my books, and I'm about to launch a campaign to put the books in more stores.  O'Town Books in Ottumwa and Minnetrista Cultural Center in Muncie have been very good to me.  I did not initially plan to do the paperbacks, but one of my husband's aunts said she just didn't read e-books.  So, I spent the time to work with Create Space to do the paperbacks.  And she now has a Kindle!  I'm glad she has the Kindle, but grateful she didn't have one last fall. I still visit the library almost every week -- there's nothing like holding a book.  

I have started to use my blog more.  Since the most visible blogs are those that have a teaching or information sharing element, I'm working on that.  If you are interested, it's  I wish there were classes on the ins and outs of blogging.  I've looked at on-line tutorials.  Finally some kind person took pity on me and went to my blog to tell me what my "RSS feed" is (  I still don't know what an RSS feed is or why it's important, but I have one.  

You can find my books on all e-book sites.  Remember, you don't need an e-reader, you can download books as a PDF file.  If you don't live in Ottumwa or Muncie, paperbacks are at Amazon or  A link to all books is at:   Let me know how you like my snow white hair.

Thanks for your interest and support!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Giving the Amateur Sleuth a Believable Toolkit

In writing promotional material for When the Carny Comes to Town, I looked ahead to whatever the fourth book in the Jolie Gentil mystery series will be.  It's relatively easy to think of ways to get my real estate appraiser and her friends into trouble.  She lives in a beach town in Jersey, for heaven's sakes.  You can live there all your life without getting into or causing trouble. But if you are looking for any, it might be easier to find than in a town of 500 in Iowa.  (Probably)

The challenge is coming up with ways to get an amateur sleuth out of trouble that don't include the kinds of tools that law enforcement, private detectives, or bad guys use.  (Guy being a gender-neutral term, of course.)  Jolie does not have the boxing skills of PI Spenser in Boston or the access to information in government databases that Jessica Fletcher can sometimes wheedle out of the sheriff in Cabot Cove.  She's far from wealthy, so she can't hire someone who has the skills or access she sometimes wants.

What to do? 

1)  Give your amateur sleuth not just a reason to be curious about the wrong-doing of the moment but some general skills that help her ferret out information.  Jolie used to be a real estate agent always on the lookout for deals.  She was good at math in high school (or better than some of her friends, anyway) so there is a sense that she knows how to solve at least theoretical problems.

2) Create an environment in which your sleuth has resources.  Jolie is not MacGyver, she does not know how to rig explosives from matchsticks.  She does have a lot of friends, access to the Internet, and a fairly small town in which to operate.  That works for her.  If she were in Washington, DC, the traffic alone would mean it would take ridiculously long to follow up a hunch -- at least one that entails driving a car.  

3) Watch out for time-worn tools.  Coincidence cannot be a regular item in the amateur sleuth's kit.  If you have your sleuth run into the town gossip every time she needs information, that wears thin pretty fast. Jolie's friend Ramona works in the office supply store and talks to a lot of people.  I figure that might be good for one newsy tidbit per book (maybe), but more would be a stretch.

4) Maintain enough characters that there are regular sources of information or access to skills the sleuth does not have.  Having a chemist move in next door just for the book in which the sleuth needs to know more about poisons is too big a coincidence.  Being friendly with the local pharmacist (even getting prescriptions filled) in a couple books means that (in a future book) the amateur detective can have access to someone who might be able to answer a question about a drug or poison's properties.

5)  Watch out for the "sleuth as pest to the police" routine.  I do a bit of that myself, and am looking for ways to move away from it.  There generally has to be interaction with local police -- if there was no crime what's a sleuth to do?  Unless it's inherent to the plot, take care that the local gens d'armes don't become almost another bad guy.

Those are a few of my thoughts.  I would love to hear some of yours.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Finding a Message in "In the Garden of Beasts"

I write a monthly blog for my long-time professional association, the American Society for Public Administration.  The theme is communication and civility in government.  This month I happened to read In the Garden of Beasts, set in Berlin just after Hitler assumed power.  I would not have expected to find a a topic for the blog in the book, but there it was.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Putting Nonfiction Tools into Fiction Practice

When the Carny Comes to Town, the third book in the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series, will be out at the end of February as an e-book and paperback.  As I revised (and revised) it struck me that I was using the techniques discussed in my book Words to Write By: Getting Your Thoughts on Paper.  

I started with an idea for the opening scene and a sense of where I wanted to go and then made lists.  Lists of characters, places, good guys, bad guys, and whatever else I could think of.  As I developed the plot I would return to those lists and think about how the characters would handle the various situations.  A lot of things on the lists were crossed off, others were added.

Words to Write By is geared to nonfiction, but a reviewer noted it could apply to stories, and added, "The [writer's] words come out in a jumble, ideas are repeated or lost... you just can't seem to figure out how to even organize what you want to say. The author breaks down the writing process into simple steps, from gathering ideas and information to giving your writing its final polish on the way out to the Real World."

I always appreciate a positive review, but they're even more fun to read when you think the reviewer "gets" what you wanted to say.  When you put your ideas on paper, you start to see common themes.  Those themes can coalesce into a story, fiction or nonfiction.

As I put the finishing touches on When the Carny Comes to Town those lists are still at the top of my folder, and those techniques for writing nonfiction continue to be useful tools.