Saturday, December 27, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer has been asked how they develop book ideas. Some can discuss a detailed research process and methodical search for the precise subject for a new book. Me? Not so much.

I have gotten some from newspaper clippings, others seem to have just popped into my head. These had to be rooted somewhere. Whatever the source, I have to push to move a passing idea to the reality of a book.

For example, in Ground to a Halt, I wanted 'something bad' to happen to the owner of the coffee shop (Joe) where Jolie and friends hang out – Java Jolt. I wrote two beginnings to the book. One had Jolie and friends sitting in the coffee shop trying to figure out who had harmed him, the other had Jolie seeing Joe soon after he was shot. The second idea won.
However, an idea from the losing option became an important part of the book.

The beginning and end of the mystery tend to flow freely. What I think of as the muddled middle is harder. With the first few books I wrote (not part of the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series) I tended to leave the characters in transit (literally) and then got back to them later. Once they were left on a subway car, another time on a bus. It took awhile to see the pattern.

When I'm stalled, my technique is to write something I think is exciting or mysterious, and then figure the answer. I can do this with the series because the characters have histories. I can anticipate how they will act. Thus, the idea can germinate for a couple of days within the context of characters I know well.

In Ground to a Halt, I wanted the Java Jolt owner to be concerned about someone, but he couldn't make it too easy for Jolie to figure out who was in danger. Thus, when Joe is first injured, he tells Jolie "not to let them hurt him." Then he passes out, and he can't be reached at the hospital immediately. (There, you know he isn't killed early. Or is Joe killed at all?)

The initial phrase was "don't let them hurt her." After a day, the perfect 'him' came to me, complete with the circumstances of the danger. I don't advocate this method of advancing a plot when you're stuck, but it can work.
Rekindling Motives (second in the Jolie Gentil series) proceeded very differently. I find Prohibition fascinating, and wanted to feature it in a book. I read a lot about Prohibition in New Jersey, and then was able to work it into a long-ago murder and one in current time. This probably would not have worked as the first book in the series, as I didn't know the characters as well.

At the moment, I'm developing alternate ideas for a new series. A mid-Atlantic beach was the setting for the Jolie series because I like to be near the ocean. I also like to garden, paint walls, and travel. If I'm going to work with characters for a long time, they have to live in a place I like or do something I want to know more about. It should be an interesting selection process.
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Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Making of a Mystery Writer

P.D. James once told the Paris Review, "I had an interest in death from an early age. It fascinated me. When I heard, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, I thought, "Did he fall, or was he pushed?"

The death of this superb British crime writer (on November 27, 2014) can't be called a shock--she was ninety four.  It can be termed a loss for anyone who wonders not just who killed a character, but why.  Her Adam Dalgliesh was possibly the most cerebral of all investigators.  It would take time to learn the who in one of her books, but when you finished reading there was no doubt as to the why.

Children of Men, not a detective story, was my favorite book. The human race is about to end because no children have been born for decades. A reader might see a book blurb about that and expect a medical thriller in which a scientist close to discovering a cure has to dodge the charlatans who sell fertility amulets. What they would get is a thoughtful look at what drives desperate people and how they treat one another in difficult times. And P.D. James' version of a dramatic chase scene at the end. (Don't bother with the movie. I didn't recognize her book in it.)

To P.D. James, cheers for those early macabre thoughts, and thanks for sharing them with us through your books.

To aspiring mystery writers, study those nursery rhymes.
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Friday, November 14, 2014

Sharing is the Best Sales Tool

As the daughter of parents who led Brownie and Boy Scout troops and coached softball teams, I believe in neighbors helping neighbors. The concept carries through to promoting myself and my books.

Rita & Miles Orr with Elaine.
When I finally figured out how to post electronic books on the various platforms (Amazon, Nook, itunes, etc.), it seemed a good idea to share what I'd learned. Not because I was especially well informed, but because after countless hours of learning and butting my head against the desk, it turned out only about three percent of what the style guides presented was essential.

So how does a newbie to self publishing figure out which three percent? From other authors. I developed a one-hour seminar to give, for free, in libraries or service club meetings. I did it to share, but far more has come back to me. I learn through other authors' questions or comments and, lo and behold, I sell some books. Sharing also means talking to people, and writing is a lonely business.

Buoyed by how much fun it was to do the seminars, I began writing blog posts on marketing and publishing as well as the usual musings about books and writing. After a couple of emails from people who had seen a post but couldn't find it (because it was older), I did an index to posts on this blog. And then, gee, why not tweet about some of the articles? Traffic on my blog soared.

Authors assist others without developing seminars.We answer emails from newbies who are not sure where to start, and share marketing ideas with other writers. If you look for opportunities to contribute, you always learn more, too.

A lot of good things happened because my parents taught their kids to share. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Recharging Book Settings

Since I don't live at the Jersey shore, I like to see the ocean from time to time to recharge my mental images. Luckily, I just spent several days near Jacksonville Beach, Florida with longtime friends. True, there are no palm trees or Spanish moss in New Jersey, but the surf and atmosphere are similar. 

The environment in a book is as important as the plot. I create a lot sitting at a table in Starbucks, but the setting is easier to imagine when I've recently seen sand dunes (as in the photo with the sawgrass) and surf. I certainly know what they look like. Maybe it's the smells I miss.

Fresh images can also move an idea forward. There was a building on pilings near the dunes that looked like a great place for a murder -- or at least a mugging. It sat along the walk that led to the beach. The walkway was elevated, as a New Jersey boardwalk would be. 

Then there was the lonely lifeguard chair sitting on a nearly vacant beach. To a  Midwesterner, it was a warm day (in the sixties), and I expected to see people on the beach. My friend reminded me that Floridians consider a temperature in the sixties to be chilly weather that requires a jacket. 
It was good to see an uncrowded beach. I deliberately set most of the Jolie Gentil series in the off-season--spring, fall or winter. It's easier for the characters to have normal lives when there aren't thousands of tourists to trip over. It's also possible for the bad guys to move around more easily. Fewer people to catch them in the act.

So, now I can finish the eighth book in the series with fresh visions of the ocean and a town geared to visitors--just like my Ocean Alley.
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Saturday, October 4, 2014

You Know it Was a Good Book When...

Years later you still envision a setting or scene. There does not have to be an elaborate description, it's more what the author packs into a scene. There can be little action.

In War Day, by Strieber and Kutetka, two writers travel across America several years after a limited nuclear war. Some people think it's a book about the aftermath of war, but I mostly think of it as a book about how people treat one another in difficult times. That said, the scene that I most remember is a flight over a part of Texas that sustained a direct hit.

What remains closest to the impact location is simply black, the result of everything melting. As they (traveling by air, of course) move away, bent metal of skyscrapers appears. It's a long way before you get to the kind of damage you'd see after a World War II bombing. It's just all gone. Juxtaposed with the sterile environment is the character's memory of playing in sprinklers as a child.

Margaret Maron's Deborah Knott books wax descriptive, even more in later books. However, the sparser portrayal of the Knott 'home place' (her father's longtime tobacco farm and ponds, as noted in Bootlegger's Daughter) stick with me even more than longer accounts of the small house Deborah built years later.

Of course, Boo Radley's front porch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is indelibly inscribed in brain. Maybe it's because the kids were so afraid of it that their fear stays with me as Jeb creeps up to it

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows paints vivid pictures of the Isle of Guernsey during World War II. It's British territory, but so far from England that it can't be protected. Occupying Germans take much of the food stores, and of course there's no petrol to speak of long before the end of the war. Perhaps it's because everyone walked everywhere near the end that I see gardens and dirt roads so clearly. It's the overall struggles, even sending the children away, that probably make this book so memorable. I just reread it.

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet brings World War II Seattle to life as Jamie Ford portrays two friends, a Japanese girl and Chinese boy, struggling with family relationships and the bigotry of the era. I can still see Seattle's Chinatown and the inside of young Henry Lee's family's apartment, as well as his friend Keiko's precise actions and artwork. And the contents of the Panama Hotel's basement in 1986, when the stored belongings of Japanese families are revealed so many decades later.

I decided to write this without developing a list of books or even studying my bookshelves. If the scenes come to mind so clearly, these really are the books I most remember.
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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Using Book Themes for Publicity

In the Jole Gentil cozy mystery series, most of the books include a fundraiser for the Harvest for All Food Pantry, which Jolie volunteers with. These events are essentially an opportunity for some comedic moments--with a bit of awareness of the needs of hungry people thrown in. Not too much of the latter, since people read fiction for fun.

Any Port in a Storm has Jolie, Scoobie, and friends preparing for a fundraiser based on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which is September 19th every year.

Say what? Yes, there is such a day, and 2014 marks its eleventh anniversary. Do an online search and you'll see there are events around the U.S. and a few elsewhere.  I stumbled on it a few years ago when I did a search for "silly ideas for a fundraiser."

In Jolie's world, a storm is brewing off the New Jersey coast, a not-uncommon occurrence from late August through October. Finding a body under the pirate ship was not part of the plan.

In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, Any Port in a Storm will be free from September 18-20th this year. Don't believe me? Well, shiver me timbers. Grab your sword and pirate hat and dive into the book.
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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Reflecting After Fifteen Years

Originally written in 2014, updated in 2016.

Fifteen years ago, I was working in a cubby-hole office at a DC firm when a colleague came in and said, "Something's happened in New York."

We could look out one window and see smoke from the Pentagon crash site, though that lasted relatively briefly. Since we were about four blocks from the White House, many of us wondered if more planes were coming and whether they would strike near us. That fear was allayed relatively soon, as all flights were required to land at their nearest airport.

Was it safer to stay at work or leave? My sister insisted I not take the Metro, so my choice was made for the time being.  My car was about eight miles away in a suburban Metro parking lot. A car would have been useless for the first couple of hours, as streets visible from our eighth-floor office window were their own parking lots.

About fifteen of us watched the office television. I was the only one who cried as the towers came down. I never understood that.

It was impossible to get on the Internet, so there was no way to view news there and we could not send or receive emails from family. I volunteered to staff the phones so the support staff could leave, but I didn't know how to transfer calls. When a call came in for someone still in the suite, I used the PA to tell them. That was eerie. The grandmother of one staffer kept calling, and I kept repeating that her granddaughter left safely ages ago.

The rumors stick with me. There was a bomb in a car on Capitol Hill and another at the State Department. The latter was 'verified' information. When I looked in the paper the next day, there was a one-sentence reference to the State Department one having been untrue. No others were mentioned specifically. I suppose that was the one most-often stated as true.

The mental picture I retain most vividly is that of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld helping carry wounded at the Pentagon. Perhaps it's because I was close, perhaps because he will (hopefully) be the only Defense Department secretary to have to do that. I see the expression on his face as clearly as if he were standing in front of me.

I did eventually get to my sister's house in Kensington. A colleague who lived a few miles from her took me there. My sister had earlier rushed to her daughter's middle school. It was a short distance from the Navy Medical Center, a tall building amid short ones that she thought could be an easy target for another plane.

My sister drove me to my car, and I went to visit my two brothers and their families that evening. Our third brother was in New Jersey. He was stuck in traffic on a parkway not far from the Twin Towers, and saw the smoke for much of the day.

On September twelfth I went to the scheduled meeting of a Social Equity Panel. We briefly discussed canceling it, but decided it would be letting the terrorists win, somehow.

It was Saturday before I drove to an area near the Pentagon. I took a single carnation and drove along the perimeter at the back of of Arlington National Cemetery. Eventually I reached a patch of lawn where people had left flowers and other items.

The photo is of a sign on the cemetery fence. It reads, "Dear, Police, Firefighters, and the Red Cross. Thank you for helping the people at the Pentagon. You are great people for saving others. We know that your job is hard and dangerous. Thank you for protecting us." The poster is signed by 2nd graders at Drew Model School in Arlington.

I left my carnation beneath it. 
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Monday, September 1, 2014

The Simon Brothers Baseball Team

With baseball in the air in the U.S., it's time to remember the most unique team  in history -- the Simon Brothers Baseball Team.

Simon Brothers with uniforms donated by Senator Capper.
When John M. Simon and his wife Minnie (Hagerty) Simon had their first son in 1893, they had no idea that their farm in Olsburg, Kansas would one day host a baseball diamond or that the team that played there would be comprised of their ten sons. Oldest son John A. Simon (born in 1893) had clear memories of his father's dream and how the older boys would work with the younger ones to teach them how to play the game.

In the 1920s, baseball became synonymous with Babe Ruth and towns throughout the country formed teams that played teams from neighboring towns.  Though many took the sport seriously, these were largely groups of amateurs who played on weekends and the games were a town event. Cars were still a luxury for most families, so local teams rarely traveled far.
By the mid-1920s, the Simon Brothers Baseball Team played in several towns in Pottawatomie County in Northeast Kansas. The teams they played would often be from Manhattan or Westmoreland, the county seat. Though the brothers enjoyed playing, it was hard work.  The older ones farmed or had other jobs, and practice was in the evenings with most games on Sundays.

In the late 1920s, the family team was "discovered" by Kansas Senator Arthur Capper, who was well known as the founder of Capper's Weekly, a popular weekly tabloid that published from 1913-86.  He bought the brothers their first set of professional uniforms and paved the way for the team to play an exhibition game at the 1930 World's Fair in New York. Twenty years later John (Jack) Simon was still describing the awe the brothers felt after traveling from the Kansas prairie to the big city.

The brothers were:
John Alma (Jack) Simon (1893-1954)
Jacob (Jake) William Simon (1895-1964)
Floyd Walter Simon (1898-1982)
Glenn E. Simon (1901-1974)
Roy Raymond Simon (1903-1983)
Clyde E. Simon (1906-1978)
Bert Simon (1907-1993)
Nile (Cricket) Simon (1909-1982)
Herman (Ted) Simon (1909-1987)
Ernest Edward (Ed) Simon (1913-2010)

Jack Simon is on L. Order of others unknown.
While some brothers left the state for military service, they generally stayed in Kansas.  Only Floyd died outside the state, in California.  John (Jack) and Jake were barbers. Floyd and Glenn farmed in Pottawatomie County in 1930.  Ed was living on the family's farm when he became the last surviving brother, in 1993.  He lived to be 97. 
Rosa McBride Simon & husband Jack Simon
Jack Simon and prized dogs
Oldest brother Jack Simon married Rosa McBride of Seneca and Topeka, Kansas. They lived in Topeka, where she had her beauty salon and he worked as a barber. Jack had prize hunting dogs. They were a handsome couple.
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Article by Elaine L. Orr.  Rosa McBride was first cousin to my mother, H. Rita Rooney. Their moms were, respectively, Annie and Nellie Teehan of Lillis, Kansas. Rosa's husband, Jack Simon, died when I was three, but the stories about him did not. A version of this article (for which I maintained ownership) was on Yahoo Voices for a time.
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Friday, August 8, 2014

My Family's History Across North America

As historian of the Orr Reunion Association of Mount Vernon, Missouri, each year I do a short talk on some aspect of our family's 180-year history on this continent. There is a lot of grist for the mill, so to speak, and last year I talked about the many families that had operated grain mills.

This year I looked at our immigration patterns, which were quite varied. The first two families came from Aghadowey Parish in Londonderry (in Northern Ireland, or Ulster if you live there) in the very early 1830s, and came as complete family groups. These were the two oldest sons, and they had enough money to pay for their passage, though not much when they arrived. However, relatively inexpensive land was being offered for sale in several new states, and hard work let them save money for farms (William and Jenny Orr in Missouri and James and Jane Orr in Indiana).

Both of these families landed "at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River," so their first, brief, taste of North America was in Canada. People often ask me if they came through Ellis Island, but it wasn't established until 1892 and America didn't limit immigration when most of our families came. As far as I know, the only records of our ancestors’ arrivals are ship passenger lists. I have not found all of them.

Other families came decades later – from the 1860s to the early 1890s. Without exception, they went where earlier families had settled. The third family (George and Elizabeth Orr) came in 1860, just six months before the Civil War started. They were said to have arrived at the Port of New Orleans and traveled to Missouri. They arrived in Mount Vernon with modest personal wealth and quickly bought land. George had taught school for 30 years, and had tired of working in Ireland's schools. To be fair to the school system there, he was considered very hard to get along with. In any event, his family quickly scattered, with three adult sons going to Colorado. Only two daughters, who married into Mount Vernon families, stayed near the other Orr families.

These first three families came for opportunity and religious freedom. Presbyterians in Northern Ireland were sometimes locked out of their churches for years and forced to worship in the Church of Ireland (Anglican).  

Campbell Blacksmith Shop, Ballylaggan
The fourth family (Isabella Orr Campbell and husband Ephraim) likely came for opportunity and religious freedom as well. Ephraim, who died en route and was buried at sea, was a blacksmith. The Campbells brought a bag of money with them, but it was apparently stolen when they were on the ship.

Mother and children were impoverished on arrival at Castle Gardens in New York City in 1863, and went to the home of her brother George in Mount Vernon. Isabelle died within weeks. This group of six immigrant children were lucky to have made it to an area with relatives before they were orphaned. They took good care of each other, and 1870 Census data showed two sons were blacksmiths in Mount Vernon.

The next two families came in very small groups, and they sent teenage children before the parents came. Immigration was an economic necessity for them.

The family of Ann Orr Shirley and husband Valentine Shirley arrived over a thirty-five year period.  They had worked in the linen industry, and steam-powered looms made home looms obsolete. For a time Ann and her daughters supported the family with needlework, but Valentine and his sons needed other jobs, and rural Ireland had few.

Daughter Isabella Shirley must have been a very brave woman, for in 1857 (at age 17) she became the first of the Shirley family to sail to the U.S. She went to the Philadelphia area, where she had Shirley cousins, and worked as a servant. Her sister Jane came in 1859 at age twenty-eight. Valentine and Ann did not come until 1870, and their daughter Sarah Shirley Forsythe and husband John did not come until 1895. While the children of Sarah’s siblings were all born in the U.S., all of Sarah’s were born in Ireland, and several of them came before their parents. The Shirley family stayed on the east coast, largely in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Early on, many men worked in coal mines and steel mills.
Lizzie Knox in America

Martha was a sister of William, James, George, Ann, and Isabelle, but she never came. Instead, two of her grandchildren (Sam and Lizzie Knox) wrote to Uncle George to ask for financial assistance to come. Sam and Lizzie were born long after William and James left Ireland (in fact, soon after George and family left), and the Knox family had fallen on very hard times. The Knox siblings came in 1883 and worked hard, Sam in the fields and at the Adams Mill in Jasper County, which was owned by Campbell descendants. Lizzie worked as a servant for a farm family in Lawrence County. Eventually they were able to pay back great Uncle George and send for siblings and their widowed mother, who came in 1887. This is especially impressive when you think that that Sam and Lizzie left Ireland at about age seventeen.

It is interesting that George had a reputation for being ill-tempered, yet he lent money to a number of the Knox children and sent money monthly to a cousin in Aghadowey. That’s where Sam and Lizzie got his address.

Education levels varied widely among the Orr families. The two brothers who came in the 1830s raised their children in a newly settled Indiana or Missouri, and there were not well developed schools. Much is made of the fact that William sent one son for higher education—and only one. George taught school, so his children were schooled in Ireland.

The Campbell family came when most of their children were young, but by that time there were well established schools in Lawrence and Jasper Counties. Many members of succeeding generations (even women in the 1930s!) went to college. William’s college-educated son (John Adams Orr) was very close to his Campbell cousins.

Did the Orr family work hard when they got to America?  They did.  But they also had some luck. They were able to come without question, and a young country welcomed them. I often wonder what would happen if we tried to come today. The welcome mat would likely be smaller, and even our small numbers of the nineteenth century would far exceed the immigration quotas of the 21st century. Would we try to sneak in, or be content with the lack of jobs in Ireland today?
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To see more about this branch of the Orr family, go to or
You can also visit the Orr Reunion of Mount Vernon Facebook page. Finally we have done and print and electronic books about this large family, and links are on these pages. No one needs to buy information, however. Feel free to contact Elaine at
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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Food in Fiction

As a child, I remember bringing a book home from the library, finding an apple, and sitting sideways in the living room chair to read. When I could get away with it, I had a couple of potato chips. Or cookie dough. Raw cookie dough was a no-no, so I had to sneak it when my mom left the mixing bowl alone for a minute.

As an adult who writes, I think a lot about food in my own books as well as those I read. Sue Grafton has Kinsey Milhone eat hot hard boiled egg sandwiches with mayo.  I thought it was gross until I made one. Mostly, Kinsey eats fast food and the
Sweets at my family reunion. No wonder I like food.
bread her landlord makes, and she eats regularly.  Janet Evanovich has Stephanie Plum stop often for donuts and chicken, the latter at Cluck in a Bucket. We won't talk about what Lula eats.

Lots of cozy mysteries feature food. There is a group of cozy writers who have a blog about food and mysteries -- This isn't a passing thing, July 2014 is their fifth anniversary. Though my protagonist is a lousy cook, Aunt Madge makes muffins in my Jolie Gentil series.

Meals are not regular components of all fiction. You don't see Jason Bourne remembering to grab a sandwich when he stays a step ahead of assassins. For that matter, he doesn't remember who he is, so why remember to eat? Yes, he eats, but it's hardly on a schedule.  Nor would it make sense if he did.

The ones I don't get are the characters who forget to eat. Who does that? I'm listening to 14 by Peter Clines, which is described as an apocalyptic mystery.  (Who knew?) I get that when there is a lot going on food is not first in one's mind. But at the end of a bad day the lead character, Nate, is climbing into bed and remembers he hasn't eaten since breakfast. And he still goes to bed.  I'd be up all night thinking I'm hungry. On the other hand, when the apocalypse is on the doorstep they do inventory their food.

I am not big on description other than venue and weather, and even then I'm sparse. I've finally added food to a list of things to check as I edit a first draft. I seem to remember breakfast and coffee, not so much lunch. However, readers have said my books make them hungry because Jolie and friends are always eating. They seem to have adopted my snacking habit.

Food is fun, when you have enough of it. Since some people don't, Jolie chairs a food pantry committee at a local church. A book can't lecture readers, they put it down. Jolie and friends stage inane fundraisers. Mostly people don't get murdered at them.

As I work on the eighth book in the series, I'm debating whether to kill someone in a coffee shop. Jolie and friends hang out there a lot, so that probably would not be good for business.  I'll have to noodle it.
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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Linda Rae and the Nellie Chronicles

Linda, Fred & Mary Doris
My cousin, Linda Rae Woltkamp, started a book about our grandmother, Nellie. She was always going to find the time to finish it. 

You can see she was a happy baby.  She is laughing in almost every photo, a precursor to her later ability to chat up and charm anyone.  If you walked with her through her family's neighborhood in Topeka it was immediately clear she knew everyone who walked by.

Linda was a cheerleader at Hayden High school and Kansas State.  She used to laugh as she said that her K State cheerleading was the achievement her mom was most proud of.  We acknowledged that it represented a life our mothers, who did most of their growing up during the Depression, could not have dreamed of.  Yes, she earned some of her own spending money and did volunteer work, but she had time to have fun and she had dozens of friends.  Friends she maintained throughout her life.

She was on a teen advisory board at a Topeka department store, something my mother (who sent me to the Wendy Ward School of Charm because I was a cross between a klutz and a tomboy)  noted often. When her family visited mine in  the mid-1960s, I was nervous.  How did an awkward thirteen-year old even stand next to a polished sixteen-year old?  No worries.  Though the many outfits she and her mom had on hangers in the back seat of the car (complete with hats) mystified me, Linda was her same friendly self.  As we walked through my Maryland neighborhood she'd pound on the door of the city bus to wave at the driver, and she was as interested in the White House or the cannons at Gettysburg as my brothers and sister and I.  Or was polite enough to say she was.

Tom, Mary Doris & Linda
Though she had no children, Linda was often with her brother Tom (the orneriest brother on the planet) and his family.   Her two nieces lived near her as adults, so she didn't just "see them," she was involved in their lives.  Okay, maybe she gave Amanda and Melissa too much advice sometimes, but they loved her to pieces, as did her nephew, Tony.

Linda had a busy career as an investment adviser and spent a lot of time visiting Sante Fe to collect Native American pottery, which is displayed throughout her house.  Some of it is on the very knick-knack stand she long ago knocked over in our grandmother's house, breaking everything on it but one item.

In rural New Mexico with Dick and Mary Doris.
The meticulous Linda could also get down and, well, not dirty.  She took many road trips with her mother, Mary Doris, and her husband, Dick.  They included helping build a house (really), visits to pueblos (think more pottery), camping, and taking care of various pets.

We had a memorable trip to Disneyland with her brother and assorted kids, including recording some songs at Universal Studios theme park.  We would likely all pay to have that tape destroyed.

Colon cancer sneaks up on you.  For months Linda thought she had a gall bladder problem and she carried Milk of Magnesia with her.  Her mom, who had Alzheimer's, was dying and Linda traveled between Denver and Lake Havesu City often. I bugged her about it when we were at her mom's funeral.  Yes, she would get it looked at, she had been too busy to have a silly stomach problem checked.  If she had had colonoscopies she would not have had to worry about that seemingly innocuous problem.  When she did get it checked the month after her mom died in 2010, she had stage 4 colon cancer that had metastasized to her liver.  The doctor said she had likely had it for ten years. You can wage a good fight, but you can't beat that kind of cancer.

Kansas friends for life. Linda 2nd from L. July 2011
She did fight.  She had surgeries and chemo, lost forty pounds, and at times spent a lot of hours on the couch with her dog.  Linda was grateful for the care and attention of family and friends. She also kept gardening, read books I (and many others) wrote, spent time with friends, and continued to bug her nieces and brother and his wife as appropriate (or not).  Linda also kept her sense of humor, wondering whether getting a two-year lease on a car her brother insisted she get was perhaps not optimistic. She worked on the Nellie Chronicles.  And then she lost her battle with the cancer she didn't need to die of.
Life is about a lot more than finishing a book.  You know what your passions are -- family, friends, writing, fitness, your church, traveling, a career.  Get on with them.  Before you know it, time's up. Don't let your life end before it should because you didn't have time for a cancer screening.

Do it. Now.
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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reading and Thinking

Everyone observes what's going on around them. Writers are different. We think we should comment on it. In fiction, we do this through our characters. However, if it appears they are simply spouting opinions about the world around them, those observations go largely unread.

I have a few ideas about the next book in the Jolie Gentil series, and have made notes on several other books. Some of the latter have been rattling in my brain for years.

Anytime I start something new I think, "Really? Why would someone want to read this?" In fact, they don't know if they want to. They need to be convinced. You can draw them in with a book description, but in our world of short attention spans, few people get past two or three chapters unless they are immediately drawn to the characters.

As I write opening paragraphs for several books (my way of starting), I veer off course to read. It's not just a diversion.  It's learning. I owe it to my readers.

“Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.”  William Faulkner
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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Getting Another Book Out the Door

After a crazy spring of finalizing a move and finishing a book, I'm happy to say that Vague Images will be available for purchase on June 26th. It is the seventh in the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series, and provides another chance to see Jolie and friends track a murderer in their Jersey shore town.

Here's a brief description of Vague Images:
Bad enough that Jolie ends up in the emergency room because she tried to avoid hitting a deer. Worse to find a dead woman in the hospital restroom after Jolie gets patched up. As the chief budget cutter at the hospital, Tanya Weiss was unpopular, especially in the Radiology Department, where Scoobie works.

In between appraising houses and feeding her pet skunk, Jolie’s on the lookout for a runaway teenager and whoever planted the dead woman in her path. Thanks to Scoobie, she’s also planning another crazy fundraiser for the food pantry—this one a Corn Hole Contest. It’s sort of a bean bag game for grown-ups, and the polite term is Corn Toss Contest. So of course, Scoobie prepares to name winners in the Harvest for All Corn Hole Contest.
Just when Jolie’s ready to leave the murder investigation to the police, she gets a surprise—and it’s not a good one. Will her need to know see her hurt—or worse? 
 It's a challenge to keep a series interesting, but I still love the characters, so there will likely be an eighth book. I already have some ideas...

Vague Images is available from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and all booksellers in the U.S and overseas. See here for all links. 
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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Reaching Readers with Hashtags

I did a couple of blog posts about using Twitter, and had quite a bit of feedback. Since I'm a writer, the result was a new book -- 500+ Hashtags for Writers.

The key for me has always been to use Twitter efficiently--meaning ten minutes a day or less. It took more than ten minutes to write this book but, like the techniques I use, it grew over time. The book (in ebook and paperback) discusses how to use Twitter, but only briefly. It's largely lists of hashtags specifically geared to getting your books to readers.

What's a hashtag? It’s a way to send tweets to people who have similar interests.  For example, you can send to writers or readers by putting the pound sign in front of the terms: #writers  #readers.  A hashtag counts as part of your 140-character limit, but links to websites do not contribute to that limit. 

Kindle Boards link, which has all Amazon sites  
Barnes and Noble
Create Space
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Thursday, May 8, 2014

That Pesky First Paragraph Starts the Trouble

I wrote previously about sitting in a class and hearing an instructor discuss the importance of the opening paragraph, and then rewriting the first paragraph of the first book in my Jolie Gentil series. The new version was much better, and a couple of reviewers commented on it.  One said it really drew them in, another said it was the best part of the book. Ouch.

Here is the first part of the seventh book, Vague Images, which I have been very slow to finish. I'm beyond all reasonable excuses.
  • If it hadn’t been for the deer that ran in front of my car I wouldn’t have hurt my foot jamming on the brakes. If I hadn’t hurt my foot I wouldn’t have gone to Ocean Alley’s hospital. If I hadn’t been in the hospital I wouldn’t have seen him. Not that I could follow him. I was on my butt in the emergency room.
Several thoughts could come to mind when someone reads this. The obvious one is who has Jolie seen and why does she seem to want to follow him? Then there's what happened to the deer? And finally, who is so clumsy they hurt their foot jamming on the brakes?

I do quickly make it clear the deer escaped Jolie's car. Hurting an animal in a book is kind of like a horse getting shot in a western movie. Both are major turn-offs, and the first few paragraphs are meant to entice readers, not make them feel sorry for an animal or be mad at me for hurting one. 

Jolie doesn't immediately find the person she wants to pursue. She does find a body pretty quickly, and the book works on two tracks from there. They converge, but my struggle has been bringing the two plot lines together seamlessly. Several times I've thought I was 'there,' only to find my solution was too clumsy.

A couple of days ago the link became less ungainly, and the final chapter is coming together. It has to, because I've written the opening paragraph for the next book.

No animal was harmed in writing this blog post. And I'm the dork who sprained a foot jamming on the brakes.
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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Moving Forward or Picking a New Path

One of my favorite adages is perfect is the enemy of good. While attributed to Voltaire in modern times, the concept is in the writings of philosophers such as Aristotle and Confucius, and probably in every SAT-prep class high schoolers take. If you hold out for the perfect answer/paragraph/photograph/birthday gift, you will never be satisfied.  Forget satisfied, you may not finish your task.

As I near the end a book (which has taken too long to write!), I've come up with several thoughts about procrastination in book writing. They may ring true to others.

1)  Think of the least favorite job you've had and imagine yourself getting up at five AM to get there on time. Still not writing? Set the alarm clock.
2)  Imagine that the hero of your book is drowning and you aren't able to get to him/her. If you yawn, you may not be working on a book you truly want to finish. Time to think of another plot.
3)  Picture yourself at a book signing surrounded by piles of books. No one is buying. Take this as a sign that the book may not be that good. Move on.
4)  Imagine a rainy day, with your yard full of mud. If you are thinking about going out to garden, consider therapy.
5)  Remember that you've put yourself on a tight budget so you can save for something important--maybe a new car or trip to the Grand Canyon. Your car or trip depends on book income, and you still can't write. You flip paperclips at the wall.

If you can see yourself in one of these scenarios, perhaps you need a dose of self-discipline. Not to keep working on a poorly conceived draft, but to remember that writing a good book has very little to do with the initial idea. It's more about parking yourself in a chair and continuing to work.

You can edit a lousy draft.  Or so I'm told.
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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Books as Friends

After a year of living in two states, my husband and I have finalized our move to Springfield, Illinois. It was a challenge, not so much because we needed to be apart for periods of time, but because we often couldn't find 'stuff.'  We knew which town had which beds, not so for a specific book or spatula. We now have two of a lot of things. If we buy a vacation home in the Hamptons, we're all set.

People who expect me to have the most boxes of books would be surprised to find out is my husband who has fifteen boxes -- to my two. I have always been a big library user, but three years ago I came up with a new criterion for keeping books. I have rather bad osteoporosis, so I now ask, what am I willing to crush a vertebra to carry? The answer: not so much.

I kept some books on the craft of writing. However, only one deals with how to poison people. This can be important to a mystery writer, but three books? Really? Not when I can supplement the book with a trek to the library or an Internet search.

I retained all books by friends--wait, that makes it three boxes. Some of these are in a box under the guest room bed and will appear on shelves when we get a bigger place. My personal library has a few books by favorite authors -- Anne Tyler, M.C. Beaton, Leigh Michaels, J.K. Rowling, Robert Harris, and a couple of others. Had I not given Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses to a niece, I would have kept them.

It was tough to cull other favorite fiction, but if there was no chance I would read a book again it went into the annual book sale for the local American Association of University Women. These books are not lost to me. If the urge to own becomes overwhelming, most would be readily available at future books sales.

Now for the hard part. How do I rein in the urge to buy more books? Mostly, I don't, but now I buy far more electronic copies than paper.  My husband and I also became customers at Springfield's Book Rack, which lets us buy books for a reasonable fee, using credits from books we have donated. We can later donate them back to the store and get more credits.

I'm not going to pretend that the sorting process was easy, but it did clarify who my favorite authors are. As I get settled into a new town, these are the friends who join me.
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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Best Bets for Marketing Books

(Updated in 2022.)
Writing a good book is not easy. The characters have to be interesting, better yet memorable, and the plot has to go somewhere. Somewhere can be as simple as an afternoon at the beach, but it can't be boring. I write cozy mysteries, which are less gory than detective novels or police procedurals. I think of them as murder without maggots, but that's not a good marketing slogan.

Getting a book out the door

I self-publish the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series (and have another series with a publisher), and spent almost five years writing the first two Jolie books. Now that I'm semi-retired, I write three books every year. After all that hard work I have the audacity to want people to buy them, and not just for a sense of self-fulfillment. I want to make some real money.

Electronic book production altered the publishing industry as much as going from typesetting by hand to desktop publishing changed getting a book from author's draft to final copy.

Writers now have many of the capabilities of a New York publisher, and sometimes make more per book than a publisher would pay. It used to be that if you wanted to put out a book yourself you either paid thousands of dollars to what was termed a vanity publisher or you found a printer and had them turn over the fifty boxes of books to you. In either case, you did most of the marketing, which meant going from bookstore to bookstore, with a few stops at libraries. And there was no room for a car in your garage.

There are formatting guides at each site, so I taught myself how to format a book for sites such as Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble. I can load the finished product to those sites, preview the product, and have it for sale in two days. This is two days after the book had been finished, received comments from friends or other writers, revised, edited, and proofed.

Whether you self-publish books or work with a publisher, you will do a great deal of marketing yourself.

Tips to Market a Book Effectively

Okay, you've got a really good book and it is error-free. Now what? Here are things I do to make sure people who buy cozy mysteries can find my books.
  • Don't be shy. Let your friends and colleagues know about a new book. I do a bi-monthly email to many people. These are not names I scooped from a Facebook group or a blog post, these are people who gave me permission to send them monthly newsletters. In the email I mention things such new books, a blog post they might like, and a recent success. Your friends will be your biggest fans, and they'll tell their friends about your books. I used to do this through my own email; I now use Mail Chimp.
  • Seek reviews. Potential buyers look at a book's ratings and reviews. There are many sites that publish these, and you should ask local papers to mention your book, even if they don't do reviews. Ask a few people you know to write reviews of your books when they are first issued. Do NOT go around saying, "I need some five-star reviews. Just read the synopsis and you can say something good." This is unethical. If these are your plans, please stop reading.
  • Start a blog. No, not because the entire world wants to read what you think. You should be so lucky. A blog lets people find you, and it's a place where you can keep a list of all your books or things such as samples of good book reviews. Blogs are free and easy to set up. I use the Google-sponsored Blogspot because I found it easier to set up than a Wordpress blog. Once you have one, post regularly, and don't make every post self-promotion.
  • Create a web page. Use a web page only if you want to spend the time keeping it updated. I have, which I did myself. You can tell that I did, and I may get a professional to start from scratch someday. Right now, it meets my needs. Remember, there are fees to register your domain and often fees to host a site. Blogs are free, and generally easier to update.
  • Tweet. I delayed doing this and wish I had not. You cannot document books sold as a result of your tweets because you use many marketing techniques at once. However,
    Tweet like a birdie.
    I sold no books to overseas markets until I tweeted. You will not have a large Twitter following immediately, so send tweets to people with common interests using hashtags. Some I use are #cozymysteries, #avidreader, #womensleuths, and #mustread. My Twitter address is @elaineorr55. I almost always follow back. There is a post on my blog about tweeting.
  • Use the correct link. If you tweet, or do anything else designed to reach markets in a country other than yours, make sure the book links provided go to sites where, for example, folks from the UK can purchase your books. They cannot buy them on, they have to use If you search for Amazon International Sites, you can get to an Amazon page that has flags for most countries in which they sell. Search for your book on each site and use that link as needed. You can then tweet to #kindleuk, #kindleaustralia, and the like. You can list international links on your blog.
  • Set up a Facebook fan page. If you don't know how, do a Yahoo or Google search about how to do it. My personal page is for friends, family, a few writers I've come to know even if not in person, people from my church... Get it? Personal. My posts are not public. A fan page can be public and deals only with your writing. If you give it a title such as Elaine Orr's Fiction Page, then when people look for things related to fiction, your page comes up. Don't post what you had for dinner. Stick with writing. Do a post if you write a book review, read something that might be helpful (such as this article), or are pleased with the new cover design an artist sent you. 
  • Join a few Facebook groups that deal with your genre. I belong to several that deal with cozy mysteries. You can post buy links from time to time, but do that sparingly. Instead mention books you are reading or other things that could interest people who like the same kinds of books you write.
  • Do not do your own cover unless you are a graphic designer or expert hobbyist. Never. Ever. Do an online search for something like 'bad covers' or 'finding a good book cover artist.' You don't have to pay a lot for a cover. I even used Fivver for a couple of nonfiction books.

    That's a site where you can get anything done for five dollars. Smashwords maintains a list of people who assist writers for a reasonable price. You buy cover artwork in a work-for-hire arrangement, which means it's yours to copyright with your book, and use for marketing.
  • If you enjoy social media, set up a Pinterest account or use sites such as Tumblr. Some authors post videos on sites such as You Tube. If you use the latter, don't do it yourself. You can get recommendations from friends or people on social media.
  • Create an Amazon Author page. I know of no other sales sites that let you do this. (Tell me if you do.) You can modify a book's description, keep your bio updated, and provide your thoughts on each book. Best of all, if you have books produced by a publisher other than you, you can add them to your profile and include more info than is in the book description on Amazon's page for the book (which is only what the publisher put there).
  • Use Goodreads and Shelfari. The latter lets you list characters, settings, and more for each book. Goodreads (which Amazon bought in 2013) is a world unto itself. Create an author profile and link it to your books. I now do a Goodreads giveaway for new paperback books, which draws a lot of attention. If you agree to send books to other countries, be aware you will pay international postage, which is not cheap.
  • Here's a don't. Don't make your entire Internet presence relate to selling your books. If your writing features pets, go to some pet blogs and post comments. If a book features a realtor, ditto for those sites. I post to Twitter links to how-to blog posts I've done. Anytime I tweet I get at least one hundred views.
  • What about KDP Select or Kindle Countdown? I make a good deal of money on Amazon. I'm a huge fan. Amazon also looks out for itself very well. For example, you cannot price a digital book lower on another site. You agree to this when you publish a book, and that's the policy whether you use an Amazon marketing program or not. If you sign up for a special marketing program, you cannot sell a digital book on another site for the ninety-day period. You can use KDP Select, which lets you give away books for five days during that ninety-day period. The Countdown alternative (you cannot use both concurrently) lets you price a book very low for a period of time and then work the price back to its regular price. I've done both, and believe they are especially effective if you publish a series. For now, I keep a couple of books on KDP Select, and sell the rest at all sites. I make enough money elsewhere to want to keep the books available through all sellers. 
  • If you do special promotions, publicize them. It may seem that if you have a free book people will flock to it, but there are other authors doing the same thing. Readers are not likely to see your book unless you point them to it. One site (Book Marketing Tools) now gives you one place to link to sites to promote your free and discounted books. Some charge a fee and some do not. Other sites with multiple promotion links are Savvy Writers and ebooks' list of twenty-six sites, and a similar list from Galley Cat. You will find broken links, as not all promotion sites stay operational. There are also Facebook groups that let you promote. Bookmark every marketing site you find so you can go back to them.
  • Publish a paperback. If you don't, what would you show people when you give a talk or attend a writers' conference? Create Space (an Amazon company) is truly simple, and they have help available 24/7. I am about to use Lightning Source for additional editions. Bookstores are sometimes more comfortable ordering from Lightning Source, but there is a fee. Amazon KDP and Barnes and Noble lets you publish paperbacks for free. Through Amazon KDP books can be listed listed on all major book retailers' web sites. Also, if you use KDP Select, having a paperback on Barnes and Noble or Apple lets readers know there may be an ebook somewhere else.
  • Set limits. Whatever you choose for Internet marketing, make a commitment not to do it more than a set amount of time each day. You could spend a morning going from link to link.
  • Market everywhere. Jeffrey Marks has written Intent to Sell: Marketing the Genre Novel. It deals with all aspects of marketing, including Internet. If you buy one book, I suggest it be this one. You need to do press releases, visit bookstores, and volunteer to give talks at the library or to groups such as Lions or Rotary. Authors get used to marketing from their chairs, and that is not enough.
Want some more ideas? Check out the tab that says Index, and you'll see several articles on formatting and marketing books.

Finally, keep writing. The best marketing tool you have is a new book.

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And what kind of marketer would I be if I didn't tell you where to buy my books? Here are links to my books on major sites. (all ebooks,
all formats) orr 

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