Monday, December 30, 2019

It's All in the Appearances

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.”
― Mary Roberts Rinehart

The next line should be, "The great mystery writers can manipulate appearances without being dishonest with readers."

I just finished Louise Penny's book Kingdom of the Blind, an Inspector Gamache novel, which has a great premise -- the suspended head of the Sûreté du Québec finds himself drawn into the estate of someone he's never met. The elderly woman must have had her reasons for naming three seeming strangers as her executors.

Add to the requisite murder associated with the strange will is Gamache's intense need to locate a cache of drugs he's let loose on Canadians. While done in the interest of solving crimes in a prior book, the potential deaths weigh heavily on him. And the earlier decision has caused his suspension.

As I neared the end, I told a friend I knew she would enjoy it. Then the end arose and it turns out Penny had two unreliable narrators throughout the book. So, it wasn't just that what appeared to be was not. The author thought she would lie to her readers.

As much as I have enjoyed prior Gamache novels, I won't be able to read another. What's the point of being drawn into a plot when you are in a character's head but (throughout the book!) you don't know what the character knows?

A sleuth, professional or amateur, will often learn (or understand) something before the reader does, but the reader isn't kept in the dark for too long.

I wish books with the so-called unreliable narrator would have a stamp on the cover. Then I wouldn't waste my time.
*     *     *     *
To learn more about Elaine or her writing, go to or sign up for her newsletter

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Power of Persistence

When asked if one thing helped them succeed, authors are likely to mention persistence. Of course the book or poem has to be good. Much of what is written and submitted is.

When a new (or experienced) writer accepts feedback and keeps writing, they are likely to achieve what they define as success -- publishing a book, having stories appear in literary journals, being asked to read their work in a bookstore. The people who get discouraged after a bunch of rejection slips and stop writing or submitting won't get there.

Sounds simple. No magic formula, no particular writing style, just persistence -- and perhaps a teflon ego.

Today someone asked me for general advice to a new writer. Without thinking much, I dashed off the following.

My basic advice is always the same. Nothing is finished until you place your fanny in a chair and just keep at it. It's really important to get that first draft done. It will not be (cannot be) perfect, so don't take time to try to make it so. Give yourself permission to do some good rewriting, but at some point stop. If you go over the same work a lot, it can lose its edge, and you won't be doing anything new.

C'est tout.
*     *     *     *
To learn more about Elaine or her writing, go to or sign up for her newsletter

Monday, December 16, 2019

Increase Book Availability via Smashwords and BN Paperbacks

I tend to write more about writing than marketing these days. However, I had puzzled about how to reach more readers on ibooks, Kobo, and BN (via Smashwords), and have come up with something that works for me.

Many authors give away free ebooks sometimes. I decided to make the first four books of the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series free and wait to see if it made a difference. 
These are not books I sell on Amazon -- you cannot price a book less on another site than you do on Amazon. You agree to this when you publish with KDP.


Waiting was key. For the first few months, Smashwords reported no downloads -- keep in mind, it was free. Three months ago I saw downloads of the free book and sales of the NEXT box set began to grow on Apple. Since sales are up (I assume) my books are showing higher in Apple search results.

 Sales have also increased on Kobo and Barnes and Noble, but not as dramatically. This could be because I already had more sales on these sites. 

Pretty much the only promotion I do is regular tweeting about the free box set. I occasionally mention it in a cozy mystery Facebook group.

I now do my books also as BN paperbacks as well as Amazon. It means people can walk into a Barnes and Noble store and staff can immediately find a book and order it. There is no independent bookstore in my town (Springfield, IL) and BN has become very supportive of local authors.

A book uses the same Library of Congress Preassigned Control Number in all paperback editions. I choose to use a different ISBN from my own company, but I believe BN gives them free for paperbacks. If you use a site's free ISBN, they are listed as the publisher. The author still holds the copyright, of course.

Books have to be priced a dollar higher than on Amazon, where I no longer do expanded distribution. They could be priced the same, but the revenue per book would be less.

BN lets you work on covers in three pieces (front, back, spine). You can create them in Microsoft Publisher or jpg, and convert/load the front and back as pdfs. They do the spine. I like this method very much.

My books are largely self-published, which is why having easy access via BN stores is so important.


My Tarot cards and crystal ball have malfunctioned for months, so no predictions here. The experience does tell me it seems to pay to offer a free box set for Apple, BN, and Kobo -- via Smashwords. I publish some single books directly to those websites, but it's simply easier to do one big book via Smashwords. You only fix the epub once if there are errors.

Caveat. Free books used to increase sales a lot on Amazon. I'm not sure they do now -- at least not mine. Of course, books in KDP Select do pay some when people borrow (and read) them via this exclusive-to-Amazon marketing program.

Perhaps there are fewer free books on the other sites, so free still attracts readers. Keep in mind the book has to be a good one for readers to then buy the next books in a series. And keep writing more.
                                            *                            *                        *                       *
Learn more about Elaine and her writing at this blog or at Or sign up for her newsletter.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Finding Time to Read

One troubling thing about writing a lot of fiction is that I have less time to read. I not only write my own stuff, but I participate in a critique group in which we read one another's work weekly, and I manage my writing business. The latter does not interest me much, but if I don't do it well I sell fewer books.

Several years ago I began to read audio books all the time. I have them in the car and by my bed. That guarantees me at least twenty-four works of fiction a year.

I've finally begun reading books on my phone (in addition to a Kindle) because I'll always have my phone with me. I tend to make these lighter works, because I dive in and out of them in grocery store lines.

I haven't read much on paper for the last few years. After moving several times and giving away a lot of books, I made a conscious decision to largely buy ebooks. Of course, I use the library.

But several times in the last year I ended up in a situation where either Wi-Fi wasn't available or my phone battery was low. Nothing worse than waiting in a doctor's office with nothing to do. (I won't touch the magazines--think how many sick people have leafed through them.)

So I've started keeping books in the car again. My library has a huge used book room, so paperbacks are only seventy-five cents. I've finished a couple books in the last few months, and last week read an entire paperback on a train trip.

So many books, so little time...
                                                  *     *     *     *     *
To learn more about Elaine or her writing, go to or sign up for her newsletter

Monday, November 25, 2019

When Does the Back Story Need to Be Told?

            Until December 20, write a comment below this blog post and you're
                  entered to win a copy of my newest book, The Twain Does Meet.

Part of knowing a character's motives (for good or bad deeds) is knowing their past. I jot notes about where my characters were when, but I don't usually write pages. The exception would be for Scoobie in the Jolie Gentil series, and that may be why he strikes many as the most well rounded character in the books.

Common writing principles say the reader needs to know enough of the back story to understand why a character behaves as s/he does in the story. More than that and the reader will wonder why they have to wade through so many details that were not germane to the plot or relationships.

I had so much material on Scoobie (and Jolie) that I finally did a book called Jolie and Scoobie's High School Misadventures. Why stop there? Why not delve into the college years and the first part of their twenties? Because the high school years were when they were together prior to the start of Appraisal for Murder, and most relevant in their lives from that time going forward.

For some reason, likely a daft one, I wanted them to be the parents of twins. But I didn't want to bore readers, or myself, with 2 AM feedings that made Jolie too tired to pursue a clue or potty training that saw Scoobie with fodder for his poetry.

So the twins came into the story at age 3. That's also the point when I think kids become more independent and their senses of humor are more evident. Sometimes earlier, but it's also an age when parents can feel comfortable with a schedule that has the kids in day care or with friends -- not in the way of crime solving.

However, I had promised readers that I would tell the story of the twins' birth at some point.

I mulled that over for more than a year. Had to be funny, of course, but not syrupy or slapstick. I also didn't want Jolie solving a murder while pregnant. Not good for fetal development.

As I started The Twain Does Meet, I realized it was also an opportunity for readers to learn more about Scoobie's much younger brother, who had unexpectedly joined their lives. I needed to learn more about him, too.

Since a story needs to go beyond day-to-day activities, and I didn't want to include much on mood swings or stretch marks, there had to be meaningful action -- discovery other than finding a murderer.

The final criterion was that readers of the Jolie Gentil cozy mysteries needed to know they would be reading a fun story, but not a true mystery. I suppose that's in how I present the books to readers. I didn't want them to be disappointed if they didn't get the whodunit they expected. I think I've made it clear.

In any event, it's some fun backstory, and I had a blast writing it. I hope readers enjoy it when it becomes available December 20th. (For a link to all sites selling it, go to my website.
                                                                *   *   *   *   *
To learn more about Elaine or her writing, go to or sign up for her newsletter

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Making the Bad Guys Worse

Every author needs to be able to critique herself. My most consistent comment is that I resolve conflict too quickly. That's great in life, but not so good in mysteries.

After giving it more thought, I believe this is because I don't fully develop the villains of the story. In my head, I look at almost everything from one of my antagonist's point of view. I'll think carefully about how a murder takes place and the immediate reason, but not the ultimate why.

In preparing for a presentation on villains I considered several books and movies. Some portray the hero's life and motives so well we don't need  to fully understand the bad guy. Every year I watch It's a Wonderful Life (the Christmas story with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed). We see the clear angst George Bailey feels at having to remain in Bedford Falls and we understand why his wife Mary loves being there.

Slowly George comes to see himself as the town sees him, and he understands the full value of his life. But what about Mr. Potter? We know he's a skinflint, know that when he didn't return the Bailey Savings and Loan Bank Deposit it sets the stage for George's belief that the world would be better off without him in it.

But why is Potter a mean, miserly man? Is he angry that he ended up in a wheelchair? Did his parents abandon him? We don't know, and in that story, his actions matter more than his motives.

Consider the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope. The story opens with Darth Vader chasing the rebels to secure the return of the plans for the Death Star. Leia is important, but it's when Luke's aunt and uncle are killed on his home planet that he gets the drive to combat the evil of the Empire.

So did the theft of the plans start the action? I'd say no. Darth Vader was compelled to seek to quash the rebellion because, in his words, he felt "a disturbance in the Force." Of course he wanted those plans, but he knew how strong his weapons were. Surely he would have felt it possible to combat any threat.

Except the threat that challenged his very existence. As the story progresses through three movies, we come to fully understand his desperation.

Where does that leave us? It tells me I need to know the enemy's backstory, his or her motives, to develop an enemy as strong as Darth Vader and the Empire. Strength comes in many forms. I think the strongest ones are secrets.

How will this realization change my writing? I've  decided it will be okay to jot down ideas for a plot or the main characters (the antagonists, for me), but I won't let myself start another mystery without developing the entire story from the villain's point of view. I probably won't use all the material in the novel, but knowing it will created a stronger enemy for my sleuth to overcome.

I'll keep notes as I go and let you know how it turns out.
                                           *                 *               *               *
To learn more about Elaine or her writing, go to or sign up for her newsletter

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

It's More than What they Say

Possibly because I started out writing plays, dialogue is my favorite part of any story. I like to give characters fairly distinctive speaking patterns without going to extremes. If everyone has perfect grammar and diction, it can reflect a graduate class in literature, but not much about life in the real world.

When Annie Louise Bannon asked me to do a guest post on her blog, I titled it "How Characters Talk," and I used examples from the Logland Mystery series. Since it's a police procedural with a cozy feel (as opposed to a cozy mystery series) I can be more relaxed about what characters say. That doesn't mean they swear like sailors, but some of them are a tad raunchy.

Take a look at the post -- How Characters Talk -- and let me know what you think.

                             *                    *                     *                   *
Learn more about Elaine and her writing at

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Recent Reading

I tend to blog less when I'm full steam ahead on writing. Because of audiobooks in the car, I don't stop reading.

 Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly puts his newest sleuth, Renee Ballard, with my favorite, Harry Bosch. I like the plot and the way the two characters work together. Close to seamless. Ballard comes across Harry snooping in her LAPD squad room as he works a cold case, and she's intrigued and signs on. I wondered if Harry would end up the hero because Renee needed help, but they each got the other out of a big jam. Intersecting subplots work well. The book had the added element of the solo Ballard book from a couple of years ago -- her internal dialogue about rampant sexism in law enforcement. It exists, it's important to tackle, and in the first book it was part of the main plot. In Dark Sacred Night, it came into play with an ignored call for back-up and other examples. I did tire of the internal dialogue about it -- and I'm a woman who was in the workplace (not law enforcement) when subtle sexism wasn't even recognized by those who exhibited it.

Escape Clause by John Sandford features my current favorite investigator, Virgil Flowers of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. This time he's tracking two rare tigers stolen from a Minnesota Zoo. Realistic (and funny) dialogue and an intense plot. The criminals are featured in the first scenes, and I usually prefer to solve the crime along with the sleuth. This works, but I hope Sandford goes back to his earlier methods. What's quite goods about the Virgil Flowers books are the way his personal life and the investigation intersect. In some books the personal seems extraneous. Here the blend works well. Grab any book in this series.

Back to writing. I need to finish The Twain Does Meet, a Jolie and Scoobie novella.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Deliberately Thinking Structure

I've been working on a Jolie Gentil novella, tentatively called "The Twain Does Meet." I'm shamelessly borrowing Janet Evanovich's phrase and referring to it as a between-the-numbers book. It takes place between books ten and eleven.

Why? By book eleven, Jolie and Scoobie have a set of three-year old twins. I've had a blast adding them to the mix. But I didn't want to include their birth as part of one of one of the mysteries. It siimply seemed that murder and newborns didn't mix.

"The Twain Does Meet" certainly has a lot going on, and some problems to solve. But, no corpse to find on a porch or under a pirate ship.

Since I was doing something a bit different, I spent more time on structuring the story than I usually do. My friend Leigh Michaels had recently sent me a reference to K.M. Weilland's wonderful website, which has many articles on writing. One series deals with structure, and I found it so useful I printed the posts (yes, printed, not just skimmed online).
Books as building blocks.
I found the article on the difference between the inciting event and the key event to be the most useful. I don't always see the distinction in my own writing. I have two distinct story lines in "The Twain Does Meet," and I realized I needed to have separate events for each.

What's the difference between an inciting event and a key event? Think about the first Star Wars film (technically episode IV). The inciting event is Luke's uncle buying the droids. The key event (which changes everything for Luke and propels his future) is the death of his aunt and uncle.

Enough said. You'll have to check out Weilland's site. Do.

                               *                    *                     *                   *
Learn more about Elaine and her writing at

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Thinking Like a Twelve-Year-Old

No, I have not been recently accused of this. I'm doing a Jolie Gentil short story (as yet untitled) that takes place in between books 10 (The Unexpected Resolution) and 11 (Underground in Ocean Alley). Why?

Book 10 sees Jolie and Scoobie getting married and an 11-year old enters their lives in the form of a half brother that Scoobie did not know he had (Terry). Skip forward 3 years and Jolie and Scoobie have 3-year old twins and a now-high-school-age brother with them. That's Underground in Ocean Alley.

I decided not to write the 'big baby event' of the twins' birth as part of a mystery, but I promised readers that they would see that moment in a future story. Of course, a story has to have legs, so there's a lot more involved than that.

However, having already written Terry as a high school age young man, I'm finding it difficult to depict his younger self. Generally my characters advance in age rather than regress.

These are some of the traits and attitudes I'm trying to imbue in 12-year old Terry.
  • Friends, and their opinions, are very important.
  • Sports are the best part of school.
  • Food, lots of it, is always good.
  • It's better to tease than be teased.
  • Waiting for a baby is good, because life will really be different when it arrives.
What have I missed? I'd love your ideas!
                                    *                 *               *               *
To learn more about Elaine or her writing, go to or sign up for her newsletter.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Learning From Jane Friedman

We learn from many sources, but some are more consistent than others. About 25 years ago, at  a Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana, I heard Jane Friedman speak. At that time she was with Writer's Digest (F&W Media), and had a lot of good info on getting into print. She gave practical advice and suggested other resources so a writer who wanted to publish could learn how to go from novice to published author.

Since then, Jane has left traditional employment and become a publishing guru who understands the nexus of the published word and the digital world. Hers is one of the few blogs I read regularly, and I commend to you her book, The Business of Being a Writer.

Nothing can be published until a writer places her tailbone in a chair and puts solid time into writing and revising. And no one needs to learn intricacies of the publishing world until they finish a good product. However, as you write, you can learn the industry in small doses. Jane Friedman's work is the place to start.
                                            *      *      *      *      *
To learn more about Elaine or her writing, go to or sign up for her newsletter.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Libraries Targeting Children

Chatham PL coffee shop with used books, play area in front
Countless people I know credit their local library with starting their love affair with books. Yes, parents probably read to them and introduced them to the library. But the neat thing was, you could go there on your own and select books yourself.

I grew up one block from the town of Garrett Park, MD, and at that time my siblings and I walked or ran across a big field (now a parking lot) along a well-trod path. Once inside the tiny building (now part of a nursery school) we browsed the shelves.

There's now a much larger Kensington Park library about 1.5 miles down the road, and the former Kensington Noyes Library is a children's library -- to which my sister takes her granddaughter.

Fond as I remain of all those libraries, the best library for children I've been in is the Chatham, Illinois Public Library. Part library, part huge play area, part cafe and used book sales room, and part genealogy room. Oh, and lots of room to do puzzles.

I wish I could show pictures of the dozens upon dozens of children who visit most mornings during the summer, but I would never ask parents to let me put their kids' pictures on the Internet. You'll have to be content with photos of the space itself.

On the left is a main area of activity. The table at the forefront is one on which kids play with cars and trucks. Note the playhouse on the left.

Even on a quiet day, it's busy. To get the photo at left, I had to take several shots. Each time I thought I had one without a child, one would stream into the frame.

On the right (in the same photo) is a smaller play house. Toward the back is one of several book sections.

And the tree? It's a walk-through space, with a toddler slide at the front.

Below, on the right, is the reading cubby, which gives kids a private place to curl up with a book.

While it is certainly used a fair bit, the interactive nature of the place has the kids sometimes too busy to go off by themselves to read.
Book cubby for a quiet space

This summer, the theme of the summer reading program is "a universe of stories." Lots of prizes, many reasons to come to the library to win them -- and see friends. -- Elaine L. Orr --

Toddler Tree Slide
A Universe of Stories

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Resources for Your Writing Business

     I find many authors don’t put on their business cap until they have something to sell. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with that perspective, in fact it’s what I did. 

However, if you do want to start or change careers, you’ll consider such things as who you are writing to, how many books you’ll need to sell at which price to make a certain amount of money, and how to manage the businesses processes.

Maybe you’ll do your own taxes and file a Schedule C. Or should you set up an LLC – limited liability corporation? Don’t ask me, ask your accountant. You need an accountant? Possibly.

To be clear, I do not advocate that we right-brain creative types stop writing and do a lot of left-brain work to establish a business. That can come later, for most of us.

Write that book first.


The Business of Being a Writer, Jane Friedman
Possibly the best overview of what you need to know after you write your book. You get an excellent work at the publishing world, too. Kindle and paperback.

The Indie Author Business Plan
Good overview, with a downloadable workbook. If you like multi-media learning, this is a good place to start.
Kimberly Grabas

7 Elements for a Nonfiction Writer’s Business Plan
An overview that could be helpful whether you write fiction or nonfiction.
A Long-Term View of the Indie Author Business with Liliana Hart
42 minutes, but a good example of building to success in the real world.Hart (who has sold more than 3 million books) also compares Amazon and ibooks – not saying one is better, but discussing differences. Apple has 7 billion devices out there. I learned a lot watching this, especially about the Apple market for audiobooks.
The podcast interview is conducted by author/publisher Joanna Penn.

Tonya Price’s site deals with business aspects of writing. Her book on the writer’s business plans is comprehensive. Just looking at the description gives you a sense of things to consider.

Your tax dollars at work – Small Business Administration overview and links on preparing a business plan. A good reference point, but too much to think about if this is all new to you.

                   *                       *                      *                     *
To learn more about Elaine L. Orr, visit her website,

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Thinking about Our Skills to Write About

We like to play to our strengths. We don't sit around and say, "What am I bad at? I think I'll do that again today."

I certainly don't think I'm the best storyteller around, but you would definitely want to hear my stories more than you'd like to eat my cooking. Or have me clean your house. Or give you driving directions. I could go on.

Image by Angel Nichols.
Recently I thought I would work on a self-help piece, for fun, in between fiction projects. I have a breezy writing style when it comes to how-to writing, and I don't mind making fun of myself. The combination works well in self-help writing, and I used it in a book on caregiving in the 1990s and in some of my books and articles on writing and publishing.

So, what do I know enough about to help someone else who wants to do it? The first thing that popped into my head was "moving." No, not yoga or jogging. Going from home to home.

I didn't plan to move as often as I have, but I've learned how to get organized, pack and unpack, and learn a new town. If I had to pick one word to describe moving success it would be listmaking. And doing the items on the list, of course.

I moved to Iowa because I wanted a lifestyle where I needed less money to live and had more time to write. When people would ask why I picked that state, I'd say, "Cleaner, cheaper, safer, quieter." This is not to insult my native state of Maryland, it's just that housing costs in the DC suburbs are astronomical.

Since moving to Iowa I've married and we've also lived in Indiana (and then to Iowa and back to Indiana) and Illinois. In each place, I moved from apartment to house or house to house. I'm probably certifiable.

Learning the Ropes

As hard as it is to get organized and complete the move itself, diving into a new town is what's challenging. Friends. I need friends.

In my new book, Fitting in After Fifty: to Your New Town, I talk about becoming acquainted with a town and its people in several groupings. You'll want to get to know your neighborhood and the larger community. You'll also want personal friends, maybe even want to date, and perhaps you'll volunteer.

Why the "after 50" in the title? In my humble opinion, it's easier when you're younger. Your job may be welcoming, kids' schools or sports involve meeting other families, and you have more energy. Of course, fifty is the new forty, so I remember having lots of energy at that age. :)

If you move to be near other family or to find an area in which to retire, you have to make your own reasons to meet people.

Getting to Know People in Your Neighborhood

To give you a sense of the kinds of information in the book, here are some ideas for making neighborhood acquaintances:
  • Smile and nod. That gives others an opening, should they want to engage.
  • Be willing to introduce yourself and stick out your hand, but don't be offended if your actions are barely (or not at all) reciprocated.
  • Attend announced events, such as block parties, as well as informal activities, such as rummage sales.
  • Buy what local kids sell – within reason. Some schools still raise money through direct sales (think cookie dough and wrapping paper), while Scouts now tend to set up at local shopping centers.
  • Become aware of local sports teams—school and professional. Sport pride and the weather are neutral topics in grocery store lines, which is where you'll see your neighbors.
  • Ask Suri or Alexa what's going on. I never thought I would talk to a round piece of plastic (I use Amazon's Alexa on an Echo Dot), but these devices (which require an internet connection) are handy for weather, local news, and activities.
Don't get discouraged if you don't have people to do more than nod to after a month. Everyone is busy and your neighbors are probably involved in their jobs and kids. Just keep at it.

Beyond Your Own Block 

I love being in neighborhoods where people are friendly and do things together. However, you can't know how that will work out. And you'll probably want to be involved in the larger community.

Have a look at the chapters in Fitting in After Fifty.

1. Reasons for the Move and Getting Started
2. Deciding How Involved You Want to Be
3. Getting to Know the Immediate Neighborhood or Complex
4. Beyond Your Street or Building
5. Deciding Whether to Volunteer
6. Making Friends or Dating in a New Place
7. Holidays: Do You Stay or Do You Go?
8. What about Major Life Changes?
9. Keeping Those New Friends

Each chapter has a resource listing at the end, mostly links to web articles, since that makes it easy to to go the info mentioned in the ebook. The resources would help the 'movee' as well as others who want to help family or friends learn a new town.

This won't be a book that people pick up to read for fun, but I hope they'll find it when they need it.

Fitting in after Fifty is in Kindle Unlimited. Maybe you'll want to give it to your friends...

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

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Choices about the Profession for Amateur Sleuths

When I decided to write mystery series with amateur sleuths, I spent time thinking about careers that would put them in contact with a lot of people, provide a flexible schedule, and be interesting to men and women.

I had learned in an earlier stand-alone book that the protagonist couldn't be tied to her career. When would she investigate? I had created a teacher, and then had to have her break her arm so she wasn't in the classroom all the time.

I settled on a real estate appraiser for the Jolie Gentil Jersey shore cozy mysteries and a reporter-turned-gardener for the Iowa River's Edge series -- Melanie. It seems no matter what Jolie and Melanie do, they don't attract many male readers. Or at least, male reviewers. It seems women read male protagonists but men don't often pick up books with female sleuths.

The second question was how much daily life should mix with murder. Readers pick up a cozy in part because of the sleuth's profession. People can relate to bakers, dog walkers, and bookstore clerks. I figured a real estate appraiser was just different enough to be equally interesting.

Most people buy or sell a house at some point, so they would recognize the work without finding it too familiar. And boy, can Jolie get in trouble in a vacant house.

Newspaper reporters are more common in thrillers, less so in cozy mysteries. Melanie didn't last long in that role -- in fact From Newsprint to Footprints opens with her firing.

So, she became a gardener, which happens to be one of my hobbies. Most of us have planted something in the dirt at some point, so I figured readers could also get a sense of satisfaction when plants sprout along with suspects.

I plan to continues the two series and a third, which features a small-town police chief -- the Logland Series. I call that a police procedural with a cozy feel.

Lately, I've done a book a year in each series, but I think readers expect more regular installments. I traced publication dates over the last decade, and realized I did three Jolie books in the first publishing year. I'd written them over several years. I need to pick up the pace. Yikes.
                                                                   *          *          *
 Learn more about Elaine at, or sign up for her her newsletter.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Thoughts on Working with a Critique Group

I've benefited greatly from working with other authors through critique groups -- especially the Illinois group I now trade work with. If you don't have access to a group, it's worth thinking about creating one. One with other serious writers.

I suggest starting with one inviolable principle. When discussing someone’s chapter or poem, talk only about the writing, not things that come to mind because you read a piece. 

My twelfth grade English teacher (Ms. Virginia Baker) expressed this perfectly. She was having the class discuss some piece of literature (Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I think), and wanted us to talk only about the story. She said, “I don’t want to hear any I-had-an-uncle-once comments." 

Here are some things to consider as you assess an existing group, or options to consider if you have a role in creating one.


  • Does the group deal with a mix of genres, or only one?

  • Do new members have to ‘audition’ by submitting material, or can they be invited by one or more of the existing members?

  • How often does the group meet? Generally groups that meet more often review less content per meeting.

  • Do they share content electronically (with each member printing other members’ submissions), or does each member bring enough copies of their work to pass to others?

  • Are projects reviewed in advance, or do members read quietly and comment the same night?

  • Are comments provided verbally, in writing, or a mixture?

  • Does the group share work of several people each week/month, or is it one piece of work per session?

  • What are the parameters of comments? Story and characters only? Grammar and style, too?
  • What are the policies about responding to comments? Some groups say a member can only request clarification or respond to a point of information. No debating allowed! Others permit lively give and take, though still shy of arguing. These ground rules need to be clear.

  • If they share a meal, do members agree that meals should cost less than a certain amount?

  • Can members come to meetings if they are not writing steadily? 

There are plenty of “yes, but” rules for any group. For example, someone whose child is getting married in a month may be willing to critique others’ work, but isn’t writing new chapters themselves. The group agrees this is fine, but someone who “never has time to finish a chapter” may be asked to take a break from the group until their writing resumes. 

I’ve never heard of a critique group whose members read aloud. To me, that’s more like a shared reading group. I put a lot of effort into reviewing a project, and need to read it in advance. 

Finally, are there parameters to ask someone to leave the group? If guidelines are established in advance, discussions will be smoother. To me, people would generally only be asked to stop attending if they were rude or didn’t read material. Your group may want different guidance. 

This is a lot to digest. Much easier to be invited into an existing group! However, we writers work by ourselves, and I think it's worth the effort to create an environment for constructive criticism and encouragement. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
                                 *            *             * 
To learn more about Elaine or her writing, visit

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Finishing a Book in Bits and Pieces

At this phase of my life, I am usually a very focused writer. Start a book (with our without some outlining) and keep moving. No so with Final Operation. I started early in the year, and it's the end of May! I've just finished a 52,000 word light mystery, which generally takes me a couple of months to write.

Before I began a (close to) full-time writing career in 2011, I wrote in small chunks -- it was the only way to finish a book, and I wrote several that way. Somehow, my memory worked better when I was younger (however you define the term). Each time I'd dive back into a project I remembered what I'd been writing -- more important, where I was going with it.

Now, if I take a couple we weeks off (as I did for some surgery earlier in the year) I have to reread a few chapters. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised, sometimes I say, "Who wrote this and what was she thinking?" I'm only half kidding.

No, I'm not getting senile. I've decided our brains have an 'almost full' point. We've pour trivia and important material into them for decades, and then the sorting component says the file cabinets are overflowing. Time for a purge of the irrelevant.

Purging is hard, whether with my paper files or my brain. Since I can't force the memories or plot ideas out, I'm going to have to teach my thinking cap to focus 'only' on writing. (And family and friends, of course.)

Now, back to the final edits before the book goes to a proofreader. Keep an eye out for the third book in the Logland mystery series. Final Operation (a police procedural with a cozy feel) will be out June 7th. Scheduled for that day six month ago, because it's my sister Diane's birthday. Family and books.
                                                      *     *     *     *     *     *
Learn more about Elaine Orr at her web page or by signing up for her newsletter.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Mothers in My Books

Rita Rooney Orr
I don't have enough of them. The strongest is Aunt Madge in the Jolie Gentil series, and you could call her Jolie's Mother-in-Spirit. (Jolie's mom is...problematic and rarely appears in person.)

I have two aunts I was especially close to (Marguerite and Mary Doris), so perhaps that's why Madge seems so real to me.

Why not more moms? I've finally decided that it's in part because my mom is not someone who could be replicated -- not that I base ANY fictional character on ANY people I know. Rita Rooney Orr was strong, nurturing, funny, kind, and uncomplaining. No character I create could even come close.

A new series I'm working on has to involve the main character's mom in some way (for the rest of it to work). I realize I haven't thought through her character well. So, here's a commitment to develop a strong mother in the new series. (Sorry, no hints.)

Happy Mother's Day to all the great women I know.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Organizing for Nonfiction Projects

In fiction, some authors self-identify as detailed outliners (of plot and characters) or pantsers. The latter wing it, at least as they start a book, and maybe all the way through.

I wrote nonfiction for years. I don’t see how it’s possible to write a piece on a period in history or a new manufacturing method without getting organized first. 

Maybe it’s me, but ideas don’t always come in logical order. 

Every project starts with a blank page. My suggestion would be to dash off a few paragraphs or pages to describe your idea – anything to get your first thoughts on paper. Then take some time and organize your thoughts. Here are some things to ask yourself.
  • Who do I want to read what I’m about to write?
  • Is everything I need to know to write this article or book in my head, or do I need to do some more research?
  • If I need to learn more, is the information available by reading, or do I need to talk to some people?
  • What are the most important things (as of now) that I want to say?
  • Does it matter when I finish?
These are just a few starter questions. Believe it or not, the first is the most important. Who you write to (an audience that knows a lot about the topic or a community newspaper) makes all the difference in how you present the article or book. 

Everything from vocabulary to sentence length is determined by your reader base. You don’t have to know how it will vary immediately, but keep the audience in mind. 

Once you’ve thought about these basic questions, make a list of the order in which you want to present information. It won’t be in the exact order at first. 

As you start to write, you can add to the list or move things around. Let’s say your audience is twenty-somethings who grew up using GPS systems. It could be that after you write a few paragraphs about how to  use a map you realize you need to explain what one is, and how there were initially none when pioneers crossed the United States. It’s all about perspective. 

Speaking of maps…The best reason to have a list or more detailed outline is that you’ll have a sense of when to stop writing. Your points should be building to an end, perhaps an important conclusion. Without some advance thinking, how will you know when you get there? 
                                                         *     *     *     *     *
Visit Elaine's web page or sign up for her newsletter.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Common Questions Authors Get

Every author who gives talks at libraries or speaks to someone thinking about writing gets similar questions. In most cases, I say people should use their best judgment and do what applies best to them. However, there are some common considerations in making those choices.

Should you use a pen name? 
Before he settled on Mark Twain, Samuel Clemons used pseudonyms such as Thomas Jefferson
Snodgrass. I’m glad he settled on Twain. There are reasons to use a pen name—maybe you plan to write fiction and nonfiction, and you don’t want to confuse readers. Maybe you want to write racy sex scenes and you don’t want your boss or grandchildren to know you penned them.

Nora Roberts writes romances with her real name, but she publishes her mysteries as J.D. Robb. Clarity for readers. Do as you want, but if you choose a pen name, make sure it’s unique.

Who copyrights a book? 
When you write a book, you establish your copyright, automatically, according to U.S. Law. The copyright is valid until 90 years after the author's death, and cannot be  renewed. You can choose to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office in the Library of Congress. Check out these fact sheets.

Do you need an ISBN?
Not necessarily, but it helps. Amazon assigns an ASIN to each book, and it has become a commonly accepted book identifier. Other sites (Smashwords for ebooks, Amazon KDP or Barnes and Noble for paperbacks) provide free ISBNs.

I began buying ISBNs as Lifelong Dreams Publishing in 1995. The process is managed by Bowker and means your work is in Books in Print. One costs $125 (!), ten are $295, and one-hundred are $575. Don't spend money you don't have, but buying ten could be a good goal. It may sound flippant to say have a rummage sale to raise $295, but it's worth considering.

Should you get a Library of Congress Preassigned number for paperbacks? 
While buying ten or more ISBNs is optional, doing so is important if you want to sell (or donate) to libraries. Publishers (those who buy ten or more ISBNs) can get a free Library of Congress Preassigned Control Number, (PCN) which helps libraries catalog books.

The PCN program enables the Library of Congress to "assign control numbers in advance of publication to those paperback or hardcover titles that may be added to the library's collections."
Publishers (not authors who buy only one ISBN) apply to participate in the program, and they submit an application for each hard copy (not ebook). The process is seamless – and free.

What is the impact of earning money on taxes or Social Security Income? 
No legal or financial advice here. You do need to declare your book income on taxes. If you collect Social Security at age 62 (or between then and your full retirement age), there are limits to income you can earn without getting your Social Security payments reduced. There is information at or, or you can consult an accountant.

Are family secrets yours to display? 
In a word, no. Not unless you have permission of others involved. If you are the child of a Hollywood star or politician, you could argue that they are public figures so you can expose whatever you want. The fact that your Great Aunt Tillie had a child out of wedlock is none of your business—in terms of publishing it. Good luck getting to know the cousins you just learned about. Any doubts about telling family secrets or using names of real people in your writing, consult a lawyer.

Can you base fiction on real events?
There is certainly true crime writing, and you’ll see disclaimers such as, “Inspired by the events of xxx, but all characters and actions are works of the author’s imagination.”

Ideas pop out of the newspaper every day. One of my books came about because I read that police who seized hydroponic growing equipment turned it over to local schools. That led me to wonder what would happen if seized computers had information hidden on them.

If you can only structure a story based on actual events, or you think of all your characters in terms of people you know, you may be limiting your imagination.

You could also be limiting a character by thinking, “Great Aunt Tillie wouldn’t really do that.” Fictional characters have no boundaries—though they do need to be consistent (most of the time).
                                                   *    *    *    *    *
Check out Elaine's web page or sign up for her newsletter