Thursday, July 15, 2021

My Web Page Enters the 21st Century

What could keep an author from posting for more than two weeks? Marathon sessions to recreate her webpage, which I believe I began building in about 1999,

The initial design was busy and used a builder that didn't lend to a modern look. I had postponed an upgrade because it is soooo hard for me to learn new technologies. I should not have waited so long.

However, I've learned more about my writing, and can now describe it better. As you'll see, I have much more to learn, but now has a clean look. I like it.

Why Now?

The redesign did not happen on purpose. First I had bad luck, then very good luck. My host (who will remain nameless because I won't give them publicity) cancelled the proprietary software they provided. No email warning. They said if I had logged into the host panel I would have seen announcements. 

Why would I do that? I write books and update a webpage. I only go into the panel to pay my bill. (Make that past tense.)

I bit the bullet and transferred my hosting contract to WordPress, which I've never been able to learn. Bought two books. Still could not do more than title a page. There's a certain amount of operator error, but I just don't find WordPress intuitive.

Here's the very good luck. I posted a note on my church Facebook page, and a wonderful friend stepped up. She taught me a lot, but also did a good portion of the design and template building. And gently corrected my mistakes. 

She introduced me to Elementor, a developer tool specifically for WordPress. I can do enough to be dangerous, so to speak.

Learning New Technology

Learning new software has never been easy for me, but I usually jump in. I bought a Toshiba laptop when they had 50K (yes, K, not even megabytes) of memory. You loaded (and used) software on floppy discs. I think this was the late 1980s. (Yes, I'm old. Seventy next month. Going strong.)

I could absorb new software because I worked a lot for a nonprofit, and they graciously let contractors attend training when they bought new software. They also had very patient staff two generations younger than I who answered questions. Even if asked three times. 

Repetition is my personal key to learning new software, but now I work alone. I may find a course about WordPress or Elementor. I need to keep learning.

The personal aspect of learning new things works best for those of us (at least me) who memorized multiplication tables in the days before calculators.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Starting with Jolie's New 'Normal' World

In reading K.M. Weiland's materials on structuring a novel, I appreciated her concept of the protagonist's 'normal' world. A writer doesn't have to present the ins and outs of a character's universe, but she has to fully understand them before the novel's events can disrupt them. 

As we near the 10th anniversary of publication of the first Jolie Gentil mystery (more on that later), I'm starting the 12th book in the series. It will join a prequel, novella, and a long short story. And since it's been months since I wrote any of those, I'm making a new list of Jolie and Scoobie's normal world.

So much has changed. Jolie entered Aunt Madge's Ocean Alley Cozy Corner B&B as a woman who recently separated from an embezzeler husband who'd stolen from her as well as others. Can you say jaded? 

Some readers didn't like her. They said she was self-centerred. Well...yes. A lot of people who've been hurt badly can be self-focused. She made some dumb mistakes and evolved. 

Her early normal (in the series) was as a single real estate appraiser getting reacquanted with old friends, making new ones, and being dragged into volunteer work at the food pantry. Turns out she excels at bossing people around for a good cause.

Jolie is still a real estate appraiser, but now is married with two kids, helps run the B&B, and continues to manage Harvest for All Food Pantry. That's a rough sketch of her current normal, but thinking through subtle aspects is more complex.

For example, I chose a career that could interest women and men, and had her involved in things such as local economic development and concern for those who may need extra help. But those are asides as she solves mysteries. Readers aren't looking for perspectives on town activities or empathy. They have to be subtle.

While I find her four-year old twins hysterical, their role can't predominate or I'll lose readers with no interest in kids. In addition, favorite characters are Aunt Madge and Scoobie, so normal needs to include clear roles for them. Especially since Aunt Madge has recently been elected mayor of Ocean Alley.

Once 'normal' is clear, what could disrupt it enough to add solving a mystery to her already busy schedule?

I'd love to hear thoughts on what Jolie and Scoobie's everyday routine could include. I've learned a great deal from readers' comments. I can always absorb more.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Drawing History Into the Mystery

 It's no secret that my Family History Mystery Series deals with a mix of current and past crimes. Sleuth Digger Browning is an avid family historian living in the Western Maryland mountains. 

I've enjoyed learning more about the region's history, but had to do much of it remotely because the entire series (so far) has been written during the pandemic. I lived in Maryland (near DC) until my early forties, and have often driven or taken the train through the Appalachian Mountains. (Called the Allegany Mountains in some areas.)

Driving brings vistas of farmland and scenic overlooks. The train goes through the forests, along rivers, and into small towns. Those train rides drew me into stories.

For the third book, Mountain Rails of Old, I wanted not just personal family histories as a theme, but some aspects of local history as well. I drew in some of the Civil War time period and a role for the Underground Railroad. 

Maryland was a  border state, and a lot of people don't realize Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation didn't apply to border states such as Maryland and Delaware. The president didn't want to risk having them secede. Slavery was most common in southern Maryland, where I remember seeing huge tobacco barns as a very young child.

Nonetheless, the Western Maryland mountains lead into Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and Pennsylvania was a state to which a lot of escaping slaves fled. Thus, the idea of a possible Underground Railroad Station near the fictional Maple Grove. It's not a major element of the story, but I learned a lot weaving in those components.

As the June 30th release date approaches, I find myself more excited about this book than many others. Could be because it's set in my home state, could be because this summer I'll finally get to do some on-site research. I've been fortunate to find some excellent books, but it's not the same as visiting the locale.

I'll be looking for ideas for book four. 

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Thursday, June 10, 2021

Try the "Writers Helping Writers" Website

Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have created Writers Helping Writers -- a resource with dozens of tools and motivational articles for writes (published and unpublished) at all stages of their careers. From their blog to bookstore, the topics and tools are timely and to the point.

I enjoy learning. As I finish a project, I look for a new book or web resource to charge my writing batteries. Amazon carries the Writers Helping Writers Thesaurus series, many of which deal with character development and setting. I had seen these, but didn't realize how much more the authors provided on  the website.

The website has a tools section with downloadable articles on writing as a career, characters, revising work, setting, using emotion in writing and many more. Check out links to podcasts.

Some resources are free, others such as writing software or consultations require fees. I can't do the site justice. If you are also into lifelong learning, have a look.

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

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Hobbies Into Books

I've enjoyed using my family history hobby as a jumping off point for the family history mysteries, and my friend Karen Musser Nortman does a bang-up job with the Frannie Shoemaker Campground Mysteries. Since she camps all summer, she also has a built-in marketing modality -- never a bad thing.

I read several recreation or theme-based series. To get a better sense of how other authors handle hobbies in their books, I did a couple of Google searches, with limited success. Google kept wanting to guide me to articles about the best hobbies to list on a resume if you don't have a lot of job experience. Not helpful.

In the genre I write in most, cozy mysteries, there is an entire category for cozy craft and hobby mysteries. A quick survey shows food predominates, with authors such as Joanne Fluke, Ellery Adams, and Abigail Frost. I am a big fan of Molly MacRae's Haunted Yarn Shop Mysteries.

Pets may not be considered hobbies, but there are plenty of cat and dog mysteries. I like the Pampered Pet Mysteries by Sparkle Abbey, which is a good mix of pets and crime. I've read other pet-based mysteries (authors to remain nameless) that focus as much on the pet angle as the mystery. There's only so much I need to know about vet visits and animal costumes.

I think balance is the key for any theme-based book or series. Too much about cooking techniques, bakery shops, or genealogy searches and readers can be turned off. Maybe not if they are big-time into a pastime, but that could narrow the audience.

Until writing the Family History Mystery Series, I started with the setting. I love the Jersey shore, Iowa Rivers, and small towns. It hit me that if I merged a hobby through which I knew people it could lead to readers. Why didn't that occur to me ten years ago? No matter. What matters is I'm having a blast.

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Sunday, May 23, 2021

Working in Spurts

Ideally, I've developed ideas for whatever I'm writing and work consistently. For years, especially toward the end of a novel, my tenacity surprised even me. 

With the many changes wrought  by the pandemic and my aging fingers, I find it harder to sit still for an hour or  two at a time. Actually, sitting is fine. The fingers protest.

Yes, there is dictation. That's fine when I'm home alone, but doesn't work in a library or coffee shop. While I do it at times, it isn't as rewarding as ideas flowing from my brain to the screen in what, for me, is a more seamless process.

I've graduated to writing in spurts. I'll work for half-an-hour and then walk around with an icepack on my fingers. Occasionally I sit still to listen to the radio or watch a few minutes of TV, but walking is better. I do think as I walk and occasionally jot notes. However, too much writing by hand defeats the purpose of taking a finger break.

This past Saturday I had my second writing date at the library since March 2020. Bliss. Plus, when I need a break, I can wander the shelves.

Bottom line, I need some new productivity techniques that don't involve snacking. Many people have jobs in which they work in spurts and maintain concentration. I'm open to suggestions.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Donating to Roadside Libraries -- and Finding Books for Them

One of the best parts about my local library (Chatham Area Public Library in Illinois) is the room where sales of used books (and treats!) help fund the Friends of the Library activities. During the pandemic, the room couldn't operate, but is now open for limited hours, with occasional days when donations can again  be made. I write at the library a lot, and love this room.

Since we could not donate to the room for more than a year, I've looked for alternatives. Thrift stores are an option, but donations may not go to local stores. Fortunately, when dedicated volunteers created micro-pantries at locations throughout Springfield, Illinois, many also added micro-libraries.

You may have seen these for years in neighborhoods near you -- books to read, bring back, or keep. When so many libraries were closed, these neighborhood sites were invaluable.

This is a picture of the little library that sits next to the micro food pantry at Lanphier High School in my town. It may not seem big, but it can hold a lot of  books -- tall ones on the top shelf.

You don't need permission to drop off books, but it's important to note that people of all ages have access. A mix of reading for children and adults is most helpful. I would never advocate any censorship, but you want to follow guidelines and use common sense. For example, erotica would not be appropriate.

As the school year ends, kids may have books used for coursework (not textbooks) that they won't use again. School libraries may be thinning the collection to prepare for next year's acquisitions. Teachers and school librarians are busy as the year winds down. However, they may be willing to let you pick up used books that can be added to the free libraries. It's worth asking.

If you get a bunch of books from schools or from "bag day" at local library book sales, make a few trips to the mini-library --or go to several. The only thing you can't do is leave a box of books outside the enclosed boxes. 

Where to find these small libraries? Go to Above the map, put in your zip code. You may not find all the locations, but many are registered here. Does it take time? Yes. Is making books available to all worth it? You bet. 

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Why "Going Wide" Can Work for Authors

Prolific authors -- whether they work with a publisher or self-publish -- sell many books through Amazon. I find it humbling (and fun) to sell books in so many countries.

As a largely self-published author, I've weighed the benefits of publishing solely through the KDP Select program, which provides incentives for selling only on Amazon's platforms. 

Through KDP Select, authors can provide books free for a few days per quarter and be paid when readers essentially 'rent' (and read) books through a subscription program called Kindle Unlimited. The theory is that exposure to an author's work will lead readers to buy additional books.

I ultimately decided to leave box sets of one series on KDP Select plus a few family history books. Others I sell on all sites, which is termed "going wide."

I now make as much money selling on other sites as on Amazon -- more some months. It took a lot of experimentation to get the scales to tip to the wide side, so to speak.

Sell Through a Distributor or With Each Retailer

Initially, I placed books with Amazon (which produces mobi files), then separately to Barnes and Noble. I added Kobo and loaded each ebook three times. I couldn't easily sell to Apple, because they required books to be published using their software. I was not going to spend time learning more software to get books to readers when other options were available.

That led me to Smashwords, to which I load books once and they send them to a number of retailers beyond Amazon, using largely the epub format. They charge what I consider a small fee for the service. With practice, it's become an easy process.

I've left a number of books as direct sales on Barnes and Noble and Kobo, but generally publish all new books via Smashwords as well as Amazon. I have a soft spot for BN, so occasionally publish directly with them, but it's more work. I also publish all my paperbacks through them (in addition to Amazon). I think there's some selling synergy by doing both versions, but can't prove it.

Pros and Cons

The sites have varied requirements, so there is extra time in formatting books for Amazon and Smashwords. Marketing has multiple targets. Tweets become more time-consuming because they must be constructed for all websites -- and sometimes the sites' international links as well. 

You buy more ISBNs, add more components to an author website, and maintain an author profile in many places. I have to be careful to do this work in "chunks" or it would detract a lot from writing. 

The additional time could be considered a big con, but it can add to a lot more readers -- and money. 

I don't write for fun -- okay, I do, but it isn't what I publish. If I'm going to polish and publish a book, I want to make money. Going wide lets me make more, and that's the big pro.

How Did Going Wide Translate to More Readers?

In theory, more places to sell should mean more books sold, but it did not happen quickly for me. At first, a new book would sell a bunch of copies and then sales would taper off again.

Many of my family members are iphone users, so they read my books on ipads or their phones. I didn't sell many books on Apple, and it ticked me off. 

My Jolie Gentil series has eleven books, and after considerable thought, I created distinct box sets for BN, Apple, and Kobo (via Smashwords). That increased sales some, but not much. 

I work too hard to like giving away a lot of books, but decided to make the first box set of the Jolie series free. The plan was to do so for a few weeks. 

You may have heard that luck is opportunity meeting preparation. I had some good dumb luck. I was working on two books and forgot to reinstate the price for the free box set for several months. Didn't even notice it until I saw a slight uptick in sales of the next two box sets.

And then sales of the succeeding box sets took off and readers began to notice my other books. I honestly don't think the experiment would have been successful if I had reinstated the price on that first box set after only a few weeks. 

The pie chart shows how the last month of sales has been split among the key markets. In March, Apple led sales. I'm happy to have the top site move between BN and Apple, and wish I could do more with Kobo and Overdrive (library ebook sales). 

Now, if you're a USA Today bestselling author, these numbers may not look all that good to you. I like them, and they continue to grow. 

The Smashwords Assist

While readers can buy directly from Smashwords, most go through the better-known retail sites. Smashwords lets author run sales on books via a discount program that runs for a specified periods of time. They promote the sales and the reduced prices appear on all the sites to which an author distributes books.

I rotate books through the sales, and usually offer one book free. The pie chart shows a decrease (over the last 30 days) in Smashwords sales because I sold more books during a recent sale, which is now over. 

The Smashwords sales have introduced readers to books in all my series and stand-alone fiction. Slowly those sales have grown, especially since I made the first books in the River's Edge and Logland series 99 cents all the time. 

The site also lets readers know which books sell best -- two of my Jolie box sets are now near the top of best-selling box sets. (Not the first set, because it's free.)

Recently, Smashwords has sent weekly emails telling me the books are selling well. Sweet. More important -- readers see them on the site's front page.

You can't do box set covers in 3-D format, which makes the set 
look like books on a shelf, as you can on Amazon. I think that's a more professional look, but you won't hear me complaining.

Lessons Learned

I want to reach readers everywhere, but I also want to take full advantage of every marketing opportunity possible. To me, the biggest advantage of Amazon's KDP Select  program is the income earned when people borrow the books through Kindle Unlimited. Having some books in that program is an important way for new readers to find my books.

If I were publishing my first book, I'd definitely put it on all sites. I'd probably try for a publisher first, too, but I'm used to self-publishing and enjoy the flexibility (for now). 

If a new author wants to experiment, s/he could publish a book via KDP Select and then go wide after three months (the KDP Select commitment). I can't think of a single reason to publish on all sites and then take books off a platform to be exclusive elsewhere.

The methods I've tried the last year work as well as they do because I've written a lot of books, so readers can go from one to another. That takes time. In the meantime, you want to reach readers everywhere you can.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Writing Blogs I like

My Sisters in Crime chapter is going to pull together a list of good blogs for writers, and asked for input. I dashed this off without much thought. That doesn't mean I think these are not worth thinking about -- it means they came to mind easily. 

I use all of them.

I think K.M. Weiland's site, "Helping Writer's Become Authors," is exceptional. She focuses a lot on story structure, but also other aspects of writing. She covers fiction and nonfiction.

Jane Friedman's site mostly deals with the business of writing, but there are guest posts on creative aspects.

Joanna Penn writes the "Creative Penn" Blog. It's a mix of publishing, marketing, and writing. She also does podcasts and writes many books on publishing and writing.

C.S. Lakin does "Live, Write Thrive." She deals more with writing, and it's an exceptional site.

I find the various university writing sites to be very helpful. There are links to many here. It seems anytime I google an "odd" question, these are the kinds of blogs that come up. 

This is one I especially like

Whatever your genre or interest, someone else is providing resources for you.
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To learn more about Elaine, go to To see her writing classes, go to Learn Desk.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Seeing a Story from Each Character's Perspective

 If I had to pick one thing that has made a difference in my writing it would be seeing a story from each character's perspective. It puts the pieces into a cohesive puzzle.

That doesn't mean expressing all that to the reader. They may only need to know what the protagonist shows them. However the protagonist operates in a world with other people, and they march to their own drummers.

If you write traditional mysteries, they likely have an amateur sleuth who discovers a body -- as opposed to witnessing a gruesome murder. As word spreads, family members of the murder victim (let's say a 57-year old man) react very differently. His wife is stoic, his oldest son is so upset he cries easily and can't go to work, and the youngest daughter hosts her book club the next night because, as she puts it, life goes on and she'll appreciate the support of her friends.

The varied emotions could simply be reactions the writer shows because it's traditional to have a family grieve. Let's say that one of the family members gives the sleuth an important piece of information about the victim's actions the day before he was killed. It could be anything from where he ate lunch, who he played tennis with, or who he thinks was trying to undermine the father's company.

If the writer doesn't know the supporting character's perspective or background (and I'm not talking about a data dump), then the information about lunch seems like a simple recitation of what a family member knows about the victim's prior engagements.

But what if the writer knows that the daughter is furious with her father because he touted her brother's accomplishments and resented paying a dime of her college tuition? Through his passive aggressive behavior, he has always implied that teaching social studies is not as important being the CFO of a tech company, and his son makes good money as a CFO.

The resentful daughter may offer a caustic assessment of her father's ridiculous spending to dine out. That's very different than simply saying he ate at the Big Spender Diner. 

The acerbic comment could cause the sleuth to explore the father's spending habits more than s/he might have. That could lead to the sleuth learning that the victim spent lavishly on business lunches for all of his employees except one. That resentful employee's anger built until he confronted the victim in his office after hours and threw a punch that led to a head injury, dead body.

And the son's tears? Because though his father spoke well of his career choice, he never offered any indication that he approved of his son. Now the son will never be able to win his father's praise.

At this point, you may say, "So what? As long as the daughter said he spent a lot of money dining out, who  cares why she emphasized that point?"

Because knowing why she dissed her father's spending habits tells the writer a lot about the murder victim. Does the writer want to show other examples of a man who belittled others? What about showing him as someone who liked to spend big but struggled to pay tennis club dues in addition to basic expenses?

Does the author ever give readers the full story on the family relationships? Unless one of them was the killer, the story may not need more than a hint. 

But in learning the perspectives of the son and daughter, the author learned more about the victim. Well-rounded characters are far more interesting to writers and readers.

Along the way, those secondary characters may have become more intriguing and end up with bigger roles. You never know where a story will take you.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

What People Say About Books

So many young people say they "don't read." It saddens me. I suppose video games have taken the place of  books for many, and they do let people use their imaginations -- to a point. I'm not sure they can carry you around the world, other than to play against people in other parts of the globe.

Imagination keeps children playing with blocks and puppets and has taken us to the moon and back. Lucky the child whose parents read to them.

Some of my favorite quotes about books are:

A capacity and taste for reading gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others.         Abraham Lincoln.

Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.       Joyce Carol Oates

I still love books. Nothing a computer can do can compare to a book. You can’t really put a book on the Internet. Three companies have offered to put books by me on the Net, and I said, ‘If you can make something that has a nice jacket, nice paper with that nice smell, then we’ll talk.’ All the computer can give you is a manuscript. People don’t want to read manuscripts. They want to read books. Books smell good. They look good. You can press it to your bosom. You can carry it in your pocket.       Ray Bradbury

The cool thing about reading is that when you read a short story or you read something that takes your mind and expands where your thoughts can go, that's powerful.                           Taylor Swift

The bottom line is: Books are the Best.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Eyes that Give Descriptions in a Book

 I've had a number of discussion with people about how much to describe a character's appearance, a room  they walk into, or scenery viewed from a car. Using an omniscient narrator gives an author the leeway to describe a room down to the coasters on a coffee table. 

But what if you write in first person or close third person? I subscribe to the belief that all information has to be provided through the eyes of the person narrating the story. The "I" individual in first person stories. In close third person, such as the Harry Potter stories, everything (except occasional chapters he's not in) is through his filter. 

A first-person book may offer information from the character's point of view -- even long paragraphs. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone provides in depth background on a neighborhood, criminal, or crime -- but it's always something Kinsey knows or is learning.

Sometimes it may seem hard to tell a reader about a setting if the point-of-view character has been there previously. They wouldn't walk into a good friend's home and recite (to him or herself) the layout, style of furniture, or color of the walls.

However, there are ways to tell a reader what they need to see without doing a full stop as the character tells herself what she already knows. To use the friend's house (we'll call her Chloe), the sleuth could admire how Chloe manages to put so much antique furniture in a small living room without blocking access to the second-floor stairway. The reader learns  the house is small and has a second floor. Knowing Chloe values antiques may be something that goes with other characteristics she exhibits. (Or tells the reader something else, such as the kind of stores she burglarizes.)

I go to a lot of conferences and short classes about writing. I've learned pearls of wisdom from John GilstrapLeigh Michaels, William Kent Krueger, and Julie Hyzy, to name a few. These authors write very different kinds of books, but they impart knowledge well and offer good discussions on point of view. 

First person works well for traditional or cozy mysteries, when the reader is solving the crime with the sleuth. Third person (especially multiple points of view) is almost essential for thrillers. It's the best way to learn what the bad guy (a.k.a. the antagonist) is up to. Even then, a writer has to be "forever conscious of camera placement" -- John Gilstrap's way of saying don't stray out of the point-of-view character's vision.

Authors have their preferences. As long as they, their readers, and at least some reviewers like them, books sell. In the Harry Clifton novels, Jeffrey Archer announces each POV change by putting the character's name and a time period on a separate page. 

Contemporary romance novels usually have two POVs, since the focus is on a couple's relationship. The more racy Regency romances may have several, often associated with different subplots and clearly delineated. 

One method that will make me close a book is shifting points of view in the same scene or even paragraph. Authors may see this as more appropriate now that we've watched movies for...more than a century. The camera takes in everyone's view, including the audience's. I find constant POV shifts to be a lazy way to tell a story.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a guest blog post for Dru's Book Musings. I took a scene from Final Operation, one of the Logland Series books, which are generally from Police Chief Elizabeth Friedman's point of view. Then I rewrote the scene from the medical examiner's POV -- which is never expressed in the book. What a difference! I'm going to do it more often.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Writing Scene By Scene

I'm working on Mountain Rails of Old, third in the Family History Mystery Series. I finished the basic outline a month ago, and have written about a third of it.

As I get to know the characters -- especially resident ghost Uncle Benjamin -- I have almost more ideas than I can use. Rather than develop each one, I'm doing short scenes about the various events. It's liberating.

I'm mapping out conversations and actions and putting words into the characters' mouths, so to speak. Because these are a jumble of scenes, for the moment I don't have to create smooth transitions or worry about whether I've done adequate foreshadowing. That can come later.

This is a new approach for me, and possibly not one I'll use again. In the meantime, it's enabling me to work on the different subplots in and of themselves. I can put them together (in order!) later.

Why try this? For a time, I'm doing some 'day job' work. I wanted to be sure I kept writing at a fast pace, but I can't always do four to six hours at a time. I'll have to think of a name for a method. Scatterbrained doesn't seem quite right...

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Quotes Bring Ideas

I'm always jotting notes, sometimes in a notebook other times on odd pieces of paper. The challenge is remembering what my abbreviations mean.

Today a friend mentioned a Mark Twain quote: "I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure."

It would be a great thing for a character to say upon learning of someone's death. Then the death is ruled a homicide and people remember him/her saying this. Opens the door to wondering about motive.

I'm working on the third book in the Family History Mystery Series (Mountain Rails of Old). The idea won't fit there, but at some time it will come back to me.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

All Genre Fiction Has Common Elements...Which One Gets Made Fun Of?

Fiction is whatever the author chooses to create, in terms of characters, setting, and plot. Many of the most well known books would be called liteary fiction -- To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Water for Elephants, Middlesex.

These books may tell grand stories or focus on the thoughts and actions of ordinary people. What they have in common is their distinctive nature. They are not as easily categorized as mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, or horror. 

Each of these modalities -- genres -- have typical features, and authors who want to keep their audiences should meet the expectations for the genres. 

Fantasy creates an alternate world -- it could be similar to "ours" (as with the Harry Potter series) or could be totally, well, fancifal. Think Peter Pan or the Lord of the Rings. trilogy. These novels are very different from one another, of course, and often have a strong adventure element. And the reader knows they will be transported to a mythical place.

Though mythical, the stories have to make sense for the world they inhabit. A creature (or human) can't suddently develop the ability to fly simply because he or she needs to cross a wide ravine. 

As a mystery writer, I need  to present a puzzle, whether it's to be solved by someone in law enforcement, an amateur sleuth, or the wise analyst who doggedly pursues evil doers. The antagonist should be a worthy opponent for the detective, and there have to be enough clues or sufficient foreshadowing that the revealed bad guy makes sense. It's great if a a reader thinks, "I never saw that coming," but not good if they say, "That doesn't make sense," or "The ending came out of left field."

Readers of romance expect a meaningful setting and a story that focuses most on the relationship between the two leads, be they opposite or same sex. They want a happily-ever-after ending, shorthanded as an HAE. That doesn't necessarily mean a lifelong commitment.  Romances have many other components-- depending on the sub-genre and whether the author injects elements of -- for example -- mystery or family saga.

For some reason, I've heard a number of authors imply (or outright say) that romance is a 'simple' genre, one perhaps not worthy of their skills. These opinions may come from some early category romances, in which communication problems between the woman and man got in the way of romantic progress. Even thirty or forty years ago, books that relied only on that theme didn't hold up well, and those authors vanished from bookshelves.

For a romance author to succeed, she (sometimes he) has to tell a complex story with strong characters. I dare someone to say Nora Roberts or Nicholas Sparks writes simple books. 

I have to reign in my temper when I hear someone put down the romance genre. If it's so simple, why haven't the critics written a few and sold tens of millions of copies?

My impatience comes from disliking nonspecific criticism of any genre, but especially because I find adding romantic elements to a story to be very hard. It requires consistent suspense that's quite different from the mounting danger sleuths face in a mystery.

Writers of romance are supportive of one another, as reflected in Romance Writers of American being the largest organization of writers in the world. I joined for a while, in large part because RWA has chapters throughout the nation and it's neat to be with other writers. I've migrated to another chapter-based organization, Sisters in Crime, which is comprised of sisters and misters.

That brings my final thought, which I express reluctantly. Are people more willing to denigrate a genre whose authors are primarily women? Horror writers are largely men. I've not heard anyone make fun of constant blood and guts or question why vampires can only be killed with a silver spike through the heart. At least, if there is disdain, it isn't volunteered among groups of writers.

Okay, that's my pet peeve. The next time I hear someone express their prejudice against romance fiction, I can hand them a copy of this blog post. I'll tell the critic I look forward to their next bestseller.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Women of Mystery

I'm fortunate to be able to attend, via Zoom, a book club I reluctantly left when I moved from Indiana to Illinois -- the Women of Mystery Book Club (WOMB). As with most book clubs, I often would not have read a book had others not suggested it. Once I started writing, there's so little time to  read.

This month I suggested we  read a book by Tess Gerritsen. I've heard her work praised, but had never gotten to it. We ended up with The Bone Garden, an intricately plotted book set in the 1830s and present time. Since I'm looking to history for part of my newest series, I was delighted with the choice.

I learned Gerritsen's work can be spell-binding. Also grittier than I generally read, so a woman who had had/plans to have children might not want to listen to the audio version. I did. I can't say I enjoyed the details, but I never wanted to turn off the CD.

What I especially liked was her reference to the work of a Hungarian physician, Ignaz Semmelweiss. He played an important role in advancing hygiene in medicine, especially obstetrics, and I saw a play about him, by Harold Sackler, in Washington, DC, in the 1980s.

The play was en route to Broadway and needed fine-tuning, and I always thought Sackler would do that. He died a few years later, so perhaps that was why the play seemed to, too. I was so touched by the play that I visited the library in the Kennedy Center to read it. I believe it's one of the few playbills I've kept.

The fact that Gerritsen drew Semmelweis's work into her book says a lot about her research. I plan to read more!

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

What We Writers Try to Achieve

Recently, someone asked me why I work so hard to produce books. I inferred that the question also implied "at your age." 

We authors write for varied reasons -- to get ideas from our brains to paper because we simply have to, to entertain ourselves and others, to make a living.

I wrote 'stuff' for decades before I decided to get serious about getting books to readers. Thankfully, I have an obsessive compulsive nature, so once I started writing books I wanted to finish them.

I don't write much beyond genre fiction, but I read, and learn from, a lot of literary fiction. There is no precise definition of a good book, but I think Ernest Hemminway nailed it.

"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.  If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer." 
     Ernest Hemingway, "Old Newsman Writes," From Esquire, December 1934

One can always aspire.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Friday, January 29, 2021

History and Mystery Intertwined

When I decided to merge my love of writing with  that of digging into family and local history, I wanted to be sure I didn't delve too deeply into the "how to" aspect of exploring family history. 

It didn't take long to figure out there is only so much license to take when exploring the history of a real place, in my case Garrett County, Maryland. I love riding through the Appalachian Mountains in a train. Or the Allegheny Mountains, if you prefer. While the town of Mountain Grove is fictional any references to the county's history has to be largely accurate. If not, why set it there?

With the Family History Mystery Series, I also faced the challenge of learning more during the COVID pandemic. A planned trip to tour some towns and conduct research fizzled, and I felt fortunate to find publications through the Garrett County Historical Society.

As always, the characters made their preferences known. I had planned for the protagonist, Digger -- you'll never guess how she got her name -- to spend more time plowing through old records and such, but she decided that would be boring. 

She also wanted more friends, so the Unscheduled Murder Trip gives them a bigger role. Book Three, tentatively titled Mountain Rails of Old, will feature the family of Digger's business partner, Holly. She's descended from one of the first free Black families in Garrett County, which will give me a chance to explore more aspects of the county's history.

In my wildest dreams, I never planned to insert a ghost, but one of the key characters was too good to let rest in peace. Writing does take authors down unexpected paths. 

Today marks the releas of the Unscheduled Murder Trip, which was fun to write and let me stretch my writing wings, probably an odd term, given that it relates to the ghost.

I do need that research trip, if only to take a walk around Deep Creek Lake.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Are You a Closet Outliner?

Other than fully outlining one book in 2006, I generally start with an idea, make some notes, and start writing what I think will be opening scenes. Then I pause and make more notes, eventually creating a chapter summaries document. As the name implies, I use it to track what I've done and plan future developments.

It might be better if I fully outlined at least the murder and how it is solved. I simply have trouble keeping my fingers off the keyboard.

As I finish one project I thumb through notebooks to see what else has been in my brain. I lose thoughts unless I write on a card and staple it to a notebook page or write thoughts directly in the book. Usually I can decipher what I meant. Sometimes not.

As I shipped the Unscheduled Murder Trip to the proofeader, I began the note review. What I look for are the half-baked (excuse me, half-developed) ideas that I jotted so I didn't lose them. Because I also make notes on books underway, I see I'm more of an outliner than I think I am.

It's About the Villain

Four basic points are always in my lists.

  • Who would have a reason to kill the victim?
  • How did they get to him/her?
  • What are the consequences if the killer is not caught?
  • Who besides the murderer comes under suspicion and isn't the culprit? (The red herring thought process.)

What's most striking (even to me) is none of these points relates to the protagonists and how they solve the crime. Of course I have notes about this, but they are not in the core list. Why? Because any mystery starts with the killer/kidnapper/ embezzler's motive.

In a thriller, readers may know the motive up front because the author puts readers in the minds of the perpetrator and the hero (who sometimes seems to have almost superhero talents). Much in these books deals with how close the villain comes to blowing up a damn (or whatever) before s/he is stopped. I read many thrillers and love them. 

However, my own writing tends toward solving the puzzle -- it's only possible when the sleuth can unravel the culprit's motives. But that comes near the end. In one memorable (to me) thought process, I changed the killer after I finished the first draft. The new murderer had a stronger motive. It's one of my best books, but I don't recommend the process.

The Full List Questions

The combined sleuth/killer list is, in my mind, the order of the action (though not usually the order of the book).

  • Who would have a reason to kill the victim?
  • How did they get to him/her?
  • How is the sleuth drawn into the crime-solving?
  • Why is it so important to the sleuth to identify the killer/kidnapper, etc.?
  • What are the consequences if the killer is not caught?
  • Who besides the murderer comes under suspicion and how are they absolved? 
  • What resources or assets does the sleuth have that others (perhaps law enforcement) does not have?
  • How is the sleuth's life changed by having been involved?

The crime and its resolution have to matter to amateur crime-solvers. Otherwise, they're simply busybodies or folks with too much time on their hands.

There has to be a reason the sleuths can solve the crimes when professionals can't. The killer may discount their abilities and thus reveal something that sends the sleuth down a path. Maybe they have tremendous resources and can buy a $1,200 airline ticket and hop on a plane to keep an eye on the bad guys.

Another option is to do something illegal (hack a computer, bug a phone) that police can't do without a warrant -- or at all. However, the reader has to feel sympathy with the sleuth's methods. I stopped reading one series because I thought the sleuth's actions (in the last book I read) were as unacceptable as the criminal's.

Your Questions May be Different

All the ads for fad diets say something like "results may differ for individual participants." Same goes for how you develop a book. Any approach works, as long as it's a conscious endeavor.

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To learn more about Elaine, go to or subscribe to her newsletter.