Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Desperate for a Holiday Gift Suggestion?

Holiday Gift Suggestion
It's that time of year when desperation increases to a fever pitch as you struggle to complete your collection of gifts. I recently spent several hours--which turned into several days--searching the web for ideas.

So I humbly offer up this as a possible alternative: a cookbook. Or perhaps a cookbook along with some cooking utensils such as a muffin tin or cookie sheet. And there are always new items in the kitchen section. I know I recently became fascinated by all the silicone items for baking.

And since the holidays are a time of year devoted to friends, family, and nostalgia, what could be better than an old fashioned cookbook? The Rowley Cookbook is a collection of recipes dating from 1916 through 1960 and includes many old favorites that most adults will remember fondly.

I transcribed the recipes for the book from my grandmother's old ledger that she used as a cookbook after she got married. Much of it was, unfortunately, written in washable ink that had faded or disappeared altogether. However, thanks to new technology I was able to scan, enlarge, and see the actual indentations in the page left by the pen strokes and thereby recreate even those recipes that appeared to be gone forever.

Just reading through the table of contents brings back warm memories of all the delicious treats grandma made for us. During the holidays, she baked boxes and boxes of cookies and candies, and throughout the season, the house was filled with the aroma of vanilla, cinnamon and chocolate.

Some recipes are intended for the holidays, such as the Jule Kaga recipe collected by my grandmother from her Swedish and Norwegian friends in Wisconsin.  The list of holiday recipes in the book includes: Jule Kaga; Holiday Fruit Cake; Christmas Dixies; three varied recipes for Christmas Cookies; Sand Bakkels (2 versions); Spritz Bakkels; Kolacky and Rosettes.

Below is a recipe for sugar-coated muffins that was always a favorite of mine. It is particularly wonderful to wake up on Christmas morning to find the kitchen filled with the scent of cinnamon and these warm muffins on the counter. It was almost better than the gifts under the tree.

So if your desperation is reaching monumental proportions, how about a muffin tin and a cookbook?
Or better yet, a muffin tin, a paper bag full of sugar-coated muffins, and the cookbook that contains the recipe?

And just to wet your appetite, here is the recipe for Sugar-coated Muffins:


2 c. flour
2 Tbsp. sugar
2-½ tsp. baking powder

(Sift the 3 preceding ingredients together)

3/4 tsp. salt
1 egg
3/4 c. milk
1/3 c. shortening

Mix together and bake at 350° for approximately20 minutes.

1 c. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ c. butter

Mix sugar and cinnamon in a sack or plastic bag. Melt butter and drop muffins in melted butter and then shake in the sack of sugar & cinnamon.

Happy holidays and best wishes!
I'm going to do some baking now.  I've made myself hungry...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Myths and Show vs Tell

Lately I was witness to an online writing class that propagated some misinformation and made my head explode. So I had to write a "rebuttal". The class was theoretically on "show versus tell" which is the writer axiom that you should "show" your reader the action or scene versus just telling them. More on that later.

So, anyway, this teacher equated telling with passive voice (NO relationship exists) and worse, equated passive voice with the use of past progressive verbs (NO relationship exists).

I was appalled because the creation and spread of "writer myths" only serves to confuse ingénue authors. It is a disservice and gives other online presenters a bad name.

So I am picking up the role of the grumpy grammarian—and this is a role to which I'm ill-suited. I'm not particularly good at this either. I mean, I've never been able to make sense of Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" so who am I to set myself up as an expert?

Well, I do check and double-check my information. And I've included the references I used to write this blog. They are at the bottom.

Note: a Tell is a gambling term meaning an involuntary or unconscious gesture, expression, or indication of what someone is thinking/planning. A tell telegraphs what an opponent has or is about to do.

In this article, a Tell is the hint or shortcut way to identify something. It should not be confused with "telling" as in "Show versus Tell". If you know what I mean. J

Here goes.

Myth 1: Show versus Tell

Telling is bad, showing is good. Sometimes. Sometimes you need to tell when you just need to move the story along (or have length limits). Telling is to simply tell the reader what the character is feeling, i.e. she felt angry, rather than showing the reader, i.e. she screamed, stamped her foot, and threw a frying pan at his head in a burst of rage.

This has absolutely nothing to do with passive voice, verb tenses or the use of the much maligned word "was".

The Tell for Show versus Tell

Telling: Telling is almost always just an adjective or adverb, and it is a word or two long. Or a brief phrase. So it's really short. That's how you identify when you are telling and not showing.

Showing: Long, long, long. Takes at least a sentence and usually an entire paragraph to adequately show. May actually involve several paragraphs. It is how you "prove" the character is feeling/seeing/thinking something.


Telling, ex. 1

Terrified, she struggled with her assailant.

Telling, ex. 2

The garden was beautiful.

In the first sentence, you're telling us that she's terrified, but you've shown us nothing to make us feel her terror or prove that she's terrified. The writer might think that it's so obvious that she should be terrified if she's under attack that this brief description "says it all". But that's the seduction of telling and why it's so easy to tell versus show. Because it's efficient, particularly when dealing with the obvious.

This may be useful when you need to move a scene along, or when the scene only involves secondary, unimportant characters. But you can't always tell or your readers will never become engrossed enough in your characters to care about them. Your story will fall flat because you don't explore your character's views, feelings, perceptions, or surroundings.

In the second example, you're telling the reader that the garden is beautiful, but giving us no proof or indication that it is beautiful. Why is it beautiful? What's in the garden that makes it beautiful?


She panted in short gasps. Her arms shook as she gripped his wrist and pushed it upward. But he was strong—stronger than her—and his blade descended, closer and closer. Fear rippled through her as beads of icy sweat rolled down her sides. Her damp hands slipped a fraction. The tip was just an inch from her face. She was going to die. She could almost feel the cold, sharp metal plunging through her vulnerable eye into her brain. She blinked as if her fragile eyelid could stop that blade. Twisting, she desperately tightened her aching, trembling muscles, using her last ounce of strength to hold him off.

And so on.

In the second example, a description of the flowers in the garden, the style of gardening, and your character's opinion of the garden—what aspects she likes, for example—would show that the garden is beautiful and make it showing instead of telling.

See how long that showing paragraph was? That's the tell for showing. You are showing the reader how the character is feeling, why she is feeling it, what she's doing, and what she is thinking.

And it has absolutely nothing to do with verb tenses or passive voice.

Myth 2: "Was" + "-ing" verb is Telling

The use of was + a verb ending in –ing has absolutely nothing to do with showing versus telling—which involves how you describe your character's emotions or paint the scene. Equating "was" + "-ing" with telling is an incredibly misleading statement and perhaps the teacher of the online writing class just got carried away. Or said something she didn't really mean. It is perfectly acceptable to incorporate varied sentences including "was" + "-ing" verb forms while showing. Ironically, it would actually be hard to incorporate "was" + "-ing" verb forms into something that would be "telling" as opposed to "showing".

She was reading a book when she was attacked.

That's actually neither showing nor telling. The showing/telling point comes when you describe her reaction to this.


Terrified, she ran away.


She heard a noise and glanced up from her book, heart pounding. A man was running toward her. Light glinted off the knife in his hand. Who? How did he get in? Moving without thinking, she threw the book at him as she scrambled to her feet and sprinted toward the kitchen. If she could reach the back door, she could escape—she just had to make it make it that far. Just a few yards to the door

Unfortunately, the online teacher also compounded her misleading statement by claiming that was + a verb ending in –ing is passive voice which it is not. It is a progressive form of a verb showing a continuing action (versus an action which stopped already). As in the above example (which is showing) where: A man was running toward her.

And it isn't the verb form that identifies passive voice.

In fact, was + a verb ending in –ing is almost never passive. The only way to make it passive is to add the word "being" in between was and the verb as in: She was being hit.

Myth 3: Passive Voice and "Was" + Verb Ending in "-ing"

Definition: "Was" + verb ending in "-ing" is past progressive. Past progressive means the action is continuing. This verb form is often used to indicate some continuing action that occurs concurrent with some other action, i.e. She was thinking of work when the bus hit her. That sentence is active, not passive. The action of thinking was underway, continuing and concurrent with the action of the bus hitting her.

To break it down:

She was thinking of work when the bus hit her.

Active voice for both clauses: "She was thinking" and the adverbial clause "when the bus hit her".

"She" is taking the action of "thinking".

In the adverbial clause, the "bus" is taking the action of "hitting" the object of the action, "her".

She was thinking of work when she was hit by the bus.

This complex sentence has an active component and a passive adverbial clause.

Active clause: "She" is taking the action of "thinking".

Passive adverbial clause: "She" is both the subject and the object of the action. The action is "hit" and the doer of the action is the "bus". But the "bus" is not the subject. "She" is the subject. So the recipient (object) of the action is also the subject. That is what makes it passive.

Note: in that sentence you probably want the passive construction to keep the focus of the reader on the woman, rather than switching focus to the bus. Who cares about the bus except in the aspect of what it did to the woman?

And "was" + "-ing" verbs are not and will never be tells for telling versus showing. Past progressive is related to how you construct your sentence, not what your sentence is describing. Showing versus telling is about what your sentences are describing, not how the sentences are constructed.

Myth 4: Passive Voice and "Was"

Definition: Passive voice is where the subject of the sentence is the recipient (object) of the action, rather than the doer of the action. It has to do with the subject/object of the verb, not the particular verb form used. "Was" is much maligned. Writers need to get over the idea that using "was" is bad or always indicative of passive voice.

And get over the idea that passive voice is always bad while active is good. This is only sometimes true. Sometimes you need passive voice to retain the focus on the subject (i.e. your character) rather than changing the focus to an unimportant object. However, the reasons to use passive voice aren't the subject of this blog.

The Tell for Passive Voice

Passive Voice: Passive is indicated by the subject. Is the subject doing the action or the recipient (object) of the action?

Another way to look at it

She was hitting the bus. This is active. It is also past progressive.
And most likely, no one got hurt. The object of the action is the bus.

She was hit by the bus. This is passive. It is past and passive. And it is this form that gives "was" a bad rap, and why so many people assume that when you see "was" it is passive. But as you can see, "was" isn't a good tell, because the real tell is if the subject is also the object of the action. The subject and the object of the action are both the woman.

You'll notice that in order to make it passive, you have to remove the –ing verb and replace it. Hinting that "was" + "-ing" is rarely a passive construction.

I've written previous blogs about passive, so I won't go further into it at this point.

And, as promised, here are the references I used in writing this blog:

"Instant English Handbook" by Madeline Semmelmeyer and Donald Bolander

"Harbrace College Handbook" by John Hodges and Mary Whitten

"Plain English Handbook" by J. Martyn Walsh and Anna Kathleen Walsh *This is my favorite

"Creating Character Emotions" by Ann Hood

Good luck and don't believe everything you read on the Internet. Not even me. J

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Quickie Holiday Post

Just a quick, short holiday post as I'm trying to clean house and do all my chores in one day. Blogging is a great way to temporarily avoid housework.

We got our tree up--well, that sounds a lot more impressive than it is, because we just have a cheap little tree sans decorations, although I also got some cheap little clear plastic boxes with twinkly lights inside to be the "presents" around the tree. But at night it does look sweet. And if I get more ambitious, I might even put out some of my hundreds of other holiday decorations like little Santa candles and so on.

And yesterday, I spent some time making minature moss gardens to give as gifts.  The substrate is some old bark from trees decomposing in our woods, then I added the moss which grows everywhere here.

Finally, I added some more small fragments of bark to act as tiny tree stumps growing out of the mossy ground. They came out a lot better than I thought they would. For the jars themselves, I used some Weck canning jars. I ran out of the rubber gaskets to use them "for real" for canning, so I'm putting them to good use, now, in another way.

As far as care, well, they don't need much.  Just a little watering now and again and indirect light. The bigger jars were old potpourri jars that folks gave me over the year.  The largest jar has an additional "boulder" at the base of the "tree stumps" to give it a little more interest.

So if you're running out of ideas for gifts, this is one.  Of course, I'm also encouraging folks to get their very own copy of my cookbook, The Rowley Cookbook, available from  It's got a bunch of old recipes that you probably won't find elsewhere, although there are plenty of the more common ones as well.  Most of the recipes are from the years of the Great Depression, so there are a lot of "hot dishes" (i.e. casseroles) that make the most of a few ingredients.

But one of the better reasons to buy it during the holiday season is the huge number of cookie and cake recipes.  My grandmother always baked boxes of cookies for the holidays--so many that the house had a delicious aroma of cinnamon and vanilla all through the Season.

I'm hoping to make a few of her recipes this year--since I'm being severely stricken with nostalgia. (I'm also stricken with a complete inability to spell, but that's another story.)

So have a wonderful holiday and enjoy the Season.

Warmest of wishes for the best year ever!

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Research May Be Key

Before I get started with my main topic for this blog, I wanted to share some good news. Over the summer, I transcribed my grandmother's cookbook with nearly 200 recipes from 1916 through 1960. It's called The Rowley Cookbook, and it's now available, just in time for the holiday season from It was a true labor of love and I'm very glad to have it published for all my family, friends, and anyone who enjoys good, home cooking.

It is interesting to talk to other authors, particularly about the research they do for their novels. I may have said this before, but I have noticed that those authors who do the most background work are often the ones who also "make it big". And this is true even for those authors who write complete fantasies like Harry Potter.

Fantasy writers spend months, if not years, developing their worlds and working out all the rules and inner workings of their universe. The more richly complex and yet consistent that setting is, the higher the quality of the story. And yet often, while the author spends a considerable amount of time working out that background, it may be only briefly visible to the reader.

Research is like that. You do a great deal—perhaps months of research—just to have one small reference ring true.

So a lot of writers decide to skim through the research, or perhaps decide it is simply not that important. For example, there are a great many writers who will write a historical and their research is simply reading other historical novels. They often say that modern readers find too much accuracy to be off-putting and that it produces a stilted, unreadable novel.

What they don't realize is that the research must be done to produce a setting for the characters that strikes the reader as true to life. You can't, for example, have a reader believe that your Regency heroine whips a revolver out of her petticoat and squeezes off five or six shots (depending upon the revolver). Revolvers weren't in common use until the middle of the 19th century, around the time of the Civil War, although early models were available slightly before that. And there were oddities such as the pepper box earlier. However, the point is that it would be anachronistic to include a revolver in a Regency story.

And the inclusion or rather, exclusion, of anachronistic details so your book is accurate will not make a stilted, unreadable manuscript. Writers should not confuse the use of detailed accurate settings with the belief that accuracy equates to a boring story. What makes a stilted, boring story is stilted, boring dialogue, poor plotting, and cardboard characters.

This holds as true for contemporary as it does for historical books. The stories that end up hitting the best seller lists are those which are well grounded in a realistic setting. I believe this is why so many folks give (and get) the advice to "write what you know". That is, in essence, short hand for saying, do your research. If you are writing what you know, then one presumes you don't need to do as much research, since you've already, in essence, done it. You know it.

But it would be equally wise to say, "write whatever you wish as long as it's well-researched." And if it's fantasy, then plan out the rules to your universe to keep it consistent. That is the "research" for fantasy worlds.

Well, I'm repeating myself now so I'll stop. I really wrote this because I'm shortly planning on expanding my website with information I've collected in doing research for my latest work in progress, Deadliest Rose. Some of it is downright gross, because for some inexplicable reason, I've become absorbed in medical developments and techniques of the early 19th century. But I find it fascinating and hope sometime soon to include some of my research on my website ( If nothing else, it will help m keep track of information I may need in later novels.

That's all for this evening. Hope you are having a wonderful holiday season!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

That Darn Writing Life

I'm working really hard on NaNoWriMo but so far have only written 22,000 out of the required 50,000. The book is going well, though, and I love the story. It's a historical mystery entitled Deadliest Rose, although I might rename it to, A Deadly Rose. I just hope to work in a few more twists and turns. The evil doer is probably pretty obvious, much to my chagrin, but it's really more of a suspense than a mystery so maybe that is okay. And you definitely don't want to receive a rose if you're a character in this story. J

Good News (If Any)

More like, all the bad news you can handle.

We've got a bad leak in one of the bathrooms and didn't realize it, so we're going to have to rip up all the flooring and replace it as it rotted out the wood. Heavy sigh. Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, my washing machine and refrigerator both died and I had to replace those.

Then the power supply in my computer died and I had to replace that. Since one of the CD/DVD drives is also bad, I bit the bullet and ordered a new computer. I just hope my existing computer survives long enough for me to transfer my settings. I did back everything up, though—but it's a lot easier when I rebuild if I can just transfer the entire profile from the old computer to the new one.

Then…if I can sort of refurbish the old one, I may try to turn it into a primitive TiVo/DVR thing. That way, when it really does die, I won't care…too much. We've survived this long without a DVR. Anyway, it may be a way of using my investment in that computer—which was outrageously expensive and turned out to be a right lemon. (First the power button broke and I re-engineered a new one, I had to take the bezel off the front because the CD/DVD drives kept getting hung up on it, then the power supply went on the fritz, and then the 2nd CD/DVD writer went bad…I mean, this computer was badly designed/engineered to begin with, anyway.)

What I'm Reading Now

I'm reading "Red Hot Lies" when I get a few seconds. So far, so good.

What I'm Writing Now

Working furiously on Deadliest Rose. Also just got the second rounds of edits for The Bricklayer's Helper and I expect to get the second round of edits for Vampire Protector shortly. Not to mention that my editor at Highland Press also told me to expect the first round of edits for The Necklace ever so shortly.

I'm also trying to continue submitting my contemporary mystery, Whacked! about the things folks do for love.

So…busy, busy, busy.

What—If Any—Thoughts I have

The writer community is all worked up about Harlequin's new venture, Harlequin Horizons, a subsidy/vanity press. That's where you pay them to produce your book, instead of vice versa. Sort of like your next door neighbor coming over to your house with a hacksaw and asking you, "If I give you $1,000, can I perform brain surgery on you so that I can call myself a brain surgeon?" You have to admire the guy's gumption and efforts, but…buyer beware.

I, personally, don't have a dog in that fight. I'm working to be a professional writer where I get paid for my work, so I'm not going to pay someone to produce my books. That's just crazy talk.

But I am curious about Harlequin's other publishing venture, Carina, which will be their e-publishing arm. They won't be putting out both an e-book and a paperback the way my current publishers do (The Wild Rose Press, Cerridwen, and Highland Press) but they will be a legitimate e-publisher. By legit, I mean the money goes from the publisher to the author. Not the other way around. And published works will be edited.

We'll see how that all works out. I have to confess, as much as I've embraced the who e-publishing thing, I still like seeing that paperback in my hands. J

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Writing Extravaganza

I am so totally jazzed--I just got the cover for my latest historical romantic mystery: The Bricklayer's Helper. It is absolutely gorgeous. There is nothing like seeing that cover to really believe you have a book coming out.

That and the edits. Just finished the first round of edits and as usual, I'm torn between thinking it will never be good enough and marveling at the fact that I actually managed to write a coherant story. More or less.

And I just love The Bricklayer's Helper. The heroine, Sarah Sanderson, drives my poor hero, William Trencharc absolutely crazy. She is completely irrepressible. As a child, Sarah lost her family in a terrible tragedy and has been masquerading as a man working as a bricklayer's helper. But the murderer responsible for the death of her family has discovered her identity and it's up to William to keep her alive, solve the mystery, and keep his sanity.

And as fate would have it, I also just got the first edits for Vampire Protector, my first paranormal. And I've got a second paranormal I'm desperately trying to get into shape to submit to my editor.

Then, like an idiot, I signed up to do National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Insane, I know. But I'll be trying to write 50,000 words during November on my latest novel: Deadliest Rose. It's intended to be a historical suspense, assuming I ever get the darn thing written. A murderer taunts an inquiry agent, Charles Vance, by sending him a rose. If the Vance can identify the rose, he'll have enough information to save the next victim. Unfortunately, this task is harder than it seems and grows even more complex and dangerous when he seeks the assistance of noted rosarian, Ariadne Wellfleet.

I'm really excited about the story as it forms another link in a chain of stories revolving around Second Sons, a London-based inquiry agency. I've written several mysteries featuring its agents, including The Bricklayer's Helper, and I hope to expand it.

Anyway, that's about it for now. I've got to get back to work. My mind is running about a million miles a minute with all the tasks ahead of me, not to mention my real job in the computer industry. Oh, yeah. I do need to get back to that as I have the slightly overwhelming task of upgrading 580 domain controllers from Windows 2003 R2 to Windows 2008 R2, Server Core. And another 'Oh, yeah,' there is no upgrade path. It's a bare metal install. Like...can I make this any more difficult?

So hope you are all enjoying the cooler fall weather, gorgeous autumn leaves, and looking forward to the holidays!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

October News and Brains

All The News That's Fit to Print
Absolutely terrific news—The Wild Rose Press has contracted with me for my latest historical mystery, The Bricklayer’s Helper. I am absolutely floating on air. With luck, I should have two books coming out in 2010: The Bricklayer’s Helper; and Vampire Protector—a contemporary paranormal. It’s going to be a fabulous and busy year.

Actually, it’s a little scary, because I’m also planning out the upgrade and deployment of Windows 2008 on our 580 domain controllers, so I’ll be spending a lot of overtime doing that, as well. Let’s hope I have at least a few hours of sleep at night. I don’t do too well without sleep.

So, on the subject of writing, I have two observations to share.

The Importance of Making Life Hard for Your Characters
Everyone knows that you should throw your hero or heroine into non-stop trouble, pretty much from page one. But there is a subtle difference in just thrusting your character into a bad situation, such as having your hero accidentally walk into a murder on his way home from the office, and what I’m about to mention, or having what seems like a good decision turn out badly.

The latter is the real trick and leads to terrific fiction. It may be the difference between ‘okay” books and those that take your breath away. I’m working on a historical suspense at the moment and had one of those a-ha! moments when I was working on the plot and realized that one of the heroine’s good decisions is actually going to plunge her into a world of hurt. It’s the kind of decision that the reader wants her to make. It’s the decision she should make. And she does make it. But it will lead to tragedy.

Yeah. Now that’s a good twist, assuming I can carry it off.

This is, in essence, the opposite of the heroine going down into the dark basement to investigate a noise when she’s just heard on the television that an axe-murderer escaped that afternoon from the penitentiary half a mile down the road. During a rainstorm when all the electricity is off. That’s a dumb decision on the part of the heroine and will frequently lead to readers walking away from the story.

On the other hand, what if she calls the ex-cop living next door, arms herself with a gun and a flashlight, and the two of them go to make sure no one has broken into the basement of her house? That might be smart, because you can’t exactly call the cops every time you hear a sound in the basement, now can you? So this might be a practical and wise thing to do. But what is the ex-cop is actually the partner of the madman who just escaped?

Oh, yeah. Now you’re talking suspense. Although you do need to let the reader know that the ex-cop may not be the best choice. Otherwise, you'll lose a lot of that suspense. (Remember Alfred Hitchcock's briefcase under the table.)

On Another Note--Brains
One other thing I wanted to mention is that I have finally found the solution to many of my writing problems. That might be an exaggeration, because it’s not like I found the magic potion that makes me the next Jane Austen or William Shakespeare. No, not exactly.

What I found was a solution to my problems of keeping track of…stuff. I’ve tried a variety of solutions over the years, ranging from physical, paper notebooks to other filing systems, but none of them worked. Invariably, I did not have the notebook with me when I traveled, or the electronic filing system just didn’t work as I hoped because I “reuse” a lot of characters. My stories are generally interconnected and some characters and/or locations pop up time and time again. And then there is the research.
Research I’ve done in the past for one book may be needed for the subsequent book.
And while I love Writer’s Café Storylines for plotting out my books, it’s a pain in the patootie to keep track of characters who span multiple books.
And spreadsheets are fine, but just too much work to copy over for new stories, etc.
I've even tried geneology software, but that really didn't work, either, because I had all my other bits and pieces, such as research that I need to span multiple books too.

But I found a solution. See the picture to the left? Well, it's my brain. And I can add all kinds of junk to it and in just a few clicks, get any information I need. It's sweet.

So I am now using The Brain (check it out) to keep track of everything. I’d tried it in the past for my day job, but it didn’t work out for me. But the product stayed in my mind, bubbling in the background. This last week I got terribly frustrated trying to find all the research I did a few years ago for Smuggled Rose on roses grown during the Regency. And locating character sketches I did a year ago for I Bid One American. I wanted to use some of that material and it was spread all over the place in all kinds of different locations on my computer. Some was saved in files under each manuscript’s folder. Some were links in Internet Explorer. And so on.

I can create characters and save all their information/vital statistics/descriptions and link the characters to multiple stories in multiple ways. I can link characters to each other, too, in relationships (Parent to Child or Jumps between heros and heroines, etc). And I can keep all my links and research material—everything—all in one place that can handle multiple links and relationships.
To the left, my brain is centered on Deadliest Rose, my newest manuscript (a historical suspense). All the characters are linked to it, as well as things like roses/rose research, descriptions of the house, Rosewell, etc. If I click on Rosewell, I can see who lives and works there, based upon the relationships I set up.

So my characters from I Bid One American can now show up under Deadliest Rose, as well as I Bid One American. I don't have to laboriously copy over any information from one manuscript's folder to another. I just linked to my newest story, Deadliest Rose. All my notes are there. And web links, snippets, pictures, etc, can be saved under research and linked to any story.
As I mentioned, you can link things in parent child relationships or as jumps. I generally make a manuscript a parent and then link all the characters and research as children. If the characters have relationships, I link can link them, too. Parents can have a parent relationship to their children. Heroes and heroines can be linked by “jump” links. You can see in the picture to the left, centered on Ariadne Wellfleet, that she is linked back to my manuscript Deadliest Rose and a jump link takes her to Charles Vance, the hero of the story (and her love interest). But she also has links to the people who work for her, and to her house, Rosewell.
You can show all kinds of relationships and create links to get to information in all kinds of ways.

I also tag characters with the names of the stories they are in, so that information is immediately visible. And I use labels to indicate who are the heroes, heroines, murderers, butlers, maids, etc.

This is exactly what I needed. I can now keep track of all my characters, research, settings, etc, in a way that relates them to the stories they are in, and yet makes the information available to me for new stories, too, without laboriously copying anything from one set of manuscript files to another.

I doubt The Brain was intended for this purpose, but it is the perfect way to track the information I need as a writer. Yes, it’s terribly expensive (slightly over $200) but really, no more than any other writing software I’ve tried.

In fact, I’m considering playing around with its ability to create web pages and publish “A Writer’s Brain” to my website so people can see how my characters develop and how they relate to each other and they stories they are in. It might be fun.

Who knows what lurks in the minds of writers?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stepping Stones – A Micro-Story

As a writing exercise, I've started writing very, very short stories (yes, micro-stories) as exercises. Generally, I use a picture as inspiration. It's a lot of fun and it keeps my brain agile. These days, my ever-shrinking gray cells could use a little more agility.

The goal of a micro-story is to write a complete story in 200 words or less. I recommend all writers do this. Just find a picture or object to inspire you and write away! Just remember to keep it within a predefined limit, e.g. 200 words. This not only gets the creative juices flowing, but it means you have to work at editing, too, which is another skill writers really need to develop.

So, in lieu of a blog about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything writing, I'm including a micro-story.

Hope you enjoy it!

Stepping Stones


"You have a ghost?" Willie asked his aunt, striving for a tone of disbelief strong enough to register on the recorder in his pocket.

His elderly aunt's gaze drifted to the patio door. "A ghost?"

"You said a ghost is moving your paving stones?"

"Oh. That ghost. Well, did you see the path?"

"I came in from the patio." He stifled his irritation.

"Then you must have seen—the man in the stones," she clarified. "The man who disappeared almost forty years ago. He moves the stones."

"He's back?" Willie glanced around, momentarily confused.

She got up and opened the door, moving out to the patio. "His ghost. I straighten that path every evening. But come morning, well, you saw it."

"His ghost moves the rocks?" He had her, now. They'd declare her non compos mentis. He'd move in, sell a few priceless antiques, and his bookie would finally lay off. He chuckled. "What—you think he's buried in your path and his ghost is moving the rocks to mark his grave?"

"Of course not." His aunt pulled out a gun. "I buried him a good thirty yards away and started that rumor of a ghost—in case someone decided to dig. They'd naturally dig where the 'ghost' indicated and find nothing. Until now."

His carp-like mouth worked soundlessly.

She sighed and pulled the trigger. "You should have paid your bookie."


Friday, September 18, 2009

Surprise, Surprise

Birthday Delight

So I probably should have written this closer to the actual date of my birthday, but whatever. I'm doing the best I can what with overtime and travel required for my monumentally unimportant day job required to actually pay the bills while I rush forward toward eternal fame and glory as a writer… Er, well, something like that.

Anyway—I got a Kindle for my birthday! Some of you may be scratching your head and wondering what the heck that is and other may already be guffawing. It's one of those e-reader devices that is shaped like a paperback you accidentally ran over and flattened to about ¼" thick. Now, yes, at first glance it does seem like a terrible waste of money. But I've been comparing devices and it finally reached the point at which it made sense to me.

I am always leery of recommending devices to other folks and there is certainly been a great deal of press already about the Kindle, but I haven't actually seen others mention the reasons why this purchase made sense to me at this point in time. There are certainly pros and cons to any decision like this. And I wish Amazon had not removed the MicroSD slot, but it still works.

Why The Kindle Works For Me

  • First, of course, there's the easy-on-the eyes display which really is like reading a piece of paper instead of a computer screen. And as my eyes are getting old, I can increase the font size (that was the first thing I did) so reading is much, much easier for me.
  • I have a secret passion for pulp fiction—particularly Victorian and turn-of-the-century ghost stories. And I found several terrific places to download FREE—yes, that's FREE—novels and short stories to my Kindle! So now, instead of paying
    outrageous prices for this fiction and enriching publishers (assuming I can even find copies) for novels that are out of copyright so the publisher really is just scooping up gravy—I can get these books for free! I figure I've already downloaded enough hard-to-find books to almost pay for the cost of the Kindle.
  • I've developed allergies to just about everything: dust, mold, mildew, and a lot of things that seem to collect on books. Not that I don't still buy books and read them. It's just that I'm already finding that reading on the Kindle is a much more pleasant experience. No sneezing. No itchy fingers.
  • I don't have to break the spine of paperbacks in order to keep them open to read. I hate doing that, but I can't manage to read a book without doing that.
  • A lot of my books are crumbling from age and falling apart. I hate to replace them (again—assuming if I can even find them) only to have them deteriorate again. Now, I can buy an e-book, back it up on my computer, and know that it is not going to crumble and fall apart on me.
  • I can get my magazine subscriptions for Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock's mystery magazines, and even Analog!
  • Better yet, I can get my books that I need for work—like the Microsoft Active Directory books—and have multiple books on my Kindle when I travel without packing a second suitcase to bring with me.
  • I have a bunch of e-books that I've never had a way of reading, except on the computer, and after spending 10 hours or so on the computer for work, the last thing I want to do is spend any more time looking at a computer screen. This way, I can look at a Kindle's screen, instead. J
  • Our house doesn't have room for any more books. And I love re-reading my books, so chances of me getting rid of books is very slim. Now—I can get all of those classics I've always wanted to read but didn't have room for—and get them for free!

Wish List

  • I've never been able to find all of Virginia Coffman's books. I wish someone would issue her books, as well as the old Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt books as e-books. Now those, I'd buy.
  • I hope they also start issuing more of the older books, like those written from around 1910 through 1980, as e-books. There are so many that I'd love to read, but just don't have room for.

Enough about the Kindle.

Notes About Writing

This shouldn't be all about the Kindle. I've actually been working hard on writing and working with other writers, as well. One thing I ran into recently is the art of making the unreal, real. In reading another writer's work, I found myself thrown out of the story because of the incorporation of a character's action that was so insane that I just couldn't believe it.

When I asked the writer about it, she indicated she had done the research quite well, thank you, and there was one police case where that exact same thing happened. Well, maybe so, but here's the thing. It was stupid when the police did it in that one real case. It was worse when a writer used it and presented it as a normal thing the police always do.

Now we all love to read about the weird and wacky things that happen in real life. But when you use them in fiction, you already have one level of abstraction from reality. So anything you include in your book has to be presented in a realer-than-real way.

So, if you want to include a really wacky thing—even if it did occur in real life—you have to give the characters a better reason/justification/motivation than a "that's just normal".

Let me give you an example. This isn't from the other writer—I don't want to embarrass anyone.

Let's say you've read in the news about a rape case where the policewoman made the victim stand on her head to keep any possible "evidence" from leaking away to it could be preserved until they could collect it. (And believe me—this writer's "normal police action" was equally bizarre.)

If you want to do this for some strange reason, then you can't have the policewoman just say "this is normal police procedure to preserve the evidence." Because it isn't. Police don't routinely do that. So you have to have the policewoman give a really, really good reason for this. Maybe something like, "I realize this is an unusual request and you've already been through a lot, but if you could please stand on your head until the medical staff arrive, I would appreciate it and it might help us find the man who did this to you."

You see the difference? It doesn't take a lot more explanation—but it takes some.

Don't just have your characters do bizarre things—even if you know people who did those same things in real life—unless you give a really good explanation. And most of the time, it is sufficient for the character just to acknowledge that she knows it is a bizarre or weird thing, but she needs to do it anyway. That's all it takes.

It makes all the difference between accepting fiction as real, or tossing a book away because it strains your ability to believe the unbelievable.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Spider That Caught a Hummingbird

The Spider That Caught a Hummingbird

When I went out at noon to check on the hummingbird feeders and refill them, I glanced out the living room window.

There was a hummingbird fluttering in a very strange way and a spider was moving toward it.

So I ran out and grabbed the hummingbird just as the spider's front leg touched the bird's bill.
After a quick examination and removal of all bits of the web, I tried to release the hummingbird, but it more or less just lay there in my hand. I thought, uh, oh, the spider got to the bird and bit it before I extracted it from the web. But after another minute, the bird realized it was free and took off.

The hummingbirds have gotten used to peering at us through the living room window when their feeders are empty. I suppose they are trying to catch our attention to remind us to get on the ball and refill the feeders.

The little female hummingbird, unfortunately, got caught by a huge Writing Spider who had built a web that morning over the window.

And, no, I didn't get a picture of the hummingbird trapped in the web, or lying in my hand. Unlike news reporters/photographers, I felt there was a certain urgency to the situation and I prioritized the hummingbird's well-being over the possibility of a really cool picture. If I had stopped to get a camera, the spider would most assuredly have bitten the hummingbird and wrapped it up in more silk, stressing it further.

I just wanted to get the bird out of the web, cleaned up, and on its way without stressing it any more than it was already. So sue me. :-)

Anyway, that's the excitement for today!

Monday, August 03, 2009

August 2009 begins

It's the beginning of August already and I'm going nuts trying to get things done. Thought I would get some actual writing done over the weekend but I had to work some overtime Friday night.

Then, I went down to the kitchen and found a small snake near our sink. I believe it was a baby rat snake, but still, it's not exactly something I wanted to find in the house. Tried to catch it and failed, so I can only hope it escaped back outside the way it came in.

And while I was working on catching the snake, I pulled all the pots & pans out of the cupboard where it slipped inside. Found a dead mouse. Probably what attracted it in the first place. So I spent the weekend sterilizing the heck out of everything in two cupboards instead of writing.

But today, in an attempt to show everyone I'm not exaggerating when I say we have a lot of hummingbirds I made a video and posted it on youtube (we go through 10 lbs of sugar a week, which is made into 7 or more gallons of sugar-water since they consume 1 gal per day or thereabouts). You can click on the link below to see the video, assuming youTube ever finishes processing the darn thing.
Hummingbird Video

I'm still waffling about what to write as far as a new book. And I'm editing a second paranormal (I'm on the second draft of that); a contemporary mystery (hopefully final draft of that); and a historical mystery (second draft).

I'd like to write another historical mystery, but the market for those is next to non-existant so I'm thinking maybe I should start on my next contemporary mystery. Except I just have this really good idea for that historical mystery (really, more of a historical suspense) and I would so love to do that. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

And lest I forget, I'm also working on a trailer for my first paranormal so that when it comes out, I'll be ready to promote until everyone is completely sick of me.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Heirloom Gardening

Male Hooded Warbler (Photo to the left)

As the summer grows hotter and more humid here in North Carolina, I'm working to keep my roses alive and relatively healthy, despite my aversion to spraying and chemicals. And I'm amazed at the serendipity of life in general. You see, I didn't always grow roses, much less heirloom, or Old Garden Roses, as I do now and it is strange to see how a little thing like a rose has played such a large role in my life.

Way back when (well, 15 years ago) I was single and living in a condo. I figured I'd never get married or realize my dream of living in the country. I was resigned. But much to my surprise, I met a wonderful man through my hobby of bird watching and he lived…in the country. The photo of the male Hooded Warbler shows you why I love bird watching to this day, and it's not just because I met my husband through this hobby. :-)

(And in another bizarre bit of serendipity, I went to college to become a biologist, but in the end switched majors. But my husband is a biologist, which means I can pretty much understand what he's talking about and I don't get grossed out by the peculiar contents of the bottles I find in the refrigerator.)

So with a great deal of delight, I sold my condo and moved to thirty acres that back up to a swamp. The mosquitoes and snakes are generally less delightful, but that's another story for another time.

Anyway, we purchased a house that had been built by a woman who grew roses. There weren't many roses left, but a huge Tea rose called 'Marie van Houtte' (shown below) managed to survive the neglect while the house was for sale and "between owners". At the time, I didn't know what it was, but I loved its loose, soft cream and pink blooms. And the previous owners generously sent me three more roses as a house-warming gift. (Folks in the country really are very, very nice.) And I wanted a few more. I bought the standard Hybrid Teas and every blessed one died on me. I figured I had a black thumb. Plus, I really hated spraying because we also wanted to turn 3 acres into a wildlife sanctuary (not to mention that my dogs kept eating the rose hips). I almost gave up.

But while I was getting used to gardening, I started searching rose catalogs and reading up on roses. I found Old Garden Roses, that is, roses that were hybridized before 1900 and generally only bloom once a year but are rich with fragrance. They don't need to be sprayed—yippee! And after a few seasons, I joined a local rose gardening club. I won awards at a few rose shows, and even managed to identify my beloved 'Marie van Houtte'. And I discovered Tea roses and Noisettes that seem perfectly adapted to this area and actually rebloom throughout the summer. In fact, Noisettes were originally hybridized by Mr. Champneys in Charleston, SC, so the southeast is a good home for them.

And while the Hybrid Teas burned up too quickly from the heat, humidity and disease, Tea and Noisettes flourished. In fact, I (perhaps unwisely) purchased two Noisettes, 'Reve d'Ohr', (show to the left) to plant over a metal arbor leading to my vegetable garden. Then I had to add two more metal arbors to hold up the huge climbers. When 'Reve d'Ohr' literally crushed all three metal arbors, I cut them back and my husband built a massive wooden arbor. Within a season, they had clambered over that and covered it completely, providing excellent nesting habitat for a series of wrens, sparrows, and the occasional mockingbird.

Completely absorbed by my new-found friends, I dug deeper into the literature and collected every possible book on roses and historical roses I could. And I ran across myriad stories of the Empress Josephine and her rose garden at Malmaison. She may be credited with really started the systematic collecting, hybridization and cataloging of roses. She even had an arrangement with the French and British fleets in the middle of the Napoleonic wars to allow her to acquire roses and seeds from Britain and to allow a visa for Mr. Kennedy—a famous British plantsman—to come to France and help design her garden. Eventually, her gardens were so extensive and well-known, she had to hire guards to patrol it because people were stealing her roses at night!

At about the time I was reading about Malmaison and Josephine, I resurrected another dream of mine: to be a writer. And between my love of roses and the fascinating historical detail of robbers stealing roses out of the gardens at Malmaison, my historical romance, Smuggled Rose was born! After all, those stolen roses had to go somewhere and we know there was a great deal of smuggling going on, so it's only natural to assume some of those roses made it back to British soil.

That's how, serendipitously, I realized three dreams I once thought I had to abandon: I married a wonderful man; I moved to the country; and I became a writer.

And I grow luscious, beautiful roses and never spray them, at all.

Something Fun—Easy Rose Water

Because it is hot and I do grow roses, here is a wonderfully refreshing face tonic. I use it to rinse my face in the summer. This makes a very small batch. You can easily double it, e.g. 1 cup rose petals and 2 cups of boiling water, but I prefer to make small batches so I can be sure to use it up while it is fresh. This can even be used for some Near Eastern recipes that call for rose water.

½ c. rose petals (pack them in) from bushes that have not been sprayed

1 c. boiling water

Place the rose petals in a Pyrex glass bowl or large measuring cup. Pour the boiling water over the petals. Let steep until it cools.

Pour into a very clean bottle and keep in the refrigerator.


—Amy Corwin

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Romance Writers of America Conference, 2009

Good News (If Any)

Got a few leads to check out (one thanks to writer Monica Burns). Saw many, many friends that I don't get to see very often. All of my critique partners have "hit it big" and are doing exceptionally well--I was so pleased to see them: Monica Burns, Kristi Cook, Charlotte Featherstone, and Jenna Black.

Also got my covers from the art department for my paranormal.

What I'm Reading Now

I'm actually not reading anything at the moment—I'm rather overwhelmed with work. J

What I'm Writing Now

Post-conference, I'm revising my contemporary mystery. My editor will shortly be sending me my first edits for my paranormal, Vampire Protector, so I expect I'll be busy with that soon, too. I'm also considering changing around a few things. I may start offering short pastiches, or short stories, as free reads, first from my newsletter and then perhaps also as PDF-formatted downloads. I've always considered this to be bad—if you are a professional and trying to earn a living, you actually need to earn money for your work and not give it away for free. However, perhaps it would serve as self-promotion, so I could feed my capitalist, "I actually need money to live on streak," with the balm that I'm not really writing for nothing if it works as shameless self-promotion.

What—If Any—Thoughts I have

Went to a bunch of different workshops at the RWA conference. Learned some new techniques (and was again awed by the sheer ego of some writers—I mean even if you are a best-seller, do you really, really think other writers must read you if they are serious about becoming better writers? Of course it could be true and maybe the fact that I don't read most best-selling authors is a terrible flaw that will keep me forever off the NY Times Bestsellers list. It is an interesting notion.)

Found the following information interesting and helpful. It also made me realize that I'm at a slight disadvantage, never having taken a single writing class in my entire life. I'm hoping the conference workshops do qualify, however, as some sort of training.

Jennifer Crusie

Went to a workshop held by Crusie on turning points to solidify the concepts of turning points in a novel and beats in a scene. She did a great job and has indicated she will be posting the information in her blog, with a link from her website at

In a nutshell, some of the information that resonated with me included:

  1. You need about 5 turning points, realizing that the beginning and ending themselves are turning points 1 and 5. Turning points are those events that happen in the novel that take the plot into an unexpected direction and worsen things for the protagonist. If it's a great turning point, the reader will react with "Wow, I never saw that coming!"
    1. One is the turning point that thrusts the protagonist into the action of the novel at the beginning. It should preferably occur on page 1.
    2. Two is first time you twist the action into an unexpected direction and worsen it for your protagonist.
    3. Three is the classic "point of no return" where the protagonist has changed so much through all that has happened so far that even if s/he could miraculously return to her life on page one, she would not be the same person.
    4. Four is the darkest moment for the protagonist. S/he will fact the antagonist and lose everything that she holds dear—for the moment. But the protagonist will make one more super-human effort to overcome and her efforts will lead to turning point five…
    5. Five is the final metamorphosis, the conclusion of the character's arc/change, and the resolution of the story. The detective unmasks the killer. The guy gets the girl.
  2. As you go through the story, the turning points need to come closer together. This gives the reader a sensation of things getting rapidly worse for the protagonist, heightens the tension, and makes the book a "page turner" where you can't put it down because things are moving so quickly. For example, in a 100,000 word novel, you might have the turning points at the following places:
    1. One (of course) goes on page 1, e.g. at 150 words. I'm giving you 150 words to "set the stage" J for the turning point.
    2. Two could then be placed between pages 140 – 180 or between 35,000 – 45, 000 words. (+35,000 from TP 1)
    3. Three could be placed between pages 240 – 280 or between 60,000 – 70,000 words. (+20,000 from TP 2)
    4. Four could be placed between pages 300 – 340 or between 75,000 – 85,000 words. (+15,000 from TP 3)
    5. Five could be placed between pages 340 - 380 or between 85,000 – 95,000 words. (+10,000 from TP 4)

      Of course those page number/gaps between the turning points are just "made up" to give you a feel for how the distribution of turning points *could* be arranged.
  3. When planning a novel, it can often work best to just write the first draft, i.e. the writer's draft, that lets you get it out on paper and work through the characters. Then remove the first three chapters. This is really true in my case. The first three chapters are frequently used by the writer to get to know the protagonist before really thrusting her into the action and many times, these chapters can be safely removed. In fact, their removal helps the story by moving the first turning point (Call to Action) onto page one where it belongs.
  4. Then, once the writer's draft is done and the first three chapters deleted J, you can begin the real work of identifying the turning points and cutting/editing/rearranging them so that they occur at closer intervals to speed up the action and increase tension toward the end.
  5. BEATS in a scene are rather like turning points in miniature. They are the turning points in an individual scene that change the direction of things, reveal new information, etc. Jennifer illustrated it as a conversation between a married couple, as follows:
    1. Man and woman are arguing about a coffee table. So the first Beat is the start of the argument: "You never liked that coffee table," the wife said. Then they argue about the relative merits of the table, until…
    2. 2nd Beat: The conversation has a turning point when the wife says, "You don't like it because my mother gave it to me." Then, they start arguing about the relationship of the mother-in-law to the husband and wife…
    3. 3rd Beat: The next turning point occurs when the husband says, "This has nothing to do with your mother or the table. I just don't like you. I want a divorce."
  6. You'll notice that beats, like turning points, move from bad to worse to worst within a scene.

So Crusie's talk gave me another tool to try in my editing arsenal. I had not thought about marking out the turning points physically and then ensuring they fall at closer and closer intervals as they move toward the book's conclusion. And same with beats. I think it is incredibly useful to highlight both beats and turning points to improve tension and make sure you are carrying the reader along swiftly.

Donald Maas

Went to a workshop held by Maas on creating a breakout (bestseller) novel. In short, it revolves around characterization and creating deep/deeply flawed and yet heroic characters who fascinate readers. The material mostly came from his book/workbook on writing a breakout novel, but it was very, very useful to sit down and write out your antagonist and protagonist's flaws, good qualities, and identify where you are showing these things. Worth noting: antagonists (villains) have to have good qualities, too, you know, to give them depth. And in a romance, the protagonist and antagonist are often the hero and heroine, and they switch roles depending upon point of view as they lock horns in their conflict.

If you have not read Maas' stuff, I recommend the workbook. The value in his information comes in the doing—not the reading of his writing (good though it might be)—so the workbook will actually make you do the writing exercises he presented in class. Applying it to your novels makes for some interesting, "Oh, shoot—I can't believe I didn't do this before" moments.

Characterization is important. If you can't grab the reader and get that emotional investment in the characters, you're going to have a hard time selling the story. Or making anyone read it past page 1.

Other Workshops

I attended several other workshops, including one on High Concept and developing a novel from a High Concept (or identifying the High Concept in your novel). That was very, very useful and interesting. A High Concept is that brilliant idea you can summarize in 25 words or less that people instantly grasp and gravitate to, e.g. "I see dead people." That's the classic High Concept. You need to be able to identify the essence and theme of your story and summarize it in a brief sentence to sell it. Whether you like it or not, after you've spent four or more years writing your opus, you still have to find an editor or agent and sell that darn thing. And that's where it is critical that you come up with a way to grab the attention of these busy, overwhelmed people.

It is an art to come up with these things. I am not good at it, but it's something I intend to work on.

Finally, many of the authors repeated the same notion in different ways. That notion was: Identify your theme(s). This will help you identify which genre(s) will work best for you and allow you to write both to your strengths and your interests. For me, recurring themes in my books are always: redemption and acceptance into society—or at least making peace with your fellow man and yourself. And finding justice. Those themes resonate with me and underpin everything I write—which is why so much of what I write is either a mystery or has a mystery subplot. Often, especially in the case of someone falsely accused, finding justice also means redemption and acceptance back into society. I believe the writer Charles Todd also plays with those themes in his Rutledge mysteries. For Rutledge, solving a murder and fighting for justice is redemption for him, both mentally and career-wise.

There was a lot more I learned, but that was at least a taste. It was a fascinating three days.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The End of June

Wow, what a week. First Ed McMahon, then Farrah Fawcett and now Michael Jackson passed away. Guess that's one secret the health nuts forget to tell you when they insist that running that extra mile and eating that cardboard, uh, healthy cereal will keep you young. No one lives forever. And as far as I'm concerned, I'd rather die two days earlier than eat Kashi for breakfast. Not to pick on one brand or anything, you understand.

So anyway—it's a little scary when you start seeing familiar faces you grew up with dropped under six feet of soil. I'm really feeling that cold wind blowing up my skirt these days, particularly since all the parents on both sides of my family have passed away. The next row to be scythed by Death is mine. Brrh. Chilly.

And morbid. So enough of that, already. No more bad news, please. Nobody dies for the next few days. Promise.

Writing-Related Stuff

Romance Writers of America asked me to participate in a task force studying e-publishing with an eye towards preparing materials for writers considering publication with small press and e-publishers. There has been a lot of controversy about the whole e-publisher and small press issue as it relates to questions like: are small press/e-published authors really considered published since they don't typically get an advance for their books? You see, most writers' organizations have strict guidelines about what constitutes "being published" to distinguish serious, professional writers from your average Joe who self-published his memoirs. Most of the time, the dividing lines are drawn around the following questions:

  1. Did you get published by a "recognized" publisher? (Most of these are based in NY—and criteria for publishers to get on the recognized list is generally whether said publisher pays an advance to all of its authors and if that advance is of a certain dollar value…)
  2. Did you get X dollars for an advance? Some organizations set this at $3,000. Some set it at $1,000.

Most e-publishers use a different payment structure. They don't pay an advance, but they pay authors every month or every quarter after their book is released. Generally, authors don't make much with e-publishers, particularly with a first book, but over time, productive authors with e-publishers can make money. Some authors actually make enough to live on, so it can be a good avenue for authors with books that are just too different for the NY big boys to acquire.

Anyway, I'm working to avoid controversy and provide fair and honest information that may be of use to our authors. It's an interesting group and a very complex topic.

Good News (If Any)

Semi-great news: looks like my editor is preparing the contract package for my paranormal. And the fun thing is that my critique partner, Lilly Gayle, has a paranormal under contract now with my publisher, too! So I'm hoping we can cross-pollinate and make guest appearances on each other's blogs sometime next year when our books are released. This is a new genre for me, since I generally write historical/historical mysteries, but it was a fun change of pace.

Once I actually get the contract paperwork and sign it, I'll feel "set enough" to talk more about it. In the meantime, I'm pretty pleased.

Also, I was delighted with Long and Short Reviews nominated my historical short story, OUTRAGEOUS BEHAVIOR, for best story of the week last weekend. What a nice surprise! They also gave me a lovely review, which made my day.

And although I got two rejections for another historical mystery, one of the rejections said the editor would like to look at the manuscript again if I beef up the romance a tad. So I'm giving that a whirl. It would be super if I could have several books come out in 2010, what with this dry spell in 2009.

What I'm Reading Now

I just finished Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard. What a fun read! Here is a snippet of the review I wrote for it…

This is the first Elmore Leonard book I've read and I have to admit, I really enjoyed it. The characters were charming and funny, even when they were beating up folks. It is always interesting to me to see how an author portrays what are essentially very bad people in a moderately sympathetic manner and Leonard is very, very adept at this.

Jack Foley is a bank robber with a very interesting moral code. It's okay to rob banks, but not dupe people. He's honestly a bank robber, I guess you could say. While I find that sort of moral hair-splitting a little distasteful, for purposes of a novel where you don't have to actually associate with these people, it's okay. I like Jack. He's charming and he's actually honest. If you ask him what he does for a living, he's right up front about it. He robs banks and he's just out of prison. Take it or leave it.

Cundo Rey is a little more difficult as a character. He never really gelled for me, but I take it he "starred" in another book, so maybe if I read that first, I'd have glommed on to him a little better. The reader isn't meant to like him as much as Jack, though, and Leonard makes sure of it by Cundo's treatment of his girlfriend, Dawn Navarro.

And Dawn, well, if you think the other two characters are in a moral gray area, well, she's pretty well drifting as close to black as she can without actually being a mass murderer or anything. She dupes folks for money. It's interesting in that I suspect this moral hair-splitting may say a lot about Leonard's sense of morality. It's okay if you do bad things as long as you are honest about it and don't dupe people.

What I liked: Loved the characters' interactions and the peek into the lives of people I would never in a million years associate with in real life. J There's a sort of evil fascination to getting a glimpse of life on the wild side. The plot was twisty, although I have to admit there was an inevitability about events that made it somewhat predictable. This is good in the sense that what happened HAD to happen because of the characters', well, characters. On the other hand, this also made it a little predictable once you understood the characters. It had to go the way it did for better or worse.

What I didn't like: There wasn't anything I hated. But I couldn't really get into Cundo Rey or his backstory. There were just elements that didn't mesh for me, such as his previous existence as sort of a male exotic dancer. I could have wished for a little more of the unexpected, too, in the plot. Nothing really surprised me.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this book. It's definitely on my keeper shelf.

What I'm Writing Now

I'm redoing the historical mystery, The Bricklayer's Helper, to add a touch more romance for resubmission to my publisher, The Wild Rose Press. I'm really, really hoping they will ultimately accept it as they did such a good job with my previous historical, I BID ONE AMERICAN.

What—If Any—Thoughts I have

Writing is a difficult art to learn and requires constant care and feeding. One of the key elements, however, is discovering what gives you joy. For me, my joy in writing comes when I can come up with a humorous situation. The more humor I can infuse into a story, the more I enjoy writing it. The manuscript I'm submitting now, The Bricklayer's Helper, gave me tremendous joy in writing it. Each night, I would lay in bed thinking about what possible terrible—and terribly funny—thing I could do to Sarah and William (my heroine and hero) the next day. I could hardly sleep. I kept wanting to leap out of bed and continue writing. Only sheer exhaustion kept me from doing so.

And while some books I write are much darker, like my paranormals, I know that if I get stuck or depressed, all I have to do is think of the silliest, stupidest, funniest scene I can. My enthusiasm immediately returns, even if I later have to remove that scene.

If you can find what "turns you on" creatively, you can use it to drive yourself forward through all the roadblocks and deadends. Use what you can. You can always edit the junk out later.

Have a terrific weekend!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

June 2009

It's June already? What the heck is going on with time, anyway? It seems to compress at random; needlessly, too, I might add.

Good News (If Any)

I'm awaiting word on my paranormal manuscript with The Wild Rose Press. The editor who read the manuscript liked it and is recommending it to the powers-that-be for purchase. So that's a small, tentative hurray with hopes that the powers like it and buy it. That would be sweet! Especially since I got not-so-good news from another publisher who was looking at one of my historical mysteries. She liked it, but due to the current economic climate, the company is restructuring and may ultimately decide not to do it. But I was thankful to her for giving me an honest assessment of the situation. That shows true graciousness and thoughtfulness that is rare today. I hope they are successful at restructuring and that, even if they decide not to do historical mysteries in the future, there might another genre/place for me with them in a few years.

Still awaiting word on a few queries and submissions, but realistically, I doubt I will hear anything before August or September. In the meantime, I'm going to be bundling up query packets for a mystery I'd like to find an agent to represent.

Other good news: my dog Molly is doing fine now after getting bit on the upper lip by a Copperhead. And even better news, my husband and I saw a King Snake on the path and King Snakes eat Copperheads and Rattlesnakes. So I have every hope that the King Snake will eat the Copperhead that bit my dog. It would be so just if that happens!

What I'm Reading Now

Just finished Gold of Kings by Davis Bunn. Great adventure story with just enough romance to be really satisfying to me. When we first meet the hero, Harry Bennett, he's in a Caribbean jail and there's not much worse that can happen to him. Or so we think. But he gets sprung on orders left by a dead man, Sean Syrrell, only to be immersed in an adventure to find a treasure lost for centuries. Accompanying Harry is Sean's niece, Storm, and Emma—an FBI agent who can't seem to stay out of trouble, either.

There's a crafty and nearly unstoppable assassin on their tail and the FBI want to arrest Harry for the supposed murder of another person interested in the treasure they seek. After the first few chapters, Harry might actually have had a more restful and better time of it back in prison!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book—mostly because of good old Harry. The guy just can't stay out of trouble and that is my favorite kind of character. He was a little quirky and a little different and very lovable. Bunn did a fabulous job with Harry and I'm glad Bunn didn't stoop to the obvious and set up a romance between Harry and Storm. The two characters like each other, respect each other, and save each other's bacon, and I enjoyed the interplay between the two a great deal. The relationship was handled with grace and subtly—something rare in many of today's novels.

Storm Syrrell was less entrancing to me, and I have to say I'm a little sick of these "unique" and artsy-fartsy names. I class the name Storm in the same category as Hawk for a man. Get over it already—can't she just be a Jane or Mary? Maybe not Mary, because that rhymes with Harry, but Jane would do. And frankly, after a surfeit of these "romantic" names, Jane actually feels unusual and unique to me. It's even spelled properly.

Sorry, didn't mean to digress about the name. But Storm did seem a little less real to me than Harry—for whatever reason. But it did nothing to mar my enjoyment of the book. If you get a chance to read it, do!

And I just picked up Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard and am enjoying that. Nothing beats a good crime novel, especially with a delicious, understated sense of humor.

What I'm Writing Now

I'm struggling to write at the moment, mostly because I keep going back to edit things so I can do some more submissions. I guess that's progress, too. However, last night I wrote a few more lines in my Christmas novella. I won't make the deadline for it, but maybe that's okay and I can submit it for next year (Christmas 2010). If I can finish that, I want to write a mystery. Not sure if it will be contemporary or historical, but it will be one or the other.

What—If Any—Thoughts I have


What is backstory? It's when an author digresses from the current time/storyline to give the reader some background about something. Usually, it's junk that happened in the past that made the hero into the man He Is Today (or the heroine into the woman She Is Today). Everyone tells you to cut out all backstory. Obviously, you can't cut out all of it, otherwise the reader won't understand what is happening or why the character is acting the way he is. But you can certainly trim it back, usually to just a phrase stuck in where it is absolutely essential.

There is so much written about backstory already, but I think I can boil it down to a few salient points:

  1. Don't include backstory that's just history. That is, that has nothing to do with what is going on RIGHT NOW in the book. For example, Melissa Sue is facing a decision about whether to move to the country because she just inherited a huge house. Backstory would be: Melissa Sue was orphaned when she was seven and went to live in a children's home in the Ozarks. And in this instance, the fact that she lived in a children's home in the Ozarks is completely irrelevant and should be excised from this passage. It's only marginally relevant that she was orphaned, and that detail can be inserted in a small phrase, if it's necessary to know that the inheritance was a surprise because of it. That's all. There is absolutely no need to go on and on about the children's home and what the Ozarks looked like, etc, unless it has direct and dramatic bearing on the events at hand.
  2. Don't include characters (and character names) in backstory for characters who will never be mentioned again. They have no relevance in the current story. Do not take attention away from your main characters by throwing in a bunch of names/characters who aren't even in the current story. For example, if Melissa Sue inherited her house from her great-aunt, that's all you need to say. You don't even need to give the great-aunt a name and history—unless that fact has some relevance to Melissa Sue's current problems.
  3. Information must be critical to the current problem the character faces. See item 1. And only reveal that information when it is necessary to describe the character's immediate problem. Otherwise, the reader will just be jarred out of the story, tension will be lost, and your pacing will suffer.

That's about it.

Best wishes for a successful week!


Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I can't believe May is heading toward closure already. We've had a difficult spring since my mother-in-law was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, the chemo was a little rough on her and she passed away right before Mother's Day.

Good News (If Any)

I've got a ton of submissions out. A few of them should be getting back to me next week. Note to the editors reading my manuscripts: if it's not good news, delay all you want.

I did submit a short story today to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. And I submitted a short-short story to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine last week. I'm on a short story binge.

What I'm Reading Now

GOLD OF KINGS by Davis Bunn. It's a mystery/action/adventure story similar to the recent mega-hits like The DaVinci Code. It's fun and so far I'm enjoying the change of pace. I like the hero in the story (the poor chump) but I'm so-so on the heroine. I guess I'm a sucker for a guy who keeps getting the raw end of the deal.

I also just finished plowing through a couple of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Mags. The last few months I've been in a mystery mood. I tend to go in phases like that, where I get the itch to read books in a particular genre. I also bought a bunch of Columbo DVD's. And some of the original Dark Shadows DVD's.

A few months ago, I was in a "ghost story" mood and was shocked to find how few really good, spooky ghost stories there are. There is my favorite, The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson and then…um. Well, now, we start to have a few problems finding others in that vein. Modern horror is okay, but I really, really like the understated, creeping horror without the constant overwhelming blood-baths and orgies. I'm still dying to find some new ghost stories—any length—that are more eerie than gory. I end up going back to this huge volume of tales of the supernatural published in 1940—but I think I've read everything in there at least five times.

Hence…Dark Shadows. This weekend, I'm going to indulge in that guilty pleasure and see the very beginning where Victoria Winters arrives and …

What I'm Writing Now

I was supposed to be writing a historical novella for Christmas, but I just can't concentrate on it. I may have to switch to a contemporary murder mystery, instead. Or a different historical. I have a historical murder mystery brewing that I'd like to write, as well as a contemporary one.

My real problem is that I'm sort of waiting for word on some other manuscripts I've submitted. I don't want to build up a pile of manuscripts in a particular "series" unless I can get the series off the ground to begin with.

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

What—If Any—Thoughts I have

I'm back on my old "characterization" hobby-horse. I keep returning again-and-again to that topic. As a writer, I firmly believe the story IS the character. If you have terrific characters, then the plot will flow naturally from the characters and their predicament. It doesn't take much—all you have to do is figure out what the characters really would do given their personalities and the set of circumstances you initially thrust them into. And then you subsequently have to make every good decision your heroine or hero makes into a bad decision that just gets them deeper into trouble.

Sort of like what happens in real life.

It sounds so simple and yet it is so hard to do well. It's very difficult to give your characters free will and then have them go off into unplanned (and undesired) directions and have to completely redo your plot. As a writer, I really resent my hero's arrogant presumption that he has a life and can make his own decisions, thank you very much, and to heck with what I planned for the plot. And my heroines…well. She's usually even worse.

I really hate having to redo the entire plot half-way through because of uncooperative characters. And I have to do it every single time! Just once, I'd like to win that argument and have the book turn out as I originally conceived it.

Anyway, I do have one tip or exercise. Pick up a magazine every day and randomly select a picture. And then write a 250 word story about that picture. Trust me, if you want to become a better writer, exercises like that will work wonders for your creative muscles.

Besides, it's fun.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Last Week of April


Good News (If Any)

I'm initiating queries for a new series of mysteries set in the fictional town of Peyton, NC, situated on the glorious Crystal Coast, an area Blackbeard used to romp around. I've got the first one, Whacked!, written with plans for a linked set of three under development.

My paranormal manuscript has been submitted to my current publisher, The Wild Rose Press. If they like that one, I already have the rough draft of a third one written, with plans for a third under development.

I'm still waiting to hear back from the publisher on a historical mystery I submitted a few months ago, as well as a couple of other submissions.

So, no "good news" per se—and I may be getting a lot of bad news in the way of rejections over the next few months, but hey, it's all in a day's work for a writer. It's comforting to think that even great writers suffer the same humiliation, although I doubt that many of their rejection letters start with "Dear Author".

What I'm Reading Now

The Mercedes Coffin by Faye Kellerman.

Maybe I'm just not in the mood for this or something, but I'm finding the book a little slow going. I mean, when Decker goes to interview a suspect for the third or fourth time and there's still no one home…my interest sort of sags. But I have a couple of brand new books awaiting me, so if I can struggle through to the end, I've got others to look forward to.

What I'm Writing Now

I'm trying to decide about writing a historical Christmas novella. Or working on another mystery—either contemporary or historical. Just not sure. That's the problem with having a lot of submissions running around. Once I hear from any of them, I'll know which direction to take.

So maybe I should just write the novella. Although I may also try a short story aimed at the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine—just for the fun of it.

What—If Any—Thoughts I have

I've been thinking about suspense versus mystery and my own enjoyment of mysteries. Generally, folks indicate that one of the biggest differences between suspense and mystery is the knowledge of who the villain is. Although if you use that definition, Columbo would be suspense instead of mystery, because you always knew who the murderer was—it was just whether Columbo could catch him (or her) or not.

But I think there's another important factor in mystery, and that is motive. These days, suspense frequently features a serial killer as the villain, and the motive is dismissed as something as trivial as: he's a sociopath; he doesn't like women with blonde hair; he had a bad childhood; or…just because he's bad. Sigh. Maybe that's why I'm not that into suspense. The motive isn't all that important.

With a mystery, even if I know who the villain turns out to be, I still want to know why and how. The motive and method are almost—or more—important than the who. In fact, the why is what is keeping me reading The Mercedes Coffin. I just want to know the motive.

And it's motive that fascinates me enough to write mysteries. Because I'm always trying to work out: what would force a person into a position where he (or she) thinks murder is the only answer? Why doesn't the person just walk away? (Which is, frankly, what I would do—I can't imagine what would make me kill someone—unless he was actually attacking me. I'm more of a walk-away-&-never-to-speak-to-you-again person.)