Monday, November 30, 2009

How New Friends Can Help Us Keep Our Writing Fresh

Portrait o fZaíra Fortes--1944  Candido Portinari-1903--1962 My daughter’s best friend is Natalie. Natalie’s parents moved here from South America nine years ago.

I always enjoy going to their house. I think it’s because I’m so aware how different we are. We have lots of similarities, too, but I feel like such a gringo when I visit there.

The Spanish I know came from Sesame Street in the early 1970s. They speak excellent English.

I’m always in a tearing hurry when I arrive there—I’m either there for two minutes because I’m on my way to something else, or I quickly realize something that I need to do. They move at a very slow-pace. I must appear like I have ADHD to them.

I can go there at any point during the day and something wonderful is cooking. And the most exotic aromas are wafting out of the kitchen. If you come to my house, unless it’s a crockpot day, I probably haven’t figured out my plan for supper yet.

When I went to a party at their house recently, their jaws dropped when I started to help clean up their kitchen after supper. They were very uncomfortable with that, although they were smiling politely. I realized that none of their Hispanic guests were cleaning…in fact, they were looking at me with a rather puzzled expression.

Although I’m the same exact person at Natalie’s house, I feel different. I’m very aware how different I am from them, in a nice way. When I’m with other busy moms, I’m very similar to them all. I may be the only writing mom in the group, but I’m not the only frantic mom who is doing too many different things at once. At Natalie’s house, I’m the exotic person. Which makes it interesting.

When we move out of our comfort zone, our days can go in completely different directions. I usually end up sitting down and visiting and having a bite of something delicious that I can’t pronounce and have never eaten before.

It’s only natural for most people to congregate with people who share a similar mindset and background. We do tend to set up tribes with like-minded people. But I think it’s good for us as writers to grow a little bit.

I look at my characters and they tend to colonize with similar types, too. They hang out with family, and their circle of friends. And, of course, a killer. :) I do write mysteries.

I’ve realized that when someone radically different or an outsider is introduced in my books, they usually end up dead.

This is a challenge for series writing. On the one hand, series readers usually enjoy checking back in with their favorite characters. But we also need to keep it fresh and different---mix things up a little so our protagonist isn’t hanging out with the same people all the time.

If I feel like I’m growing a little every time I make a new friend (especially a friend who’s so different from me), then it’s got to be good for character growth, too. Especially for a series.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Birth Order

Lunchtime--1914--Zinaida Serebriakova It was a great Thanksgiving. Our family enjoyed a trip to South Carolina to visit my parents.

My sister stayed in the Charlotte area to have dinner with her husband’s family there. I’ll be catching up with her in a couple of days.

My sister and I, although we get along really well together, are absolutely nothing alike.

I’m very introverted; she’s very extroverted. She chose a job in the financial sector where she deals with numbers daily. I chose to work with words, instead. She claims she has no creativity at all; I got more than my fair share. She is extremely coordinated and was a serious ballet and modern dancer in college. I have a hard time walking and chewing gum at the same time and staircases remain a major challenge for me.

Most of those things are just genetic flukes. But there are definitely some behavioral differences that I believe result from the fact that I’m first-born and she’s second.

Birth order has always interested me. I read a book on it a few years ago and was surprised at some of the book’s claims. It stated that we frequently befriend people who share our birth order—we may not know their birth order, but we’re attracted to our common traits.

But, stated the book, we usually marry partners who don’t share our birth order. Opposites can attract, when it comes to romance.

I thought it was a load of hooey---but it just so happens that all my closest friends are first borns. My husband is a second-born.

I’m always interested in gaining a little insight into my characters or making them stronger. Birth order isn’t something I mention in my books, but the traits can be useful when inventing characters and studying personality traits.

(Oh, am I stirring up trouble! Now y’all….there are exceptions. And this isn’t necessarily scientific. But here goes. This is from the British paper, The Guardian.):


Oldest children

Typically responsible, confident and conscientious, they are more likely to mirror their parents' beliefs and attitudes, and often choose to spend more time with adults. Oldest children are often natural leaders, and their role at work may reflect this.

Because they are more likely to have authority over younger siblings, or take on the role of surrogate parent, they have a tendency to be bossy and want things to be done their way. Oldest children can be perfectionists and worriers, and may put pressure on themselves to succeed.

Middle children

Likely to be adaptable, diplomatic and good at bringing people together, middle children are often popular and patient. However, because their role in the family changes from youngest to middle, it is thought that they often struggle to establish a clear role for themselves, and many go through a period of rebellion.

Middle children can be competitive: they do not have the time on their own with their parents that oldest children enjoy, and their role as the baby of the family is supplanted, so they have to find other ways of getting their parents' attention.

Youngest children

Charming, impulsive and good at getting their own way, the youngest child's role as baby of the family means that he or she is likely to be indulged. This may mean fewer responsibilities and more opportunities for fun, but youngest children often find that they aren't taken as seriously or given the independence they crave. Youngest children often rebel as a way of distinguishing themselves from older brothers and sisters. They are more likely to take risks, and often choose a career that is different from other members of their family.

Only children

Only children enjoy the same parental attention as first-borns and are often confident, conscientious and socially mature, due to the amount of time they spend in a largely adult world. They may have a tendency to assume that others know how they are feeling, or think the same way as they do, without question. They may be dependent on their parents for longer than other children, spending more time at home and delaying decisions about their future.


These results, obviously, change in very large families, or if there is a large gap between children.

I will say that a lot of the above is related to family dynamics and how the parents treat each individual child.

But it’s interesting. And, for me, it’s fun to find perspectives on what motivates and drives my characters.

On a separate note, please pop over and see my fun interview at the Book Resort today. Thanks!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Writing: the Fantasy and the Reality

The Red Table--1916 Leon-de-Smet-1881-1966 The fantasy: I knock out a ton of writing at the beginning of the day.

The reality: I’m frequently distracted by email when I first wake up. It seems vital to me that I respond immediately. This takes some time and then abruptly, it’s time to drive the school carpools.

The fantasy: A picturesque writing cottage in a lovely village is my inspiring retreat as I pen timeless masterpieces that will be studied by collegians for generations.

The reality: I write on the go. I frequently write in the car, pediatricians’ or vets’ waiting rooms, the playground (while trying to ensure my daughter is not abducted by strangers) and carpool lines. I’m a paperback mystery writer…fun stuff that’s a good escape. Not exactly The Divine Comedy, though.

The fantasy: After a restful night in the arms of Morpheus, I scribble quickly as my personal Muse prattles on and on.

The reality: I’m a raging insomniac. I rarely sleep more than 3 hours straight. The Muse is never there; I have apparently deeply offended her, so I’m left to my own devices.

The fantasy: I write perfect prose while keeping an immaculate house, neatly attired children, and providing nutritious suppers.

The reality: I write decent first drafts. Draft ten, however, is much better. The house looks fine unless you look too closely (which I don’t advise. Please back away from the refrigerator, sir.) The children do usually pass muster. Supper is hit or miss. Occasionally we’ll have a special occasion, which I call Breakfast for Supper --a charming name for Eggos, cereal, bananas, and pre-cooked bacon. (Oddly, this meal is a tremendous hit with my husband and children.)

The fantasy: A fan of my series approaches me with great excitement, burbling with admiration about my appearance on the Today show.

The reality: I’m recognized by someone who read a write-up in the local paper. Unfortunately, I’d just finished a grueling day of yard work in 95 degree Southern sun. I hardly even recognized myself.

The fantasy: I write for myself at all times. Anything less would be selling out.

The reality: I write for my editors and my readers. Anything less and I would not be selling at all.

The fantasy: I am living my dream.

The reality: I am living my dream. In the real world.

I’m taking a three day break from blogging to celebrate Thanksgiving with family. Hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving and will enjoy these older posts of mine. :) All the best to my non-American friends, too! This post originally ran May 13, 2009.

Friday, November 27, 2009

What Fairy Tales Have Taught Me About Writing

Pied Piper of I’m still in the point of my life where I’m reading a lot of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Sometimes I even feel like I’m continuing the storytelling tradition by retelling the tales to my kids sans books.

No matter how often I read and tell these stories, the kids are caught up in them.

What I’ve learned from fairy tales:

Start out right in the middle of the action: Jack and his mother are out of food at the beginning of Jack and the Beanstalk. So Jack goes off to sell the old cow, the last saleable asset, for their very survival.

If you start out with an ordinary day, it should abruptly veer off course (and pretty quickly.) Red Riding Hood was on a run-of-the-mill trip to Grandma’s house before ill-advisedly chatting with a wolf. In Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the bears had some hot food that needed to cool--and the need to walk off a few pounds. It was a normal morning for the bears until that naughty Goldilocks broke into their cottage and started destroying their furniture.

Limit the number of characters: Fairy tales have only a handful, suitable for easy retelling through the generations. And, yes, the stories are super-short. But think how memorable these characters are.

Characters’ shortcomings can contribute to their downfalls: Yes, the wolf was a terrible antagonist for the Three Little Pigs. But two of the pigs were brought down just as much by their own failure—laziness. Obviously, brick building matter was available, but they decided to go the easy route with twigs and straw. Little Red Riding Hood shouldn’t have talked to strangers. The poor villager should never have bragged to the king that his daughter could spin straw into gold. Peter’s habit of lying nearly caused him to be devoured by a wolf.

Greed is a powerful motivator: The people of Hamelin didn’t pay the Pied Piper for ridding them of their rats; he lured off their children in retaliation. Jack’s greed (he went back up the beanstalk several times to steal additional items from the giant) nearly killed him.

Before an attack, have tension build steadily. We know something that Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t know—she’s in the room with a ravenous wolf. The tension builds as Red comes slowly toward the bed. “Grandma! What big eyes you have!” Jack hides in an oven while the giant bellows, “Fee-fi-fo-fum!” It’s not a jumping-out-at-you kind of fear. We hear the giant’s heavy steps, see Red come closer to the wolf to peer at her ‘grandma.’ Waiting for the inevitable attack creates painstaking tension.

Have the protagonist save himself by using his wits. Now this isn’t always the case in fairy tales. Yes, the woodsman saved Red and Grandma. And Bluebeard’s wife was saved by her brothers. But in many cases, there wasn’t some last-minute savior. In Three Billy Goats Gruff, the goats outwitted the troll by repeatedly promising him that a better meal was on its way to the bridge. In Hansel and Gretel, Hansel tricked the nearsighted witch by sticking out a small bone leftover from a meal to prove to the witch he wasn’t fat enough for her to eat. The pig with the brick house was one step ahead of the wolf: realizing he was going to try to enter via the chimney, he anticipated the attack and boiled a large pot of water.

When the characters save themselves, the result is much more satisfying.

When I’m reading fairy tales to the kids, I sometimes think I’m getting more out of it than they are. Sharing the stories is a good experience for both of us.

I’m taking a three day break from blogging to celebrate Thanksgiving with family. Hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving and will enjoy these older posts of mine. :) This post originally ran July 17, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Memories

Isn’t it funny what sticks in your head sometimes?

You’d think that holiday memories would be comprised of some really Martha Stewart moments of hearth and home. A beautiful blog12centerpiece, an exquisite meal. Perfectly compatible relatives conversing in harmony at the table.

I don’t know about you, but my memories are more along the lines of Thanksgiving mayhem.

Pop by and share your favorite holiday craziness at the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen blog today.

Mystery Lovers Kitchen

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Each Character has a Job

The Wind in the Willows

It’s a rough world out there right now, job-wise.

It’s even rough for characters in manuscripts. I’ve found that if one of my characters isn’t doing their job in telling the story, then it’s time for them to get canned.

After all, we don’t have all the time in the world to just let a story meander around. If I’ve written a character in, they need to perform. Some of them need to create conflict for my protagonist (like the interfering son who won’t let my sleuth do her investigating.) Some of them need to provide clues or red herrings for my detective. Some need to be killed, some need to be murderers, and some of them need to be bystanders….but even the bystanders have a job to do. They should be entertaining or colorful in some way.

I need quieter characters, too—like Ratty and Mole in The Wind in the Willows. They were gentle, quiet creatures—and great foils for Toad. Some of my characters are straight-men for my funny protagonist. Some of them are sounding boards so my sleuth isn’t having long conversations with herself, wondering who the killer is.

But if I have a character that isn’t really doing anything, or if they’re just kind of hanging out in my manuscript without a purpose, it’s time for them to get their pink slips. Let them mess up someone else’s manuscript.

I’m taking a three day break from blogging to celebrate Thanksgiving with family. Hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving and will enjoy these older posts of mine. :) This post originally ran June 8, 2009. Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends and all the best to my others!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Traveling During the Holidays? Some Interesting Reading

blog10 Lately I’ve read some interesting articles online on a variety of writing-related topics. There have been some excellent posts by commenters on this blog, too—but I’m thinking many of my readers read your blogs, too! Maybe some of these sites will be less-familiar.

I’ve tweeted these—but I know there are many of you that aren’t on Twitter that might find some of these interesting reading.

Writing Technique and Content:

7 tips to nail that perfect title:

Six elements to writing a good scene:

Top 7 Reasons Readers Stop Reading:

Make your characters' flaws work for you:

5 Tips for Creating a Distinctive Character:

Develop characters through dialogue:

How to Kill a Character—And Avoid Hate Mail:

Technology and Tools:

Need Photos? Where To Find Free & Legal Stock Photos Online:

20 online tools for writers:


7 Reasons Agents Stop Reading Your First Chapter :

An agent's 10 pieces of advice for a successful author/agent relationship:

After You’re Published: Promoting and Money Management

9 Tips for Successful Author Readings:

Practical and unique tips for book signings.

When authors shop at bookstores--should they resist checking the stock for their novel?

An agent discusses financial aspects of publishing:

50 Things Under $50 To Promote Your Book:


100 Useful Links for ebook Lovers:

Help for writers with cluttered desks: Eleven Myths of Decluttering:

Monday, November 23, 2009

Nosy Neighbors and Other Stock Characters

La Primavera 1936--Anselmo-Bucci-1887-1955 One popular stock character in books and film is the nosy neighbor.

Have you had a nosy neighbor before? They collect a hodgepodge of random and fairly useless information about their neighbors. If you've had plumbing problems, dirty carpets, or electrical problems, they're sure to spot the van in your driveway and make a note of it. Have family over to visit? They'll know that too--or at least that you have someone over and they'll speculate who they are until they finally break down and ask you.

I've had a nosy neighbor before. She'd call up our house and ask if everything was all right: she'd seen my husband's car there--was he home sick from work? Was the baby okay? Did I need a casserole?

Nosy neighbors? They exist. And not only in books and on TV.

The Mysterious Matters blog is written by an anonymous editor….or, maybe, publisher, of a smaller press. In the post, Ten Characters to Put Out to Pasture, he made a list of ten stock characters he’s tired of reading.

The nosy neighbor isn’t on there, but a garrulous neighbor is.

His points are valid ones. Here is his list:

The pill-popping, alcoholic, cold society woman; the overly garrulous neighbor; the bitchy teenage girl; the sleazy male boss; the precocious and wise-beyond-his-or-her years niece or nephew; the cub reporter and her hard-as-nails-but-secretly-sensitive editor; the snobbish matriarch fiercely protecting family secrets; the cocky dude whom the heroine falls for, despite his arrogance; the wisecracking detective; and the town crazy.

Wow. What a group!

There are different ones for different genres. But why are they stock characters to begin with?

I think many people have met folks like them. It makes them believable.

Like my nosy neighbor. Everybody’s had one in their neighborhood.

The trick is to put a unique spin on the characters. What makes them different? What makes them three dimensional and not a cardboard cutout of other characters like them? Do they grow as characters? Do they react differently in different situations? What gives them some depth? What do they do that’s unexpected?

One thing I know about my particular nosy neighbor. She felt like she was taking care of me. Mrs. Triola was an elderly lady with too much time on her hands--and spent much of it looking out the window. I, ten years ago, was a young mother with a very busy toddler and no time to worry over the inconsistencies of the mail delivery or the garbage pickup. What if, one day, Mrs. Triola had actually seen something? What if she'd had a Hitchcock Rear Window moment? She'd have been pleased as punch if she'd been able to stop a crime in progress, call the fire department at the first sign of smoke, or alert me to an approaching tornado.

She had a good heart. Another dimension than 'nosy neighbor.'

Yes, there are stock characters, just like there are stereotypes. Do they exist because there’s some truth to them? Should we avoid using these characters altogether--or just work harder to make them unique?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Paying Attention

View of the Kaag--Willem-Bastiaan-Tholen-1860-1931 I’m not sure I’ve ever been great at paying attention to the world around me. It has to be pretty spectacular for me to notice it.

When I was a college freshman, I headed off to an afternoon class, “Media and Society,” one fall day. After walking across campus and into the library, I saw a note on the door saying that class had been canceled. Hmm.

As I walked back toward my dorm, a security man drove up to me in a golf cart. He was an older, big man, and I remember how red his face was. “What the hell are you doing out here?”

I gaped at him. “Well, I’m trying to get to class. But it’s canceled.”

“Well it sure as hell is! Hurricane Hugo is coming through, young lady! Why do you think the campus is deserted? Do you hear that siren? And look at that sky. Do you think that’s normal?”

Oh. No, I didn’t think it was normal, now that he mentioned it. And the campus was sort of oddly deserted….like that movie The Day After. The siren? I don’t know what I thought that was all about. The outraged security guy dragged me into his golf cart and deposited me at my dorm with stern warnings. Everyone in my dorm had gathered into the commons area to watch the TV….a fact I’d been blissfully unaware of when I’d left my dorm room and trotted off to the canceled class.

Sometimes I don’t pay attention to minor details.

I skip over details when reading, too. I want to get to the main thrust of the story. Ordinarily, tedious setting descriptions, love scenes, and boring bits get a pass over from me.

What I do pay attention to as a reader:

First off: who is the protagonist? I want to know right off the bat who I need to pay most attention to.

Subtle clues to the season, time of day, and general location. Are people wearing sweaters? Coats? Sleeveless tops? Are leaves turning? Are crocuses blooming? Are the characters’ shadows stretching out on the pavement in front of them? I think I pay more attention to setting clues than if the writer comes right out and lays out the information for me.

What year is it? Am I reading something set in the present day? A retro piece? I read a book recently that dealt with World War II. But for the longest time, I couldn’t ascertain if the war was still ongoing, or set in its aftermath. I ignored everything else in the book until I tracked down that bit of information.

I want more details about the setting if I’m reading a tense scene between protagonist and antagonist. Can the protagonist escape? Is there anyone within earshot?

Who are important secondary characters? Which names do I need to learn and which are just bit players I don’t have to remember later?

What is the relationship between different characters? Friends? Lovers? Family? I may even need an additional reminder of their connection later on.

If you sometimes skim as a reader, are there parts that you’re actively looking for? Are there parts you always want to pay attention to or that you flip back in a book to find?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Giving the Reader What They Want

Alexander Deineka---Young woman-- 1934

I was putting my daughter to bed the other night and she said, “I want to stay with you forever!”

Of course I told her she was sweet, and continued tucking her in. But she held onto my hand and said, “I really, really do, Mama. Can’t I always live here, even when I’m a grown-up?”

I smiled at her and gave her a hug. “I know you think that now. But you’ll be a teenager and won’t want to spend as much time with Mama. And then you’ll grow up and want to have a family and a house of your own.”

I kissed her goodnight.

The next night was a determined repeat of the last. “Can’t I always live here with you, Mama?”

I opened my mouth to give The Truth of the Matter, Part II, when it finally occurred to me that that was not the ending she wanted to hear. I wasn’t giving her what she wanted. She was going to keep trying for the alternate, better ending.

“You can always live here. Even when you’re a grown-up. You’ll always have a home here with Daddy and me, if you want it.”

Big smile and she was happily off to sleep.

Critics and movie goers frequently like different things. Critics see movies all the time and are bored stiff by formulaic movies. Movie goers are frequently happy with comfortable familiarity. Critics wouldn’t mind some really tragic endings to films. Movie goers are less tolerant of unhappy endings.

Are readers really any different?

What does a reader want? Frequently:

Unambiguous endings

Tied up sub-plots

No cliff-hanging endings

And….for many readers….happy endings.

I’ll admit that I try to plug into what readers want. I really want to make a career of this writing gig. I get emails from readers and read what readers have to say in comments on book blogs. I’m taking it all in. For me, satisfying a reader is priority #1. If I’ve satisfied readers, my editor is usually pretty happy, too.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Capture1 I’ve gotten a couple of questions lately about using Facebook, so I thought I’d do a post on it. If y’all have any other questions, please feel free to comment or shoot me an email so I can answer them (or find out the answer if I don’t know it.) I’m including some really basic info here, but I’ve also got a few other things for more experienced users.

A Professional Account and a Personal One:

I started out with a personal Facebook page first. I had a lot of friends using it and sharing pictures, etc, on it---and I had some curiosity about people I’d graduated from high school and college with.

But then I quickly realized that I needed a separate Facebook account for my writing friends. I was wincing far too much as old pictures from sorority formals or icky yearbook pictures were getting scanned in and uploaded to Facebook from old friends.

I decided to open a second Facebook account under Elizabeth Spann Craig, Author. So far, I’ve only had a few friend requests where a personal friend tried to befriend me on my author account and vice versa. I always send a message to them if they do that says, “Hey, I think you’ll like it better on this account….that one’s for work,” or else “Could you be my friend on this account? This is the one with all the writers.”

Some people will recommend that you get a ‘fan’ page instead of 2 separate Facebook accounts. But I like the 2 accounts, myself. I don’t like asking someone to ‘be my fan,’ but I don’t mind asking someone to be my friend. But there are benefits to having a fan page: they are accessible to anyone, even if someone doesn’t have a Facebook account. The argument for having a fan page is here. There’s also, I think, not a cap for having friends. Regular Facebook pages cap at 5,000 friends. But….frankly, I can’t imagine having that many FB friends. I’m at over 600 and I just don’t see me getting anywhere close to that number.

Setting up Facebook is really easy. I think it’s probably one of the easier social media out there.

  • Step 1

    Start at the homepage for You’ll see a screen where you can click on ‘sign up’.

  • Step 2

    On the sign up screen, you fill out your name (full name…you’ll be surprised how many people across the world share your name), email address, password, and some other personal info. If you are setting up 2 different Facebook accounts, you’ll need to have 2 different email addresses to use for setting up the accounts (somebody correct me if I’m wrong…it was like that when I was doing it, but might have changed.) This is still easy, since you can get a Gmail account, Hotmail account, or Yahoo account for free. You’ll have a word verification form and an “I accept” agreement to click. Then you click the ‘sign up now.’

  • Step 3

  • Facebook will send a confirmation email to you to the account you used while setting it up. When you get the email, click the link and you’ll be logged into Facebook..

  • Step 4

    I’d be careful when it asks you if you want to search for friends because Facebook will search your email address books. I didn’t use that feature---I just searched for friends in the search boxes. For your personal account, you can search by university and graduating year, which is fun. You can also search by company, if you want to find old coworkers.

  • Step 5 Set your privacy settings. There’s a toolbar at the very top of each page that has ‘settings.’ That’s where you can set up who sees your information and how your info is shared.

  • Step 6 Upload pictures for your profile. Add personal information on your info tab.

How does Facebook work?

capture2 You can’t really look up someone’s information unless you’re their friend. It’s limited, for their privacy. You send a friend request to the person and on their end, they get a little notice in the top, right-hand corner of their screen, telling them they’ve got a request. They can click on it and see your picture and name and decide if they want to befriend you (I know this sounds a little like junior high.) If they accept, you can see their info and they can see yours.

Status Updates: This is where you can start a conversation by bringing up a question or making a statement. You can see your friends’ status updates and can respond to them by clicking ‘comment.’

Pull your blog feed onto Facebook:

Capture4 Set up Facebook to pull your blog feed automatically onto your profile page. This frequently will generate comments: (I’m cutting and pasting Facebook’s instructions on doing so:)

  1. On the Notes page (you get there by clicking on Notes on the bottom left hand side of the window), click the Import a blog link on the right side of the page.
  2. Enter the URL (web address) of your blog into the text box, and check the box underneath that states that you agree to our Terms of Use.
  3. To complete the process, click on "Save Settings." Once you do this, your previous posts will appear as notes and any new posts you make will automatically display.

Making friends:

Look up writers you admire who write in your genre. Become their friend. Facebook friends are different from real friends—no one is going to wonder who you are and why you’re asking to be their friend, so don’t feel self-conscious about it. It’s a different culture. Once you’re friends with the author you targeted, click on their friend list and ask those people to be your friends. Those people will get a friend request from you stating that you share a mutual friend (the author you originally targeted.) Twitter works the same way. Look up an author or industry professional (agent, editor) that you respect. Then follow them. Then you can raid their followers list.

I accept almost everyone as a friend. Unless they’re currently serving time or something.

Networked Blogs:

Networked blogs is my favorite Facebook application (it’s a 3rd party one, but very popular.) Basically, you’re bringing your blog to the Facebook community—they can access it via Facebook’s blog reader. And your blog will automatically post to your profile page. The only thing is it’s sort of a pain in the neck to figure out and set up. The best online guide that I’ve found for how to set it up is this one. It uses screenshots as illustration, which really helps.

Helpful Tips for Facebook:

Twenty Facebook Tips You Might Not Know.

10 Privacy Settings Every Facebook User Should Know.

What I’ve gotten out of Facebook professionally:

I’ve gotten interview requests, etc. in my Facebook inbox. I think that’s because, if I’m Googled, Facebook comes up quicker than my email or blog as a contact.

I really enjoy networking with the writing community in real-time on Facebook.

Dangers of Facebook:

Could you spend your entire day on Facebook? Oh, sure, without even thinking about it. But I think the best thing to do is to set a timer to remind us to get off of it after we’ve visited. Otherwise you can lose large chunks of time there without even thinking about it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Telling the Story—Making it Good

Maternite-Nicolas Tarkhoff My daughter would balance on the slippery edge of the bathtub for what seemed like an eternity before stepping out onto the mat. No holding on to the side for her.

“Oh my goodness, you are scaring me to death!” I’d say.

“Why?” Very curiously.

“You’ll get hurt!”

A couple of days later--

“You’re scaring me just looking at you! I told you not to stand there!”


“Because I said so!”

Finally, when the same scenario of the bathtub balancing act played out a third time, I said in my best ghost story voice:

“I once knew a boy when we lived in Birmingham. He was just a little guy. But one day, he stood up on the edge of that slippery bathtub. He was just weaving and wobbling around, and WHAM! He busted out both of his front teeth. Oh the blood and the crying--you just wouldn’t believe it! His mama had to put his teeth in a glass of milk so they wouldn’t go rotten on the way to the dentist. And the dentist had to stick the little boy’s front teeth back in!”

She never stood up on the edge of the bathtub again.

What’s the lesson? Other than the fact that I finally succumbed to the grand tradition of parent warnings (including the granddaddy of them all “Your face will freeze like that!” I liked to cross my eyes at people when I was a kid…)?

That when you paint a good, concrete image in someone’s head with words, it’s powerful.

How to make it vivid? I think it depends on the book and the genre.

I usually like reading vigorous language with strong verbs, spot-on metaphors, and sensory details that are quick but evocative.

Fancy adjectives don’t hurt. And I’m not adverse to adverbs if they’re not overdone.

A good storytelling style, or voice, helps too. Even if an author’s word choices aren’t wonderful, if his voice is strong, it’ll grab me. I can see everything through the narrator’s eyes and it pulls me into the story.

What makes a vivid story for you?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Keeping it Professional

Rue de Rennes Paris, 1920--mario-tozzi-1895-1979 Sometimes it’s a challenge to act like you’re a professional person when you write.

People don’t really get writing, sometimes. They know we’re at home, but they really don’t know what we’re doing there.

And children can make it difficult to be professional.

When I upgraded my cell phone and gave my son the old phone, I had no idea that the contact list would still be there, even though we’d gotten a new phone number assigned to the phone. He was busily thumbing through, adding contacts to his directory (all 7th graders) and said, “Hey. Who’s Ellen?”

“Ellen? Ellen is my agent. Hey…give me that phone!”

And then my 3rd grade daughter, who tried to make me change my profile picture on my Gmail account so it would have kittens on it.

I’ve no problem with kittens. I love cats, actually. But a book cover would be a better choice for my particular books.

Then, of course, there was the radio interview where my daughter knocked on my locked bedroom door for 20 minutes.

Still, I’m trying hard to portray myself as a serious professional.

Things that help:

  • Business cards.
  • A snappy, interesting one or two sentence summary of your book, if someone asks what it’s about. (Think of it like a pitch.)
  • Introducing yourself as a writer (this is a tough one. I’m working on it.)
  • A professional-sounding email, Twitter, Facebook account. My email is my name, and so is my Twitter account and Facebook. I have two Facebook accounts---one professional and one personal. This keeps me from feeling irritated when old sorority sisters post pictures of me from 1989.
  • My voice mail message sounds professional.
  • A website. This is important, even if your book isn’t out yet. Make sure your contact info isn’t buried on there.
  • Respecting our writing time and asking others to do so, too.
  • Making sure our children know when we’re about to be on an important phone call.

Alan Orloff had a wonderful idea for keeping children away when you need to work. He puts a sign on his office door that says: Please come in so we can get started on chores.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tips and Tricks for the Forgetful Writer

Femme la Fentre--Virgilio-Guidi-1891-1984

I’ve always been forgetful, but this month has taken my little problem to a new low.

I forgot my parent/teacher conference at my daughter’s school.

I took my daughter to a Christmas play practice…and then realized (after her part had been assigned and she’d practiced for an hour) that we’ll be out of town the day that the play runs.

I bought a decongestant for my husband at the drugstore, then couldn’t find it. He and I searched my car, the den, our bedroom, and much of the rest of the house before we found his decongestant—in the freezer.

And…I published a post on the Midnight Ink blog yesterday when I knew my posting day was the 17th. It was on my calendar and everything as the 17th. But I posted on the 16th.

Wow. What’s going on?

I think one big component to my problem is email and the way I’m processing it.And then how I'm reminding myself of the tasks I need to complete that my emails are laying out.

I'm juggling lots of different types of messages: emails from readers (which I love getting), emailed requests for interviews, review copies, signed books for charity auctions, blurb requests for upcoming books from other authors, and emails from the publisher’s publicity person---this is for the book I'm promoting.

Emails regarding revision requests, emails to obtain blurbs on my upcoming book, submitting lists to publishers regarding review opportunities for ARCs, lining up appearances—this is for the upcoming book.

And then, of course, there’s the writing for the next book, which should always be in the hopper. And some emailing to editors and agent regarding that project.

My email inbox was a disaster area. Chit-chatting stuff alongside mail from my agent. The three list-servs I’m on had emails all over the place in my inbox.


The last couple of days, I’ve been working on making sense of the madness.

Folders for my inbox…set up with mail rules upon delivery: listservs in one folder, agent/editor mail in another, interview stuff in another. I use Gmail for work, which technically doesn’t have folders—it has labels. But you can label one email several different ways, which is nice.

Using my phone for big reminders: My daughter’s parent-teacher conference? It totally needed a phone reminder. I can set up my phone to send me a text or to make an alarm to remind me of something important.

A “Big Picture” calendar: I think one problem I’m facing is that I’m not grasping the relationship between my days. That sounds nutty, but basically I think that just because something is on my day planner, I’m not really realizing that day’s relationship to the current day. There’s nothing wrong with using a page-a-day calendar—unless you don’t know what day it is. Which I, apparently, don’t. Now I’m using both—the daily one and the big picture calendar. I need a sticker with the words “You Are Here” on it to put on today’s date.

Starring or flagging important emails: This is something I’ve always done, but it’s worth a mention to those of y’all who don’t and end up with nutty inboxes. In Gmail, you can put a star next to an important email so you can find it later. In Outlook, you flag it. You can even choose different colored flags. Later, you can sort your emails so you only see the ones that require action.

As far as putting drugstore items in the freezer? I haven’t figured out a fix for that one, yet. I guess I’ll just have to include it in my places to look when I’ve lost something.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On Marriage and Series

American Gothic--Grant Wood--1930 My husband and I started dating when I was a freshman in college. This will be exactly 20 years ago December 7th and means that I’ve known him longer than I haven’t known him.

You’d think there wouldn’t be too many surprises left, but there actually are. Oh, we have our set-in-stone-patterns most days, but sometimes we shake it up a little. And I think we’re hitting our midlife crises, so we’ve become somewhat more unpredictable lately (my husband has rediscovered his enjoyment of scuba diving.)

But even with some surprises along the way, I can frequently guess what my husband will think, do, or say about a given situation. He does the same for me. It’s very comfortable in many ways. I like the ability to read someone’s mind.

With series, you get to know the protagonist similarly well over a series of books and years. If I met Adam Dalgliesh in the street, I’m pretty sure I’d recognize him. PD James has made sure of that.

Reasons to write series:

For one thing, I enjoy reading series. I’m going into a book with some knowledge. I know the sleuth, I know the sleuth’s personality. I know the sleuth’s sidekick. I know some of the internal conflict. Just bring on the new victim, suspects, and murderer.

It’s easier for me to write. My setting usually stays the same. The constants I mentioned above (regarding sleuth and sidekick) are the same. I even have recurring characters in my books. I’m starting with a bunch of ‘knowns’ to build on. When you’re starting with Book One, you’re making everything up as you go along.

From a purely commercial standpoint, I make more money writing series. And I’m building up a name for myself (on the bookshelves) in the industry.

Challenges in series writing:

Making sure you don’t bore your returning readers by providing too much back story. Making sure you don’t confuse your new readers by not providing enough back story.

Some people don’t enjoy reading series, preferring stand-alones and a fresh story each time.

Not getting bored with your protagonist. And not boring others with him or her. Like a marriage, you really get to know your main character. This can be a good thing….or not. Try to keep it fresh—either by providing your protagonist with new challenges or new characters to interact with.

Things to check:

Is your protagonist likeable? If not, is he or she at least interesting to hang out with? Otherwise your reader might not want to stick around.

Is your protagonist growing as a character? I think marriages get boring when there’s no growth or change. Same goes for books.

Are you a series reader or writer? If you don’t like reading series, do you enjoy writing them?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Age and Characters

Olga Boznanska--Portrait of Francis Thomasson--1925 The other night I was sleeping and I pulled a muscle in my back.

“*&$#@!!!” “What’s wrong?” asks my husband, alarmed at the 3:00 a.m. cursing.

“I pulled something!” "How?” "I think I rolled over funny.” Then I was awake. I pulled something. While I was sleeping. How completely ridiculous. I’d never done such a thing in my 20s or early 30s. Bleh.

I have two protagonists for two different series for two different publishers. They’re both elderly.

Myrtle Clover for Midnight Ink is an octogenarian. Lulu Taylor for Penguin is in her sixties.

The challenge is to accept the limitations that age can provide, make the story realistic, and still have them both actively engaged in crime fighting.

I’ll admit I have some pretty amazing older ladies in my family. My great aunt was water skiing in her 60s and my grandmother was very active in her 90s. Both of my children’s grandmothers go to the gym for workouts every day. My life has been populated by strong women who say what’s on their mind and are clear matriarchs that everyone respected and listened to.

Myrtle is unhappy when she’s talked down to as if she were a child. In fact, Myrtle might actually take revenge if you did such a foolish thing. It wouldn’t be pretty.

Myrtle isn’t above using her age to her advantage. You might think she was a completely innocuous old lady and lower your guard around her.

That would be a mistake.

What would be a problem for my protagonists? If they took a spill. They really don’t need to fall down. I try to take good care of them and for their part, they’re sharp as tacks and in great shape. They’re not afraid of much. They’re feisty and spirited and ready to take on any villain you send their way.

But still I have people asking me questions. One elderly man demanded in a workshop, “I want to know what ‘old’ is to you.”

I was quick to answer, “Old is a state of mind.” And I truly believe that. He felt that my protagonists would be more limited, physically, in real life. I disagreed.

Although the entire day when I walked around with the pulled Latissimus dorsi, I was reminded that 40 is just around the corner. I wasn’t exactly doing jumping jacks that day. In fact, I was downright cranky.

There’s a new term for the burgeoning genre marked by older protagonists—geezer lit. I think Myrtle and Lulu would find that term belittling.

What if your characters are really young? Are they taken as seriously? Are there limitations based on reasoning skills? What if they aren’t old enough to drive? What kind of independence do they have? There’s a reason why there are so many orphaned child protagonists out there: grownups are lousy at letting children do what they want to do. If you do have parents in a juvenile lit or YA book, are the parents really lenient? How do you handle the problem?

What age are your characters? Do they have age-related challenges?

It's my Sunday to host a guest at the Mystery Lovers' Kitchen. Hope you'll pop over and visit with Midnight Ink author Sue Ann Jaffarian. She writes the Odelia Grey mystery series and the Granny Apples Mysteries.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More Subtleties

In the Garden--Le Pho I’ll admit that I’m not one of those people who does a great job with social cues. In fact, I frequently don’t know what to make of exchanges I have with other people. Are they trying to tell me something? Are they hinting at anything? I’m one of those people that you just have to come out with a sledgehammer and hit me over the head with it. I am not going to pick up on your hints. Do you want your child to be worked into the drama carpool? Do you wish I’d stop talking about writing during lunch? Did I make you mad because I forgot to ask how your weekend trip went? You should tell me.

I was with two other moms at my daughter’s book club meeting a few days ago. Their daughters are also in the Brownie troop that I co-lead (yes, I’m overextended. Bleh.)

We were supposed to have an investiture ceremony for the girls and the facility wasn’t available that day of the week. The other leader suggested an alternate date—the one night I wasn’t available because of a meeting. Unfortunately, it meant we had to restructure the event to make it less fun for the girls….the potluck part of the evening wasn’t going to happen, but we could have cake.

So we’re talking during the book club and one mom says to the other, “We could have had the investiture on the 12th, but Elizabeth couldn’t do it. She has this busy schedule now that she’s got two book series, you know. Always making these author appearances.”


Since I’m clueless about social cues, but I like to do a Good Job (at Brownie leading, too), I tried to dissect this later. Was she being mean? Was there a roll of the eyes? A slight smirk? Was there anything in her tone to suggest she thought I was being difficult? Or a diva? Am I not doing a Good Job?

Was she simply explaining the situation to the other mom? Why the date wouldn’t work?

Was she poking fun at me?

Was she trying to laugh with me? In which case it didn’t work since I was frowned in confusion at her before I changed the subject.

Then I just gave up analyzing it from a personal standpoint since I was never going to figure it out anyway. And thought about it from a writing standpoint. As I write more and more, I’m becoming even more of a fan of subtlety. I think it’s tough to do with 75,000 words, but I’m trying.

The scene above….it could be played out so many different ways. What is the person’s motivation? Their background? Are they normally snide? What about the person they’re addressing? Are they sensitive? Or clueless like me?

Leaving the reader wondering might be good, too. Or you could have different people have different reactions and assessments of the conversation. That’s only natural since different people bring different experiences to the table when they’re reading a situation.

You can change the syntax to bring a different slant to an important scene. Just by choosing slightly different wording, you can change the entire tone of an exchange. It can go from innocent to menacing.

You can show reactions of other characters through speech or demeanor.

You can show the facial expressions or physical actions of the person talking—are they agitated? Are they too calm? Does their voice have an edge to it? Are they blissfully unaware of the reaction they’re producing?

I love the idea of creating little mysteries about people and their motivations in a scene. Because….do we ever really figure people out? And—for the writers out there—do we really want to? Viva la uncertainty!

Friday, November 13, 2009


Winter Sonne 1913--Leo Putz It seems that, through the course of the years, my sense of humor has gotten dryer. Or something.

I was at the coffee shop for my caffeine fix and saw that the drip of the day was Mexican.

“Will it give me heartburn?” I asked the barista with what I thought was a hint of a smile.

He looked pityingly at me. “No ma’am.” (Yes, he was much younger than me.) “It’s just a type of coffee bean. There’s nothing spicy in there.”

How deflating.

As I writer, I don’t want a reader not to ‘get it.’ I don’t want them wondering, like the barista, if I’m trying to be funny or not.

But I love using humor in my writing:

My books have a lot of situational humor. It’s fun to put a character in an uncomfortable situation and see what happens. My character, Myrtle, gave a disastrous dinner party and she was so serious about trying to make everything perfect. When it all backfired on her, it made the scene funny.

Running jokes—I use small gags that pop up at various points during the story. Humorous subplots are fun to write.

Dialogue—Funny exchanges between characters are a great way to make the characters’ conversations zip by and add comic relief to the story.

What hasn’t worked for me:

I’ve used puns before. One editor wasn’t a fan and took them out.

Winks to other English lit lovers. I thought it would be funny to name the minister in my Myrtle Clover series ‘Nathaniel Dimsdale.’ You know—Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter with the minster, Dimsdale? My editor didn’t think it was funny or interesting. I changed the name.

Humor is such a personal thing. I don’t put straightforward jokes in there. I gravitate to funny or unusual or uncomfortable situations and a small amount of physical humor.

How do you incorporate humor in your books? Do you ever worry your readers won’t get it?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What Bad Writing Can Teach Us About Good Writing

blog5 Unfortunately, my son’s technology teacher got very frustrated with his 7th grade class Monday.

One of the students hadn’t followed directions and printed out 8 sheets on the computer printer instead of the 2 that the teacher instructed.

The teachers are allotted a certain number of paper reams per quarter. The student who didn’t listen understandably upset the teacher.

To my irritation, though, he punished the whole class. It was probably one of those “straw that broke the camel’s back” things. I’ve met this teacher and thought him a pretty nice guy.

To add to my irritation, his punishment was for the class to write.

Wonderful. Great way to foster a love of writing in the next generation. It couldn’t be math problems instead? (Now I’m risking upsetting the math types here….but there are only 2 math lovers that I’m aware of who read this blog.)

My son came home in a really frustrated mood and told me he had to write a five page essay on three computer-related questions.

The questions? They could be answered in ten or fewer words—they were basically vocab terms for Microsoft’s Excel software program.

“I’ll never be able to get five pages from these questions!” He was swamped with other work….he’s in honors courses….and didn’t really have the time to suddenly write an essay for an elective course.

“Well… can. It’s completely possible. It won’t be good writing, but this isn’t Language Arts,” I said.


“Picture the most boring person you’ve ever known. Think of a topic that’s dear to their hearts. Envision them blabbing on and on and on about their love for this thing while you’re desperate to get away from them. That’s the kind of writing you’ll need to do.”

The beginning: I recommended he start off with a couple of paragraphs about Excel itself and why it’s important. And list allll the people who find Excel useful: accountants, students, stock brokers, etc. Then list all the ways they could find it useful.

The middle: I recommended he define the vocabulary word. And then elaborate on why the item in question is a useful feature in Excel. Give several examples that don’t cover new ground but reinforce the feature’s benefits. Do the same with the two other questions.

The end: Wrap it up with a drawn-out closing, overstating the obvious. Repeat some of the same points in the summation.

There would be no subtlety in this essay. He would be spelling it all out, word by word. He would pretend that the person reading it had never heard of the Excel spreadsheet program—or, possibly, a computer-- and would explain, in dreadful detail, all the different ways that different types of people could benefit from using this software and these particular features of it.

I read it after he wrote it. It was gosh-awful, which is exactly what it needed to be, under the circumstances. It's probably an A paper, despite its intrinsic hideousness. I’m so glad I’m not this teacher, reading a total of 150 pages of that drivel from this one class.

The odd thing I found is that my son was elated. He hadn’t realized it was even possible to elaborate to that extent on a topic. I hastened to tell him never to do it with a Language Arts essay.

If I were editing that bloated monstrosity?

He used approximately 1250 words to explain something that easily could be stated in 100 or fewer words. I’d have slashed most of the text as unnecessary.

The beginning was unwieldy and verbose. It dragged on and on. It didn’t zone in to a tight focus on the subject (these few features of the software) but prattled on about the big picture (the entire spreadsheet program and its benefits.) In a murder mystery, this would be the equivalent of talking about the importance of the justice system instead of focusing on a soon-to-be occurring crime.

He assumed his reader had no experience with his subject matter (the only way to squeeze out a big word count was to over-explain.) Yet he knew the paper was going to a technology teacher. We know our audience and need to make sure we don’t talk down to them or over-explain.

He used an information dump on a topic, categorically listing aspects of the program that could be useful. In a normal paper or manuscript, there’s no need to overstate descriptions or to sum up. If you’ve described Tina as a nerd, then you don’t need to keep expounding on this a few lines down: , “Tina loved to read.” “Anytime Nova was on, Tina watched it.” “The highlight of Tina’s day was when she got to watch ‘Star Trek.’” Okay, everyone got the point at the very beginning when you succinctly stated that Tina was a nerd. The rest is overstating the point, unless the reader needs to know about Tina’s ‘Star Trek’ love as an important plot point. No need to belabor it.

The ending was no quick summation of points covered. No, it was this grueling step by step review through the material. I like endings to tie into the beginning, but to offer some fresh insight…after all, a journey should have occurred through the book. Rehashed endings can be painful to read through.

It was ghastly. But I think it taught him more about writing than penning a good paper would have. He had to think about all the standards of good writing---really think about them. And then deliberately disregard them all. It ended up being a useful exercise.

Have you ever read something that made you wonder how it got published? Did you think of ways you could have written it better yourself? Has that provided you with any inspiration for your own writing?'s pumpkin lasagna, y'all, at the Mystery Lovers' Kitchen! Now, don't make that face until you see what's in it. I promise it's sweet...and it doesn't have any tomatoes in it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Personality Facets

Portrait of a Young Soldier Wearing His Helmet--Eric-Kennington-1888-1960 My daughter and I were riding down the road in the car and she was chattering about one of her favorite subjects—birthdays and birth places. She’s very impressed with herself that she was born in a Charlotte, North Carolina, hospital since the rest of the family was born elsewhere.

“You were born in South Carolina,” she said. “In Anderson.”

“Actually, no. I was born in Fort Benning, Georgia.”

There was a look of great surprise on her face. “At a fort? Why?”

“Well, honey, there was a war going on---Vietnam. And Papa was in the Army.”

Papa was in the Army?!?!?!” I can’t really overemphasize her statement, despite the ridiculous number of exclamation and question marks I just used. “What was he doing in the Army?”

“He was a lieutenant. He taught people how to shoot guns.” Big guns.


It was a shock. She knows her Papa as a mild-mannered English professor in his early 60s. He writes extremely well, edits well, and makes astute analyses on English literature. To her, he was not some gun-toting, camo-wearing soldier during the Vietnam era.

We all have these different facets to ourselves. We wear lots of different hats. And in the past we’ve been different things—I’ve worked in a bank before. I didn’t like it, but it’s part of who I am. An unhappy part. :)

I try to show my characters as people with different facets to them, too. If you’ve got a sleuth who is just a crime fighter, then the reader gets a one dimensional impression of your protagonist.

All these little bits of our past contribute—in good and bad ways—to the person we are now.

Introducing the past can be done casually in a book, without dumping a lot of backstory. My protagonist, Myrtle Clover, is introduced as a retired English teacher. The reader isn’t surprised when she tries to force her book club to ditch chick lit. My protagonist Lulu Taylor, was raised by her aunt and spent her childhood at her aunt’s barbeque restaurant. Now she treasures her family and that restaurant over anything—and is prepared to protect them when some become murder suspects.

With a little bit of set-up, we can take our characters in different directions, and show a different side to them.

And, on a separate note, I’d like to offer a sincere thanks to all veterans as those of us in the States observe Veterans Day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009



Originally, I despised the whole idea of Twitter. Now, I’ve got to give Twitter a big thumbs-up. Want to find out what I think its advantages are? Please pop over and visit Terry’s Place, where I’m guest blogging today.

Yes, it’s a teaser. :) They’re very useful on Twitter, too—and a great way to drum up blog traffic.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Setting the Mood

Daniel Garber--Bayou 1935 After 38 years of setting the clock back, you’d think I’d expect the changes.

But each fall I’m surprised how dark it is in the late afternoon. Every morning I’m surprised how light it is so early.

The darkness puts our whole family in a different mood. We light candles at suppertime. We feel sleepier at bedtime. And when I take my daughter to her Brownie scout meeting at 6 p.m., she gets the delicious sensation that she’s up really late at night and out on the town.

I’ve noticed lately, though, an aggressive attempt by stores to put me in a very particular mood.

The Christmas shopping mood.

It was November 3 and I walked into a store that was playing Christmas music. Whoa! There’s no way I’m ready for that stuff yet, y’all. I picked up some things for the kids last summer and that is it. The Christmas season starts after Thanksgiving. It does! But I kept running into stores that were selling the season awfully early.

These stores’ determination to put me in a money-spending mood was a slap in the face. It was not subtle. It felt very pushy to me.

I’ve read some books where I felt the writer abruptly and clumsily tried to force me into a mood: a tense mood, a frightened mood, a maudlin mood. It jumped off the page at me and I don’t think it’s because I’m a writer.

It’s like watching a poorly-done horror movie. You know the bad guy is going to leap out at you because of the scary music, heavy on strings, that’s loudly playing.

Subtle ways to create a mood:

Skillful (and, to my liking, brief) description of the scene’s setting: an abandoned, deteriorating house (unease). A crowded train with body to body people (stress).

Setting tone through dialogue. Obviously this would be two or more characters sharing more than just chit-chat with each other. There could be an urgent tone set, a joyful tone, somber tone…

Syntax: We convey our feelings about a person via word choice—choosing words with negative connotations instead of positive ones. Someone’s face has pity, not sympathy. Someone is smug, not content. A person is cloying, not sweet. The character contributes toward establishment of the mood—the reader feels suffocated by the closeness of the cloying character, e.g.

Weather: I’ve seen this overdone. But it can be used very effectively in unusual ways. We all remember what a beautiful day it was in New York city on 9-11. It just illuminated the horror that played out.

Light: The daylight savings time shifts play havoc with my moods. You could do the same with blackouts, houses with uncertain electrical wiring, uncovered ceiling lightbulbs creating sinister shadows, etc.

I appreciate subtlety in creating moods instead of having a writer lay it on too thick. Are you the same way? As a writer, how do you invoke mood?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Being Told What’s Good for Us

Nature morte aux raisins 1929--François Emile Barraud I’m not a horror writer ordinarily, but I’m going to type in a sentence now that will strike terror in the hearts of many of my female readers:

I went jeans shopping yesterday.

Yes, it’s a horrific experience. And it really shouldn’t be. But apparently blue jeans manufacturers go out of their way to make all of us feel like freaks when we’re trying on their garments.

I for one, though, was desperate. I am so done with hip huggers. Come on clothing manufacturers! It’s not fun having to hitch up one’s britches. Besides, these jeans don’t hug hips. If they did, then I may not have this complaint. But they don’t. They behave as though my hips are not even there.

I have this problem in other areas, too. The Hollywood producers and cinema franchises decide what I’ll watch. But I don’t want to watch gory movies, action movies, or movies with a distracting amount of profanity in them. Could I once watch a subtitled film in a real movie theater?

And television? If I had my way, it would run British police procedurals all day long. Instead, television honchos seem to think I want reality shows.

On to books. Too often, the media tells us what we should be reading (Dan Brown, anyone?) That’s not to say that I’m not planning on reading The Lost Symbol. The whole Freemason thing is very interesting to me. But I just object to the way it was pushed down my throat by the media.

This brings us to individual writers. Some of us have books that don’t easily fit into a standard genre or description. This could throw up a red flag at a publisher—how will it be marketed? What’s its hook?

Of course, that’s a problem I don’t have. I love reading traditional mysteries and that’s what I write. It’s fun for me to work inside the parameters of their standards and rules.

But I want to make sure that there is variety out there to read. That it’s not all stuff off an assembly line that will be easy to market and a clear blockbuster. I may not be interested in reading what a marketing department thinks should sell well.

What do you think? Are you writing a book that defies easy packaging? Do you plan to adapt your manuscript to fit commercial standards of length, subject matter, genre-labeling? Or are you a writing rebel?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

On Following Directions

Young Girl 1892--Sir George Clausen (1853-1944) My daughter was worn out last weekend from being out late the night before. She was about to have another late evening, due to a friend’s party. Since she’s eight years old, I decided it would be a good idea for her to have a little quiet time. At this age, getting tired means getting our feelings hurt and crying—not a fun thing to do at a party.

“I need you to go upstairs and lie down,” I said. I was really very stern.

She nodded, pigtails bouncing.

Twenty minutes later, she brings a pair of scissors downstairs and puts them in the craft drawer. She puts a water glass in the sink and heads back to the stairs.

“I thought,” I said with what I felt was admirable control, “that I asked you to go lie down.”

“You did. But I decided it would be a good time to clean my room. It really needed it.”

It did. And her room looked absolutely immaculate.

She had not followed directions. But I was pleased with the results and so I let it go.

Editors have rules, too. There are things they’d rather not see a lot of. Many of them I agree with---I’ve no desire to see a big back story dump in a book. I don’t like pages filled up with no white spaces (which indicates a lack of dialogue.) I don’t enjoy reading a bunch of passive voice.

But some rules are made to be broken. I’m a fan of prologues. Especially campy prologues. I had absolutely no problem submitting my last couple of books with big old prologues at the beginning. No problem at all.

The editors? Well, they knew I wasn’t following directions. But they were pleased with the results and let it go.

Do you disregard different writing ‘rules’ when you write or submit? Which ones?

Friday, November 6, 2009

When Our Characters Drink

Night Club--1933--Guy Pène du Bois

I’ve recently been to a couple of parties where things got lively with alcohol.

This was unusual for me.

First of all, I’m rarely invited to grown-up parties. My good friends know I don’t really enjoy them and they thoughtfully spare me.

Secondly, the parties I do attend are usually child-centered and the drinking is either non-existent or very light (since everyone is driving their children back home again.)

But these parties were different. One was a house party where everyone was staying put. The other was a party that primarily consisted of neighbors, who could walk to their houses. So, there was no driving.

I do definitely enjoy my wine and beer, but I was happier to be the slow sipper at these events. It’s nice to be the most sober person at a party. And then observe the antics.

I thought that alcohol has a very interesting effect on different people and I wondered how to apply these effects to my characters, if I chose to put them in a situation where people needed to misbehave (and, naturally, a murder needed to happen.)

Quiet people can become loud. And rather obnoxious. A good opportunity for someone to get insulted or silly rivalries to start.

Loud people can become quiet and sleepy. And be successfully taken out of the action of the scene so that other plot devices can be put into motion.

Although I knew no one but the hostess for a Halloween party, it didn’t matter as the evening went on. The reserve that had been present at the beginning of the party quickly disappeared and people came right up to chat with me about the most unusual things.

Occasionally people get belligerent. Excellent for adding conflict to a scene.

People get flirty. For a mystery writer, this kind of a situation, taken a bit further, could result in murder.

People get sloppy. I saw several spills and someone who missed his chair. Nice distraction if you’re a mystery writer and need to have everyone’s attention focused somewhere else.

People talk too much. And they’re indiscrete. Secret spilling time.

If you disapprove of alcohol in general or as a matter of principle, you could use a drunken scene as a statement or a warning (without, naturally, getting very preachy about it.)

If you need your character to act out of character or make a huge mistake, alcohol might provide you with the opportunity.

If you need a scene with a good deal of conflict or unveiled secrets, consider a well-oiled party.

As for me? I got lots of material. :)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Screwing Up

Bastubadaren--Tora-Vega-Holmstrom-1880-1967 In the middle of the chaos that passed for my life last week, I screwed something up royally.

I have the absolute worst memory of anyone I know. I can blame it both on genetics (thanks Daddy) and the writing fog that permeates my brain most of the day.

I write everything down. The dog’s heartworm pill. The items I need at the store. What I like to put in my children’s lunchboxes (I could forget, over the course of a long weekend.) I even make step-by-step reminders for things: RSVP for the birthday party, buy gift, buy card, wrap gift, Mapquest directions….

But last Monday, in the midst of Doctor Mom duty, I didn’t look at my appointment book. See, that’s the inherent problem with lists. You must look at the list to remember what you’re supposed to do.

So I stood my daughter’s teacher up. It was parent conference day and she waited for me to come to the school and talk with her about my child for our 20 minute spot. Yes, she stayed after school was out, when she could have been on her way home or doing other things.

ARGH! It was a horrible screw up and I felt terrible. My daughter’s teacher was very nice, though, and we rescheduled for another day.

Isn’t it awful when we do things like that?

Do our characters do things like that?

I have one series where my protagonist, Myrtle Clover, messes up all the time. She burns dinners, forgets things, creates awkward moments in conversations…the works. My other series has a protagonist, Lulu Taylor, who hasn’t actually made any mistakes. She’s dealt admirably with what she’s confronted with. She makes good decisions. She’s cautious.

I think I’m going to have to mess with Lulu a little bit.

I don’t have to make Lulu as mistake-prone as poor Myrtle, but I’m ready for her to make an error in judgment. Or forget an appointment. She’s definitely wasn’t this perfect person in my first book, but she was very well-behaved. This may change a little in book two.

Do your protagonists make mistakes, either accidentally or by using poor judgment? What’s the right balance for successes and screw-ups, or is there one?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Staying Relevant

Summer in Venice--Konstantin-Gorbatov-1876-1945 I’m a huge fan of art in all its forms, although I try to keep my little obsession under control on the blog. Okay, I do like to post these great paintings online. But other than that, I’m not usually going off into spacey artist territory. But I love all of it—drama, visual, musical, written. To me, it’s a celebration of the human spirit—art sets us apart from the rest of the creatures.

One thing I keep running into lately (and I don’t think it’s because I’m looking for it) is poetry. Yes, poetry. I’ve been noticing it lately in unusual places—snippets in commercials, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Spongebob Squarepants. I’ve read it in the newspaper, even. The NewsHour on PBS now has a recurring segment on poetry and features poets reading their work.


I love poetry, but I wouldn’t have said there were many non-writers who share that view.

Poetry—could it be making a comeback?

I love the fact that I’m reading poetry on social media. That tells me that people are saying, “This is relevant to the 21st century. These aren’t archaic sonnets or iambic pentameter verses. This is modern and relevant to today.”

One of my favorite modern poets is Billy Collins. He has a website, from which you can listen to him read some of his poems. He’s made the change to the modern day—he’s networking on a computer, instead of being cooped up in a writer’s garret like the poets of yore. His poetry is relevant and he’s accessible. And…he seems to be making money. From poetry!

I figure, if poetry can survive (despite the fact that not many of us are out there buying chapbooks), then the rest of us have more than a shot at it. Heck, we’re a shoo-in for longevity, despite market shake-ups.

We hear dire predictions. I think, though, if we work on staying relevant by embracing social media, ebooks, networking, and the rest of the changes coming down the pike, we’ll do a lot toward ensuring our survival.

Think about it—haven’t books been making a splash in the media lately? People have been talking about books. There are big name authors releasing big releases, there are price wars at big stores---books are in the news. They’re relevant.

Maybe poets, considering the challenges poetry faces, have to work harder and more consciously for relevancy. Poetry could have ended up being something our kids read about in English class—at the same point they’re reading about obscure literary forms like kennings. Instead, the art form seems poised and ready for the 21st century. Are we? ******************************************************

And now, since I really can’t help myself, I’ll put a couple of links to some poems I’ve enjoyed lately. :) And a snippet from Billy Collin’s poem, Forgetfulness:

The name of the author is the first to go followed obediently by the title, the plot, the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Summons—Robert Francis On Turning Ten—Billy Collins

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Portrait de Viellard--Ernest Bieler--1863-1948 It was one of my wild mornings last week. Sick child at home and I needed some groceries. It was right after 9:00 in the morning when I arrived at the store, hair completely out of control, no makeup, and wearing an outfit I pulled together in the closet without even turning on the light.

At first I didn’t really notice her, this blonde woman. I was having a conversation with some elderly ladies about the best types of trick or treat candy when I first caught a glimpse of her. She was peering intently at me, but not meeting my eyes.

I was deep inside a freezer, reaching for some frozen pasta when I turned around and saw her again. Again she was studying me closely. Hmm.

The third time was at the cash register. I was really ready to get out of there by this time. I was at the grocery store very early, my child had coughed up a lung all night, I looked like hell, and I had this woman staring at me as though I’ve just escaped from a coven.

I ran a hand through my crazy hair. “Oh!” she said. “You’re not wearing earrings at all. I was looking for someone that might have just one earring in….I found one on the floor. Your hair is so long that I couldn’t tell what you were wearing.”

Well, for heaven’s sake. I wish she’d just told me that back at the trick or treating candy. And here I was feeling all self-conscious and icky. It would have been nice to know what her intention was.

When I’m reading the book, I feel the same way. What is the writer’s intent? For me, as a reader, I’d better be able to tell the direction they’re trying to go in pretty early.

I’ve probably already read the back cover copy and likely a blogger review, too. I know what should be happening, plot-wise, in the book.

But if the author seems to be dillydallying around, they’re going to lose me.

It’s a mystery. It’s been billed as a mystery. It’s been promoted as a mystery. Where is the body? Who is going to be the victim? I’m at chapter six and there’s no body? How much set up is really necessary—I’m ready to start figuring out the puzzle.

Or—it’s a fantasy. It’s meant to be a fantasy and I was told it was a fantasy. Why are we still in a modern day, ordinary, urban setting in chapter four? Where’s my fantastical escape? I want to be transported!

Yes, I’m a demanding reader. :)

Editors like authors to start right in the middle of the action, or for us to have action soon afterwards. If I don’t have a body at the very beginning, I’m going to allude to the fact through some foreshadowing that there is a body to come! If the reader just holds on, then I’m going to completely satisfy their expectations.

How about you? If you don’t put your action or introduce your main plot at the beginning of your book, how do you keep the reader’s interest—Humor? Tension? Foreshadowing?