Sunday, June 28, 2009

Of Hopping Vampires, Witches, and a New Series

I'd like to welcome Hailey Lind aka Juliet Blackwell aka Julie, President of NorCal Sisters in Crime as our guest today! This intro should have gone up with the post, but my computer started making ghastly noises yesterday, so I backed everything up and hastily shut it off. As a result, no intro this morning when the post went up! I'm happy to say the noises were caused by cat hair in the MacBook's fan - the Genius at the Apple Store shot compressed air through it and POOF! Out came a big old wad of fur. I am shocked, I tells ya! Anyway, please welcome the lovely and talented Julie/Hailey/Juliet!

I was at a book reading the other day listening to two author friends, Eric Stone and Tim Maleeny. Eric was talking about his series set in China and Hong Kong, based upon true stories that he gathered while there as a journalist. Fascinating stuff. But then, as an aside, he happened to mention that Chinese vampires hold their arms out stiffly in front of them, and hop.


What? They hold their arms out like mummies, and hop? That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard! I know that there’s a Mexican type of vampire that is sort of a cross between werewolf and vampire, the terrifying chupacabras. The Chinese version sounds like a cross between a ghoul and a vampire. I can just see a new blockbuster movie trilogy: The Ethnic Vampire Wars.

But it’s really the hopping I find most enthralling. Plus, upon further inquiry one learns that the Chinese vampire fighter’s arsenal does not include stakes. Instead, you can zap the fearsome creature by writing a symbol on a piece of yellow paper and sticking it to his forehead. And, if you throw uncooked rice at it, or –why stop there?-- set a whole bag by the door, your average Chinese vampire feels compelled to pause in its ghastly pursuit of blood, and count each and every grain of rice.

This got me thinking about how folkloric traditions vary from culture to culture, even when they start out with a lot in common (this is the way my mind works -- I used to be an anthropologist). When I set about writing my new Witchcraft mysteries (Secondhand Spirits, the first in the series, will be released from Obsidian July 7), I was determined to take the Witchcraft seriously, and for the idea of witches to make sense historically and culturally.

What do I mean by that? When I set out to write a Witchcraft book, I decided, first and foremost, not to allow anyone to think that I was revisiting “Bewitched”. I’ll confess it was one of my favorite shows when I was a child…but it truly butchered the real history and cultural traditions of witches, whether European or otherwise.

My protagonist, Lily Ivory, comes from a small town in Texas. She inherits a witchcraft tradition based on her adoptive grandmother, who is a curandera, a Mexican “curer”. Curanderas do exist in much of Latin America, and they often are a village’s only source of health care. But people being what they are, a powerful curandera might also be feared and despised, and re-labeled a bruja, or witch. They are often believed to have a Nagual, a type of nocturnal familiar that sneaks around town while they are asleep, keeping an eye on people, for good or for ill.

I may not be a practicing witch myself, but I respect the tradition(s). I revere the weight of history; the strength of folklore as a manifestation of communal angst and desire; and the awe-inspiring power of nature. And when it comes right down to it, I’m open to the idea that there is much more unknown than known in our world.

There are witch traditions all over the world –just as there are vampire traditions. The majority of us in the U.S. are most familiar with the European concept of witchcraft, but in other countries there is a strong and continuing tradition associating witches with healing and medicine, as in the traditional “witch doctor.” I hope Secondhand Spirits delivers an entertaining cast of characters (including a shape-shifting miniature Vietnamese pot-bellied pig), an engrossing mystery, and plenty of compelling urban fantasy; but most importantly, I hope it respects the ancient, universal, and fascinating tradition of witchcraft in its myriad forms.

Now, if I could just come up with a way to include hopping vampires in the storyline, I’d be all set. Or would that be too over the top?

Juliet Blackwell, aka Hailey Lind, is the pseudonym for a mystery author who, together with her sister, wrote the Art Lover's Mystery Series—including the Agatha-nominated Feint of Art and the IMBA bestsellers Shooting Gallery and Brush with Death. The fourth in the series, Arsenic and Old Paint, will be released in fall, 2010. Juliet's new paranormal Witchcraft Mystery series begins with Secondhand Spirits (July, 2009), about a witch with a vintage clothing store in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. Cast-off Coven will be the second in the series. If These Walls Could Talk, to be released in 2010, is the first in the Sophie Tanner Historic Home Renovation series about a failed anthropologist running her father's high-end construction company.

A former anthropologist and social worker, Juliet has worked in Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Italy, the Philippines, and France. She currently resides in a happily haunted house in Oakland, California, where she is a muralist, portrait painter, and recipient of the overly zealous attentions of her neighbor's black cat, who seems to imagine himself her new familiar. Juliet/Hailey is two-term president of Northern California Sisters in Crime. Visit her at her website.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Hair Trigger

by Ben Small

One of the first things the Tacti-ccol set buys for a pistol is a trigger job, usually defined as a smoothing out of the trigger action, shortening the stroke, taking up creep, and lightening the pull. But if this is for a self-defense gun, the owner's trigger job may result in a shot to the head, legally speaking.

The self defense claim is held to a fairly high standard in most states. To be proven, it must be shown that the force used was reasonable with regard to the threat and not an over-reaction. Whether you or the state has the burden of proof will depend on the state. But the last thing the potential defendant needs, are facts that may tend to show an eagerness to use deadly force.

To a prosecutor, a trigger job becomes a "hair-trigger," one intended to release a deadly missile with the least of a finger tug.

One more arrow in the prosecutor's quiver.

But jail-time or a possible death penalty aren't the only risks. Sooner or later, a civil lawsuit -- or several of them -- will be filed. And civil cases don't require a 'beyond a reasonable doubt" standard; the criteria, instead, is "more likely than not." You can imagine what fun a plaintiff's attorney will have with the term "hair-trigger." And since the shooting will be deemed an intentional act, more than likely, homeowner's insurance won't cover any liability and may not cover defense costs.

As O.J. showed, one can be acquitted in criminal court and be convicted in civil court. And punitive damages will be awarded with a verdict.

Defense costs alone, criminal and civil, will cost the defendant a million dollars or more. In the meantime, the defendant will have lost his or her job and will likely have sold most of his or her assets to cover expenses, fines and judgments.

Quite a price to pay for a simple trigger-job. And that's why seasoned veterans of the gun culture caution one to leave one's self-defense pistol alone. Don't use special hand-loads, don't mess with the trigger. The gun manufacturers provide trigger pull standards, and those standards and why they were set, as testified to by expert witnesses, will track the differential between factory triggers and production loads and trigger-jobs and hand-loaded ammo.

That's why cops use double action pistols with high weight trigger pulls. If they shoot, they have to justify the shooting. Special bullets and trigger jobs signal a trigger-happy officer. That's bad news. When a cop shoots, he goes on administrative leave while the shooting review board considers the circumstances. Handloads or trigger jobs will spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e; the cop may be brought up on disciplinary charges, and civil suits are sure to follow.

So if your protag is carrying a gun, make sure there's been no trigger job, and use production hollow-point ammo. Hollow-point bullets are standard police issue these days. What used to be called "dum-dums," a term used during the day when prosecutors and plaintiff's lawyers sought excessive force claims, is now considered the safer bullet. Ballistics tests have proven that hollow-point bullets are less likely than wadcutters or ball ammo to penetrate through a body and strike a bystander.

Funny thing that. Concern for bystanders. For it could also be claimed that a smoother, lighter trigger means a more accurate shot, less finger push or pull. And accuracy means less likelihood that bystanders will be hit.

But lawyers like how the term "hair trigger" plays to a jury.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Inspirations That Didn't Pan Out

By Chester Campbell

My colleagues Mark Troy and Ben Small recently wrote about inspiration, so I thought why not (thoughts are usually italicized, aren’t they)? Mark wrote about things that inspired his plots, while Ben wrote about locations and music and such that inspire his muse. I decided to make mine a trip down memory lane, to use an appropriate cliché, and cover works never published.

Going back into ancient history, 1948 to be exact, my first mystery novel was inspired by the reading of No Pockets in a Shroud by Horace McCoy. The book told the story of a crusading newspaper reporter fighting crime. I was 22 at the time, a neophyte reporter for The Knoxville Journal at night, a journalism junior at the University of Tennessee during the day. In my spare time I pounded out a mystery on my little Smith-Corona portable about a reporter solving a murder. I later learned McCoy was born near Nashville, my hometown. Dear old Kirkus called No Pockets his worst book. They won’t get the chance to say that about Time Waits for Murder. It rests peacefully in the brittle brown envelope in which it was returned by THE EDITORS at David McKay Co. in Philadelphia.

Following an all-expense-paid vacation in Korea during the early fifties, courtesy of Uncle Sam, where I worked as an Air Force intelligence officer, I shifted my reading preference to Cold War spy stories. Helen Macinnes, John Le Carre, Graham Greene and Len Deighton were my favorites. And my inspiration. In the mid-sixties, while editing Nashville Magazine, a slick paper monthly, I squeezed in time to write a novel dealing with a Russian plot to foil U.S. radars in Iran that monitored the Soviet Union’s airspace. I got the idea from my familiarity with radar, having gone on active duty in 1951 with the 119th Aircraft Control & Warning Squadron of the Tennessee Air National Guard. This manuscript also resides in the historical section of paper piles on my office floor.

After retiring from the Air Force Reserve and from management of a statewide trade association, I turned to writing fulltime (more or less) in 1990. The Cold War was coming to an end with the Soviet Union going down the tubes, and I penned my first spy thriller. Actually, I didn’t pen it. Anything I write by hand is undecipherable a few hours later. I had upgraded my computer and bought a rudimentary word processing program that would only hold a few chapters in a file. The inspiration for the character was an ex-FBI agent I had met during my magazine days. His almost unbelievable experiences provided the protagonist’s background. The story involved a plot to save the Soviet system by killing the American and Russian presidents.

Titled Beware the Jabberwock, that was the first book in a trilogy. Number two came out of my service in Korea and a visit there shortly before my retirement. The plot involved the assassination of North Korean President Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. It would surely have saved us a lot of current trouble if the plot have proven true. My character from the Jabberwock was set up as head of a company that was a CIA spinoff. He made a business trip to South Korea to coordinate the operation.

Book three found ex-KGB agents working to thwart the governments of Russia and its former satellites and re-establish the old Soviet state. The inspiration for that one came from my habit of watching the Independence Day symphony concerts on the Mall behind the U.S. Capitol. As I watched the canon fire during the 1812 Overture, I thought what if somebody used that as a cover to fire nerve gas mortar shells into the crowd? This manuscript got me a contract with John Grisham’s first agent, who he later sued. I didn’t sue but wound up canceling the contract after they let this one and the next two gather dust on the shelf. When they had finally sent it to Tor Forge, the editor liked my writing but said the manuscript was “dated.” If it had been picked up and published when I first submitted it, the book would have come out about the time of the subway nerve gas attack in Japan.

A son and daughter who graduated in computer science and pursued careers in computer programming led to the story of a young programmer working on a voice synthesization program that would mimic a person’s voice enough to fool a voice print analysis. He gets involved with an investment firm I modeled after a famous Depression Era case. It winds up with a chase around Nashville by the bad guys and an attempt to eliminate my hero by funneling carbon monoxide into a sealed-off computer room.

The next book was inspired by stories told by my younger son who served for several years in Army Special Forces. A former Green Beret officer comes across a document that indicates a paramilitary outfit is preparing to bomb critical installations in two weeks. He talks to a former FBI agent who turns up dead. He winds up on the run from both the police and the secretive militia organization.

After that came a story that mirrored a trip I took with a church seniors group to New Orleans. In my version, one of the passengers is a former investment advisor to a Mafia family. He testified against the mob and went into the witness protection program but left it to pursue his own path. After several years, a mob enforcer finds him just before the bus leaves for the Big Easy. There are a lot of complicating factors, but it ends during a hurricane just outside New Orleans. The touring events on the trip are exactly as I experienced them.

I wrote one other manuscript during this period which I won’t go into for personal reasons. Suffice it to say after nine unsuccessful tries, I finally hit the shelves in 2002 with Secret of the Scroll, my first Greg McKenzie mystery. I now have five books out, but I’ve run out of space to talk about them.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

More Summer Reads By Christine Duncan

I can't help pinging off Libby's post because I too love summer reading. I don't know why--memories of the beach at Sea Isle where I spent my childhood summers? Anyway, there just seems to be more time to read in summer.
I read a bunch of different ways. The paper books I'm reading right now are both historical mysteries. I picked up the first one, The Serpent's Daughter by Suzanne Arruda, because I "met" the author on Twitter. I can identify with Suzanne's heroine, Jade, who is a likeable and outspoken heroine and I'm learning a bit of history with the book too.
The other historical mystery I'm reading is Fiona Buckley's The Fugitive Queen. I've liked the whole series which is set in Elizabethan times. Ursula is, frankly, a lot braver than I am but it is interesting reading without pushing my "scaredy cat" button. Makng its way to the front with these two is Sharon Short's Tie Dyed and Dead. This series has been a lot of fun for me as I really like the heroine, Josie Toadfern.
Last but not least, I'm in the middle of Web of Evil by J.A. Jance which I'm listening to on audio as I run. I loved her Sheriff Joanna Brady series so I just couldn't bring myself to make the change to this one until now. But the whole divorce/lost job theme is so real, I'm finding reasons to do more running so I can listen--always a good thing in summer when I'd rather sit in a lawn chair on the patio with a lemonade.
So what are you reading? Help me beef up my TBR list.

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series. Book two, Safe House is due out in print in July from Trebleheartbooks

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Summer Reads

I love summer reading – it’s like ice cream on a hot day without the calories! I move from genre to genre, somehow always coming back to the mystery or the suspense/thriller category, though. There’s just something about trying to figure out whodunit, while sitting in the shade of an oak or maple tree, even a shade umbrella, that relaxes me. I don’t consider summer reading the time for fluff either – I love books and reading at any time, but somehow, the relaxation of summer means it’s okay to spend an afternoon reading.

Right now, I have a couple of books on the go. I tried a new author with Michael Blair and his Depth of Field: A Granville Island book. I’m really enjoying it so far and it’s always great to discover a new-to-you author.

Tried and true – I’m also reading the James Patterson and Maxine Paetro book The 8th Confession on my iPod Touch. I’m a Women’s Murder Club addict and was very displeased when they didn’t pick up the series for more than one season on television. I really liked the casting, and it was a case of the series led me to the books. Anyway, just getting started on this one, but I can always count on the perfect summer read in this series.

I also like how Patterson works with other authors – can you imagine the career boost (even if you’re already successful) of working with Patterson. It’s a guaranteed sale to the publisher and lots of sales, and thus royalties. I’m not sure how the collaboration works, but it would be fantastic to have the opportunity to work with an author like Patterson who has the process down to a fine art when it comes to writing, marketing, publicity, etc.

Anyway, what are your favorite summer reads that you’re either already indulging in or looking forward to reading?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Why Focus on Characters?

We talk a lot about how to create good characters, and I plan to spend a few blogs focused on the subject, but it raises a question that may be lurking in the minds of new writers. Why are characters so important?

I believe that characters are the main reason people read fiction. Sure, plots are important, setting is valuable, and it’s nice to have something to say, but fiction is about the characters. Fiction is gossip about people whose feelings we don’t have to worry about hurting, since we made them up.

I have heard it said that the difference between literary and genre fiction is that genre fiction is about the plot and literary fiction is about characters. As a genre writer I feel that literary fiction is about characters and their feelings only, while genre writers have to be able to write great characters AND have them actually DO something. Whether or not you agree with me, just accept that for any kind of fiction, your story won’t work unless it is carried by full, well delineated characters.

So what makes good characters?

Every character has a personality all his or her own. The final indication of how good a character you’ve created is simply how fully the reader feels he knows that personality, and how strongly the reader reacts to the character emotionally. Speaking generally, I believe that good characters have four important markers.

1. They are people we recognize. You know it’s a good character when you say, “Hey, I know a guy just like that.” You might not be personally acquainted with any 19th century business owners, but we all know an Ebenezer Scrooge, don’t we? Is he a stereotype? Well yes, he is now.

Are stereotypes bad? Only if that’s as far as you take the character. Heck, in real life everyone is a stereotype when we first meet them. We like to slot people when we first encounter them, so let’s allow our readers to do the same thing when they first meet our characters.

Consider Scrooge. At the beginning of the story, no one could like him. He is selfish, arrogant, greedy and mean. But as we learn more about his reasons for being who he is we begin to feel compassion for him. So as an author it’s okay to start with a stereotype as long as you go on to show the reasons for his or her behavior.

2. They are people we can identify with. Or, with whom we can identify for the grammarians among you – although this rule about ending sentences with a preposition is a foolish anachronism up with which I will not put.

But I digress. Good characters do thing that you or I might do if we were ever in their extraordinary circumstances. When Sydney Carton faces the guillotine in Darnay’s place at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, the act gives his whole life (and the whole book) meaning. We all want to believe that in that spot we’d do exactly the same thing. Likewise, none of us wants to literally tilt at windmills, but don’t we all identify with Don Quixote’s idealized view of life?

3. They are people we can predict. That comes from creating consistent characters. And that comes from thinking your people through. How do you get to know your characters that well? A good exercise for this is to write your character into a number of different situations, just to see what he or she will do. If you’ve developed them well, they may surprise you. But then you’ll know how they’ll behave in your book or story.

4. They are people who surprise us. That may at first seem contradictory, but people surprise us in life all the time. One reason is that none of us lives in a vacuum. Our relationships and our environment shape us. My detective, Hannibal Jones, is of mixed heritage, although in our society such people are generally regarded as Black. I think I’ve added depth to the character by showing my readers how differently he behaves and speaks among his friends than he does in the mostly white business world of Washington. His behavior may surprise you in some circumstances, yet it’s completely consistent. Consider yourself as a fictional character. Consider how your parents might be surprised if they saw you with your drinking buddies, or how your poker partners might be surprised if they met you in church. Then you can extend that to consider yourself in extraordinary circumstances.

You may consider yourself a nonviolent person, but if a terrorist was threatening your mother’s life and all you had at hand was your drinking glass, would you break it and try to tear his throat out with the jagged glass? If you answered yes, consider this: does she know that? You might well surprise her in that situation.

We all have split personalities and as long as you can explain your character’s motivations, it’s okay for them to occasionally surprise your readers. If the Christmas Carol had been told in a different order, Scrooge’s actions on Christmas Day could have been as surprising to the reader as they were to the other characters.

By now you’ve gathered that authors should know a good deal about their characters. I will go farther and say that you should know everything about your characters. In fact, you should know far more than you tell the reader about characters. You should know their history, their motives, their loves and hates, what they’re proud of and what they’re ashamed of. That’s how they get to be consistent.

In my writing class I offer my students a handout as one way to approach building characters. It is an inventory of personal traits through which you can learn all the important things about a character. This list of traits and details can be used as a fill-in-the-blank character starter. Each of those traits tells a bit more about your character. You can find an example of one such character inventory on line at

If writers remain consistent with all of the character traits they choose they will have a great character who readers will take to their hearts because they will feel as if they really know the person they're reading about.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Writing Tight

By Earl Staggs

I’ve heard writing is easy. All you have to do is open a vein. Ooooh. Sounds painful. And bloody.

In addition to being painful, writing is NOT easy. It’s hard work. We want our readers to envision a setting exactly as we did when we described it. We want our characters to materialize in the reader’s mind as they did in ours when we created them. We want our story to unfold for the reader exactly as we planned. To accomplish all that takes a lot of time and effort. Plus, you have to stop once in a while and mop up the blood.

I’ve also heard only ten percent of what we do is writing. The other ninety percent is rewriting. If that’s true, and it seems that way for me, once the first draft is done, the hard work – and pain – have only begun. After the major components of our masterpiece are in place, we have to scrutinize each word, sentence and paragraph to make sure they’re the best they can be. We want to be certain we have the right words in the right order, eliminate unnecessary words, and replace weak words with stronger ones if we can find them. Call it polishing, tweaking, pruning, or what you will. I call it tightening. Tightening requires hard work, a lot of time, a working knowledge of the cut, copy, paste and delete functions, a big fat dictionary, and a Thesaurus.

If writing is like opening a vein, tightening is like removing your own appendix. Ouch.

I recently became a regular columnist for Apollo’s Lyre, a wonderful ezine owned and operated by the magnificent Lea Schizas. In each bimonthly issue, in a column called ”Write Tight,” I’ll talk about methods and processes of tightening our writing with examples and discussion. To give you an idea, for the June issue, I worked with this example of a passage in need of tightening:

“Years ago, when I was in high school, the other kids referred to me as a nerd. Whenever they saw me, it seemed as if I had my arms full of books, and they never missed a chance to tease and taunt me about it.”

In the article, I went through the tightening procedure step by step and reduced it to this:

“In high school, the other kids called me a nerd. They’d see me with my arms full of books and make fun of me.”

Fewer words, simpler, and says all that’s needed to make the point. Passive words and phrases have been eliminated, weak words made stronger. The entire passage slimmed down to bare bones.

Of course, tightening down to bare bones is not always what we want. There are times when we want the reader to slow down, dwell on our words a second or two longer, give the messaqe time to sink in. In those times, we may purposely pad our work with passive words or phrases here and there and sneak in a modifier or two.

How does a writer know when to tighten to bare bones and when to pad?

Practice, practice, practice.

And keep a few pints of blood handy for transfusions.

Earl Staggs

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Good Synopsis Helps to Sell Your Book

By Jean Henry Mead

Condensing the important aspects of a 100,000-word novel into a 10–page summary isn’t easy. In most cases, it’s harder than writing the book. The reason you need to write the darn thing is to prove that your story is logical, realistic and well organized. Are your characters acting and interacting with others in a reasonable manner?

Editors and agents have different views on how characters should react. I once had a manuscript rejected because my protagonist was too reckless. The next editor, who accepted the story for publication, thought the main character was a little too hesitant to act and requested a small rewrite. So luck is always an ingredient in the submission process.

A synopsis should be formatted like a manuscript, usually 5-10 pages, the shorter the better if you can include the essentials in fewer words. Always write in present tense, such as “Tom finds his best friend murdered and decides on revenge.” Characters' names should be typed in bold or capital letters the first time you mention them.

Editors are busy people so make reading easier by keeping your paragraphs short. There’s no need to include secondary characters’ names, colors, descriptions, etc. if they add nothing to the story. In other words, tell the story in the fewest words possible and leave out unnecessary details.

What then should you cover in a synopsis? In order to hook the editor, you need to present your story as concisely as possible with the plot problem, location, main characters’ backgrounds and the time frame or era. Answer every question you ask. Don’t leave the editor hanging.

Your main characters' bios should be brief, such as “John's a stubborn country lawyer, lanky with a mop of red curly hair.” Strive to make the editor feel a connection with your protagonist.

Conflict is essential, either internal or from outside the character, which is where your antagonist comes in. State upfront what the conflict is and don’t forget to resolve it before the end of your synopsis. Also, don’t forget to include major plot deviations whenever something unusual happens. That, however, doesn’t include subplots.

Emotion and action are important plot points that need to be included. Action drives the plot but only include actions that result in consequences. And how does the protagonist react when something jars her world? A sprinkling of dialogue can be included if it helps to describe something better than narrative, but keep it to a minimum.

Novelist Rebecca Vinyard says that a black moment should be briefly described when the characters realize that all is lost and they won’t be able to accomplish their goals. Then, when your story comes to its conclusion, insure that its done satisfactorily. Don’t leave your editor or agent in the dark. They need to know whether you’ve successfully resolved your character’s problem(s).

Remember to avoid passive voice, leave out nonessential details, make your sentences flow, and write a concise and clearly stated synopsis. Most publishers prefer a double-spaced summary because it’s easier to read. Read that publisher’s guidelines and stick to them, include an SASE and your title, last name and page numbers in your headers.

And most important, make sure your synopsis is the best work you’re capable of producing. It’s the only chance you have to make a first impression.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pacing a mystery by Vivian Zabel

I learn much from sessions taught by experts at writing conferences and from writing magazines, such as The Writer and Writer's Digest. One of the latest conference sessions and several recent magazines have covered "pace in writing."

One genre that greatly depends on pace is mystery, and all sub-genres such as suspense and thriller. Pacing is a device writers use to control the speed of a writing, how fast or slow events unfold, how much time elapse

Some times, the plot requires the pace increase. Other times, it needs to slow down.

Here are a few suggestions to increase the speed.

1. Use action scenes, written in short-length and medium-length sentences, which more the story along. According to Writer's Digest, July/August 2009,action scenes must contain few distraction, little description, no or limited character thoughts.

2. Use dialogue, especially rapid-fire, pared-down version of conversation.

3. Trim extraneous information.

4. Don't introduce new characters.

5. Use short chapters and scenes.

According to Clive Cussler, in a 1979 The Writer, writers should avoid throwing readers too much, because their interest will wander from the story.

Jessica Page Morrell, in the July/August 2009 Writer's Digest, writes, "If your story zips ahead at full speed all the time, it might fizzle under this excess." She goes on to say there are times and reason for slowing down, such as emphasizing a moment or building a scene to maximize the the payoff.

Sometimes, the pace needs to slow so readers can absorb what's happening.

Ways to slow the pace include the following:

1. Description slows the pace, but a writer needs to be careful not to overuse description.

2. Distracting readers with characters performing small actions slows the pace.

3. As Morrell states later in her article, "Protagonists need to stumble, make mistakes, experience reversals and hit dead ends ... Troubles and setbacks slow the pace, increase suspense and keep readers interested.

4. A character's thoughts or introspection slows the story, and if used, should be used carefully and not during an action scene.

5. Sentence structure can slow the pace. As short sentences pick up the pace, long, more complicated sentences slows it.

More ways exist once can use to change the pace of a story, but the previous ten give a writer a good start.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Inspiration

A few days ago, Ben Small posted about some of his sources of inspiration. I thought that was a great post and decided to follow up with some of my own. thanks, Ben, for starting the thread.

Looking over my stories, I see that a lot of ideas and plot points originated in the pages of Sports Illustrated. My first published story was inspired by an article in one of the SI Swimsuit editions. There are words in the SI Swimsuit edition? The truth is there are fewer and fewer, and, yes, I am complaining. There was a time when the Swimsuit had fewer photos and more articles about outstanding women athletes and some of the lesser known women's sports. An article on the women's open ocean canoe race from Molokai to Oahu over 40 miles of treacherous ocean inspired my story, "Wahine O Ka Hoe" (Women of the Paddle.) Another SI article that inspired a story was titled, "Homewreckers," and was about the women of Purdue beating the women of Tennessee on their home court. An article about rodeo bulls being athletes and another one about the experience of being a rodeo clown inspired my latest story, "Horns" on The Thrilling Detective website.

Inspiration can come from a variety of sources. One of my favorite stories came about because of a television commercial.

The story is "Drop Dead Zone" published in 1998 in Mystery Buff Magazine. (Mystery Buff lasted only two issues. DDZ was in the second issue, but I don't believe it caused MB's demise.) It tells the story of a murder during a skydive. We were all sitting around drinking beer and eating pizza following my first jump when the woman who is now my daughter-in-law said I had to write it up in a story. We came up with the title on the spot, a combination of drop zone, drop dead, and Stephen King's "Dead Zone."

The title was the easy part. Figuring out a death in a skydive was a lot harder. At this point you're probably saying, "Whoa, dying in a skydive is easy. Not dying is the hard part." Well, yes and no. Falling out of the sky can kill you, but skydiving is a sport that is all about safety. All the procedures and equipment are designed to get the jumper safely on the ground. Skydivers themselves are fanatical about following procedures. So, killing someone in a skydive posed a real problem. I had two other conditions: First, i was thinking about it as a locked-room type of murder where the murder occurs in a limited space and the killer can't get away; Second, it had to look like an accident.

The second condition caused me real problems. I could have the killer tamper with the victim's parachute so it wouldn't open properly, but as I already mentioned, skydivers are fanatical about their equipment. If you tamper with a skydiver's gear, the chances are very good the tampering will be discovered before the jump and, instead of a corpse, you'll have a very angry skydiver. Rather than messing with the skydiver's gear, I had to mess with his behavior, i.e. get him out of his safety routine.

The inspiration occurred during a broadcast of a Super Bowl commercial. You may remember it. It's a Mountain Dew ad called "Duet" in which a boy and a girl on snowboards come flying off a mountain and meet in mid-air. Both have parachutes on their backs and one has a Mountain Dew. They both grab the Dew and circle in the air until the girl pulls the boy's ripcord and off he goes. As soon as I saw that, I had my story. Read the story on my website and see if you can tell how the commercial inspired it.

So those are some of my inspirations, what are yours?

Here's a deal for you. I can't find the Mountain Dew ad on the net. The first person who sends me a link to it will get a copy of "Pilikia Is My Business." Don't forget to send me your snail mail address. For another chance at "Pilikia," see the contest on my other blog, Hawaiian Eye.

Mark Troy

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Heading Off to Another Conference

This Thursday evening is the beginning of the Public Safety Writers Association's conference: registration begins at 3 and the evening get-together at 6. Because I have the list of people coming along with their registration packets, I'll need to be there right away.

I'm always excited about this particular conference. I joined years ago when it was called the Police Writers Club. At the time, everyone who belonged was either and active or retired police officer. Since I was writing about law enforcement, I asked if I could join. Right away I began submitting articles for the newsletter. Their first conferences were in Virginia, then they moved to Reno. Hubby and I went to the two conferences there and began to make friends among the members. The next conference was held very soon after 9/11 in Orlando FL. Figuring it was probably one of the safest times to fly, we went.

We made more friends and had a great time. Unfortunately, something happened to the people who were organizing the conferences and everything went down hill for a couple of years. The group was reorganized under the new name of Public Safety Writers Association and a new board of directors.

We've now had three conferences in Las Vegas and the fourth is almost here. All the conferences have been small, but this year we doubled our numbers. We're still small, but we have outstanding presenters and people attending.

I'm looking forward to this one with real enthusiasm. Of course there will be snafus, there always are one or two--but I don't think it's going to matter.

It's easier to go to a conference when you aren't responsible for anything but getting there and maybe appearing on a panel or two. With this one, I'm responsible for a lot, but I'm not going to let that keep me from having the best darn time possible.

I'll give a full report when I get home. The first panel consisting of people in law enforcement and a lawyer is what bugs people the most about errors in books, movies and TV. That's going to be fun. We also have two forensic experts, the fabulous Betty Webb is giving a talk on what turns editors and agents off--as well as a keynote speech about her two mystery series. Joyce Spizer Foy is going to tell us how to go from book to celluloid. And of course we're got a panel with editors and a publisher, as well as one on promotion. There's more--but that's enough to pique your curiosity.

See you in a couple of weeks.

a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

Monday, June 15, 2009

Tearing Down the Wall by Morgan Mandel

On the way to the commuter train a few days ago, I noticed workers tearing down a brick wall which runs around a swimming pool at one of the condo buildings. I was wondering what was going on. Apparently, repairs needed to be made to the swimming pool and they couldn't get the equipment in any other way to perform them.

Since I'm always thinking in writing terms, the process reminded me of edits. Sometimes it's necessary to tear down walls to fix things in our manuscripts. It could be a small wall or a huge one, depending on the problem.

In my current romantic suspense, Killer Career, I'm almost through with the edits. One of them required me to remove a prologue and weave it into another part of the story. I had to figure out where to put it and if I should throw some of it away. I did find a new home and a better one. I did remove a few sentences also. The best thing is I'm happy with the result.

Moral of my story is don't be afraid to remove or rearrange manuscript parts if that's what it takes to fix it.

What about you? Have you had to make a major change in a manuscript? Were you happy with the result? Please share.

Morgan Mandel

Sunday, June 14, 2009

When Things Don't Go the Way You've Planned...

I had today all mapped out. 'Today' being Saturday, the day I'm writing this post. Not 'today' as in Sunday, the day you're reading it. The plan was to get up early, go for a long walk on the beach, come home and get laundry going, spend an hour in the garage sorting through things for an upcoming garage sale (we're sorting an hour a day to avoid burnout and bad decisions), sit down at the computer at 1:00, then write write write the rest of the day until break time this evening for the rest of LOST IN AUSTEN, a truly hysterical and loving send-up of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. If you're an Austen fan, put this on your Netflix queue.

Well, the early start didn't happen. Despite the best efforts of our cats to get us up bright and early, Dave and I slept in till 8:00. I was woozy from a migraine pill, plus had a cat draped across my head while gently chewing on my arm and purring, so I didn't actually get OUT of bed until 9:00. We got our, got our coffee at George's Zoo (a cool little deli/market across from the SF Zoo - they make the best cappuccino in town), and went to the beach. Gorgeous day for a walk, sun breaking through ever-moving clouds and mist, warm enough for a sundress (for me, at least. Dave may wear kilts, but NEVER sundresses) and I looked forward to working off some calories and wading in the surf. Fifteen minutes down the beach, I glanced down to my left and saw a young sea lion pup in obvious distress. Way too thin, exhausted and shivering.

Another couple stopped as well and we asked them to call the Marine Mammal Center to come pick up the little guy...or gal. We would wait with the pupl to make sure it didn't get washed back out by the incoming tide or attacked by dogs. We ended up spending two hours in increasingly hot sun sitting with the pup, who sniffed our hands and arms, settled down next to Dave, and let us stroke his head and back.

We were very cautious about touching it, btw. I've worked with enough wild animals and feral felines to understand that 'cute' doesn't always equal 'cuddly.' Dave gets this too. The pup really seemed to respond to gentle tactile contact; it seemed important to give it whatever comfort we could. That being said, we wouldn't have done more than sat near it had it given any sign of being frightened or hostile. After the fact, we read the protocol on the MMC homepage and found out we should have stayed 50 feet away as they can be stressed by people or bite, but we didn't know it at the time. And as the tide came in, the pup moved unsteadily up out of the water. We moved up with it; it leaned against Dave at one point and tried to suck on his arm as if looking for milk.

Shortly after that, the folks from the MMC showed up and took our little friend away, telling us we could check on it tomorrow via their website, which lists all of their 'patients.' They were nice, very gentle with the pup, and thanked us repeatedly for staying with it. By that time my shoulders and back were very pink, it was noon, and we hadn't even gone for a real walk.

I didn't start writing till 3:30, although I did get the laundry going and a few things sorted for the garage sale. I'm sunburned and tired, probably won't get as much writing done as I wanted. But I had a unique experience and did what was, for me (and for Dave), the right thing. So I'm not letting myself stress out over the fact the day hasn't gone exactly as planned. I admit I don't always deal with the unexpected nearly this gracefully. Sometimes I spend more time stressing about what didn't go right than figuring out a way to make the best of things. I'm always pleased, however, when I can let go of my inner control freak and just go with the flow, especially where my writing is concerned.

What about you? How do you handle it when the best laid plans get blown out of the water? Do you steer around those unexpected rocks in the river or try to go through them? How much do you rely on structure for your writing time? Inquiring and sunburned writers wanna know!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Where do you get your inspiration?

by Ben Small

Not talking about church here. More the opposite. Like the spot where I like to dream of murder.

Hopefully, you the reader, are a writer or a reader, or you're probably dialing 911 about now.

But I'm talking about writing inspiration, where you drum up plot points, where you ask some of the more interesting What if? questions.

I get mine from many directions: watching interaction at the mall or at sporting events, or just sitting at the U of A campus, watching people. I'll jot a few notes about character traits I may want to infuse into someone later. Or I'll drift away sometimes while I'm writing, flowing on a gust of creative wind that may become a storm. Classical music puts me into a contemplative mood, which can often be intense enough I don't even hear my wife come in with amendments to the Honey Do list.

But the places I enjoy most for this are similar. The hammock off a back deck or a lounge chair by the pool, both at night, when the desert comes alive. Birds calling to mates or potential victims are sending messages, and I'm picking up their vibes. I often imagine what they're saying to each other. Or a big iguana may crawl out of a bush, stand a moment stock still, before scurrying away. The Gambel quail stir and squawk warnings. Is a bobcat about to saunter by?

It's amazing how the desert nights drive my creative spirit. I can come in after an hour in the desert night full of new ideas, ready to pound some keys on the keyboard always in my lap.

I come up with trigger words -- no, not something I aim at a troublesome neighbor -- words I can jot down when I come in that will take me back to my musings. Amazing how one little word can signal a major plot change. But it's the way I used to prepare for closing argument in trial, trigger words, shorthand, one note and a torrent is released. It works in writing, too, which is why I always keep a notebook next to my bed and why there's a stack of torn magazine pages next to me wherever I go.

But by far, the desert night, no traffic, just enjoying the peace and tranquility -- unless the coyotes have scored -- provides my best inspiration. Combine the desert night with Rachmaninoff when I return, and I'm off and riding the tide, pounding on the keyboard like an over-caffeinated court reporter.

But no Bach, please. Bach steers me toward murder. Oh wait...that's what I do: write about murder.

More Bach please. And more desert.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why Do You Return to a Blog? by Christine Duncan

Since I've been on this virtual tour, I feel as though I have become an expert of sorts about blogs. I have learned quite a bit about blogging and promoting. So when I saw a discussion question on Crimespace this week asking people why they return to blogs I thought I would be able to nail the answers.
It's never quite that simple though, is it? The answers on Crimespace ranged from people who can't be bothered to read blogs to those who said they read to find a new mystery to read. Hmm, so I guess I can only answer for myself.
I return to blogs that give me useful information. For instance, this week, I was reading my publisher's list and found a link to Amber Polo's blog. The theme of the post? Want a booksigning at your library? I read it, the info was great and I will be back.
I return to blogs that are interesting and funny and maybe about mystery but maybe not. Like the Femme Fatales
Now I did start to read Donna Andrew's books because of that blog, but not because anyone was there saying read my book. She was interesting and sometimes funny--but mainly very real, and I enjoyed reading her stuff so I looked for the books.
I return to blogs to see what others are doing which is, in a way, why I like Crimespace. It's the back and forth of the community that makes it interesting. The blog I like for that is Miss Snark's first victim She runs a periodic contest for people hoping to get an agent. Blog readers get to submit a portion of their manuscript. Everyone who subs also critiques and everyone's stuff is seen by an (anonymous) agent. At the end, the agent is revealed and the winner is invited to submit to the agent. I like the feedback although I have only submitted my stuff once. I learn from other people's work too.
That's me though. I like blogs. Now as for chats--I'm doing one at Writer's Chatroom on Sunday at 7:00--maybe I'll get a handle on why people do those then. And maybe I'll ask them why they read blogs.
So why do you return to blogs? Tell me! I really want to know.

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ramping Up the Conflict

There is an essential need to up the ante in a mystery – if there’s a murder, is there the threat of a second or a third? Could the investigator be at risk? Someone near and dear to him or her? If there isn’t the threat of a murder, could it be that the villain will “get away” with his or her plan? What effect will that have on the hero, the investigator or innocent bystanders.

We must increase the conflict and tension to have a satisfying denouement that the reader can believe in and be happy about. We can have conflict between characters if the investigator and the villain come face-to-face. Or the villain and another victim. Or the investigator and authorities, if the detective isn’t law enforcement.

We can also increase the tension with setting and atmosphere. A dark, deserted urban setting is much more intimidating than a peaceful country trail on a sunny day with dozens of hikers around. A dwelling with no power versus a homey bed & breakfast with a grandmotherly owner. A storm (whether wind, rain or snow) versus the perfect sunny day with puffy clouds.

I find it a “fun” part of the process to increase the tension and conflict – maybe because there are so many options. How do YOU increase tension in your stories to make them more enjoyable for your readers?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Stop Shouting Already! by Marvin D Wilson

Just a short post today, and an invitation to comment and discuss.

This has to do with all fiction, not just specifically the mystery book, but I do see it a lot in novice mystery novelists that I read ... the overuse of exclamation points. As if yelling your story to me will add to the intensity, the mystery, the suspense, the overall gripping nature of your tale. You know, passages like-

"Oh my god! It's a vampire!" Joan screamed. She had to hurry - it was fast gaining on her! "Help!" she hollered to no one, and thought, There's nobody to come to my aid ... I'm doomed!

Puh-leease. You are not getting me worked up and excited with your story that sounds like a constantly barking dog. It's kind of like the parent who yells at his or her kids all the time. After a while, the children become numb to the decibel level and just ignore the shouts. Takes a hammer over the head to get their attention. On the other hand, a parent who always speaks in an even tone and exhibits steady self control only has to raise their voice a little bit to get the kids' undivided attention. Woa - they perk up and think, better pay attention. Mom hardly ever raises her voice like that.

And so it is with any good writing, and particularly with mystery/thriller/suspense novels. Restraint, self control, and a guided steady slow build to the intensity is far better, and an indication of masterful writing, than is constantly resorting to over writing through the easy use of loud punctuations.

What say you all?

Monday, June 8, 2009

What’s in a name?

When I get past the basic outline of a new story I design all the significant characters before I start writing. I like to fill out a character inventory for each to really know these folks so I’ll be able to know what they’ll do in a given situation. There’s a lot I want to know about a character’s background, history and personality, but I always start with the name.

While I agree that character names shouldn’t be important, the truth is that we humans are pretty superficial and we draw a lot of meaning out of a person’s name.

A character’s name can tell us a bit about his family. Who is your character named after? Who named her, mom or dad? Does she have a name that indicates parental personality expectations? Faith? Chastity? Felicity? Hope? And if so, has your character grown into her name, or taken a stance in opposition to it, like fictional adventurer Modesty Blaise?

Last names often indicate nationality with all the assumptions they bring. So if you have a fellow named Patrick O’Connor in your story and he ISN’T Irish, you’d better tell us quickly, because we’ve already slotted him. And in fact if he isn’t, there’s a story hidden there that will tell us a good deal about him.

Similarly, nicknames tell us a lot about your character, but we need to know if he took the nick himself or if someone stuck him with it. If you introduce me to Tiny I expect to meet a giant. But if her pals call her Brain, she might be the one who always has a plan, OR she might be an idiot. Either way, the fact that she accepted that nickname tells us about her confidence level and self-image. And remember, if a name has meaning for you, even if it isn’t obvious, others will pick up on it.

For example, I write a mystery series about a private detective named Hannibal Jones. I gave Hannibal a common last name because in one aspect I wanted him to represent an everyman. But his less common last name required more thought. And no, he was not named after any villainous cannibal.

Hannibal’s father was an American soldier married to a German national. Dad wanted his son to be a warrior, so he decided to name him after a great military leader. Alexander seemed too common. With a German wife he knew Napoleon would be a bad choice. Then he remembered that he DID know of one great African general. The original Hannibal was born in Carthage (Northern coast of Africa, across from Italy) around 247 BC. He is generally considered one of the greatest military leaders in history. He is famous for battling the Roman legions (the definite underdog in the Second Punic War.) He is remembered for using elephants in his army and for catching the Romans off guard by crossing the Alps.

So the name Hannibal resonates with African heritage, military leadership, strength, creativity, and the willingness to face a much stronger opponent. If you are literate, you may subconsciously read all of that into my detective’s name and have a whole assortment of expectations concerning this character without even knowing it.

BTW, the latest Hannibal Jones mystery, Russian Roulette, has just been released this week on and Kindle. It will be in stores June 13th.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Flawed Characters

by Jean Henry Mead

One of the biggest mistakes novice writers make is to produce flawless characters. Handsome or beautiful, they have perfect marriages, lots of money, fine cars and homes, good educations and the best of everything. The problem is that few readers can identify with them.

Characters, aside from villains, should be lovable, or at least likable. Never perfect. Your characters must have flaws for readers to be able to empathize with them. Remember Emma Bovary in Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones?

The most important thing to remember is to focus on your character's vulnerabilities, according to writing instructor Bret Anthony Johnston."Your focus can be on physical or emotional vulnerability, but it has to be intimately tied to the character. What makes her sad, embarrasses her? What frightens her, what does she regret? What minor or major trespasses has she committed?"

In the case of Emma Bovary, we can sympathize with her mistakes and how they affect her life.

What does your character need or want? And what does he stand to gain or lose by the conclusion of the plot? Whether or not the character achieves his goal isn't as important as how badly he wants it. Your reader will hang in there with your protagonist once she understands his goals and desires. Make that desire as compelling as possible. A character who wants to achieve world peace is far less desirable, according to Johnston, than someone who craves a gourmet dinner, because the goal is attainable.

Once you decide what it is your protagonist wants, emphasize it throughout the story. From the first paragraph, your reader should understand the character's goal and it should color everything he does. And the more he wants something, the more the reader likes him.

Dialogue is a great way to portray a character's weakness. If he talks about someone else, the reader picks up information about the character himself by his description. The type of food he eats or the genre of music he listens to gives us some insight into his character. Does he stop by a fast food place for a burger instead of a restaurant for a good meal? Does he smoke a pack of cigarettes while on stakeout?

In The Great Gatsby when Nick Caraway tries to describe how Daisy Buchannan speaks, he says, "Her voice is full of money." Fitzgerald's few words tells us a lot about both Caraway and Buchannan.

A writer's job is should be more like a method actor than a news reporter. Striving to see the world through your protagonist's eyes is most important. Focus on the details and events happening in his or her life. But that doesn't mean that your fictional characters should like the same things you do or share the same views. Nor should they become your parrot. Each character should have his own distinct speech pattern and outlook on life.

Keep your protagonist in proverbial hot water as much as possible. Allow the water to cool periodically to avoid melodrama, but keep turning up the heat until events come to a boil. When your character has achieved his goal or solved his dilemma, remove him from the pot and dry him off for a satisfying ending.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Selling Isn't Everything by Chester Campbell

I’m a sucker for any invitation to “come up here and sell your books.” That’s how I happened to wind up in the small town of Irvine, KY on the fourth Friday in May. If you happened to be tuned in then, May 22, to be exact, I blogged about heading that day for the Estill County Reading Celebration in the aforesaid Kentucky hamlet.

It proved an interesting evening. The celebration took place in the Estill Springs Elementary School. The classrooms were each decorated in the theme of a children’s book. A local bank had donated a large chunk of change to provide each child who attended with a free book and a free meal (hot dog, drink, cotton candy, and such). They streamed in and out of the place starting around 5:00 p.m.

A big tent set up in back featured storytellers and poets and other live performances. Brown T-shirts paraded around everywhere, sporting the legend “Oh the places you’ll go with reading.” The donor’s logo printed on the back said Carhartt Work Clothing, a large manufacturer whose administrative headquarters calls Irvine home. They had T-shirts for my wife and I as well.

It was a great event for the kids and their parents. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out so well for the invited authors. We were provided tables in the gym with nice book cover signs, but the adults who wandered about “Author’s Row” didn’t appear to be in a buying mood. I met some nice folks, handed out several promo folders and bookmarks, but sold few books. The others appeared to fare about the same.

They set up a feast for the authors in the cafeteria, which was probably the best part of the Celebration for us. Everyone was friendly and accommodating. They just weren’t buying.

The highlight of the trip for my wife and I was our stay with Tom and Francine Bonny later that evening. They were delightful hosts. Tom is the retired superintendent of the Estill County Schools and Francine is a member of the Arts Council. They live in a rural area a mile and a half off the main drag. Their large two-story white house with blue shutters was built by Tom’s grandfather well over 100 years ago. But it sparkled like new and was filled with comfortable furniture that had been passed down through the generations.

They owned several acres of land where they grew much of their own food, including corn they had ground into meal. The barn out back had unusual decorations on the side facing the road. This, we learned, came from one of Francine’s pet projects. She had organized a group of women who painted enlarged quilt squares on sheets of plywood, which were mounted on barns in the area. We saw several others on our way out the next morning. Some were quite intricate designs.

Before we left, Tom bought all five of my books. He said he planned to give them as gifts. I suspect he felt a bit embarrassed that our sales effort the night before had proved so fruitless. We wound up with enough to pay for our gas, and our food and lodging were free. The net result was an enjoyable trip to meet some new friends. I’ll probably go again the next time we get an invitation like this.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A few characteristics of Romantic Suspense by Vivian Zabel

I attended several sessions at the OWFI writing conference the first weekend of May, in between taking care of volunteer work. One of the sessions was Romantic Suspense by Merline Lovelace. I'll share some of the information I gained from her presentation, which I'm using to write a romantic suspense myself. Well, I'm not into graphic detail, but I think I can still manage an interesting book using a bit of humor and timing to keep things going.

Merline Lovelace is an interesting person as well as an award winning author. She retired from the Air Force after a travel-filled life thanks to Uncle Sam. Much of her experiences find their way into her writing. I enjoyed meeting her and visiting with her.

Now, what I learned about writing romantic suspense, which is a sub-genre of romance, rather than a sub-genre of mystery or suspense: First, what really got my attention is romantic suspense is big business which translate to big money. However, since suspense is a major component of the genre or sub-genre, I believe we can discuss it under mystery, too.

Merlene gave five (5) characteristics of romantic suspense. I hope I can explain them half as well as she did.

1. Romantic suspense is plot driven and usually about 60,000 - 80,000 words. The action escalates each chapter, with the suspense/crime/mystery and the sexual tension between the couple.

2. The action starts with a bang and continues at a fast pace. Little time is allowed for introspection. The characters don't take time to mull over emotions and remembering in the middle of the action.

3. Dramatic tone is a must, a strong sense of atmosphere that reflects danger, excitement. Word choice and setting contribute to tone.

4. Romantic suspense has a large caste of characters (sometimes). often to introduce red herrings. The author can leave the reader guessing throughout the book or allow readers to know the antagonist(s) throughout.

5. Romantic suspense required a strong female protagonist, a very active partner who may save the hero herself.

The main challenge in writing romantic suspense is the need to write two distinct stories, romance and suspense, which must be balanced. Everything that effects the relationship, affects the suspense. As the romance builds, so does the mystery/suspense.

Vivian Zabel
Brain Cells & Bubble Wrap
Midnight Hours

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Rules of Writing

There's an active discussion going on in the Short Mystery Fiction Society about the "new rules" of writing such as "don't begin with the weather" and " don't use synonyms for 'said' in dialogue." People are asking who makes the rules and when can they be broken. Here's my take on the rules.

There are rules of grammar and rules of style. I don't think anyone has repealed Strunk and White's rules. These are not fads, either, as Strunk was teaching them in 1919. Even Strunk and White distinguished between rule and considerations. In the fifth chapter of the book, An Approach to Style, S&W admit that where previously they were concerned with what is correct, now they are concerned with style in the broader sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing. This is the section where you will find reminders such as "Write with nouns and verbs," "Avoid the use of qualifiers," "Do not explain too much," among others. The last one is where they discuss synonyms for "said' and the use of adverbs to modify "said." These are not rules. Rather, they are stylistic considerations that can lift the writing out of the ordinary and into the distinguished.

Elmore Leonard put forth a list of "rules" that include, " don't use any synonym for 'said,'" "don't begin with the weather," and others. They seem like stylistic considerations to me, but Leonard has been turning out some of the greatest mystery stories of the modern era and making a ton of money at it, so I think he's entitled to call his considerations rules. We don't have to follow them, but we'd be hard pressed to deny their efficacy.

Leonard's rule about "said" is clearly a restatement of S&W's Reminder 11, which is not a rule either, but a guide for making your writing distinguished. So why shouldn't one use a synonym for "said" or modify it with an adverb? The synonyms and adverbs aren't bad words in themselves but, as part of a dialogue attributive, they serve to explain the dialogue to which they're attached. As S&W remind us, explaining too much weakens our writing. We shouldn't have to explain our dialogue to the reader. If the meaning and tone aren't apparent from the words, then the dialogue should be rewritten.

Don't start with the weather? Plenty of good stories begin with the weather. I don't think the weather is the issue so much as what makes for a good beginning to a story. Dwight Swain in Techniques of the Selling Writer, says, "The function of the story's beginning is to let your reader know there's going to be a fight. . . and that it's the kind of fight that will interest him." He adds, ". . . beginning spotlights three things: desire, danger and decision."

Joe R. Lansdale begins Sunset and Sawdust with the weather.
On the afternoon it rained frogs, sun perch, and minnows, Sunset discovered she could take a beating as good as Three-Fingered Jack. Unlike Jack, who had taken his in the sunshine, she took hers in her own home at the tail end of a cyclone, the windows rattling, the roof lifting, the hardwood floor cold as stone.

Sure, a rain of fish and amphibians gets our attention, but that's not what holds our interest. The weather is just stuck in a subordinate clause, a warm-up, if you will, for what we really want to learn about: this woman in a fight, probably for her life, with a just-discovered reserve of strength. It's all about the woman in the fight. The storm swirling around her is nothing more than the frame. For too many writers, however, beginning with the weather is a way of avoiding desire, danger or decision and the reader loses interest in whatever fight is brewing. Don't start with the weather? No, don't start with something inconsequential.

The word "rules" gets a lot of writers hackles up, because, after all, we're artists. The cutting edge is where we live. Rules are for beginners, writers with learning permits. We don't need no stinking rules. Rules are made to be broken.

I disagree. I think writers tend to break the rules they don't understand. I would rewrite the rule about avoiding adverbs and synonyms for "said" so it's something like this: Let your characters speak their own feelings; don't explain how they mean to say it. And I'd still avoid adverbs and synonyms for "said."

The weather rule would be: Begin by throwing your character into a fight for her life or her dreams. If storms are raging, I'll make sure the bigger one is inside her.

That's my take on the rules. What's yours?

Mark Troy

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why We Write Mysteries

Many authors write about their reasons for writing mysteries--and I've written mine more than once. My usual answer is that when I'm writing a mystery I can make it end the way it should--which isn't the way it always happens in the real world. Too many murderers manage to get away with their dastardly deeds. In my worlds, the bad guy always gets it in the end.

Authors often state that their first interest in writing mysteries came about because of reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries when they were kids. Though I gobbled up every Nancy Drew mystery that I came across, I also read any other mystery I could get my hands on, including those intended for adults.

Perhaps, though, what had a greater influence on me was the mystery radio shows that I listened to as a kid, The Shadow Knows, Inner Sanctum, Mr. and Mrs. North and many, many others.

But, probably the greatest influence was the daily newspapers. We lived in Los Angeles and at the time my parents subscribed to three: The Herald Express, The Los Angeles Times and another that I don't remember the name of, but was like the tabloids of today. Los Angeles had plenty of intriguing and sometimes gruesome murders to fill the front pages of the newspapers--often with movie stars somehow involved.

The most famous one, The Black Dahlia, I heard about first on my little Philco radio. For some unknown reason, that radio picked up police calls. My mother had forbidden my sister and I to listen to them--but we did almost every night after we went to bed.

I heard the police radioing each other when the found the pieces of the Black Dahlia in that vacant lot. They spoke quite explicitly about what they had found.

Sometime in the night, I felt something on the bed. I reached down and touched a leg. I was afraid to touch anymore for fear I'd feel a bloody stump! I screamed.
Mom came running into the room. "What's the matter?"

I kept my eyes closed tight. "There's a leg on my bed."

Mom quite calmly said, "Yes, and it's attached to your sister."

Of course she knew we'd been listening to the police calls again. And when the morning paper arrived she knew what we'd heard.

That's something I've never forgotten. And that's one case where despite all the theories, no one really knows who killed the young woman called the Black Dahlia.

That will never happen in one of my books, in the end, the reader will always know who the bad guy is.

a.k.a. F. M. Meredith

Monday, June 1, 2009

Taking A Break?

This week I'm on vacation, sort of. While in the NorthWoods, last Saturday I paid a fee to sell my books at the Arbor Vitae Fireman's Flea Market and will again participate next Saturday.

I'm still writing my daily blog at and, as you can see, I've not forsaken my blog day here. I also hope to get my back cover blurb finished for Killer Career this week some time, plus get some lists together about where I'll send for reviews and what else I'll do to make the world know about my upcoming release.

When I do something I love, there's no vacation, or maybe I should say, it's all a vacation to me.

What about you, when you go on vacation, do you make a complete break from your writing world or are you like me and can't make yourself give it up even for a short while?