Sunday, June 27, 2010


by Earl Staggs

I’m talking about naming the women in my writing life, of course. The women in my personal life, meaning my wife, two daughters, and two granddaughters, all have names chosen long ago. The problem I often have is choosing names for the females in my writing life, the ones in my stories. It could be because I’m only an average man with adequate intelligence at best and, therefore, limited in my understanding of women.

Names for my male characters, for some reason, are easier. As soon as I envision them and the stories they appear in, they let me know what their names should be. Only once have I made a major change in a male character’s name. The protagonist in my novel MEMORY OF A MURDER began life as Benjamin Masterson. I originally saw him as a worldly, well-educated, scholarly man. About halfway through the first draft, however, he let me known he was more of a down-to-earth, everyday kind of guy. I changed his name to Adam Kingston. He was happy with the change which, of course, made our working relationship a better one.

In the same novel, there is an important secondary character. She’s a homicide detective working the same case as Adam. Their initial meeting is not a friendly one. Adam is a former FBI agent, and she doesn’t care for FBI agents. Adam also has psychic gifts, and she thinks all psychics are quacks and con men. As you might guess, they wind up working together and, little by little, their relationship warms. Romance? Maybe.

To stand toe to toe with Adam, she had to be tough. For a friendship, possibly leading to a romantic thing, she also had to be feminine and attractive. After all, I couldn’t have my friend Adam getting interested in a frumpy little troll with bug eyes, a big nose, and the sex appeal of a fence post. My problem was coming up with a name for her that would imply tough cop, yet also have a ring of femininity, charm, and. . .you know.

I went through a book listing names in many ethnic groups and nationalities. Nothing clicked. I visited web sites offering the same. Still no click.

Then one day my wife’s car broke down. I didn’t know any mechanics, but a friend suggested hers. She handed me his business card. His name was Brendan McCord. As soon as I saw the name, I heard a giant CLICK! Bells and whistles sounded. A rainbow appeared on the horizon. Firecrackers boomed over my head. Pastel colored gazelles danced all around me. I had the name for my female character.

I dropped the “n” from the end of his first name and changed the “d” at the end of his last name to a “t” and her name became Brenda McCort. It was perfect. The first name, to me, had a feminine quality, and the last name struck me as just right for a cop who could be tough when necessary.

And that’s how I arrived at my foolproof system for naming the women I write about. All I have to do is wait for bells, whistles, rainbows, firecrackers and gazelles.

As for understanding women, I’m still working on that.

Earl Staggs. . .on a sweltering Sunday in Fort Worth

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Root of All Great Character-Building

The Fully Realized, Completely Materialized Character (steps onto the page)
Posted By Robert W. Walker

The Root Mon & How He Came into Being....

You hit on an idea, and it surrounds a character, right? Something in his swagger, his manner, his appearance, his carriage, his stage presence…or something in the way she talks or walks or balks--something undeniable in the sense she will not be denied as the one character that insists on being fleshed out, fully realized, completely materialized. The one of many “character” voices that will demand or claim the LEAD role in your next story or novel. She steps up and onto the stage of your mind-right smack dab at the frontal lobe, and when you either wish her away or try to put her off, or go off and do various chores to put her out of your mind, because you had other plans for the story or a life to live, she is still there, lurking-if not in the frontal lobe, someplace else in there, and you know it because she isn’t going anywhere until you pay her the attention she demands and claims of you. She may flatter you, call you her creator, her God, or she may bedevil you and claim she is your creator, your God. Either way, she or he or it has a stranglehold on you.

I know it sounds weird, especially to those who do not write or create, but it’s oh so true. When you listen to a psychic like John Edwards speak of those “spirits” who are all rushing in at him at once, all of them demanding attention and shouting, “Take me! Take me!” -you understand where he’s coming from even if you don’t understand where the “spirits” are coming from. Writing can and does often feel like channeling spectral voices out of the past or out of the psyche or out of the collective psyche, but that’s too deep to go into here. Still, it is a lot like that when an author is fishing around for a new lead character to cast in his next novel or story-that the casting couch can get extremely crowded. But always one voice, one powerful character drowns out the rest for the duration of a story or in the case of The Root Mon from the Root Heaven Store-a poem crafted around such a truly noisy, irritating character that not only demanded to be heard, but demanded it at the oddest of times and over a long, long period of time that I NOT shut him out try as I may….

In fact, I originally wrote the poem long years ago just in order to get The Root Mon out of my line of vision and out of my head, so that I could go on and live a normal writer-ly life, if there is such an existence. But before I banished him, it would take months and many return engagements, and just recently he mysteriously returned. I came across it, made the mistake of picking it up and reading it, enjoyed it, and wham, he was back! Kind of smacked me on the back of the head The Root Mon did. He had yet two more stanzas to add to the piece! After all these years! He’d been lurking in the dark recesses of my mind all this time, awaiting the day I should revisit him, and bada-bing, he jumps out at me and claims my frontal lobe again; abducts me and forces me to come to terms with two stanzas that needed adding! Confides that I got it wrong the first time around. All this and I have not cracked up in any meaningful F. Scott Fitzgerald fashion as yet.

Now mind you, when he first showed up, it was just to do three stanzas and boom, I was to be done with The Root Mon and poetry! How very often had I been warned off the writing of poetry as anything I attempted stank to high heaven. Warned off it as a tone deaf person is warned to stay away from any attempt at music or song. So after those few stanzas, I felt confident that The Root Mon’s visit had come to an end; that bye-bye meant bye-bye. That I could write something easy now-like a mystery novel. The next in my Instinct Series. Besides, I wasn’t terribly impressed by The Root Mon’s poem anyway. But like a horror film, I found him in my head again while I was trying to sleep, while I was trying to shower, and while trying to dress! At every turn of my day, this crude guy demanded another stanza. Done! Go away now! Again done with The Root Mon, I went out to hoe the garden out back and wham, he came again with yet another stanza demanding I jot it down. Standing in the check-out line at Wal-mart, bam, another stanza. Just demanding as hell.

This went on. At breakfast another stanza, at lunch, at school, at the dental office, in the library while researching anything else! At the beach…in the ocean…no pen at hand! Again and again he came back at me, always demanding: “Com’on, mon…you gotta do dis one. Dis gotta be in de Root Mon’s poem!”

My wife was beginning to become suspicious. To be sure, I was distracted-living with this wild and crazy Root Mon in my head. He was telling me that I hadn’t “fully realized” who he was or just how much “ju-ju” he possessed, and that he wanted to “completely materialize” on the page I prayed, so I had to put up with him wanted me to fully flesh him out (on the page). That kind of magic meant another stanza, and another, and even now years later, he has COME BACK! Scary, yes. Exhausting yes, but in the end, I’m proud to present The Root Mon of Root Heaven below and you tell me if “living with your characters” for a time does or does not pay off. I think this is a cogent and quick example the “fully realized, completely materialized” character-as in a nutshell. Here is the Root Mon in his own words and on the stage that he built:

The ROOT MON --a poem by Anton “Mystic Ruler” Dupree aka Robert W. Walker  (*to be read to the sound of Reggie music playing in your head; the poem and character also makes an appearance in Pure Instinct, pre-Katrina New Orleans)

ThE RooT MoN

You carrying a curse?
Got urgent pain?
Can’t make de water?
Head a bustin’? wife a-fussin’?
Jus’ you come to Root Heaven…
the famous Root Mon’s Store

Here’s a broth,
here’s a stew
you want both
for what you gotta do.

You got needs?
Plannin-a-big sacr-o-fice?
We god seeds
and chickens on ice!
We got bugs, scrubs, and herbs,
and all kinna spice!

Need dem magic words?
Have a dose-a-crawlin’ lice.
Eat a canna magic rice,
a-pinch of snuff
for dat ol’ wart
and to kick-start the heart.

Toad sweat’ll get you up’n'fit
wid no shivers, shingles, or sneeze,
so get whatever you please
wid heavenly-heavenly ease
at the Root Mon’s store-
Root Heaven.

We got fat slugs
and tobacco plugs.
Got fuzzy cut worms
for cuts, scrapes’n'burns.
For fever it’s the poltice
and the crucifix cross.

Got many things for stings:
herbs, toots, roots’n'things.
Go-head, make my day
wid dat bottle
of turtle-nip-spray.

Toss a snake rattle
o’er your left shoulder
onto a big boulder
beside a flowin’ river
at the midnight hour.
So get whatever you need-
no talk, guilt, nor greed.

Join de Root Mon’s club!
Special on de belly rub,
and on de herb’n'potion.
Jus’ whisper who gets
dis notion, dat lotion.
Hex on/off as you please
to get ridda that sneeze.

Get stalks and stone,
min’rals and bones,
cat tails in pails
wid good’n'plenty snails!

Got a clip of royal bangs,
eyelashes from de King,
Bob Marley’s gol’ ring!
All’s at Root Heaven!

Take dat magic tobacco,
wrap it in calico and
fill it wid cat gut.
Den find a cemetery,
and dig a deep rut,
to just bury it up.
Prescription filled!
Got de enemy killed!

Fix you up wid a hex sign,
tack it to de nearest pine.
Throw a magic lotion
into the nearest ocean.
Chew eyes of black raven
whenever your cravin’
the really big ol’ cure.
All at your Root Mon’s Store!

Swallow de snail slime!
Ain’t no crime
to be fit and prime,
and in self-help
there’s protection
and at once
you be sheddin’ dat
godawful middle-section.
In de health we trust.

Guard your fleas
Curses come in threes!
Get even however you can,
And glory-be, mon
If’n you want
joy, and prosperity,
then you lis’n to me!

Fatherly Root Mon advice,
in other words so right!
Forget dat old 7-Eleven!
Get yow-self to Root Heaven!

THAT’S my story and I’m sticking to it.
Happy Writing and Reading

Rob Walker

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

ebook covers

There is a shakeup going on in the world of ebooks. The success of the iPad has created a price war among makers of ebook readers. Sales of ebooks have jumped tremendously. Apple says that iPad owners have bought more than 5 million ebooks in the two months the iPad has been on the market. The iBook reader is available for the new iPhone which was released to unprecedented demand. You can bet a lot of people will be reading books on the iPhone.

Now today, Barnes and Noble lowered the price of the Nook to $149 and Amazon reduced the Kindle to $189. That should boost sales for both products, which is great news for those of us who provide content for those devices.

My book, Pilikia Is My Business, has been available in the Kindle store for about a year and sales have been pretty weak. Most of that is my fault. I haven't done much to promote the book. I have decided, however, that now is the time to catch the ebook wave. That means a new edition of Pilikia for the iBook, Nook and Kindle stores. A new edition requires a new cover, so I contacted a graphic artist about designing a new one for me.

But first, I did some thinking about covers. Here's the cover of Piikia as it appeared on the first LTDBooks edition. The two elements are the face of a woman, presumably Val Lyon, the main character, and a late model sedan. Such a car does play a role in the story.

What do I like about the cover?
1. It contains elements that actually appear in the story.
2. A character figures prominently.

I like covers that show something about a character. I'm not a fan of covers that show inanimate objects. Robert Parker's Hundred Dollar Baby has a picture of a semi-automatic pistol and a red garter belt. I get that it's a mystery with a woman, but I would rather see the character holding the gun and a woman wearing the garter. In short, I like to see not only a character, but something of the character's plight on the cover.  The kind of covers found on vintage paperbacks by artists such as Robert McGinnis and Robert McGuire met this ideal

What I don't like about my Pilikia cover is that there is no story. Val's plight is not evident anywhere on the cover. In fact, you can't even tell it is a mystery.

So, my first two requirements for a cover are 1) character, and 2) story.

Another feature of vintage paperbacks is that they stood out on the drugstore racks where they tended to be sold. There was nothing subtle about them. They were designed to catch the attention of shoppers across the store. Subtle covers are fine for books sold in bookstores where customers browse leisurely and up close through the offerings. When you have only a small item that must stand out, color and a striking image become important.

Have you seen how books are sold in the iBook, Kindle and Nook stores?  They are displayed by thumbnails, with eight, ten or twenty thumbnails per page. The iBook thumbnails are smallest, measuring three eighths of an inch wide and five eighths high. The Kindle thumbs are twice that size and the Nook thumbs are slightly larger. They are being sold like drugstore books. They are arranged on the page, the way paperbacks were displayed on racks in the old days. Most of the bookcovers currently in the online stores are full-size covers shrunk down to tiny size. Most of them fail to grab your attention. To get attention in an online store, I believe, a cover must show a character in some kind of danger. The image must be clearly visible and striking, not subtle, with vibrant colors.

So now I have three requirements for a cover:
1. character
2. story
3. striking enough to grab attention when shrunk to 3/8" by 5/8" size.

In my next post, I'll show my top choices for the new edition of Pilikia Is My Business.  What do you like in a book cover?

Mark Troy

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Free Public WiFi by Morgan Mandel

Okay, this is connected to mystery in a very broad sense. If nothing else, it's something to be aware of.

Well, I'd heard more than once that it's impossible for trains to provide free public WiFi on them. So, Thursday, I was tremendously surprised to find a site come up on my software with 5 bars and a preferred star. The site was called Free Public WiFi. Was it possible somehow someone had done the impossible?

The site seemed to connect, yet I still felt uneasy about it, so I disconnected and went to the Mobile mode, even though that hadn't been working too well.

When I got home, I decided to go to my favorite information gathering site, Google, hoping to see maybe some announcement that yes, now it was possible to get free public Wifi on trains.

Alas, all I found were a bunch of articles saying Free Public WiFi in transportation places, like trains and planes, was some kind of viral thing - not a virus, but a windows happening which somehow connected two or more computers together, usually with no resulting connection online, worse case scenario being someone actually hacking your system. I did a scan afterwards and fortunately all was clean. I also learned that linksys and hpsetup were two other site addresses that could pop up but not be real. I've seen both of them, even in Wisconsin.

Goes to show, nothing is free these days, at least on my train. Here's one of the links:

I was wondering how to prevent getting the sites from popping up in the future. I found the answer on Google. One article mentioned if you have a switch on the laptop cutting off Wi Fi, use it when you don't want those strange WiFi sites popping up. Funny, I know about that switch. Google helped me find it when I couldn't get my WiFi started at home off of my DSL and didn't know the reason. Somehow I'd turned off the switch, probably when putting the computer into its case.

What goes around comes around, I guess. The first mystery was solved, which led me to find a solution for another mystery.

What about you? Have you seen any of these sites on your computer? Or maybe you have another computer mystery you solved that you'd like to share.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

2009 Darwin Awards

Ben Small

I don't think I've ever posted something that I didn't write before, but someone sent me the Darwin Award nominees for 2009 -- maybe they think I'm deserving of one, albeit I'm still alive and kicking -- and I thought they were interesting enough to deviate from my practice. I know, these reports -- a couple of which I'd previously heard about -- are sad, but from a distance, especially if one wasn't affected directly by these experiences, there is a head-shaking did-you-hear-about-the-guy-who... side to them.

So, without further ado, here are the nominees:

Nominee No. 1: (San Jose Mercury News):
An unidentified man, using a shotgun like a club to break a former girlfriend's windshield, accidentally shot himself to death when the gun discharged, blowing a hole in his gut.

Nominee No. 2: (Kalamazoo Gazette):

James Burns, 34, (a mechanic) of Alamo , Michigan was killed in March as he was trying to repair what police describe as a "farm-type truck." Burns got a friend to drive the truck on a highway while Burns hung underneath so that he could ascertain the source of a troubling noise. Burns clothes caught on something, however, and the other man found Burns "wrapped around the drive shaft.

Nominee No.. 3: ( Hickory Daily Record): 

Ken Charles Barger, 47, accidentally shot himself to death in December in Newton, North Carolina. Awakening to the sound of a ringing telephone beside his bed, he reached for the phone but grabbed instead a Smith & Wesson .38 Special, which discharged when he drew it to his ear.

Nominee No. 4: (UPI, Toronto ): 

Police said a lawyer demonstrating the safety of windows in a downtown Toronto skyscraper crashed through a pane with his shoulder and plunged 24 floors to his death. A police spokesman said Garry Hoy, 39, fell into the courtyard of the Toronto Dominion Bank Tower early Friday evening as he was explaining the strength of the buildings' windows to visiting law students. Hoy previously has conducted demonstrations of window strength according to police reports.

Peter Lawson, managing partner of the firm Holden Day Wilson, told the Toronto Sun newspaper that Hoy was "one of the best and brightest" (ed note:????) members of the 200-man association.

Nominee No. 5: (The News of the Weird): 

Michael Anderson Godwin made News of the Weird posthumously. He had spent several years awaiting South Carolina's electric chair on a murder conviction before having his sentence reduced to life in prison. While sitting on a metal toilet in his cell attempting to fix his small TV set, he bit into a wire and was  electrocuted.

Nominee No. 6 

A cigarette lighter may have triggered a fatal explosion in Dunkirk, Indiana. A Jay Countryman, using a cigarette lighter to check the barrel of a muzzle loader, was killed Monday night when the weapon discharged in his face, sheriffs investigators said. Gregory David Pryor, 19, died in his parents' rural Dunkirk home at about 11:30 PM.. Investigators said Pryor was cleaning a 54-caliber muzzle-loader that had not been firing properly. He was using the lighter to look into the barrel when the gunpowder ignited.

Nominee No. 7: (Reuters, Mississauga, Ontario): 

A man cleaning a bird feeder on the balcony of his condominium apartment in this Toronto suburb slipped and fell 23 stories to his death. Stefan Macko, 55, was standing on a wheelchair when the accident occurred, said Inspector Darcy Honer of the Peel Regional Police. "It appears that the chair moved, and he went over the balcony," Honer said.


Finally, THE WINNER!!!: ( Arkansas Democrat Gazette): 

Two local men were injured when their pickup truck left the road and struck a tree near Cotton Patch on State Highway 38 early Monday. Woodruff County deputy Dovey Snyder reported the accident shortly after midnight Monday. Thurston Poole, 33, of Des Arc, and Billy Ray Wallis, 38, of Little Rock, were returning to Des Arc after a frog catching trip.

On an overcast Sunday night, Poole 's pickup truck headlights malfunctioned. The two men concluded that the headlight fuse on the older-model truck had burned out. As a replacement fuse was not available, Wallis noticed that the 22 caliber bullets from his pistol fit perfectly into the fuse box next to the steering- wheel column. Upon inserting the bullet the headlights again began to operate properly, and the two men proceeded on eastbound toward the White River Bridge.

After traveling approximately 20 miles, and just before crossing the river, the bullet apparently overheated, discharged, and struck Poole in the testicles. The vehicle swerved sharply right, exiting the pavement, and striking a tree. Poole suffered only minor cuts and abrasions from the accident but will require extensive surgery to repair the damage to his testicles, which will never operate as intended. Wallis sustained a broken clavicle and was treated and released. "Thank God we weren't on that bridge when Thurston shot his n**s off, or we might both be dead," stated Wallis.

"I've been a trooper for 10 years in this part of the world, but this is a first for me. I can't believe that those two would admit how this accident happened," said Snyder.

Upon being notified of the wreck, Lavinia ( Poole's wife), asked how many frogs the boys had caught and did anyone get them from the truck.

Though Poole and Wallis did not die as a result of their misadventure, as normally required by Darwin Award Official Rules, it can be argued that Poole did, in fact, effectively remove himself from the gene pool.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why Would Anyone Want to Be a Writer?

Everybody and their great aunt Sophie wants to be a writer. I'm beginning to believe that is our duty as writers, to discourage some of these folks. I mean, seriously, if they all become writers, what will happen to the rest of us?

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with my friend Ed. Ed has flirted with the idea of being a writer--sending off little articles to newspapers, writing about his vacations and giving copies out to his friends, trying the whole idea out. Ed was in love with the idea of being a writer. But then he talked to another friend, asking her, what she had made off her writing. When she told him somewhere around $250.00 (after expenses), Ed was flabbergasted. So he came to me for some kind of confirmation. She couldn't, he told me, be serious.

When I told him that the last time I checked the average published writer made about $5000.00 a year, and it had been that way for a very long time, Ed was appalled. "How could anyone do that?" He asked.

I shrugged and mumbled something about day jobs.

But I think I stumbled on something here. Maybe all those folks who are in love with the idea of writing just need to hear the facts.

The first fact about writing for most of us? No money, no money, no freakin' money.

The next (probably equally appalling) fact is there is precious little credit in this field. As my friend Michelle Birkby wrote on our blog, RuleofThree It's time to celebrate writers., Think about it, when is the last time you saw the writer's name up there with the actors as the TV program starts? With the exception of Doctor Who (which to be honest, I didn't even notice until Michelle pointed it out,) I can think of no time whatsoever.

Worse than that, it has become common for quotes from movies, TV shows and the like to be attributed to the actor who spoke the lines instead of the writer who wrote them. (As in "Frankly Scarlett, I don't give a damn," said Clark Gable in his role as Rhett Butler in "Gone with the Wind." Instead of "From Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell."

So really, no money, no credit, and excepting perhaps Stephen King, no public recognition, who would be a writer? Besides me, I mean.

Christine Duncan is the author of the Kaye Berreano mystery series. Safe House, the second book in the series, is available now.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Library Full of Characters

And I'm not speaking about the characters in a book.

Our local teeny branch library invited me to be a guest during the 100 year celebration of the first county library, and bring my books. Of course I agreed. This library is on the grounds of what once was a huge TB sanitarium which has since been turned into apartments for low income folks. Of course the library is a popular place for the residents as it's within walking distance--very few have their own transportation, though many of them do have electric scooters or golf carts to use to get around our small town.

When I first arrived, a homeless man came in with a huge back pack that held his sleeping bag, rolled up foam pad, all sorts of clothes and other bags hanging from the frame of the pack. He placed his belongings on a chair at a table across from my table, and spent most of the rest of the time sitting on the floor at the back of one of the stacks.

All sorts of folks came into the library from all walks of life. Many, of course, came from the nearby apartments, some with obvious mental problems, others just elderly and anxious for some conversation. The cookies and punch were quite a draw too.

Also a lot of moms with kids arrived, including a young woman who'd once been in a writing class of mine and is now attending a children's book authors' critique group.

A fellow spent a good deal of time talking to me about the three murders we've had in Springville and a book, Lucifer's Hammer, whose setting is actually Springville. On his way out, he snagged a paperback, stuck it under his shirt and zipped out the door.

Another man, the father of two delightful teens who came to use the two computers in the library, sat beside me for a long while telling me about murders that happened near him and at his workplace when he worked in Southern California.

One of the young women who attends my church, dropped by and visited for a few minutes. She was babysitting some young boys and brought them up to the library to keep them busy.

A sixth grader I teach in Sunday School came back to see me and my books and seemed quite surprised that I have another life.

And two lovely older (but younger than I am) women I know slightly who came to check out books, paused long enough to visit for awhile.

There were several folks who talked to themselves, a few who looked as though they needed someone to help them dress, and one fellow who kept hitching up his pants just in time.

The more I think about it, this would make a terrific setting for another murder in Springville. The poor fellow hunkered down at the back of the stacks would make a good victim. But the librarian would have to be a less diligent soul since she checked on this man quite often, bringing him cookies and punch, and asking him if he was okay.

Where have you seen a collection of unusual characters?


Monday, June 14, 2010

Five Basic Questions

By Austin Camacho

I received a note from a student recently that led to some pretty serious thinking about what I do and I thought I'd share my response. Here's her email:

My name is Dominique and I'm a student at Northern Virginia Community College. I have an assignment I'm working on and I have to ask a writer a couple of questions. What is the most interesting part of your work? The least interesting? If I wanted to pursue this area, what advice would you give? What skills should I be working on in school? How can I get more information?

Well, before I even began to respond to these questions I had to let her know that I am a genre fiction novelist. A short story writer, a literary writer, an essayist, a poet, a journalist or a nonfiction author might answer very differently. We all come to our calling for different reasons and approach it from different angles. That having been said…

What is the most interesting part of your work?

I write mystery novels so the great fun for me is in crafting the puzzle, building the mystery people will try to solve along with my detective. More than anything else this requires an understanding of human motivations – why people do the things they do – and that is certainly the most interesting aspect of my craft.

The least interesting?

Well, that would be the necessary mechanics. You can’t be a good writer of any kind unless you can communicate clearly, and that means mastering grammar and punctuation. Knowing the difference between being eager and being anxious. Learning where a paragraph should end. And knowing what constitutes a sentence, so you won’t fill your work with fragments like the 3 I just wrote.

If I wanted to pursue this area, what advice would you give?

My most important advice is to read. Read the kind of work you’d like to write, but also read a variety so you can borrow techniques from different places and have more colors on our writing pallet. Whenever you have an emotional reaction to something someone wrote, go back and look at the word choices and the technique used. Figure out how they got that reaction out of you so you can learn to do it to others.

The second most important advice is to write. Write every day. Don’t wait for inspiration or your muse to speak to you. Get in the habit of creating. The writing muscle is like any other, you need to exercise it to make it stronger. We get better at just about anything through practice.

What skills should I be working on in school?

In good literature courses you can learn the basic plots and why they are so often repeated. You should always seek out the theme of a story, not just the plot.

Study history and dig into the biographies of the movers and shakers of our past. These can be the foundation of your own great characters. Learn about other cultures. Expand your vocabulary. Perhaps most important, ask your professors to be hard on you, critiquing every paper sternly, raising the bar for your written communications.

How can I get more information?

There are hundreds of good books on writing, but I don’t think anything takes the place of the fellowship of other writers. So I recommend you join writer organizations. In my neck of the woods there’s the Virginia Writers Club, the Maryland Writers Association and the American Independent Writers. Plus, there are organizations for every genre of author. I belong to the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers Inc. Surround yourself with writers and you will be able to learn things you didn’t know you needed to know.

All of that having been said, I would LOVE to hear how other writers would answer these five basic questions? What do you say, fellas & gals?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Psychology of Non-Verbal Dialogue

Can We Talk? Dialogue Can Be So Romantic

by Rob Walker

Let’s start with the face but don’t forget the cuticles either.

Whose face? Why the face of the Speaker in the Rye, or rather the novel, and the features of the other speaker as dialogue means 2-logues, not one. Facial expressions and features are a starting point. Squints, ticks, licking of lips – it all becomes part and parcel of how it all comes off the page like life itself or remains on the page like a dead, dehydrated piece of road kill.

In other words, it is not only what she says to him, but how he reacts to it; his facial expressions, his hands moving, his breathing, and then how she looks in reaction to his reaction. In my Dead On I intended for the duo to have a Boggie and BaCall relationship while they are being hunted like animals! In Children of Salem the lovers are a great deal more tentative with one another; after all, they have not seen one another for ten years as Jere went off to make his mark in order to feel worthy of her.

Nowadays we know so much about non-verbal communication in men and women, that in my humble opinion, after penning some fifty novels from the POV of the female lead and the male lead and many shared leads, I feel strongly about one element in all mysteries – that there be an element of love and romance afoot alongside the dastardly stuff. That it is incumbent upon us writers of mystery to understand the greatest mystery of all is romance and historical romance. To that end we must absolutely get with the program and utilize from three to five non-verbal “triangulations” in a scene just as we would triangulate at least three to five senses in a scene.

In a dialogue scene eye contact is huge, facial expressions, big, sounds, sighs, rolling eyes, as well as gestures and even how a character sits, legs crossed or not, and how he stands, firm or shaky. Posture and proximity. These are all key to making dialogue action rather than feeling like inaction. Think of those steamy scenes between Boggie and BaCall wherein she says so much with so little and he does likewise.

So what does science tell us about body language? Here is a pretty good list of items that I use as I write:

Non-verbal signs of Cooperation:

Standing with feet apart, head tilted high.

Direct eye-contact

Uncrossed legs and arms

Open arms and palms out

Finger to face (as opposed to hand covering face)


Hand covering mouth or shading eyes

Head down

Throat clearing

Need for reassurance:

Sucking on pen, pencil, glasses or other item

Clenched hands

Cuticle picking, biting nails

Hand to throat


Hands in pockets

Hands locked at back

Hand rubbing back of neck

Body twisted away

Stalling for time by cleaning glasses, pipe, rearranging, etc.


Hand to cheek

Chin stroking

Leaning forward

Scratching head



Hand over nose

Brow furrowed


Nail biting

Strained voice

Rapid eye movements

Open Gestures:


Eye contact

Affirmative head nods

Rubbing hands together

Interim phrases of agreement or acknowledgement (Eh? Uh-huh? Hmmm, oh, etc.)

Closed Gestures:


Leaning back (as opposed to forward)

Hand covering mouth

Peering over top of glasses

In other words, it is as important to see/hear what a character says but just as important to see and hear what is going on between the spoken lines, alternating with interesting actions the character is involved in and engaged in. This keeps the dialogue interwoven with the action, and the action engaged while speakers speak. Let your characters do the walking as well as the talking simultaneously as they have wine and a meal.

Action should not end when a character opens her mouth to “speak.” Same as with thinking; we are in real life normally involved in multi-tasking as we are thinking, no? Same as when speaking. Your dialogue needs to walk; your dialogue requires legs. When the man says, “Lights, action, camera” include in that list “dialogue” but ratchet it UP!

My latest madness is found at Dirty Deeds – Advice where you can keep tabs on the work in progress – Curse of the Titanic, or google Write Aide, or check out his blogs at or look for free stuff at

Do leave your comments!


Appreciating Stephen Hunter

by Ben Small

I'll admit I hadn't appreciated Stephen Hunter's talent for the shooting and sniping arts until I became a shooter myself and became obsessed with the pursuit of the one-hole group. For those of you who are non-shooters, the one-hole group is the mythical pursuit of placing five shots in a row through one hole at one hundred yards or better. I've never attained that mythological stature, but then, nobody else has either.

Until now, that is. New to the computer age, are scopes and technology available that guarantee one-hole groups. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer obtaining my marksmanship, or lack thereof, the hard way, through better technique and mechanical adjustments.

Minute of angle ("MOA") is the key term every shooter knows: one inch at one hundred yards. At two hundred yards, a 1 MOA would be two inches, at three hundred yards, three inches, and so forth...

The best shooters manage groups below 1 MOA, but not without effort. To shoot sub-MOA, one must know variables such as humidity, temperature, wind, level (height from barrel level), distance and whether the gun barrel is cold or warm.

Hunter is probably best known for his character Bob Lee Swagger, a sniper of legendary accuracy. Swagger's not educated, he's a Marine sniper, one of the best who's ever lived. And when it comes to gun-smarts, there is no one more knowledgeable. You may wonder where you heard the name Bob Lee Swagger. More likely than not, it's not from reading Hunter's Point of Impact, a brilliant story of shooting technology and the evils of big corporate conspiracy, but from the movie made from this book, titled Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg and several other well known stars.

Granted, Hunter's last book, a forgettable excursion into the art of the Japanese sword, was a dud. But in I, Sniper, Hunter has once again found his groove. The tale begins with the sniping of four prominent people, a Jane Fonda-ish actress, political traitor and exercise guru, two well-known activists once convicted of numerous terrorist acts, and a comedian, all seemingly unconnected except for one thing: The bullets came from the same gun.

Hunter reunites Bobby Lee Swagger and his FBI buddy from Point of Impact, Nick Memphis, when Memphis calls in an aging Bob "The Nailer" Swagger to consult on the murders. All evidence points to Carl Hitchcock, previous holder of the record for confirmed sniper kills. Seems Hitchcock went off his rocker after his wife died and his record for confirmed kills was beaten. Hitchcock is found, an apparent suicide victim, and his gun is identified as the murder weapon. The only thing left is to determine for media release why HItchcock went off the deep end, release the report and close the file.

Enter Swagger, an expert on sniping and the mind-set of the sniper. Thorough as always, Bob asks to review the evidence, convinced himself that Hitchcock was the shooter. But the more Swagger studies the file, the more he becomes convinced that Hitchcock could not have been the sniper.

Why? The shots were too perfect, striking the exact center of their target. No shooter alive could make those shots, especially when considering that the rifle must have been moved in the three or four seconds between the killing shots of the two activists, husband and wife, sitting in their car. Swagger realizes that while Hitchcock's old  Winchester Model 70 was capable of such shots from a cold bore, his scope, found still attached to the rifle, was not.

Something stinks.

But the FBI won't listen to Swagger and loses confidence in Memphis, resulting in Swagger going rogue and Memphis being put on Administrative Leave pending termination and perhaps charges.

The clock is ticking, and only Swagger can connect the dots and prove beyond doubt that there's a massive conspiracy afoot.

Hunter won the Pulitzer for a reason: He's a damn fine writer. And nobody writes about shooting better than Stephen Hunter. Bob Lee Swagger is an American fiction hero worthy of your attention.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Face of a Thriller

I recently finished reading Face of a Killer, a well-written thriller by Robin Burcell, whose progress I have watched over the years via posts on various Internet lists. She worked in the San Franciso area for more than two decades as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator. An FBI-trained forensic artist, Robin used that talent with her character Sydney Fitzpatrick in this book, written after producing four Kate Gillespie mysteries..

An FBI agent and forensic artist, Sydney is called on to reconstruct the face of a mutilated rape-murder victim and finds herself entangled in another murder case, that of her father killed more than two decades ago. She visits the death row inmate about to die for the murder and has doubts about his guilt.

A photo sent to her by a friend of her father's, who then commits suicide, adds more complications. When attempts are made on her life, Sydney begins to mistrust a fellow agent she had formerly lived with. The plot moves rapidly as people and events from years ago resurface, and it appears some hidden government group may be responsible for her problems.

In an Author's Note, Robin mentioned that her fictional rogue international financial institution was modeled after the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), target of the biggest banking scandal in history back in 1991. It was called the "Bank of Crooks and Criminals" by the feds. After its closure, a "black network" division was allegedly still in operation using Mafia-like tactics, extortion, kidnapping, even murder, by some accounts.

Using your own career experience as the backdrop for a mystery novel is a surefire way to guarantee authenticity. It's a technique that has been used successfully by newspaper reporters like Michael Connelly, lawyers like Phillip Margolin, and numerous others. Some authors have made writers their protagonists.

Using actual organizations or events to model story lines provides another source for creating realism. Chances are the reader will think this sounds vaguely familiar.

A feeling of authenticity is great, but a mystery requires much more to make it successful. Robin Burcell people's her book with some great characters and does an excellent job of keeping the excitement at a high level. I'm happy to recommend Face of a Killer.

Chester Campbell

Mystery Mania

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Eight Things A Publisher Looks At When You Submit

Time for some dirty truth and evil revelation: most publishers are not necessarily on the lookout for novels with tremendous literary depth! Sure, it's great if the novel has that in addition to being a hot property, but it's business, folks! Publishers are in it to make money, and if they can publish great literature as a side-effect, so much the better.

Now, in what I'm saying down below here, I'm not talking about the quality of your manuscript. We'll assume for the moment that your manuscript is golden, the kind that makes bored first readers let their coffee grow cold and allow their cigarettes to burn down to the filters, unattended, while devouring your prose.

However, publishers also look at many other things when you submit your manuscript, and here are eight of those areas. Don't despair if you can't nail down all eight—it's the rare author who can! But the more you can get, the better your chances of getting your first novel published.

1. Length. Does the length of the work match well with the typical length of a book of the same genre selling currently? When comparing the cost of printing to the possible financial rewards realized by selling the books, will things come out in the black or in the red? (We're assuming print publication, not ebook.)

2. Writing credits. Has the writer published in the genre before? Has the writer published stories in magazines and ezines to establish a track record? Or, is the writer a total novice and the submitted manuscript the only writing effort the writer can show?

3. Platform. Has the writer established name recognition in the genre in any way at all? Is he/she active in online discussion groups? Does he/she have a web page?

4. Genre knowledge. Does the writer keep abreast of market news and the writing community of the selected genre? Does the writer know the authors who lead the genre, the ones who are beginning their careers? In short, does the writer understand the competition?

5. Marketing. How will the writer draw buyers to the publishing house? Does the writer have a marketing outline to present to the publisher? Does the writer have a unique angle for marketing? Is the writer creative and able to think outside the box in regard to marketing schemes?

6. Writer's well-defined audience. Can the writer describe in detail who they think will be willing to spend money to have the author's Book in their hands? Has the writer made contacts within the genre community? Is the he/she a member of any professional writers' groups that might help with networking?

7. Practical logistics. Does the writer have the physical ability and transportation to do book signings, readings, or other engagements? Does the writer have front-of-room presence? Is the writer willing to take his or her own time to market and promote the book?

8. Business acumen. Does the writer understand (at least somewhat) the business end of publishing? Does the writer understand their responsibility and the need to produce revenue for the publishing house as well as for their own pocket? Does the writer have a realistic grasp of what can be accomplished?

I know, these sound terrible and discouraging. But it's a very competitive environment out there, and the more you can do to make yourself stand out from the crowd, make yourself look like less of a risk and more of an asset, the better off you will be and the better your chance will be to get that publishing contract in your hands!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Autocrit Review by Mark Troy

I'm a sucker for online writing help. I'm also a sucker for applications based on statistical analyses of published works. Most tend to be disappointing, but now and then a gem comes along. Autocrit is one of those gems. Its power comes from a statistical analysis of published literature that produces limits for words that are considered overused. "Was" is one such word. Obviously you can't write without it, but weak writing has too much of it. How much is too much? The simple answer is it's too much if it exceeds what is typically found in published works, publication being the standard for excellence. Nina Davies, the genius behind Autocrit found the average usage for each of the overused words and used that to set limits of how much would be acceptable.

Autocrit is intended for fiction writers of all genres. To use it, go to the web site, paste your text into the window, and choose an analysis. Almost instantly, Autocrit returns a report.

My first experience was humbling. I entered part of a novel I'd revised through nine drafts until the writing was so tight it squeaked at every page turn. Or so I thought. Autocrit checked my text against a list of commonly overused words and reported that, on most of them, I'd exceeded the limits (actually an average) for published fiction. Next Autocrit highlighted the overused words in blue. My chapter looked like an Avatar extra.

Besides the overused word function, you can get an analysis of dialogue tags, repeated phrases, redundancies, cliches, and pacing. Some of these you have to pay for and some are free. One of my favorite features is the sentence length analysis because it produces histograms of your sentences. Did I mention I'm a sucker for statistics?

What Autocrit offers are guidelines. The transformation occurs when you decide what to do about the flaws Autocrit spots. Weak words don't exist in isolation; they hide in weak sentences and weak paragraphs. After running my 90.000 word flabalooza through Autocrit, I had a buffed-down 76,000 word tome.

Autocrit's most useful feature, the analysis of overused words, is free. Free users, however, are limited to a small word count and fewer functions. For a big revising project, an annual subscription is well worth the $47.00. Now, nothing leaves my desktop without passing through Autocrit.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Sixteen Tips for Writing Great Thrillers

by Jean Henry Mead

One of the best features of my new release, Mysterious Writers, is the advice offered by mystery/crime writers I've interviewed. Among them "Sixteen Tips for Writing a Great Thriller" by international bestselling Canadian novelist, Rick Mofina:

1. A problem befalls the protagonist that will change/threaten her/his life.
2. Define the stakes. Establish a deadline. The clock is ticking.
3. Who is your protagonist? Give readers what they need to know to empathize.
4. Who/what is your antagonist? Give readers what they need to understand or fear.
5. Action = Character. Conflict = Tension. Tension = Drama. Time is slipping by.
6. Hooks compel readers to turn pages. Otherwise, what's the point?
7. Hope emerges. A resolution is in sight. Or is it?
8. Protagonist’s credibility. Use what you know personally to build a solid frame.
9. Story plausibility. Use what you know personally to reinforce that frame.
10. Make readers feel the story, smell it, taste it, live it.
11. Dialogue and details must reveal character, drive the story.
12. The clock is ticking. Urgency is critical.
13. Things just got a whole lot worse. The reader sweats it out with the protagonist.
14. Time is up. The antagonist will triumph.
15. All hope appears to be gone but the protagonist battles on against the odds.
16. The protagonist defeats the antagonist in a life-changing resolution of the problem.

Copyright © 2009 by

Mysterious Writers also contains Elmore Leonard's ten writing tips, among other writing advice from 75 authors.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Electronic Publishing

By Jean Henry Mead

I’ve waited up to 18 months for a book to be published, but that was before publishing on demand technology greatly enhanced publication time. POD is still considered second class by some in the publishing industry, and I don't understand why. It's much more efficient than traditional publishing and isn’t it great that the wait between submission and publication is only a few months? Your books aren’t languishing in some warehouse, perhaps never to be delivered to the bookstores. That's happened more often than publishers care to admit. It’s also the reason bestselling authors have delivered pizza and donuts to warehouse workers. It insures that their newly published books leave the loading dock.

Young writers have time to wait for a major publisher to produce their books. But as you grow older and wonder if you’re going to live long enough to see them in print, you think POD is the greatest invention since the computer.

I came to that conclusion when the first novel of my Logan & Cafferty mystery/suspense series was orphaned. Who would want to publish a series that had already been published? I received an almost immediate response from Avalon to my query letter, but I waited and waited for a go-ahead to my submission. Seven months later and tired of waiting, I decided to go with a small POD publisher that is very accommodating.

My first three books were published within three months of submission and released not only in print but Kindle and Fictionwise multi-format. Not on the bestseller list, by any means, but they remained #1 in sales for a couple of months at Fictionwise-epress. That made it worthwhile. The ebook edition of my first novel, Escape, a Wyoming Historical Novel, is currently number one in sales as well as the most highly rated although it was published in July 2008. Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond or lost in a sea of small fish? I'll take the big fish any day.

Next week my Mysterious Writers book will appear first in Kindle, Sony and B&N ebooks, featuring some of the interviews I featured on my blog site, Mysterious People. Sadly, not all of the interviews made the cut by Poisoned Pen Press. Although PPP is not considered a POD publisher, they accepted the manuscript via email. So there was no searching for a mailer or standing in line at the post office to see it on its way.

You can teach an old dog new tricks and I'm happy to embrace electronic technology. When are the large publishing houses going to catch up with the innovative smaller ones?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mystery Authors, What Real Life Mysteries Have Touched You?

So many of us write about missing people, murders, suicides, other mysteries, but how many of us have had any real mysteries in our lives?

Years ago, when hubby and I lived in a neighborhood filled with police officers and their famiiies we often partied with, we went to a poker party at the juvenile officer's house down the street. At the time, poker parties, even those in private homes were illegal. (How anyone could enforce that law, I do not know.) Except for hubby and me (hubby was a Chief in the Navy at the time) was a police officer or officer's wives. One man who came was from a neighboring city's department.

I'm sure I didn't play cards or bet as I don't play poker--though I don't really remember. There was lots of laughing, joking, eating and drinking.

While the officer from the neighboring city was playing cards, his wife was murdered in their home. Needless to say, he was the primary suspect despite his airtight alibi with a lot of witnesses.

The next day we were all questioned as to when he'd arrived, how long he'd been there, when did he leave.

Finally, the investigation proved that the killer was an escapee from a nearby mental hospital and the murder was random. Of course I used the incident (without the poker party)in one of my earliest Rocky Bluff P.D. crime novels, Bad Tidings.

We also had a suicide in the family, a cousin's husband. She was suspect for about five seconds until the investigating officers learned he recently received a cancer diagnosis.

Any of you out there have a real life mystery you lived through or touched your life?