Susan Van Kirk's Three May Keep A Secret has been republished by Harlequinn's Worldwide Mystery. The WWK interview about the book can be accessed here. We're so glad another publisher picked up this series.
KM Rockwood's "Burning Desire," and Paula Gail Benson's "Living One's Own Truth," have been published in the anthology Heartbreaks & Half-truths. Congratulations to all of the WWK writers.
Please join Margaret S. Hamilton's Kings River Life podcast of her short story "Busted at the Book Sale" here. Congratulations, Margaret!
Look for Kaye George and Margaret S. Hamilton's short stories in the new Mid-Century Murder by Darkhouse Books. Kaye's story is "Life and Death on the Road" and Margaret's story is titled "4BR/3.5BA Contemporary."
Grace Topping's second novel in Laura Bishop staging series, Staging Wars, was released by Henery Press on April 28th. Look for the interview here from April 29th.
Kaye George's second novel in the Vintage Sweets mystery series, Deadly Sweet Tooth, was released on June 2. Look for the interview here on June 10.
Annette Dashofy's 10th Zoe Chambers mystery, Til Death, will be released on June 16th. Look for the interview here on June 17.
Monday, May 31, 2010
When a writer contemplates the setting for a novel, the most important factor is whether that setting complements the plot and assists the interaction of the characters. Choosing to create a fictitious setting enables the author to manipulate the setting and avoid liability issues, which can be especially problematic for murder mystery authors. The other approach, using a real place, limits how much the author can manipulate the setting, but can enhance the story because readers who know the area can relate to it and others unfamiliar with the area can learn something about it. Each approach has pitfalls.
The Outer Banks (OBX), a popular spot for East Coast vacationers, is composed of Bodie (pronounced Bow-dee) Island, the most northern, Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island, and Cape Lookout National Seashore, at the most southern end, which is composed of Portsmouth Island, the Core Banks and the Shackleford Banks. These last three are uninhabited. The first book in the Sparkle Days series features only Bodie and Hatteras Islands.
Buxton, the farthest point off shore on Hatteras Island, is over 30 miles from the mainland. Access to the Ocracoke Island and the other, more southern islands necessitates water or air travel. The State of North Carolina operates a ferry system for public use. Most of the ferries run free of charge or with a small charge to help fund the operation.
Between the mainland and the Outer Banks are brackish sounds. From the north to south the sounds are, Currituck, Ablemarle, Pamlico, and Core. The islands are also located in four counties each having laws that vary, which complicate a writer’s use of real places as the setting.
For example, in a short story I recently wrote, one of my critique partners questioned why I moved characters from Ocracoke to Hatteras Island. He thought the change unnecessary and overly involved. I realized that the change of islands was due to the very real differences in the liquor laws between the two. Had I kept the characters on the Hatteras Island, where the murder took place, the main characters could not have enjoyed a cocktail in a restaurant and met their waitress, who turned out to be the murderous antagonist, because Hatteras Island prohibits sales of mixed drinks in those establishments. Readers would have pointed out that the situation I created was unauthentic and proved I had not done my research.
There are over six hundred shipwrecks in the ocean surrounding the Outer Banks, called the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Diamond Shoals, shallow sandbanks underneath the ocean, are dangerous to ships and extend out from Cape Point in Buxton. The southern waters of the Gulf Stream meet the arctic Labrador Current, running down from the north, and form the deadly sandbanks that ground ships. The shoals are treacherous for all navigators because the banks move reshaping channels. Storms create new inlets and move sand, building the islands and transforming their shape.
During WWII, German U Boats cruised the area destroying merchant marine vessels that supplied the Allied War effort, earning the area the moniker Torpedo Junction and adding to the Graveyard of the Atlantic’s lore.
The area is rich is historical lore that include nomadic Native American culture, island ponies left by Spanish explorers, pirates such as Blackbeard, lighthouses and the birth of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Next week, I’ll explore Bodie Island in more detail.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
My new chapter looked like a murder victim from Chris’ book. I wondered if I could write at all. I contemplated throwing down my keyboard. I listened to Johnny Lang’s “Still Rainin,” thinking that maybe John Lee Hooker was right and the blues would cure me. It didn’t. I went to the gym.
This morning I got up and rewrote my new chapter in a way that would make Chris proud. Finished with the chapter, I let it simmer and picked up The Washington Post’s Health & Science section and read the following paragraph reinforcing what I already knew in Lenny Bernstein’s The MisFits column,
"I do some of my best writing on the run. I mean literally.
When the words won’t come, when the syntax doesn’t feel right,
when I just can’t figure out what angle to take on a column,
I’ll often go for a good hard run."
Next to his article was another by Fred Pearce, As Longevity Grows, The World Might Become A Better Place. His article explained how the world’s population was aging and that maybe we might become an older and wiser planet. Good thoughts, but thoughts that also circled back to writing.
During the disco era, I wondered what had happened to my generation. Where were all those cool hippies I used to know? Had they traded in their jeans and tie-dyed cotton tee shirts for polyester lounge suits and swirl dresses? Even the inner fighting Rolling Stones didn’t pull out of the era until grunge started soiling eighties pop. Finding books to read was a problem. I relied on those written by old hippies or nonfiction. I married, found other women with children and socialized with neighbors, but never found the collective consciousness of my youth.
In the last few years after I starting writing with purpose, I finally found my generation in local writing groups and on the Internet writing groups. We increase brainpower by improving the effectiveness of our writing, conjuring complex plots, understanding the emotions of our characters for motivation and creating multidimensional novels. The process of writing makes us wise because we aren’t stagnating, watching TV or letting our minds go into the dry rot of aging. We synthesize news articles and bits and pieces of our lives to create fictional worlds.
I found my generation just in time, ready to face aging with wisdom and work. Some of my favorite authors didn’t write until they were older and those who wrote most of their lives continued until they died. I could name literally hundreds of examples and they were all people who I admire. It was recently pointed out to me that F. Scott Fitzgerald was never published in his lifetime. Our unpublished peer group is awesome!
If we writers continue to write and to exercise maybe Pearce’s upbeat attitude toward our aging world-wide population could be more than just wishful thinking.
To read both articles on-line go to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/health/
Thursday, May 27, 2010
After placing my amateur ghost hunting career to the side, I asked my sister for some ideas. Big mistake. Her reply? Fish. Don’t ask, just don’t ask. Then she suggested frogs. Finally, she settled on fairytales. I think she just likes words that begin with ‘F’, but then she’d had a bad day at work so her ‘F’ word fixation made sense, if you catch my drift.
Credit to her eventually though, because I think fairytales are actually an interesting topic and, when I scanned back through my blog from last week, I realised I hadn’t actually mentioned why I write paranormal mysteries. Weirdly, the two topics tie in together.
I write paranormal (and really just write in general) to escape into a world that makes sense. That sounds a bit like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? A fairytale world that makes sense. But if you stop a minute and think about it, you see I’m right.
Fairytales (the Walt Disney kind not the Grimm Brothers) are where Good always triumphs over Evil, where bad guys always get their arses whooped, where bullies always get their comeuppance, where the hero always gets the girl and where the story always has a happy ending.
People don’t commit random, unfathomable acts of violence or bitch about a co-worker because she has an unusual taste in shoes. The world is simple. There are good people who live long and happy lives and there are bad people who live miserable lives because that’s how the fairytale universe balances.
Of course, growing up in a world of Walt Disney cartoons and women fighting (and mostly winning ) for the right to be accepted as equals, doesn’t always go hand in hand. For example, if a man holds a door open for you, what do you do?
I’m pretty sure, in the fairytale world, you’d smile, politely thank him and be married in a few short months (of course that’s where the fairytale would end because once a girl’s snagged her man the rest is all a dream come true. Yeah, right.).
In real life, however, I’m pretty sure you’d just accuse him of being a chauvinist and give him an informative dressing down about Women’s Lib. That is, if he wasn’t holding the door so he could peek down your blouse as you walked past. I’m fairly certain that would earn him a kick in the shin.
My point is that life is simple in fairytales. You recognise the bad guys by their maniacal laughs and their ugliness (bad people are ugly, it’s a fairytale fact). The hero is easily recognisable from his six foot, broad shouldered physique and gleaming smile. I would elaborate about how to recognise heroines here but, seriously, how many cartoon heroines have you seen? Walt’s people need to pull their fingers out.
Yeah, there are books out there that don’t follow the fairytale rules but it’s rare I read one. Life’s depressing enough, just listen to the news. Why spend your free time wallowing in someone else’s misery, a fictional character’s no less, whose story you can’t change?
The worlds I write might not follow all the same rules as Walt’s (I prefer heroines to heroes myself), but one thing’s the same, I always, always write a happy ending. I’m all about the positive. I’m not saying I won’t put my protagonist through the wringer to get her there but hey, that’s life, real or fictional, and it makes the happy ending that much sweeter.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Suppose I enjoy writing because I can withdraw to a space of my own and work free of office politics and free of having to pay attention to information that bores me. Okay, so that gets the first draft done but I'd better learn about the politics of agents and publishing houses, and I'd better pay attention to what captures public attention.
If the energy that drives my writing comes from a desire for revenge or to express my anger without being arrested, then, no matter how well I disguise these desires, someone will ask me about them.
Writing is private but, if I want to make my work public, it seems I have to pay attention to a whole lot of rules. It's unlikely I'll get away with breaking every rule.
If I want an agent, I should include a hook within the first one or two pages. My protagonist needs to be larger than life. I should write line after line of brilliant prose in a unique voice. Okay, did that!
Do I have an internet presence? Can I name specific groups who'll be interested in my work? For instance, if my main character is a landscaper, gardeners will be interested. If my protagonist is a cook, anyone who cooks at home or for a living could be interested. Some writers feature cats. Some writers become known for the area about which they write whether it's a city or a state. What groups do I belong to--a doctor has colleagues, a member of Sisters in Crime has a network of reader-writers.
When a my writing is accepted for publication, the importance of being out there and having a recognizable name becomes even more vital. Can I get a copy to a reviewer--preferably one who's going to give me a great review? Now is the time to remind all the groups I've been cultivating that they want to buy my book.
Once my book is published, I'll stagger from bookstore to bookstore with copies that I'll sign for whoever shows up to listen to me talk about something I've worked on for one, five, ten years. Writers have bookmarks and postcards printed to advertise their work. Writers with a book that features a landscaper protagonist might hand out a bag containing a miniature set of garden tools. Any publicity is good publicity. Maybe I could arrange to participate in a sex scandal or a messy divorce--just kidding.
I've known midlist authors who do research and put a tremendous effort into the writing of their novels who are dropped by their publishers because they don't sell enough copies. They're never going to be bestsellers like John Grisham. So how can I increase the number of people reading my books?
I could make myself a brand. Janet Evanovich has Stephanie Plum. (Evanovich if a memorable last name). Agatha Christie had Hercule Poirot and Miss Marples. I learned in a business class for medical personnel that brands come from companies that meet expectations. A customer goes to McDonalds expecting a cheeseburger and that's what they get with the taste they recognize from the thousands of other cheeseburgers they've consumed. From a medical standpoint, I guess that means if I go into hospital to have my appendix out, that's what I expect. I don't want a savvy resident to recognize that I have a brain tumor and remove that as well. It is possible for a business person to exceed expectations but that's tricky. Consumers know the brand and they're not sure if change is good. For many people food just doesn't taste the same without the triglycerides.
I don't like the idea of becoming a salesperson. I'd probably have a problem selling water to someone lost in the desert. However, I've heard of authors of several published books talk about taking over their product. They decide how their latest book is to be published and they resurrect all their books that are out of print. Then, they market their books to loyal readers and to new readers they catch at conferences, bookstores, through the web, and by any other means that draws attention to their name and product. They are entrepreneurs.
To be an entrepreneur, that's something I wouldn't mind achieving. Entrepreneurs have moved society from banging out hieroglyphics on pieces of stone to printing to downloading on kindle. I just hope I can keep up with where story-telling is going.
E.B.D.: How do you combine a murder mystery and mysticism in one novel, based in the fourteenth century, which is actually combining three genres? And is there a fourth, romance element?
Jeri: Can I sneak a vampire cat in there, too? But seriously, the mysticism is only a small part of it. And I like the reader to be a bit ambiguous about it; does the relic really have these powers or are the characters projecting their own beliefs and wishes into it? The relic becomes what Alfred Hitchcock called the McGuffin, the object that propels the plot and puts everyone into action. Sometimes the relic becomes central to the story and sometimes it’s its own red herring, having little to do with the plot. And then, of course, it’s in an historical setting which already gives it something of an otherworldly feel. Crispin is a hard-boiled detective in the Middle Ages and comes with all those tropes you usually see in hard-boiled stories—hard-drinking, chip on his shoulder, lone wolf, corruption, loose women--but it’s not anachronistic. Everything, including the mores and attitudes of its central characters, are true to the period. And romance? Well, yes, Crispin is a sucker for a dame in trouble. And he is a sexy beast.
E.B.D: So your fan base must include romance, history, science fiction, mystery buffs? Does that leave out any readers, except maybe true crime?
Jeri: Funny you should say that, because my third book, The Demon’s Parchment, is based on a true crime! So I guess I’ve got them all covered! I don’t think there are too many science fiction readers as fans, though there are a lot of male readers and some male young adult readers (I think the cover brings them in. Crispin looks like he belongs in a video game—which I think is an excellent idea. Anyone interested in going for it?) There are some fans in there of hard-boiled fiction, but the majority of the fans are readers of historical mystery and some who specifically only read medieval mysteries. They like history with their fiction.
E.B.D.: Were there any books you used as a model for your books?
Jeri: Oh, yes. I keep rewriting Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. :)
E.B.D.: Were you a History or English major in college?
Jeri: I was not a history or an English major in college. I started off life wanting to be an actress so I was a theatre major, but after some real world auditions I discovered that I wasn’t cut out for that kind of rejection so I switched to the other thing I had an aptitude in, which was art and became a graphic artist, working in Los Angeles for about fifteen years.
E. B. D.: Were you always interested in medieval England?
Jeri: As for my interest in history, that was just what I grew up with. My parents were rabid Anglophiles and there were always books—both fiction and nonfiction--and discussions about English history, particularly about the medieval period. I was a goner.
E.B.D.: I noticed on your http://www.getting-medieval.com/ blog, references to medieval weapons, battles, and code of chivalry, how do you research your novels?
Jeri: I was writing historical novels for about ten years before I switched to writing mysteries so I already had a lot of research in my pocket. But there’s always some extra research to do, like about real historical figures or on archery, for instance, that I needed for my latest book, Serpent in the Thorns. I first go to my own book shelves. If it isn’t there, I go to the Internet and ask on a list serve of medieval scholars, historians, and professors what books they would recommend. Then it’s off to my local university library where I can almost always find the reference I’m looking for. Sometimes I have to contact archives in England but I can always reach those online. Those guys have been most generous with their time, copying maps and floor plans for me and snail mailing them. I think they are just so happy to talk with someone who is interested in what they are doing that they are willing to go that extra mile.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
I met Joe soon after he made his first Jack Daniels sale. I remember him (we have a mutual acquaintance in Jack Kerley ); I’m sure he doesn’t remember me.
Back to the deal. The price? $2.99 a pop, of which Joe gets $2.04 (or maybe $2.10, depending on what source you believe.) From Konrath’s perspective, he’ll make more money with the deal than on a $9.99 e-book under the traditional agency agreement .(Based on Kristin Nelson’s blog, I understand authors often get 25% of net – which is equivalent to 17.5% or $1.75.)
It is also more than he would get for a trade paperback that sells for $15 or so.
Joe wins if he can sell the same number of copies as he would from trade paperbacks and “traditional” e-book sales.
If anyone was going to make this first move, Joe would be a good bet. He has taken charge of developing his marketing persona, spent considerable time and effort developing e-sales of back material. He gives away some older material for free. He blogs, Facebooks, Twitters and about anything else one can do (legally) on the internet. Through that hard work, Joe has developed a large online presence and has made a fair piece of change with electronic sales. Besides, the traditional publishers turned him down (at least on terms he was willing to accept.)
He’s also spent a ton of time at book stores signing his books and at conferences presenting his ideas and pressing the flesh (and signing more books.)
So what does Joe’s deal mean for those of us looking for our first deal? We should keep Joe’s advice in mind:
Right now, the best way to pursue a writing career is to find a good literary agent and sell the book to a well-respected print publisher. In other words: DON'T DO IT ON YOUR OWN.
Are there exceptions? Of course. Before you pursue a writing career, you need to clearly define your goals, and decide what you want in order to be happy. If you want your book in stores, you need to go the traditional route.
If you've already gone the traditional route, and gotten rejected, I think ebooks are something you can try ALONG WITH continuing your agent/publisher search, not instead of.
Agent Nathan Bransford thinks it is too early to know how publishing will shake out. I agree, particularly since with respect to e-book readers we are very early in the technology and user adoption process. Amazon built a huge lead, but Barnes & Noble has the equivalent of a Kodak moment facing it. (i.e. when photography started moving from film to digital.)
Joe Konrath notes in his blog that Amazon has at its disposal an incredible database of people who have bought his books from them in the past. From that he expects to develop a mass, but targeted and fairly inexpensive, sales campaign for Shaken. That doesn’t work for those of us without sales histories. The best we can get is the “If you liked XYZ, you’ll love….”
I’m excited for Joe – I always root for crazy people who can make a good living off their idiosyncrasies. (Tom Robbins is my favorite example.) Assuming he is successful, it will help put pressure on traditional publishers to cut better electronic deals for their authors. By the way, Joe used his agent to help negotiate the deal with Amazon.
Does it mean the death of traditional publishing? Nope. But if they are not careful, their current cold could turn into pneumonia.
Monday, May 24, 2010
I may not have mentioned that I’m a writing beach bum. Unfortunately, I can’t live at the beach full time yet, but it’s a goal! All of my family members are also beach bums. Since my parents were born in Philadelphia, PA, we spent our summer vacations in Ocean City, N. J., as many Philadelphians do. I remember the thrill and anticipation of driving over the causeway bridge from Summers Point and then just before the bridge ended, catching a glimpse of the Flying Pony or Flying Saucer, two retrofitted WWII PT boats used for tours around the island, before touching down in Ocean City. My priorities as a child included the ocean and beach, and included all those stores on the boardwalk especially the rides at Gillian’s Fun Deck, my favorite-the Tilt-O-Whirl.
The beaches we visit now are those on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where I set many of my stories, including my new novel, Sparkle Days. My priorities are only the ocean and beach. My husband’s priority is surf, sound and off-shore fishing (more about that later). He introduced me to the Outer Banks by way of our honeymoon. The only summers that we’ve missed going there were due to our children’s births, both born in August. To this day, our poor timing stupefies us.
Our children’s vacations were much different from my own, as only Bodie Island, where Nags Head is located, actually has rides, water parks, and other commercial amusements. Instead, our children experienced raw nature, fishing, warm ocean water for bogie boarding and camp fires on the beach surrounded by friends (since we often take our Virginia neighborhood with us). As we age, we spend more time there and relish each visit.
The Outer Banks is a collection of beautiful barrier islands, which lend themselves to my stories because those islands are also dangerous. But before I scare you, let me take you on a virtual tour and show you the sights over the next few weeks. I’ll post pictures of those amazing islands, some history, tips from an expert-me, along with sites of interest and Internet addresses for rental homes because you may want to visit yourself. I’ll also explain the dangers.
Note Added: The spouting oil well in the Gulf is worrisome. If the oil passes the tip of Florida, the Gulf Stream will take the oil north as far as the Outer Banks, the experts anticipate. I’m praying that isn’t so. The destruction will devastate the area. Hearings are now ongoing to discuss the area’s big issue of beach driving. Facing the possible destruction of the environment by the oil spill renders the issue of beach driving superfluous and I hope under this new threat, the ban on beach driving is suspended. It’s a complex issue, which I briefly mention, but one that has pitted the locals and many vacationers against the Federal government.
Expert Beach Bum Tip #1-How to Apply Sunscreen Properly (No, I’m not kidding, skin is important and if used properly, sunscreen can really save pain, damage and disease.)
Apply to naked body before leaving for the beach. Use SPF 55 or higher. This is especially important for small children. Never allow small children to apply their own sunscreen. The reasons:
1. Applying sunscreens naked will increase your chance of not missing an area of skin. Often people don’t want to mess up their bathing suits with the greasy stuff, but then burn around the edges of their suits. Avoid this problem by putting it on before your bathing suit.
2. Sunscreen needs time to activate because it is absorbed into the skin and that absorption takes time. The more time you allow, the less sticky your skin will feel because after it is absorbed, less remains on the surface. If applied at home before leaving for the beach, it will have time to absorb and activate by the time you arrive. Your less sticky skin will also pick up less sand.
3. Even waterproof lotions will wash off if applied just before jumping into the ocean. Like mineral salts in a bathtub, ocean salts clean and scrub skin. When absorption takes place prior to arriving at the beach, more protection will remain in the skin and enhance those spotty secondary applications.
4. All of the above applies doubly for children and saves parents from chasing after their screaming kids on the beach, looking ridiculous and causing people around you to sneer.
5. Remember to apply sunscreen to the top of your feet, which are also exposed. Yes, there is a story behind that statement. Sweating causes sunscreen to run into the eyes, which is very irritating and impedes necessary beach reading. Avoid applying to the forehead and wear a visor or low fitting hat to cover that area.
6. Get an umbrella made of fabric that screens UV light and sit under it. I tan sitting under an umbrella. Just make sure you plant the umbrella deep enough since the Outer Banks can be windy.
Lather up, and we'll hit the beach next week.
E. B. Davis
Sunday, May 23, 2010
An interesting use of dollhouses!
E. B. Davis
Thursday, May 20, 2010
At my school we had a French exchange programme. In Year 10 you could opt to spend a week with a French family to improve your French. When I was in Year 9 (13-14 years old), my teachers, in their infinite wisdom, decided to trial spending a weekend in France the year before the exchange. Something about accustoming us to the culture in an attempt to make the exchange less stressful. Of course, my year was the year that had that ‘privilege’.
I’m fairly certain it was around six months before we were supposed to leave for the trip that I had The Green Clipboard dream. In it, I was wandering up a hill with some of my friends, marking off what the shops on either side of the street sold. Halfway up the hill I became ill and sat down to rest in a little public garden, hidden from the street.
The reason the dream stuck in my head was because my blank map was clipped on to this tatty, murky green clipboard. I’d just bought a snazzy black one with a flip cover and decorated it with silver sparkly star stickers (I was 13 so cut me some slack, okay?) and I couldn’t work out why I hadn’t been using that one in my dream.
Several months later, my friends and I were lining up to board the bus for the weekend trip to France. As we climbed aboard, one of the teachers handed me a worse for wear, murky green one. I didn’t think much of it at the time because, hey, we were going to France.
What happened to my beautiful, starry black one? I’d used it to hand some homework in to my Home Economics teacher a few weeks earlier and she still hadn’t given it back (she kept it on purpose, I’m telling you, it was the stars that caught her fancy!).
On the last evening of our trip, all the students and teachers were supposed to have a meal together but my teachers chose a restaurant where there wasn’t enough space. We were split into groups and my friends and I were in the second sitting. The teachers, who were all in the first sitting by the way, gave us a small task to occupy us while we waited (can you guess where this is going?).
We were handed blank maps and told to walk up to the road the restaurant was on and mark off what each business was. To this day I haven’t worked out the purpose of this task but like the good girl I was, I walked up the hill marking off the businesses.
It wasn’t until I was halfway up the hill that I remembered my dream and a tsunami of dizziness and déjà vu hit me. Feeling seriously woozy, I needed to sit down. And what should be right in front of us but a public garden.
Years after the incident I’m still not absolutely sure if I had the dream before or after the real incident happened. I’m fairly sure it was before, but if that’s true that would mean I had a premonition, which I’m not even sure I believe in. Never mind, why of all the things in the world would I have a premonition about walking up a hill? Kinda sucks as glimpsing the future goes, doesn’t it?
The Green Clipboard Dream was a one off. I’m not psychic. I’m not claiming to have ESP in any way, shape or form. I mean, I know when my sister’s going to call because I’m either desperate for the loo or about to eat my lunch/tea, but I think that’s more of a Sod’s Law thing than anything supernatural.
The reason I’m telling you this (at the risk of sounding thoroughly unstable) is to hopefully give you a better idea why I can write a decidedly unparanormal paranormal with a sceptic as a protagonist, but also a very paranormal paranormal with a ghost as the protagonist (I also write an urban fantasy series about vampires, werewolves and the like but I think we’re best leaving that out of this for now).
I’m not quite a believer but I’m not quite a sceptic either. When I see a dark smudge out of the corner of my vision I always think two things. The first is that I need to get my eyes checked and the second is a quote from Hamlet
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy...”
Act 1 scene 5
My husband and I emigrated from the UK to the US when I was still in my teens. We loved the wide open spaces in America and the energy and drive of the American people. Soon after we arrived, my husband found work as an engineer in Boston. We sat in a coffee shop looking through a local newspaper for apartments close to his job because we didn't yet have a car. Then we walked back from his place of work to each apartment until we found the one we wanted.
During our first two years here, we used our weekends to drive to different places in New England. It was a time of exploration and learning for us. I joined a writing group and wrote poems and short stories.
In the UK, I'd won a scholarship to a boarding school founded in the sixteenth century for the poor of London and I graduated early at the age of fifteen. Instead of going to college, I wanted to experience the "real world" and that meant living and working in London. I worked in the Foreign Office, opposite 10 Downing Street where the Prime Minister lives.
In the US, I would've lived in New York if my husband and I could've afforded that. Instead, we settled in Boston and its suburbs and raised our two children there. I've always liked the bustle and energy of cities and the cultural opportunities they offer. I acquired an MA in literature and taught at Northeastern University and an MS in nursing and worked at Massachusetts General Hospital and at the Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Just as we were beginning to feel like an American family that could reap the rewards of working hard and being involved in our local community, my husband died. He was the person with whom I'd spent the most time in my life and my closest companion. I thought I'd never get over my loss but I had kids to consider and they got me through that time.
Once they were able to fend for themselves, I became restless and decided to move. My real estate agent helped me discover Western Massachusetts where I now live. Nature and everything that happens within it is so close. During storms and the height of summer, nature presses against the walls and windows of my home.
I use Western Massachusetts with its contrasting seasons as a setting for my WIP. In my work as a nurse, I learned to observe and solve problems and I give my protagonists these skills and enhance them. As a nurse and foster mom, I learned more than I could've imagined about relationships and the way we behave under stress or facing crises. In my writing, I like to place my characters in near impossible situations so they have to find their way out. As the only one in my natal family who moved so far from home and who still likes to explore new places, I create characters that have to track down clues and villains.
I'm finding out it takes time to develop fictitious worlds that deepen my understanding of the people and places I thought I knew.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
I have heard or read or been brainwashed (in other words, I don’t remember the sources) two comments about becoming good at writing. The first is generic and postulates we need about ten years to become good at any endeavor. The second applies only to writers (and has been attributed to Ray Bradbury) and stipulates you need to write a million words to learn how to write well. (At 100,000 words a year, the two statements coincide.)
Both observations mean you need to spend time, butt in seat, fingers on keyboard, writing to become a good writer. I know there are geniuses who seemingly are born writing great material. That, my friends, is what makes them geniuses and the rest of us normal. Since you’re reading this, I’m figuring you, like me, don’t qualify for writing genius status.
To develop our voice, we need to write – a lot – but I need to express a caution. When I was responsible for hiring in the consulting world I once inhabited, one of the key things I needed to discover was whether a candidate with ten years of experience had ten years of growing experience or ten years doing the same thing they did in year one or two. If you do not take any risks to expand your writing abilities, after a million words you are indeed likely to be a much better writer than when you started. But you’ll be nothing special. Only by taking risks all along your writing journey can you continue to better your writing and find your unique voice.
The act of writing itself is part of our homework. Advice to beginning writers often runs to “write what you know.” Each of us has a unique life experience from which to draw, some of which we had no choice but to experience. The rest of life is up to us. Pick your models from people who do an excellent job doing what you want to do. I appreciate James Lee Burke, whose language reeks of the bayous where his stories are set. Jack Kerley, one of my writing buddies who writes suspense set around Mobile, claims Burke as one of his models. It makes sense; they both are hard-boiled southern writers.
I don’t write mellifluous sentences and combine them into paragraphs that taste and smell like melted butter. I tend toward the Dragnet school of writing. (“Just the facts, ma’am.) Always have. Always will. For me to try to model myself on Burke would be an exercise in futility. Robert B. Parker is more my style.
Finding writers whose style is in the same ballpark as yours is a good first step. The idea isn’t to emulate but understand what makes them so effective. But I don’t need to only read Parker, I need to stretch and read others who write tight, but with more exposition than Parker. I can learn a lot studying John Sandford, for example. And although I write mysteries, I need to read books far afield and learn how others tell their stories.
If I intend to write novels, I need to read novels. If I want to write short stories, I need to read them. Early in my learning process, I should not limit myself to the kind of material I plan to write. I must read both novels and short stories – how else can I know if my story idea is too big for a short story, or too small for a novel.
It is important to read what people are currently writing and getting published. I’m not dismissing reading the classics. If you really want to model yourself after Thomas Hardy you should understand that today’s agents and publishers are unlikely to be interested in helping you become published. Of course, I could be wrong and yours could be the next great voice.
And that brings me to the second observation. In writing our million words we have the opportunity to find out who we are as writers. Yes, I’m sure I could emulate Faulkner and write a sentence that covers a page or more. But I wouldn’t be fooling anyone. It would be an assignment for me, drudgery I would drag myself through and to no purpose. I have absolutely no interest in writing sentences that require an advanced degree and a week to diagram. Similarly, if you’re interested in the sound and texture and flow of words, trying to write an entire novel á la Parker would be torture for you, slicing the heart and soul from your words.
If you want to discover your voice, you must stay true to yourself. If everything about you is cozy, why write noir just because some people sell it. Plenty of people sell cozies. If you can’t stand vampires, why try to jump on a bandwagon in order to fail. Write the book only you can write.
Write it as well as you can. Rewrite and revise as much as you need and then send your darling into the cold cruel world. Just having a unique voice doesn’t guarantee you will write best sellers or literary prize winners. But not having a voice is a darn good way to oblivion.
Monday, May 17, 2010
Sisters in Crime, an organization that promotes women crime writers, chose to sponsor and promote libraries through its 2010 “We Love Libraries Lottery,” a monthly drawing awarding one thousand dollars to libraries each month carrying Sister in Crime authors’ books. To enter the drawing, librarians submit a picture of books written by Sister in Crime members that the library has in its stacks to www.sistersincrime.org. The winners must use the award to buy more books for the library, not just its members’ books, but any books. Sisters in Crime also will exhibit at the upcoming American Library Association 2010 Annual Conference and Exhibition.
Washington, D. C.’s Convention Center will host the ALA’s 2010 conference. The event runs from June 24th to June 29th and features exhibits and speakers that the public may attend. There are three levels of attendance. Tickets for viewing exhibits only, costs $25. The Exhibits Plus ticket costs $35 and additionally provides access to the General Opening Session on Friday, June 25th, featuring speaker Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize winning author (Beloved). The public may also purchase the Exhibits Supreme ticket for $75 so that they may view all the exhibits and hear all speakers at the conference. Some of the speakers at the conference are:
• Nancy Pearl, NPR book commentator, and Mary McDonagh Murphy, Emmy award winning film maker and author of the book, Scout, Atticus and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill A Mockingbird.
• Secret Life of Bees author Sue Kidd Monk and her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor promote their current book, Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter story.
• Sarah Duchess of York will speak about her new children’s series, Helping Hand books
• Founder of StoryCorps, a nonprofit oral history honoring the lives of everyday people, David Isay, talks on his latest book just released in April by Penguin Press, Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps. Isay has written four books about the audio series that has interviewed over fifty thousand people.
• Prominent enigmatologist (master of puzzles), Will Shortz has published over two hundred puzzle books and created the only enigmatology major at Indiana University. He is also the New York Times cross-word puzzle editor
• The Graphic Novel Panel includes David Small, who has illustrated over 40 books and written the memoir Stitches, which was nominated for a National Book Award
• Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz current project is a collection of short stories depicting the lives of Dominican-American immigrants entitled, Drown. He won the 2008 Pulitzer for, The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao.
E. B. Davis
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Before we begin, let’s be clear, I’m in no way an expert in this field. All I can tell you is what I’ve learned from my own journey so far.
I’ve written romance stories and they’ve sucked. I’ve written noir detective stories and they’ve sucked. I’ve written plain chick lit stories and they’ve sucked. I’ve written children’s stories and they’ve sucked. I’ve written horror stories and………are you seeing a pattern here yet? I don’t need to keep listing my failures, do I? It’s bad for the ego.
Several years later, I can look back on those ‘failures’ and see them for the learning experiences they were. Now I understand it was worth trying to write a gritty thriller or an overly romantic love story to discover where my talents, my strengths and weaknesses, lay.
The reason most, okay, fine, all of the stories I’d written sucked was because of the three things my cohorts have already talked about and one thing they haven’t.
Elaine mentioned an editor talking about the need to pick a theme to include in the story and how it didn’t work for her. During steepest part of my learning curve I tried something similar. It didn’t work for me either but before you place it on your list of ‘Writing Don’ts’ you need to try it for yourself. It might work brilliantly for you or it might not. You might be the next Lewis Carroll or you might be tearing your hair out, stuck at chapter three because the story isn’t playing out the way you want. Either way, you won’t know until you try.
Jim talked about how each writer had an individual and distinct voice. This is so very true and probably something you’ve unconsciously recognised but unfortunately, unless you’re one of the very lucky few, it’ll take you a while to find your way out of the karaoke zone. To use his musical metaphor, you won’t discover whether you’re more of a Britney or a Hayley Westenra until you’ve belted out a couple of tunes and found a range you feel comfortable in. Again, it’s a case of you won’t know until you try.
Pauline discussed how she focuses on turning points in her work to keep her driving the story forward and cutting out extraneous scenes. You might be able to write your story with as little as a vague idea of which direction you’re heading in or you might find it easier to plot every step of your character’s journey. I’ve written both ways and found that each way has its own highs and pitfalls. There isn’t a right or wrong way to write, it’s simply a case of whichever fits you better which means, say it with me people, you won’t know until you try.
The only thing no one’s yet mentioned is ‘passion’. You have to write from the heart. Readers can tell if you’ve written something to fit a market or because you think it’s what they want. Most people, myself included, read to escape. We want to be drawn into the world of the protagonist and follow as they unearth a mystery or dodge bullets or fall in love.
If you want to write about a three legged, seven armed gnome who sneezes gold coins and comment how they’re given the short straw in the garden ornament hierarchy, then do that. I can’t guarantee any agents or publishing houses will be interested but you never know. If you write it from the heart then you have a better chance of success because your passion for the story will shine through your writing. And if it moves you, chances are it’ll move at least one other person (hopefully an agent). There are over six billion people in the world after all.
With a little practice, you’ll find the best symbolism or themes pop up in your work without you having to actively remember to put them in because those are the things that are important to you, and your voice as an author will convey your passion for them in a natural way. You’ve heard the saying you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince (or princess, no sexism here gentlemen), well you have to write a lot of stories to find your style, your voice, your themes. Your passions, however, should be with you from the very start. That’s the part of you that demands you to put pen to paper in the beginning. It’s what keeps you sitting at your desk until 3am so you can finish the chapter you’re working on and it’s what will keep your readers hooked.
I’m not saying that if you let your passions drive your writing, you won’t make mistakes. You will, but writing is a journey, potholes and forks in the road are par for the course. Whether you’re following your map or drifting with wind, and whether you’re belting out your own version ‘Baby one more time’ or warbling ‘Prayer’, as long as your heart is in the driver’s seat your car will stay on the road.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
I need characters and a story, preferably one with a crime that calls out for justice. Caught up in the excitement of creating a novel world, I peck away at the keys on my laptop until good wins out over evil, or at least over one of its representatives. The result is often a 90,000 word story with too many detours. Not to worry. Writers have a chance to revise, unlike stand-up comedians. How to revise in an efficient way--that is the problem.
One of the advantages of belonging to the local chapter of Sisters in Crime (there's no discrimination against brothers) is being able to attend workshops free. I attended a workshop given by Hallie Ephron, author of the Edgar-nominated WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, and reviewer of mystery novels for the Boston Globe. The advice that was the most helpful for the revision of my WIP was the section on turning points.
At first I focused on plot points. Although these are essential, they didn't pull my story together. It wasn't until I returned home from the workshop that I was able to pull out three turning points, each of them making my story go in a different direction. The fourth and final turning point is the confrontation between the protagonist and the villain but I had that scene more or less clear in my head. It was the other three turning points I needed to focus my revision.
I could foreshadow the next turning point, build towards it, and cut out scenes that didn't contribute to dramatic tension and cause and effect. All the meandering side-stepping dropped away. I chopped off extra scenes without a single regret because I kept working towards the turning points.
I doubt whether I'll ever map out a novel as Hallie Ephron suggests in her book on writing but I will look out for the turning points in my first drafts so my revision zigzags to the climax in style.
D. E. Davis: We are related by marriage, but started out and remain friends. I have known Diane for forty years and find it hard to describe the influence she has had on my development as a reader and a writer. She introduced me to the genre of murder mystery at a time when I floundered for interesting reading material. Needless to say, that introduction went well, and I found so many fascinating authors to read and admire, I started writing in this genre myself. Diane won a poetry contest for the State of Pennsylvania, featuring a young man who gave her the finger for no apparent reason. For the past ten years, Diane has worked within the library system to ensure that they acquire the books she wants to read for free. Being no one’s fool, she reviews a lot of my work and when others can’t quite make a determination, she hones in on the link I have missed or crucial element that eludes me.
George Koelsch: George and I met via a local writers’ workshop and, although we write different genres, formed a writers’ group. Even though novel writing has common factors that go beyond genres, the group struggled for six months before folding, even though it had lasted for over twenty years. It failed for various reasons, none of which had anything to do with our writing, and for the most part, we were the only writers, which is probably the revealing fact. The group had degenerated into more a social gather that grudgingly allowed some discussions of writing, the major reason. George writes two science fiction series, one featuring a female superhero, the other…well picture Captain Kirk if he were a Viking (and better looking). His books have raised interest in editors of the science fiction genre, and I expect you will find at least one of his series in print before long. His picture, in Viking regalia, is on facebook.com. Bouncing ideas and impressions to George always results in three-degree sonic returns. Lift a tankard of mead, and welcome George as our guest.
E. B. Davis
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
They each have a distinctive voice. What the heck is this voice stuff anyway?
Let’s look at another artistic endeavor, music, for insight. My partner is classically trained, and often when she and I listen to a piece on NPR that we don’t know we can guess the composer based on chord structure and progression, instrumentation and themes (which Elaine discussed yesterday). In other words, the composer’s style is distinctive.
It’s not just composers. Take popular music. After three measures I’d know Stevie Nicks, or Joan Baez, or Judy Collins, or Roy Orbison or dozens and dozens of others. They each have distinctive voices.
Note that my examples date me. My parents would be referring to Bing Crosby, or Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland. Or maybe they could immediately recognize the different big band sounds from the Dorseys or Benny Goodman. If you are younger than I, you’d be thinking about – well frankly I don’t know who you’d be thinking about because I don’t much listen to recent music, although I do have some favorites like Vienna Teng—another distinctive voice.
A distinctive voice, whether in music or writing, does not develop in a vacuum. It takes nourishment from the life and times of the era in which it grows. Yet the voices we remember took the general theme of the time and made it their own.
I suspect their secret has three components: (1) they did their homework, studying how other people did it and are doing it now; (2) they stayed true to themselves, to their own vision about their craft, and (3) an agent somewhere recognized they were something special. (Otherwise we never would have heard of them.)
In my next piece I’ll talk about how to mold the first two components into developing our own voice. We’ll talk about agents sometime too, I promise.
Monday, May 10, 2010
After I returned from the conference and thought about my book, I realized that the theme in my novel was child abuse, the pivotal element uncovered by the main character enabling her to solve the murder. Symbolism in novels I’ve read always seemed hokey to me, something implanted for English teachers’ use to torment their students. Should I have planted symbolism or other cryptic code to carry my theme throughout the book? Perhaps I needed to add a black cloud appearing over the abuser’s head, shown pets shying away from him or given the abuser horrendous body odor.
I set my novel aside, after receiving negative responses from agents, and wrote short stories for a few months. Having written a few, I saw a pattern, a central theme of people abusing people in my work, sometimes focusing on child abuse, other times elucidating essential control and power issues of domination that are elements of abuse. (Read The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, if you haven’t yet.) There was one other commonality, the setting. In most of them, I set the story at the beach. Laughing at myself, I knew I was a beach person, but didn’t know that unconsciously I lived there.
In my next novel, I tried implanting a theme. Through my characters’ dialogue, I made scathing comments about politics, and then realized the dialogue was totally out of character and unnecessary baggage that detracted from my story. Exorcising me from the manuscript improved it. Consciously writing a theme within the context of my story, as suggested by the editor, was the wrong advice and a lesson learned. Beginning writers are like adolescents, maturing and evolving, our identities unmasked and our values revealed by the process. Our themes emerge. There may be those writers who actually do choose a theme, but when they do, they handicap their story.
Now, I write the story securely knowing that I have burned any metaphorical nude photos in my past to haunt me, reconciled the stinky socks in my heart to taint, and sheathed the sharpened knives used to avenge past transgressions against me. In short, I have no personal agenda that will mire my work, an advantage that enables me to concentrate on presenting characters and plots to entertain my reader.
When I tried writing in my thirties, I felt my experience was too limited to write, not wise enough to put pen to paper, and in a way, I was right. As an adolescent writer, I am climbing the learning curve, but as a middle-age person, I’ve already attained the summit and that’s a huge advantage. It’s the song, not the singer, it’s get over yourself already, it’s the adolescent who grows up and realizes it’s not all about him. Writing is all about the reader.
E. B. Davis
P.S.-Check my page, link provided at the top of the homepage for opinions on my new novel’s concept.
Friday, May 7, 2010
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Our plan is to devote Welcome Wednesdays to our guests. We expect to interview authors, agents and others in the publishing business. We’ll also invite people to guest blog on topics near and dear to their hearts.
We hope to start Welcome Wednesdays next week. In seven days, you’ll see how we did.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
A year later the bosses wanted me to resume working full-time. Unfortunately for them, I realized I liked the 40% of my life I wasn’t “working” much better than the 60% I was working, and I retired at age 51.
Nature hates a void, and so do people when they think the void is someone else’s time. As soon as I retired, everyone had opinions about what I should do with my “free” time. I promised to give myself six months to decide what I wanted to do next.
I read books such as Zen and the Art of Making a Living by Laurence G. Boldt. I made lists of activities I enjoyed and those I didn’t. (I’m big on lists.) After six months of reflection (and saying no to everyone else who wanted me to join this, that or the other pet project of theirs) I knew I wanted to write.
I’m a lot more knowledgeable about writing almost eight years later. The truth is almost anyone can write. It takes time and dedication to learn to write well. It takes something more to write well and sell your work.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes and done a few things right. I still have plenty to learn. I’ll give you the scoop on some of my doozies, talk about some things I think I’ve done right and keep you abreast of current happenings.
I’ve met some interesting people along my writing journey, and I hope to get them to share their insights.
I’ll end this with a confession. I have a criminal mind. I also have an active imagination. Picturing myself in prison has saved me from any temptations I might have had to run a scam or two or six. As a writer, I get to do it all. I create the scams AND decide if the bad guys go free or get caught.
Sometimes, whether they deserve it or not, I kill people.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
E. B. Davis
I started writing a diary during elementary school as many children do. My writing progressed in high school, not only in subject matter beyond myself, but for the first time wrote for an audience. The medium was my high school newspaper. Keeping true to my teenage persona, I became the music critic and concert reviewer. Since I possessed no expertise in music, I remember describing the atmosphere of the venue and the mood of the crowd, recreating the scene so that my readers could attend the event vicariously. None of which had anything to do with the band’s performance.
College and graduate school writing destroyed my creativity, as did writing professionally during my employment. For example, writing proposals to the government for contracts forced me to develop my “write by the bullet” method. Paragraphs weren’t written, but enumerated. Other professional writing in the construction industry expanded my vocabulary, especially verbs. Engineers and construction professionals turned nouns and proper names into extraordinary verbs, such as cornicing, drywalling, and Tyveking. Forget spell checker.
As an adult, I occasionally wrote for myself, but for some reason I thought possessing great wisdom was a requirement of writing, until I started analyzing the content of my reading. I’ve always read, spending much of my youth in the classic stacks, and yes, erudite authors wrote those books. But when it came to enjoyment, I realized what I read were interesting stories, few of which held morals or taught me history, not the likes of Herman Wouk’s “War and Remembrance.”
I decided to write my first novel, now knowing that the goal was to entertain. The academic pressure was off. I didn’t need to write a Pulitzer Prize winner. My goal was “good beach” reading. Of course, like most firsts, I based the characters on my friends and me. The experience taught me a great deal, and I pitched the book to an editor, who squashed it and a year of my life when he told me that a break-out book, meaning your first published novel, needed a high concept and a great hook, and mine possessed neither.
Joining writing groups has improved my writing, enough that I wrote my second novel, this time having a great hook, quirky characters and an intricate plot. Out of thirty agents that I queried, about five asked for the first fifty pages. One agent asked for the entire manuscript. I was so excited. And then…received an email containing one sentence that dashed my hopes, “I don’t like your style.” Style?
Other unpublished writers reviewing the book replied similarly with adjectives such as, “cute,” “polished,” “funny,” none of which explains why it didn’t sell, so I stashed it away and wrote short stories. One titled, “Daddy’s Little Girl,” I sent to a reputable publication’s short story contest. I will let you know the results at the end of this month.
After further evaluation of the market, I’ve now started my third novel, categorized as a paranormal, romantic murder mystery. Check back next week, I’ll give you an update on how other writers like the concept for my new novel. Who knows? Maybe this one will be my break-out book.