Featured

How Writing Has Become My “Virtual Vacation.”

by Author Hope Callighan

After a tumultuous 2020 (Who saw that coming??), I’ve found writing has become easier – easier for me to escape what’s going on in the world and become immersed in my characters’ worlds.

I’ve also discovered that readers are looking for an escape these days, more so now than ever before. I hear it over and over in the emails that I get.

For those of you who have never heard of me, I’m a Christian cozy mystery writer, with several published series. Most feature a mature female character who has faced some life-altering event and been forced – or decided to – start over. As each series progresses, the characters develop strong and lasting friendships and relationships.

So…if you’re a seasoned writer or just beginning, I’ll share a few tips on how I have decided what to write and then once I start, how to find my happy place so that the words flow.

I love what I write. Back in 2015, my husband and I were brainstorming one day, tossing out ideas for a new series. We came up with the idea for me to write one about a woman who became assistant cruise director on board a mega passenger cruise ship since cruising was something that we both loved.

Not long after, I released “Starboard Secrets.” After writing the first book, I was hooked. I had so much fun joining Millie, my main character, on her cruise ship adventure. That series has continued for five years with book twenty releasing a couple weeks ago.

The joys of research. Researching about cruising makes me happy and when I’m happy, the ideas flow. What better way to write a cruise ship adventure than when I’m sitting on my private balcony gazing out at the vast ocean and breathing salty sea air?

I use my own experiences. Adding my own experiences helps make my stories more authentic. Readers are smart – they pick up on that and appreciate it.

I love cruising, but I also love visiting Savannah, Georgia. Thus, the idea for my “Made in Savannah” series, which is also popular with readers.

After the third or so visit to this great city, I decided that Savannah would be the perfect location for a new set of characters and adventures.

The main character, a mobster’s wife, promises her husband on his deathbed, to get their sons out of the “family.” After his death, she discovers a key in his pocket that leads her to a property he owned in historic Savannah, Georgia.

Keeping good on her promise, she moves from New York and starts over. It’s a bumpy journey and the lead character realizes escaping her past isn’t quite that easy. Readers love learning about this unique location, her commitment to her family and they are emotionally invested in her and her children’s success.

The latest release, “Christmas Family Style” is a fan favorite – and one of this writer’s favorites, as well. It has elements of things that I love…Savannah, Christmas, family. I’m already getting emails from readers, asking when the next book will release.

What’s new? I currently have three “WIP” – works in progress. Actually, they’re the first three books in a spinoff series for my first cozy mysteries, The Garden Girls, set in the fictitious town of Belhaven, Michigan.

So…if you happened to hop off here to take a peek at my author page, you know that I have several ongoing series…four to be exact. I have devoted, die-hard readers for each and am convinced they would hunt me down if I ended any of them.

How do I successfully keep them running, keep readers buying the books and turning the pages? I’ll share a couple of my tips with you:

Be mindful of “Cookie Cutters.” If you write a series, or plan to write a series, always remember that your readers have expectations. They want to pick up your book and know what they’re getting. That’s why they bought it, right? But there can be a fine line between meeting expectations and writing cookie cutter books. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase wash, rinse, repeat – but that can be misleading, because there is SO. MUCH. MORE.)

If you write the exact same (for example) mystery story over and over – and the only thing you change is the basic mystery, the names of the suspects and the “whodunnit,” you run the risk of cookie cutter burnout – for you as the writer as well as the reader. I believe that a series needs to progress…just like life. New characters are added while others fade away. Difficult circumstances arise – divorce, death, yet the main character prevails no matter what.

If your plan is to start a new and long series, spend some time thinking about it. Where do you want to start? Where do you want the series to go? How many books do you plan to write? How will you keep the series the same – to meet readers’ expectations, yet fresh, where they’re eagerly and anxiously waiting to find out what happens next?

Be original! A few years back, the hot, new cozies were all about donuts. There were donut shop settings everywhere. After a while, the covers and stories all looked and sounded the same. I couldn’t tell one from the other.

So, be original and your work will stand out.

I’ll end with this – a piece of advice I wish I’d had before writing my very first fiction story. Keep notes, notes and more notes.

I keep copious notes on each of my series…characters, descriptions, locations, a synopsis of every story. I even track the seasons. This helps me “jump right back in” when returning to a series, so I’m not totally overwhelmed or completely lost.

It also saves me from backtracking, spending valuable time poring over previous books to track down details that are important to the story, which takes me out of the moment and makes it harder to get the creative juices flowing again.

A lot of my readers re-read my series and they read straight through from one to the next, which means I need to be on my toes with the details. This is particularly important if you write long series.

We’ve certainly faced some challenging times this year. As I write, I keep reminding myself that those words mean something to readers…to my readers. I’m helping make the world a little brighter by bringing a smile to someone’s face or have touched their heart.

Perhaps it was a Bible verse I included that struck just the right chord and encouraged someone. (I have gotten emails from readers who have told me this and let me tell you, it never fails to give me chills that God is able to use me in such an incredible way.)

My last piece of advice is to find joy in your writing, because when you love what you write, your readers will, too.

*****

If you would like to find out more about me or my books, you can find me at:

Website:  hopecallaghan.com

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/authorhopecallaghan/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Hope-Callaghan/e/B00OJ5X702/

This blog post was posted for Hope Callighan by Photojaq (Jackie Houchin)

Mapping Your Mayhem

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

When I was asked to teach a writing course for Sisters-in-Crime/Los Angeles, I decided I better evaluate how I wrote a story first. I write novels and short stories and figured there were similar fundamentals all writers use in both endeavors. Then I remembered the Aristotle course I had taken in college. I still had the textbook, The Poetics, so I dusted it off and read the part on the 5 Basic Elements in any story: Plot, Character, Dialogue, Setting, and The Meaning of the story.

I have covered most of these points in previous blogs, but there is one crucial thing a writer needs to make sure all these elements fit and that is a Timeline. I looked back over the files I had on all the books and stories I had written and lo and behold, I actually made a timeline for just about all of the stories.

What does a Timeline do? It keeps track of Who does What, Where, and When, and sometimes Why. I worked as a newspaper reporter a long time ago and those points were necessary in any article I wrote.

I actually use several methods to achieve these goals. If the story doesn’t cover very much time or utilizes few locals, I write a simple Timeline noting the date and time certain things happen and where the action takes place and who does what each time. If there is a lot of time covered, I use a calendar.

I generally have a basic idea what my story is about before I start putting words on paper. I write the opening (usually about 20 times) until I know where I’m going and the tone I want in the story. Then I jot down the relative time of day each event happens as the story progresses. I break them into no less than 15 minute intervals. Usually it is thirty minutes or by the hour. You can’t have more than 24 hours in any given day, so it keeps you honest and organized.

If my characters are driving around the city, take for instance Los Angeles, I use Google Maps to see how long it takes to get from point A to point B. I’ve seen TV shows where people in L.A. can get someplace in thirty seconds… Only if they use a teleporter. (“Beam me up, Scotty.”) I discipline myself and make my fiction a tad more real.

When I have finished the story, I’ll go back over the Timeline to see if I have crammed too much or too little into that given time frame. And I do something else. I’ll see if the plot holds together. Sometimes a destination doesn’t make sense or maybe some other character should be involved or eliminated. And sometimes I need to add a high point or low point just to give the story movement. I know movies today are all action and explosions and no plot, but I prefer plot and character.

There is another type of timeline I make: A List of Characters. I include their date of birth in case they age throughout the story. You want to make sure you don’t have a character born in 1920 be only fifty in 1990. And you don’t want a character to remember seeing news of the Hindenburg when she was born in 1947. Keep track. I start out with a piece of paper that I print off just for this task. I pencil in the character’s name as I write them. I give a brief description of their role and age. Many times I change the name. I put an alphabet at the bottom of the character page. I circle the first letter of the character’s name in that alphabet. I want each name to fit each particular character, but they can’t all begin the same letter unless I’m having fun.

When I’m finished with the story, I copy all those names and descriptions into the computer and add even more description and start evaluating those characters. Do some need more personality? Does one need to be meaner? Or smarter? Or should a particular character add something to the story that is needed? Or should the character be eliminated? One time I wrote a book knowing who the bad guy (or in this case gal) was going to be, but when I was finished, I had another thought. I bumped off the initial suspect and then my private detective had to go back over the case to see what she missed… or was it time to hang up her .38s and retire? It was by reviewing that list of characters that allowed me to see a “What if?” scenario. And I am glad I did. It made for a much better and far more exciting conclusion to the novel.

And here is another benefit in having that Timeline. It gives you an Outline for your story in case an editor or publisher wants a synopsis of your book. And even better, that quick rundown of the plot lets you see what your story is about so you can more easily write the all important blurb for the back of your book. You only need the first third to tell any reader what is in store. Think of the Timeline as the dry run for that “elevator pitch” you have heard about. The fact that you have consolidated your story into a few pages of a “time-lined” plot; you can easily tell someone what the story is about.

I have put most of my writing course into books: The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook and its companion book: So You Want to be a Writer. They cover many of the things I have posted on our blog, but as an added bonus, they give you diagrams and pictures of the worksheets I employ. I use them in all my writing. I never create a story without them. Maybe they can help you. Write on!

Skeletons After Halloween

by Linda O. Johnston

My fellow Writers in Residence always seem to come up with some wonderful writing advice when they blog here. 

Me?  Not so much. 

Oh, I love writing. It’s what I do. And years ago, I used to attempt to learn, and follow, all the rules I could. 

Now, I’m just used to doing it my way–which, yes, does include some rules, at least. 

And what is that way?  Well, first I need to come up with an idea.  What kind of idea? That depends on what I want to write next. These days, that’s nearly always a romantic suspense book or a mystery that is part of, or might become, a series. 

Then what?  Well, I sit in front of my computer and plot. And plan. And more. 

Over my many years of writing I’ve come up with what I call a “plot skeleton.” 

 It has various blanks to fill in, although I don’t always complete everything.  The beginning is just a blank where I put down anything that appears in my head.  From there, I’ll focus on my main characters and write all that comes to mind about them: their backgrounds, what they’re doing now, why they get involved in this story, and what’s likely to happen to them–often putting it into a character arc. 

I also make a list of other characters at the end, though it doesn’t have to be complete. 

Eventually, I get around to my actual plotting part, where I have blanks to fill in that generally follow screenplay plotting: grabber, three acts that are each ended by a plot point, a black moment, climax and ending. Do I follow them all exactly?  No, but having the skeleton there to fill in is a good reminder if I choose to do so.          

And then–I use that screenplay plotting to create the synopsis.  From there, if I need to put together a full proposal, I write the first three chapters. 

Simple? Yes… and no.  But it works for me. 

So Happy Post-Halloween, and my skeleton is still keeping me company!  And if you’re a writer, may you plot the way that works best for you.

Photo by Matthew Schwartz, Unsplash

(Linda O. Johnston's article was posted by Jackie Houchin)

WORDS & MUSIC – AND INSPIRATION…. By ROSEMARY LORD

                     

We writers write to express ourselves, to share an idea, to inspire – to give a glimpse of another life. We write to take people on a journey that they might never take in reality; journeys to places they might never see, in a time or a world they may never inhabit or discover. But, if it’s written well, our readers feel they have been there, maybe have lived that life, fulfilled that ambition – vicariously.

After finishing a good book, readers know more about that distant place or country, that time in history – or even the fictional future. Our audience has had the opportunity to have learned something new about people, their work, their pursuits and more about the world – vicariously.

Reading books is a way we ‘meet’ new people that we would normally never get to encounter and the chance to have wonderful, or perhaps scary, or even exotic, or romantic adventures, without ever leaving our armchair or couch.

Within these stories, the writer skillfully creates characters and plot lines that touch on parts of our own personal qualities and idiosyncrasies that we, as the reader, can identify or empathize with. Or perhaps the characters brought to life are those we recognize as someone we know or have met along the way.

The books that readers immerse themselves in are a wonderful escape from the humdrum and the stress of everyday living. They broaden our horizons and sometimes inspire people to make changes in their lives, to try something different or find a new perspective.

Inspire: there’s that word again. So, what inspires us writers to spend such long hours composing in our notebooks or wrestling with words on our computers?

Writers – Where do you find your inspiration when you’re stuck?

For me – music often inspires me. As I’m driving or when I’m washing the dishes or cleaning up, and I hear a particular song or piece of music, a story idea often pops into my mind. I find the inspiration for maybe a new twist on something I am writing. Sometimes it’s simply the title – often, the lyrics – and the music brings it all together. Songs can inspire perhaps a new character to solve a plot problem or a change of scenery that will move my story along.

The lyrics of some of our classic songs tell a story. When you think about it, just as poets have that special skill to say so much in a few (usually rhyming) words, so lyricists have a special gift of creating characters and a scenario, which they edit down to just a handful of words that say so much. Those carefully chosen simple words meld seamlessly with the melody and can touch on a story that we novelists can fill in, color, investigate, enlarge upon. We can be inspired to creat a whole world around a brief stanza that we then nurture into many thousands of words of a completed novel. That is our writer’s talent.  

As a scribe, we can change the names and places, (to protect the innocent and the copyright!) but the plot line in some songs is already set out. So, when you’re stuck for what to write next, think of, say, the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby. What a poignant story for us creative minds to fill in the gaps. Or the dark storyline in Mack The Knife. Johnny Mercer’s Moon River is a more whimsical tale of “Two drifters off to see the world…” And how about Cole Porter’s 1934 facetious tale of the hanging of a society woman after she murders her unfaithful lover – the song made famous by Ethel Waters and later Ella Fitzgerald: Miss Otis Regrets, she’s unable to lunch today

Take George Gershwin’s An American in Paris – inspired by his time in the City of Lights in the 1920s. Apart from the lush musical score, what story could that simple title inspire?  Glenn Campbell’s Wichita Lineman, “I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main roads…” could be the start of an intriguing tale. Barry Manilow wrote about showgirl Lola’s ambitions stymied by a jealous admirer in his disco hit Copacabana: there’s a tale ripe for embellishment. 

What about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Memory from his musical Cats, based on T.S. Elliott’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats? Or Elaine Stritch’s signature song, Here’s To The Ladies Who Lunch, from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company. Perhaps a more whimsical tale could be based on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Girl from Ipanema.  You get the idea.

Today, even traditional world-famous book titles can inspire us. I notice that some of the new books now use old and borrowed titles anyway. When authors had worried about their ideas being stolen, someone pointed out that if ten writers were given the same assignment, their styles and experience would be so varied that the ten books would turn out to be totally different.

And so I pondered: what if we wrote our own version, inspired by just the title, of A Tale of Two Cities, The Man Who Came to Dinner, A Caribbean Mystery or Witness for the Prosecution? The results would be as varied, as creative and fascinating as befits our own individual talents. Some scribes’ version would be a romantic comedy, or a hardboiled noir, others would produce a thriller, a cozy or a charming escapade.

Today I see inspiration everywhere – and am frankly open to ‘borrowing from the best’ when I get stuck. I like to channel their inspiration. I enjoy any way I can to write and to perpetuate writing for all of us. To paraphrase Pinocchio’s chanson – “Hi-diddle-dee-dee – A writer’s life for me….

BACK TO BASICS: WRITERS’ BOOT CAMP PART II

by Miko Johnston

In any story, the beginning sets up the problem that must be solved and the ending solves it. How that happens comprises the plot, which plays out in the middle chapters. A good plot is like a good EKG, with lines that zigzag up and down. When tension and stakes increase, the line climbs upward. You never want a flat line; in matters of the heart and story, it indicates death.

In my last post we reviewed the three basic ways to begin a story as well as some techniques to get those opening pages written. What if you’ve gotten that far but haven’t moved forward?

Many writers get stuck after writing the opening chapter. A common problem is trying to perfect that opening. As a bone fide Brooklynite, I can say fuhgeddaboudit.

Nothing will hang you up more than trying to go over and over that first chapter, endlessly fine-tuning it before moving on. You can’t. You shouldn’t. Put it aside and keep going. Finish your first draft. Once you know how the story unfolds, go back and figure out how to fix the beginning.

Do you have a beginning and an end in mind? Then build your story like a bridge – set down firm spans on both ends and connect them in the middle. I wrote my first novel that way, working the plot backward from the final chapters and forward from the earlier chapters. Mysteries often fall into this category; you know the crime (beginning) and whodunnit (the reveal at the end). Work your clues in both directions until they meet in the middle.

What if you don’t know where the story is going? Many writers prefer to wait for the muse to whisper in their ear rather than draft an outline. In that case, why not choose a path and follow it to its logical conclusion? Think of it like those maze puzzles – a path may lead to a dead end, but then you’ll know it’s a dead end and try another path, eventually finding the one that leads you in the right direction. Everything you write will help guide you to The End. Two caveats, though:

-If you have a beginning and only a vague idea of the end, you’ll want to have enough to get you well into the middle before you tackle a novel, otherwise you may never reach your destination. My second book took over four years to write; I meandered through two plots I ultimately discarded, then conceived a third one worth pursuing.

Some writers feel as soon as it’s on the page, it’s permanent. Not so. In my second novel I found a way to solve a plot problem with a birthday surprise for my heroine, but I’d already given her a different birth date in my first novel. How could I get away with that? It took a week to realize an easy solution: neither book had been published yet, so I could change the date in book one to fit my new development.

***************

Are you stuck in the middle?  Writing your middle chapters, but unsatisfied with them? Fortunately, sit-ups and planks aren’t required.

Ways to improve a weak middle:

1 – Always keep your genre and theme in mind.

Your genre can shape how your story unfolds. A humorous cozy should be light and fun. Noir should be steeped in atmosphere. Use your theme or log line as the foundation on which you build your plot, and a guide to move it along.

2 – Take advantage of the multiple uses of dialogue

It can move the story forward, briefly slow the pace, draw our focus to a plot point or clue like a camera close-up, inform us of character, or foreshadow a later development.  Dialogue tags like Jon said identify the speaker, but by using a bit of action – Jon tossed his keys on the table – you also add movement. Finally, consider how your characters speak and what they don’t say.

3 – Keep the plot, and your character, active.

Not enough action will bog down the pace, but action means more than shooting and fighting, or running after suspects. Action can be physical or mental. Action is your character DOING whatever it takes to reach her goal.

4 – Have at least one mid-point crisis.

A good story always launches with a crisis and climaxes with a bigger one. Crises generate tension, which keep the middle from sagging. Introduce sources of conflict, whether leads in the investigation that fall through, the death of a material witness or ally, or a setback in the hero’s goal. Just make sure the crisis fits the story’s momentum and doesn’t exceed your climax scene.

5 – Avoid dumping in too much backstory.

Whether you’re trying to bring your character to life or writing a sequel, you need some backstory, just not too much. What are you trying to accomplish with the information? Insight into the character’s past that would explain why she does what she does? A reminder in a sequel of an event in a previous book? Ask yourself three questions:

            Is this information necessary for this story?

            Does it help to define the character or support the plot?

            Does it move the story forward?

If no, leave it out. If yes, then keep it brief. I read a few series and find the best of them will remind readers of characters and events with a line rather than a paragraph.

6 – Watch out for repetition.

We all know best-selling authors of series who, after a dozen or more books, begin padding their sequels with repetition. Just like unnecessary detail will bog down your story, so will repeating events or dialogue over and over and over and….. If you’ve just written a scene where an action occurs, your character doesn’t have to repeat this information to another character in the following scene. She told him what happened or words to that effect will suffice. If we need a reminder of what transpired later in the story, keep it brief.

7 – Reward and surprise us.

What’s worse, a story that’s totally depressing or totally predictable? Trick question; it’s a tie. Even the most dystopic stories must have moments of lightness. Whatever your character’s goal is – trying to solve the murder, find true love, succeed in business or win the battle – mete out some successes along with the setbacks. Lace in enough twists and surprises to hint how the story might end without giving the ending away.

This is particularly true in mysteries. Setting up a good red herring can be tricky since readers expect them. They’re delicious when they surprise us, but like all fish, if they’re mishandled they stink. As much as I enjoyed Girl On A Train, it was obvious who the murderer was a hundred pages before the book’s conclusion. Nothing’s more disappointing than knowing without a doubt exactly how the book will end. You presume the detective will solve the murder, but still want the pleasure of discovering HOW it happens, especially if the manner is unexpected. Just make sure that the reward or surprise is rooted in the story. Don’t plop something in for convenience. Weave a subtle thread back to earlier chapters to set up the surprise properly, or base the reward on something she wants or needs, even if she doesn’t know it.

8 – Keep the dialogue and prose in proportion.

Do you have enough dialogue? Too much? What about sensory detail, setting, character descriptions? There’s no magic formula but we don’t always consider the balancing act. Rereading your story, looking for something you don’t always consider, gets you looking at your pages in a different way. You may catch something that’s not working, even trigger an idea or solution. 

9 – Keep the middle in proportion.

I am not partial to using formulas for writing books (and have the luxury of not having to rely on them). However, if you’ve written several chapters and are unsure how the story is progressing, consider the percentage of pages dedicated to the middle versus the beginning and end. Although not a precise measurement, the opening, from Once upon a time to the inciting incident that launches your story, should comprise about a quarter of the total number of pages. So should the final act, from the climax scene to The End. That means the middle should be roughly half of the story. If your opening chapters comprise sixty pages and you’re up to page 300 but nowhere near the climax, your middle is probably bloated. If your middle is proportionally light, flesh it out or shorten the rest.

*          *          *

Still stuck? If you’re a visual person, try charting out your story, or as much of it as you know, on some kind of diagram. I’ve used line graphs, with peaks for crisis points and valleys for slower parts. I’ve used box charts, where I divide a sheet of paper into sixteen boxes – four for the beginning, eight for the middle and four for the end. In each box I briefly describe what’s happening at that point of the story. This shows me how the plot is developing as well as the balance between the acts. Since I write historical fiction, I also parallel historical events with my characters’ lives. If you write mysteries or thrillers, especially the cat and mouse variety, you can chart your hero’s progress against your villain’s actions.

If you’ve conceived some scenes but not an entire chapter, write it in chunks and assemble it later. If you prefer working with a hard copy, write the individual scenes, conversations or actions, leaving ample white space between them. Print them, cut them into sections and assemble them as you think works best. Move everything around until you have the order you want, and insert blank paper between the sections that need connecting. Pencil in notes about what you need to connect the passages. Use this to guide you through completing the chapter, or flesh out other chapters. It moves you forward. If you don’t like the direction, at least you’ll know another dead end to avoid. This can be done on the computer if you prefer working that way.   

Another technique that has proven helpful is to change ‘jobs’; instead of writing prose, think of yourself as a movie director. Can you visualize the scene you’re trying to create? How would you direct your characters? If there’s something missing in the scene, get input from the set dresser or wardrobe coordinator. As authors we tend to see our work from on high. Peering at it from a different angle gives us another perspective. Even closing your eyes and envisioning the words you’ve written (or listening to them being read) will make them pop and come alive, or hint at why they don’t.

Consider writing free-form dialogue, which I’ve described in this earlier post. This gives your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves. Sort of like the director asking the actors to ad lib their lines. If that doesn’t work, you may not know your characters well enough to ‘speak’ for them. In that case:

-Play the “who would I cast as…?” game – think of people, either famous or those you’ve known, and match them with your characters. Consider why you chose that person to help you flesh the character out.

-Try to describe your key characters in a word or brief phrase, then look for signs of commonality and discord between them.

-Define them with an image. For example, think of type fonts as a logo. If you were to assign a different font for each of your characters, which would represent them best?  

————————–

Once you’ve written an attention-grabbing beginning and a turn-the-page middle, you need to reward the reader with a satisfying ending. In the final installment, we’ll explore what that means and how to achieve it.

                                                                        #

Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories. She is currently completing the fourth book in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

A “Ghostly” Post

by Jill Amadio

Inhabiting your characters’ heads is great fun. You can make up anything, criminal or law-abiding, and create whatever you wish as to their mental, physical, and emotional health. Conversely, inhabiting a real person’s head as a ghost in order to write their life story as a biography or an autobiography, is an entirely different challenge. No nasty habits revealed, no odd scenes to upset a reader. No puzzles to sort out unless one is writing an unauthorized biography. Ah, then their life can become far more interesting, an open book, pardon the pun. Gathering differing opinions from relatives and friends, researching from birth, yes, then the writer is given more latitude. With a cautious eye to libel, naturally.

Hired to write both biographies and autobiographies, 16 in fact, and all but one at the client’s behest, is fascinating. What interests me these days, though, as I finish polishing one such tome, is whether stepping into their shoes is informing and influencing my own fiction, the mysteries I write.  I’ve come to the conclusion that because I am constantly learning about people, places, and an enormous variety of subjects I am broadening my own knowledge and experiences while delving mercilessly into my clients’ lives.

I have been a cop, a lawyer, a businessman, a CEO, a diplomat, a realtor, a criminal, a motivational speaker, a body builder, a helicopter inventor, a movie star’s wife, a falsely-accused woman on trial, and others. All real people.   I have listened to and written about moments that brought me to tears, to laughter, and to an appreciation of courage, fortitude and, in my opinion, to occasional greatness. There are moments of modesty in some of these books, written and printed exclusively for the family instead of the public, that are appreciated, with grandchildren learning of their grandparents’ valor or brilliance, for instance, instead of regarding them as old fossils with nothing interesting to say.

Writing the first-person story for a retired U.S. Ambassador has taken me into the inner workings of the State Department; third world countries when America first established a consulate amid riots; the personal habits of a benign dictator, and a few dangerous incidents. One of my favorite biographies I felt privileged to write is of a woman who rose from extreme poverty to owning a casino, one of so many typical dreams realized. Another, of the first policewoman in a now-famous town in northern California. I was hired to write a true crime but after it was finished the surviving victim decided not to publish. I once held preliminary meetings in Laguna Beach with a murderer (currently serving life) until his gave the job to his best friend, a writer, before being indicted.

One biography written under my own name, published in nine countries and that took me to Germany five times, is the life of a World War II Luftwaffe pilot. This one I at first declined because my father was in the Royal Air Force during that war. But the publisher was persuasive and generous and I was intrigued enough to want to learn first-hand of the opposite side.

Not long ago and with several non-fiction projects under my belt I was hired to ghostwrite a novel. I was thinking at the time of writing a mystery series. After persuading the client to add a couple of murders, I created a forensic accountant and turned the novel into a cozy. I can barely add two and two so books on banking and CPAs required quite a lot of study, as did notes on the members of the Russian mafia who reside in Beverly Hills (they really do), and a few descriptions and tidbits about small planes. Happily, I was left alone most of the time to create characters, settings, criminal activity, and plots. When I finished practicing writing a mystery, thanks to this wonderful client who self-published on amazon, I began my own series.

Juggling non-fiction and fiction by writing about people’s lives, and in between times creating mysteries, can be a rewarding if sometimes angst-ridden experience. I could write a book…

###

Jill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. She is the ghostwriter of 14 memoirs, and wrote the Rudy Valle biography, “My Vagabond Lover,” with his wife, Ellie. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep.” The second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead,” was released this year. The books are based in Newport http://www.jillamadio.com

Books: Digging Too Deep, Digging Up the Dead

Non-Fiction: My Vagabond Lover: An Intimate Biography of Rudy Vallee; Gunther Rall: A Memoire, Luftwaffe Ace and NATO General

###

This post was submitted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin

Leftovers

This writing trail of thought started the other night when hubby and I watched the movie, How to Steal a Million, with Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn. We settled on this particular movie because I like looking at Peter, and hubby likes looking at Audrey. That being a point of enjoyment, I nonetheless snarkily(sp) commented several times during the movie that it was a stupid plot and the story moved far too slowly. Hubby didn’t complain at all—Audrey was quite striking, indeed!

Well, the next morning I woke up with a film-cut-like  picture of Peter and Audrey, contorted together in the broom closet(a classic scene in movie history I think). And I wondered why I had that picture in my mind, given I’d complained about the movie?

Some background information about me is, for some of the best novels I’ve ever read, or movies I’ve seen, an actual photo-type image remains with me that I can call up into my mind’s eye. And often they popup when waking up. It’s more than scenery, or location, or character features, or clothes…but a real photography type snap. There have, of course, been many novels I’ve read, enjoyed, even loved, that did not have mental pictures associated with them. Some examples of ones that did are:

  • Murder on the Orient Express, book and movie(s) dénouement scenes in the dining car, and/or out in the snow. For me, these are classic pictures left behind—and my all time favorite one is of David Suchet.[i]
  • Several real-person pictures of Boo Radley—from the book and the movie To Kill a Mocking Bird. (of course, in the movie, the fantastic actor Robert Duvall may have had something to do with the leftover picture(smile))
  • And a great and fun-filled–even though there’s a murder–picture I can still see is Friendly Farm itself, in Murder at Friendly Farm by Jacqueline Vick, and then another picture from Friendly Farm of Santa in the corn maze ,
  • Miss Marple sitting in her drawing room,
  • The Penguin Pool Murder by Stuart Palmer— a picture inside the New York Aquarium with Hildegarde Withers standing there remains quite vividly with me. (Even though I’ve forgotten “who” actually did the murder and I’ve never been to that aquarium…but what a vivid picture I still have)

These are all wonderful fiction novels and movies, so why after my snarkiness during How to Steal a Million, did I retain such a vivid picture? So I’m thinking there must be some storytelling reason(not just just eye-candy), why that picture from How to Steal a Million remains with me, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

But a more pertinent question remains with me—in my own writing, do I want a real snapshot like picture left behind as one of my goals? Or does that just happen given the nature of the story? Or, or? And all the time? Can you even make leftovers happen?

Despite my advanced age(smile), I am still Pollyannaish[ii] at heart, especially in my reading and movie watching inclinations. As a kid, I hated fairytales with bad endings(which were many it seemed)—and after seeing Bambi at the movie theater as a child, never knowingly watched a children’s Disney film again. Further, if it seems like a dog is going to get killed–won’t read, watch, or finish a book or movie if started. Indeed, hope, happiness, the world goes on unharmed, and bad guys get it in the end (even if in an ironic way) are my cup of tea.

So, after writing all these thoughts out—my answer is YES—I want to leave endearing leftovers. Not just thoughts or emotions, but real snaps that bring a smile to the reader’s face. [iii] Hmmm.

Definitely interested in your thoughts…

Happy Writing Trails!


[i] Just downloaded latest Hercule Poirot by Sophie Hannah, and looking forward to visiting the picture of Hercule(probably David Suchet) in my mind’s eye. FYI from Ecosia search—The Killings at Kingfisher Hill the latest Hercule by Sophie Hannah https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophie_Hannah She’s written 4 so far https://sophiehannah.com/

[ii] Pollyanna is a 1913 novel by American author Eleanor H. Porter, considered a classic of children’s literature. (again, per my search engine Ecosia)

[iii] Back to another review of Never Forgotten to see if maybe there are some leftovers!

What to Write When the (Ink) Well is Dry.

That is where I am right now.

Oh, sure, I’m writing every day: checks to pay bills, answers to emails and texts, posts on Facebook and Instagram, birthday cards to put in the mail that day, a grocery list, a “to do” list, a note to Hubby about an errand I need to do and when I’ll be back.

But creative writing? Um, no. Unless you count a quick book review I pound out in fifteen minutes, knowing that unless I do it today, it will be late, and then I’ll feel awful. Too bad I only skimmed the last two chapters… but you don’t mention how books end anyway, do you? And then I still felt awful, because I’ve always determined to finish a book – every word – before writing a review. Boo-hoo.

Oh, I do write curriculum for my third (used to be fourth) to sixth grade class* at church every week. That can be fun. The delivery can be somewhat creative, but not the text of course. It’s the Bible, after all.

In one point in last week’s lesson I was teaching how that precious Word of God is called “the sword of the Spirit” in the Bible. “Sharper than any two-edged sword, able to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” I’d been teaching them the first sermon preached by Peter, the fisherman-turned-apostle, when I came to its conclusion. (It’s a doozy!) I pictured a duel between forces of good and evil, raised my imaginary sword and did a bit of fencing (pantomime, of course), ending up with my opponent on the floor, my sword tip on his chest. The phrase “coup de grace” came to my mind, and still holding my imaginary position with opponent pinned down, explained the French phrase. “The final blow,” I said, looking at the fifteen kids slowly. “The thrust that pierces the heart,” I said. And then I jabbed my sword right to the floor… holding for a few seconds before looking up. Then I jerked it free, held it high, then slipped it into my imaginary sheath at my left hip.

There was quietness for a few seconds, then I had the kids read verse 37 of Acts chapter 2, which was the response of the crowd to the strong finish of Peter’s sermon. It reads, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?'” Peter’s inspired use of Scripture had brought instant conviction.

But that was “creative” thinking and teaching, not writing. So what do you do when your ink well is dry?

  1. Read in the genre you want to write. Read for pleasure (maybe even some old favorites). Read those authors who inspire you. Read, read, read.
  2. Go online to the sites that list daily (a month at a time) story prompts or story ideas. Here’s one I sometimes use. (Click farther on the site for other ideas.) https://mailchi.mp/writerswrite/daily-writing-links-29-september-2020?e=befa474c79
  3. Start (or start up again) a daily or weekly journal. I have to admit that when we returned from our (fantastic) cruise and a week later faced the monster that became Covid-19, I quit journaling. (Crazy huh? What a “ripe” season of lockdowns, scary bar graphs, no one working, everything closed, ghost freeways, that I could have used in stories. Sigh!) Well, it’s not too late. Maybe begin with a “to do” list, and comment on your doings and feelings during that day. Or… you choose.
  4. Study books by writers that give instruction. A few weeks ago we had Sara Rosett as a guest blogger. She wrote about she used lots of things for Research in her historical mysteries. But she also mentioned a couple “How To ” books she has written. “How To Outline A Cozy Mystery” and “How to Write a Series.” Both are easily found on Amazon. (I recently bought them both and am eager to dig in, for at least a chapter a day.) Look for books on short story writing by our own The Writers In Residence, G. B. Pool.
  5. Take note of those weird dreams. Hey, maybe your creative muse is locked down inside your head, and wants to safely, with some social distancing via dreams, give your mind some help.
  6. Look at a calendar. Upcoming holidays are always good for getting the juices or muses working. Think back to fond memories. Think forward with some Sci-Fi or Fantasy weirdness. Let the seasons inspire.

Do whatever it takes, even acting out some scenes from your favorite book in front of your spouse, dog or cat, or the mirror. The movements, actions, even words may lead to some nice black… or maybe purple… INK in your writing well.

###

*I used to teach a class of 4th to 6th graders, but now that all must wear a face covering in class, I have inherited the 3rd graders as well. (They used to be together with 1st and 2nd grade.) According to the “order,” all students in 3rd grade and up must wear masks etc. Second grade and below do not have to. The Children’s Ministry leader felt it would be hard on some in a class that have to wear them while others didn’t. But, on the fun side, I’ve discovered that those third graders are pretty sharp too and I only need a little tweaking of the lesson that I prepare for the older kids. (PS: I wear a face shield, so the kids can see me better.)

How Much of YOU is in Your Writing?

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

 

People 5

Okay, let’s get down to the basics… If you happen to be writing a memoir, use as much of yourself as you want. But if you’re writing fiction you might want to rethink how much of YOU you put in your story.

I don’t mean your sense of humor or sarcasm or even little bits of happiness or sadness that has been part of your life, but you can take your PLOT or your CHARACTERS on the wrong path if you aren’t careful. Not that you aren’t the most interesting person in the world… but maybe, just maybe, your beliefs, passions, or politics might be the things that take your great story off the tracks. And remember, in ten years things may change, trends, ideas, even your beliefs. When that happens your story will look dated. But some things never change.

Let me explain.

I have been a huge fan of E. Phillips Oppenheim, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Anna Katharine Green. They wrote a hundred years ago. That’s 1918! Their stories are still readable. Sometimes you’d swear they were written last week. It’s the STORY that withstands the test of time. Stick with it. Don’t head down a road that half your audience might not want to go down with you.

I have watched some of my writer friends on Facebook mention that they will use the recent unpleasantness (AKA: the pandemic, the corona virus, the China virus, the Wuhan virus… whatever you call it) in their work.

Okay. It’s your call.

Writer Lady 2People used World War II, the Vietnam War, the Depression, -insert disaster here-, in their work. The memorable stories didn’t dwell on the event itself per se. They used it as a backdrop and then showed how their characters’ personalities dealt with the event.

Not that your characters might not do what you would do, but sometimes the story “sounds” like preaching instead of a fascinating character study or a unique story.

I once wrote a scene featuring one of my main characters when she recalled losing one of her beloved dogs. I wrote a rather long sub-story featuring everything I felt at the time of that loss. Funny thing was my character was driving home while thinking of this event. During an edit I came to that scene and realized that particular detour took my character off in another direction – a dead end. It had nothing to do with the main story and it didn’t necessarily enhance her character even though it might have been touching. It showed how hard it was losing that wonderful dog, but it really didn’t fit the spy novel I was writing. I cut it.

I do use people I know as characters, at least a slice here and there. Often I change their name. I do that mostly because I don’t want to embarrass them or anger them – lawsuits, you know. But I never make fools of them… period. And I never use someone I don’t like in a book. Why waste the ink?

I have used all our pets as minor characters in different stories. My wonderful husband, Richard, is definitely the basis of Fred Caulfield in my Gin Caulfield mysteries. I enjoyed using his strong personality so much, he will become a partner in her detective firm in upcoming books. But that is the extent of the similarity. I want Fred to be his own person.

Pencil 2As for myself showing up in the books I write, a little of me is here, a little is there, but I actually like to have my characters be themselves. I might like them because we are compatible, but not identical twins. And I definitely don’t want us to be Siamese twins joined forever, never having a life of our own. That wouldn’t be fair to my characters, after all, they are like one’s own children in a way. You might want to instill some values in them, but you really have to let them be themselves. Think of your friends, you like them because you have something in common, but if you try to change them, I bet you won’t have them as friends anymore.

So I let my characters be themselves, and as almost every writer I know has said: These people take on a personality of their own. If you as a writer just sit back and let them talk, you might just find they have a terrific voice. So shut up and let them do the talking for a while. We’ll get who you are by the story you tell. Trust me. Write on!

Typewriter 3