And So What Do You Bring to the Party?

99be9-gayle51closeupA former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (G.B. Pool) writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She also wrote the SPYGAME Trilogy, Caverns, Eddie Buick’s Last Case, The Santa Claus Singer, Bearnard’s Christmas and The Santa Claus Machine. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story” (which is also in book form), “How to Write Convincing Dialogue” and “How to Write a Killer Opening.” Website: http://www.gbpool.com.

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If you are a writer, you do research. If you are a good writer, you do a lot of research. If you are a procrastinator/writer, you do even more research and very little writing. That isn’t good. The least we can do is check out facts to make sure we have has much right as possible. The worst we can do is to put so much in a story that the story gets lost in the endless details.

Any writer knows it is rather embarrassing to write about our hero driving south on a street (in a city where we have obviously never been) only to learn later that the street is one-way going north. It happens. Google Maps makes it a lot easier to find out about streets in towns we have never seen. If all else fails, make up the town and the street and do what you want.

There is technical stuff that some writers drop into their tomes to make it more interesting. Hopefully they check with people who actually know about the activity so they get it right. That research is great. I do a lot of it. Often I learn way more than is necessary for the tale I am telling. I edit out much of the knowledge lest I turn the story into a How To book.

But what about stuff you actually know? When you get to be a certain age, you should have done things in life like have a few jobs or a few hobbies. I have had my share of jobs and lived quite a few places and have hobbies up the wazoo. So, you ask, how have I used my knowledge in my books?

Got a minute?
ralphmbartosprintlarge    My father was in the Air Force. We traveled a lot. I lived on Okinawa and in France as well as in Memphis (near Elvis) and here in California. There were a few other military bases along the way and many of these places turn up in my SPYGAME Trilogy. I used some of my father’s experiences as a pilot during World War II and afterwards, as well as my imagination, to concoct an intriguing set of stories. The first one, The Odd Man, deals mostly with WWII and the Bay of Pigs. I went to a boarding school in France and that place finds a home in book two, Dry Bones. Book three, Star Power, wraps up the trilogy by bringing back characters from books one and two for a climax ending up in Southern California with some Hollywood stars tossed in for fun, though some are positively deadly.

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There is a lot of history plus my own experiences in those books. I actually use a few pictures my mother and I took while living in these places in the book. As one of my characters and I say: “The facts are true. I made up the rest.”

But I mentioned my own jobs as being hands-on research for my books. Let me tell you a story. I wrote my three spy novels and tried to get them published many years ago. I wasn’t having any luck. By then I had moved to California, married, and was writing yet another book that didn’t get published until later. My wonderful husband noticed my frustration and said this: “You used to be a private detective. Why don’t you write a detective novel?”

I had been a detective about a dozen years earlier. I actually went undercover in a variety of places looking for bad guys. Maybe…

I started thinking about a detective series. Then I got on a jury. I thought this might be a perfect segue into a plot. The jury thing ended when the case was settled out of court and I went home. Then Richard got on a case. He was to appear the same day the O.J. Simpson jurors were to be picked. He wasn’t in that cattle call, but he saw the media circus downtown with the television cameras and helicopters and reporters. He came back with a vivid view of the proceedings. Then the ad nauseam media coverage ensued.
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But that case wasn’t the first or last to hyperventilate on TV. Experts came out of the woodwork and threw out their “wisdom” and opinion long before a jury was even seated. THAT was going to be my story. What happens when the media orchestrates the justice? My book, Media Justice, was the first in the Ginger Caulfield P.I. series.

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Speaking of jobs, I worked over a decade in a bank dealing with stocks and bonds. That’s where I met Richard. (Do I have to say that was the best job I ever had?) I dealt with millions and millions of dollars daily. Then one day we got free tickets to the Santa Anita Racetrack. Richard and I went. I explored. I found a terrific place to find a body… I combined horse racing and hedge funds and got Hedge Bet out of it.

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The third book in the series was the result of my fellow writer and friend, Jackie Houchin, doing an article about the local dam up here in the Foothills where I live. She took a terrific picture of the dam before the retrofitting took place. It was so ominous. It reeked of mystery. It ended up as the cover shot on Damning Evidence. Jackie wrote a great interview of the guy who lived up at the dam. I knew I was going to use that character someway, somehow. And I did.

caverns-cover-only-updated-smallHere’s another story. When I was on assignment in Chicago as a P.I., I lived in an apartment near Lake Michigan. It was February. A brutal winter. I had to take the subway and a bus to the job at night. I worked from 5 p.m. until 2 in the morning. I survived Chicago. Years later I heard a story from a co-worker in California about a police officer in New York City who ran across something rummaging around in garbage cans down an alley. He shot it. It was a rat. It weighed in at 105 pounds. I moved the rat and his friends to snowy Chicago and I have them eating away the garbage on which a large area of The Windy City was built after the Great Fire. This was near the lake. Huge caverns have been carved out under the condos around the lake. Disaster looms. That book is Caverns.

All of these prior books have a connection to my actual life. But so do my Christmas books. This is where my hobbies come in. I collect Santas. I have around 4000. I have made some, bought many. And I used to work in a miniature store called Miniature World. We sold dollhouses. Ibookcoverpreviewcropped started making my own and making vignettes. I had an idea for a Christmas castle that I designed. I still have the sketch. I decided to write a story to go along with the idea of this castle. Then I decided to build the castle and make the figures that went with the story. Then I published the book. The first one was Bearnard’s Christmas.

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I say first because there is a second book coming out this Christmas called The Santa Claus Machine. I am currently working on the third, Every Castle Needs a Dragon.

Now you might say there is no research in fantasies. Well, I added pictures to these books. I had to have things to photograph that fit the story. My Christmas collection is vast. I have reindeer and animals and sleighs and miniature toys that fit my stories. I must have been saving them just for these books.

The third book needed fairies and a dragon and a miniature diving helmet… I just happened to have this stuff tucked away. I guess I have been researching this story even before I got the idea for it.

But we all have stuff to bring to the party. What do you have in your imagination closet that you can pull out to enhance a character or plot? Maybe there is somebody in the family who influenced you. Or a place you lived that aches to be part of a story. Be an archaeologist of your own life and dig for those relics that will set your story apart. Let the party begin.

What are Beta Readers and What Can They Do For You? by Kate Thornton

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Kate Thornton is a retired US Army officer who enjoys writing both mysteries and science fiction. With over 100 short stories in print, she teaches a short story class and is currently working on a series of romantic suspense novels. She divides her time between Southern California and Tucson, Arizona.

 

 

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I may be one of the luckiest writers around, not just because I have five current readers, but also because they are all smart, talented, capable, and also voracious readers on their own.

What is a Beta Reader? What do they do?

A beta reader is a nice person who will read your manuscript and give you feedback. That’s pretty much the basic definition, but there are as many nuances to beta readers and what they do as there are metaphors and similes in amateur works of fiction.

Give them guidance about what you are looking for and don’t take their criticisms personally. Mine are specialists, and here are the areas in which they excel:

“A” – let’s not use their real names – is a punctuation and grammar specialist. She reads through my completed (or nearly so) manuscript and picks out punctuation and grammar booboos. And what looks worse than misspelled words, incorrect punctuation or awkward grammar?

“B” reads for continuity. She knows I have a 3-book series, and she reads to make sure all the stuff that happens is in the right order and that there are no glaring booboos like the main character is a blond named Alice in one scene and a brunette named Alicia in another. She also monitors the progress of the romances, character development and story pacing.

“C” reads for the story alone. Is it fun? Does it move right along? Does it make sense? Are the characters engaging? Are there boring parts?

“D” and “E” both read for polish – they are my final readers who, once I have corrected anything the others have suggested – make sure that what I have is what I really want to have: a reasonably well-written manuscript that is a fun read, makes sense, and keeps the reader engaged.

My beta readers all volunteer their time and expertise to make my books and short stories better – they are those additional pairs of eyes, additional world viewpoints, and those well-read and highly opinionated people who can save my work from sloppiness and author-blindness. I revere them.

How do you get beta readers? Ask. And be one.

One of my readers is a well-known crossword puzzle writer and is extremely picky about words. She is a style, grammar, and punctuation fanatic who is brutal in her critiques. I love her dearly. I was honored when she agreed to read for me. She is now a fan and is currently looking ahead to a manuscript I have not yet finished, giving me helpful hints as to where some of the story threads should go.

I asked another reader, someone who does not write but is an avid reader of my particular genres, to take a look and she not only agreed, but now asks if there are other works with which she can help.

A third is a friend who just wanted something to read, but came back with a lovingly detailed line edit.

Many times, your critique group partners or your writers’ group can provide you with feedback which will help you move forward. While I have not always found this to be a safe bet, it can be a good starting place. Keep in mind that your beta readers are there to help you, not disparage your efforts. If a reader is nasty or unhelpful, disregard their comments and don’t ask them again.

Volunteer to help your fellow writers. Let them know if you are reading for technical structure, punctuation, grammar or spelling and word usage. Or maybe you want to read for continuity and story progression. Or maybe you just want to read and see if there’s anything you can do to help. The key word here is help.

And lastly, don’t worry if your work isn’t finished or is need of a lot of help. Good beta readers can set you on the right path and help you find the inspiration to continue and improve. They can tell you where you are going off track or where you really need to read up (good grammar texts abound!)

P.S.  Don’t forget to thank them, both in real time and in your finished work. Thank you, Maggie-beth, Mar, Kay, Dina, Tracy, John, Sunny, and all my past readers, too. You help us all to be better writers.

Research 101 by Bonnie Schroeder

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Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter. Her debut novel, Mending Dreams, was published by Champlain Avenue Books.

 

Science and I have never been good friends—except for high school physics, which was very cool because we learned how to make a hydrogen bomb. And lest this set off any Homeland Security alarms, I write “learned how to make” very abstractly here. It’s not like they gave us a recipe; the teacher merely explained the difference between fission (atom bomb) and fusion (hydrogen bomb), but my 17-year-old brain found it fascinating.

Flash forward several decades and I began work on a new novel, about a woman who suddenly and inexplicably begins growing younger. This has nothing to do with hydrogen bombs, but rather than writing the story as a fantasy—a gigantic case of wish fulfillment—I started asking questions. Could such a thing happen? How?

And this, inevitably, led me back to science.

Full disclosure: I did not find the Fountain of Youth in my travels, but I did learn more than I’ll ever need to know about genetics and cells and chromosomes. I’m not going to lay all that out for you, but I will share a few of my research techniques. Sooner or later, most writers will find they need knowledge, scientific or otherwise, that they don’t yet possess. Here’s how I went about getting it.

  1. I did some general reading first

I began my quest by reading several articles about the work doctors and scientists are doing to slow the aging process and extend our healthy lifespans. I noticed several names popping up over and over. Googling these names, I discovered contact information for several scientists—at places like Harvard and the National Institutes of Health.

2. I was audacious

I sent emails to several of these doctors and scientists, explaining my project and shamelessly asking for a few minutes of their time to review the initial premise I’d constructed and tell me if it seemed totally preposterous.scientist

Most of them never replied, but three did, and I learned something from this exercise: Scientists are really nice! They like to be helpful and to share their knowledge, and they can talk in plain English when they want to!

The first scientist I spoke with—via Skype, at his suggestion—reviewed my premise, diplomatically explained it was, in his words, “too specific and too unbelievable,” and sent me on a quest to learn about epigenetics (for the uninitiated, this is “the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.” Got that?) He felt the clue to my premise lay in this area.

  1. I then read more specific material

My next stop was Amazon, to buy a book called Genetics for Dummies. Yes, there actually is a book by that title. I understood little of what I read, but it gaGenetics.jpgve me the vocabulary I needed to comprehend the technical articles I encountered as I chased down epigenetics and followed the threads that spun out from there.

  1. I was flexible

One of the scientists I contacted responded that she didn’t work with writers as a general practice, but she gave me the name of another scientist who was not on my initial “hit list.” This kind man turned out to be a goldmine of information and enthusiasm and not only gave me notes on my story’s outline, but also offered to read the narrative once I get to the point where science enters the picture and tell me if I got the jargon right.

  1. I was respectful of my sources’ time

This goes without saying, of course. Experts are busy people, so if one of them suggested a time and a method of contact (both Skype and teleconferencing seem popular), I was prepared to cooperate, and I was punctual.

  1. I expressed my gratitude often

There are not enough words in the language to thank these fine people who generously took time from their work to help a struggling novelist. I did thank each of them copiously during our discussions, and of course I will include a big, gushy acknowledgement in the book when it’s published. Because I was dealing with scientists in government and academia, I made sure to get their permission to mention them, because this won’t be the usual place where their name appears. And of course they will all get signed copies of the book, because without them it would have been banished to that box in the garage with all my thwarted projects.

Now I have to write the darned book, of course, and as we all know that’s a long and winding road itself. I have extra motivation on this particular trip, however, because I want to apply the knowledge I gained from my new scientist friends and prove their time wasn’t wasted in talking with me.

Has anyone else out there ever tackled a subject way beyond their area of expertise? How did you go about it? How did it turn out?

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED on my way to becoming organized …. by Rosemary Lord

06694-rosemaryatburbanklibraryjpgRosemary wrote her first book when she was ten years old – for her little brother. She also illustrated it herself. It was later rejected by Random House!

She has been writing ever since.

The author of Best Sellers Hollywood Then and Now and Los Angeles Then and Now,  English born Rosemary Lord has lived in Hollywood for over 25 years. An actress, a former journalist (interviewing Cary Grant, James Stewart, Tony Hopkins, John Huston amongst others) and a Senior Publicist at Columbia Pictures, she lectures on Hollywood history. Rosemary is currently writing the second in a series of murder mysteries set in the 1920s Jazz Age Hollywood featuring Lottie Topaz, an extra in silent movies.

 

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What I was trying to do was organize my life. Organize my life better – as I had so much writing to do, as well as a life to live.  I had – still have – several books, short stories and some magazine articles I wanted to write. I actually managed to finish a couple of mystery novels and started another. I wrote a magazine article and revised and updated two of my published non fiction books, Hollywood Then & Now and Los Angeles Then & Now. But this was not enough. I decided I really must get properly organized, so that I can increase my literary output.

 But hey – this is me. Remember all my notes on little bits of paper? And my “…I know it was blue – and I was eating something when I last saw it..”?   What chance do I have?

chartThen someone told me about “Org. Charts”… Online Organizational Charts that are supposed to make your life easier. Some of the versions can be very expensive, I was told. I was excited. Perhaps this is the magical cure I had been seeking?

But when I went online and perused various Org Charts, I realized that – uh – this is kind of how I always map out my writing. I just didn’t have a name for it.

 I have a large notice board and cover it with post-its. Each post-it has a chapter number and a brief outline. On a different colored post-it, characters in that chapter are listed underneath. Another sticky note has specific plot details for that chapter. I add to this ‘organizational chart’ of sticky post-its as I finish each chapter.

Towards the end, I review the arc of the story and how I got to this point. Then I sometimes move the post-its around to an earlier or later chapter, as I realize what needs to be revealed at certain times. On a read-through of my first draft, I might decide to cut a whole scene or even a chapter. If it is sounding too busy, I may chose to cut a lesser character out.  So I go back to my board and remove the relevant sticky-note or two and put them at the very bottom of the board, so I can see what I have taken out. I might be able to use those pages elsewhere – or even in another book. I find this method very helpful.

 Now along the way I get many interruptions from my writing time.

A major interruption was when an elderly lady rang me a few years ago and, with a shaky voice, said “…they’ve taken our club, changed the locks – can you help us get it back?” So began my long journey into saving the Woman’s Club of Hollywood from a real-estate grab and  from being turned into a luxury condominium resort.

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Women’s Club of Hollywood;picture from their website

Founded in 1905, this club is where Mary Pickford attended events and handed-out award-cups for various flower shows. It is where Charlie Chaplin entertained and later on Gloria Swanson lectured on nutrition. Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper and other Hollywood legends attended fundraising luncheons. Big Bands used to play there. The property is on the site of the old Hollywood School for Girls, where Jean Harlow, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joel McRae, (boys were allowed in kindergarten there) and daughters of the early film pioneers Cecil B. DeMille and Louis B. Mayer and even David Selznick’s mom attended school. Oscar winning costume designer Edith Head was one of the teachers. Actor Charles Laughton came in to teach Shakespeare. The old 1903 school house still stands in the rear of the Spanish-style clubhouse. Property developers salivate at the thought of replacing this historic landmark with gleaming towers of condominiums and apartments.

But it’s not over yet. With huge legal fees accrued, there is a Federal judge and a Federal Trustee overseeing and scrutinizing how it is run. But at least we got the building back for the older ladies to do their charitable works and to save a piece of Hollywood history. Many younger women – and men – now enjoy the social hours and the philanthropic events at this historic club. And this is where I heard ‘The Org Chart’ again.  As a charitable, non-profit business I was told that an Org Chart is essential. Archive materials abound, historic documents, boxes of photos juxtaposed with legal documents, IRS papers and current documents.  So lately my head has been buried in setting up an Org Chart for the Woman’s Club, delegating committee work and assigning volunteers who offer to share the responsibility to keep this Hollywood legend flourishing. Those are the serious, grown-up Org Charts.

 But the Org charts of my own making, to do with my writing, are the real fun ones.  When I was revising and updating Hollywood Then & Now, my board was covered with thumbnail pictures of the various Hollywood landmarks I was writing about, as I attempted to weave the story of the origins of legendary places – and what they look like now.  Of course, throughout all of that writing, my desk, my floor and any other available surface was covered in sheets of paper and many hand-scribbled notes on scraps of envelopes and such. But I knew where everything was and could find the relevant note easily. I was organized. Honest!

 I think (I hope) there are other writers who  operate in this ‘organized chaos’ fashion.  I realize that I am perfectly, creatively organized when I am actually writing. I have to be – so much I write about has historical data and information in it. I can’t fudge that.

 It is my life that is not organized – and my time. Which is why I am often writing so late into the night… and I haven’t managed an Org Chart for that yet.

Any ideas?