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.

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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.

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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?  

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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.

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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…

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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

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This post was submitted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin

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.

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*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 I Use Nonfiction and Fiction for Research and Inspiration

By Guest Author,  Sara Rosett

Some writers can sit down at their computer with no idea of what they will write about and launch into the first draft of their book. They find the blank screen and the infinite possibilities exciting and inspiring. I’m not one of those writers. I must have an idea of where the story is going before I begin writing. Otherwise, the blank screen paralyzes me. Before I begin a book, I spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the story. I’ve discovered that both nonfiction and fiction inspire different aspects of the story for me.

Nonfiction

I like to dig into nonfiction as I brainstorm my historical mystery plots. Here are a few of the resources I’ve found most helpful:

Newspaper Archives—My historical series is set in early 1920s England, so the online British Newspaper Archive has been an invaluable resource. I scoured the Positions Available section, what we’d call the Help Wanted section today, which gave me an insight into the jobs were available, the qualifications required, and the salaries that were paid. The British Newspaper Archive has magazines in addition to newspapers, and those are wonderful for getting a feel for what people read in their leisure time. One delightful surprise came as I flipped through an issue of the Sketch. I came across the first publication of Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb with Poirot and Hastings.

Magazine and newspaper advertisements are also helpful for researching clothing and fashion as well as helping me keep in mind the attitudes of the time. Ads for fur coats and smoking tobacco seem a bit jarring to me as a modern reader, but browsing the ads helps me keep in mind the typical mindset of someone who lived in the early 1920s.

Nonfiction books—Once I have a general idea of the direction of the story, I search out nonfiction books related to the theme of the novel. I’ve read all sorts of books—everything from books on the English country house to code breaking during World War I. I find nonfiction is an excellent source for clues and red herrings. Nonfiction books have even inspired a complete plot. The second book in my historical series is about an author who keeps her gender secret from everyone—including her publisher. A real-life author who did the same thing inspired that story idea.

While researching the Egyptomania that gripped the world after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, I ran across a story of a British nobleman who had been connected to the excavation and committed suicide. That incident became the jumping off point for the third book in my series, The Egyptian Antiquities Murder.

Memoirs—One of the most valuable resources I’ve found for getting inside the heads of my historical characters are memoirs and biographies. The Bright Young People of the 1920s were a prolific and literary bunch. It’s easy to find information about them, and reading about their midnight scavenger hunts and paper chases across London as well as their extravagant themed parties meant that I had plenty of ideas for a book set in London among the high society set when it came time to write An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. In addition to story ideas, I also cull clues in red herrings from memoirs. I note down the things that people hid from their families or feared would become public knowledge.

Video clips—I didn’t realize how much video is available from the early 1920s. YouTube and stock image sites have quite a bit from that time. I’ve watched videos of people strolling in Trafalgar Square, dancing in nightclubs, as well as an informational video from the 1920s on how the brakes work on an early motorcar, which was critical when plotting how a certain murder was committed.

Vintage clothing auction sites—My readers want to imagine the characters wearing flapper dresses and elegant evening gowns. I need to know about the fabric, cut, and embellishments of the dresses. With multiple images of individual clothing items, auction listings of vintage clothes are a good source of detailed information about the materials and construction of the clothes of the era. Another great source for clothing details and inspiration is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute with its extensive online collection.

Fiction

I was a fan of Golden Age mysteries, but I’d always read them for pleasure, not research. When I decided to write a historical mystery, I began reading and rereading my old favorites as well as seeking out new authors from the era. I read the books in a different way and found that they gave me a first-hand view of day-to-day life in the time. I used my fiction-reading to glean small details that gave my stories the feel of the time.

Dialogue—Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing a High Society Lady Detective series. Much of the verbiage is inspired by my reading of Golden age fiction. Terms like old bean, old thing, topping, and that’s not cricket are common in Golden Age mysteries. The posh set was fond of their adjectives and adverbs, so I use those types of words in conversation in my historical books in a way that I wouldn’t do in a contemporary novel. Everything was ghastly, frightful or screamingly. I sprinkle those terms throughout conversation to give it a feel of the 1920s.

Culture—As I read Golden Age fiction, I made mental notes of how the characters’ lifestyles: the size of their houses, whether or not they had telephones, what they ate for meals, as well as what types of cars they drove—even if they had a car. Another thing I noticed was the formality of conversation and address. People rarely used their first names when they spoke to each other unless they were well acquainted. I fold all those details into my stories.

I’ve learned to allow some time to delve into research before I begin a book. I gather these all these details and ideas, then let them brew in my mind for a while. By the time I sit down to actually begin writing, I have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to go and some of the clues and red herrings I’ll use. If I take the time to absorb ideas from both nonfiction and fiction that blank screen isn’t as intimating and my writing goes much faster.

 

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Sara Rosett Author Photo 2016 Headshot 1500 copyUSA Today bestselling author Sara Rosett writes lighthearted mysteries for readers who enjoy atmospheric settings, fun characters, and puzzling whodunits. She loves reading Golden Age mysteries, watching Jane Austen adaptions, and travel. Publishers Weekly called Sara’s books “enchanting,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”

She is the author of the High Society Lady Detective historical mystery series as well as three contemporary cozy series: the Murder on Location series, the On the Run series, and the Ellie Avery series. Sara also teaches an online course, How to Outline A Cozy Mystery, and is the author of How to Write a Series. Sara’s latest release is An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. Find out more at SaraRosett.com.

Social Media Links:

 

 

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This article was posted for Sara Rosett by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Getting together

By Linda O. Johnston

 I’ve mentioned here before that I used to attend a lot of writers’ meetings and conferences, including monthly lunches with my wonderful Writers in Residence friends. 

Well, we still get together monthly for a “lunch” – one that’s online on Facebook. It’s definitely enjoyable.  And that’s kind of how all my get-togethers with writer friends are going these days.

 I miss seeing them in person! 

Yes, writing is a solitary existence.  We generally sit in front of our computers and let whatever’s on our mind spill out onto the keyboard so we can read it on our screen.  And edit it.  And add to it.  

And it’s not like we can no longer run ideas by our writer friends.  Thank heavens for the internet and text messages and, yes, phones. 

Still, it’s different these days. 

But hey, thanks to my wonderful husband, who added a camera and microphone to my new computer, I can now attend Zoom meetings and be seen and heard. Not that I always want the others in a meeting to be able to see all my expressions, and I have to use a false background to prevent the windows in my actual home background from letting light in to blind anyone who looks at my frame.  But I can always pick up one of my dogs and let whoever I’m talking with see them, too! And I’ve also been interviewed on Zoom for an upcoming YouTube program, where I’ll be talking about cozy mysteries. 

I’ve always recognized that people are versatile–and these days we have to be especially versatile. And wise, hopefully. I don’t appreciate people who get together in large groups now, particularly without facemasks and not staying a decent distance apart. That can be dangerous not only for them, but for others, too.

 But I appreciate how resourcefully we’ve come up with ways to communicate with others, including other writers.  I look forward to when we can do it safely in person again.  Meanwhile, a virtual hi to all of you out there. Stay safe!

This article is posted for Linda O. Johnston by Jackie Houchin.

Mystery People

By Jill Amadio

As a Brit I put up with a lot of ribbing in America. Some friends take me to task for pronunciation. Well, I can’t help it if I have a very slight West Country accent as I am from Cornwall. To my amusement my accent is occasionally mistaken for Australian.

As a writer from over there, though, the ribbing can give me indigestion or at the very least depression for hours. The main problem is spelling. I am warned by colleagues that editors at U.S. publishing houses come down hard if you keep inserting a “u” into words like behaviour,  colour, and honour, or substitute a ”z’ for an “s”. Other minefields include using “ae” rather than “e,” as in “aeon” and “eon”.  Maybe it’s a matter simplicity. Americans pare as many ells from words as possible while Brits love double ells, such as “levelling” versus “leveling”.

My books are published here but habits die hard and I usually claim that Brits use the correct spellings. They only got chopped when unnecessary (to whom?) letters are summarily killed off. Flautists are called flutists, kerb is curb, and gaol is jail. Obviously what it comes down to is pronunciation, though. Americans spell words economically as they are spoken which is commendable although it escapes me why tyre is spelled tire. I think it has to do with the Boston Tea Party and wanting to be set apart from that awful king.

It’s a huge temptation to some authors who have leapt across the pond to use British spelling, perhaps as a sly signal to agents and publishers they are querying that the writer is a Brit – a sort of literary snobbism one occasionally encounters. In my first mystery I have my lead character admonish the British consul’s wife for this attitude which I did, in fact, actually encounter in Newport Beach.

Then there’s the grammar. Collective nouns in particular give me pause. Is a group, say, a government, singular or plural? Americans say it’s the former; Brits insist on the latter.  I have a page from the Associated Press Stylebook permanently stuck to my printer to remind me which to use.

Figuring out past particles is always fun. For instance, Brits say “pleaded” Yanks say “pled”. Oh, and the very, very worst word I hate to see changed is “hanged”. To my mind it should refer only to someone at the loop end of a rope, giving the action a far heftier meaning than the briefer word “hung”, as used here. People are not paintings.

What else? “Have” and “take” always flummox me. Am I going to take a bath? Or, am I going to have a bath? I read somewhere that this is an example of a delexical verb, which I’m not even going to touch.

While writing my mystery my beta readers caught another mistake. I wrote, “He drove her to hospital.” Wrong. I was told there should be a “the” in front of “hospital”.  I’m sure there’s some kind of diabolical rule about this but I think it is fine to give an in-house editor something to mark up to justify his/her salary.  As for tenses, the past participle in the U.S. for “got” is “gotten,” an ugly word that makes me shudder enough to want to write a thriller entitled “The Dangling Participle and the Dark, Dark Pluperfect”.

While writing the first in my crime series, whose amateur sleuth is a disgraced Cornish woman exiled by the palace for discovering a scandal (not sexual!), I had to learn the police rankings and figure out who was a sheriff and who was a police officer. Having worked with a reporter at the good old British rag, the Sunday Dispatch, I decided to have my sleuth simplify her confusion (and mine) by using British titles. When caught speeding she addresses a California Highway Patrol (CHiP) officer as Chief Superintendent, and calls the Chief of Police,  Constable.  I was very pleased to learn that sheriffs and policemen can be lumped into a group collectively referred to as “cops”.

When I mention a British pastime, such as nighthawking, no one has a clue as to its meaning. I was going to give the nasty habit to a character in my next book but I decided the explanation could be tedious unless you’re one yourself.

Even the four seasons can be a challenge. Seeking representation for my new book I scoured the agent lists and was rejected by 55 of them. I knew small presses can be approached directly and I found one with whose name I fell totally in love: Mainly Murder Press in Connecticut. However, the website declared, NO SUBMISSIONS UNTIL LATE SPRING!

Ha. I immediately sent in my query along with a note: “Dear MMP, I live in Southern California and although it is only January according to the calendar, and snowing where you are, it is already late spring here. You should see the roses!”

I received an email back within three hours, asking me to send chapters. Which I did. Obviously the publisher was not off in Tahiti but still on the snowy East Coast.” MMP published only 12-14 books a year and has now closed its doors but who can resist the name? So my advice is to go ahead and break the rules. Lay it on thick. Change the climate. Worked for me.

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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. 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” and the second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead.”  The books are set in Newport, California.    http://www.jillamadio.com

 

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This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Introducing Cynthia Naden, our Newest Writers In Residence Member.

Cynthia, we are so glad to have you in our Writers in Residence blog group. Tell us about yourself.

cynthia-nadenThank you, Jackie! I’m a native of California, I was born and raised in the Pasadena area.  My husband and I still live here, although we have talked about living elsewhere that is less expensive.  I have two adult sons and two adorable granddaughters.  We live in a condominium with two precious pups, Minnie, a mellow Maltese, and Mandy, a very precocious Terrier mix.  They keep us on our toes and give us hours of unconditional love and fun!

I bet they are cute!  When did you first get interested in writing?

I have been a writer since I was a child.  The first book I fell in love with was Pearl Buck’s Good Earth.  I subsequently read the rest of her tomes.  The first attempt at writing occurred when I was in the 4th grade and wrote about an imaginary trip I made to Australia aboard the SS Lurline.  What fun that was! Throughout my years in school, I always veered back to writing about Asia and when in college, studying for my Master’s in History found myself back in Asia but more specifically China.

Was History your only avenue of study?

No, besides my Master’s in history, I also have a Bachelor’s in English and Paralegal Studies, and a Master’s in Library and Information Science. But my writing career really took off following the completion of my last Masters.  I took a couple online writing courses and found myself writing a romantic suspense that is loosely based on a personal experience of my own.

You mean, the events in Cache Under the Stacks actually happened to you? That’s scary.

Well, some of the elements did, but not all. It is fiction. (smile)

A bookstore features prominently in the book. Do you have a favorite one?

I love bookstores. Whenever we travel my first stop is a bookstore. One of my favorites is Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara, but our own Vroman’s here in Pasadena is the best of the best.

What other writing interests do you have?

I’m interested in writing historical fiction and have a couple of novels started that take place during World War II – one in Europe and the other in the Pacific Theatre. And I would someday love to write about cooking or do restaurant reviews.  Always something that I am striving towards. But my one far-fetched desire is to own a boarding house for dogs with all the amenities!

I love it!  We have some dog-lovers in our group and among our readers. They would be happy about that aspiration.  I see you have many yummy recipes on your blog as well.  Cynthia’s blog recipes

Yes, and did you notice the SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE recipe at the end of Cache Under the Stacks?

I sure did! I plan to try it soon. I love Italian food.  So, what have you in the works right now?

Starting Over 41S6cFWnPxLCache Under the Stacks was published in August 2018and Starting Over was published December 2019. Both books I “pantsed,” but now I am trying to outline and it is not as easy for me.  I’m working on a sequel to Cache Under the Stacks and a sequel to Starting Over, a woman’s fiction that has evolved into a bit of a mystery.

How about those two WWII novels you were considering? 

One is set in the late 1930s New York and London. It is called Because of You. The other one set in Pearl Harbor, and is yet to be titled, although tentatively I call it Murder in Waimea.

What are you reading now?

Reading during this “lock down” time has not been as productive as I thought it would be. I have several books on my bedside table: Woman in the Shadows by Jane Thynne; Erik Larsen’s The Splendid and the Vile; The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan; and Landing by Moonlight by Ciji Ware.

How have you been managing during the “lock-down” time?

I thought I would have gotten a lot of writing done, but it has been hard to concentrate. If anyone has any suggestions, I would gladly like to know about how to overcome this. It has been a time of great distraction.

Do you have any dreams or goals?

My dream would be for Covid to be over and to travel to London, France, and Germany. I would like also like to publish at least one book a year and if possible, someday land a traditional publisher.

Thank you, Cynthia (Cyn), for sharing your past and your heart. We are so glad to have you here, and look forward to when you will be posting alongside us next year.

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Cache Under Stacks 51iDVwGVQML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_BOOK REVIEW: Cynthia (pen-name Claire Naden) published Cache Under the Stacks, A Cate Wagner Mystery, two years ago, and I have just found and read it. It’s a story about a divorced, empty-nester bookstore owner, living alone in a nice neighborhood with her sweet pup, Minnie.

But then, she begins to get threatening phone calls from an unknown person. It doesn’t matter if she is at home, at the bookstore, or 100 miles away, he seems to know just where she is and what she is doing.  For most of the book, this stalker only terrorizes by phone, but towards the climactic end, the calls and messages get more specific. And when strange packages and people begin to appear at her bookstore, she knows her life is in danger.

Fortunately for Cate, a handsome police detective enters her life and takes an interest in her case. As the threats escalate, their relationship begins to heat up. But he can’t be with her every minute. She is alone sometimes and the stalker knows it.

Advertised as Romantic Suspense, I can assure you the book is both.  From the first pages, you will feel an unease for the main character that quickly turns into unrelenting anxiety. It’s hard to stop reading even at chapter breaks, because you simply must find out who is terrorizing the heroine and why.

Naden writes simply but in great detail. Where another author might say “She went into the house and locked the door,” this author breaks down those movements into tiny increments (fumbling with the key, dropping it, her purse strap catching on the knob, preventing her from closing the door fast). You think it would be boring, but not so. It  holds you captive while it ratchets up the suspense. You “just KNOW” someone is in the house, in her bedroom, or right behind her…

PS: You only understand the title at the very end!

 

 

Genres and Generalities

by Linda O. Johnston

LINDA scott-broome-BcVvVvqiCGA-unsplashI love to write.  I love to write novels that contain romance.  I love to write novels that contain mystery or suspense.

Any surprise, then, that I write in multiple genres?

I’ve mentioned some of that before while blogging here.  At the moment, as with many people who do many things, my career seems to be changing a bit, yet staying the same.

And yours?

I’m currently writing romantic suspense novels for Harlequin Romantic Suspense.  I have a couple stories I’ve turned in that are my own plotting, and I’m currently working on another of HRS’s many, multiple stories about members of the Colton family, who always seem to be finding wonderful relationships and also dealing with a lot of crimes.

LINDA adult-1850704_640My kind of story, and I follow their bible and have my characters interact with the protagonists of other Colton stories in the various mini-series that are part of the Colton series.  When I write stories that are all my own I fit a lot of dogs into them, and occasionally have been able to slip one in to a Colton story.

I’ve also written a lot of cozy mysteries over time.  My most recent cozy publisher went out of business, so I don’t have any currently in progress–although I believe, and hope, that a publisher that’s new to me is going to buy one of my ideas.

So–yes.  I write in different genres, and often read in different genres to keep my ideas flowing.  Generalities–I guess I can say I love fiction, I love suspense and mystery, I love animals… and, as I said, I love to write.  Even these days, when there’s a lot going on in the world nearby and elsewhere.  My writing has slowed as a result, but it goes forward.

It’s always fascinating to me to see that some writers stick to their primary genres as long as they write.  Others are like me and have more than one favorite genre that they also  go back and forth among–or sometimes combine them, as I do. Of course my cozies contain a romantic interest, and all my romances also contain suspense or mystery.

So how about you?
What are your favorite genres?
If you’re a writer, which genre(s) do you prefer to write in?
Or read in?
What’s your general purpose for reading?
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Linda O Johnston
Linda O. Johnston, a former lawyer who is now a full-time writer, has written two mystery series for Midnight Ink involving dogs: the Barkery and Biscuits Mysteries, and the Superstition Mysteries.  She has also written the Pet Rescue Mystery Series, a spinoff from her Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime.  Currently writes for Harlequin Romantic Suspense as well as the Alpha Force paranormal romance miniseries about shapeshifters for Harlequin Nocturne.
This article was posted for Linda O. Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

How Will YOU Tell The Story? Part II

 by Miko Johnston

In my last post I asked, How will we write about this? There has to be a moment when the reality of the new normal hits you in a unique way.

This is my moment:

May 20, before the tragedies we’ve witnessed in the past weeks occurred, when we focused on the pandemic and its effects on our health, our economy and our lives 24/7:

Mikos Garden1aIMG_1530After ordering restaurant take-out, my husband drove there to pick up dinner. It would take him almost an hour, leaving me time to explore a newly bloomed section of our garden, planted with rhododendrons. If you’re not familiar with the plant, they’re like azaleas on steroids, with flower clusters, some as big as your face, nestled against dark green leaves. Some grow as tall as trees; others have been pruned knee- or chest-high, their blossoms a riot of pinks, fuchsias, purples and reds.

Mikos Garden2In the shelter of the garden, hidden beneath a canopy of lavender and laurel trees, I sauntered the path that wends through the rhododendrons. As I neared the end of the path, where it rejoins the lawn, I spotted something crescent-shaped sparkling on a branch. A closer look revealed a young bird, judging by its downy feathers of gray, which blended in with the bark. She (as I later discovered) had a curved beak, bright yellow, which stood out like a slice of sunlight in the darkness of the overgrowth.

I think the bird spotted me but didn’t fly away; she seemed to accept my presence without fear. I froze and observed in silence as she returned her attention to her surroundings.

She stared at the bees hopping into flower melheads, gathering their pollen, and buzzing into the next blossom. At the sound and movement of the leaves whenever a breeze rustled them. At sunbeams that danced across branches overhead. At a pair of energetic bunnies as they frolicked on the lawn, oblivious to our presence. Many minutes passed.

Mikos Garden3IMG_1555I so wanted to hear her sing, but she didn’t. Silently she sat there, occasionally darting her head, watching everything around her as I watched her, delighting in her curiosity, her seeming amazement with the world she’d recently entered. She hadn’t mastered flying yet. Her wings fluttered to help her balance on the branches as she hopped along, taking in the sights and sounds all around her. I’d been feeling blue awhile, in a rut. All that changed with my encounter with this fledgling. I found myself transfixed by her utter joy, and that joy flowed through me for the first time in months.

Soon her mama showed up for feeding time. Mama didn’t take kindly to my presence, so I backed away and fetched my binoculars to watch her offspring from a non-threatening distance. I continued to observe her until hubby returned with dinner – fortunately, fish that night. My spirits revived, I left her and went inside to eat. Later I searched through my bird book for a picture to identify her. She resembled a female European starling, except the juveniles don’t have golden beaks.

*          *          *          *          *

Two days later, as I walked toward my rhodie garden, I noticed a rock centered on a bare spot in the lawn. Nothing unusual about that, but a tiny light stripe along the top made me look closer. I found the little bird’s body lying there, her once vibrant beak now a dull tan, and I broke down.

My husband took her away and buried her, noting she had a peck wound on her chest, likely from a crow. I cried uncontrollably, then berated myself for crying over a dead bird when the tears didn’t come for much bigger tragedies.  How could I be so shallow?

Was I, though?

That little bird reminded me of how quickly melancholy can turn to joy, and joy to sorrow. How the magnitude of what’s been happening to so many, for so long, can be hard to process. By wrangling it down to its essence, finding a small representative to a larger picture – a symbol – we can better grasp how it affects us, better articulate what it means to us. And isn’t that what writers do?

So now I can answer the question I posed in my last post.

What about you? Have you begun your story yet?

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mikoj-photo1

Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

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This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)