Two Murders in One Book: A Story-Within-a-Story

by V.M. (Valerie) Burns

Each book in my Mystery Bookshop Mystery series features a story-within-a-story. My protagonist, Samantha Washington and her late husband, Leon, dreamed of quitting their jobs and owning a mystery bookshop. When her husband dies, Samantha realizes life is too short not to follow your dreams. So, she quits her job, buys the building she and Leon always dreamed about, and opens a mystery bookshop. Owning a bookshop that specializes in mysteries was a dream Sam shared with her husband. However, she also had another dream. She dreamed of writing British historic cozy mysteries, which she does to fill her time after her husband’s death. Each book in the Mystery Bookshop mystery series includes two mysteries, the mystery that Sam is solving in her real life and the British historic cozy mystery that she’s writing.

People often ask, what inspired me to write a story-within-a-story. The truth is this series didn’t start out that way. When I first started to flesh out the idea for the series, my initial plan was that the only murders would take place in the book that my protagonist was writing. I didn’t plan on having Sam solve a murder in her personal life at all. This is where I got the title for the first book, THE PLOT IS MURDER. My theory was that it would be more realistic that way and I wouldn’t have dead bodies littering the streets of the small fictional town of North Harbor, Michigan. However, I wondered if mystery readers would be satisfied with that. Then, I had my eureka moment. What if, I had two mysteries? The protagonist would solve a mystery in her life AND there would also be a murder to solve in the book she was writing. As a mystery lover, I thought that would be a book I would want to read. As an author, I wondered, what was I thinking? It’s hard enough to write one mystery. How was I going to write two?

I tackled the task of writing two mysteries in every book the same way you eat an elephant—one bite at a time. When I started, I didn’t have an elaborate plan (or much of a plan at all). I knew I wanted parallels between my two storylines. My thought was that writing the British historic cozy would help my protagonist (Samantha) solve the mystery in her real life. So, if Sam was faced with a locked room mystery, then there would be a locked room mystery in the book she was writing. 

Another common question I get is whether I write the stories separately or simultaneously. For me personally, I write in sequence. I have friends who can write scenes out of order. However, I can’t do that. I have to write in order. Occasionally, I get stuck (it might be more than occasionally) and I have to move forward and come back and finish a scene later, but that’s about all I can do out of sequence. It’s probably just a personal quirk (I’ve got quite a few). 

My best advice for writing, whether it’s a story-within-a-story, a stand-alone, a series, short story, whatever, is to figure out what works for you and do that. Writing isn’t a one size fits all activity. Just because one method works for one person, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Each person and each writer is different. Writing a book from beginning to end is hard. Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to be someone else. Also, keep in mind that everyone doesn’t like the story-within-a-story concept. I’ve heard from readers who found it distracting and have told me they skip the British historic cozy. I’ve also heard from readers who prefer the British historic cozy over the contemporary mystery. Every person is different with their own unique likes and dislikes. It will be impossible to please everyone. As a writer, all you can do is focus on writing the best book you possibly can. Keep your fingers crossed. With perseverance, hard work, and a great deal of luck, your dreams can come true, just like Samantha Washington.

Tourist Guide to Murder_TRD

While visiting the land of Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes, bookstore owner and amateur sleuth Samantha Washington finds herself on a tragical mystery tour . . .
 
Sam joins Nana Jo and her Shady Acres Retirement Village friends Irma, Dorothy, and Ruby Mae on a weeklong trip to London, England, to experience the Peabody Mystery Lovers Tour. The chance to see the sights and walk the streets that inspired Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle is a dream come true for Sam—and a perfect way to celebrate her new publishing contract as a mystery author.
 
But between visits to Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel district and 221B Baker Street, Major Horace Peabody is found dead, supposedly of natural causes. Despite his employer’s unfortunate demise, the tour guide insists on keeping calm and carrying on—until another tourist on their trip also dies under mysterious circumstances. Now it’s up to Sam and the Shady Acres ladies to mix and mingle among their fellow mystery lovers, find a motive, and turn up a murderer . . .

You can read more about Samantha Washington in the other Mystery Bookshop Mysteries.

THE PLOT IS MURDER

READ HERRING HUNT

THE NOVEL ART OF MURDER

WED, READ, AND DEAD

BOOKMARKED FOR MURDER

Purchase Link

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About the author

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V.M. (Valerie) Burns was born and raised in Northwestern Indiana. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Dog Writers Association of America, Thriller Writers International, Southeast Mystery Writers of America, and is on the national board for Sisters in Crime. V.M. Burns is also the Agatha Award nominated author of The Plot is Murder, the first book in the Mystery Bookshop Mystery series; and the RJ Franklin Mystery series. She now lives in Eastern Tennessee with her two poodles. Readers can keep up with new releases by following her on social media.

Website: http://www.vmburns.com/

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

Instagram: https//www.instagram.com/vmburnsbooks

Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/authors/v-m-burns

 

This article was posted for V. M. Burns by Jackie Houchin.

 

Challenge Yourself to Read 100 Books THIS Year!

Yep, 100 books!  That’s what I read in 2020 and I hope to duplicate in 2021. I have a few secrets and methods I’ll share.  One of the best helps I can suggest if you want to give it a try, is to join a Reading Challenge on Facebook. There are many out there, and I’ve joined three for this year. They keep you inspired, and they help you with choices.

Reading in the Dryer. a51880cb8ed871ed003cd9eab01b33ff The 52 Book Club (formerly, The 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge)

I found this one last year in February, and had fun reading in the 52 prompts that founder Liz Mannegren listed, and then posting the titles (and covers, if you wish) on the Facebook page .  For instance, which books would YOU read in such categories as; #3 – By an Indigenous Author? or #6 – Written in the 1970’s?  or #40 – Used on the Mensa reading list for grades 9-12?  or #48 – A Character who wears glasses?

For those prompts, I chose Whitefly, by Abdelilah Hamdouchi, Kindred, by Octavia Butler (recently deceased), Nine Taylors by Dorothy Sayers, and Andi Unexpected by Amanda Flower, respectively.  All excellent books, the first two I wouldn’t have read if not for the challenge. So glad I did.

Two very difficult ones for me to find and read were: #50 An Author You Previously Disliked, and #51 A Genre You don’t care for.  I chose a 30-page children’s book by James Patterson (the shortest I could find), and a sports book that turned out to be excellent, The Boys in A Boat by Daniel James Brown. (Think  Chariots of Fire.)

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Among this year’s 52 prompts are:  #3 – A dual timeline, #17 – A character on the run, #19 – Book with a Deckled edge (Huh??), #24 – A book you think they should read in schools, #27 – First chapter ends on an “odd” page (harder to find than you think!), #35 – Set in a Country that starts with the Letter “S,” and #48 – A cover with a woman facing away.

Fun, huh? I bet you thought of books YOU would choose just like that!

A few difficult prompts for me to settle on this year are; #14 – Written by an author over 65 when first published (I hope to get the guy I chose as a WinR Guest later in the year!), #15 – A book mentioned in another book, #18 – An author with a 9-letter last name, #31 – Shares a similar title to another book, and #49 – A flavor in the title. (I chose Naomi Hirahara’s Strawberry Yellow.)  By the way, I chose another of Naomi’s books, Clark and Davidson (to be released in August) for the #26 prompt – An author of color.

One more prompt that everyone on the Facebook group found difficult was #8 – A book in the 900’s of the Dewey Decimal System.  Yikes!  After several librarians commented about geography, history, and biography, I eventually chose the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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Liz Mannegren announced this year’s new prompts (categories) on November 30, 2020, and wow, did the group go crazy!  Suggestions and questions flew back and forth. By mid-December, most everyone had settled on the books they wanted to read.  BUT… now was the hard part. Reading was not supposed to commence until January 1st.

So…hard…to…wait.

Liz solved the “terrible itch to read” problem with giving the group a Mini-Challenge just for December. Three books with the Prompts: books about or with these words in the title – Light, Holiday, and Snow.  Pretty easy to find. I used a couple short stories (Jacqueline Vick’s The Christmas-s-s Party for one, and two beautiful Children’s books, which I then gave as Christmas presents.)

The Mini-Challenge prompts for February (she does this every other month for speed readers) are: A book with a red spine, a book related to the word “magical” and a book with a great platonic relationship (can be with a favorite pet). I’ve gotten three books picked out, whether I’ll get to reading them this month, I’m not sure. (They can be extra reading, or books in the current 52-book challenge.)

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Okay, I’ve hinted at a “method” or “secret” I use to read 100 books.  I simply read some of the prompts in Children’s or Middle-grade books (which I enjoy anyway, and which usually end up as gifts or put into my Little Free Library).  They are usually shorter and take less time to read.  Also, in this “secret” is that I occasionally read short stories. (Confession: the challenge likes the books to be 100+ pages, but I don’t always do that. See bottom of next paragraph.)

Here’s something else I did. I found a book for last year’s #18 prompt – A book written by Stephen King (not going to read!) by Googling other authors by that name and finding a delightful Children’s book by “Stephen Michael King.”  Cheating? Nope. Over and over, you hear “It’s YOUR challenge, so YOUR choice” when people ask if they can use a certain book for a category.

And… another cool thing that’s done is that parents and children are doing the challenge as well. Older kids read in their age books while a parent reads in theirs. Or, busy moms of little ones do the challenge by reading children’s books in each prompt ALOUD to their kids.

One note: The 52 Book Club is a private group (to keep out spammers and such) but anyone can join at any time.  Here’s the link to join.  You can find the list of prompts, and even suggestions for each one.

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  1. The 2021 Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge.

This one is easy, and you can use books you read in other Challenges.  Simply read a book with the first main word of the BOOK TITLE (OR do it with the Author’s LAST NAME) for every letter in the alphabet. They discount the prefixes “A” or The” etc.  The letters “Q  X and Z can be found anywhere in the title (or name).  It’s a public group, anyone can join at any time. There are three moderators who keep a lookout for off color posts.

Founder, Lori Boness Casswell also suggests a one-book Mini-Challenge each month. For January it was, a book about or in the title: COLD. In February it is: LOVE.

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  1.  The Literary Escapes Reading Challenge.

Another easy one founded by Lori Casswell. You read books that are set in each of the 50 states. You can also do countries as well. And again, they can overlap with other challenges.

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So you see, by reading in these challenges (with my secrets & methods, and, okay, “cheats”), plus the ARCs I get for review, AND my books for pleasure, it is easy to read ONE HUNDRED books.  Don’t worry about “the time” just pick up a book and read.   And, if you review the books on Goodreads or Amazon, the authors will love you.

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Reading. memes-about-being-a-parent-and-bookworm-cook-or-clean

Comics from Bookbub blog

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An Interview with CeeCee James

[In a conversation with CeeCee, she made this statement, “It’s funny how each of my stories is an evolution in my own writing.”  It intrigued me, so I asked her to explain how that worked in her mind and her writing. She graciously agreed.]

* * *

Hi, everyone. I’m CeeCee James, a cozy mystery writer. I have seven series out at the moment (that number kind of surprises me!) Each one has a slightly different flavor.

How did I write so many different series? It boils down to the fact that journeys are important to me. We’re all on one, right? I find people’s stories so fascinating. It’s why I used to love sitting in a coffee shop or at the mall and people watch. And what I see inspires me to write. I wish I could tell more!

I also draw on my own personal struggles, short-comings, and victories. I had a rocky childhood. I moved all the time, spent some time in foster care, and went to quite a few different schools. I think, more than anything, that fueled my desire to write as well. My characters are always based on fiction, but I like to think they’re relatable in what they go through. I usually only have a vague idea of who they are when I first start writing my characters, and as I write their story I see where they’re going to lead me.

So far my characters have taken me on quite the adventure! Angel Lake Mysteries was my first cozy mystery series and centers around new beginnings. Elise Pepper learns a lot about herself—how to be independent and confident—and it was an apt journey for me at the time.

After that, I explored the curiosities of hotel life with my Oceanside Hotel Mysteries. Maisie Swenson and her mom crack me up. They have a fun relationship, and Maisie is a smart woman.

From there, I moved to my Baker Street Mysteries where I delved into melding American Revolutionary history with mystery with my darling tour guide, Georgie Tanner.

Cirque de Slay. good 516T4-PSPiLThe writing journey took a turn for me, and I wrote a short story Circus series,* starting with Cirque De Slay. Trixie was my evolutionary step into deeper thoughts as she overcame some serious insecurities. She’s a trooper. Is it weird to say she inspired me to be stronger as well?

This brought me to the Flamingo Realty Mysteries where Stella O’Neil navigates through some relationship complexities in her family. This series was also my first to merge with another one as the characters of Baker Street play a big part, and even Maisie Swenson and her Momma make an appearance in the last book.

From there I moved on to Chelsea in the Mooved to Murder series. This series also has the biggest funny side. I had a great time with Chelsea. A city girl, she’s roped into watching her friends’ pets, only to find out too late the exact nature of these pets. I laughed so hard during many of those scenes.

Tall Tails. 51V73wR6tJL

Now I’m on my newest, The Secret Library Mysteries, beginning with the Tall Tails Secret Book Club. This book catches the flavor of the mysterious mansion and peculiar people back in Mind Your Manors, which I always wanted to return to and explore.

Phew! Now you know my writing road map and how ideas come to me. I’m not one to plan out my books, more of a “fly by the seat of my pants” writer rather than an outliner. I’ve tried to do outlines because I know how other authors have great success with them. Not for me. They’re the biggest road block. Now I just accept how my mind creates and go with it.

I love writing. I can’t imagine too many other careers that are as rewarding, and I feel blessed I’ve been able to realize a childhood dream to be able to share my stories with others. I appreciate everyone who reads them!

My favorite cozy mysteries always have a dash of humor, maybe a tinge of romance, animals, and tons of friendship. There are always a few of my favorite pups, and a kitten or two. I love the small town feel with a hint of juicy gossip and friendly relationships that comes with it. I also love good food and my characters love it too! That’s why a bunch of my mysteries include free recipes.

I have a few published in Large Print paperback and as audio books.

One of my favorite places to write is curled up this fat oversized chair I found on sale someplace, with a cup of coffee. Usually there are dogs sleeping by my feet, or in the chair with me where somehow, they double in size to hog up all the space. 🙂

CeeCee. Ghost. 51U7Z+NMrGL

Writing has been a lifelong passion of mine. My first published work is nonfiction: Ghost No More; a True Story of Escape. Most of all I love writing about the celebration of life.

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CeeCee James is a USA Today bestselling author who first started this writing world as a kid and continued on with bedtime stories for her own kids. She has a few mystery series –the Baker Street Mysteries, Angel Lake Cozy Mysteries, Flamingo Realty, Oceanside Hotel mysteries and more! She loves creating new worlds and puzzling through cozy murder mysteries. Her favorite sleuths are curious, kind, and a bit flawed. But they all learn that being flawed isn’t being broken, and that’s a life lesson she works on for herself.

CeeCee’s web site

Facebook author page

This was posted for CeeCee James by Jackie Houchin

Marketing our Mysteries

by Jill Amadio

Marketing our mysteries is probably one of the least preferred tasks on our to-do list but it is crucial if we wish for success and sales. I truly dislike having to hawk my books and with so many different avenues than ever from which to choose, the effort becomes far more onerous than ever. But with writers’ conferences shut down and virtual meetings on the rise I found time to think about how to increase my book sales.

Five Guides

In isolation, I decided to buckle down and educate myself further about book promoti0on, buying five guides to add to the two I already own which are The Frugal Book Promoter by Carolyn Howard Johnson, and Red Hot Internet Publicity by Penny Sansevieri.  I must confess I barely cracked open either of them but added them to five new books from amazon:  The Tao of Book Publicity by Paula MarguliesHow I Sold 80,000 Books by Alinka  Rutkowska, Marketing Books on Amazon by Rob EagarBook Marketing…Reinvented by Bryan Heathman, and another by Penny updated in 2019., titled 5-Minute Book Marketing for Authors. Naturally there are overlaps in all of these guidance books, some of them explained well with detail and others just glossed over. I offer my opinions herewith.

Five Minutes?

The 5-Minute book intrigues me the most. Five minutes? That’s just 30 minutes spread over a six-day week. Surely we can all handle that. Packed not only with advice on how to promote, Sansevieri includes a generous selection of web sites to contact after each point she makes. For example, to promote eBooks Penny presents dozens of free sites where you can list your book, as well as sites on Twitter worth notifying. She also  has several advice sections on how to use amazon’s author page, book page, reviews, how best to demystify amazon’s categories, key words, etc. if you self-publish with them. Her book offers the main benefits of Instagram, Pinterest, BookBub, Goodreads, Facebook, Google Alerts, blogs, and other social media, as well as creating your own newsletter for visibility.

Amazon

While on the subject of amazon, Bob Eagar’s guide focuses entirely on making the best use of the online global bookseller. He tells us how to find and understand their bestseller rankings, how to estimate your book sales, and why the rankings aid marketing efforts. Eagar also debunks a few myths about those rankings, as they change every hour of every day but at least give an idea of your sales, unlike traditional publishing houses. If there’s a spike upwards does it mean that your recent marketing campaign was effective? Or vice versa?  Your non-amazon publisher probably buys ads on the amazon site which means you can check your rankings without self-publishing with them. Is amazon advertising your book? You can find out from the site he cites in his book.

How to Sell 80,000 books

Moving on, I was eager to know how to sell 80,000 books. The author’s name alone fascinated me and I wondered who Rutkowska is. Turns out she is a bestselling USA Today and Wall Street Journal author and founder of Library Bub that connects indie authors with 10,000 libraries although you can find this list yourself online now.

A third of the book sets out interesting interviews with bestselling authors as to their promotional strategies, and Alinka shares how she sold those 80,000 books and more not only on amazon but also through online sites, bulk sales, foreign rights (there’s a service site for this), networking, and clubs. Happily, most of us are already skilled as panelists and speakers. She tells us something I never knew – that Apple is the second-largest book market player after amazon and publishes books, she says. Something also new to me, that Kobo is the second largest eBook retailer in Japan and has 3% of the market in the U.S. Is your YA plot linked to the ocean? If so, Alinka says we should contact the retail department of the cruise lines. They ordered hundreds of copies of her children’s books for their gift shops.

Selling the Sizzle

Heathman’s informal and friendly book includes branding and marketing formulas and understands the angst authors feel about the work that is necessary. He gets down quickly to the nitty-gritty of selling the sizzle, and like the other guides, talks about the various avenues available except that he adds how fortunate we are these days to have so many ways to promote our work and exactly how you approach Barnes and Noble through their CRM author signing schedule. I like his emphasis on reading local print media so you know what they are looking for regarding author interviews, and especially regarding radio. Don’t leave it up to organizations and clubs to publicize your event, get to work! However, his advice to create a daily series of social media posts sounds a bit daunting. I like Heathman’s list for getting quality book endorsements you can use for your back cover, press releases, and on your website and blog. Particularly useful is his 15 Week Book Marketing Checklist chart.

A ‘How-To’ Guide

The how-to book promotion guide I have taken a special liking to is The Tao of Publicity. Margulies directs it to beginners trying to figure out how to publicize one’s books but even those skilled at it can learn something from her pages. Like the other guides mentioned above except for Penny’s lengthier tomes, the Tao is around 145 pages but is crammed with tips, ideas, website content advice, timing your launch, Q and A questions for the media to ask, the pros and cons of a blog tour, why limiting social media sites can be a better way initially to build relationships with readers, and many other issues.  Ever heard of dashboards Hootsuite, Threadsy, and Tweetdeck to post information about your books? And make sure you take into consideration America’s different time zones.

After reading all seven guides I found something in each one that was individual enough to make a note of, writing down the page numbers. However, I am now too exhausted to figure them out.

 If you care to share, which promotional ideas bring you the most reward?  

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

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.

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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)

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)

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