“Write What You Know” : An Author’s Experience of Living in Africa

by Guest Author, Victoria Tait

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SONY DSC

A common piece of advice given to school children and new authors alike is “Write what you know”.  But many established authors dismiss the principle.  Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, told The New York Times, “One of the dumbest things you were ever taught was to write what you know.   Because what you know is usually dull.”

So where does an aspiring writer begin?  Unlike most authors, I had no lifelong desire to write a book and only considered it as a potential career two years ago.  We moved back to the UK from Kenya so my husband could begin training for his next military posting in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  I realised that as I didn’t speak Bosnian, and the country had a high unemployment rate, I was unlikely to find a job.

Further, as a family we would be moving around the UK, and potentially the world, for at least the next eight years.  I needed to keep myself busy and engaged, but not with a physical business like the farm shop I had set up in Kenya.  My new venture needed to be portable and flexible to work around the demands of my family.

I first considered writing as a method to convey the incredible experience I’d had living in Kenya, in Eastern Africa.  I’m not sure if moving to Kenya or returning to the UK was more of a culture shock.  In Kenya I’d become used to a way of life lived at a slower pace, with no judgement of what people wore or what car they drove, and far less emphasis on the material side of life.

Giraffe samburuIn Africa, the first priority is to survive and so each day, and certainly every birthday, is celebrated.  After that come friendships and community and, of course, enjoying the glorious sunshine, fantastic scenery and amazing wildlife that Kenya is famous for.

P.D. James wrote in her “10 Tips for writing novels” for the BBC, “You absolutely should write about what you know.  There are all sorts of small things that you store up and use, nothing is lost as a writer.  You have to learn to stand outside yourself.  All experience, whether it is painful or whether is is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.”

My Kenya Kanga Mystery Series is set in Nanyuki, a small market town three hours north of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.   It is dominated by the often snow-capped Mount Kenya which, at over 17,000 ft, is the second highest mountain in Africa.  This is where I lived for six years, and it’s the perfect setting for a cozy mystery series.

Mkt St SceneIn my books I’ve used actual locations, such as Dormans, a town centre coffee shop and a hub of gossip, and the relaxed garden location of Cape Chestnut restaurant.  Other places, such as the Mount Kenya Resort and Spa, are recognisable as being based on real settings which I’ve altered to suit my stories.

Small towns in cozy mystery series can develop the “Cabot Cove” syndrome; if Cabot Cove existed in real life it would top a number of categories of the FBI’s national crime statistics. 

To avoid this phenomenon, I themed the second and subsequent books around actual events.  These include an important elephant focused wildlife summit, a 4×4 off-road charity event in the Maasai Mara and, in the book I am releasing in May, a marathon in a UNESCO World Heritage wildlife reserve.

Elephant Mother & Child PuddleA sense of place is important to me and my writing.  Has a certain smell or the call of a bird transported you back to a memorable location? I try to convey the smells, sounds and sights of the individual settings and it does help that I’ve visited most of them.  And if I haven’t, as P.D. James said, I can use snippets of other places that I have stored up to successfully create them.

The characters are another aspect of my books which I’ve developed as I’ve expanded my writing craft.  Mama Rose is based on an incredible friend of mine, now in her 80s, who is a community vet, a staunch catholic and a member of various committees.  The help and assistance she has given, and continues to provide, those less fortunate than herself can not be fully conveyed in my books. But is it important to recognise, and remember, that there are still people who put others before themselves and work for what is morally right and just in life.

The other characters have developed from meeting people and observing situations in Kenya: the interaction of customers and stall holders at the local vegetable market, street sellers trying to persuade tourists and visitors to buy their wares, and the ability of a charismatic priest to captivate his audience in a town centre park.

A snippet I have woven into one of my books occurred when I took my young children to mitumba; a large jumble sale of donated thrift clothes, and other items, from first world countries which are shipped to Kenya and sold in makeshift markets.

Mitumba 3Two raggedly dressed, and shoeless, children tentatively approached our car holding out their hands in a begging gesture.  I remembered two squares of jam sandwich which my boys hadn’t eaten.  I handed the pieces to the children expecting them to stuff them into their mouths, but instead they just stood and waited.   Slowly they were joined by a group of similarly attired children, and those who had the sandwiches carefully divided them up until every child had a small morsel to eat. 

This was an incredibly humbling experience.  So perhaps it is not necessarily “write what you know” but “write what you feel”. After all, as writers we strive to elicit an emotional response in our readers’ minds.

Finally, Dan Brown said, “You should write something that you need to go and learn about.”  As writers we do need to expand our knowledge, and understanding, and researching is one of my favourite area in the writing process.  I have learnt so much more about Kenya than I knew, or understood, when I lived there.

RHINO CHARGERhino Charge, my third book, has many Kenyan Indian characters.  It evolves around events at a 4×4 vehicle off-road event which is popular amongst the Kenyan Indian community.  Whilst I had Indian friends, I wasn’t aware of how, or why, their ancestors had settled in Kenya.  Researching this aspect of the Kenyan culture was fascinating.  I learnt that Indians came to Kenya with the British and supported the creation of the East African Protectorate, which became Kenya, as clerks, accountants and police officers.

Two and a half thousand Indian labourers died during the construction of the Mombasa to Uganda railway line, including those killed by the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo.  The rupee was the first currency used in the colony which was ruled using an extension of Indian law.  On the 22nd July 2017, President Kenyatta officially recognised the Indian community as the 44th tribe of Kenya.  Researching and learning this extended my knowledge and increased the depth of Rhino Charge.

Not all authors are luckily enough to live in extraordinary locations such as Kenya, or Bosnia and Herzegovina, but small towns still have their own customs and query characters. 

I’m currently planning my next series which will be set in areas of the UK I have lived in and visited. The theme is antiques, of which I have no knowledge.  I enjoyed, and was fascinated by, auctions which I attended on my return to the UK, to buy furniture for our house.  And I observed some fantastic people for the basis of my characters.  I’ll research collectibles, antiques and related crimes to build interesting stories with “can’t put down” plots.

Mostar, HerzigovinaWhen I can finally move freely around Sarajevo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, I will begin researching for a future series.  I’ve already discovered that everyone here has a story to tell from the devastating war and various sieges, including the longest in modern history in Sarajevo.  As I search for potential locations, characters and stories my attention will be more focused as I learn to observe and record even the smallest incidents.  Who knows what snippets will make into future books.

 

Author Links

You can find Victoria at https://www.victoriatait.com/ or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/VictoriaTait

Blog/News: https://victoriatait.com/news/

GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/20373879.Victoria_Tait

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/vataitauthor/

Purchase Links – Amazon – B&N – Kobo – 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JH

Busy Then and Now 

By Linda O. Johnston

I’m busy.  I’m always busy. But busy before the pandemic began is a lot different from busy now.

Is that true for you, too?

 I’ve been writing forever, and I’m fortunate to be traditionally published a lot. That means I generally have faced a lot of upcoming deadlines. That hasn’t changed, although at the moment there seem to be more than usual.

But my busy-ness before was enhanced a lot by get-togethers with other writers at meetings of local chapters of Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and sometimes more.  Then there were all the conferences I attended, which often included the Romance Writers of America National Conference, held annually in different locations. Then there were Malice Domestic, Left Coast Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and other mystery-related conferences. I attended at least one a year.  And in addition, there were annual conferences locally, such as the California Crime Writers Conference.

And now?  Well, some get-togethers are available virtually. I’ve attended some chapter meetings that way, but not annual conferences.  I know Malice Domestic will be virtual this year and I keep receiving emails about it—but so far I haven’t decided to go.

That’s all certainly different from before.  But things seem to be improving now, as far as the ability of people to meet in person, though in smaller groups, and the necessity of being vaccinated, and wearing masks, although that seems to be changing at least to some extent and in some locations.

So will I go back to the old ways as things open up again?  I don’t know yet. Tempting, yes, but I want to feel more secure that I won’t get sick or bring the virus home to others. And maybe I’m getting into bad, more solitary habits this way.

I’ve been delighted, though, to meet some of my fellow Writers in Residence for our usual—formerly—monthly lunch recently!

And you? Do you attend conferences now, virtually or in person? Writing events? Reading events?

Image by TaniaRose from Pixabay

Mining Your Own Business

by Miko Johnston

That’s not a typo, it’s a play on words, inspired by a stream of advice I’ve gotten from many writing experts on a touchy subject. We’re told, write what you know. Does that include exploiting who we know?

MINING. Miriam pexels-keira-burton-6147138

How far are you willing to go to write a tantalizing mystery, an emotionally powerful drama, or a deeply moving character study? Would you base it on an actual incident or situation in someone’s life and its effect on them? I’m not talking about libel, but morality.

A piece in your news source of choice might inspire you to write a “ripped from the headlines” novel. Legitimate public information is fair play for adaptation, such as a criminal case or someone’s media appeal to raise attention to an issue. For example, some couples have had children in hopes of providing bone marrow or other vital tissue to save a stricken older child. In addition to non-fictional accounts and memoirs written by family members, many authors, including Jodi Picoult, opted that storyline for novels. Dramatic, yes. Is it exploitive?

What if something noteworthy happened in your own life? You might write a memoir detailing the experience and how it changed you. Or you could draw on the event to fashion a scene, and more importantly, for the emotions it evoked, whether it’s the pain of loss, the thrill of first love, the shock of violence or post-traumatic stress inflicted by a drastic incident. When I write about grieving or passion, feeling afraid or distraught, it comes from my own experience, but I do so voluntarily.

We base our characters, at least in part, on people we’ve known. We imbue them with that person’s physical characteristics or personality traits. Say you’ve given your sleuth, a Vietnam vet, the same war wound as your brother, and his nemesis flashes the pasty-faced smirk of your loathsome ex-boss. Those qualities illustrate the characters, but don’t define them.

Great writers incorporate their lives into their stories. They tend to base some characters on family members and people closest to them, portraits which are often unflattering and unkind.  Writers also mine tales from family and friends for source material. My own series of historical fiction novels began with a rumor about my grandmother. Stories about transformation, triumph over tragedy, and overcoming loss are rich with potential. As an example, a brilliant, successful woman marries a man who never divorced his first wife – and his family knows that when he walks down the aisle – makes a great storyline. What if she was your best friend? Or if a couple in your family, grappling with an intellectually disabled son who’s growing stronger and more aggressive, are agonizing over whether to institutionalize him?

In Betsy Lerner‘s excellent book, “A Forest For The Trees”, she urges writers to use whatever they can in their own lives to enrich their story, including incidents in the lives of the people closest to them. “If you are going to be honest and write about all the untidy emotions, the hideous envy, and disturbing fantasies that make us human, how can you not offend your loved ones, your neighbors and community?” A New York Times piece by James Parker, contributing editor at The Atlantic, endorses the practice of “invading” other people’s lives, but only if you can elevate it above exploitation; the purpose must be empathy.

For me the issue goes deeper than adapting an external experience. We can take plotlines from personal sources and show how one might feel in that situation, but what about someone far removed from ourselves? Each day I’m exposed to people whose experiences, based on their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality, shape their world view, which differs vastly from mine. Are there places within a person that are too intimate to go, too unreachable to know?

MINING. miriam pexels-anna-shvets-5325091

In 1990 I worked on a conference sponsored by an organization of scientists who explore the repercussions of technological advancement. They chose as their conference  theme: Can We Do It? How Do We Do It? Ought We Do It? As a writer, I ask myself the same questions in understanding the social implications of storytelling, crafting diverse, authentic characters and emotionally compelling plots. Characters and plots that ring true to those outside the world I create as well as to those within.

A fiction writer’s goal is to produce a logical and believable manuscript, populated with characters, many who’ll be familiar to us and a few who thankfully bear no resemblance to anyone we know. We can borrow from their histories or instead, as Parker says, “invade” other people’s lives; strive for realistic portrayals or take Lerner’s advice to “be honest” enough to “offend”. That leaves me wondering: Is it proper to take the experiences of those we know best for the sake of a good plot?  Is it possible to mine the depths of emotions, or the most intimate thoughts, of someone so dissimilar from us?

Can we? How? Ought we?

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of three novels in the  A Petal In The Wind  saga, as well as a contributor to anthologies including  LAst Exit to Murder. She is currently pages from competing her fourth novel in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband, who graciously helped her revise this post. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels  

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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

Back To Basics: Writers’ Boot Camp

by Miko Johnston

Have you been writing? No? I hear you. We can’t seem to find the energy, or the creativity, to write. Even though we have a file full of ideas to play around with, or a started piece, or a half-finished manuscript. Even though we have plenty of time to write with no excuse other than the million other things we can be doing. Cleaning out the hall closet. Again. Thinking of a new way to use canned tuna.  Researching unfamiliar candidates on my primary ballot – maybe I would want the next governor of Washington to be Goodspaceguy* : )

I sympathize. It took me a few months to get inspired enough to write again (see my last post).  If you’re still stuck in neutral, I’m here to help get you in gear. And what better way than to get back to basics – how to write a story.

WHAT IS A STORY?

A story is a fully formed concept that has a beginning, middle, and end, plotted with characters, goals, conflict, and stakes. This applies whether you write short stories, screenplays, novellas or novels.

HOW TO BEGIN:    

When you consider buying a new book, you generally open it and read a few pages before you decide to take it or leave it – you can even do that online with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. If the book’s middle sags, or the ending isn’t satisfying, you won’t know that until after you’ve purchased it. However, if the beginning doesn’t grab you, it’s not going home with you. That’s how readers will react to your book. This is why the most important part of a story is the beginning.

A beginning has to serve many purposes. It must introduce us to the ‘who’ of the story, also some of the what, when, and why. The tone and genre should be apparent. It should also give us enough to pique our interest; too much bogs down the story and too little leaves us scratching our heads.

As authors, we really begin by sitting down and writing. Thinking, mulling, researching – all important, but they won’t get the words on the page. Once you’ve committed to writing, you need a way to begin. The possibilities might seem endless, but there are basically three ways to launch a story.

I           Mid-action

This is when you begin at the last possible minute to give the reader a sense that the story has already started and they’re joining it already in progress. This may seem counterintuitive, like walking into a movie after it’s begun, but it tends to get the reader curious about what’s going on, so they keep reading to find out.

A good example of this would be a murder mystery that opens with the detective arriving pre-dawn at the crime scene; a beat cop hands her a take-out coffee and reads his notes: “The vic is….”, which gives readers information simultaneously with the detective. We don’t need to be in her bedroom when she’s awakened by the precinct’s call, or watch her get dressed, fix breakfast and head out to her car. That would be like arriving at the movie theater before the commercials. With mid-action, you get the reader engaged right away and weave in the details as you go.

II         Setting a scene that’s about to change

This is when you open with a scene of normal everyday life. It could focus on a character, like a young woman celebrating her promotion with her office mates, then walking home alone. Or a place, like a military base in the Middle East, where soldiers are relaxing. Often the genre hints that the placid opening will be disrupted with a bang – maybe literally. If the book’s a mystery or a thriller, you know something is going to happen – that young woman will be murdered; the soldiers playing cards or tossing a football around will suddenly come under attack. If the genre doesn’t imply something will happen, hint at it in your opening paragraph or page.

The key to this method is to hold off the revelation long enough to generate tension. Change it too soon and it will be like shouting BOO; startling but not satisfying. Wait too long and the reader will lose patience as well as interest. It also must depend on the length of the manuscript. You can take more time with a novel than with a short story.

III        A statement or explanation

Common in many great classics, this type of beginning employs a form of narration:

            A nostalgic “I remember…” musing

            A “Let me introduce myself” statement

            A narrator’s observation

            An implied ‘bookend’

            An omniscient point of view.

Mysteries that open with the murderer observing his deed, such as Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train, is one example, since the murderer is not the protagonist. Using an implied bookend, Lawrence Hill begins his engrossing novel,  Someone Knows My Name, with his elderly heroine ready to tell a packed audience her life story. The rest of the novel is told in flashback up to the climax, which brings us back to her about to go on stage.

Using this method addresses the reader in a direct way, which builds a bond. However, it introduces the plot slowly, in a cerebral rather than a dynamic manner, so it must intrigue us enough to keep reading. You can accomplish this with an opening sentence in a short story, but longer form fiction allows for more time.

Confused yet? Think of beginning a story like getting into a pool. Some just jump right in – method one. Others will dangle their feet in the water awhile, then slip in – method two. Others (me) will dip a toe in, complain about how cold it is, then slowly inch deeper into the pool until the water’s shoulder-high before gliding under – method three.

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Are you are having trouble starting your story? Consider writing three different versions using each of these methods, then see which best accomplishes the goal of an opening. Which will lead you in the direction you want to go? Even though you’ll reject two of the openings, you may keep a nugget from them to use elsewhere. Or, if you decide to use a bookend opening, you can convert one of your other versions into chapter two.

Have you begun your story but aren’t satisfied with it? Does it feel bloated with backstory? Does it convey enough to grab the reader’s interest? Which type of beginning did you use? Does it satisfy the goals of that method? If so, perhaps trying another method would be more effective, or it might suggest a fix for your original beginning.

Your opening should not only prod your readers to keep going, but you as well. Again, even outlining an opening using another method of beginning may prompt some questions or ideas that will move you forward. If you’re writing a sequel, try rereading your previous book, or go back to the beginning and reread them all. It may give you momentum, or you may find some detail that triggers an idea to follow up on.

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Have you gotten stuck after writing the opening and can’t seem to progress? Does your plot feel bogged down and going nowhere? In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to keep the middle from sagging or lagging.

*Spacemanguy` was an actual gubernatorial candidate in Washington state’s primary election. He lost.

Miko Johnston is the author of three novels in The Petal In The Wind series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com 

Starting a New Series

by Elise M. Stone

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a writer. I put that dream on hold for decades while I got married, had a family, and built a career. It was one of the many things on my “someday” list. Then 9/11 happened, and I realized that “someday” might never happen. If I wanted to write a novel, I’d better get started.

I’ve written nine cozy mysteries in two different series over the past few years. Cozies generally have a romantic subplot, and mine are no different. While writing the last book, I realized I was enjoying writing the romance more than the mystery. What if my next book was a romance novel instead of a mystery? An intriguing question, which I decided to answer.

I began 2019 by starting on a sweet historical western romance series for a change of pace. This has been coming for a long time. Years, in fact, although I didn’t realize it myself at the time.

I have trouble sleeping. In the quiet, my brain is like a hamster on one of those spinning wheels. It thinks of all kinds of things it should not be worrying about at midnight. I have to distract it in order to fall asleep.

OTRW-TotTROne of the things that helps is listening to a podcast of Old Time Radio Westerns. Before most of the classic western series of the 1950s and 1960s were on television, they were on radio. I grew up with those TV series, so the stories, while different, are very familiar. Now I fall asleep to the Lone Ranger or Gunsmoke or the less-familiar Frontier Gentleman.

I’ve been absorbing these stories in my dreams for at least two years.

I find the time between the Civil War and the beginning of the twentieth century, when cowboys and outlaws and marshals were in their heyday, fascinating. The legends in themselves are romantic.

But I’d forgotten how hard it is to start a new series in a new genre. There are new characters in a new place in a new time.  The people are like cartoon outlines with indistinguishable features. They’re not even wearing any clothes. They’re white blobs like the Pillsbury Doughboy. This is quite a change from going back to my senior citizens in the fictional town of Rainbow Ranch, Arizona, characters I love who live in places I’ve visualized dozens of times.

Another stumbling block is the historical aspect of this series. I often find myself stopped with questions like when did the railroad arrive in Tucson? (1880, which means I can’t use it because my story takes place in 1872.) Or did Philadelphia have mass transit in 1872? (It did: a horse-drawn streetcar.) Or handling issues of diversity for today’s sensitive audience.

The biggest threat to the settling of southern Arizona was Apache raiders. The attitude of most back then was that the only way to solve the problem was to exterminate the Apache. This was the opinion of not only whites, but Mexicans and the Papago, an Indian tribe now known as the Tohono O’odham. In fact, these three groups banded together and massacred a group of over ninety Apaches, mostly women and children, in a peaceful settlement outside Camp Grant in 1871. But not all Apaches were peaceful, and they were a serious problem for the ranchers and miners and homesteaders in the late nineteenth century.

And then there’s the romance plot itself. I bought several books on how to write a romance novel because—ahem—I’d only read one or two of them prior to this year. Unlike cozy mysteries, where I’d read hundreds over the years before I tried to write one, I had no gut feel about how a romance needs to work. A lot of times, I feel like I’m stumbling in the dark.

I know, eventually, the whole story will start playing itself out in my head faster than I can type. I’m looking forward to that stage because that’s when the magic happens. In fact, it happened for a time his past week as I was writing a scene and the characters started interacting in a way I’d never thought they would. I love when that happens. So I’ll keep pushing forward, stumbles and all, because I’m addicted to that magic.

And I love a happily ever after.

 

 

Elise StoneBest Photo Reduced Size Lavender Background 2Brief Bio:

Elise M. Stone was born and raised in New York, went to college in Michigan, and lived in the Boston area for eight years. Ten years ago she moved to sunny Tucson, Arizona, where she doesn’t have to shovel snow. With a fondness for cowboys and westerns, Arizona is the perfect place for her to live.

Like the sleuth in her African Violet Club mysteries, she raises African violets, although not with as much success as Lilliana, who has been known to win the occasional prize ribbon. Elise likes a bit of romance with her mysteries. And mystery with her romance. Agatha and Spenser, her two cats, keep her company while she writes.

Elise StoneAVC Series Six Books
Elise M. Stone
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Elise M. Stone’s article was posted by The Writers In Residence member Jackie Houchin.

The Importance of Setting

Guest Post by Patricia Smiley*

michael-discenza-331452-unsplashYears ago I bought a novel written by a well-known author because it took place in Seattle, a city where I’d lived, went to school, and worked for many years. A few chapters in, I was dismayed that the descriptions of setting were so generic that the story could have taken place anywhere. It was almost as if that the author had never set foot in the city.

Setting matters. The place of your novel includes the broader vistas into which you set the story, such as the culture and customs of the people who live there, history, land, floral and fauna, and even the shape of the clouds. It’s also where each scene takes place, be it the backseat of a Mini Cooper, an English garden, a Federal prison cell, or a home kitchen.

We were given five senses for a reason. Detail specificity enriches your writing. Don’t just say the kitchen was messy; describe the smell of spaghetti sauce oozing down the wall, the feel of that sticky green substance puddled on the floor next to the baby highchair, and the tick tock of the antique grandfather clock in an otherwise silent room. Descriptions should not just be an inventory of the space. Each one must illuminate an element of plot, theme, or character and, in the case of this kitchen, raise a myriad of dramatic questions about what happened there and to whom.

Description as fine sauce. Descriptions need not be long and rambling, but a writer must persuade the reader that the story is real. Even people who’ve never been to a location should feel as though they’re experiencing it firsthand. This also applies to imaginary settings. To prevent long passages of boring prose, take Elmore Leonard’s advice, ”Don’t write the parts people skip.” Instead, distill the essence of a place into a fine sauce. Below is an example of reporter Jeffrey Fleishman’s brilliant and evocative description of Port Said, Egypt, from the Los Angeles Times:

“This shipping city of factory men, with its whispers of colonial-era architecture, was once a crossroads for intellectuals, spies and wanderers who conspired in cafes while the Suez Canal was dug and Egypt’s storied cotton was exported around the globe. Rising on a slender cusp in the Mediterranean Sea, the town exuded cosmopolitan allure amid the slap of fishing nets and the creak of trawlers.”

Don’t trust your memory—verify. Get the specifics right. Nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than getting hung up on inaccurate details. If you can’t visit the location, read travel blogs, talk to friends with knowledge of the area, consult Google Maps, online photos, and YouTube videos.

People like to “travel” when they read. Effective use of description creates atmosphere and mood, and stimulates emotions. Anyone who is familiar with the cold, bleak settings in Scandinavian crime novels or films knows how integral “place” is to every part of those stories. So, give your readers a compelling setting and then wish them a bon voyage.

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Patricia Smiley is the author of four novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. Her new Pacific Homicide series profiles LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and is based on her fifteen years as a volunteer and a Specialist Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.

The third in that series, The Second Goodbye, is set for release on December 8, 2018.

Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences in the U.S. and Canada and also served as vice president for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles.

PatriciaSmiley.com

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Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash
*This blog article is posted for Patricia Smiley by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin

 

Backpacking With a Pitcher

Guest post by Heather Ames*

lemonade unbornWhoever coined the phrase “making lemonade out of lemons” must have had an acerbic wit. As a champion receiver of citrus, I’ve always tried to look at each situation as a challenge instead of a mountain of acidity, despite the after-taste.

51NyNyt9s8L._UY250_My most recent pitcher of lemonade appeared last year, when I finished Book 2 of the “Indelible” mystery/suspense series and contacted the publisher of Book 1 to find out how much of the completed manuscript they wanted to see. After two attempts, I was told to send “whatever you want.” I sent a partial and waited, then waited some more. Much more. Months.

I then emailed the editor-in-chief, who said she had just returned from an extended hiatus. She told me to send the entire manuscript immediately, which I did. The contract came. I signed it. The CEO signed it. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then the momentum, which had built to its normal level, ground to a halt as I waited for my editor to be assigned. And waited.

A sense of foreboding crept over me. Bushels of lemons rolled onto the horizon and waited, poised to roll into my lap. I tried to ignore them. After all, progress had slowed one time before. They were probably just running behind due to the EIC’s absence.

But then it came…an email from the publisher, returning my rights due to their poor quarterly returns for the second quarter in a row. I wasn’t their only author to receive that email, the EIC assured me. She said the staff was upset about the situation. I found little comfort in that knowledge.

There had been other signs that the publisher, despite its growth and a propensity to purchase smaller competitors, was itself in trouble. One huge misstep resulted in all titles from one of those buy-outs, including one of my own e-books, suddenly disappearing from Amazon. Apparently, when the old site was pinged without success, Amazon believed the publisher had closed, not that the titles were in the process of being moved to their new home. A year later, despite an email from the publisher that explained all the titles would be reloaded “in a lengthy process,” that still hasn’t happened. Perhaps they are busy making lemonade, too.

A Swift Brand Of justiceI couldn’t afford to sit around waiting for my two year contract on “Indelible” Book 1 to expire before offering both books in the series to another publisher. Readers had been asking when Book 2 would be available. Since it had already taken me close to 3 years to get Book 2 out of the starting blocks (including the 9 months wasted over that abortive contract,) I decided there was only one way out of my dilemma, and that was to self-publish “Indelible” Book 2, “A Swift Brand of Justice.”

Self-publishing has become more accepted during the last few years. Many popular authors have departed their small publishers, taken back their rights and chosen that route. Financially, it makes more sense for them. They already have a fan base, and their back-listed books have all been edited and formatted. All they need are new covers. They no longer have to share their profits with the small publishers, who find themselves, as a result of this exodus, left with newer and less well-known authors. Their piece of the pie has become much smaller, and their bottom line has suffered as a result. Many of them have folded and others are in financial trouble.

For those of us who find our books orphaned (and there are a growing number of us,) “DIY” has morphed into an acceptable solution. I know of several other writers who have had to move their series from the original publisher. I will be another. After I complete Book 3’s manuscript, I hope to find another home for my series. If I don’t, then I know I can continue self-publishing and growing my brand, instead of waiting months, even years for a contract.

Night ShadowsI just self-published a second book. This one is the stand-alone suspense, “Night Shadows,” I was working on when my rights were returned for “A Swift Brand of Justice.” In order to retain and grow my readership, I need to offer new material on a regular basis. That won’t happen if I’m marking time while I wait for responses to queries, partials and even full manuscripts, or unexpectedly have my rights returned again.

I would much prefer the support and expertise of a new publisher. But if that doesn’t happen, and I need to self-publish again, I know I can do it. I still need to build my support list. Finding reasonably-priced editors is one challenge I haven’t yet mastered. But I’m getting better at designing my own covers, and the learning curve isn’t as steep or as angled as it was before those lemons rolled into my lap.

I’m keeping the pitcher handy as I write the first draft of “Swift Retribution,” Book 3 of the “Indelible” series, but I’m not resigning myself to using it yet. Hope springs eternal, but this time it’s couched. The publishing industry as a whole is in a state of flux, and these days, writers need to be ready for anything. Even a fresh bushel of lemons.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

my big picHeather Ames knew she was a writer from the time she won first prize in a high school novel contest. An unconventional upbringing gave her opportunities to travel extensively, leading to nomadic ways and an insatiable desire to see the world. She has made her home in 5 countries and 7 states, learning a couple of languages along the way. She is currently pitching her tents in Portland, Oregon, and after a long career in healthcare, made her dream of writing full-time come true.

Heather is a current board member of the Harriet Vane Chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of Toastmasters International. She moderates an online critique group and a local book club.

Visit her website at www.heatherames.com 

 

*Posted for Heather Ames by Jackie Houchin

What’s in a Name?

Bonnie_Schroeder-McCarthy-Photo-Studio-Los-Angeles-7187

Bonnie Schroeder started telling stories in the Fifth Grade and never stopped. After escaping from the business world, she began writing full-time and has authored novels, short stories and screenplays, as well as non-fiction articles and a newsletter for an American Red Cross chapter.

 

As I get older, I seem to be experiencing an odd form of dyslexia (I think) where my brain transposes letters in words so that I read something that’s not there. Only on second glance do the letters rearrange into what they’re supposed to be.

This has been a boon for me in one way: character names. For example, I came across the surname “Murdock,” but my eyes thought they saw “Mudrock,” and after my initial annoyance at myself, I thought, what a great name for a character.

I collect names because few things are as frustrating to a writer as creating a new character and not being able to name them, right? First names are easier to come by; I pop open 1001 Names for Baby and can usually find one that works. But surnames? The tone must be just right.

In my novel Mending Dreams, the main character’s last name is Krajewski [yeah, even now I have to look it up in the book to spell it correctly], and that was intentional. I knew a fellow with that last name, and he used to joke about how people mispronounced it. I wanted the character, Susan, to have willingly kept the name even after she and her husband divorced. Her maiden name was Stafford, and it says volumes about her and her feelings about her ex-husband that she kept his name despite the difficulties it could cause.

My list of unusual surnames fills several pages in my notebook. One I’m trying to find a story for is “Evilsizer.” Meaning no disrespect to real people with this name—and I found several via Google—I think it would be perfect for a scheming couturier. Or maybe someone who is really nice. . .

Strong first and last names are essential to me so I can paint a picture in my own mind of the character before I start writing. Names help me visualize characters—sometimes even more than physical descriptions. Names bring with them associations for me personally that color a character’s nature and behavior.

Take the name “Joan,” for example. What does this name conjure up for you? Joan of Arc? Joan Crawford? Joan Baez? For me, it brings back the memory of a woman named “Joanie,” the utterly helpless wife of a fellow I worked for. This woman would call my boss with every little challenge life presented her. If she locked her keys in the car, her first call wasn’t to Auto Club; it was to her husband. I haven’t found a role for Joan or Joanie in my stories yet, but some day I will.

Names and the way they are used in a story also reveal behavior and sometimes emotion.  The main character in my novel Write My Name on the Sky goes by “Kate,” but when she exasperates her mother, she becomes “Kathryn Ann.” How many of you remember hearing the sound of your first and middle name as a cue that you were in big trouble with a parent? And if they added your last name—run for cover!

Sometimes the way a name is mis-used in a story can affect the outcome, too. For example, my flash fiction piece “What’s in a Name?” answers that question with one word at the end of the narrator’s date with the man of her dreams. If you want to check it out (it’s only 532 words), follow the link on my website: http://bit.ly/2En7TJw

Yes, names are important to writers, and to readers. And not just the human characters. The animals in our stories need particular names, too. After all, none other than the masterful poet T.S. Eliot admonishes us to give thought to the naming of cats:  http://bit.ly/2mZ47xQ

How about you writers: do you struggle as much as I do to come up with suitable character names? And, readers: any favorites among your literary heroes and heroines? Any tips for good name sources?