The Long and the Short of it….by Rosemary Lord

Sometimes I want to read in a hurry: quickly turning pages to find out what’s coming, racing through an exciting mystery. Other times I enjoy lingering in the luxury of words – savoring the colorful, evocative descriptions. Immersing myself in the mood of the piece.
I became aware of this as I began to read the English Best Seller, The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins. I saw a smart format that moved the story along quickly. Written diary-style. Staccato. Divided with headings into morning and evening. Sentences very, very short, each session about a page. Although the diary entries increase in length heavily deeper into the book.

It starts off with brief descriptions of what the girl in the title saw on her daily train journeys back and forth to work. She makes up her own stories about the people she observes daily. We’ve all been there. I did that, fresh out of school, following similar train routes when I worked in London years ago. Train journeys are an excellent opportunity for writers imagination to run wild.

But it was the quick, short approach that caught my attention. Short descriptions, simple words written in the first person. No luxuriating in similes. Nothing sentimental. ‘Just the facts, Ma’am.’ It’s hip and sharp. And it works. This book was #1 on the L.A. Times Bestseller List.

But my problem is that I write about the past. A slower, gentler past. I get steeped in creating a mood of a by-gone era. Admittedly, I sometimes get carried away with my sometimes verbose descriptions and my writer friends on this blog will reign me back in. But a short, staccato, present tense would not work for what I want to say in my 1920s-set novels. Although I am getting better. 

For the past 5 years I have been working to save an historic Hollywood building from being turned into a condo-resort-with-swimming-pool. And as there were elderly ladies involved, it led to me to write the historical aspects, their stories and why the Woman’s Club of Hollywood should be saved. My first submissions were red-penciled by the legal teams. The Court, they pointed out, just wants the facts, no flowery descriptions, no emotions, and few – if any – adjectives. I learned to cut the information to the bone, with no sidetracks. It was explained to me that with thousands of legal pages to read, one needs the court to understand the story – without getting bored. Keep it simple. A twelve-step program phrase that is very useful.

I used the ‘keep it simple and short’ theme consistently when I was writing the updated version of Los Angeles Then and Now last year. Although I find it much easier to keep things simple when writing non-fiction. I did that as a journalist for years. Editors give you very little space in which to tell the entire story.

So, when I returned to working on my Lottie Topaz novels (Yeah!) that are set in the world of silent movies and Prohibition in Hollywood, it was with a renewed enthusiasm and fresh approach. While my novels and character’s voice are not really the place for that 2015 staccato tone, I have divested my writing of some of its frippery. And some of the descriptions that I just loved – well, they had to go.( Although my fellow blogger GB Pool uses an excellent, Chandleresque staccato tone in her Johnny Casino books. But that’s a subject for a whole other blog…. )

So, the long and the short of it is that there is room for both styles. It depends on the nature of your writing. I will leave you and return to my dusty, dry days of sweet-smelling orange groves, endless blue skies and the clang of trolley cars in the distance and the world of Hollywood in the 1920s. 

The Human Mind (Yes this has something to do with writing!)

I like three word titles, but this time, The Human Mind was just too obtuse.
In one of my prior lives, I majored in Philosophy with a minor in Psychology. The academic choices of a naive twenty year old I don’t think are of interest, or relevant, except as background for why I thought this blog was a good idea.

Philosophy gave me a logical thinking grounding, and Psychology appealed to my interest in always wanting to know “why?” Nonetheless, I’ve ended up being more of a “pantster,” than a thinking ahead “outliner” and laying out kind of writer. And when it comes to “why,” I sure like leaving “what if” loose ends and unresolved questions in my stories. Especially about the future. Logic and “why”—apparently went out the window.
Which leads me into the heart of this post. The numerous articles on how to do this or that (especially if it’s something computer related!) are wonderful, and my saviors in our electronic age. However, the “ten things” you have to do, or the “ten no-nos” or the “ten rules” for writing, editing, etc. sometimes hit a sour note. And they shouldn’t, because people are always asking those questions, and we’re all eager for help and answers.
But in the background areas of my “human mind” runs the belief everyone is different, and contradictory. And picking and choosing what works for you is the only one answer I wholeheartedly believe in repeating. That being said, I’ve pontificated while on many a panel, in many a blog, and answered many a question about “should and shouldn’t” behavior. Even had numbered lists. Guilty as charged.

Madeline (M.M.) Gornell

Finally, here’s the conclusion and connections to these thoughts(which started as musings on my way home back to the high-desert from a lovely lunch in Arcadia with some wonderful author friends—you know who you are): Not only is every author unique in our approach to writing, but also contradictory in our thoughts, actions, personalities, and life philosophies—and these contradictions, whether we want them to or not, in many ways define our writing style, the characters we develop, and the tales we tell.

A good thing, I think.

The WinRs are Brainstorming

From Wikicommons, Bundesarchiv Bild 183-13800-0006,
Berlin, Frauen beim Selbststudium, Weiterbildung.jpg

Writers need to take time to regroup, restore, and refill their mental reservoirs! 

The members of Writers in Residence are off this week to do just that. We’ll be back again next week with a post from Miko Johnston!

Until then, keep your pencils sharp and your typing fingers limber.

Story Telling—Yet More Thoughts on Setting by M.M. Gornell

A few weeks back, a wonderful letter from Bill Thornton to his sister Kate Thornton, was posted here at Writers in Residence  talking about setting, characters, and much more. His letter was eloquent and on the mark (I think!). In the same time period I wrote out some thoughts on setting for the Public Safety Writers (PSWA) newsletter. And most recently, Gayle Bartos-Poole added some very smart how-to thoughts in Location, Location, Location.And since I (clearly in good company!) also think setting is so important, I thought I might take the topic to my personal level.

When trying to figure out what to do writing-wise, I rely upon what I like to read—what pulls me into a novel and what keeps me reading. Character and Setting are always my first thoughts,with all the elements Bill and Gayle talked about coming into play. Of course, story is also important. However, I might have in my hands the most intriguing story every written, but if I don’t like the protagonist, or at a minimum, care about what happens to him or her, I won’t read the book. And equally important, if I’m not mentally or emotionally “taken away”,once again, the book won’t get read. So for me, it is so true. Setting done well is a key ingredient—actually, an essential ingredient—for an enjoyable reading experience.
Adding to those thoughts for my own personal writing, there’s the additional aspect that setting has also been my story inspiration. Whether walking through a lush green evergreen forest in the Pacific Northwest, or mesmerized by the sight of long abandoned structures, silhouetted against lower Sierra foothills by a brilliant sunset, or mentally captivated by a rundown mini-mart, neglected and lonely in the Mojave desert, or standing in awe, taking in the expansive view from a Michigan Avenue high-rise apartment of Lake Shore Drive and the lake beyond. Add to the list a few more setting inspiration points like abandoned A-frames, Quonset huts, mining caves, defunct swimming pools—the list goes on; all with tales to tell, stories fanciful or real—all inspiration.
Which brings me back around to what I like to read. The authors I consistently read with anticipation and joy are the ones that have memorable characters that take me to a place—setting—I don’t want to leave. A place where I’m sorry I have to leave at book’s end. Developing “setting” as best we (I) can, I think is well worth the time and effort. Challenging, I think. But aiming for a strong sense of place, I also think, is a key ingredient to the “art and craft” of storytelling. Bill and Gayle talked so eloquently about setting I hesitate to add my little list. Nonetheless, here it is:

  •          Fully developed, setting adds the underlying layer for a story—the glue so to speak that holds everything together. (Maybe not the best metaphor, but similar to the background in a photo.) It establishes a protagonist and reader firmly on the time-space-continuum, and in a particular place in the universe.
  •          Where a protagonist “is,” determines in a multitude of ways, what and how characters face and deal with the dilemmas thrown their way. And what physical items and constraints are available, not only in daily life, but at hand to maybe save a life? Or solve a crime?
  •          The comparison between a protagonist’s current setting versus ones from the past can add an emotional level—e.g., guilt from deeds in a past setting, hope for the future from where they are now, even being part of their understanding of the present.
  •          Enables the reader to experience through words and a character’s eyes, the tastes, smells, sounds, sights, and feel of your protagonist’s world. Emotional and visual pictures readers can’t forget. (I have several such pictures from books I’ve read that I will never forget.)
  •          Setting is a key way to show personalities—how they deal with their environment. If a character can see, feel, love or hate a desert, a lake, a city, or???—that response to the landscape can be a key for a reader to love or hate a character.

A picture I took out my kitchen window, that along with rereading The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins inspired my latest book.

Location, Location, Location by Gayle Bartos-Pool


In many novels and even short stories, location acts almost like a character. A great setting sets the stage for greater challenges whether it be physical places (Mt. Rushmore/North by Northwest), climatic as in climate (hurricanes/Key Largo or Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival), or the local natives (from Tarzan’s Africa to the characters on Hollywood Blvd.)
For a short story, pick an easily understood setting because it needs less description; a dilapidated factory vs. a giant industrial firm making computer components for the military weapons used in…. If you get too technical, you will lose your audience and use up your word limit.
Get most of your facts right about places you only visit on the Internet; some readers are finicky about accurate descriptions of locales. If in doubt, fictionalize your locale. All the research you do will change your perception of that area even though you won’t use every bit of information that you discover. But your understanding of a region will color the entire story whether it is the incessant rain, blistering heat or rugged rocks.

Description of settings can educate the reader, but don’t get too detailed. Too much description stops the action. Some settings act as a general background. A short description such as: the local pub, conjures up a picture in the reader’s mind so you don’t have to go into elaborate detail. Some word pictures set the era and mood like the longer descriptions used by Anne Perry in her description of Queen Victoria’s England. The type of book and the mood you want to achieve should dictate the length of your descriptions.
Setting denotes the background of the character living there. A person living in a penthouse and running a huge corporation has a different outlook on life than does a guy living in a garage apartment working in a filling station. Whether you are describing a residence or a business, a character from one economic background will view the same setting through his or her own eyes. Where one person sees an efficient, profitable corporation, another will see it as a greedy, industrial monolith.
Setting also tells us how much time has passed (After two days a thick layer of dust covered every surface.)
If your story gets bogged down with too much description and it starts sounding like that travel log, describe those locations through dialogue. It will set the scene and add information from a particular character’s POV, so you not only see the surroundings, but you know how that character feels about it. Different characters can view settings differently depending on his or her personal perspective. (A woman in love can smell the flowers in the park, while her friend who just lost her job can see the wad of gum on the sidewalk.)
Use descriptions (sight, sound, smell) of locations to evoke an emotion, reaction, or establish mood. (A scummy swimming pool tells the reader the motel is seedy.) Setting can also take reader into another world (Tony Hillerman’s Indian reservation, Dick Francis’s racetrack.)
Remember “Chekov’s Gun” story. Don’t put something in a scene if it’s not going to be used. “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” (Anton Chekov 1889.) This tactic was used constantly in Murder, She Wrote.The camera always zoomed in on the “clue” about eight minutes into the show. During the last seven minutes Jessica Fletcher would recall that “clue” and solve the case. You always knew that clue would make a reappearance before the final credits rolled. The “clue” was part of the setting.

Treat your locations like a character. They have a lot to say.

The Effective Writer

Here is a piece written by BILL THORNTON. He sent this me in a letter – as a letter, actually – and I got his permission to post it here for you. He calls it “The Effective Writer” but I want to call it “The Character Plays the Part.”  Kate Thornton, author

The Effective Writer

In order to create a believable scene, one must take the reader to that specific place. The reader must sense the scene, its particular environment, its smells, flavors, sounds and colors, its season and atmosphere. Similarly, the reader must feel the raw emotions of the characters, the urgency of the moment, and the emotional or political climate of the particular scene. He must, in a very real sense, live in the scene if not as a player, at least as a present observing bystander.

Descriptions of the scene must be rich and vibrant, colorful and dramatic. The characters may even be a bit more than real in their ability to express their particular part in the story line. Given the need for realism, muted, subdued even melancholy effects are critical to tapping into the reader’s emotions. These are real sensations that real people feel and sense, and it’s that sensitivity and realism that make a scene believable.

A writer may express deeply committed love, raging anger, explosive happiness, or crushing emotional pain, any number of real human emotions complete with their character’s physical reactions and responses.

Anything less is not honest writing, and conveys less than the actual scene.

While the writer may have personally known these feelings and sensations, it’s his ability to convey accurately those very awareness’s to the believing reader that makes the scene work.

“Dry wiregrass rustled in the early afternoon breeze, buzzing cicadas and the rich scent of cinnamon and fresh peaches drifted over the well worn path to the creek just at the tree line.” Well, what color is the wiregrass? Describe “rustled”. Was it a light breeze, or a near wind? Were the cicadas bussing loudly, or were they a distant background effect? What kind of peaches were they? Was it a dirt path? Did it run through heady scent of lush green freshly mown lawn, or were they long creeping tentacles of aged and unkempt crabgrass? Was the creek silent and melancholy, rich with the pain of the widowed fly fisherman, or brightly babbling and filled with the memories of laughing children? Was that just a tree line, or was it a stand of rustling, quaking aspens, their brilliant trunks contrasting with deep, thick underbrush or heavy clumps of wayward field grasses?

Be in the scene to make it believable.

The writer need not actually be experiencing the emotions he conveys, though experience is the “real” of realism. It’s often said that the successful writer writes about things he knows. One cannot take the reader to rural Southern Georgia in the 1920’s unless he has been there and walked those well worn paths to the creeks, smelled that peach pie cooling on the window sill on a heavy, humid southern afternoon in the dog days of summer. He may not have actually been at the scene in those literal times, but that’s the stuff of research, and interviews, and imagination combined. Atmosphere is the stuff of creating realism. Raw emotion, drama and contrast are the stuff of the writer’s skills and talent.

When a scene is created that conveys these senses, does it leave the reader feeling angry, hurt, elated, melancholy, inspired? These are the meat of the writer’s fare. Listen to his footsteps echo, fading down a long, wet alley amongst towering brick walls rich with the sounds of unnamed apartment dwellers in the bowels of a rotting city, rife with tenements, screaming windows into the lives of those imprisoned in the confines of their own desperation. The stench of leaking sewer lines, greasy Chinese food, and diesel hangs heavy in the late afternoon stillness of a filthy, cracked and weathered doorway, its once bright and vibrant red now grease and dirt colored, thick with years of neglect and apathy.

Does the writer take you into his world to bring you into the scene and make you part of it, or are you just reading words on a printed page? The flatness of the print on the flat page is often the stuff of boredom. Living words and emotions are the stuff of writing.

Did I give you my anger, or the anger of the character? How different are they? It’s the character that plays the part. An angry scene does not reflect an angry writer. Nor does a happy holiday scene, filled with laughter, reflect a happy writer.

The Nine-Letter Word—Rewriting!

The Nine-Letter Word–Rewriting!

I thought I’d take my first opportunity to post on Writers in Residence to talk about rewriting—I know—boring, possibly even a turnoff. But it’s what I’m in the midst of right now, and how I feel about rewriting continues to evolve. I’ve even decided to call it a different name—Polishing—still nine letters but nicer sounding to my ear.

Some of the “things” I’ve heard other authors talk about, and do myself, under the rewriting banner are:

        In-process rewriting of scenes, chapters, etc.,
         Going back through and editing a completed first draft before or after editorial review
         Final polishing before going to a reviewer or publisher.

Only recently have I realized how important rewriting is to my total writing experience and process—I’m no longer seeing rewriting as an activity separate from writing, but an essential ingredient. It is where all the bits and pieces actually come together. Where I tighten and refine my prose and story. Rewriting is now one of the good parts of writing. But it’s been a journey getting to this point.

Incorrect spelling, grammar, punctuation are one thing—but how could it be that my first written thoughts, ideas, characters, and story arc are not perfect? With my current project, I’m having to deal with a lot of missteps with character expositions and storytelling!

Sure, there have been many times when I kept looking for the perfect word—the one with just the right connotation—even if it feels like it’s taking forever. And if I can’t find the right word, or phrase? DELETE. Hard at first—easy now. And thinking back, what I’ve left out has always been for the better—sometimes that’s been pages, even a whole scene.

But DELETEing major sections, moving activities around, changing motivations—well, I’m doing it—hating at first—but feeling better about it now. Why? Because I’ve realized in the “polishing” adventure, I want my darn books to be the best they can possibly be. And that’s not a bad thing.

On a final philosophical note, polishing is one of the few times in life I can “take back” what I’ve said or done. Indeed, in the real-world, there have been soooo many times I’ve wished for that “do-over” capability!

Thoughts from Madeline (M.M. Gornell)…

Writing Resolutions for 2015

There is something about the new year for writers. It’s like opening up a blank notebook (or a blank screen, if you prefer) and knowing that you can write your own life story for 2015. Creative types are naturally optimistic and, yes, a bit indomitable, and that spurs us on to think we can do even better in next twelve months, no matter how successfully we tackled the previous year. 

Here are the 2015 Writing Resolutions from the WinRs. We hope they encourage and inspire you to do the same. Share your own writing resolutions in the comments!

My #1 resolution is to complete my “famous artist’s ex-wife novel!”

                                              Bonnie Schroeder

I remember a speaker at an AWG meeting saying that everything changes when you go from being a “talented amateur” to a professional. Now that I’ve been published, my writing resolution is to work, think, and act like a professional writer.

                                               Miko Johnston

Actually, I did make a New Years resolution–something I seldom do. It’s to keep in mind (remind myself on a daily basis!) that life is short. Do it now, tomorrow is not guaranteed.

                                                M.M. Gornell

As 2015 opens its doors, I have several things I want to do. I want to publish some of the first books I wrote and I also want to work on a new project. This one is about a dead detective who gets a second chance. Second Chance is the title. The character won’t leave me alone, so I guess I have to write more. Happy New Year, Everybody.

                                                     G.B. Pool

My writing resolution is actually just my own common-sense reinforcement of what has become a very good way to start each day. Write something every day. For me, first thing in the morning works best. It doesn’t have to be a slog on your Great American Novel or an award-winning short story right out of the gate. Just write. 

After all, you can always go back and fix what you have written, but the only way to fix a blank page is to write something on it.
                                                   Kate Thornton

Mine would be to be more consistent in posting on my two personal blogs.

                                                  Jackie Houchin

Sometimes writers forget that writing is a business. I want to put on my left-brained cap more often when it comes to scheduling and keeping deadlines. It’s too easy to get distracted by new ideas! 

                                                      Jacqueline Vick

I pulled out my Lottie files and started some notes for the next literary agent who will get the chance to read about Lottie, so I guess I have my New Year’s resolution!

                                                     Rosemary Lord

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