Titles: Do They Work or Miss the Mark? by G.B. Pool

Target 1The Title of a novel or short story might seem like the first thing a writer thinks about before launching into the actual writing. Sometimes a title pops into the writer’s head before even a plot is considered. It’s happened to me many times. I have a file called Bits and Pieces with random titles and snatches of plots in it. Sometimes they’re written on a scrap of paper and stuffed in the folder because the idea caught my fancy with nothing more than a sentence stating what I thought that title might mean or the story behind it might be about. And once in a while it’s just the title.

Orville at the Castle cover (4)Here’s an example of what I mean: After Christmas several years ago I was looking through the half-priced ornaments on sale at a local hardware store and found one in the shape of a dragon no more than three inches tall. He was rubbery, not made of glass, but he was kind of cute, and so I bought him and took him home. Then on a walk one day around the same time, I found a small, sparkly thing on the ground. It was probably for a girl’s ponytail, but I picked it up and brought it home, too. I’m into miniatures and doll houses and to me the sparkly thing looked like a Christmas wreath. Not knowing what to do with it, I spotted the dragon and slipped it around his neck. Now the dragon looked very Christmassy.

Every castle coverI took him upstairs and set him on the roof of the Christmas castle I had built years ago and even wrote a story about called Bearnard’s Christmas. Looking at the little guy there on the roof, I said to myself: “every castle needs a dragon.” The phrase stayed in my head until I wrote it down and put it in that Bits and Pieces folder. A few years later I wrote the third of my Christmas stories with that as the title and the dragon as the main character.

But a title and a main character aren’t all there is to a story. I had to come up with a plot that incorporated those two pieces, but that’s what writers do. Or at least what we try to do. In my case I had to think about what a dragon might do up at the North Pole since this was to be a Christmas story. I decided to have someone leave a large egg in Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve and he has to figure out what to do with it when it hatches and turns into that little dragon. Wizards, magic powders, and a big Polar bear add to the mix. But there was a dilemma: I had to give the dragon some kind of special quality.

Medium Orville with Books (1)But, hey, I am a writer. I write books. I know folks who write books. We really want people, children and adults, to READ. We really are worried that the country is forgetting the value of books, so what better thing for this little guy to do than to “light the fire of imagination” under kids to get them to read when Santa leaves books under the tree on Christmas Eve.

So now I had my story and it all came from a title that popped into my head after finding that very special little dragon.

Target MissedBut not every time do titles and the story click. You might have a great title in your head or in that folder of ideas and you start writing. As often happens, your story takes a detour to a new and exciting place. All of a sudden your story has a life of its own, but now your great title doesn’t fit. But you love the title. Do you keep it anyway?

Of course you do, but for another book or story. The title will wait until you find it a home somewhere else.

So what should a Title do? There are many possibilities.

  • StageThe Title can set the stage, in other words, suggest the Genre or Tone of the work. It can tell the prospective reader if the book is Hardboiled Noir or a Romance novel. A book with the title A Killer Among Us won’t be confused with a romance novel that would more likely have a title like Passion in the Gazebo. The book title American Caesar sitting in the History section will attract history buffs. If it were in the Children’s section, it would be totally out of place. If it landed in the Cooking section by mistake readers might think it’s a salad dressing. So a title needs to fit its genre (and its spot on the shelf at the bookstore.)
  • The Title can hint at the outcome. After all, the title Gone with the Wind certainly says something about what happened to the Old South after the Civil War. Fahrenheit 451 is an integral part of Ray Bradbury’s classic tale about a future where books are being confiscated and burned. The temperature in the title is the temperature at which books burn. Sometimes these types of titles pop into a writer’s head as he is writing. Or maybe a character says something in the heat of the moment and you realize that is what your story is about and it would make a terrific title. Your characters can sometimes have a mind of their own. So listen to what they say. (I’m quite serious here, in a literary sense, of course.)
  • Perhaps the Title will introduce the main character and the continued use of that name will help carry on the series. How many Nancy Drew books have been written that now feature her name above the title? The Chronicles of Narnia use that main title to introduce each subsequent edition. If you are planning to do a series of books utilizing the same main character, you might want to use the character’s name in each of your titles so the reader can locate them on the shelf at the bookstore or find them easily on Amazon. My Chance McCoy short stories use “Chance” in every title. For example: Second Chance (both the collection’s title and one of the stories), “Ghost of a Chance,” “Chance Encounter,” and “Chance of a Lifetime.” Those are just a few of the titles so far. I have a file full of “Chance” titles waiting for a story to go along with it.
  • Target goalThe Title can also be a Goal or Destination. When you start writing a story you should have just such an objective in mind. The main characters and/or the villain might want something. Take Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Everybody was looking for that black bird. Or maybe the goal is to Kill Bill which is the title of the popular movie by Quentin Tarantino. The title was definitely the objective. And remember, other than wanting to get back to Kansas, Dorothy, with the help of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, were all looking for The Wizard of Oz.
  • Of course there is always the title that tells you Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray Bradbury used that exact title for one of his stories. You might want to have your title suggest something looming over the horizon. I utilize that strategy in the titles of a few of my darker short stories: “Shoot Me and Set Me Free,” “A Role to Die For,” “You Can Only Die Twice.”
  • Titles can also multitask. My short story “Bloodlust” obviously tells you something unpleasant is lurking within those pages. The title actually captures several points in that single word. First, the title definitely sets the Tone or Genre of the piece. This is obviously not a cozy. And a single word like that acts as a Grabber because it doesn’t need modifiers to get to the point. The title can also Hook the reader with a compelling reason to keep reading, if they are into the darker side of mysteries. But then I do follow up with a dead body at both the beginning and end of the story. That ties the entire thing up in a nice red ribbon.
  • Make sure your title pays off in the end. Somewhere in all those words that follow the title should have some relevance to the plot or the point to your story. To see if it does, write a blurb for your story. This can be no longer than the sentence or two like the write-up you see in the TV Guide that describes an upcoming movie. Check those out every time you watch a movie and see how you can boil down your story to a few well-written lines. For my Johnny Casino Series I use the general title and volume number first. Example: The Johnny Casino Casebook 1. But each of the books in the three-book series has its own defining name added. For instance, the first book is called: The Johnny Casino Casebook 1 – Past Imperfect. The short blurb for the book is: “Johnny Casino is a retired P.I. with a past. He just hopes it doesn’t catch up with him.” My Gin Caulfield mystery series doesn’t happen to use her name in the title of each book. I didn’t know it was going to be a three-book series when I started writing the first book. But take the title of the second book in the series: Hedge Bet. The blurb reads as follows: “Is it a bet on the ponies or a high stakes gamble in the stock market that leads to a death at the racetrack and the return of Ginger Caulfield to her former profession as private investigator?” Whether one is gambling in the stock market or at the racetrack, the title is about betting.
  • Other than “How To” books in the Self-Help section, loooong titles can be difficult. The movie A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has a long title, but it also hints at being slightly funny or at least sarcastic. A long title can be ponderous, pretentious, and maybe even off-putting. Always consider what you are selling and who your audience is.
  • Dynamic and memorable titles are often short and pithy. A one word title can speak volumes if it’s the right word. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Bram Stoker’s Stephen King’s It. or Orwell’s 1984. I have one book called Caverns. It’s about caverns being carved out by large rats under Chicago. The skyline photo of Chicago on the cover also has a rat in the foreground. Here’s where one word and a cover to match go hand in hand.

 

Of course there are exceptions to rules, but it never hurts to really think about your title to make sure it fits what you are trying to say within those pages.

 

Now let’s think about what a Title should Not do? There are a few things in this category.

  • Don’t promise more than you can deliver. The title Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex better be one heck of a comprehensive book or Book One of a twelve volume series. You might be better off calling it Sex for Dummies.
  • supermanDon’t promise something and deliver something else. If your title is Roses and Pussycats and it turns out to be a slasher story, you will probably end up with a disgruntled reader. Or if the title is Killer Bees and there are no bees, again your readers will walk away dissatisfied. You will leave them wondering if you knew what you were talking about or worse; they might think they were too dense to understand your brilliant prose. You can bet they won’t be back for a second helping.
  • Don’t be “Too Clever by Half.” That old saying means don’t try to be ultra clever in your title because your reader might not understand your joke, point, or subtle pun. Take the title: “A Dyspeptic View of Murder.” I made it up. I have no idea what it means other than you might get an upset stomach somewhere along the line. But it could also mean the reader won’t buy your book because they have no idea what it would be about.

 

Target 2Something you might want to do, especially if you have beta readers. Those are folks who will read your final draft before publication. These can be friends, relations, or just a bunch of readers who will give you their two cents on your book. Take their advice with a grain of salt, but do listen. Sometimes they see something or misunderstand something that the majority of your readers might also misunderstand. But while they are giving you a few comments about your book, ask them if the title works. Since they just read the book, they might have some good thoughts on that very subject.

Here is something else to ponder or at least be aware of. Often one’s publisher has other ideas about your title. You might think it’s the best title ever. And it might be. But your publisher has the last word. Suck it up and let them have their way as painful as that may be. If you ever get dropped by your publisher or leave on your own, get back your publishing rights and re-publish it yourself under the title you had originally wanted.

There was a time during the last century when ladies’ magazines and other monthly publications printed short stories. Often these stories were turned into movies. Occasionally the title would be changed when it hit the big screen. “Madman’s Holiday” changed to Crack-Up. This was done to attract a certain kind of audience. It not only fit the era, the 1940s when Noir was hitting its stride, but it looked better on the marquee. Your title should first and foremost grab your audience.

Titles can change if others get a say in the publication; that’s the biz, but as a writer you want to be the first to crown your work with a fitting identity. It also reassures you that you know what your story is about in a few brief words. And it tells the reader what’s in store for them.

Something else that goes hand-in-hand with that all important Title is the Cover. It should also say something about what’s inside. When you are strolling down those bookstore aisles, glance at the covers. What do they tell you? Puppies and cartoon characters might work well in the children’s section; dark and ominous is what crime and murder is all about. A cute and cozy cover might also be about murder and mayhem, but most, if not all of the violence, is off the page. The title can be cute and cozy, too, with maybe an axe sticking out of the knitting basket.

But again, if you have a stubborn publisher who wants another cover than what you had visualized, hopefully your title will capture the reader’s interest.

Think about your audience and what they expect from the genre writing you are doing. Wander through a bookstore, if you can still find one, and look at book covers in the area in which you want to write. What do their titles tell you about what’s inside? Read the blurb on the back of the book and see if the title fits those few very important words.

Sing

Remember this: Often the book is not facing out on the bookshelf in the bookstore, so that title should say a lot. Make it sing.

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.

Keep Going by Linda O. Johnston

Climbing BooksThere probably aren’t a lot of professions that are easy.  Whatever they might be, writing isn’t one of them.

But as with everything else, things can change, moment by moment–so it’s a good thing to be prepared for everything, or at least as much as you can.

Sick LadyMe?  In addition to having a couple of pending deadlines over the past couple of weeks, I’ve also had the flu.  So what did I do?  I kept going as much as possible, at least when I wasn’t coughing or napping or visiting Urgent Care, although I did miss out on participating on a panel I’d been looking forward to as well as meet-ups with some writer friends.

I’ve mentioned before that one of my publishers, as well as a line I’d written for over a long period of time, were ending.  As a result of the latter, I assumed my last Harlequin Nocturne about Alpha Force, a covert military unit of shapeshifters, was over and done with after its publication last November.  And was I right?  Yes and no.  I just got word this week that the final one, Visionary Wolf, will soon be printed in an anthology with another Nocturne writer’s story.  So–it’s kept going, at least for now.

DeadlineI did turn in the next-to-final edits for my final Barkery & Biscuits Mystery, For a Good Paws and have one more round to completeI’m not sure yet what its publication will be like, which is scheduled for May.  Will it make it into the usual bookstores?  Will it be available at this year’s mystery conferences such as Malice Domestic?  I guess I’ll find out whether, and for how long, it’ll keep going.

BooksSo what’s next?  For one thing, I’ll be writing several more books for Harlequin Romantic Suspense, beyond my most current K-9 Ranch Rescue stories.  So yes, I’ll keep going there.  And I’ve another possibility pending, too.

Will my flu keep going?  I certainly hope not!  But in any event, I will keep going.

And you?  How do you keep going?

 

ON SISYPHUS AND DE-CLUTTERING.… By Rosemary Lord

Trash 2The start of the year always bring out the de-clutterer in people. Especially me.

Although I seem to manage a little clearing-out every weekend, that time between Christmas and the New Year is when I really look around and think “Why am I keeping this?” and “I’d have more room if I got rid of that …” I re-imagine my apartment with fresh new colors to paint and furniture to buy.

As I snatch a quick work-out on my Total Gym, counting repetitions of stomach-reducing exercises, I gaze at the bookshelves in front of me.  “Do I really need to keep all those books?” Hmmm. I pledge to remove those I am not desperately attached to. Someone else might really enjoy them as much as I have.

Total GymRowing back and forth with the pulleys in my pledge to become slim and svelte once more – well I was once, even if it was a long while ago – I turn to the side, to do side-stretches. Aha! What’s that pile of things under the dining table? Oh: more half-hidden things to de-clutter.

Of course, this is the current craze, thanks to a very young, slim Japanese girl called Marie Kondo and her very successful book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Even the kids are following her – clearly parents’ admonishments to “tidy up your room,” fell on deaf ears. Today’s kids think Marie Kono invented that novel idea of tidying up your room.  And if you’re as young as she is, you don’t have a life-time of treasures in your home, or decades of travel souvenirs or years of career-related things. So the task is not nearly as daunting.

IdeasUs writers tend to keep things for inspiration. Shelves of books from our favorite authors, reference books on what it’s really like to hack your way through a jungle, jump out of an airplane and, of course, different ways to murder people. We have folders of song-lyrics, poems, homilies that might be our next book-title. We have copies of every book that our far-more prolific writer friends have produced. And books that we just love to read over and over.

How often have we started to clear a bookshelf, and lost ourselves in reading a passage in a favorite book, only to find the day has gone and we’re in the same spot, eagerly getting towards the end of the story. Even though we know what happens, we relive the journey the author’s taken us on with their carefully chosen words. Bliss!

But where did our allotted de-cluttering time go? Oh, and you can’t get rid of that book.

Ms. Kono says we should ask of every object in our home, “Does it bring me joy?” Well, yes – my books bring me joy. I think that goes for most writers.

Pushing RockAlas, this does little for my de-cluttering attempts. I feel like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the mountain, but on reaching the top, the weight of it pushes him down to the bottom so he has to start again. I keep starting again with my book culling.

I have better luck with my clothes. It’s easier getting rid of skirts or shirts I haven’t worn in ages and scarves and shoes that really are uncomfortable to wear, purses that no longer “bring me joy.”

A young girl I knew only kept things for six months then she’d replace them, including furniture. She had a very minimalist apartment. Besides, her parents were wealthy, so she just kept buying new things.

I even knew someone who de-cluttered her friends: She said that as her husband was signing a big new contract with a major studio, she would be ‘letting go’ of their less successful friends. That is those who didn’t live in the right area or drive the right cars – because their new, very wealthy, successful friends would judge her badly. She wanted to ensure being accepted into this new elite Hollywood circle. I guess keeping less successful friends might have reminded them where they came from – and it might be catching, like the measles or something. Of course Rick and I were part of that group to be ‘let go.’ We didn’t have flashy enough cars or live in the right zip-code. She told me the right zip-code was most important. We never heard from them again – not even a Christmas card! Of course, this was Hollywood! And they weren’t writers…

 

But back to the real world and de-cluttering. It can be a fun adventure. Long forgotten, old favorite things I come across as I open another drawer or cupboard, swiftly take me back to when and where I bought – or was given – items. That is where the writer in me thrives, as a new story starts wandering around my head.

It’s usually after a spell of decluttering that I sit back down at the typewriter – nay, computer – and get back to work, with that satisfied feeling knowing I have an empty shelf or drawer. I write away blissfully with renewed enthusiasm.

Too many booksIt seems to be true what they say: when you clear out old things, you freshen the atmosphere; your energy becomes unstuck, making room for more positive energy.

And space for more books.

Has anyone else got the de-cluttering bug? Or been de-cluttered by a supposed friend?

…………end……….

CREATE A ‘BEING THERE’ SETTING FOR YOUR STORY by Miko Johnston

I’m currently writing my fourth Petal in the Wind novel, which takes place in Prague. Having spent a week there ten years ago, it roused happy memories. I felt as if I were back in the city, if only on the page. However, I recently experienced that sensation of “being there” in another way.

In addition to my historical series, I’m also working on a contemporary mystery set in a fictionalized SoCal town. Stratford, where my heroine Iris lives, serves as a stand-in for Thousand Oaks, California.

You may recall the name – it’s where another mass shooting occurred last November in the Borderline Bar and Grill. I suspect you watched the story unfurl on television, shocked, but not surprised that another senseless slaughter had taken place. Maybe you shook your head and said, “Not again.” You felt sadness for the young victims, compassion and sorrow for their families, like every other time this has happened.

For me, this time was different. Very different.

There’s a scene in my novel where Iris abandons her car and runs when she realizes the men chasing her are not reporters, but hitmen. That spot is across the street from the Borderline.

A gut punch of foreboding struck me as I watched the coverage, wondering if I knew any of the victims or their families. I worked in Thousand Oaks for nearly twenty years. Having lived two blocks from the club, walked or driven by it countless times, I recognized every detail of the TV footage – the building where the shooting took place, the street where the ambulances parked, the gas station down the street. My mind became a camera following the action. I could envision every inch of the route as the ambulances raced to the hospital, the layout in the ER where the victims would be taken, the doors separating it from the waiting room where their families would pace, anxiously awaiting news. I can describe that room down to the pattern of the carpet.

The experience gave me a new appreciation of the importance of setting in stories. Writers may create interesting characters and provide a compelling narrative, but they neglect that third part of the trinity. Creating that “being there” sense in writing really draws you into the story.

Last year our blog published Patricia Smiley’s superb post on the importance of setting. But how does a writer create that “boots on the ground” feeling when writing about a present-day location they don’t know well? One option is traveling to the places you’re writing about. Nothing else will compare. However, if that isn’t possible, then consider the next best thing to being there.

Thanks to internet sites like Google Maps, you can take a virtual tour of any neighborhood. Practice on a place you’re familiar with, like the area where you grew up, went to college, or used to work. “Walk” the streets to see what the predominating architecture looks like, what shops line the avenues, how folks are dressed, the types and condition of cars. You might find the field where you used to play hide-and-seek is now a shopping mall, the yeasty aroma that wafted from your favorite bakery has been replaced by the perfume of exotic spices from the Indian restaurant that recently opened.

When you pick your site, visit it often until you have a feel for the neighborhood. If you’re creating a fictitious location, give it an authentic feel by basing it on an existing locale. Need a place with lots of open space and wilderness? Check out areas near national parks in Utah, Washington and Wyoming. For a once grand area that’s fallen on hard times, look at rust belt cities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. One caveat: note the recording date. With a world to document, some of the images may be several years old and potentially inaccurate.

Many cities and towns have travel bureaus or chambers of commerce. Their websites will give you a capsule version of the more positive aspects of the place. Contacting the police department for blotter information will help with the less positive. Local libraries can also provide statistics; reports, ads and calendars in regional newspapers will give a sense of what’s going on.

Be creative. Seek information on local vegetation from area nurseries, botanical societies or hiking groups like the Sierra Club and American Hiking Society. Contact the Wildlife Society and the Audubon Society for information about fauna. A general or special interest travel guide for your locale will provide valuable information (take advantage of your AAA membership). Do a search on a travel website like Tripadvisor. Local lodging, restaurants and activities say a lot about an area. While researching this post, I discovered niche.com, an online rank and review site that evaluates places based on criteria like schools, job prospects, housing and cost of living.

Go beyond geography. Think weather patterns and geology, their potential to add a layer of crisis or provide a much needed respite to your action. Are there any iconic structures, significant history or landmarks associated with your locale?

These tips will help you research locations, but how do you go about finding them? One way is to seek out real estate sections in newspapers or online through realtors. Investigate houses for sale and rental properties. They will give you a baseline of the character and economic health of different neighborhoods, often mentioning if the area is trendy, noted for good schools, or otherwise desirable. Another is to search the internet for legitimate articles (as opposed to paid ads) about topics related to your location. Aside from statistics, any accompanying photographs and interviews with residents will offer a more first-hand perspective.

For example, if I needed to set my story in a struggling West Coast farm community, I might base it on East Porterville, California. The Tulare County town has been seriously impacted by drought, based on a Reuters article I found. Quotes from locals interviewed for the piece would provide great insight into character development as well as plot. Of the five homes I found for sale, three are in foreclosure auctions. Satellite images of the town show modest one story homes, one market, an auto shop, older middle-class cars and pick-ups parked in driveways, and a parched landscape. Although the images are two years old, the article, Zillow and niche.com concur that life has not improved there. Worse, the community abuts Porterville, a suburban city thriving with shopping malls, parks and a medical center. With my research complete, I would weigh the information against its relevance to the plot or characters.

A compelling plot and well-drawn characters are critical to good writing, but the ability to create a realistic setting enhances the experience. Take advantage of the many tools available to help bring that sense of “being there” to your story, and if you have other sites or resources you like, please share them with us.

 

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

A New Year, A New World by Jill Amadio

Books Pop ArtWriting a novel from the perspective of a client – hardly a fictional character, luckily  – is a matter I had not considered in depth until the week of December 15-31 when everyone was between holidays. Living alone and becoming a hermit when I have a deadline, I found myself in limbo after a wonderful Christmas dinner with friends and awaiting a New Year’s Eve party. Those six days in between when families are gathering up the torn wrapping paper and ribbon and buying champagne for December 31st, are quite welcome because I figure I can use the time to write and everyone else is still baking or returning gifts. I always open my Christmas gifts as soon as I receive them which greatly irritates one of my daughters and evokes laughter from the other.  In any event I had long trashed the ripped-off sheets of Santa paper and was back in my mesh office chair to play Solitaire.

 

The hiatus included time spent wondering why on earth I’d wasted months without working on my third mystery during which time my small press publisher went belly up, and accepting freelance assignments instead. But of course, one must keep the wolf from the door.

 

Writer Lady 2During the first week in December I signed a contract to ghostwrite a book, my 15th. A book of fiction. Now, I ghostwrote a crime novel a few years ago, and in fact it catapulted me into writing my own series after that book went into bookstores, and I continued to ghost biographies.

 

Creating a biography is one thing; creating a make-believe world envisioned by someone else is an entirely different experience, in part because they haven’t thought it through and have no idea how necessary an outline or summary is. Memoirs practically write themselves as we use interviews with the client, relatives, friends, and colleagues. Research provides descriptive settings and one-on-one tape-recorded sessions in person allow us to observe body language and behavior. Often winkling out moments of their lives that they considered irrelevant but were actually crucial to the story as a turning point can take persistence on the part of the ghostwriter.

 

Coast LighthouseGrowing up in a Cornish village at the very southern tip of the UK where fishing and shipwrecks were the main topics of conversation, as well as my mother’s hats, our fictional heroines were the young Secret Seven detectives in Enid Blyton’s books (she sold 600 million!!), and adventurous children in The Dandy and The Beano comics. We had no superheroes until Marvel came to town. Steeped in moral issues, we learned all about good and evil in the written word and illustrations, but Superman and Batman were beyond my sphere. I was considered a pragmatic child, and indeed grew up with a practical, realistic attitude.  Space travel, illusions, and magic held absolutely no interest.  To me, everything was explainable instead of an unreal figment of someone’s imagination that could not possibly actually happen, unlike the action in mysteries.

 

Then, I was offered this gig writing a sci-fi fantasy.Space City

 

Could I translate her vision into a saleable book? Sometimes memoir clients simply want a few copies printed up for their families. Others go full blast for commercial sales. This client wanted a blockbuster, sure-fire book that would top the best-seller lists instantly. She had done her homework on sci-fi and had a fascinating plot and characters. So far, so good. Then we got down to brass tacks and it turned out my pragmatism threatened to ruin the deal. I asked silly questions like, “Which pharmacy dispensed Captain America’s serum?”

Superhero

I needed explanations of how and why characters did things, I wanted backstory and detail. I found it simply too difficult to enter her world and believe in it enough to write it. I’d ghosted books for a nuclear-physicist, an Olympic athlete, an arborist, and sundry others but, alas, dipping my toe into a world where I had to suspend belief took two weeks to accept and almost ruined Christmas. But, like all authors, I turned to research, picked myself up and dug into the story, and now I am enjoying exploring this new world of fantasy. Who knew? Come on down, Batman!

Robo Man

More Writing from the Tight Rope

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Madeline (M.M.) Gornell is the author of seven award-winning mystery novels. Her current literary focus is Route 66 as it traverses California’s Mojave Desert. Madeline is a lifetime lover of mysteries, and besides reading and writing, is also a potter. She lives with her husband and assorted canines in the High Desert.

 

ThinkingHeadtoBookAh, the joy of discovery moments in a book! Or, the waiting far too long for an “it” to happen you’ve already figured out or anticipated. Ideas discussed here before, and from several perspectives.[i] But a recent book I closed last week prompted me to re-visit and add my two-cents because I think it’s a biggie area for thought. And, another writing tight rope skill/art that requires a tricky balancing act—based on one’s personal predilections, storytelling skills, and the complexity of characters and events. When to let the reader imagine and fill in, even arrive at a scene or plot conclusion on their own–versus when you need to supply more clues and details for them to know what’s happening?

On one side of the balancing act—the book I‘m referring to and closed before finishing, was abandoned because I kept finding myself saying, huh? What the heck is going on? And in some cases going back to see if I missed something.

Then there were several recently read books, where I’ve said, out loud even, “I get it already! Move on…” The most recent examples, unfortunately were in my own latest WIP, as I do my slow-going first rewrite. Some authors are sort of long-winded (smile). I can’t pile up too much praise for editors. Still remembering one of my earliest manuscripts, and my editor mentioning how I’d gone on far too long in a suspenseful sequence—with words I don’t remember exactly, but similar to–the reader figured that out two pages back.

And for a little different twist on the topic: a book club member friend shared that her granddaughter in her writing had two characters in a scene/situation she was having difficulty getting them out of. Her solution…she ended the scene there, and moved on, letting the reader figure it out. Brilliant, I thought at the time. Especially since I had the same occurrence happen in my current WIP. And following the lead of this young writer—I moved on.

I personally read on three fronts—audio (especially for classics), paper often for my book club selection, and Kindle eBook if it’s a book I’m thinking I want to have on hand in the doctor’s office. If you’re listening to an audio book, those reader “I got it already” overuses pop right out when a narrator is speaking the words. The main one that my ear often catches in audio books, is the overuse of a character’s name.

balancingActBut then again, balancing again, reminding a reader of a character’s name is often very helpful. But when and how many times?—I’m hoping to improve in that area. This balancing act, I think, is a training of my ear thing. As a reader, on the other side of this tightrope, are the situations where I’ve had to go back to earlier book sections and find the person’s name—especially if they have a title, and both have been used. The same wise editor advised, if you’ve got your POV straight in the telling, your reader is in your character’s head and there’s no need to repeat, repeat, repeat.

So to share my own nugget of writing practice here—I try putting myself in the shoes of a movie director in the splicing room. As I’m rewriting/editing, my book becomes like a movie I’m watching/putting together on the splicing machine (or whatever it’s technically called). And I have available to me, close ups, long shots, predominantly character dialogue scenes, actor narrative or emoting scenes, and setting/scenery shots I need to cut and paste in good storytelling order–and length. The main objective—to give the reader enough info and pictures to enjoy the happenings without wondering who’s who, and what’s what—while at the same time not spilling the beans until the appropriately placed dénouement scene.[ii] Splicing the right scenes, with the right dialogue and narration mix, and in the right order—is not always easy or obvious.

I always keep in mind Eudora Welty, who[iii] professed to cutting her paper work into paragraphs which she would move around to get in the order she wanted. With her process in mind, and as a final thought; in my little word processing world, I’m taking more and more of my “moving around” paragraphs to the electronic trash bin.

Happy continued “tightrope-walking” writing trails!


[i] For one recent example, see G. B. Pool’s excellent post a couple weeks back The Devil’s in the Details with very practical advice in these areas, and much more.

[ii] I sometimes talk to the TV (a habit I learned from my husband) invariably complaining about things that don’t happen in a scene, or telling the actors to, “get on with it.”

[iii] Conversations with Eudora Welty, by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, pgs 244-and on.