Friday, May 26, 2017

The Importance of the First Two Pages

A few years ago, I attended a conference session in which several authors met with two New York agents. Each author read the first two pages of a work in progress and the agents reacted. I read an early draft of two pages from Burnt Siena beginning with a loving description of Siena, Italy, and ending with my heroine’s discovery of a body. The criticisms were, “Well, obviously you want us to know you’ve lived in Italy…” and “I don’t like your protagonist.” Not very encouraging, but then those two agents didn't like anything they heard that day.  

In my writing process, I often write a first scene and junk it later, realizing that the real story starts later, or that the first draft sets the scene or introduces the plot too slowly.

So with Catacomb, I discarded a scary preface I really liked, deciding it belonged later in the book. Instead, I began the story in the middle of an interaction between Flora Garibaldi and her policeman boyfriend:

It was a fine day for an argument.
“You did what?” Flora yelped.
“I called your boss and got you some time off,” said Vittorio Bernini.
“Why on earth? And who are you to jeopardize my new job? Why, you interfering so-and-so!” She refrained from calling him a bastard as the blood in her veins heated up.
“Calm down, cara.” Vittorio stopped and put his hands on her shoulders, holding her steady in one place. “There’s a good explanation.”
Flora, normally susceptible to the warmth of his hazel eyes, fidgeted under his hands and glared at him. “So explain. And it had better be good.”
He took her arm. “We can’t talk here.” They were in the middle of a piazza in Trastevere, the old part of Rome “across the Tiber.” He steered her to a cafĂ© with spindly metal tables outside, choosing one at the back where other conversations would muffle their own. “Espresso for you?”

“Make it a macchiato.” She preferred strong Italian coffee with a little swirl of milk.
Flora Garibaldi drew out a chair and sat, looping her purse around one knee. The soft air of late April wafted around her, lowering her internal temperature. Maybe she wouldn’t boil over--yet. Vittorio had just done what he always accused her of doing, acting first and not thinking about other peoples’ reactions until it was too late. Now she was on the receiving end, and she didn’t like it.


Thus I introduce the two main characters and an ongoing conflict between them, namely Vittorio’s tendency to let the demands of his Carabinieri job override his personal relationships. Because these are my heroes and I want readers to empathize with both of them, I also mention one of Flora’s faults—her habit of rushing into things that has put her in danger in the past.

I can’t resist describing the luscious Italian setting—and I think most readers want to know where they are—so I insert a short paragraph while Flora waits for her drink:

As she waited for him to fetch their coffees, she decided that despite the occasional clashes of personality and inherited expectations, their first few months together as a couple had been quite satisfactory. They’d found a small but charming apartment, a third-floor walk-up with a tiny balcony, in Trastevere. Flora loved the area, with its cobbled streets and sunset colors on the painted stucco buildings: burnt orange, pale red, salmon, and gold. The non-existent grid plan of Rome no longer bothered her. Now, she reveled in the odd, triangular piazzas where she least expected them, the meandering streets, and the quiet, flower-filled corners of residential neighborhoods. She’d even adopted the Italian custom of putting out leftover dishes of pasta for the stray cats, some of the thousands of cats who weren’t living in the ruins of the Colosseum but stalked the unwary small rodents in every corner of Rome.

This sets the stage for the entire book, which takes place in modern Rome both above and below ground. The premise: Flora and her policeman boyfriend search for a cache of Nazi-looted art that the Monuments Men missed.

My next challenge is how to convey information about stolen art, Nazi hideaways, and the Monuments Men without doing an “information dump” and boring the reader.

I decide to parcel out some of the necessary facts in a brief conversation between the two protagonists while including a humanizing detail: Flora’s greed for sweets. Other information will be woven in later, in discussions between policemen and the international group of scholars and specialists convened by Vittorio and Flora to help with the search.

The key: weave the technical details into the plot while making the reader greedy for more information. Example: is a short story by Michigan and Chicago writer Barbara D’Amato. In “Of Course You Know Chocolate is a Vegetable,” the reader gobbles up information about the chemistry of chocolate, coffee, and a certain medication to solve the death of a particularly despicable literary critic. Highly recommended reading!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Enjoy the journey and keep good notes.

I always struggle to decide what to write to my fellow authors. I ask myself, what might be of interest? What kind of news or information would be pertinent? And here's where my thoughts went, I'll try not to ramble too much or too far.

There's a new movie out that I have not seen yet called "The Circle" based on the novel by David Eggers (2013-4). I finished the book a week or two ago and had mixed feelings. The story was timely. The plot intriguing. The characters a mix of interesting and frustrating. The story is about a company (The Circle) that mines information globally. The philosophy is transparency in all data. The result - nothing is private. NOTHING (except 3 min. for bathroom breaks). Social Media is around like now, but you are measured by your popularity ratings, how many friends and comments. It's all invasive, inclusive and makes me think of Big Brother in "1984." No one is exempt unless they are literally off the grid and that has its own set of consequences. Nothing is ever deleted. So, is the story newsworthy? Yes, it's a warning to all of us that information sharing can be allowed to go too far.

Let's segue into the 'here and now' and all of the faux media, social media, broadcast/electronic media and print media. Are these real stories or real information that helps us make informed decisions in our lives? It's hard to tell sometimes. Perhaps it is a warning to all writer's to watch what we say or do on-line and in front of the microphones or in print. It will be preserved and we know that bits of news/information taken out of context, as well as the misplaced comma, can change the message.

Eat, children or you will go hungry.
Eat children or you will go hungry.

This blog will be saved and in some years beyond my lifetime someone will stumble across it and wonder what was going on in not only my head but in the world at large. Personally, I hope that my books will be the items they read and enjoy. And if these blogs help give writers permission to express themselves then so be it.

Enjoy the journey and keep good notes.
 Amazon Author Page

Friday, May 12, 2017

Maggie Toussaint Guest Blogger on Author Expressions

Our special guest on Author Expressions today is mystery author Maggie Toussaint. Formerly a contract scientist for the U.S. Army and currently a freelance reporter, Southern author Maggie Toussaint has an impressive number of published books. Maggie lives in coastal Georgia, where secrets, heritage, and ancient oaks cast long shadows. Yoga, beachcombing, and music are a few of her favorite things. You can visit her at:

And now, here’s Maggie:

Don’t you love it when a book title pops into your head? That’s what happened with my latest novella, Turtle Tribbles. I knew I wanted to write about a local issue (I live on the Georgia coast), and a turtle egg thief had recently been in the news.

We’re so lucky to have loggerhead turtles frequent our beaches, but stealing eggs from a federally protected species is a big no-no. I figured out how to translate the story concept into cozy-speak, but the title “Turtle Tribbles” was a gift straight from the story ether.

Here’s the blurb:

In Book 2 of the Lindsey & Ike Novella Series, newspaper editor Lindsey McKay must decide if she’s ready to take the next step with her boyfriend, Sheriff Ike Harper. He’s anxious for her to move in, but she worries something is missing. Meanwhile, the Turtle Girl, a college intern named Selma Crowley, begs Lindsey to cover her turtle story. Someone is stealing federally protected loggerhead turtle eggs off a Georgia barrier island, and it has to stop.

The earnest young woman convinces Lindsey of the story’s potential, and the next day Lindsey ferries to the island to see the nests and take photos. Selma promises she’ll have tangible evidence of the theft on Friday, but the revelation doesn’t occur. Worse, Selma’s missing, and no one’s seen her since Wednesday evening. Because she demanded proof from Selma for the newspaper story, Lindsey blames herself for the intern’s disappearance.

When Selma’s body is discovered, Lindsey vows to get justice for Selma and her turtles. Selma’s tribbles are over, but the tribbles are just beginning for Lindsey and her trusty sidekick, Labrador retriever Bailey.

Read an Excerpt:

“I’ve got turtle tribbles,” an athletic young woman said.
“Come again?” I glanced up from the ad log I’d been wrestling with to see a visitor in my office doorway. I waved her in as I tried to remember her name. Selma Crowley, our Turtle Girl, a summer posting coveted by college interns. Each of the Georgia barrier islands had students who monitored the yearly loggerhead turtle migration to our shores and subsequent egg hatching.
She perched on the edge of a chair. Her bright blue eyes matched the skin tight tank she wore over running shorts. From her boyish haircut to the rings on both second toes, this gal set her own style.
Selma made a funny face. “Oh. Sorry, Miss McKay. I forget everyone wasn’t raised with geeky parents in suburbia. Mom and Dad are whacko about Star Trek everything. I grew up on a steady diet of the TV shows, movies, and Trekkie conventions. The episode about tribbles is my favorite.”
I closed my laptop and reached for a pad of paper. “Please, call me Lindsey, Selma. We’re not big on formalities here at the newspaper. What are tribbles, and what do they have to do with our endangered loggerheads?”
“Tribbles are adorable space creatures, but they multiply faster than rabbits. Just like the TV show, my tribbles are out of control. I desperately need your help.”
I sat in stunned silence. No way was she talking about space creatures on the island, was she? There would’ve been sightings of spacecraft. Unless they were sneaky and were just here for our turtles. Crazy possibilities spun through my head. Selma and her boss could’ve called the TV networks in Savannah or Jacksonville to break this story. Instead, they’d chosen our small weekly? The sceptic in me raised its ugly head.
I settled on what I hoped was a professional expression of interest. “You’ve got alien creatures in the turtle nests? Do you have photos?”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to alarm you. Substituting tribble for trouble is a bad habit I picked up ages ago. So far, I haven’t seen aliens, but we can’t rule them out either.” Selma shook her head, her expression glum. “I don’t exactly know who or what is causing the tribble, I mean trouble, but eggs are disappearing from the turtle nests. It happens every year, but this year’s been the worst ever.”
Disappointed, I absently rolled my pen in my fingers. “So we may or may not have aliens on the island, but we positively have fewer turtle eggs?”
“You got it.”
It wasn’t much of a story, except for an earnest young woman’s word that eggs were disappearing. “You sure it’s not natural processes?”
“Real sure. When raccoons, feral hogs, or fire ants invade a nest, they don’t cover everything back up. But, the nests with the missing eggs look undisturbed.”
“How do you know anything’s missing? Do you have a device like ground penetrating radar to detect the eggs?”
“All you have is a geeky kid’s word. I know when the turtles lay their eggs because of the crawl marks on the beach. I dig up each new nest to make sure it isn’t a false crawl, then cover up the eggs and mark the location. We’re still early in the nesting season, but more nests should’ve hatched already. I dug up two of the first nests I marked before I decided to come over here.” She passed me her hot pink cell phone and showed me the images of sandy holes. “Look at the photos. No eggs.”
All I saw was a sandy pit in each image. Was there a story here? If the egg theft didn’t pan out, I could slant this into a nature piece about turtle nesting. “I’d like copies of relevant images, including those of an egg hatch for the story, and your permission to use them.” She nodded eagerly. I hated to bust her bubble, but this question had to be asked.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but could you have missed the hatch?”
“Nope. I hit the beach first thing every morning and monitor the nests after dark each night. If turtle eggs hatched, I would see the signs. Eggshells would be cracked and left behind. The sand from the nest to the sea would be full of turtle tracks. The nests would look disturbed. I didn’t see any of that at those locations. It’s like the eggs got beamed into outer space.”
I leaned back in my chair and briefly contemplated the domed ceiling light. No way was I writing a headline about turtle-egg stealing aliens. I needed an angle for this story, or else I should encourage Selma Crowley to leave. Time was always in short supply now that I ran the Gazette.
Though it was technically my family’s newspaper, I was editor in chief. Daddy had retired last fall, and Mama lit out for seminary after their divorce. So the newspaper became mine, and I loved the work, loved telling people’s stories. Selma’s tribbles appealed to me, but I needed more from her. Sometimes it was a matter of asking the right questions.
“You mentioned this happened before,” I said, returning to the missing egg puzzle at hand. “Are there historical records of empty nests I can report?”
“The last two turtle girls made notes about nests that didn’t hatch, but only last year’s gal documented that eight of the no-hatch nests were positively empty. The previous year, several nest markers went missing, which dropped them out of the count, so the stats don’t reflect those occurrences.”
“Eight out of how many?”
“The number of nests on my island are usually a hundred or so. As you may know, turtles return to the same beach every time they lay eggs. I’ll scrounge up the data and email it to you.”
I sensed she was holding back. Time for me to tighten the screws. “I need concrete facts for the paper, Selma. I can’t report on feelings or impressions.” And I certainly couldn’t report on aliens with transporter machines. “Why would anyone steal turtle eggs?”
“Because there’s a black market for the eggs. Some claim they’re an aphrodisiac, while others say they’re a delicacy. With about a hundred and twenty eggs in each nest, a poacher can pocket several hundred dollars off the theft of one nest.”
Black market. Egg heist. I was starting to get an idea of where this story could go if it got legs. “Can you use a hidden camera to catch the thief in the act?”
“Too many nests to monitor. They’re along the entire length of the beach. That’s a couple of miles.”
Disappointed, I blurted out the first thought in my head, unfiltered. “Too bad we don’t have drones to keep watch or something.”
“Too bad we can’t afford armed drones to shoot poachers,” Selma said. “They have no right to do this.”
The cute little blonde had a bloodthirsty bent. Interesting. “What can be done about this issue? Who have you notified?”
“Only my co-workers, my boss, and a wildlife agency contact know about the thefts. We didn’t want the news getting out at first, but my boss gave me the go-ahead to contact you for an article. Dr. Jernigan said it would be cheaper to scare the thief away than it would be to prosecute him or her.”
Hmm. I didn’t like being used, but I was in the business of selling papers. A photo of this pretty girl on the beach would be eye-catching. Unless we had a deluge of homicides or other major news, there was no reason her picture couldn’t be above the fold on page one.
“Do you have a plan going forward?” I asked.
“Sure do. I’m in the process of removing the traditional markers from the nests. First, I have to record all of the nests’ GPS coordinates in my phone and in my spreadsheet. If that thief doesn’t already know where the nests are, he or she will have a lot of digging to do to find eggs.”
“What do the nest markers look like?”
She showed me an image on her phone of a small wooden stake. Not much of a thing, really, but if you knew what to look for, the stakes reveal the location of the nests.
“That should stop your thief all right. Anything else?”
“The wildlife folks have been monitoring ferry passengers for a few days. They’re especially interested in people who might suddenly carry a duffle bag or cooler on or off the island. According to apprehension reports elsewhere, stolen turtle eggs are usually transported in plastic bags inside a container. They’ve made a list of folks who carry these containers infrequently on our ferry. They have a way to detect the eggs, but I can’t talk about that yet.”
“Why not?”
“Until they catch the thief, I’m sworn to secrecy. They don’t want to tip anyone off. The goal is to get this poacher, not send him or her underground for a few weeks.”
A secret. All my journalistic instincts were firing as I scribbled down her words. This could be big. If I was this excited about the story, everyone else would be too. I flashed a bright smile her way. “I’d love to see the nests firsthand. Let’s set a time for me to catch the ferry over to the island this week. What’s a good day for you?”
Selma waved off my question, her lilac nails catching the light. “My schedule is flexible. You tell me when you want to come.”
Sooner was always better in my book. “Let’s plan for tomorrow. I’ll take the early ferry. Meanwhile, send me the stats from past years on turtle nests and counts. Oh, and I’d love a quote from your boss. Will you share her phone number with me?”
A few minutes later, I had Dr. Jen Jernigan’s number at the university, and Selma had my business card tucked in her hand.
Once she left, my office manager, Ellen Mattingly, joined me. “I heard most of that. You believe her?”
I shrugged. “What’s not to believe? She thinks aliens are stealing her turtle eggs to light up their nights.”
“I’d love it if someone lit up my nights,” Ellen said, “but mostly nighttime is about getting my three kids out of my bed. At least you have a boyfriend, though I haven’t heard an Ike report recently.”
Sheriff Ike Harper had swept me off my feet when I moved home last fall. I enjoyed his company and our extracurricular activities, but I valued my independence too. “He’s still pressuring me to move in with him and his son.”
“I don’t see why you’re resisting the idea. You’re at his place all the time, or else Alice Ann is staying with his son. Why not go all in on the Ike train?”
Indeed. Why couldn’t I move in with him? I’d pulled out a suitcase several times, but I’d never packed a thing. Something about our relationship wasn’t to my liking. Darn if I knew what it was.

Buy the Turtle Tribbles novella on Kindle:

Thanks so much for having me on Author Expressions!

Maggie Toussaint

Comments for Maggie welcome!

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Ideal Reader, by Susan Oleksiw

Recently a friend commented that she didn’t like eBooks because she couldn’t see what other people were reading when she rode the subway or stopped in a coffee shop. She was curious about who was reading what. I know how she feels.

We can no longer look at a stranger holding a book and be intrigued, surprised, or smugly satisfied at making the right guess about what the other person is reading. I once sat behind a woman on the subway reading a book I had ghost-written. Although I was dying to ask her what she thought of it, I held back. Reading in public is still a private act. Now, with the spread of e-Readers, books have become anonymous. It’s as if the entire world walked around with books in plain brown wrapping paper.

One of the reasons I like being able to see who is reading what is the way it challenges assumptions. Most of the people I see holding physical books are not the author’s “ideal reader” for that book. The title of choice at once expands the assumptions we make about someone else, about the man dressed like a banker reading a history of the Navajos, or the woman in sneakers half-watching her kids at the playground and half reading a biography of John J. Audubon.

The concept of the ideal reader has been around since the first storytellers looked around the campfire and directed their tale to the most eager member of the audience. According to Dr. L. Kip Wheeler of the website Literary Vocabulary, the ideal reader is the person who would, ideally,“understand every phrase, word, and allusion in a literary work, and who would completely understand the literary experience an author presents, and then responds emotionally as the writer wished.”

Stephen King has said his wife, Tabitha, is his ideal reader. He shows everything to her first. John Updike picked a location for the teenage boy he expected to be reading his stories. “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas,” he said in Writers at Work (edited by George Plimpton, 1976).

Some writers suggest the ideal reader should be specific, and one website ( offers a list of details to fill in, to create the person a writer imagines reading her work. The list includes such features as name, gender, age, education, occupation, marital and family status, and much more. The intention is to recognize that the ideal reader is a specific person, a character, which must be fleshed out in great detail. I confess to never having done anything so detailed, and I’m not sure I could pick my ideal reader out of a crowd.

For me, the ideal reader is someone who isn’t in a hurry, and settles down to read. She is female and reads widely. She is definitely not pretentious, but she is satisfied with herself and thoughtful. I can’t say where she lives because, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I have found readers in the most unexpected places. That means that I’ve found readers outside New England.

Now I’m wondering about other writers’ ideal readers. Do you have an ideal reader? When did you come to know who this is? Did you create this person or make a discovery while you were writing?

Friday, April 28, 2017

Traveling in my pajamas by Sarah Wisseman

I set my second mystery, The Dead Sea Codex, in Israel. I hadn’t been in Israel since 1972, a very long time ago. But since I’d lived there over two years as an archaeology student, I thought I could recreate that environment virtually—without having close encounters with suicide bombers. I didn’t want to write about terrorism, I wanted to write about early Christian manuscripts and the black market in antiquities. So I deliberately placed my book sometime during the gap between 1972 and the present, using the Internet, modern travel books, articles, videos, movies, and other books set in Israel to flesh out what I remembered or imagined.

Two archaeologists race to find an early codex before Christian fanatics destroy it.

I call this “travelling in my pajamas,” and many authors do it. I know one successful book written by a well-respected author who has never been in two of the countries she wrote about! Another author related a funny story about researching an airport in Eastern Europe: he said he’d never been through that airport, so he lifted most of his description from another novelist. Then he met that novelist a few years later, and thanked him for the excellent description of the airport. Response: “Oh, I’ve never been there either. I made it up.”
Fiction writers can get away with making it up—sometimes. I don’t plan to write about a place I’ve never visited. I value the vital information gained by the five senses, not to mention the life-changing moments of talking to people, eating strange food, and learning another language.

That said, I voyaged in my pajamas a second time when I wrote Catacomb. Physical travel to Rome was not possible at the time I wrote the book, so I used my memories of several summers spent living and working in Italy plus the same tools from the library and online I’d used before. I supplemented my memories of Rome and its catacombs with photos, videos, articles, maps, and email correspondence with friends in Italy. I researched the geology of Rome, the kinds of tunnels that intersect with the catacombs (sewers, subways, ancient quarries, etc.), archaeology of the Etruscans (pre-Roman founders of Rome), Nazi-looted art, and police procedures in Italy.

An art conservator and her policeman boyfriend search for a lost trove of Nazi-looted art under Rome

Did I get the Italian setting right? The creepy atmosphere of being underground with bones and tombs and funerary art is easier to convey than a map-like knowledge of underground Rome or what it’s like to be an Italian policeman. But I’ll revisit Italy in November with my daughter and I’ll revisit the catacombs then. Then we’ll take the train to Florence where I plan to set the next book, The Botticelli Caper. My on-site research methods? Lots of exploring on foot and taking photos of places I’d like place my characters. The plan includes plenty of recovery time in cafes and wine bars. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Thinking Outside the Box

What does "thinking outside the box" mean to you as a writer? 

For me, it means telling "my" story and not trying to follow genres that are trending right now. Trends change and are cyclical like the tides of the wind.

Using creative ideas to not only tell the story but also to market and sell the story.  Finding new ways to get "buzz" going about your book.

An Example:

I was recently asked by the local library to facilitation a book discussion in honor of the anniversary of the Chisholm trail. The book was "The Log of the Cowboy." I grew up on western books and films so I said YES. For the past couple of weeks, I read this fictionalized journal, learning new expressions and factoids about history that surprised and amazed me. 

When I went to conduct the discussion I had pages of notes and questions that I thought would be interesting and stimulate discussion. It was a blast. Our hour discussion turned into 90 minutes and the attendees stayed after to continue talking about not only cowboys but getting to know me and what I write. 

Although I don't write westerns, the relationships of the drovers with each other, their horses and their foreman compares to a big boisterous family. Cowboys are characters that are natural born storytellers and love to weave tall tails over the campfire. 

This is definitely out of the women's fiction, romantic suspense box I've been writing in. I loved the experience and may also have gained a handful of new readers. I've also been asked to conduct another book discussion at one of the local churches on the same subject. 

By being open to a new venue to speak and a new subject to discuss I exposed new readers to history, new ideas, and me as an author.
Interestingly enough I just read an article about the lost art of designing the book spine by Chronical Books, which really illustrates a great way to "think outside the box". These folks had some very creative ideas besides just name and title. The use of color and photographs with textures and different typefaces - well, you have to see the excellent examples they shared.

As you move through your author's journey look for things that stimulate interest in yourself and in others. Notice the unusual and think beyond the surface. Is this something that can translate to your writing or marketing?

There's a line in the movie Avatar that the natives use, "I see you." It means more than seeing with the eyes, it means seeing with the heart. That's something creative people need to cultivate.

Best wishes to all of you on your writing journey.
 Amazon Author Page

Friday, April 14, 2017

How to Create Strong Beginnings by Jacqueline Seewald

First of all, I want to wish everyone healthy, happy holidays!

I’m reminded of when I taught English at the middle school many years ago. I announced to one of my classes that our spring holiday break would commence that Friday. A twelve-year-old girl commented with a deep sigh, “That will truly be a good Friday!” The entire class burst out laughing and applauded.
Good beginnings are crucial in capturing a reader’s attention. Every writer knows that a narrative hook is needed in any successful type of writing. Many readers pick up a book, glance at the first page, and if it doesn’t grab them immediately, they’ll simply toss it aside. It’s recently been said that the average reader has an eight second attention span—shorter than a goldfish. Of course, creating a good narrative hook for a novel or short story is easier said than done. However, here are a few suggestions that I believe will help to hold reader interest in your novel or story.

Element of Mystery
Readers are intrigued by an element of mystery. This is true whether a story or novel is an actual genre mystery or not. Every good story should have a plot that keeps the reader turning the pages, wanting to discover what is going to happen next. It's important to set up some sort of a question that can't be easily or immediately answered, a secret of the human heart that must be delved into. Prick your reader’s curiosity. This needs to be done in the first few pages and if possible from the first paragraph.

Here’s the beginning of my novel THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER, a YA appropriate for both teens and adults. It starts with an element of mystery:

“When my mother talked about Lori, she always got a funny look in her eye — not ha-ha funny but strange funny. When I was little, I never understood. As I got older, I wondered more about Lori, but I hardly ever asked because it just seemed to make my mother sad.
Lori was locked away in my mother's past life like the things in the old attic trunk. I wondered about them too. But Mom would always say when I asked her to open the trunk that the past was best forgotten. Yet, every now and then, I would say something or do something that made her sigh and exclaim: "You remind me so much of Lori!"
Not long ago, I was sitting on the living room couch reading a novel I found on the bookshelf. My mother walked into the room and gasped.
"Something wrong?" I asked.
She stared at me for a moment and shook her head. "No, but for a moment, it seemed like I was looking at Lori. I remember when she read Rebecca. She loved to read old-fashioned romances."
"Mom, what happened to Lori?"
"Danna, I'd rather not talk about her. It only brings back sad memories."
"Sure, except I didn't bring it up."

Start in medias res

Begin with a bit of intriguing, provocative dialogue or some piece of action. Get your reader involved in the plot from the beginning. Don’t begin with detailed description of people and place. You will lose your reader.

Don’t start with your main character getting up in the morning or doing anything mundane like tooth brushing. Long boring descriptions were fine for Victorian novelists, but remember that Dickens was paid by the word. Plunge the reader into the heart of the story from the beginning words.

When you do need to use description, keep it pertinent. Don’t overdo adverbs and adjectives. Use active verbs. Replace your “is”, “was” and “are” with action words whenever possible. Vary your sentence lengths and structures. You want your writing to be dynamic and exciting. Your reader must be quickly involved, must be made to care about what is happening.

Get your reader focused, placing your heroine and/or hero as close to the main action and problem as possible. Build suspense from the beginning by getting your reader into the thick of things. Weave details and necessary background information into the story as you keep the action of the plot moving along.

Make It Dramatic

Dramatize your story. Don't show, tell. I'm certain you've heard that advice many times before! How to do this? Create meaningful, realistic dialogue for your characters. Each character should be an individual, talking a certain way to reflect a personal point of view, a unique way of thinking. Good dialogue leads to action and conflict between people with different viewpoints and goals.

Avoid stilted dialogue. One way to accomplish this is by reading your writing out loud. Remember readers have to accept the characters in your novel as real people. Try to differentiate speakers by mannerisms or actions as well.

Here’s the beginning of THE BAD WIFE, a romantic mystery, 4th in the Kim Reynolds series:

“Must be fate,” a deep, masculine voice said.
Kim Reynolds dropped the head of lettuce she’d been examining and it rolled across the floor.
“Didn’t mean to startle you.” Mike Gardner’s voice was like a caress.
She looked up, taking in his rugged looks. “I didn’t expect to run into you in the produce section of the supermarket.” Kim did her best to ignore the frisson of attraction she felt in Mike’s presence.
“I’m not stalking you,” he said.
“I never thought you were,” she said.
He gave her a small smile that implied he didn’t believe her. Then he scooped up the head of iceberg lettuce and handed it back to her. “You nearly decapitated it.”
“You would think that way,” Kim said. She meant to sound stern but ruined it by smiling back at him.
“Hey, I’m a cop. Guess I tend to think in violent metaphors.”

Setting the Scene

Although you don’t want to overwhelm your reader with too much detail from the outset, settings need to be vividly described so that they seem real. Think like a film director. Create your novel in scenes as if it were a movie. Use imagery, direct appeals to the senses.


Editors often say they look for a unique voice and that it needs to show from the first paragraph. They dislike flat writing. It’s easier to demonstrate a unique voice when you’re writing in the first person, but that isn’t absolutely necessary. Voice depends on choice of vocabulary, character opinion, behavior, dialogue, description and actions. The best way to develop character voice is to have that individual live in your head for a time before you start to write a single word.


Take the time to put your manuscript aside for a while. Then when you pick it up again, you’ll see it with fresh eyes. You may see the need to rewrite the beginning sentences and paragraphs of your novel or short story, recognizing that this is crucial. You probably won’t get it right the first time. I confess I never do! With my latest novel, THE INHERITANCE, I added and then later removed a prologue.

I truly agonize over beginnings. I often edit and rewrite after several drafts have been completed. I go back after I finish to determine if the opening could be more compelling. I suggest asking some fellow writers and/or intelligent readers to look at your beginning and give an honest opinion. Hopefully, these suggestions will help you create the perfect narrative hook that will compel readers to read your work from beginning to end.

Here’s the beginning of The Killing Land, my Western romantic suspense action thriller:

“For the right price, we’d kill just about anybody.” Russell Harris studied the man sitting across from him in the saloon and tried to determine what effect his words were having.
The rancher met his level gaze with a look of satisfaction. “I like to get my money’s worth. You and your brother have big reputations. I want to make certain you can live up to them.”
“Long as you pay us,” Russell emphasized, rubbing the carrot-colored stubble on his chin.

As a reader and/or writer any comments, suggestions or input you would like to share are welcome here.

You are also welcome to share the beginning of one of your novels or stories.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Writing and Using Dialogue, by Susan Oleksiw

When I was struggling with writing a particular scene in my first mystery, Murder in Mellingham, I recalled Dorothea Brande’s advice to read writers who have mastered the skill you’re struggling with. If your prose is terse, read someone more expansive, such as James Lee Burke. If your sentences and paragraphs run on too long, read someone who has mastered the skill of brevity, such as Agatha Christie.

The standard guideline for dialogue is brevity with a purpose. Conversation between characters can easily become a way of dumping information, telling the reader about important events instead of showing them. Mystery writers tend to tell the solution to the crime in the final chapters, making the story more talky than action. (And I confess to falling into this trap.) In Technique in Fiction, Robie Macauley uses the final lines of James Joyce’s story “The Dead” to illustrate the impact a few carefully crafted lines of dialogue can have.

In the Anita Ray series, I use dialogue to develop the setting of South India as well as reveal character. In When Krishna Calls, Anita questions both educated and uneducated Indians, each with his or her own dialectical peculiarities. The rhythm of Indian languages is recognizable in English, and gives me the chance to alter the “feel” of speech. In addition, because of the preferred grammatical forms of South Indian languages, characters have a variety of ways of concealing the truth that only sound awkward to foreigners, introducing an extra layer of confusion and deception.

One of the best examples of the use of dialogue is in the opening scene of The Maltese Falcon. Dashiell Hammett introduces Sam Spade and his secretary, Effie Perine, through a sharp, swift dialogue that is classic and known to everyone who loves crime fiction. But even though this passage is often chosen to illustrate how perfectly dialogue reveals character, it also reveals the ideal balance between prose and dialogue. The five lines of speech are set into one and a half pages of description of the room, the people, and activity. The ratio of dialogue to prose varies throughout the book, with the amount of dialogue increasing.

To understand what dialogue can do in a novel, the reader only need pick up Gregory McDonald’s first mystery, Fletch. The author wanted it to be 98 percent dialogue, and he feels he achieved that goal. The challenge, of course, is to use speech between individuals to establish not only character but also structure for plot and action. McDonald has called himself a post-cinematic writer, by which he means that because we as readers already have so much visual information, the writer doesn’t need to spend time or verbiage on describing a street in Paris at midnight—we’ve seen this street a hundred times before in the movies. We know the world fictional characters live in. If we don’t, a few words will set the stage, drawing on what we do know. This approach places a heavy burden on dialogue to inform, reveal, and move the story forward. Not many writers have followed in McDonald’s path.

When I work on the dialogue of a scene, I think of the best examples I’ve read, but I also think of something I read by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who said, “. . . when I have to hide something, I let the characters speak.”

To find the Mellingham series and the Anita Ray series go to these links: