Friday, December 23, 2011

Chasing History

When I research for books it seems I am often chasing history, so it was dejavu when an essay I submitted to a magazine was accepted and published with the title,"Chasing History". The article can be found in the "New Books" section of the holiday issue of Mystery Scene magazine. I was thrilled, of course, so I choose to sharethe essay in my blog today.

"Would you believe a picture on the wall of a defunct cotton mill could inspire a series? Could a New England mill town be a vibrant sense of place for the setting? Yes and yes! The seed for the stories in The Maine Shore Chronicles was a lithograph, circa 1845, of a woman tending a spinning frame in a local cotton mill. In my mind's eye the woman in the picture metamorphosed into my grandmother, who actually came to that town with her family in 1890 to work in the mills. the lithograph inspired me to write a series about characters with a mix of my heritage in a real place on Maine's coast that is steeped in ethnicity and tradition.
Chasing after the source of that drawing for permission to use it in my writing was a three month's search that tested my patience. I discovered that the original lithograph was held in the collections of a textile museum in Massachusetts. After many phone calls, letters and emails I received permission from the museum to place the drawing in my first book of the Maine Shore Chronicles series, Finding Fiona.  Research and writing of  three books in this series has taken six years. I realized that getting published was one part luck,one part talent and one part persistence, and I'm certain I had the last part. I mix mysticism with faith in the books with what I hope is surprising results. My new book, Promise Keeper, contains a smidgen of mysticism from my family background. My great grandmother was a healer and a seer. Those skills are inherited by my series continuing character, Tante Margaret.That brings us full circle, since my inspiration for Tante was the woman in the 1840's lithograph."
Back to Author Expressions , now that there are only two days left and counting and the spirit of Christmas abounds, allow me to share the essence of another blog I viewed last week, called "Christmas Balance". It was about preparing for the next year's holiday by doing after Christmas shopping at a savings, then stashing the gifts away for giving the following year.
Since I am continually chasing history, I'm reminded that I did something similar years ago, using a plan called "The Christmas Club". You banked money each month in a savings "club" bank to have funds for the following year's gifts. Anyone remember that?
I'll tuck that one away for a future book! For now the hall is decked, carols fill the air, and greetings and gifts are mailed. All is in readiness because spouse and I will be celebrating Christmas aboard a sailing ship this year. Meantime, I extend wishes for a blessed and joyful Christmas, a happy Hanukkah and a peaceful New Year to all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Muse versus Inner Critic

Muse versus Inner Critic
by B.D. Tharp

I believe that every author has a “muse” (a source of inspiration and an “inner critic” (one who expresses judgments of merit or faults with regard to artistic or literary work). We are generally our own worst critic and doubt our abilities or declare ourselves incapable of creating something worthwhile. (Confidence, why do you elude us?) We also can inspire ourselves as well as others. Both the muse and inner critic serve a valuable purpose, but for them to be effective there must be a balance. (Do I hear dueling banjos?)

During a writer’s retreat I attended years ago our leader said we should each bring something that represented our “inner critic”. When we got to the hotel we were told to put them in a black garbage bag during the workshops until the last day when they would be returned to us. I drew a picture of a Sesame Street monster and he went away for four days and didn’t bug me. It was a great ritual that helped me forget about it for a while. When I’m home I do something similar, by putting it in a drawer – out of sight.

(One of the other writer’s in the group brought one of those squishy stress dolls that you squeeze and it’s eyes and ears pop out from the body. That one was really great.)

Lately, I haven’t felt very inspired. My muse just hasn’t been with the program. So, when I won a Smurf with a laptop for a door prize at the KWA Holiday party yesterday I decided right then that it would be my new muse.

My little blue muse is sitting beside my laptop poised and ready to write, while I am writing. It’s like I’m not so alone right now, I have a little writing buddy with me. Silly, I know, but I’ve found that rituals can mean a lot to a creative person. We have our comfortable chair, the favorite pen, maybe a candle burning, soft instrumental music in the background, whatever helps to put you in the frame of mind you need to escape into your story.

I also have some inspirational sayings on my tack board like: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Another writing buddy finds photos in magazines that look like her characters and she tapes them to her wall beside the computer to keep a clear picture in mind. If you haven’t already, find your inspiration and make it a part of your writing process.

Our neighborhood bookstore closed recently and that was where I used to go every weekend to write. The atmosphere was perfect for getting in touch with a literary muse. Books everywhere, readers of all ages and the lattes were great, too. I miss it SO MUCH, but I’ve asked Santa to bring us another. If the used bookstore across the street would add some tables and chairs, and maybe a coffee bar – that could work! Right now, though I’m searching for a new place. Even JK Rowling wrote at the coffee shop, but our closest one is too small to hang out in for hours at a time.

Tell us about what inspires you to write and what you do to combat an over zealous inner critic.

Friday, December 16, 2011

How to Keep Series Novels Interesting

How to Keep Series Novels Interesting
by Jacqueline Seewald

The November 2011 issue of THE WRITER featured an article by Anne Perry entitled “How to Keep a Series Interesting.” Since I write a romantic mystery series, needless to say, I read this article with thoroughness. Perry, a well-known mystery writer, discusses setting, character and theme.

Readers enjoy a consistency of setting in a series. My own opinion is that the setting should be one the author knows well whether it be a city he/she has lived in, a rural community, an exotic place visited, or an historic location that has been researched in detail. This lends authenticity to the novel. For instance, in the first mystery in my Kim Reynolds librarian sleuth series, THE INFERNO COLLECTION, I chose a university setting because it was one I was very familiar with. I had not only received several graduate degrees, I both taught English and was an academic librarian (at different times) at Rutgers. However, intending to keep the series fresh, I provided each of the three novels with a different local in Central N.J. where I lived for forty years. THE DROWNING POOL is set in a luxury apartment complex. The main locale for THE TRUTH SLEUTH is a NJ high school.

Perry writes that a series should have characters you will want to return to again and again. I agree that this is crucial in a series. We enjoy reading Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series because we know the characters and they make us laugh. We enjoy reading the Number One Ladies Detective Agency series because of the wonderfully charming characters Alexander McCall Smith has created. In THE DROWNING POOL, the second mystery novel in my series, Kim Reynolds and homicide detective Mike Gardner return to solve another set of murders. They are joined by a new character, a woman of color, police detective Bert St. Croix. The three main characters are very different in personality and background but each lends something unique to the novel.

A wonderful article on mystery series detectives “The (Really) Long Goodbye” appeared in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, July 1, 2011. The theme of the article was that some well-known series detectives are cash cows that have become long in the tooth. The article emphasizes the popularity of this form of mystery.

In her article, Anne Perry also discusses theme as an important component in series fiction and offers the example of disillusionment. In mysteries, people are not as they would appear and so there is an element of disillusionment. That can also be true of society in general and the legal system in particular.

I believe that plot is also key in the mystery novel or any series. In the Kim Reynolds series, there are connected murders that need to be solved. The main characters may even become personally involved as in THE TRUTH SLEUTH when Kim initially finds the body of a murdered boy and discovers another at the high school.

I am pleased that THE INFERNO COLLECTION and THE DROWNING POOL are now available in less expensive e-book formats from L&L Dreamspell. You can check them out at:

Do series novels have an advantage over stand alone novels? As a reader or as a writer, which do you prefer?

In keeping with the holiday spirit, I am offering to send a review copy of THE TRUTH SLEUTH, the third novel in my Kim Reynolds mystery series, to a commenter who will be chosen at random. If you want to be included in the giveaway, please leave either an e-mail address where you can be reached or a website address. It will only be used for purposes of this drawing. Happy holidays to everyone!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Soap through the Ages

In researching for my current work-in-progress, I ventured into the world of early sanitation, and interestingly, found the earliest reference to soap was in the 4th c., when Galen, that great medical researcher, said people should use it to keep impurities from the body. During the middle ages, they knew to cleanse their hands before eating, but they only dipped them in perfumed water, which was better than nothing, but I suspect it was to get rid of unsightly dirt rather than to cleanse.

One of the earliest uses of soap was to prepare wool for weaving. Later, soap began to be an elemental part of bathing, and soap-making guilds became prominent in Italy and Spain. Soap-making was sometimes considered “women’s work”, although as it became a prized commodity the skill became one of craftsmanship, with one soap-maker trying to outdo the next with softening agents.

Gradually, coloring agents and perfumes were added, and soap was sold in both liquid and solid forms. Today, Marseille and Castile soap are made from mostly olive oil, and are considered more pure than soaps with harsher chemicals.

In the tenth century, soap was a minor luxury, and cost about one-third of a dinar (dinero, denier).

A Persian chemist wrote recipes for making soap, as did other soap-makers. Here is a recipe from a thirteenth century document:

Take sesame oil, a sprinkle of potash, alkali, and some lime, mix together and boil. Pour into molds and leave to harden. Surprisingly, this is not a lot different from the current process, except for the addition of perfumes.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Researching the Next Book

One of my favorite writers, H.R.F. Keating, wrote a short piece about writing and research for fiction. I read through it avidly, thinking this would be the greatest advice because his books were fabulous. Keating was known for the Inspector Ghote series, which he started before ever having visited India. Those of us who knew India expected amazing gems from someone who had to know the secrets of researching a novel because he clearly "got" India. His advice: Read one book on the subject you're interested in and then start writing. It was really that simple.

Keating wasn't being entirely facetious. He had a capacious mind and he could absorb one book thoroughly on one reading. Most of us aren't that smart and we need to read two or three or more books and then reread them, taking notes and checking back again and again. But his point was valid. The point of the reading is to get to know the subject so that we can write the story. Get to the story sooner rather than later. It's sound advice.

In January I head back to India, to Kerala, where the Anita Ray stories are set, and I already have several ideas for the next book (this will be book four--the second will be out in June from Five Star, which is also considering number three). This means I want to scout out the landscape the get an idea of how Anita or other characters would react in certain areas--restaurants, bus stations, shops, traffic problems, side streets and alleys. I want to see what Anita would see.

After living there in the 1970s and 1980s I have a pretty good sense of how the cities and towns in the area are laid out. But a lot of years have passed, and even though the main thoroughfares are the same, the towns and cities have sprawled through paddy fields and palm groves, with high rises popping up everywhere. Tracking these changes is important to keeping the story current, so for me research is a lot of walking around, grabbing an autorickshaw, and walking into stores or warehouses or lumber yards. One detail I'm dying to use is the lumberyard with huge stripped trunks of teak sitting opposite the old courthouse of red brick put up during the maharajah's time. It's a visual detail that always delights me when I walk past.

Not far down the street is a narrow lane with a roof of signs for the many advocates (lawyers) located there--all the signs are black with white lettering with lots of degrees after each name. The walker (no room for a car) has to cross a narrow bridge over a concrete channel (open drains from years ago still used for rain water) before entering the world of the advocates and hanging electrical lines.

A few lanes after this is a road with businesses pouring into the street, and on one side is the Triveni Nursing Home, an ayurvedic hospital with medical offices. I know a couple of the doctors and admire the way they tend to their patients. I'm pretty sure that sometime in the future ayurveda and its practitioners will figure in one of my novels. In earlier years I passed the Ayurveda College on Main Road almost daily, stopping to stand under the spreading trees to get out of the sun before continuing on my way.

This kind of research--going where my characters will go--is something I learned early. There has to be something real in a story--a place, a character, a situation--or the story will feel thin, not quite grounded. For me place is the grounding. In January I'll be finding new places for Anita and others to discover. And as always, I'll take pictures, spread them out on my desk when I get back, and gaze at them now and then while writing. And we call this work.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Backstory - Burdensome or Boring?

Readers often ask ‘If  I don’t start with the first book of a series will I know what’s going on with the characters?’  Writers wonder how best to illuminate characters' past or history. Characters in a story can often be righting a wrong, rescuing or saving a person, or changing and transforming themselves.  But how do we get to know their past? Where did they come from? What did they do that needs changing? Backstory can be the solution, but where to put it is another question.

In a chapter of his workbook, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says “Perhaps it is desirable to learn about a protagonist’s past at times, but When?” He illustrates various authors’ methods of inserting backstory by building on a character’s internal problems and deepening the inner conflict Later in the story, not in the first chapters.
Author, Corbette Doyle lists three common Back story methods in order of editorial acceptability in her article “Backstory Without Boredom.” She cites:
      1. Weaving the back story into the fabric of the novel
      2. Prologues
      3. Flashbacks
Doyle also quotes Orson Scott Card’s back story warning “that few things from the past are really important to the present story.” Card advocates revealing only enough to convey motive and character revelation. He outlines three indirect methods to reveal the past:
  1. Past as a present event— In dialogue have one character tell another a story from the past that adds to the present action.
  2. Implied Past: Expectation—show what a character expects to happen to reveal something about that individual’s past
  3. Implied Past Networks— Reveal a character’s past through the way others who know the character react to her and treat her.
In my first historical novel, Four Summers Waiting,  I used Card's “Past as a present event” method in Chapter Nine to convey a true event. My family ancestor, a secondary character, Edward Simms, is entertaining his militia association members by telling a true story about how he met President Thomas Jefferson. His son, Henry waits and listens to the story in the hallway of their home. His father, Edward is telling about his arrival in Washington City.

“I remember catching my first glimpse of Pennsylvania Avenue when I came here as a young boy of twelve. I was riding on a wagon that creaked and swayed under a high mound of oats it carried down Frederick Road to Washington City. I hung onto the wooden seat and lurched into the Negro driver, Luke, as the wheels pitched in and out of clay ruts . . . . A twist of wind whirled away the early morning fog and stretched out before us was a raised road with footpaths on either side of a long row of poplars leading to the president’s house. “Is that where President Jefferson lives, Luke? Is that where we’re going? To that grand big house, I asked?”

Protagonist, Henry Simms has just come home after graduating medical school. He comes into the parlor as the gentlemen guests are leaving and Edward proudly introduces his son as Doctor. This scene not only fills in time, place, and history for Edward, it establishes a good father-son relationship that Henry feared would be broken by a revelation he’s about to make. When Edward returns from seeing his guests to the door he sees Henry restlessly pacing back and forth in front of the fire. He thinks something is wrong and upon questioning him, Henry replies:

“You see, it’s just that you’ve denied me nothing through all my studies to become a doctor, with the hopes, I’m sure that I would open a practice here in  town. But I’ve made a decision to locate elsewhere.”
All ends well when Edward is told that the location of Henry’s practice was influenced by the young woman Henry intends to marry, a woman endeared by the whole family. I believe it was effective to place backstory conveying character revelation here, rather than in the first chapters.        

Throughout my contemporary series, Maine Shore Chronicles, I have applied different methods for backstory.  I used a prologue to give a glimpse of time travel that comes later in the story of Book One, Finding Fiona. To acquaint new readers to the characters in my series, or reacquaint those who started with Book One, I used the following approach in Book Two, Moon glade.  I think, in a sense, this paraphrase below could be considered applied backstory. See what you think.

            “Clare rang the bell and pushed open the door to Maddy and Patrick’s apartment. The long hallway held a gallery of paintings interspersed with framed  family photos of Jacques Fontaine, Maddy’s mom, Julie, and Maddy and Clare, all taken in  front of Francois’s Fancy. There was a great photo of Paul at the    wheel of “Julie’s Dream”. The last picture on the wall was Maddy and Patrick’s wedding portrait. Clare had seen it a dozen times, but could never pass it without pausing.”

The latest installment of my Chronicles series released for sale this month, 11/11.It is Book 3.  Promise Keeper. I wove backstory into the fabric of the novel using an introspective approach, blending memories in dialog and inserting memories triggered by objects or images.
“'Never know when you need a port in the storm’ Paul had said. How prophetic, Jacques thought. Paul is just beginning to move about here without help. He swallowed hard, his gaze fixed on a painting at the far end of the room. His first wife’s paintings still lined the walls of the house and memories of her lined his heart. The years could not erase the memories.”

I hope you will look for Promise Keeper. Enjoy the intrigue of this Mystery/Suspense installment and determine if you think I have used “Backstory without Boredom.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What are you thankful for?

I feel privileged to be writing to you on Author Expressions. It’s also a pleasure. The other contributors are great writers you are all going to want to read.

Every Thanksgiving we take turns getting together with one side of the family or the other. We all pitch in and contribute something yummy to the feast. This year we’re going to Mom’s house and I get to do the turkey. If you knew anything about my reputation as a cook you know that the smoke alarm is the dinner bell in my house. I often get distracted with a book or another household chore, and forget I’m cooking, until it’s too late; but not during the holidays, when it’s a time to celebrate and enjoy a good meal together. I focus on the recipe and the timer and make sure I do it right. And mostly I do okay.

Have you noticed how often family gets together over meals or snacks? Eat and talk go hand in hand (pun intended). It’s a great time to share what the kids and grandkids are doing in school, sports, and extra curricular activities. It’s fascinating to listen to the older members of the family reminisce about the old days. It’s a chance to share ideas, experiences, and offer advice – when asked. I love to watch the way everyone comes together and touches one another with their stories. That is the type of communication that may be replaced by the text and the tweet. Letter writing has already been lost to email. And when the kids get bored and whip out their iPhones instead of talking, well, needless to say we all miss out.

Family discussions have been going on since the cave man days when Ugg and Mogg sat around chewing on a Mammoth leg around the campfire, right? I can only imagine, but it is a fact that before written language the stories were spread by word of mouth from father to son, mother to daughter, and they shared them with each new generation. They were sung, drawn on the walls and eventually put into books.

What are you thankful for? I’m so very thankful for families and the sharing of stories and experiences. I’m thankful for the tradition of feasting and celebrating occasions together. I’m thankful the batteries have not gone out in my smoke alarm. I’m thankful for the many blessings I’ve received: friends, good health, a career, a home, an imagination, and the ability to love and share these things in my stories.

Bless you all during this holiday season, may it be a safe and happy time with lots of good stories.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Interview with Author Pamela S. Thibodeaux

Interview with Pamela S. Thibodeaux
by Jacqueline Seewald

Today at Author Expressions I’m interviewing Award-winning author, Pamela S. Thibodeaux, Co-Founder and a Lifetime Member of Bayou Writers Group. Multi-published in romantic fiction as well as creative non-fiction, her writing has been tagged as, “Inspirational with an Edge!”™ and reviewed as “steamier and grittier than the typical Christian novel without decreasing the message.”

Question: What is the genre of your novel? Why did you select it?

Answer: The Visionary is my debut inspirational women’s fiction novel and the inspirational genre chose me when I recommitted my life & committed my writing to Christ. Before that fateful day in 1989, I wrote straight-out romance.

Question: Could you tell us a little bit about the heroine and hero of your new novel?

Answer: Actually Jacqueline, there are two h/h in this novel. Twins Trevor & Taylor Forrestier (pronounced Foresjay) are the main characters along with their sweethearts Pam LeBlanc and Alex Broussard.

Question: What inspired this novel? How did it come about?

Answer: When I initially wrote this story, I thought it would be a light, sweet romance. But one day, a friend read the first few chapters and remarked that I should be careful of the ‘closeness’ of the twins. Well, twins are normally close, but further discussion with her and other beta reader, revealed a closeness not considered ‘normal’ but extreme. Well as a writer, that put me on a quest to find out what had happened to or between the twins to make them cling so tightly to one another and not let other people into their world. What came out of those questions both humbled and scared the daylights out of me as I’d heard about such abuse toward children but never experienced such treatment, much less explored the true depth and meaning of the healing available through the awesome power of God’s love to the most wounded of souls.

Question: Can you tell us about some of your other published novels?

Answer: Currently I have five other novels (4-part Tempered series & The Inheritance) along with five short stories published and available for readers to enjoy. Blurbs and reviews of all can be found at my website

Question: What made you start writing?

Answer: I’ve always been an avid reader but didn’t consider writing until, in my early twenties and pregnant I read one-too-many insipid, boring and disappointing romances. Thinking I could do better turned out to be not only the catalyst to my writing career, but a mite arrogant as writing and writing well are at two totally different ends of the spectrum.

Question: What advice would you offer to those who are currently writing novels?
Answer: Don’t give up and don’t quit. Writing is a gift – a talent given to you from God. Don’t hide your gift or bury your talent. If the novel isn’t moving, try writing something different – a short story, article, poem or essay. Take a break if you have to or even a hiatus but don’t quit.

Question: Where and when will readers be able to obtain your new novel?
Answer: The Visionary (released Nov 16th) is available through Amazon & Barnes & Noble.

Pamela, I’d like to conclude this interview by congratulating you on your recent interview with Romantic Times. It’s quite a coup. I expect many readers will want to read
your unique novel. Are there questions or comments for Pam? Please feel free to join the discussion.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Favorite Books

One of my favorite books, which I stumbled upon quite by accident, is a little-known book, a curious hybrid between a historical novel and a scholarly non-fiction. The title is Wise and Foolish Kings, and it covers the Valois dynasty, kings from 1328 to 1498. Anyone interested in this period would do well to secure a copy of this wonderful book.

Remarkably, I picked it up at a library sale for $2, but to me it's worth hundreds. It covers the reigns of Philip VI (the Fortunate), Charles the Dauphin, Louis XI, Charles VIII and others. The author includes interesting facts about the kings’ lives, their loves, their travels, and their foibles.

This book was translated to English in 1980, and was written by Anne Denieul-Cormier, a French historian.

Her narrative flows, her descriptions are unforgettable, making me sigh with envy. You may be lucky enough to find it in a used or antiquarian bookstore.

Do you have a favorite book, memorable because of the prose as much as the contents?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writers' Groups

A few weeks ago an acquaintance asked me for advice on setting up a writers' group. I immediately said, Sure. Then I paused and wondered, What kind of writers' group? My friend didn't know. I shouldn't have been surprised. Writers talk about their writers' groups usually with reverence and affection, but few actually describe what the group is like. As a result, most beginning or non writers think a writers' group is a writers' group is a writers' group. And they would be wrong.

Over the last forty plus years I have been in a variety of writers' groups, ranging from the informal two-person (actually two-woman support group for struggling dissertation writers only able to meet over lunch) to the large, highly structured group with strict membership requirements (and no nonsense whatsoever). But a few types stand out for the gratitude and affection I came to feel towards my fellow members, and these are the ones I described to my friend. This is not a definitive list, but a few suggestions for how to structure the coming-together of writers who want to help each other. These are roughly in chronological order.

First was the group of writers of all genres and all levels of publication history, including the writer who managed to get a contract for a nonfiction book about hikes in New England and then didn't look at the contract again until four months before the manuscript was due. She hadn't written a word. The purpose of this group turned out to be to provide massive amounts of encouragement and a small dose of envy for anyone who could get a contract and be so cavalier about deadlines. Another member sought information on a particular free-lance job, received highly specific warnings about avoiding this magazine at all costs, ignored them, and then received massive amounts of encouragement in suing the vendor who refused to pay her. If nothing else, this group was consistent. We were promiscuous in our praise and unstinting in our support and generally ignored all good advice.

The second group I attended seemed to be based on whom you had worked for. All genres were acceptable, including a few that had no names as yet. We all knew each other and our professional paths continued to cross. We were expected to show up with something to read at least every other week, and to take not longer than five or ten minutes. We were expected to listen attentively and offer suggestions for improvement. This was another support group but a little more discerning. It was rare that anyone said anything negative, but when someone did, we took it as a sign that we were ready to graduate and move on.

A third group was among the most structured, meeting once a month and requiring each writer to present a complete chapter or two (about 50 pages) for everyone to read beforehand, then listen without verbal response (eye rolling was allowed) as everyone else commented and discussed among themselves. At the end of this, if the writer was still able to speak and could stop biting his or her tongue, he or she could comment on the discussion and the specific points made. I lasted about a month (that's one meeting for those not following this discussion closely).

A variation on the third group requires that a writer send out by email or snail mail copies of whatever she or he wants to discuss at the weekly meeting, and then at the regular meeting each member can comment and discuss with other members including the writer whose work it is. No one is barred from speaking. All genres are acceptable.

A fourth group is probably the result of the first three. This group has a monitor, also a writer but one who does not participate in the readings and critiques. This person is expected to facilitate discussion, keep writers from acting out the crimes they are so graphically describing in their novels and short stories, and generally keep the group feeling positive and motivated and out of the clutches of the authorities.

These then are the four basic writers' groups. And while I might have had some unusual experiences as a writer when among other writers, I hasten to assure all you beginning writers our there that you will survive participation in a writers' group, you will learn a great deal, you will get that boost you need to finish your novel and then sell it. But in the process you will meet a few oddballs and hear some painful descriptions of your brilliant Pulitzer quality work. You may even wonder why you thought writing a novel was a good idea in the first place. But when you finally sell that novel, your writer group friends will bring a bottle of champagne, cheer you loudly, and you will know you really are a genius.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Never Put A Date On YOur Dreams

Never Put A Date On your Dreams

“With competition growing exponentially, authors are told to be aware of and not be hesitant to adopt or use new and different components of style.” Advice given but not easily taken.  By no means do I go on record opposed to technical advances. I simply  mourn the disappearing art of Letter Writing, especially in literature.
Epistolary writing is fiction told through the medium of letters, but I like to think of letters as voices, their stories told in beautiful prose. If you have ever researched collections of old letters and viewed their graceful, rhythmic lines, you understand what I mean. Past generations knew how to “turn a phrase”.
A glorious history of letters exists in literature. The genre became popular in the 18th century, but gradually became subject to ridicule and fell out of favor. It revived in the nineteenth century. Consider Frankenstein and Dracula were written in epistolary style! Along came Alexander Graham Bell and in 1875   letters were once again put in shadow by the invention of the telephone.
Not totally put on the shelf however, letters as a literary form made notable appearances in contemporary novels. Some of them even included diary entries, newspaper clippings, book excerpts and the like. Stephen king’s Carrie used epistolary structure and Ronald Munson used epistolary style in Fan Mail. Others followed suit; a favorite of mine was Barbara Hambly’s Homeland.

Cell phones, BlackBerrries, iPhones, etc. arrived in our 21st century, entering  the fast communication scene with Texting as  a popular mode  of communication. It is doubtful I will personally use texting, but the characters that people my stories, perhaps will. Letter writing was partly the inspiration for my first novel, Four Summers Waiting, Five Star, 2006 (now available on Kindle). The discovery of authentic family letters and diaries of my children’s ancestors helped me to create the setting and social milieu for that Civil War story. I used some of the actual diary excerpts and letters in dialogic epistolary style (giving the letters of the characters) throughout the book. A line from a letter, contained  in Four Summers Waiting written by  Civil War surgeon, Henry Simms to his beloved Maria, is an example:

Washington City is a frightening place to be as the month of May approaches. It should be filled with birdsong and blossoms and I long to be showing you the cherry trees in bloom . . .
I hope and dream that things will some day come full circle for I remain an old fashioned devotee of letter writing. I’m sure you can tell by now that I live up to my by-line,

                           Never Put a date on your dreams.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Book Promotion and Libraries

Promoting to Libraries: Part 2

by Jacqueline Seewald

The first part of this discussion appeared on Jeffrey Marks’ blog site Murder Must Advertise, September 23, 2011. At that time, I suggested that authors consider promoting their books, whether fiction or nonfiction, at libraries. Some libraries will pay writers to come and speak, others will at least provide writers with exposure to the reading public. Not all libraries welcome authors but there are many that do. As a former librarian and teacher, I can testify to the fact that authors are welcome to provide an event at many libraries. Books are an important component of what the library has to offer. Authors are respected by most librarians.

If you are a relatively unknown writer, try to get a local newspaper to do a story on you before your library appearance. Also, if you’re not Nora Roberts or Mary Higgins Clark, don’t expect people to come in droves just because you announce a book signing. Think in terms of what kind of event you can provide that library patrons will enjoy and appreciate.

On October 6th I presented an event at the Fort Lee, NJ Library entitled “We Can All Be Writers.” It was not just be a talk but a happening—an interactive experience for both attendees and myself. I provided writing exercises that we could do together and discuss.
I’ll also discussed sources of inspiration for aspiring writers as well as library resources for writers. In short, I was offering information of value to patrons.

I believe that not only can everyone be a writer but should be a writer. By this I do not necessarily mean that they should strive for publication. There is such a thing as writing simply for our own self-expression and self-satisfaction. There is also writing to leave a written and historical record for our families.

My program lasted two hours. Fifteen people showed up who were eager to participate. When I previously did this program in Central New Jersey, twenty-five people were present and actively participated. However, fifteen was a comfortable group to work with and they were very enthusiastic. I also had help earlier in the week from the library coordinator who turned my overhead transparencies into a Power Point presentation.

What’s in it for you, the author? Well, the library may or may not be able to pay you to speak but at least you won’t be paying a fee. Doing an event will provide you with publicity. You can ask the local newspaper to cover it and/or get it placed on their events calendar in advance. Hopefully, library patrons may want to either borrow some of your novels from the library or purchase them from you. At the very least, the library will buy your book. In my case, I offered some of my novels at a heavily discounted price and had the librarian take the money because I donated any money earned from the sale of my books the Friends of the Library so they can continue to sponsor more events. It was my way of giving back to the community.

What is your opinion of authors doing events, talks or panel discussions at libraries? Have you participated in any library events? If so, how has it worked out? Will you consider doing it in the future?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Writer’s workshops are the bomb!

The bomb, according to my grandson is EXCELLENT. I have to agree and it fits so well. I had the pleasure of attending Lisa Tucker’s Writer Workshop at Watermark Books Saturday afternoon. I learned a lot along and met some interesting people.

There were new writers, experienced writers, and everything in between. And that’s the way is should be. We writers know what the others are going through and have the opportunity to learn and share our experiences with one another. Lisa Tucker is one of my new favorite people! She’s smart, genuine, funny, and very open about what to try and how to make our writing better. I think I can safely say we were all very impressed. (As soon as I finish my current read I’m diving into “The Song Reader” then “The Winters in Bloom.”)

We talked about publishing, agents, marketing, character, plot, readers, queries, but most of all we discussed how to make our stories work. We even did a little writing exercise, which resulted in so many wonderful ideas that were all completely different. Lisa suggested some great reading material, “On Becoming a Novelist” by John Gardner (one of my personal favorites) and “The Lie That Tells the Truth” by John Defresne. (I’ll be ordering this one!)

Something Lisa said that I’m posting on my tack board: “Don’t let characters circle the drain.” Wow. Is she a writer, or what? You know how sometimes a character will do or say the same thing over and over again, well, that’s a good way for them to become very boring. I’ve read it and done it myself.

Another thing we discussed was the fact that we writers must support one another any way we can. We must continue to read, buy books and support our local indie bookstores, because if we don’t –there won’t be any books or indie bookstores. From the look of the library of books I’m accumulating I’m doing my part, and loving every word!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Medieval Undergarments

While writing The Tapestry Shop, I researched medieval clothing. Paintings show us the outwear, but  little was written about underwear worn in the Middle Ages. What we know about clothing comes from the few extant pieces that have survived the years, carefully preserved in museums with controlled climate and lighting, but with underwear—being what it was—we have little to go by. The Chartres statues, for instance, represent outer garments, so we can only guess, from representations on pottery and drawings, at what was worn beneath. There are representations of women participating in games that show them wearing something that looks much like a bikini, a small lower piece and a binding wrap at the top.

When full skirts came into use, it's doubtful women would lift layers of cloth and then have to untie something to answer nature's call, although something like men's loincloths may have been worn during certain times of the month.
Women wore undergowns, or chemises, beneath their outer gowns. In the picture, this woman has her outer gown tucked into her belt, perhaps to allow a bit of air to pass through her chemise, but this was the furthest she'd go.
Men, in early Middle Ages, wore loincloths like what is shown. Laborers in the field thought nothing of stripping down to their loincloths in hot weather. At other times, the clothes were colorful and part of everyday outer garb, as the picture suggests, and men at sea had no compunction about stripping naked during daytime chores on the ship, unless there were women aboard.
We know more about the hose they wore, as that garment is visible in statues and paintings. Hose were made of two woven pieces of fabric sewn together, usually of wool. Their wool was a soft weave because of the manner in which it was made, nothing like our wool today which would be a bit itchy, at least to this writer. Later, hose (hosen) worn by armored knights were made of sturdier material and called chausses, an item worn beneath the armor.
In the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period, hose became a significant part of everyday outer garb and were frequently colorful and made of fine fabrics.
There are several good reference books on the subject, but be careful to steer away from costume books used for Hollywood productions. Some are not true to the period, but look better on screen. For anyone who's interested, a good little overall guide, one I have on my reference shelf and which gives a good idea of the construction of medieval clothing, is Medieval Costume in England and France: the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries, by Mary G. Houston.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tricks and Techniques

I recently wrote a short blog about how I compose my crime novels--I start writing and just keep going until I come to the end. I write without an outline and without any sense of where I am going. I know who the victim is, and even though I begin writing with an idea of who the murderer is, that can change at any time during the first three hundred pages. Of course, I have to do a lot of revising when I finally get to the end of the first draft, but all writing is revising anyway.

The real challenge for me, once I get started, is to keep going and not get lost--not wander off into turning a chapter into a short story, and then following that up with an article on the setting of the short story. If I do that, then by the time I came back to the novel, I would've forgotten what it's about. Another danger for me is getting tired. If I decide I'm tired and take a vacation for three weeks, I may never get the feeling of the story back. And then there's work and all the crises that seem to manifest whenever something else is happening in my life. To prevent all these digressions and distractions, I've developed a number of tricks to keep me focused and moving forward.

First, I take notes. This is usually a section in a binder for various projects I'm thinking about or working on, and there I keep a list of characters and a list of clues and points to include, adding to the list as I go along. I make a note every day of what discoveries or important incidents I've written in. This is a short one or two line summary of the day's scenes, to help me keep in mind what I've covered as I move through the story. The list of clues also includes sentence fragments, brief character descriptions or details--anything that could find a place in the story. I don't feel I have to use everything, but it's convenient to have one place to store ideas.

Second, I keep track every day of the number of words I've written. I don't have to write thousands of words (wouldn't that be nice?) but I do have to write something. If I'm working on a novel, I keep a running total of words written day by day. At first I set myself a total of approximately 1500 words a day, and this seems to be a norm for many writers. But by keeping track this way I have discovered to my surprise that there's usually a period in the book when that I write twice that amount. I don't think I would have noticed it so consistently if not for the ongoing record. During certain parts of the book I seem to pick up speed and I have to make an effort to slow down, to avoid getting sloppy and getting carried away with just the numbers achieved. But when I feel like I'm getting nowhere, like the story is stuck in place, a glance at the list of dates and the number of words written gives me a boost and I don't worry about whether or not I'm getting anywhere.

If I'm not working on a novel, or I am not working on it on this particular day, I note what I did work on. Did I write a blog post (like this one), or a query letter for an article or book review? Did I write a talk to be given later in the year, or plan questions for a mystery panel?

Third, I have to do something for my writing every day. The obvious task is writing, but if not that, then researching material for the novel, researching journals for a short story or an article, learning about marketing, setting up events. And there's lots to be done, more than I can list here, to maintain any kind of writing life. But this doesn't include reading because I'm doing that all the time anyway. That's the official reason. The real reason is that if I include reading in my list of work topics and tasks, I will write and I will read and I will never do anything else.

For a closer look at my writing process, go to

Monday, September 26, 2011

Writing in Voice

Last month, I won second place in the short story category for the Pacific Northwest Writer's Association literary contest. It was and is a proud moment for me, but I know you didn't stop by to read some BSP, so please excuse me for starting out like that. But I have a point about writing that I'd like to share--an insight that surprised me and might give inspiration to you.
The voice in my award-winning story was not the voice you're reading now.
The setting for my story is in western Kansas, a place where I spent most of my childhood summers and a place where my parents were born and raised. All my life I grew up hearing the distinctive western twang, the curt, bottom-line judgments, the simple distillation of events that are indicative to the region. Those voices settled deep in my subconscious and even though I am more southern/midwestern than western, (my family moved to Missouri after I was born) those voices are a part of my life.
When I started writing the story, those voices came alive. What came out was a story I didn't expect; one of those pieces of writing where you remember the actual writing, where you remember the music that was playing during the composition, but a piece where upon re-reading, you ask yourself, "Did I write that?"
I can do a pretty good British voice on the page, too, I think. Although I've never published a piece that included that voice, I enjoy writing it. I've only been to Great Britain once, but I love a number of British writers. I'm wondering now if their voices, too, have meandered their way into my brain.
What voices do you have lurking inside? Your parents or grandparents? The voices of a place or a time that intrigues you? Or a voice in your imagination: your muse whispering in your ear?

Friday, September 23, 2011

"A Place to Nurture Genius"

On a recent trip to Grand Manan Island, NB  I was surprised to learn that Grand Manan won third place in Readers Digest’s “World’s 7 Best small islands.

“Connected to mainland New Brunswick by ferry, the island is home to charming fishing villages, the vertiginous Southeast Head sea cliffs and the idyllic Swallowtail Lighthouse, the second-most photographed lighthouse in all of Atlantic Canada.”

This quote is part of Tim Johnson’s island description for the Reader’s Digest Contest announcement.  What the announcement doesn’t tell you becomes the caveat of my blog.

I was surprised to learn of the contest win, but delighted too, because the island is home to my eldest son, Michael E. Simms. Michael makes his living as a commercial fisherman on the Bay of Fundy.

A few years ago Michael showed us a rustic cottage nestled in the trees near the cliffs at Whale Cove, North Head, one of the six villages on Grand Manan.  Michael had a reason for showing this isolated, charming cottage. I had been pestering him with questions about the island; his answers to be part of the research for an article I was writing.

“This cottage,” Michael said, “is part of the estate of a renowned American author, Willa Cather. Like you, Mom, she was a writer and teacher. She lived here and wrote books in this cottage.” I was flattered by the comparison but assured Michael that my writing was not likely to ever achieve Cather’s fame.

Willa Cather (1873-1947), novelist and short story writer, one time editor of McClure’s magazine, wrote during the first half of the 20th century. My Antonia is often thought to be her most enduring novel, but it was One of Ours, written in 1922 which won a Pulitzer Prize. L.K. Ingersol writes about Willa Cather in Shadows On the Rock.

“Not too much has been written about her connection to this Bay of Fundy island. There is ample reason. During her lifetime she said little about it, probably nothing to the public and hardly more to her close friends. . .The very fact that it was rather out of the way and visited by none of her friends made it all the more desirable. Had it been otherwise, she would have probably dismissed it from her mind. It was then, actually a workshop, a place to nurture genius.”

Her companion and confidant, Edith Lewis, was with her on Grand Manan Island. Ingersol writes that “the two companions found solitude without loneliness at Whale Cove. It was ideal for their work and after three years they built a cottage of their own.

In 1926 they bought several acres of land and the cottage was built for them by local carpenters.

Much later Lewis mentioned the cottage in her book Willa Cather Living, “the cottage was a rather rough little place, with many inconveniences, but it came to have great charm. Above the rooms was a large attic from which one could look out over the cliff and the sea, and this Willa chose for her study.”

I first saw the Willa Cather cottage while visiting our son in 2007. I remember peeking in the windows, marveling at the care obviously given to its upkeep, imagining her sitting at her old Oliver typewriter listening to birdsongs or the sound of the sea. I snapped photos of the cottage and the view, vowing to re-read one of my favorites of hers, Death Comes For the Archbishop.

During an August visit this year we toured down Whistle Road once again. Drawing near the Willa Cather cottage, it was time to enjoy a sumptuous dinner at cliff-side’s  Inn at Whale Cove Cottages –a very special treat from our son!  Browsing through brochure descriptions of the rental cottages on the premises, I experienced a second island surprise!


Built by the American author in the 1920’s this cottage is secluded and has a Cliffside water view.  There are two bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, two fireplaces, activity room and kitchen.  $1000.00 per week Sunday to Sunday

A rental cottage!  Perhaps not a use that will perpetuate Willa’s memory, but if the $’s were available I can think of no better retreat to inspire a writer than this beauty spot at Whale Cove, North Head on Grand Manan Island.

          Enjoy the photos of the cottage, Willa’s sea view and Swallowtail Light. whether you are a reader or a writer, you may want to be inspired as Willa Cather was on that remote island.

Back to this author 's musings, my conscience niggles over a promise I made to my  readers: An excerpt from my new book,  PROMISE KEEPER.  A synopsis and excerpt appears on my Author Page at Red Room's literary web site. If you open the the following URL mypromise will be kept.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Self-Publishing versus Traditional Publishing? Good Question.

Each has it’s pro’s and con’s. With self-publishing: you pay for it all, the set up, the printing, the distribution, the marketing & promotion, you buy all your copies to sell or give away. If you have a non-fiction platform, then self-publishing is probably a good way to go. You can control the content, it’s printed faster than traditional publishing (which can take 18-24 months), and you already have a built in audience.

For fiction, I’m torn. Personally, I prefer traditional publishing. They pay you, you don’t pay them. But to get national or world-wide distribution you need an agent to get into the big publishing houses. That’s easier said than done. Another option, is to use smaller publishers that don’t require agents. The advance is smaller, but they do the printing and distribution. You still have to market and promote regardless if it is fiction or non-fiction, small publisher or large, self published or traditional.

Here is what I experienced when my first novel was ready to sell. I couldn’t find an agent for FEISTY FAMILY VALUES after exhaustive attempts. So, I went with a smaller publisher. My advance was small but they put together a wonderful product and distributed it to all the big booksellers (Barnes and Noble, Borders, Amazon). They also shared the book with big reviewers like Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, etc. Unfortunately, my novel wasn’t reviewed by the biggies, but I did get several good reviews from the smaller reviewers they notified. If you self-publish you have to do the digging for reviewers yourself and pay for the books you send them. My publisher gave me a dozen books free just for that purpose.

Another option would be e-publishing, like Kindle and Nook, etc. If you have a contract with a publisher and they have the electronic rights, they’ll get your e-pub book done for you. My contract was for print only, so I did my own e-publishing, through Kindle and Nook. It’s not hard and I don’t have to share as much of the profits as I would with a traditional publisher. That’s another thing. Self-publishing is on your dime, but all the profits are yours. With a traditional publisher you share with everyone and their dog, getting as little as 8-10% of the retail list.

If you self publish, the editing is also on you (you can always pay a freelance editor), whereas a traditional publisher will have editors who will review it multiple times to make it the cleanest, best product it can be for no additional cost to the author.

MY ADVICE: Do your homework before you make a decision on whether to self-publish or traditionally publish. Your skill level, available time and budget are key.
To read more about B.D. Tharp, her novel and other writing, visit

Friday, September 16, 2011

Setting: Writing What We Know Vs. Doing Research

Setting: Writing What We Know Vs. Doing Research

by Jacqueline Seewald

This topic has been discussed previously on Author Expressions. But I believe it’s
important enough to consider again. So I’m offering my own take on the subject.

You’ll notice that a lot of mystery and romance writers set their novels in places they either live in or have lived in. This may seem provincial, but in fact, it makes for good writing. If we know a place well, we can create a realistic setting, an intriguing background for our novels. Setting is one of the important components of any piece of fiction—plays short stories or novels.

Not all of my novels are set in New Jersey. However, most of them are.
This is because I was born in New Jersey and have lived in the state
my entire life. I like to write novels that have authenticity of setting.
All my YA novels like STACY’S SONG are set in New Jersey.
My children’s picture book A DEVIL IN THE PINES was published
in New Jersey by Afton Publishing; a faction book, that can be found in
both school and public libraries. The book explores the Jersey Devil

and the Pine Barrens using fictional characters. The setting is crucial.

My adult mystery series, featuring amateur sleuth Kim Reynolds, librarian,
is--you guessed it--set in New Jersey. These three novels:
and my new novel THE TRUTH SLEUTH are set in Central New Jersey
where I lived for forty years. I also taught English
at the high school and middle school as well as the university.
So again this led to authenticity in the novels’ settings.

THE TRUTH SLEUTH, for instance, is largely set in a NJ high school.

Do I consider research unimportant? Absolutely not! Every novel requires
a certain amount of research, some more than others. My paranormal historical romance TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS required extensive research. And I enjoyed
every minute of it. I’ve been a fan of Regency romance for many years and wanted
to do my own version of such a novel. But to do it right, I had to research the
details so I made no mistakes—or as few as possible.

I believe the best novels combine elements of what we actually know with research into what we need to find out. I’m no fan of info dumping in fiction, but writers need to read and discover a lot more information than they will actually use in their novels.

What is your opinion? Do you prefer authentic contemporary fiction, well-researched
historic fiction--or perhaps you have a preference for fantasy, science fiction or
horror novels which create imaginary worlds? What suits your fancy?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Fashions, oh my!

The fourteenth century was a period of change and experimentation in the fashion world, as evidenced by extant paintings. Men began to wear tightly fitted clothing, sometimes so short as to be immodest, while other more conservative men kept to the long gowns and robes.

Wool was the most common fabric, because it could take dye, and served as a good insulator in a time when the only window covering was often a wooden shutter.

14th century dressmakers
Fabrics could be printed now, most commonly by woodblocks. Other decorative fabrics were embroidered wool, and gold and silk threads, only obtainable by the rich.

Edward III established an embroidery workshop in the Tower of London, to provide suitable garments for the royal couple.

Linen was commonly worn next to the skin, and cotton was used for padding and quilting. Silk was most desired, and most expensive.

During the middle part of the 14th c. people began to wear parti-colored clothes, even two different colored hose, especially at the English court.

Belts crept lower and lower, and by the end of the century, were worn low on the hips, as they are now. So you see it’s true; if you wear a style long enough, it will come back into fashion!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Keeping the Door Open

Anyone who has published anything anywhere has probably had the experience of receiving unexpected and usually unsolicited feedback from a reader or another writer (not that they're mutually exclusive), and recently I started thinking about this. I'm not the most adept with (no longer new) technology, and a reader pointed out a slip I had made and how to correct it. I was pleased with the advice because I might otherwise not have caught on, and thanked her. She emailed me back with a note that she was relieved that I wasn't offended.

Instant publishing through blogs, websites, ebooks, emagazines also means instant feedback. We put our views on the Internet, with direct access to us, and this surely invites a reaction, and the reactions come in. Most of us are used to the benign comments that are complimentary, encouraging, supportive, and we occasionally get the argumentative ones that tell us, usually politely, that we're all wrong. But sometimes we get the snarky ones from readers who are just looking for an opportunity to score a hit. The trolls.

These people are not limited to the Internet. One reader of a Joe Silva mystery novel wrote to me that she wouldn't commit murder under the same circumstances that drove the character in my book, and I must say I was very glad to hear that. I commend her for her self-discipline and virtuous character.

Some people clearly don't mind being trolls or snarks, but most of us can hear that voice in the back of our heads saying, "No nice person would say anything like that," when we are tempted to give as good as we get. We restrain ourselves, proffer something polite, and move on.

The real problem with this instant publishing and instant critique isn't the hurt feelings or wasted time. The real problem is the same one that infects every other aspect of life. Bad money drives out good, nastiness pushes aside more thoughtful, useful comments, and we begin to delete without reading emails from any name we don't recognize.

I've been fortunate to have received only a few snarky emails (probably because I have a modest readership), and the unsolicited comments I do receive have been interesting, useful, and intelligent. I would hate to lose this connection with readers, so I keep my email open, remain optimistic, and thank everyone who takes the time to offer something that might benefit me. They are generous and helpful, and I'm glad to count them among people I reach. I can't promise this will last forever, but so far it seems to work.