Friday, May 29, 2015

Fiction Readers Care About by Jacqueline Seewald

Readers need both an emotional and intellectual connection to fiction or they won’t continue reading. If this connection isn’t created, readers will simply say: So what? Then they’ll toss what they’re reading aside and look for something else. Since writers put their blood, sweat and emotional existence into giving birth to their babies, it’s natural to want their work read. How do writers create fiction that readers will care about? It’s not a secret. The answer lies with the characters.

Writers must first know their characters.

It is not enough to have a general idea of a character in your head when you start writing. You have to live and breathe the character, know him/her the way you know yourself. In essence, realistic characters are extensions or facets of yourself. My suggestion: Create a detailed written character study of each main character before you begin to write your story or novel.
Here are a few items to consider:
Shakespeare asks: What’s in a name? Clearly, a whole lot. A sweet young thing might have a soft-sounding name while a villain might have a hard-sounding one. What about ethnic names? Are they appropriate or inappropriate for your work?
Another thing you need to keep in mind is not to give characters names that might confuse readers. Names that are too similar in nature--for instance, Jane and Jana--should belong in different stories.
The name of your character will likely cause an assumption of gender, unless you are trying to keep it ambiguous. When I introduced African-American detective “Bert St. Croix” early in the novel THE DROWNING POOL, it comes as something as a surprise that she is a woman. She is tall, strong and fierce. A more masculine name fits her character. Readers don’t learn her back story right away, only the contrast that she has great sympathy and compassion for those who are in need of help but is tough with criminals.
Nicknames are also something to consider. Does your character have a nickname like “Bert" short for “Roberta”? What might that suggest about the character?
Age, Voice, Viewpoint
Age at the time of the story is significant. Is your story about an adult, a teenager, a child?  Point of view and voice differ with each. Also consider how the time period the character lives in effects personality and beliefs. This is especially important in historical fiction.

 In THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY, the novel is told from two distinct viewpoints--that of a teenage boy and his troubled mother. Point of view is very important. The chapters alternate between Jim and his mother. Jim tells his story in the first person present tense while his mother’s chapters are in third person past tense. Vocabulary and use of language are unique to each character.

Also, the reader understands things the characters do not comprehend particularly when the main character is telling the story from a first person viewpoint. The unreliable first person narrator is very common to mystery fiction. Sometimes the reader knows just what the narrator knows while other times the reader knows more. Dramatic irony can build tension and suspense.
Back Story/Personal History
Although you know your character’s back story or personal history, the reader should learn it slowly, piece-meal, bit by bit. This makes your character interesting and adds an aura of mystery. It makes readers want to turn the pages to find out more details about the character.
Making Your Character Sympathetic
Characters need to be relatable as  well as real. This means they need to have good qualities that readers like but also character flaws just like an ordinary person. They also need to have goals and ambitions that they’re striving toward. I prefer to make my main characters sympathetic but complex.
Danna the main character in THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER wants to leave her life of poverty behind. Her ambition is to be an artist. But Danna is confused in her values and family perceptions.

It’s important to know how your characters look. Not only should you have a picture in your mind but you need to describe in words how the characters appear: short, tall, handsome, beautiful, ugly, fat, thin, eye color, hair color.
Mannerisms are important as well. Does your heroine bite her nails, twist locks of her long hair? Does your hero flex his muscles? Does your villain speak in a soft, menacing voice? In THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER, teenage Danna is a pretty girl but doesn’t think she is.
Start first with the family members, especially if they are an important part of the story. Who are the parents, siblings and extended family of your character? It’s not enough to just come up with names for them when developing your main subject. What are they like? Provide descriptions, personalities, etc. Are there any problems your character has with them? Kim Reynolds, the academic librarian sleuth first introduced in THE INFERNO COLLECTION, has a complex family dynamic that includes dark secrets.
What about friends? If they play a part in the story, we need to know your main character’s interactions with and feelings about them. In the Kim Reynolds mystery series, Kim comes to love police detective Mike Gardner. Their relationship is complicated in THE TRUTH SLEUTH by the return of Mike’s wife, Evelyn, who becomes THE BAD WIFE in the 4th novel in this series. Kim and Bert St. Croix also become close friends, and in THE BAD WIFE, they work together and quite literally save Mike’s life.
 Get to know your character’s strengths and weaknesses, attitudes, fears, obsessions, special talents and hobbies. How does your character think, speak, act? What do other characters say about him/her?
Weave body language in with dialogue. This often creates subtle emotional signals. What is said may be in contrast to what the character actually thinks and feels.
When you write a scene where there is interaction between characters, try to visualize it as you would see it in a film. There’s nothing wrong with having the image in your mind of real people. It’s also okay to eavesdrop on conversations and be an objective observer which will provide you with material for your writing.
In DEATH LEGACY, Michelle Hallam is a mysterious English woman who has been trained in intelligence work. She is wary and guarded while Daniel Reiner appears to be open and more balanced in his approach to life. They are very different people who come together as lovers and detectives to solve a murder espionage mystery as their lives are placed in jeopardy putting them increasingly in danger.

To sum up:
1. Be selective in choosing the names that convey what you want readers to visualize about your character.
2. Appearance is important. What does your character look like? Description can convey much about character. But don’t overdo it. As the old saying goes: show don’t tell.
3. What is special about your character’s speech? Are there unique phrases used? Dickens was a master of this. Also, dialogue should seem natural, they way real people talk.
4. Get into the mind set of your character. How does your character think?  James Joyce is a good writer to read for internal monologue technique.
5. How does your character act, react and interact with others?
6. What do other characters say about him/her?
7. Does the entire presentation have verisimilitude? Do your characters seem real and believable?
8. What values and goals are unique to your character? Why?

Your comments, observations and input are very welcome here!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Chasing History

Mystery Scene Magazine published my essay with that title. It described the inspiration for the third book in my trilogy The Maine Shore Chronicles. The essay started with questions."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?" The answer was Yes. The seed for the stories was a lithograph circa 1845 of a woman tending a spinning frame in a local cotton mill. In my mind's eye that picture metamorphosed into my grandmother, who actually came to that town with her family  in 1890 to work in the mills."

During the four decades preceding the Civil War, the New England textile industry evolved and employment  to over one hundred thousand workers. One of the astonishing features of the early days of the industry was its dependence on "The Mill Girls". In some cities residency in factory boarding houses was mandatory. In a book called Run of the Mill this  was written."No persons could be employed whose habits are or shall be dissolute,indolent,dishonest or intemperate, or who absent themselves from public worship and violate the Sabbath. A board charge of $1.25 was deducted from the $2 to $4 a girl could earn in a 70 hour week.The hours were long, yet they were not overworked. They were to tend no more looms and frames than they could easily take care of. They had plenty of time to sit and rest and they were treated with respect by their employers."

Workers for the mills were recruited from Great Britain and Quebec, Canada. The Irish were pretty well established when French Canadians came to work in New England mills. Many of the mill towns from Connecticut through Maine had whole villages or sections of French Canadians.  That was true of the towns of Saco and Biddeford Maine, the setting for my book.  I added Biddeford Pool for its uniqueness and beauty. The towns were steeped in ethnicity and tradition and that became a theme of my stories.

I don't know whether my grandmother actually worked there because the family migrated to New York state before the turn of the century. The research, which started with that lithograph was a long and frustrating process which could be a story in itself, but it led to a semi- sequel featuring Tante Margaret   a much loved character from the Chronicles series in a book of her own SAFE HARBOR. It debuted a few weeks ago as a paperback book  available from Create Space and Amazon. Watch for a special reduced price as a Memorial Day bargain, and for all you readers of electronic books, an eBook of Safe Harbor is coming soon.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Search for the perfect - what?

It seems that everyone is in search of the "perfect" something. The perfect photo. The perfect song. The perfect wedding dress. The perfect house. The perfect idea. And the list goes on...

Authors are looking for the perfect word, character or story that will resonate with readers around the world and get them on the NY Best Seller List, translated into thirty-five languages, and actually make money.

Aside from that, I'm always on the lookout for the perfect purse. You know, the one with the right amount of pockets, not too big, not too small, comfortable on the shoulder. And don't forget "attractive." If my purse has a pocket for everything, a little space for a book or notebook and doesn't make me list to one side - it's the perfect one for what I need today.

Readers are in search of the next perfect read. Luckily there are many wonderful books out there and they will never stop after reading just one. With any luck the next new book will be the best one read so far. (We authors just have to get it written and out there.)

My husband is in search of the perfect pocket knife. A tool with all the gadgets he'll ever need, but it can't be too large or two small. Personally, I prefer a tool for each job. My favorite pen to write with. A high heel for a hammer. A screw driver with interchangeable ends. A rubber spatula for scraping the sides of the batter bowl.

I've always been of the opinion that you can never have too many earrings or books. There are perfect ones for every occasion or mood - but not just "one" for all time. We have our "favorites" that we wear, carry or read over and over again.

What is it about those things that make them "perfect"? That's the question we have to ask ourselves and as authors - and also answer. Does our story appeal to a broad audience or is it limited? Does our story provide lots of pockets of information, fun, intrigue for readers to explore? Does our story meet the needs of the reader?

When we find a book we can't put down, that speaks to us as if it were written for us specifically, what is it about that book that makes it so? How can we as authors capture that same essence in our own stories?

I'm full of questions today, instead of answers. Each of us has to find the perfect tools and resources to help us on the writing journey. Sharing our authoring experiences helps one another find our own way, that's why Author Expressions is so important. We are all seekers of something. We all need help along the way.

Spice. Variety. Both are keys to a happy journey, the perfect story and the perfect recipe. By the way, does anyone have a recipe for the perfect pizza dough? 

Friday, May 8, 2015

Author Alice Duncan Gives Readers Inside Info

Award-winning author Alice Duncan lives with a herd of wild dachshunds (enriched from time to time with fosterees from New Mexico Dachshund Rescue). She’s not a UFO enthusiast--her mother’s family settled in Roswell fifty years before the aliens crashed.

Alice is not only an accomplished author with a unique literary voice and countless novels to her credit but an outstanding editor as well—and I do know that from personal experience. She’s edited six of my Five Star/Gale/Cengage novels.

It’s our great pleasure to welcome Alice as our guest blogger on Author Expressions today. 

 Alice has two new novels out which would make great Mother’s Day gifts.


Before I get into Thanksgiving Angels, the book, it might be a good idea to recount how the Mercy Allcutt historical cozy mystery series began.

You see, I love the 1920s as a decade. The ‘twenties were such a time of grief, astonishment, PTSD, change, outraged sensibilities, and befuddlement, the era is, in a word, fascinating. The War to End all Wars had ended to be followed by an influenza pandemic that wiped out nearly a quarter of the earth’s population. This, following a war that killed almost an entire generation of young men. Small wonder people were wandering around confounded and wondering what the heck was going on, you know?

Well, I decided I’d write a series of historical cozy mysteries set in a place I knew well (Southern California, where I was born and grew up) in an era that had me mesmerized, the 1920s. First of all, during that decade you had parents who’d seen their sons die only to then see their daughters begin to do things that were unheard of in the parents’ younger days: wearing short skirts, smoking (!), going out with boys alone and in automobiles (!), necking, refusing to follow their parents’ rules, drinking alcohol (and this, in spite of Prohibition, for the love of heaven!), enthralled by motion pictures and the “stars” thereof, and generally behaving as if there were no tomorrow. There was a good reason for that. After the Great War and the influenza pandemic, lots of people decided there truly was no tomorrow, and they might as well live it up while the earth still stood.

So Daisy Gumm Majesty appeared in my head, pretty much fully formed, as a fake spiritualist-medium (spiritualism was all the rage because of the ravages of war and illness) with a war-injured husband to support. I wrote the first two Daisy books (Strong Spirits and Fine Spirits) thinking they’d be my historical cozy mystery series set in the 1920s.

Boy, was I wrong. Kensington, my publisher at the time, told me there wasn’t enough mystery in the books (probably true) and that I should take out the dead bodies, add a subsidiary romance (because Daisy was already married) and they’d publish them as romance novels, which they weren’t. Naturally, they tanked. Also naturally, I was devastated. Daisy was me, with a few notable differences. For one thing, Daisy had a supportive birth family, and for another, she had none of my crippling neuroses. But Daisy, as nearly as I could tell, was lying dead, belly-up in the goldfish bowl of publishing. The late, great Kate Duffy actually called and apologized to me for mis-marketing Daisy’s books, but that didn’t appease my grief. I had to take yet another pseudonym and write a series of historical romances set in the days after the Titanic disaster. So I did, but I hated every moment of the first book. The second and third books in the series weren’t so difficult to write, but I still missed Daisy.

So, what the heck, thought I: what was wrong with Los Angeles in the 1920s? Not a darned thing. So Mercedes Louise “Mercy” Allcutt was born. Mercy is the product of a staid, sober, stuffy, intolerant, overbearing couple of Boston Brahmins. Mercy, a modern young lass, although far from being a “flapper,” looks at her parents’ lives and the lives of the rest of the folks in the world, decides there’s too great a disparity between the rich and the poor (sound familiar? It should, since the same thing’s going on today), and determines to become a part of the vast worker proletariat, those people who struggle to survive on their own resources in a world geared to keep them downtrodden. Therefore, Mercy, at her sister Chloe’s invitation, moves to Los Angeles, California, and actually searches for a job! No female in Mercy’s entire family has ever actually worked for a living. Her parents are appalled. Chloe is tolerant. Mercy is delighted, both for putting a couple of thousand miles between herself and her parents, and for beginning to achieve her life’s ambition: writing gritty, true stories, about life on the streets of a big city.

Of course, Mercy knows nothing about the gritty side of life, but she’s game. She’s thrilled to be hired by a jaded ex-cop, P.I. Ernie Templeton, who takes one look at Mercy and pegs her for a rich girl. Mercy doesn’t understand how he did that, but she can’t deny the truth. However, she vows to be the best secretary she can be, and she’s thrilled to have a job with an honest-to-God private investigator. As luck would have it, her employment, which starts out depressingly boring, takes an upturn when murders crop up. In spite of Ernie’s best efforts, Mercy gets involved in the solutions to the various crimes, and her career as a private investigator’s assistant—oops. She means P.I.’s secretary, begin to thrive.

In Thanksgiving Angels, Mercy is depressed as all get-out because her Boston parents have bought a second home in Pasadena, California, a lovely community about twenty miles away from Los Angeles. Although she wishes he wouldn’t, Ernie gives Mercy Thanksgiving week off to visit her parents. Mercy’s stuck. Her mother has demanded her presence in the family’s new home for Thanksgiving, and Ernie refuses to cooperate with her own desires, and lets her have the week off.

The only bright spot Mercy can think of in this week of familial torture is that her sister and brother-in-law, Chloe and Harvey Nash (Harvey’s a bigwig in the motion industry), will be there, too. Mercy also brings along her dog, her adorable miniature poodle, Buttercup, so named because she’s apricottish in color. Her parents are disgusted. Mercy doesn’t care.

And then, lo and behold, Daisy Gumm Majesty shows up to perform a séance in the Allcutt’s Pasadena mansion. Mercy can hardly believe this, since her mother, Mrs. Albert Monteith Allcutt, known to her friends as Honoria and to her children as the Wrath of God, has never shown the slightest interest in spiritualist matters before. Mercy can only shake her head, take Buttercup for walks, and talk to her sister, who understands Mercy’s plight even though she can’t quite understand why Mercy wants to work for a living.

And then, after the séance, a woman is murdered, shoved from the ornate upper hallway’s banister railing to fall, splat, on the parquet flooring below.

Mercy is thunderstricken when her mother demands Mercy call her employer, Ernie Templeton, to investigate the crime. However, she does as asked, and she and Ernie join Daisy Majesty and Detective Sam Rotondo, from the Pasadena Police Department, and help solve the crime. In doing so, Mercy herself if almost done to death, but she survives to tell the story.

What’s even better, she slithers out of her parents’ grasp and actually spends a delightful Thanksgiving Day at Daisy’s home in Pasadena. Her parents are livid. Mercy is happy as a lark.

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Note: Comments and questions for Alice are welcome here!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Why I love the Post Office, by Susan Oleksiw

Anyone who writes for a living, no matter how meager, knows well how quiet this life can be most of the time, and not all interruptions are good ones. When the mailman arrives in the early morning, he brings excitement. The dog leaps up barking madly. My husband calls out, What's all that? What happened? I rush to the door and collect the mail, which is usually nothing more than a flyer for a new pizzeria in town. The mailman used to bring letters from friends living on the other side of the country, or invitations to a wedding or a party. The mail used to bring connections to the larger world. But now we have email. Today the mail delivery brings hubbub, so if I want a real connection with the world, I go to the post office.

This week I went to the post office twice. Yesterday I mailed off a ms to a small press, in hopes they'd be interested in something different from my usual book. Before I could leave the small building, which is barely the size of a one-room house, a former colleague arrived. We hadn't seen each other in almost two years, when we both left the field of social services to do other things. We fell to chatting about our current lives. He wrote and now leads tours titled Scary Stories of Salem. And if you think he's wasting his time and should get a real job, let me tell you that his tours for only one month brought in almost as much as he made in a year, with a full-time job. Salem is full of tourists.

Ken and I talked about his tour and by the time he was finished I was full of ideas. Why not develop a tour about writers in Salem? After all, Margaret Press writes police procedurals set in Salem, and Brunonia Barry writes a paranormal mystery series set there. The idea has legs, as they say. I left the post office looking forward to an invitation to take Ken's new tour later in the year.

Today I headed off to the post office to mail a package and an envelope. Only two people work at my post office, which is so tiny that it closes for lunch every day because there are no screens on the business window. But in exchange, we get great service.

Today I went with the wrong size box, and the agent helped me figure out what I needed and how it should be done. I don't mind being stupid in my post office. The package contained the manuscript of a new Anita Ray that was going to a beta reader outside Seattle. She doesn't like reading on her computer, so I send paper.

While I was transferring the unbound ms from one parcel to another, another patron asked if it was a ms. Do I write? Well, yes, I do. And, well, so does he. The author of numerous children's books, John Kelly teaches creative arts at Endicott College. We commiserated over the many changes in publishing over the years and the new courses being offered at the college.

I had come to the post office to mail a manila envelope. This was my most important task for the day, perhaps the year. This contained my new contract with Five Star/Gale, Cengage Learning for the fourth Anita Ray mystery. I had negotiated a couple of changes that delighted me, and I was eager to get on to the next step. Off the envelope went.

And because I am a writer, after each encounter I could feel a little something brewing, a fiction made by sifting the anecdotes and phrases of recent encounters, and pulling out a couple of gems that could be worked into a story.

The postmistress and I feel exactly the same about winter and spring and various other aspects of nature. As we congratulated each other on surviving the winter, she showed me a photo taken on her phone of a red-tailed hawk that had been tracking a squirrel on her roof. The squirrel got away, but she got a great shot of the hawk perched on the edge of the roof staring down into the gutter looking for the squirrel.

I'm willing to give up letters from friends arriving in the mailbox every few days, or months, and I'm willing to put up with the dog going bonkers once a day when the mailman arrives. I'm willing to put up with rising costs in postage stamps, and I'm even willing to accept the removal of the corner mailbox. I'm willing to do all this as long as I can keep my one real connection to the world--my tiny, one-room post office.

If you'd like to see more photos of the varied post offices throughout the country, go to   This is a link to the website Going Postal: A Photojournal of Post Offices and Places, maintained by Evan Kalish, who kindly allowed me to use his photo of the Prides Crossing Post Office, 01965.