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: