Sunday, October 22, 2017

Write What You Know. Except When You Don’t


Write what you know. Really? What if I want to write about what I don’t know? Does Anne Perry know what it’s like to be Thomas Pitt, a police inspector in Victorian London? Does Jacqueline Winspear have firsthand knowledge of the world of Maisie Dobbs, a psychologist/investigator based in England in the early decades of the twentieth century? No. These authors and many like them do research to create their characters and stories. Lots of research.

Even in contemporary times, a sleuth may need to venture into an unfamiliar environment in order to hunt down a killer.

That’s where research comes in.

In Murder at the Moonshine Inn, Hazel Rose agrees to investigate the murder of Roxanne Howard, a high-powered executive who died in a pool of blood outside the Moonshine Inn, one of Richmond, Virginia’s most notorious redneck bars. Hazel immediately has two questions: who killed Roxanne? And why had the woman spent her leisure time sitting on a barstool at the watering hole, having loud fights on her phone with her husband?

To answer these questions, Hazel needs to go to the bar—undercover. Now, Hazel has never set foot in a redneck bar.  How does she act? How does she dress? How does she speak? What does the bar look like?

No question about it, I needed to visit a redneck bar that would become the model for the fictitious Moonshine Inn (not undercover, though.).

My friend Marie served as my consultant. She assured me that she was an expert on redneck culture. She advised me on dress, dialog, and any number of details. She sent me links to databases of redneck baby names. There is a wealth of online sources for redneckiana (not a real word, but perhaps it should be).

Vince, Hazel’s husband and undercover partner, admires his wife’s disguise:
“Wow!” His appreciative look said he liked the redneck me.

“It’s just for tonight. This is way too much work.”

“It’s the top I like. Hair’s for the birds. Literally.”

Vince referred to my Harley Davidson two-sizes-too-small tank top that revealed an impressive display of cleavage. I had a Victoria’s Secret contraption that I employed for the thankfully few occasions when I wanted to play up my assets. The jeans that I’d slashed in strategic places molded my bottom half, and Eileen’s boots fit well with the help of thick, albeit unsexy, socks. As for the hair, I may have gone overboard with teasing and spraying my chestnut waves into something like an exploded mushroom—or a birds nest. But, as long as I fit in, that was the main thing: frosted blue eye shadow and plenty of it streaked across my eyelids, and my nails sparkled with scarlet polish.

Back to me and my research. My own husband and I visited three bars and I combined the three in to one for my story. I tried to capture the essence and Marie helped. Between these visits, Marie, online sources, and my vivid imagination, I put together a passable chapter.

When Hazel arrives at the Moonshine Inn with Vince, she gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a redneck queen, she meets some very interesting people, and picks up information that may prove valuable in nailing Roxanne Howard’s killer.
Description of the Moonshine Inn:

Black-and-white tiles covered the floor, and dark leather booths lined the perimeter of the space. Grime streaked the windows. The ceiling came up short on its allotment of tiles. Apparently the Moonshine Inn had a special dispensation to allow smoking, as a thick fog made the TVs positioned throughout the bar hard to see. I saw a Florida room, all white with ceiling fans and clean windows, attached to the front of the building. A prominent sign proclaimed it a non-smoking section. I looked at it longingly but, as not a soul populated the space, I figured I’d best sit elsewhere so I could get information.

The patrons caught up on the news via ESPN and Fox News amid much yelling and derogatory jokes about Obamacare. For those disinclined to watch the news, one TV offered T.J. Hooker reruns. But we weren’t there to catch up on the news or ‘80s-era cop shows.

So, with a little research, an adventurous spirit, and a vivid imagination, you as an author are not limited to writing what you know. But beware: you may risk leaving your comfort zone!



Saturday, October 14, 2017

Dressed to Tell

Hi
This month I wanted to share my ideas on using pictures to add sparkle to my words.
When I’m reading a book, I want to get to know the characters. If it’s well written, with a good story line to keep me hooked, they will get inside my head. One way I “see” them and begin to understand them, is from the way they dress. I won’t have much thought for a sophisticated business woman who isn’t wearing a suit. I’ll have more respect for her if it’s one by Ralph Lauren, for example.
And that’s the way I work in my writing. My characters are defined by their actions and words, but I also like to dress them appropriately. I will often scour magazines, photo websites, even high street advertising boards to find images that fit my characters.
Let me give you some of examples.
In Guiltless the hero is a photographer who doesn’t earn very much. This is quite an important factor in his make-up. Byron wears jeans and T shirts, drives an old Nissan truck and lives in a rundown farmhouse. This is one of my favourite images I have for him:


There is a scene in the book where Byron appears in “a black suit, grey waistcoat and stark white shirt with a narrow black tie.” This attire is totally out of character with the man Lauren, the heroine, has come to know. There is a reason he has to dress like this so I go into detail about his clothes, underlying their significance.
I have great fun “dressing” Lauren, the CEO of her own fashion house, who also wants to model their next range of lingerie herself. Here’s a selection of some the things she would wear:


The high heels are important – Lauren is only five feet four inches and she wants to be taller. She is very comfortable wearing four-inch heels.
The images help me to use words so the reader can visualise the characters. Of course, if someone was ever to make a film of my book, my idea may not quite work. Anyone who has read Jack Reacher and watched one of his films will know what I’m talking about.
I also use visuals on social media. It’s a great way to connect with an audience and try to promote your book without splashing the cover everywhere all of the time. When you’re character is well developed and has been “living” inside you for a long time, it’s hard to pick out photos that make a good match. One way I avoid this is to use silhouettes, but I don’t want to over-use them. In some instances I take a photograph and cut the head off. It’s not as drastic as it sounds – the photo of Byron above is a good example.
I was lucky with the protagonist of my third book, Keeping You, which will be published end 2017, early 2018. When the reader meets this guy, Lawrence, he is quite the opposite of Byron. Lawrence Bane only wears designer labels. The reason for that lies in a damaged past when he never had control of his life. I drop names such as Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein and Karl Lagerfeld into my descriptions as often as he drops his pants! But there comes a time when Lawrence has to revert to bargain clothes. I have great fun contrasting descriptions, and again imagery helps me.
For example: Suit man


and Hoody man


My aim is to describe clothing to help both explain and determine the scene. In this example, one scene is about a proud man, protective of his privacy and his past. The other is a man filled with shame as he is forced, once more, to become the man he used to be.
In this article I stick to clothing, but my laptop is full of images of buildings, furniture, bouquets, cars… I could go on. Let me know what helps you to “tell” your story.

Come over and visit my website at www.mollieblake.co.uk where you'll find more imagery and narrative.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Patreon- What is it and do I want one?

Some of you out there may have heard of Patreon but never bothered with it. Maybe you assumed it was for artists and musicians only. Maybe you heard the word in passing at a convention or while chatting with other authors, but never followed up. I have a Patreon myself, although it is art related and not writing related. You can see the it here https://www.patreon.com/CheGilson 

Patreon itself can be found here https://www.patreon.com 

The site doesn't look like much unless you know who or what you're looking for. And if you DO start digging you get the idea that Patreon is just for musicians and artists. BUT there are a number of authors on Patreon (I will be using SFF authors for this article because they are the ones I'm most familiar with.)

So: Let's begin. Below is Mary Robinette Kowal. 



Kowal is a fantasy author and has a considerable backlist of successful books. One of the key ingredients if you ARE thinking of starting an author Patreon, is being published. The authors making the most money on Patreon are those with name recognition. But if you have a fan following, and/or a mailing list you can tap, then Patreon could be a good income boost.

Now, Let's break the page down.



240 is the number of people who give Kowal money on a monthly basis. Below you can see her stated goal of $2,000 a month.

Now, one of the things that Patreon does is let you set TIERS for patron rewards. Reward tiers start at $1. That's the least that a patron can pay per month. 

What do your patrons receive for their financial support? A good friend of mine told me that the patrons are supporting YOU. You should ask for more money than you think you should. Otherwise, they can just buy a book. That's not the point. Patrons are there for the unique things you can offer them!

As an author you have a lot to offer! 

First off, let's look at some of Kowal's reward tiers. 


You can see what the $1.00 patrons receive. And of course you want to give ever better rewards for higher tiers. 



The highest tier is $25 and for that you get a Live-stream writing class with the author. You can offer all sort of rewards! 


You update your Patreon by creating blog posts. You can upload files which your patrons can download. OR just make the post readable. You also determine which tier levels can see which posts. 



Above, you can see that Kowal is offering chapters of books and works in progress. Readers and fans will be able to see your works in progress before anyone else and get a special peek into your creative process. You can conduct polls, host giveaways, and you can even require a mailing address at certain tiers if you want to mail items to your patrons. 

Patrons also have a chance to interact with you and can make comments on your posts. You can track how well your posts are performing. Here is a sample from my own Patreon page. 



Don't let my stats scare you! But this is the sort of thing that only the user gets to see :) Other people DO get comments and things. 

But now you have a good overview of Patreon! Check out the site and see if you too want to try it out! Just remember: as much as Patreon likes to tout the people actually making a living off the site, those people are FEW and far between. Anything better than zero is a win! 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Hacking Away at Your Word Count




by Linda Thorne

If you’re an author who has ever entered a writing contest, you’ve been subjected to maximum word count requirements. I found this to be the norm in contests asking for part or all of a work-in-progress novel and in every short story contest I ever entered.

It’s amazing how you can reduce those words. I’ve managed to take a 3500 word short story and reduce it to 1000. I’m not saying the story was the better for it, but it can still be done without sacrificing the story.

My first book, Just Another Termination, started off at 120,000 words. It was awful. So much needed cut. I cut a couple of non-essential characters and their roles, but there was more fat to trim. I had too much detail on how some events came about. I described how my character and her husband moved from LA to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and gave information about her husband moving there first, where he stayed until he found a house to buy, and then my protagonist joining. Yuck! Those three pages of information dump turned into a two sentence summary blurb. That’s all that was necessary. When my book finally got published it was closer to 80,000 words.

I’ve heard that the current preferred length for mystery, thrillers, and romance is 70,000 to 90,000 words; although I personally consider 90,000 high. My debut novel is close to 80,000 and I would have liked to have reduced it to about 75,000 words, but I gave up on that.

Things I’ve done to reduce word count:
  • Drop one of the subplots. I had too many in the first draft of my first book. I’m currently working on my second in the series and hoping I don’t have to drop any subplots. I won’t know until I’m finished.
  • Get rid of a few characters. I had to eliminate a couple of characters in Just Another Termination and hated it. I may have one too many in my current work-in-progress, A Promotion to Die For. I don’t know yet.
  • I know you are supposed to take out back story in the beginning and trickle it throughout. I’m not sure I can do that in A Promotion to Die For, as so much back story is needed for a murder 29 years in the past that’s brought to the present. Critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Susan Isaacs wrote a book called, Lily White, where each chapter was either in the present time or in the past. The past chapters were in italics and the present ones in regular font until both stories met in time at the end. I enjoyed this. In A Promotion to Die For I only have a few chapters that are written in back story. The people and occurrences in that history from 29 years earlier surface soon in the present and the old cold case murder from back then is solved toward the end of the book in its current timeline.
  • Eliminate repeats. I can’t tell you how many times I can say the same thing in writing over and over. The reader gets it the first time. I’m not sure about other authors, but I find myself telling it to them again in a different way. This has to end and I usually get rid of it during the revision process.
  • No rambling over things you want to get in because of your beliefs. This is not about the author, but about giving the reader something interesting to read.

I’m interested in your experiences as authors and/or readers in words working without being too wordy.


Monday, October 2, 2017

The 3 Books That Scared Me Most

It's October and people are dusting off those old horror movies and preparing to scare themselves silly. This got me thinking about the books that had frightened me most. While the ones I chose don't strictly belong in the horror genre—one is a literary short story, another is a dystopian SF novel and the third is dark fantasy—they scared me far more than anything I've read by that master of horror, Stephen King. Why did they make the top slots? Because the horror factor stayed with me long after I turned the last page and sat in a stupor, eyes glazed and tee-shirt sweaty, my mind reeling from the hellish possibilities conjured by these authors.

Now, what scares me might not scare everyone. I know that some are scared by evil spirits and things that go bump in the night. Storms. Sharks, spiders. No Internet service. I'm not scared of those things. It's reality that makes my teeth chatter, or the logical projection of current reality into a nightmare reality that is all too believable, even inevitable. This brings me to my top contender, the book that scared me more than any other in my 50+ years on the planet....

1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
(Spoilers!) Here is the earth, America to be precise, after some ass started a nuclear war. Nothing grows because sunlight can't get through the thick cover of smoke and dust. Everything is covered with ash. Everything is dead, including the ocean. Shorelines are strewn with the bones of all the dead fish. Some people survive, and what they become in the desperate quest for food and water is something that cannot be called human. This book contains the single most horrifying scene I've ever read—even more horrifying than a scene in a short story I read decades ago where a child is slowly disemboweled by a Mephistophelean character. Yes, it tops that.

2. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.
This novel should not even be on this list because I never finished it. I was a child when I blithely picked it off a bookshelf at home, and I didn't get very far. All I remember is a fairground where nothing is as it seems, and the more I read, the creepier everyone and everything became. To my child's eyes, this perversion of things that should be innocent and harmless, like carousels and merry-go-rounds, was so terrifying that I closed the book, slipped it back on the shelf—and shivered every time I saw its grey, faded cover over the next couple of decades. Still can't bring myself to finish it.

3. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor.
(Spoilers!) This is a short story I read just a few years ago, so I vividly remember how this tale hung over me like a seething, dripping, noxious cloud for several weeks. O'Connor takes an ordinary, flawed family, Granny and all, and puts them on a road trip from Georgia to Florida where they make a wrong turn and fall into the hands of some men who embody the worst qualities mankind has to offer. The family—mom, dad, gram and kids—do not survive the encounter, and it was the utter banality of the savagery that did me in. It was a long time before I could push that horrific tale of murder, madness and mayhem out of my head.

There we have it—three stories that scared the pants off me. What are the stories that terrified you the most? Tell me in the comments!

Friday, September 22, 2017

How to Grab a Reader’s Attention from Page 1

In this day and age, writers have to engage readers from the first page. How do we do that?
Curiosity. We must fill a reader’s head with questions. Here is my story opening for Murder at the Moonshine Inn:

If only I could learn to say no, I wouldn’t be perched on a bar stool in a redneck bar, breathing secondhand smoke and pretending to flirt with men sporting baseball caps and Confederate bandanas, their eyes riveted on my Victoria’s Secret-enhanced cleavage. I wouldn’t be tricked out in a bizarre hairstyle, frosted blue eye shadow, painted-on jeans with strategically placed slashes, and a two-sizes-too-small Harley Davidson tank top.

I hit the rewind button on my life and stopped a few days earlier, at the point where Phyllis Ross threw a cup of coffee in Nina Brown’s face. How that led to this undercover assignment—finding out who killed a middle-aged drunken woman in the parking lot of the Moonshine Inn—is quite a tale.


Who is the narrator and why is she investigating a murder? Is she a cop or a private investigator? Unlikely, since she’s clearly reluctant and it’s her difficulty with saying “no” that landed her in a situation that doesn’t thrill her. If only I could learn to say no, I wouldn’t be perched on a barstool in a redneck bar.

So our sleuth, while intrepid, is less than enthused about her assignment. Who convinced her to find the killer of a middle-aged drunken woman? And why ask her? Blackmail? Calling in favors? Or is there a personal connection?

It’s clear that our sleuth doesn’t frequent redneck bars and that her getup is a departure from her usual style. If only I could learn to say no … I wouldn’t be tricked out in a bizarre hairstyle, frosted blue eye shadow, painted-on jeans with strategically placed slashes, and a two-sizes-too-small Harley Davidson tank top.

Maybe she isn’t even a woman. Hmm.

What about the other characters, like the middle-aged drunken woman who met her maker in the Moonshine Inn’s parking lot? Who is she? Who is the coffee-flinging Phyllis Ross? Who is Nina Brown?

Why did Phyllis Ross throw coffee in Nina Brown’s face? And how did the coffee incident precipitate the sleuth’s undercover assignment?

I hope I now have mystery lovers so curious that they’re eager to dive in and learn more about my sleuth and her adventures in Murder at the Moonshine Inn.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

To speak or not to speak



Hi. This month I want to share a blog I wrote recently. Sometimes it's good to revisit the basics in the craft of writing. It's also reassuring to know, for me at least, that I am learning all the time. Let me know what you think.

I thought I was an “okay” writer. With a former career as a finance director I had no grounds to think that. I hadn’t studied English language for far more years than I care to remember and I had never done any creative writing before. But I had a story in me and the desire to put it in writing.
Since those early days, I have learned a lot. Firstly, having gained a contract with American publisher, Black Opal Books, my editor, Faith, gave me some great tips to both correct and improve my writing. Secondly I have read some useful guides to writing fiction, and thirdly I have started to attend seminars on various aspects of being an author.
I want to share some of what I have learned, especially with anyone who starts out like I did—desperate to write a story but possibly lacking in some of the crafts needed by an author. To authors with a background in writing of any sort, I’m sure this will be basic bread and butter stuff. But I see the mistakes I was making in other books I read. So I’m glad it’s not just me, and for those of you who recognise my errors, take comfort in the fact that you’re not the only ones. We can all improve, and we all have to start somewhere.
I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned about speech. To start with one of my classic examples:
“I like that,” she grinned.
Well. I use an electronic dictionary/thesaurus a lot, but I never looked up the definition of speech. If I had, this is what I would have read:
“the expression of or the ability to express thoughts and feelings by articulate sounds”
I would have noted the word “articulate” and realised you cannot articulate a grin. It is not a sound. You cannot grin words. It’s obvious, I know, but when writing your manuscript, words flow seemingly smoothly, and it is all too easy to overlook even the basic grammar sometimes. Without the skills I have learned through the editing process, this wasn’t an error I was looking for.
In helping me with my first book, The Secret At Arnford Hall, not only did my editor point out my errors, Faith also showed me how to correct them. In my simple example it’s all about punctuation. So this is how I should have written it:
“I like that.” She grinned.
Or is it?
Faith also went on to explain the difference between dialogue and action tags. For example, “said” is a dialogue tag and “grinned” is an action tag. Obvious? Yes, I know. Apparently I had some vey nice action tags, but they were being weakened by incorrect positioning and grammar.
In my example I have an action tag. This leads to another point to consider. Does she grin before she speaks or after? A good rule of thumb is that, generally, action tags go before speech. Hence:
She grinned. “I like that.”
And already the writing is improved. I can almost see my heroine speaking whilst still smiling.
Here’s another example. This time I wanted the action tag after the dialogue:
“Take a seat. We need to talk.”
“Yes. We do.” Lauren sat down and crossed her legs.

When the edits on my second book, Guiltless, came back, I was pleased when Faith said there were fewer changes to my original script. But the learning continues. And as it does, I have to confess to being more than a little critical when I read books by some other authors!