Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hunting Characters


Finding surface-level characters is one of the most fun parts of writing. For me, it starts with visual impact. These are just a few ideas on how to come up with them. You may start by selecting the type of person you need and going out to look for her or him. Try the park on a sunny afternoon, the local mall, or the McDonald's near the high school. Sit with a book or cup of coffee and watch—carefully of course. Take notes on those that interest you. Or better yet, take a picture. For this, you need a partner. Taking pictures of strangers can be risky, especially if the subject is a young person. Have your partner pose near the subject so that it looks as if you're photographing the friend, when the real focus is the person just to the right.

For a character you want to be memorable for the reader,  pick out a stereotype and consider what you could change about her to add a little interest or show a bit about her character. It could be something in her eating habits—a beautiful, expensively dressed young woman who chews with her mouth open, for example. Or it could be the way she walks, perhaps hunched a bit as if she'd like to hide.  Then consider the why. Why does such a girl have such poor manners? Why would an attractive girl want to avoid attention? Is she afraid? What kind of family does she come from? Maybe no family at all. The possibilities are endless. Just let your imagination run with it until something appeals to you.

Find a face expressing some strong emotion and ask yourself why? What happened in the person's life to cause this look?

Winter Meal by Jan Tik
Pictures on the Internet are another source. Google an image for an emotion or expression, such as angry woman, sad man, or happy child. I keep a computer folder in my WIP file and save the ones that appeal to me. I note the url so if I ever want to use the photo for a cover or blog or something, I can write for permission. A bit of advice—don't fall in love with a photo before you know you'll be able to use it. I found a beautiful photo on Flickr of a deer eating apples and developed a whole story from it. (This is the one where Charlie Dance walked out of the woods.) The photo's been released to the public domain, but I'd love to have a high resolution version. Here it is, by Jan Tik.

Care to share your ideas for finding characters? We'd all love to have more ideas.

P.S. I'm visiting Darlene's Book Nook today and giving away a copy of Cold Comfort. Stop by if you have a minute. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Interview with RP Dahlke

Dead Red Cadillac

My guest is Rebecca Dahlke. I read Dead Red Cadillac and loved it, so I asked if I could interview her. She's fun!
How did your ex-model heroine, Lalla Baines, get to be a crop duster? That's quite a switch.
A: When Lalla got her Aero Ag certificate at 18, a local newspaper article got picked up nationally which led to attention from a modeling agent, and the rest is history. (The afore mentioned is entirely fiction, you know… ain’t this fun?)

Have you done crop dusting? Are you a pilot?
A: My dad taught me how to fly, but I was never enamored enough with the process to get my license. Ironically, I ran his crop-dusting business for several years, and that was a hoot.  And yes, a lot of the fun parts in my Lalla Bains’ books are from this time—me, as boss lady telling a pilot that if he wanted a potty break he could pee off the wing—all true. Some of the characters were also from my experience in running the business, but a lot of it was from my son, John Shanahan, who was also an Aero-Ag pilot. Unfortunately, he died in a work related accident in 2005.  I struggled through five years of not writing, which was purgatory for someone who wrote every day of her life until… well, it just wasn’t there anymore.
I picked it up again just last year, did some rewrites on both A DEAD RED CADILLAC & A DEAD RED HEART and published the first in March of 2011 and the second in July of 2011. I’m presently working on A DEAD RED OLEANDER, the third, and final Lalla Bains book. Then, I’ll start a new series that I’m excited about, based on a fun, fictional town in Southern Arizona. It will again have a mystery in every book along with the romance, humor and family dynamics that my fans tell me they love so much about the Dead Red series.

Your new book, A Dangerous Harbor, features a new character, Katy Hunter. How did you come up with her? Will we be seeing more of her?
A: I’m absolutely thrilled to see that readers are telling me how much they enjoyed A Dangerous Harbor. I bill it as a romantic mystery, but Amazon has it up under Romantic Suspense… and it’s quickly climbing in the rankings on Amazon!
This story was the result of my experiences sailing in Mexican waters with my husband aboard our 47ft. Cutter Rigged Hylas sailboat.  I loved sailing, loved the ocean, loved writing this story, loved Mexico and its people, and yes, I can honestly say that this was one of the best times of my life.
Though I treat this book as a stand-alone, I have another romantic sailing mystery in the works.  “Hurricane Hole” will pick up where it left off at the end of “A Dangerous Harbor” and will feature Katy’s glamorous TV star sister, Leila Standiford. And, just for fun, Gabe Alexander will continue to be part of that soup.

Tell us about your most exciting sailing adventure.
A: Triston Jones, the legendary sailor, is said to have quipped, “It’s not the deep blue ocean that worries me, it’s the hard stuff around the edges.”
Here’s one we experienced:
Dead Red Heart
The aftermath of a Pacific hurricane sends rollers crashing onto shore along the Mexican coastline for days afterwards. It also plays havoc with private boats trying to enter the narrow estuary into the Matzatlan marina.  So, after a night sail to get there, we were disappointed to be refused same day entry. But the next day brought sunshine and calmer waters… well, sort of. Yesterday’s crashing surf along the beach was now somewhat abated, but there were still rollers grumbling up and over the rock entrance of the estuary. We decided to do donuts outside, circling while we counted the rollers, waiting for a calm spot and then we’d make a run for it.
 Onesies, twosies and three… and then the sea is quiet then back to onsies, twosies…  and we’re pushing the throttle hard as we aim straight for the entrance and the clear and calm water beyond the rock wall. Then a rollers slides a hand under us, picks up the middle, our prop and rudder now useless appendages hanging-ten over the back side of this wave. Now we’re sideways, 47 tons of sailboat hurled into the estuary where one Mexican panga with wide-eyed fishermen stare in disbelief while my husband whistles tunelessly (he does that when he’s nervous, or happy… I couldn’t tell which as by then I was hyperventilating and squeaking).
 And then, just as quickly, prop and rudder catch hold and our boat rights herself and we’re straight again, gliding silently past the panga full of fishermen crossing themselves again and again and again.

Where do you work?
In my last and final “real job” before retiring to go sailing, I was a licensed contractor working with hospitals. I’ve been blessed to be able to remain retired so that I can finally do full time what I love to do—write lies for a living.

What's your favorite beverage?
A: I love my one cup of coffee at 6a.m. every morning, then I switch to tea, cold in the summer, and hot in the winter months. I love a very good wine, especially if it’s served on a veranda, in Italy, in late summer.

Do you write in silence? To music? TV?
A: I have to write in absolute silence as I’m prone to distractions. “Hi doggy, would you like to go for a walk? Me, too!”

Describe your writing process. What's the hardest part for you to write?
A Dangerous Harbor
A: Full time writing is for the insane, or soon to be, or at least should be. It’s love and hate and butt in the chair work and I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do with my life. Add a fan e-mail from someone who says, “I’ve read all your books, and love them! When’s the next one coming out?” and I’m on cloud nine. That said, BIG chunks of time pass before I come up for air… and… is that winter out there? Already? What happened to summer?
The hardest part for me is the first chapter and then the ability to leave it alone until I’m completely done with the first draft. I wanna tweak it, make it better, make it pretty, but first chapters can change, and in some instances should change, as the story unfolds.
First lines in a book are my favorite thing to create. I think this is where readers decide… buy me, or not.

Do you require an orderly space to write in?
A: I work in an office converted from a guest bedroom. On one wall, I have a huge white board where I write notes about the book I’m working on. On another wall is a bank of cork boards with very important e-mail addresses, websites, book clubs, book fairs, author associations, contests that I need to join, attend, enter (or not) and sales records for the day/week/month, a picture of my dad, mom, son, daughter, some coupons for free taco shells, a few ribbons won from painting.
 I also have two calendars (invariably I forget to write on one and lose the other).
Computer and copy machine are on a table under the flapping line up of paper tacked to said corkboards.
That was what you meant by orderly, wasn’t it?

What comes first, cleaning house or writing?
A: Cleaning house? Surely, you jest… okay, just kidding. My book sales check comes in, I pay the housekeeper. She tells everyone she makes money from books… hey, it works for us.

What are your favorite activities? Any sports? Are you able to use them in your books?
A: Working my way through my “Bucket List” having checked off sailing on the deep blue ocean, I went river rafting this summer. Glad I did it and lived to tell the tale. Check that one off the list. I’ve decided hang-gliding, bungy jumping, and free climbing the face of Half-Dome in Yosemite, sadly, is going to have to be deleted from that list. Too old.

How far do you go when researching for a book? Assuming you haven't murdered anyone, what do you do?
RP Dahlke
A:  I love asking questions of experts. I’ve met all sorts. One very nice man who knew a lot about what I wanted to write but had had a bad experience with someone who took too many liberties with the interview, finally agreed to give me the info but wouldn’t allow me to use his name.  I sent him a nice box of See’s Candy as a thank you. Good Karma.
You also might be surprised what you can get out of experts if you promise to make them taller, thinner, and/or better looking in your book.  Then there are some who simply want nothing to do with fiction writers, in which case, you move on to the next one. I was once desperate, in a pinch and tempted to say that I was James North Patterson’s researcher, but nixed that at the last minute. Bad Karma.

I'm also impressed with your artwork. You mention plein air black and gold frames. Are you a plein air painter?
A: What a nice thing for you to say! I love to paint, almost as much as I love to write, and the plein air refers to the kind of simple frame that I use on my painting, but painting plein-aire?
Okay, so picture this: You’ve found the perfect spot next to this picturesque creek. Everything is green and the water is gently burbling along and you’re so happy to be there. You set up your primed canvas on the portable easel, and sketch out the scene then start painting. But, wait, the light has changed in the time it took for you to set up so your composition is now wrong. Pick up the easel and move it two feet over and, oh, wait, now it’s dropped in hole and your wet canvas has fallen into the grass, and oh crap! there’s grass to pick off the wet paint, and the wind comes up and blows down your easel, your can of thinner, the ants are carrying off your lunch and your patience with painting en-plein-aire is now gone! As far as I’m concerned, that’s why cameras were invented.
I paint for enjoyment and the mission statement on my painting page, says, “Most artists strive for a fresh improvisational kinetic stasis in an attempt to balance the chaos of creativity. My philosophy tilts more towards Larry the Cable Guy — “Get’er done!”
I consider myself an entertainer. John Steinbeck, I’m not. He’s down the hall, two doors to the left.
            Thanks for having me here.

Rebecca aka RP Dahlke

Friday, December 23, 2011

From Animals to Characters--How stories evolve

Barn Owl
I'm an animal lover, have been since day one. I find them beautiful, elegant, and loving—not necessarily toward me, but toward their offspring and groups or packs. Molly the Barn Owl and her mate, McGee, entranced me for months. I still check in from time to time for updates. Watching them, waiting for the eggs to hatch, the babies to grow and finally branch and fledge (owl-speak for their first steps outside the box and first serious flight), and then the cycle began again. McGee, the magnificent and relentless hunter, Molly, equally fierce in the care and teaching of her young—what wonderful creatures! I learned a lot about barn owls and wish we had a suitable habitat so I could put up an owl box. Instead, I'll have to content myself with writing about them.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I met the most charming little screech owl. Emmett was injured and is no longer able to hunt, so he lives with the kind people at PAWS-SC. His companion is Tosh, a barred owl who's blind in one eye, so he's another permanent resident.
Furry animals—wolves, dogs, cats, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels—they all intrigue me. We don't have any wolves, but the rest live around us. We feed them and discourage predators, such as the black snake who lurks in the woods behind us.
So what about a main character who works with animals? I'd have to do some research, which should be great fun. I like this idea. It will be a man, because I can see him now. Would you believe he has dark hair tied back in a low ponytail? This is how characters come to life for me. Oh, it's Charlie! That's a surprise. He already exists in a story I'm working on. It just took me a minute to recognize him. Now I'm eager to get back to the story because I've discovered another facet to his character. He takes care of injured animals. He was a medic, injured in the Middle East, and is badly scarred. He has PSTD and is up and about at night, so he could easily find an injured owl. He's a character I love.
Red-shouldered hawk in back yard
Who could not like writing fiction? It's full of surprises and delights, and you meet the most interesting people. And you can always find ways to use the things you enjoy.
How do characters come to you? What's first, the character or the storyline? In this new one, I met the heroine first and sort of fell into her story. Then one night, Charlie stepped out of the woods.
I'd like to know how you find your characters. For me, it's the best part of writing.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Writing Short Stories

My guest today is E.B. Davis, short story author and blogger on Writers Who Kill
I’m always amazed when writers say that it’s harder for them to write a short story than it is to write a novel. To me, a short story plot is the basis for a novel, and learning to write a short story is the basis for learning to write a novel. Sounds logical—and it is.
A short story must contain only one plot. The plot is structured in three parts. The beginning presents the problem. The middle provides pivotal information that drives the plot to the end, in which the writer solves the problem—sometimes cleverly in a twist. The writer must accomplish this using a few, carefully chosen words. Once mastered, a short story can be expanded into a novel. But in its basic structure, there is no difference between the short story and the novel.
A novel must present a unique situation or problem in its beginning while introducing the main characters, the setting, perhaps suggesting a subplot and, nearing the end of the beginning, add an interesting complication. The middle must drive the plot, providing the start of the main character’s transformation, following complications and furthering subplots, which complement the main plot. Eliminating red herrings decreases the possible suspects, and the mysterious puzzle forms a logical path taking the main character to the conclusion while suspense builds. The ending solves the mystery while tying up the loose ends of the complications and the subplots, which are solved or are used to provide an avenue to the sequel. In different genres, the elements may vary, but the structure remains the same.
Just because a novel is longer doesn’t mean word choice need be any less critical. Every piece of prose and dialogue must snap off the page. Waxing poetic doesn’t cut it. Too many novels contain flabby writing. Learning to write a short story disciplines a writer to be concise. Word smithing is a wonderful art, but it must have aim and hit the target.
In short, short stories are the prototype of novels, which expand the parameters of the short story in breadth and depth. By word count necessity, short stories are limited, concise and singular.
I laugh at myself when reviewing my critiqued work. My partners point out that I jump from point A to D without showing the steps because I tend to write too condensed, but I contend, better to risk a non sequitur than write ad nausea without coming to the point. A novel is not a lengthy conversation, with a captive audience. If it bogs down, readers quit reading.
In a short story I wrote, “Lucky in Death,” about a murderous grandmother who goes back to work helping her family’s financial struggle, soon to be published in a SinC Chesapeake Chapter anthology titled, Chesapeake Crimes: This Job is Murder, a reviewer questioned the grandmother’s necessity of going back to work because of the insurance. What insurance? In the story, I made no mention of insurance, and because I hadn’t, it didn’t exist. The reviewer assumed there had to be insurance. Not always. Many people don’t have life insurance. Should I have addressed her comment? No. Insurance was outside of the story. I had no need to address an issue that didn’t exist. Don’t be persuaded to expand a short story where it need not go.
I challenge you to do a backward exercise. Write a short story using your novel’s main character and plot. See if you can find your novel’s essence by deconstruction. Formulate a finely honed short story based on your main plot. I bet you’ll learn more about your novel than your critique group’s feedback. Then go further—what is your log line?

Beach author/bum E. B. Davis writes short stories and novels in the mystery genre. When she is not writing or blogging at, she sleeps on the beach, the setting for many of her stories. She is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, Sisters in Crime and its Guppy and Chesapeake subchapters. A Shaker of Margaritas: Hot Flash Mommas contains her short story, “Implicated by a Phrase.” “Daddy’s Little Girl,” can be found at: This short story provides the basis of her paranormal romantic novel in progress, TOASTING FEAR. A Shaker of Margaritas: Cougars on the Prowl presents her romantic short, “Rock the Cradle.” In 2012, the SinC Chesapeake Chapter’s anthology titled, Chesapeake Crimes: This Job is Murder, will present “Lucky in Death” and Fishnets, a Guppy anthology will include “The Runaway.”  

Saturday, December 17, 2011


This is an excerpt from Cold Comfort. Riley has just heard from Claire for the first time and doesn't want to get involved in her problem.

Chapter 2

Riley hung up the phone and curled his lip in disgust. "A stalker. The woman watches too much TV. Probably a simple mugging that scared her stupid." 
A large, gray-striped cat opened one eye and flicked a notched ear, then returned to his nap on the desk. Absently scratching the cat's scarred head with one hand, Riley picked up a stained mug, only to find the coffee cold. "Damn."
He fished a notepad out of his desk drawer and scribbled Call Ray across the top. The phone sat six inches from the pad. He reread his note and added "Later" in large letters. The numerals on his clock changed to 6:21. Claire Spencer's voice echoed in his head. Mugger or not, fear lent a hollow note to her voice. The pencil snapped in two between his fingers, surprising him. He stood, shoved his chair away, and threw the stub at the fireplace.
The river outside Riley's house
Running his hands through his hair, he crossed the room to the window. The river, choppy and gray, gave way to memories. A girl's face, her mouth stretched in a scream, swam into his vision. Christ. He knew the image would keep him awake tonight. Why did Ray give this woman his name? Did he think Riley could handle an easy problem like Spencer's? A quick fix that would lure him back to a job he could no longer do? Not bloody likely.
* * *
At eight thirty the phone rang. Riley swung the ax, sinking it into the log, and went inside to answer. The pile of wood he'd just split ought to last him a month. He brushed his hands on his jeans and grabbed the phone before his "Leave a message" started. "Hold on." He switched off the machine. "Yeah?"
"Dammit, Riley," Ray Bonney's voice boomed over the line, "you could at least talk to her. The woman needs help. She's got a goose egg and stitches in her head, and now the bastard's been in her shop."
"The Spencer woman?" Riley wasn't getting suckered into another job, especially one involving a woman. Especially an injured woman. Never again. "Forget it. I'm through. Tell her to call the police or a private eye."
"She did. The cops can't do anything and PIs are too expensive. Come on, Riley."
"If she can't afford them, she sure as hell can't afford me."
"You don't need money."
"That's not the point. I'm through. No more." Silence. Riley waited, preparing himself for Ray's next argument.
"She's a good lady. My sister Mary works in her store, but there's more. They're friends. I like Claire. Don't want to see her hurt, by anybody." He paused and then said, "I'm asking you, Riley."
Ray's hole card. If he'd use it, the woman meant a great deal to him. Riley traced a finger over the scar next to his heart, then wiped his hand over his face. He couldn't refuse. "You'd better tell me what you know. I didn't get much information."
"That means you didn't want much. She's kind of reserveda little old-fashioned. You snarl at her?" Ray snorted. "Put her off, most likely."
"If you want me to help her, tell me what's going onsomeone might be following her? Someone tried to attack her? She sounded like a flake."

Monday, December 12, 2011

Just What Is A Character To Do?

Robert P. Bennett, author of the Blind Traveler mysteries, is my guest. His blind protagonist, Douglas Abledan, navigates the world through a talking GPS, but it doesn't stop him from stumbling over bodies. Fascinating books!
An eBook available for most e-readers
Who are the people writers write about? Why are they chosen as subjects? These questions are valid for both nonfiction and fiction writers. We art taught from an early age that we must find the good things in each person we meet. The same lesson holds true for writers as well as it does for children. Each of us has to find something good, something interesting, in the people we write about. In my writing career I’ve chosen to focus on a specific group of people, those with disabilities. I’ve looked at what they do and how they do it. Over the years I’ve found many points of interest for my readers: technology, politics and, of course, the characteristics of the individual people themselves. Among the areas I’ve found to be the most interesting are the hobbies that they have chosen to pursue. Some played sports. Others played instruments.  Still others choose to study a particular subject. In other words, people with disabilities choose hobbies that are no different than their able-bodied counterparts. In some cases they may have to pursue those interests in slightly different ways, but they are all the same.
Available in most eBook formats
In creating a protagonist for my fiction I have leaned heavily on the things I learned about people when I was writing magazine articles.   I once wrote an article about a piece of technology that allowed a blind man to navigate through his world using a combination of GPS and virtual reality. I took that technology and built a fictional character around it. Thus was born Douglas Abledan and the Blind Traveler Mysteries. As I write more about his adventures, I realize that Douglas has to become more and more “real.” He has to become three-dimensional. So, not only do I have to create his world, not only do I have to give him a physical appearance, but I also have to furnish him with a job and hobbies.
From the beginning I gave Douglas a love of music, specifically Jazz. While a sighted person might learn to read music from a sheet, Douglas learned to distinguish the different notes that make up the songs he likes simply by listening to them repeatedly. He plays them on a harmonica, admittedly not very well. I also imbued him with a sense of what the world looks like, its natural as well as man-made structures. With this quality he has developed an interest in architecture. Using his hands as a sighted person would use his eyes; Douglas is able to distinguish, with a fair degree of accuracy, what a structure looks like. Through study, he has learned the difference between the Art-and-Crafts style of architecture that flourished in the late 1860s and the structures that borrow design elements from of the Greco-Roman period. And, with his nimble fingers, he can feel the differences.
As writers we must give our material as well-rounded an appearance as possible. Whether we write fiction or non-fiction the goal should be the same. Flesh out the people you write about. Show your readers who they are. And remember, it is just as important for a fictional character to have hobbies and interests as it is for those in the “real” world. Not only will these make your characters more interesting. They will also present your readers with another avenue to connect with and care about those characters.
About Robert Bennett
Robert Bennett is a social worker and writer who focuses on issues of disability. His articles, which appear in both local and national publications, have spanned a wide range of topics. He has spoken to groups of physical therapy students, church members and senior citizens, and has appeared on several radio programs. In writing about the issues people with disabilities are involved with he feels he has learned a very important lesson, "It is the act of truly living and believing in yourself that is important, not the manner in which that action is undertaken." Contact Mr. Bennett through his website at

Friday, December 9, 2011

Una Tiers Interviews Ellis

I'm delighted to interview Ellis Vidler about her new book, Cold Comfort.  Let's start with a little background about your first two novels, Haunting Refrain and The Peeper.
My grandmother had a streak of psychic ability—she knew when something was wrong with a family member, so that sort of thing always interested me. I don't know how Haunting Refrain came to me, but that's what I wanted to write. After a writing class with Scott Regan, I decided I'd better get on with it.
I met Jim Christopher, a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) veteran, and he had an idea for a story. He asked if I'd like to write it with him. It was such fun, and I learned so much from him.
And you just published some short stories?  Yes, Tea in the Afternoon, is a collection of three Southern stories, based on remembrances I heard and people I knew, but they're entirely fictitious.
You have a touching dedication to Tea.  It's dedicated to my parents, who gave me a wonderful childhood. We lived in a small town in Mississippi where my friend and I rode double, barefoot and bareback, on her horse though fields and back roads. We stopped at farmhouses for water for us and the horse.
Then my family moved to another small town in Alabama, where I played outside all day, usually in the river bottom or woods. The rule was home by dark. It was a different world.
Can you tell us an early memory about your parents and books? My father read Tarzan of the Apes and the Oz books to me when I was very young. Tarzan remains one of my favorites. Mother read to me too. They said, "You'll learn to read for yourself when you go to school." I cried after my first day of kindergarten because they didn't teach me to read.
 Now we can talk about Cold Comfort. Where is the book set? Claire, my protagonist, owns a Christmas shop in Williamsburg, VA.  There are also scenes on the South Carolina coast at McClellanville and Georgetown and some in Washington, DC.
How did you create your villain? I usually see the characters first, and he suited the crime I had in mind. He did evolve a little more as I wrote, but I saw him from the beginning.  You identify aftershave and tobacco with him.  Why? Both are unpleasant smells to me and seemed to fit in his character. I wanted Claire to have hints of trouble but nothing specific at first.
What about Claire Spencer, where did she come from? Claire’s strong sense of doing what she has to came from a friend I admired.  The rest of her grew and developed as I wrote. My critique partners thought she was too ladylike and pushed me to make her tougher. They were right. She's not a kickass type, but she's strong and determined.
Your pace in Cold Comfort is fast.  How do you help the reader mark how much time has passed? Goodness, I don't know. I guess I just tell when the scenes occur. You know, in the morning, by mid afternoon, at four o'clock, whatever it is. All my books take place in a short period of time. I like the sense of urgency that comes from time limits.
You are so prolific, what's next? I'm working on two books, one about Kate McGuire's friend Gwen, from Haunting Refrain, and a character from Cold Comfort. This one begins on Isla Mujeres in Mexico and ends up in the southeastern United States.
The second one is about Kate's cousin, Alex Jenrette, who also has some inconvenient psychic ability. It's set on a fictitious island off the coast of Charleston, SC. I love the bad guys in this one, but the good guy is giving me trouble. I think he needs a personality transplant.
Thank you for meeting with me, Cold Comfort sounds great.
            Una, you're a dear to do this. I can't wait till your book, Judge vs Nuts, comes out. You're such a funny character yourself, I know it's going to be a fun read. I expect you back when it's released.
Here's Una's cover. Her book will be released soon.

Ellis's Book is available at

Monday, December 5, 2011

Giving It Away

 What a fun person Marian Allen is! I love the trailer for Force of Habit. Now I must get the book.

30-second YouTube spot: 

When Bel Schuster swaps clothes with a native and goes off-limits on the planet Llannonn, she lands in several flavors of hot water. Alien criminals, local slavers and the planet's own particular legal code end up in a baggy-pants courtroom drama.

Giving It Away

When my previous book, EEL'S REVERENCE, came out, I ran a contest during my blog book tour for it. One of the prizes was the right to name a character in a short story I pledged to write to promote FORCE OF HABIT. The winner of the drawing was one Holly Jahangiri.

Now, I had "met" Holly in Dani Greer's Blog Book Tour class, but she was only a slight acquaintance. When she won the contest, I started following her blog, I "friended" her on FaceBook and I "traded follows" with her on Twitter.

After a few months, I got an idea for the story: On the planet Llannonn, living books--people who, as in Bradbury's FAHRENHEIT 451, memorize and recite texts--live in a cross between a library and a rooming house. Some of them go missing. The librarians and a cop team up to solve the mystery.  I would call it "By the Book".

Like FORCE OF HABIT, the story would be sf/crime/humor. Holly would be one of the librarians. Her Twitter avatar included a purple feather boa, so I wrote a purple feather boa into the story.

By the time I finished the story, submitted it to my publisher and went through the edits, my familiarity with Holly the character cemented my friendship with Holly the person. The connection must have manifested itself electronically because my publisher, with no input from me, made a cover for the eStory featuring -- a purple feather boa.

Holly loved the story and helped me promote it (it's free at Smashwords -- if you really want to, you can pay $0.99 for it at Nook or Kindle stores) and helped me promote FORCE OF HABIT. She even interviewed herself on my blog. <>

I recently ran another contest and the right to name a character in a new short story was won by -- HOLLY! So there will be a sequel to "By the Book". I think I'm going to call it -- and this is the first announcement of the title -- "By Hook or Crook".

I'm in several writers' email lists, and the question occasionally comes up as to the benefit of contests and of giving writing away. I post free samples at every Sunday, some of them excerpts but many of them flash fiction stories. Although I love earning money with my writing, I find that the satisfaction of sharing my creation is vast. I hope that people who enjoy the free stuff will support me by buying something, too. And the inspiration and friendship I found through writing "By the Book" are beyond price.

I never give anything away. But some things, money can't buy.


Multiple formats at OmniLit 
Amazon Kindle
Barnes & Noble Nook
Multiple formats at Smashwords 
"By the Book" (Free)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Cold Comfort is officially out now!

This week is the Holiday Fair in Greenville, SC, and I'm sharing a booth with fellow authors Kathleen Delaney and Linda Lovely. We hauled in boxes of books and set up our space, then went to work at the arduous task of selling books. Linda's book is Dear Killer, a romantic suspense set on a fictitious island off the South Carolina coast. Kathleen's newest is Murder Half-Baked, a California coast traditional mystery. Mine is Cold Comfort, which ranges from Williamsburg, VA, to the South Carolina coast.  We met lots in interesting people, some readers, a few interested in writing. Here are some pictures of us and our neighbors the SC Wildlife Sanctuary.
Linda, Ellis, Kathleen
Did I mention that this show is three loooong days? That we come home and collapse and wonder why we do these things? Still, it really is fun to talk to readers and occasional writers. We've met some awesome librarians (some of our favorite people) and also some English teachers (who hold a special place in our hearts). It's fun, just tiring. :-)
Awed visitor

Barred owl from our neighbor, the SC Wildlife Sanctuary.
He's gorgeous, blinded in one eye so he can't hunt.
A tiny little screech owl. He comes out for two or three
hours at time and calmly watches the visitors.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Plain Talk

My guest this week is Michele Drier, author of SNAP and Edited to Death.
Language changes.  It’s a flexible tool, adding, dropping and adapting words to reflect new ideas, new ways of doing things, naming new products.
   Take “google”, or “Google” or “googol”.  “Googol” is a math term, a one followed by 100 zeros; “Google” is a proper noun, the name of an internet company, and “google” is now a verb, meaning to look something up in the search engine “Google”.
  And all of this has happened in slightly more than ten years.
There are benefits to having this flexibility to add or change words, but I fear that I’m becoming a language curmudgeon. 
   It’s not that I object to new words, although I’m not always au courant—I had to ask my daughter how to spell “ginormous” when I used it in “SNAP: The World Unfolds”.  I was writing about a hip, young magazine editor who would use that word liberally.
   I am concerned about the creeping verbalization of our language—turning nouns into verbs—taking over much of our communications.  This trend comes from jargon.
   One of the earliest examples I heard was copspeak when I was on a drunk-driving jury more than.....years ago.  I was a staff writer for the San Jose Mercury-News, and worked with editors who were TRUE language curmudgeons.  I was stunned when I heard one cop testify that “the subject exited his vehicle”.  Hair on the nape of neck rose at that use of a noun meaning “the way out.”  In fact, the English don’t use “exit”, the arrows point to “Way out”.
   Fast-forwarding , as an editor at a mid-sized daily newspaper, one of my reporters wrote “the car exited the freeway”.  We had a chat.  I suggested that he could better say, “the car took the off-ramp,” or “the car left the freeway” and, for as long as I was his editor, he found other verbs to describe the act of driving a car off the freeway onto a surface street.
   My second pet peeve was “task”.  Task is a noun describing something to be accomplished; a chore, a piece of work.  When I heard a co-worker saying that he had been “tasked” to do something, my teeth hurt.  He’d been “asked” or “assigned” or even “told”, but “tasked”? Please!
   I realized that I was fighting a losing battle when the Taliban started their first actions in Afghanistan.  People in the news biz started talking about the “Afghans”  fleeing.  The only thing I could visualize was large brown-and-yellow knit couch throws suddenly sprouting stick legs and arms, pulling up their hems and running across a barren landscape.
   PBS, NPR and I seemed to be the only people who used the term “Afghanis” to describe the residents of Afghanistan.  I wrote a note complaining about that use to the Columbia Journalism Review and officially became a language curmudgeon.
   Our language is so flexible—we have more words than almost any other language because we have two rootstocks, the Germanic of the Angles and Saxons and the French of the Norman conquest—that we absorb and adapt to influences.  Khaki, pajamas and polo came to us from the British rule (Raj) in India, for example.
   We have so many words at our disposal, let’s use those solid ones we kept from the beginning.  Our writing doesn’t necessitate the utilization of jargon to develop a matrix for a story.  Let’s use just the words we need to tell a story!  
   And don’t get me started on “that” and "who”!

About Michele
Michele Drier was born in Santa Cruz to a pioneer family and is a fifth generation Californian.  She’s lived and worked all over the state and has called both Southern and Northern California home.  During her career in journalism she won awards for producing investigative series.  She lives in the Central Valley with cats, skunks, opossums and wild turkeys. Visit her website at   

SNAP, a multinational celeb TV show and magazine, is the holy grail for Maxie Gwenoch. When she snags the job as managing editor, she's looking for fame, fortune and Jimmy Choos. What she finds is a media empire owned by Baron Kandesky and his family. A family of vampires. They're European, urbane, wealthy and mesmerizing. And when she meets Jean-Louis, vampire and co-worker, she's a goner.

EDITED FOR DEATH: Amy Hobbes never expected to solve anything tougher than a crossword puzzle. When she left her job as a journalist in Southern California, she planned to give the adrenaline a rest, but her next job, managing editor of a local newspaper, delivers some surprises. After a respected Senator and World War II hero dies and two more people turn up dead, the news heats up.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Books like old friends

Waterhouse, The Lady of Shallott
    Do you ever go back and re-read books you loved? I do. I just did.

    A few days ago, on her blog, Anna Markland asked some questions about medieval romances. It set me to thinking about some of the books I read years ago. Among my favorites were three by Elizabeth Lowell, Untamed, Enchanted, and Forbidden (in order). These stories have a touch of the mystical, something that really appeals to me. Ms. Lowell is a beautiful writer and these were good books. Forbidden was my favorite, so I bought it for my Kindle and read it again. I loved most of it, and the story still held me to the end, but while Ms. Lowell tried hard to make it believable, some of the conflict between the main characters seemed forced. But it's not necessarily a choice on the author's part; it's required in anything considered romance, including romantic suspense.
    Conflict is a problem I have too. It's hard to come up with a credible, internal conflict to keep the heroine and hero apart. External problems are much easier to make believable. In Cold Comfort (contemporary romantic suspense), I had to go back and add more conflict. The complaint was that they fell in love too easily. Well, why not? I did. I fell for Riley the day he popped into my head. However, bowing to experience (the suggestion of some very good agents), I strengthened some of their characteristics, which brought them more into conflict.

    I also bought Anna Markland's medieval romance, Conquering Passion, Book One of The Montbryce Legacy.  The story line from her description is "Count Rambaud de Montbryce and Lady Mabelle de Valtesse struggle to establish a family dynasty amid the turbulent dangers of the Norman Conquest."  That's a period of history that interests me, and Anna's blog reminded me that I like those stories. Most of my reading is suspense or crime fiction, but sometimes a change is refreshing.

    What are some favorites you'd like to read again? Do you take a break and read something out of your usual genre?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Inside the Mind of a Killer: Researching your Antagonist

DV Berkom is my guest this week. She's the author of the terrific Kate Jones thriller novellas. 
Available at Amazon
So there I was, minding my own business writing one of those truly twisted novels that grabs hold of you and has to come out when I came to the killer's debut. I'd never attempted to write a character quite so creepy and wasn't relishing that first passage. In fact, I continually wrote around him, putting off the scene until I felt I could do justice to him instead of creating a killer cliché. Yes, I could have abandoned the effort and gone on to something else, but a disturbing dream I'd had several months prior provided the inspiration for the story and I felt compelled to follow it through.
How do you write a fresh psychopath? Readers today have been clubbed over the head with serial killers (pardon the pun) to the point that it's become a joke in many literary agencies and publishing houses. The only way I could think to do it was to go to my default: research. I love learning new things. Researching has a way of surprising you with oddball connections, often to be used in ways you'd never expect. A reference here, a notation there, it's similar to a treasure hunt. Like I said, I love research.
Until I started to investigate killers.
Now, I haven't lived what anyone would call a sheltered life, but I'd so far avoided learning specific details about the habits of serial killers. The information I came across in my search made my skin crawl.
Reality is so much more frightening than fiction.
The information creeped me out to the point I'd find myself vacuuming the living room, unsure how that Hoover ended up in my hand. One thing to understand about me: I don't like housework. I'll let dust and dirt accumulate until I can't find the couch or someone decides to visit. Apparently, I found something I like even less.
I followed this routine whenever I delved into the bizarre world of a psychopath, and though you could eat off my living room floor, my manuscript was going nowhere. No closer to fleshing out my killer, (I know- another pun. Sorry) he wouldn't budge from the twisted caricature of a human being I'd created and I was close to giving up. Sure, I could give him odd quirks and mannerisms, but it felt as if I was making him play dress up: all show, no substance.
That is, until I dug a little deeper and discovered the science behind the psychopath. A series of articles on ( ) discussing the biological basis for psychopathic behavior led me ever deeper into the complexities of a killer's mind. Fascinated, I began to read white papers on personality disorder, multiple personalities, cannibalism and the like. Where once I'd been stymied by what motivated someone to kill, an ocean of ideas began to form around what my antagonist's early life was like, his taste in music, food, what made him tick.
Soon, I had seventeen pages of articles, notes and sketches, all revolving around my antagonist. I knew him, knew what made him get out of bed in the morning, why he chose the victims he did. Most importantly, I knew how he justified killing. That was my 'eureka' moment.
Understanding my antagonist helped me move past the visceral recoil from the heinous crimes I read (and wrote) about and gave a more human face to the killer. I learned there's an entire area of scientific inquiry emerging that uses genetic testing and MRIs to map the brains and biological processes of psychopaths, on occasion admitting the results of these tests as evidence in court trials.
Can the fact that a person has the genes and/or brain structure associated with violent behavior be enough to reduce a defendant's culpability in a trial? It's a new take on an age-old question.
Whatever the answer may be, for now I can't wait to write the killer's scenes and try to work in some small kernel of research to help the reader understand him better. Yeah, still pretty creepy, but it worked.
Now, where the heck is that couch?
DV Berkom grew up in the Midwest, received her BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota, and promptly moved to Mexico to live on a sailboat.
Several years and at least a dozen moves later, she now resides outside of Seattle, Washington with her sweetheart Mark, an ex-chef-turned-contractor, and writes whenever she gets a chance. You're welcome to email her at dvb (at) dvberkom (dot) com or chat with her on Facebook or Twitter- she loves to hear from readers as well as other writers. Her website is