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

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ode to Black Cat

This cat who's slowly making me his . . .  A glossy creature, black as shadows on a moonless night.  A beguiling fellow, he is by turns aloof and tender, watchful and remote, then curling at my feet. 

Last night he brought his lady friend to visit.  He proudly led the way to his new-found trove of food and warmth, coaxing her along.  A shy thing, she hung back, afraid to enter. He murmured softly, nuzzling her ear, until she darted through to safety behind a chair.  I left her alone, just put out two dishes and a bowl of water and then retired to the sofa to watch in silence. 

The Prince of Midnight is not normally inclined to share, growling low in his throat and occasionally charging at neighboring cats who venture near.  But this night he turned all his charm toward his sole invited guest.  He rolled and wriggled, batting gently in the air, blinking his sloe green eyes at her.

She gradually succumbed, and together they ate, first from one dish, then the other. 

Some years ago I worked in a small town in the mountains and stayed in an efficiency apartment on the bank of the Pigeon River. I gradually made friends with a couple of the feral cats who haunted the area. One stayed for thirteen years. Black Cat, her offspring, stayed for two years before feline aids took him. His lady friend, whom I called PK (for Pretty Kitty) came with him often but remained shy of people. She learned her name and came for food, but she could never relax if I shut the door and she was closed in my apartment. She never returned after Black Cat died. If I find a picture of them, I'll post it. I miss those slinking, shadowy creatures who stayed near but never close.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Blooms Are Clues

The dynamic duo that is Nash Black is my guest this week. The way Shakespeare uses clues is fascinating.
Shakespeare was a master of Elizabethan English. A vital aspect of that language was the language of flowers both figuratively and symbolically. Flowers and herbs conveyed a silent message to ordinary playgoers who filled the seats of the Globe Theater.
Using this basic means of show and tell, he created a classic scene of accusation when Ophelia distributes flowers from her bouquet around the throne room to the principles of Hamlet. The flowers convey meaning to each individual and symbolize the play’s themes of fidelity and betrayal, innocence and guilt.
To Hamlet she gives rosemary, pansies, fennel, rue, and a daisy.
She says to him, “Pray you, love, remember.” Is she asking him to remember her or are the words an echo of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, “...remember me”? Rosemary was used to strengthen the brain and it is followed by pansies which indicates thoughts or apply the Elizabethan name for the flower, heartease.
Fennel indicated flattery and it is followed by rue. “You must wear your rue with a difference.” Difference is a heraldic term, referring to coats-of-arms, which designate the joining of houses and lineages. She is telling him to have care against listening to false flattery. The last flower is the daisy the symbol for dissembling another warning against false speakers.
Laertes is the next recipient of rosemary and pansies. Telling him he should both remember and think or “...thoughts and remembrance fitted.” He is cautioned to have an open mind as to who is friend or foe.
Ophelia turns to the Claudius, the king, who fears the discovery of his fratricide. She gives him fennel and columbine which means thanklessness. It was often linked with kings who usurped the throne and can never rest again.
The Queen is the next recipient and Ophelia hands her rue. “There’s rue for you.” Rue is a bitter herb. It is an herb for funerals and prayers, hence having a dual meaning instructing the acknowledgment one’s sins and seeking forgiveness. The Queen must bear her own guilt, but is “left to heaven” for judgment.
One flower is missing from her bouquet. “I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father died.” Her lament tells her audience that loyalty and fidelity have ceased.
Finally she gathers a crown of weeds. The coronet is crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples (wild orchids). All were symbols of waste in Shakespeare’s time. Did her warnings fall on deaf ears?
Ophelia wasn’t insane as she has been portrayed through the centuries. Her words and actions are too precise to be the actions of an out-of-control mind.
 Was her death an accident, suicide, or murder?
Who is Nash Black?
Nash Black is the pen name for Irene Black and Ford Nashett. They create ghost stories and mysteries from their lakeside retirement home. Their most recent publications are Visitors (holiday story) and Sandprints of Death. You can visit with Nash Black on Twitter @Pennhand.


    Visitors is a blending scientific and historical fact spiced with charm and imagination when a banished 12th century leprechaun finds a shelter in a mailman’s bag on Christmas Eve. Two ghosts and a mischievous sprite give an entire new meaning to the story of wisemen bearing gifts. Ho Jolly, Fella, and Frank Washington will live in your heart for all seasons. Visitors is available in e-book editions  or paperback. Just click on the links.
    The cover art for Visitors is ‘Life Giver’ from a series by ML Carpenter, who created the wall art for the JFK Plaza lobby in New York.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

An Echelon Press book

My guest is Stephen Brayton, author of Beta, the new Mallory Petersen, PI, novel. Mallory has a fourth degree black belt in Taekwondo. She's almost up with her creator.
Maybe a more appropriate title would be “How do you hear me?” Or maybe, “Sounds like…” with the proper charades gesture.
What I’d like to discuss is how to add voice or sound to your stories. How do characters speak? What do specific noises sound like? Taking the second question first, it’s not enough sometimes just to write something making noise. To add elements such as mood or emotion, you must show the reader how things sound. You do this by relating the particular noise to something recognizable. For instance, “The rain fell hard against the roof.” This can be spiced up depending on what you’re trying to convey. “The rain falling against the metal slats sounded like a hail of machine gun bullets.” “She sat alone in the cabin. The light rain against the screens was as many whispers silently calling to her.”
Wind and rain are fairly easy to bring to life. The wind can moan like a dying asthmatic, cry like ghosts from the past mourning their own passing, sing like a teakettle on full alert, or whine like an injured animal. Other sounds may challenge the writer. I’ve heard the familiar blatting exhaust of a passing bus described as ‘snoring’ and ‘farting.’ Did you know cats doing the courting dance sound exactly like a crying baby? The similarity is downright eerie.
Voices are another area where you can bring the reader closer to your story. In nearly every story I read, I assign a specific voice to each character, sometimes by the author telling me how someone speaks, sometimes with only the character’s description.
I have a friend who suffers from MS and as a result she can’t read a book very long before her mind gets tired. So she listens to audio books. When we dated, I’d spend hours reading aloud to her. She ended up with someone else, but since then, when I discover a book I think she might like, I’ll record it for her. I’ve heard hundreds of audio books and I enjoy them so much more when the narrator uses a different voice for each character. One who reads in a monotone or with no emotion even in the action packed scenes tends to make a good story boring.
I’ve developed a standard set of voices for various types of characters when I read aloud. Unless I’m specifically told the person has a particular voice, I usually rely on past experience and descriptions. With exceptions, of course, see if you hear the same voices.
Attorneys, especially the adversarial ones usually have an aristocratic tone.
Techno geeks and some doctors are nasally.
Military colonels and general will speak in a bass or gravelly voice.
The beat cop or veteran detective talks out of the side of his mouth while their captains are gruff speakers.
Preachers are charismatic with maybe a touch of southern. On the other hand, priests are quiet and subdued.
Unless specifically mentioned, I usually put a little high pitched waver to elderly voices.
Women are of course done in a higher voice except when you have a Lauren Bacall type character. Breathy, perky, whiny, nasally, domineering, seductive, grating…the voice depends on the character.
Accents are fun, too. Does the Irishman have a Dublin or north country accent? Is the British speaking in a London or rural twang? Cockney or House of Lords? Is the Mexican high pitched or raspy? Is the black person speaking in a deep, formal, commanding voice (think James Earl Jones), sassy street slang (think Martin Lawrence or Eddie Murphy), or very distinctive (everybody recognizes Morgan Freeman)? Is the businessman from Mississippi, Alabama, or is he a boisterous Texan with a hat too big to fit inside his pickup truck? Is the Russian a weary ex-KGB officer or his sexy partner (a’la James Bond movies)?
The point is to make the reader mentally hear the sounds and the voices by giving them life and distinction. How many books have you read where everybody sounds the same, where you don’t here any “grinding metal gates, nerve shattering creaking doors, Armageddon like eruptions, droning insects like miniature model airplanes?” They’re not very exciting, are they?
Give your readers some sound. Their ears will thank you.
Stephen describes himself as a reader, writer, and instructor. He's also a fifth degree black belt in Taekwondo among many other things. For more about Stephen, visit his website at or find him on Facebook.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Creating Interesting Characters

Lauren Hutton's Teeth
Characters are usually the most important part of a story. Even the best plot needs good characters. Strong, interesting characters stay with me for years, maybe always. So what can we do to help make them vivid and real?
Show characterization through actions and reactions; keep descriptions visual whenever possible, but that doesn’t mean to give a driver’s license description. Show rather than tell. There are at least five ways to show your character to the reader:
1. Through physical attributes
2. Through psychological attributes and mannerisms
3. With clothing or the manner and style of wearing it
4. Through actions
5. In dialogue
Physical attributes are more than hair and eye color. You might show how the person walks—does he walk, swagger, amble, sidle, or slither into the room? Does he look directly at you when he talks or does his gaze slide away?
Show, don't tell. Give her an unusual feature. Remember Lauren Hutton's gap-toothed charm? That little imperfection was endearing and made her stand out.
 How the character looks can be shown through the effect on others. Instead of She was breathtakingly beautiful, you might say Joe and every other man present forgot to breathe when Angela entered the room. Instead of George was big and mean-looking, try something like Walking with George was like walking with a Doberman—one look and people made way in a hurry.
Who could forget John Wayne's walk?
Clothing can show a great deal. Is the character neat and clean but wearing an obviously homemade dress? Does Dan have snagged threads and salsa stains on his Dior tie? And there's always the church organist with the red lace underwear. List all the physical characteristics on a separate page so you don't forget that on page twenty she had green eyes and on page two hundred you make them match the topaz necklace she's wearing. If she's only an inch shorter than another character, she'd better not be looking up at him unless she's sitting down. I often use pictures I cut from magazines or wherever and tape them to the wall by my desk.
Mannerisms are good ways to make a character memorable, but use the mannerism sparingly. Don’t limit your character to a single action so that you repeat the same thing over and over.  Instead of having her twist a strand of hair around her finger until the reader wants to cut it off (either the finger or the hair—watch those pronouns), find ways to vary a nervous habit. Make a list of applicable verbs if she plays with her hair: chew, finger, pull, stroke, tuck, whatever. Or maybe she fiddled with her clothing, adjusted her glasses, pushed her hair back, picked at her nails. Use these things sparingly.
You can also use physical surroundings, the character’s past, and his or her name to enhance the character’s personality. Someone told me that Margaret Mitchell started out calling her heroine Pansy. Thank goodness she changed her to Scarlett. How about Eudora Welty’s Stella Rondo? The name rolls off the tongue and stays with you. Faulkner’s Colonel Sartoris Snopes. It suits the character.
Do you have any pet peeves? What turns you off? Turns you on? How do you come up with interesting characters?