Monday, July 30, 2012


Earl Staggs, novelist and short story author, two-time Derringer award winner, and an all-around good guy, is my guest this week.
The idea came to me shortly after the tragedy of 9-11 when terrorists left a scar across the world that will never heal.  I was equally heartbroken and angry.  The angry part of me wanted to go out and find anyone planning to commit such a horrible, unspeakable act and exterminate them.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought, “What if a group of people did exactly that?”
What if a group tracked potential terrorists, and if they planned to take innocent lives, stop them before they committed their murderous act?  Yes, there are alphabet agencies with that responsibility. There’s the CIA, FBI, NSA and others, but they have restrictions.  They can only react after the fact and do not arrest and prosecute people for making threats.  They take action only after innocent people are killed.
The agency taking form in my mind would be secretive and operate under the radar of scrutiny without restrictions.  If they were absolutely certain a terrorist group would attack and kill, this agency would stop them first – permanently with great prejudice.  Most terrorists are committed to die for their cause.  If that is their wish, this agency would accommodate them. If they want to meet Allah and collect their virgins, the agency would put them in the Express Lane.
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I felt it was an incredible idea, but could I actually build a novel around it? Only one way to find out.  Try it and see what happens.  I worked on it for several years.
I created  a main character with experience in Special Forces and named him Tall Chambers.  When Tall retires from the Army at the age of 37, he joins the special agency.  The agency has eyes and ears all over the world, and other operatives with skills and backgrounds similar to Tall’s fill out the unit.  Tall accepts the agency’s mantra of “Kill one terrorist, save a hundred lives,” even though he doesn’t like killing under any circumstances.  He learns to concentrate on lives saved, not those taken.
But that’s when a strange thing happened.
Tall grew as I wrote until the primary focus of the story shifted from chasing terrorists and centered more to how the job affected him and those around him.  The agency became only a backdrop for Tall’s personal story. 
When Tall loses the person closest to him, his focus becomes entirely personal.  He uses the agency’s resources and contacts to find the person responsible for his loss and set things right.  This quest leads him to a decision between exacting personal revenge or preventing a corrupt power from moving into the most powerful office in the world – the Presidency of the United States.
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I was pleased with how this story turned out and feel it could be my best work to date. Now I look forward to seeing TALL CHAMBERS: JUSTIFIED ACTION in print. That should happen within a few short months, and I’m excited about it.
Mystery author Earl Staggs recently received his second Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. His novel MEMORY OF A MURDER earned a long list of Five Star reviews. SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS, a collection of 16 Mystery tales, is available in print and ebook. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine and as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. He is a contributing blog member of Murderous Musings and Make Mine Mystery and a frequent speaker at conferences, seminars, writers and readers groups. Email: Website:

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Birds and the Bees

We have a crop of baby hummingbirds coming to our feeders right now, a summer crop. At the same time, we have an influx of yellow jackets who also like our hummingbird feeders. The sweet scent attracts them and they’re able to wiggle through the holes to the sugar water. Of course they can’t get back out, but in the meantime, the little villains drive off the hummers.
I haven’t been able to get a picture of the fights, but the yellow jackets win. The hummers have to wait till they have a clear shot, and now they don’t sit peacefully on the outer ring as they occasionally used to—when they aren’t driving off each other. They’re not big on sharing.
In the end, the insects drown, so you could say the hummers win. In this photo, you can see the deceased floating in the water. This is not the hummers’ favorite feeder, but you can’t see into the better ones (as in the first picture).
This conflict is a bit like my goals in fiction. I care about the hummers and want them to win, but the outcome is often in doubt. The yellow jackets win many of the battles, and I want to intervene for the hungry babies. Instead I have to wait and see who wins this time.
I’d prefer a more clear-cut victory for my characters, but the element of real doubt creates suspense. This only works if you care about the characters though. But how to create such people? That’s another blog.
How important is it for you to like or care about the characters before you can enjoy a story? If you don't care, are you still drawn in to anxiously await the final outcome?

Monday, July 23, 2012


Available in Trade or eBook
Luisa Buehler, author of the Grace Marsden mysteries, is my guest. Grace is a fascinating character who's been described as a female Monk (from the TV series, not the church). Her latest is The Reenactor: A Staged Death.
People who aren’t writers always ask, “How do you write an entire book?”
“In little bits and starts and stops,” I usually answer. Those same people probably aren’t gardeners because that’s how gardens are created and expanded…in bits and starts and stops. At least my garden started that way twenty years ago and continues in that manner today.
Start with an idea for a garden, “What if I push out the border about eight inches all the way down the path to the fire pit?” Or start with an idea for a storyline, “What if I have the hero investigate his great uncle’s family tree all the way back to the Civil War?”
In the case of my garden, I’m trying to clean up the edging of a path. On the interior of the path, I can use a combination of pulling weeds and spreading Preen to take out the undesirable plants and keep down new unwanted growth. The final plan is to lay landscaping cloth and cover the surface with mulch.
In the case of my novel, I need to involve another layer of discovery to the story that runs parallel but not prominently. Just as in my garden, the main path of my story needs the same treatment. 1. Eradicate the bits that detract from the story like excessive adverbs, extraneous exposition and annoying dialog tags. 2. Apply a literary Preen to keep those ‘weeds’ from germinating. I have a hit list of especially resistant words that I run through my ‘search and destroy’ function in Word.
The photos show my progress on scuffing and preening the edging. I scuff, shake off the dirt from the weeds and work in copious amounts of preen at the rate of about two to three rocks per day. Some days I dig up and flip a few pieces of sod to get a jump on the next day. The path is about 70 feet long.
I write two pages a day unless I’ve reached the end of the chapter. On those days, I write just a bit more so I have a quick start for the next morning. My books are about 280 to 300 pages long. I don’t think in terms of writing a 300 page novel any more than I think of creating an entire garden. I enjoy writing in the moment of the story and sweating in the process of gardening. Both happen for me in little bits and starts and stops. How does your garden grow? Share your methods for creating new and maintaining existing garden space.
Luisa Buehler

How thin is the veil between life and the hereafter? With her husband safely home from a dangerous mission to save his sister, Grace believes her constant fears and encounters with uneasy spirits will stop and life will finally settle into a normal pace.
A fun day with family, the only item on her agenda, Grace, Harry and her step son, Will plan a day at a Civil War encampment. The summer day darkens when Grace becomes a witness to a murder and a century old mystery. And once again, Grace’s normal life spins out of control and leaves her praying that when morning comes her family will be alive.
Find out more about Luisa at

Friday, July 20, 2012

New Home for Greenville's Fiction Addiction

Things are looking up for booklovers in Greenville, South Carolina. Fiction Addiction, our indie bookstore, has moved to a new location that’s much more accessible. The new address is 1175 Woods Crossing Rd (Shops by the Mall behind Haywood Mall). That’s the corner where Fried Green Tomatoes is, almost across the street from Twigs.
There’s good parking, easy access, and a lovely, spacious store.
You can find a great selection of  books, including all our local authors’ work, young adults, and audio books. 

Come by and see them. It's a friendly, welcoming store with comfortable chairs.

Owner Jill Hendrix and her staff know their books. They can recommend something to fit any taste. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How True is Historical Fiction?


My guest this week is Tom Isbell, author of Southern Cross, an exciting  tale of double agents, espionage, revenge, and murder set on the S.S. Southern Cross in pre-WWII.
Historical fiction blends the reality of history with the make-believe world of the characters and plot. How true to history should historical fiction be? I spend a good deal of time researching the timeline before I start writing a story. However, the historical part of the story shouldn’t overshadow the plot. The reader isn’t looking for a history lesson. Too much detail pulls the reader out of the story. A friend of mine once said, “It’s fiction, just make it up.” I don’t agree. In order for a novel to be believable, the bits and pieces of history woven into the story must also be believable, and above all correct.
I was well into writing my second novel, Icarus Plot, when I discovered that one third of the town had burned down during the time period of my story. People lost everything and were forced to live in army tents while the town rebuilt. The area was placed under martial law. All of this complicated my life as a writer, but I could not ignore the fire. It was part of the town’s history. I couldn’t change the timeline of the story since it flowed into my next book. After more research, I found some photographs of the fire and also determined the cause of the fire was unknown. This fact presented an opportunity to blend history with fiction while furthering the plot. I wrote two chapters into the book showing how the fire started and how it affected my characters. The fire became an integral part of the plot.
In another instance, I found myself writing a history lesson; showing how much I knew about the history surrounding the time. I chopped two thousand words from a story. The historical facts were interesting to me, but they were not furthering the plot. I would have lost the reader.
So, how true to history should historical fiction be? In the context of fiction, doses of historical fact should remain subtly in the background and not call attention to themselves.

About T. C. Isbell
Like many authors, I started writing in high school. In the sixties and seventies I wrote short stories and poems influenced by those turbulent times. During the eighties, I wrote articles for The Rodder's Bulletin, a monthly newspaper for car enthusiasts. Retirement has given me time to pursue my passion for writing. Southern Cross is the first in a series of historical thrillers set in the period just before the United States officially enters World War II.  It is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Icarus Plot, the second book in the series, is a work in progress.
I am a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and International Thriller Writers (ITW).


Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Ending, a Bang or a Fizzle?

Death Proof (2007) 

Since I'm working on the ending to my current book, last scenes are on my mind. I thought I'd review my thoughts and see if you have anything to add. Have you ever read a book that kept you turning the pages, only to have it fizzle out on a weak ending? Something that wasn't worthy of the characters' struggle? I have, and I don't want to be guilty of it. It's such a disappointment.
The last scene should be the longest in the story. This is what the reader has been waiting for. Don't cheat him. Make it worth the wait. All the minor characters should have their problems resolved or settled by the last big scene. The protagonist and the antagonist should be the focus of the final confrontation.  This is the fight or confrontation the reader has waded through the rest of the story to reach.
The ending should satisfy the reader, which requires three things:
1.            The conflict is resolved and all the problems solved.
2.           There are no loose ends.
3.           Everyone gets what he deserves.
End the story as soon as the problem is solved. Leave the reader with a good feeling. Don't leave anything hanging unless there will be a sequel, and even then, it should be fairly subtle. Remember Star Wars? Han Solo was dropped into the cryogenic tank or whatever, where he will be frozen forever. We saw him drop, but we never saw him die, leaving the possibility of his return.
The last scene should be the most dramatic in the story. Pull out all the stops. Even though you know in your heart that the good guy will win, there should be doubt. Can he really overcome those odds?
Make the characters who have something at stake participate in the final conflict. Don't let anyone step in for a main character. No police show up to save the heroine from the bad guy (but she could disable or hold him until they arrive J). She must save herself, although she could have help from another primary character. No divine intervention! The heavens cannot open and put out the forest fire with rain when the main characters are surrounded by the blaze. The bad guy cannot have a heart attack that stops him from killing the hero. The abusive husband can’t die from a gas leak so the wife and children are saved.
Obviously the ending has to fit the story--it doesn't have to be a big, dramatic scene but it should still be satisfying.
Now, how can I achieve this from where I am in my story? 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Make Them Care

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My guest this week is Maggie Toussaint, author of Death, Island Style,  Murder in the Buff, Muddy Waters, and other mystery, suspense, and romance novels.
A tree falls in the woods. Do you care? Perhaps, but what if there was a nest of an endangered birds in the top? Do you care now?
That might be enough to reel some readers in, but the biggest grab of all is to put people in the mix. If people are in harm’s way, readers are drawn into the story. They have to know what happens next.
When the stakes are higher, the story matters. It carries weight and resonance, especially if it’s well done.
So, let’s make the stakes higher for that tree falling in the woods. What if the tree fell across an access road, and that road was the only way for a mountaintop community to reach medical care, and a pregnant woman is in labor?
Jayne Ann Krentz used this scenario in her 1993 release Hidden Talents. I mention this nearly 20-year-old book because that story and those characters still resonate with me, all these many years later.
There’s a reason we love reading books by bestselling authors. They know how to raise the stakes and make us care.
To make a short detour into craft, raising the stakes means layering the characters with strengths and weaknesses. Story events keep pushing the characters into areas where their strengths and weaknesses come into play.
It sometimes means having characters lose control.
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Take my character Molly Darter for instance. She had it all – good job, great husband, adorable kid, the respect of the community, a house she loved, an obedient dog – and in a single Judas kiss, her world crumbled.
She kicks her cheating husband out, works on a story about the nudist colony for her newspaper boss, even though she wants nothing to do with naked people. She races home to meet her son’s school bus and there’s her husband, mad because his key no longer fits in the door.
Do you care what happens next? Can you predict what Molly will do when she’s been pushed to her limits? Here’s a snip of Murder in the Buff to whet your interest:
…A familiar red pickup in the driveway gleamed in the dappled sunlight around the oak-shaded house. Hadley’s truck. I thought of all the times the sight of his truck had brought me pleasure, of how we’d sneak away to snatch some together time.
Little did I know he’d been sneaking around other places as well. He wasn’t worming his way back into my life. No way, no how. I’d rather starve and go to the poor house before I allowed him one ounce of sympathy.
A tide of anger came over me, washing away logic and common sense. I wanted to hurt him as much as he’d hurt me. He loved that freshly waxed truck more than life itself. I gunned my Suburban and rammed his truck. Glass broke. Metal crunched. I rocketed forward against my seatbelt restraint…
Molly valued staying in control above all else, and now she’s out of control. Even though she’s done something terrible, now she has to deal with the aftermath.
Does a particular character from a favorite book still resonate with you? Share it with me and you’ll automatically be entered in a drawing for an electronic download of Murder in the Buff, my campy cozy mystery.
Happy July everyone!
Maggie Toussaint


Formerly a scientist and currently a freelance reporter, Southern author Maggie Toussaint loves to mix murder and romance in her fiction. With nine published books to her credit, her latest release is Death, Island Style. Toussaint is an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime. Visit her at

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

One Picture, Three Visions—HALLINAN. LANE. MONAJEM.

Hooray! It's First Friday again, and three great authors have described, in 150 words or less, what they saw in this picture. Each one had an entirely different idea. This is how creativity works. Wonderful examples.

For thirty years, Andres played his guitar in the corner of the little Barcelona bar as the clientele changed from working-class people to thugs and gangsters from the wharves, to slumming aristocrats, and finally to gay men and women. But Andres played on: seguedillas, flamenco, classical.  On the night Andres didn't show up for work, the bartender went to his one-room apartment and found it empty, except for his guitar.  No effects of any kind.  The bartender brought the guitar back and leaned it against Andres' chair.  In the 1990s the bar was closed and shuttered for the last time.  A year ago, the building was scheduled for demolition, and the workmen found a room rotten with damp, the walls cracked and peeling, everything shrouded in plaster dust.  But the guitar leaning against the chair in the back corner: it looked like someone had dusted it every night for years.
“Thank you . . . thank you.” He nodded to the enthusiastic crowd that overflowed the smoky basement club. Breathing in the sweet smell of weed, he flashed his best boyish grin at the table nearest the stage. Three sexy chicks, all giving him the eye.  He’d go home with at least one of them – shit, maybe all three.  If a good looking guitar player couldn’t get laid…
He shifted his butt on the stingy-seated folding chair and struck a tentative chord…
His wife’s voice shrilled down the stairs. “Damn it, Mort, can’t you shut the basement door?  You couldn’t play guitar fifty years ago; you can’t play it now, you old fool.”
         The door slammed; the nightclub disappeared. Alone in the dank, mildewed basement, Morton sighed and watched another leaf of paint peel loose and drift, like a discarded dream, to join the others littering the floor.
Rafaela DaVinci bared her fangs. “You put my guitar in the dungeon?” 
“Strictly speaking, it’s a cellar,” I said mildly. Damp, with peeling paint and fractured linoleum, sure—but it was also the closest time portal. “I propped it against a chair.”
She snarled, all flying hair and furious eyes.  “That guitar cost ten thousand bucks!”
“So it’s the perfect bait,” I said. “Titus can smell an antique from eons away, and if he opens the portal to take it…”
“I can get back to the future.” Where she wouldn’t have to hide her fangs.  “Where I’ll have to buy back my own damned guitar!”
“That’s where my brilliance comes in,” I said. “I’ve rigged the pickup inside the guitar. Any noise in there and we’ll hear it. You’ll have ten seconds  to cross the portal, snatch the guitar—
The portal opened, squawking a warning through the pickup. Rafaela ran.

The Fear Artist - Amazon
Timothy Hallinan
Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, the Junior Bender Mysteries, and the 1990s cult-favorite PI novels featuring Simeon Grist.  His newest Poke Rafferty novel, THE FEAR ARTIST, received stars from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal.  Hallinan also edited SHAKEN, an ebook anthology of stories, with 100% of the proceeds going to Japan tsunami relief, will soon release an ebook called MAKING STORY: 21 WRITERS ON HOW THEY PLOT.
Hallinan wishes to acknowledge that the Barcelona bar was stolen, or rather inspired, by the bar in GITANA by Sam Reaves, masquerading as Dominic Martell. His blog is in his website.

Under the Skin--Amazon
Vicki Lane
Vicki Lane is the author of the critically acclaimed Elizabeth Goodweather Appalachian Mysteries from Bantam Dell -- Signs in the Blood, Art's Blood, Old Wounds, Anthony- nominated In a Dark Season, and the recent Under the Skin, as well as The Day of Small Things, a standalone.  Vicki draws her inspiration from the past and present of rural North Carolina where she and her family have tended a mountainside farm since 1975. Learn more about Vicki and her books at .  There is also a daily blog with lots of pictures ... . . .

Barbara Monajem
To Rescue or Ravish?--Amazon
When Arabella Wilbanks flees a forced betrothal, the last person she expects to find at the reins of her getaway hackney is Matthew Worcester. It’s been seven long years since they gave in to their mutual desire, but Matt still burns with regret for leaving her without a word. He should escort her to safety, but the chance to reclaim her proves impossible to resist...
   Barbara Monajem started writing at eight years old. She has wandered from children’s fantasy through mystery to paranormal and now historical romance. Today’s little effort is her first stab at science fiction.

Stop and say hi to these super authors. Tell us what you think or join in. We'd love to hear from you.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Celebrating the Fourth of July

I like this picture. It speaks to me of pride and patriotism, which come on many levels. We don't all see things the same way, but I believe we all love this country. And we love and respect the principles on which it was founded, even though we don't always interpret them the same way. 

Many of our family members, from our ancestors to the present generation, have given their lives, limbs, and health to  keep this country free. Many here at home have made tremendous sacrifices, especially our military families. Let us honor them and remember those principles they fought for.

Emma Lazarus's poem "The Colossus," the one on a tablet inside the Statue of Liberty, has stayed with me since elementary school. I especially revere those warm, magnificent words: "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me . . ."

Do we still mean that? I'm not always sure. It's something to think about. 

Here's the entire poem:

"The Colossus"
by Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Are there any words special to you, words that come to mind on our 236th birthday since 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed?