Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fresh as a Daisy

Everything’s been done. And “they” say Shakespeare wrote every plot. How do you keep your stories new and original? What do you bring to them that makes them fresh?

I’m going to cheat a bit here today. I recently wrote a guest blog on this very topic for Kathy Boone Reel’s excellent site. Here’s the link to that piece.

Today I’m going to steal my thoughts from that post.

I write the Ellie Stone mysteries, a series set in the early 1960s. Six installments have been published so far, with the seventh on the way next summer. Writing the same character over a series can become challenging, especially from a freshness point of view. It’s easy to fall into a rut with your characters. As in any relationship, an author should try to keep the romance alive. I do that in a variety of ways.

 Readers enjoy familiarity, of course, but nobody wants to read the same book over and over. So to ensure (or at least attempt to ensure) that my books don’t become predictable, I try to change things up. Here’s where I’m concentrating my energies.

1    Location
I’m determined to avoid Cabot Cove Syndrome (i.e. staging too many murders in a small town), as it’s known in the crime-writing community. In my case that’s the fictional city of New Holland, NY, where Ellie Stone lives and works. In 1962, the time of my series, New Holland counts about 30,000 souls. To date, I’ve murdered two people there, one in NO STONE UNTURNED and another in STONE COLD DEAD. To complicate matters, the two homicides took place within five weeks of each other. And while I can explain away two murders as a coincidence, any more would strain credulity.

So let’s take stock of my body count. In my first book, STYX & STONE, Ellie investigates two deaths in New York City. No problem there. New York is a big pond with plenty of room for murder and mayhem. The second and third books, cited above, are set in New Holland. Fourth, HEART OF STONE, takes place on an Adirondack Mountain lake in August. Not too far from New Holland, but far enough. In book five, CAST THE FIRST STONE, Ellie travels to Los Angeles, where she finds a dead movie producer at the bottom of a Hollywood Hills ravine. And now, book six, A STONE’S THROW, is set in Saratoga Springs, NY, near New Holland, but like the mountain lake, it’s far enough away to dispel comparisons to Jessica Fletcher.

(Photo removed)

And while we’re at it, let’s consider who the victims areIn my books, I want to steer clear of killing off only beautiful young women. So I feel a sense of pride that my male victims outnumber females eight to five through the first six Ellie Stone mysteries.

2. Plot/structure
By this I mean not only the story, but how it is presented, both narratively and structurally. All my Ellie Stone mysteries are told in the first person past tense. The first person narration allows me to tell the story from up close, all the while showing Ellie’s mindset and development in a sneaky way. Every word she chooses as narratoreven the jabs she throws at the condescending men she encountersgives us more information about her as a character.

But I also like to try something new in the structure of the each story. Not to the point of telling the story backward or using multiple narrators, perhaps, but I do strive for some kind of novelty each time. That may be the location, the characters, or the general setting I write about. For example, through six books, I’ve sent Ellie headlong intothe worlds of academiateenage angstCold War politics,wife-swapping, closeted gay Hollywood, and Thoroughbred horse racing. Even the murders, clues, and procedures should vary in each book. With that in mind, I’ve dropped the body in the first paragraph, at end of the first chapter, and even three-quarters of the way into the book. Someday I might write a locked-door mystery, a cat-and-mouse game between Ellie and the murderer from page one, or a straight procedural investigationNo two cases should be the same, so I enjoy playing with different set-ups for her to deal with. I joke that one day I’ll write a mystery novel where no crime at all is committed. Of course the reader won’t realize that until the last page.

3. Theme

My books are set in the 1960s, an era rife with myriad social and political changes that swept the world. Those upheavals provide me with an embarrassment of riches, theme-wise. To date, Ellie has found herself wading intoissues such as child abuse, oppression of gays, anti-Semitism, sexual liberation and libertinism, and juvenile delinquency.The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Lib, the Summer of Love, and the Vietnam War all await Ellie in future installments.

4. Time
Some mystery series are written “out of time,” meaning we never know the exact month or year they are set. The action takes place in an unspecified period—perhaps the present or the recent past. This provides several advantages, including not worrying about keeping the calendar straighthaving to deal with current events, or aging of your charactersThe Ellie Stone series, on the other hand, moves through timeThe first book, STYX & STONE, opens in January 1960. With the sixth installment, A STONE’S THROW, I’ve reached August 1962. TURN TO STONE is up next and takes place in Florence, Italy, in August 1963.So I have to keep days and dates straight, as well as make sure Ellie grows older and develops. On the plus side, however, I can use real world events and cultural themes to illuminate and flesh out my stories (see point 3 above).This way I hope Ellie will continue to entertain readers, maybe even surprise them as she sometimes surprises me.

I’ve often said that writing a novel is an exercise in putting off the ending for as long as possible, all the while keeping your readers entertained. The same is true for the story and character arcs of series. Which is why I am constantly looking for different ways to distinguish one Ellie Stone mystery from the others. Look for TURN TO STONE June 4, 2019 from Seventh Street Books. To keep this one fresh, I’m sending Ellie to Florence, Italy in August 1963.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The same, but different

Everything’s been done. And “they” say Shakespeare wrote every plot. How do you keep your stories new and original? What do you bring to them that makes them fresh?

by Dietrich

Maybe we’re not recreating the wheel, but a good writer gives a story his or her own spin and unique expression. A powerful voice can travel over the familiar terrain of setting and plot structure and come out sounding original and brilliant. Take Don Winslow’s The Force. Set in New York, it’s about a corrupt cop; a setting and storyline that’s been visited many times before, yet Winslow makes it fresh due of his voice and ability to tell and move the story. If you’ve read the book, you know what I mean; if you haven’t you’ll want to get a copy.

New York’s been the setting of many other crime series and stories. Take a look at Ed McBain’s 83rd Precinct books, or Donald E. Westlake’s Cops and Robbers, Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books, and Chester Himes Harlem Cycle. Novels like Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 by John Godey. And there’s the hit series The Deuce, created by David Simon and George Pelecanos. And remember those great films like The French Connection, Taxi Driver, Klute, The Pope of Greenwich Village. Al Pacino’s practically made a career starring in crime stories filmed in New York: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Donny Brasco, Carlito’s Way, Cruising, and Sea of Love

All these stories are of cops and crooks, and all are set in New York, yet each is distinct. Of course it doesn’t have to be New York. It could be Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, or James Lee Burke’s New Orleans, Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, Carl Hiaasen’s Miami. Familiar settings and similar story lines — someone’s committing a crime and someone’s solving one.

“It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” — Jack Kerouac

When I’m deciding on the right setting, I consider the mood and overall color it will lend the story. Should it be present time or some point in history? Do I know this place, or am I in for a mountain of research to pull it off?

“A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.” — Somerset Maugham

Besides voice and setting, consider plot which can basically be boiled down to a protagonist wanting something and going after it. That’s probably true, but there’s so much more to be added to the broad strokes that makes each story distinct and special. There’s the writer’s own passion, style and life experience, along with the obstacles and themes, the humor and tragedy. Not to mention the twists and quests, subplots, setups and hooks, the cast of heroes, villains and underdogs, the depth of the characters, backstories and their dialog. Everything a writer can dream up and express in his or her own way, making the same thing different.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Keeping the Excitement Alive by Brenda Chapman

Sept 24: CRAFT: Everything’s been done. And “they” say Shakespeare wrote every plot. How do you keep your stories new and original? What do you bring to them that makes them fresh?

I sometimes think it would have been easier to be a writer a few hundred years ago when books were not as numerous as they are now. Think of all the untold stories waiting to be penned! As for Shakespeare writing every plot, he actually took a lot of his plotlines from Holinshed's Chronicles, something I was surprised to learn when studying his work at Carleton University — but the trick was in putting his own stamp on the stories told before him. For me, this truly is the key to keeping stories fresh and original” bringing one’s own essence, perspective, imagination, language, humour, je ne said crois into the story-telling.

I’ve kept my writing fresh by writing for different audiences. I started with short crime fiction stories that were published in a few magazines and an anthology (When Boomers Go Bad) while also writing a YA series that turned into four books — the Jennifer Bannon mysteries. Then, I tried my hand at writing a standalone mystery, In Winter’s Grip, followed by an older teen coming of age novel, Second Chances. My readers were becoming confused but I was enjoying the challenges and keeping myself amused. Yet this isn't the best way to build an audience. I finally settled on writing the Stonechild and Rouleau police procedural series of seven books for Dundurn. To guarantee that boredom didn't have a chance to set in, however, I’ve also been writing a series of novellas for Grass Roots Press – a series featuring PI Anna Sweet who has an office with her partner Jada Price in Ottawa’s Hintonburg and solves murders all over the city.

So, for me, the first rule of keeping things fresh has been to write for different audiences and to continuously experiment.

I also believe that the more interesting people you spend time with and the more open you are to new experiences, the more you’ll bring to your writing. This includes reading widely, savoring new vocabulary and writing styles, and keeping an open mind about ideas even if they’re sometimes outside your wheelhouse or uncomfortable to contemplate. Every new experience and idea become part of the treasure trove that feeds into a writer’s work.

I’ve been reading crime fiction since I was a kid tucking into Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and The Secret Seven books. I read crime fiction all through university and throughout my adult life, never tiring of the genre. Sure the basic story arc is the similar for crime fiction: murder/crime, clues, red herrings, suspense, another crime, big reveal, order restored, but the characters and their interactions always change, the settings can be familiar or exotic, the writing style is personal to the author, the social content is a reflection of the time. I think it would be difficult not to be original!

Over the years, I’ve written in both first and third person and made up fictional towns as well as used real locations. I’ve set my books in each of the four seasons, had killers and victims in both genders and employed a variety of murder weapons. As my two current series wrap up, I’m already contemplating my next writing adventure. Thriller? Standalone? Series? Short story? The creative possibilities really are endless ….


Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Friday, September 21, 2018

Know When to Hold ’Em, Know When to Fold ’Em

If a major producer/production company wanted to option or buy your book…but wanted to change it in major ways as often happens in Hollywood, would you still sell it? Explain your reasons and your limitations. But remember, once you sell something to Hollywood, except in extremely rare instances, you lose control over the film property.

by Paul D. Marks

How often have you said or heard someone say, “The book was better than the movie.” Well, there’s a lot of reasons for that. Movies are a different beast than books. They accomplish things in different ways. Plus, the people who make the movies want to put their stamp on the project.

I’ve been on both sides of the issue and neither side is really comfortable. I had a friend, who’s a fairly big writer-director these days, but when he was starting out a major producer wanted to buy his property…and even let him direct, which is just about every aspiring filmmaker’s fantasy. And it came true. But all he ever did was complain about how “they” changed this and changed that. Later on, the same guy had another property that sold and the original script was really good. But once it went through the Hollywood meat grinder it was barely recognizable. More gripes. And I’m sitting there thinking, Jeez, I wish I had your problems.

When you sell the rights to your book to Hollywood (in most cases) they can do virtually anything they want to it. Look at how many movies barely resemble the book. Maybe they’re even better, but they’re not the book. So you have to decide if you want to maintain your integrity or get whatever benefits and glory come your way by having a movie made of your book. It’s my understanding that Sue Grafton, who came from a film background and knew what might happen, wouldn’t sell the rights to her Kinsey Millhone stories because she didn’t’ want to lose control over how Kinsey was portrayed or how the stories might be changed.

Ryan Gosling
 As I’d mentioned previously, I made a well-known producer cry because one of my pieces touched him so much. But when he wanted to change my story by adding extraneous characters, I told my agent to can the deal. Would I do that today? I’m not sure.

And let’s not forget the Golden Turkey Leg, where another producer wanted to bring a character back from the dead and have something I called the Golden Turkey Leg that was sort of a magic wand. It was a nightmare. On that one I actually optioned the property to him and did the work and made the changes, but it fell apart. And maybe I’m even glad for that.

In another instance, I optioned a script to a producer who wanted to change the male lead to female and vice versa. Since it was already optioned I did it. Sometimes you fight and sometimes you compromise. It’s like that old song says, know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.

Catalina Sandino Moreno
You can find more on these stories and others in my recent post at: 

Now to answer today’s question: Today I think I’d be a little more bending. A little more flexible. I’m older and maybe just a wee bit wiser. The key is to ask to do the first draft screenplay. That way you’re bound to get a screen credit and that means a lot in terms of royalties. And fight for what you think should be fought for within limits and bend in other places.

But who would I cast in my latest, Broken Windows: Broken Windows is set mostly in Los Angeles in 1994, during the fight over California’s notorious anti-illegal alien Proposition 187—a precursor to the immigration fights going on in the country today. While the storm rages over Prop 187, a young woman climbs to the top of the famous Hollywood sign—and jumps to her death. An undocumented day laborer is murdered. And a disbarred and desperate lawyer in Venice Beach places an ad in a local paper that says: “Will Do Anything For Money.”—Private Investigator Duke Rogers, and his very unPC partner, Jack, must figure out what ties together these seemingly unrelated incidents.

Mark Wahlberg
So, who would I cast in the main parts? Of course this changes as time slips by. My ideal casting for Jack would have been Nick Nolte in his prime. But these days, I’m thinking John Cena or maybe Michael Fassbinder or Christian Bale. And for Duke, Mark Wahlberg or Ryan Gosling. Maybe Jeremy Renner, as Duke’s not a big dude. For Eric, the disbarred lawyer, Amy suggested Robert Downey, Jr., and he would be perfect. Maybe a little older than the character, but those things often change from book to movie. Eric’s girlfriend, Lindsay, AnnaSophia Robb. For the mysterious Miguel, who responds to the lawyer’s ad to do anything for money, maybe Antonio Banderas. Possibly Edward James Olmos or Andy Garcia. And for Marisol, who sets the plot in motion when she asks Duke to investigate the murder of her brother, Catalina Sandino Moreno. For Myra Chandler (guess who that’s an homage to), an LAPD detective that Duke and Jack run into in both Broken Windows and White Heat, and who’s a bit more sympathetic to them than her partner, Haskell, I’m thinking Jennifer Aniston. Why not? It’s my fantasy. And for Susan Karubian, the woman who jumps from the Hollywood sign, I picture Mila Kunis, although I would hate to kill her off so early in the film….

So, what about you?


And now for the usual BSP, and since Broken Windows is hot off the presses here’s some of what Kristin Centorcelli at Criminal Element – and for which I thank them – had to say about it just a couple days ago in a very satisfying review ( ). Here’s some excerpts from it:

“If you enjoy old-school PI tales, you’ll love getting to know L.A. PI (and former Navy SEAL) Duke Rogers.”

“Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show.”

“Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s.”

Available at Amazon 

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Miss Marple we love, with added space aliens.

BUSINESS: If a major producer/production company wanted to option or buy your book…but wanted to change it in major ways, as often happens in Hollywood, would you still sell it? Explain your reasons and your limitations. But remember, once you sell something to Hollywood, except in extremely rare instances, you lose control over the film property.

By Catriona

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

And here's why. Options are not uncommon. But getting through development and into pilot production, then getting commissioned and actually made . . . is like managing to hit a unicorn with a hen's tooth while you're struck by lightning. 

In other words, the option payment is real and the possible tone-deaf changes to your work that might make you wonder why the producer wanted it in the first place are theoretical.  

That's only me, mind you. Everyone has a different dream when they start writing. My dream was always to make my living. And option payments don't hurt with that at all.

When I was first deciding whether to sell an option, it was an easy one: the BBC wanted Dandy Gilver and they were clearly going to stick close to the books. I knew that because the producer said they'd never film The Burry Man's Day (Book 2), which had too many outside crowd scenes. 

At the other end of the spectrum, there was that time when a Hollywood producer started asking about Quiet Neighbors. His best known work in the past had been Alvin and The Chipmunks. I said yes again because how could you not want to know where that was going?

Sadly, neither project has made it through the funnel all the way to Masterpiece Theatre, but the years of being optioned have meant that I've had plenty time to get my head together about the worst case scenario. I tell myself: "It's like selling a house. If you sell your house, the new people can paint it purple and put garden gnomes out front". Actually that sounds cool. I'll try again . . .  "can paint it beige and put gravel chips over the garden for easy maintenance". 

Of course, it's not really like selling a house, because if the telly thing's successful your publisher will re-issue your books with purple jackets and photos of the gnomes, and then you have to hold them up and smile for pictures. I don't know any writer or dedicated reader who likes those books with photos of the actors off the telly adaptation on. Do you?

But someone must love them, because they sell by the pallet-load. And when your dream is to make your living as a writer, pallets are good.

And as for the pain of seeing your beloved characters mangled and your stories watered down and sweetened up? Simon Brett tells the story of selling one of his 100 (yes, 100; for once it's not a typo) books to the telly people. He hated what they did. Every time the thought of what they'd done crossed his mind he winced. Then Lucy, his wife, would lean over and say "It's a beautiful conservatory, isn't it?"

Simon and Lucy Brett
Maybe that's the answer: always use serious telly money to buy one big gorgeous thing - like a conservatory - that you'd never have been able to afford otherwise. And take any glancing similarity with your book as a bonus. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Giving it all away... by Cathy Ace

BUSINESS: If a major producer/production company wanted to option or buy your book…but wanted to change it in major ways, as often happens in Hollywood, would you still sell it? Explain your reasons and your limitations. But remember, once you sell something to Hollywood, except in extremely rare instances, you lose control over the film property.

This is an interesting question, and one I believe I would have answered differently a few months ago. This is a topic which has led me to many hours of pondering recently, and I have sought counsel from several authors I know who have already been through the process of having their work produced for the screen, be it of the large or small variety.

With author Ann Cleeves and Brenda Blethyn, who brings Vera Stanhope to life on-screen, at Malice Domestic 2018

What I have discovered is that the right response to having work “taken over” is different for different people, and that a certain amount of soul-searching is required to come up with the right answer for oneself. Do you want to focus on writing books, and let the production pros get on with their version of your books and characters? Was your deepest desire always to become a screen writer so you’ll grab the chance to be 100% on-board and take your novel as just the starting point for an on-screen adventure that you oversee completely? Or are you somewhere in between those two extremes? 

With James Runcie, at CrimeFest UK 2016

Linwood Barclay recently wrote the screenplay for the movie based on his book “Never Saw It Coming”, whereas Peter Robinson was absolutely hands-off the British TV productions of his DCI Banks novels. Ann Cleeves has an excellent, informal relationship with the company bringing Vera to our screens, while Maureen Jennings writes one script per season for the Murdoch Mysteries. James Runcie is an Executive Producer (but chooses to be informed of decisions, rather than giving input to them) for the Grantchester series, whereas MC Beaton is a script editor, often on-set, for the Agatha Raisin series. 

With Maureen Jennings, Bloody Words 2014

I’m thinking that, for me, it would be best to stand back and let the pros get on with what they want to do, but to keep the relationship with the production company lively and interactive. Ultimately, I see myself as a storyteller, not a film maker, so I can continue to tell my stories, while film makers interpret them for the screen. All that being said...any of these scenarios is still a dream for me, so you know...take it all with a handful of salt.

I'd be honoured if you'd consider reading my work - you can find out about it, and me, here: 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Hollywood Calling!

Terry Shames here. This week we are answering the question: If a major producer/production company wanted to option or buy your book…but wanted to change it in major ways, as often happens in Hollywood, would you still sell it? Explain your reasons and your limitations. But remember, once you sell something to Hollywood, except in extremely rare instances, you lose control over the film property.

Which one is the real Samuel Craddock? In my books he's an older chief of police who is back on the job after many years of being in the old business. 

How much would Hollywood change him? Samuel Craddock could be a woman, I suppose. A twenty-something year old woman, living in New York. No cows. She could be a reporter instead of a police chief. Wait. I’m describing James Ziskin’s character, Ellie Stone.

That’s a little extreme with regard to changes, but it’s well-known that producers on the small or large screen take great liberties with the books and characters they buy.

Still, if Hollywood wants to pay me big bucks to make that happen, move over Ellie!

I once took a class in screen-writing. The culmination of the class was that we got to critique a movie that had not yet been released. It was a pretty good movie, and ended up being mildly successful. But the end made no sense. When we were asked to critique, I made a comment about how I thought the end of the movie could have been improved. The teacher asked how many agreed with that. Most did. He said, “Right. Well, that’s the way the screenplay was actually written. The producer decided to change it, and it’s lame.”

Since then I’ve seen plenty of movies that were “based on” books that had only a glancing relationship with the original. I’ve seen horrible miscasting in movies. One of the worst examples is a TV series version of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series. I watched the first episode and was truly puzzled. Anyone who has read any of the books and not seen the TV version will be surprised to learn that Barbara Havers has become a hot babe. No!

George should have been so lucky as to have the production company that turned Craig Johnson’s books into a passable series, even if the series didn’t bear particular relation to the books. Then of course there is Harry Bosch. In the TV series,  which is terrific, Titus Welliver bears little resemblance to Michael Connolly’s description of Bosch, but the core of the character is there—his angst, his code, his relationships. Lianne Moriarity is one of my favorite authors. Her Big Little Lies was made into a mini-series that worked really well. So well, in fact, that the end was clearer in the TV version than it was in the book version.

My point is that some productions may not be true to the book, or the original screeplay, but can still be excellent. That’s what I would hope for if my Samuel Craddock series was ever picked up by a production company. And I suppose that is what my fans would hope for—those fans who seem endlessly fascinated by who should play the role of Samuel.

I’m interested in which authors’ books grab the brass ring, and which ones have never been made into movies or TV shows. Why Downton Abbey and not Rhys Bowen’s delightful Lady Georgie series? Why Craig Johnson and not C.J. Box?  (no aspersions intended to those chosen; just wondering why one and not the other). I mentioned James Ziskin’s books, and I can imagine Ellie Stone being a great character for a series. I wonder what kind of trade-offs Jim would be willing to agree to (since this isn’t his week to post, I get to ask for his comment!). Others: Rachel Howzell Hall, whose African American protagonist would fit right into current demands for diversity. When will Adrian McKinty’s highly visual series about a cop during the Irish “troubles” be made into a series? Other authors whose works are  visual: Mark Pryor, Timothy Hallinan, Catriona McPherson, to name a few.

Probably everyone has read that Sue Grafton was determined never to see Kinsey Milhone on the large or small screen. She thought the price of the control she would have to give up would be too high. And she may have been right. Milhone is a much-loved character and I can’t help wondering who would have been cast in the role that would have satisfied Grafton’s readers. Much the same way diminutive Tom Cruise was a startling choice to play the giant Jack Reacher.

So, Hollywood, you can come calling anytime now, but if you do, please tell me you’ll keep the core of Samuel’s character. I don’t care what he looks like, as long as he gets to keep his ratty hat.