Friday, September 13, 2019

First, tell no one.

When you have an idea for a book or story, do you tell people about it? How do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Outline?

by Abir

Like Dietrich, I like to keep my plot ideas to myself. I think a story is better when it is burning inside you, and that telling people about it before it’s finished can dissipate some of the story’s urgency and my eagerness to get it all down on the page.

I’ve not always done this though. When I first started writing, I didn’t have much confidence in what I was doing, so I’d run my ideas past my agent, and my editor, and my wife, and my neighbour, and their cat. As you can imagine, this was often a laborious process, so now I just wing it, though I still tell the cat.

Generally, my writing starts with the theme or the message that I want to get across. My books are set in colonial India in the 1920s and they all either draw attention to a piece of history that’s been whitewashed or forgotten, or are allegories for things happening today. For example, my second novel, A Necessary Evil, highlighted the forgotten role of women in the courts of the maharajas, and my fourth, Death in the East, out later this year, discusses the themes of tolerance, immigration and integration.

Once I’ve settled on a theme, I then get into plotting. This starts with long walks, cycling in the gym, and a lot of sitting in the sauna…okay…more of the sauna and less of the first two, but the important thing is, I need peace and quiet to think and dream up a story, and I tend to do that best in a sauna. My wife doesn't believe me but it's true!

Seriously - this is the place to do your plotting

Once I have the beginnings of a plot, I buy myself a large A4 pad – always one like this, with thick, creamy paper, and begin to fill it with notes – often the same bits over and over again  - revising the skeleton, adding chapter headings, writing out the draft passages in longhand, just to give me some confidence that I can turn my little idea into a hundred thousand word novel. At the same time I’ll read up on the history of the period and place I’m looking to tackle, adding more notes in my pad.

My scribble pad is an accurate reflection of the inside of my brain.

I’m the sort of writer who needs to have an idea of where the story is going. I’m always in awe of authors who can write by the seat of their pants. I’ve tried pantsing it in the past, but it just doesn’t work for me. Once I know roughly where my plot is going to take me, then, and only then, do I attack my keyboard.

My novels tend to begin in fits and starts. I’ll often have two or three attempts at writing the first few chapters, with different first steps, to see which I like best. The route I choose then, tends to set the direction for the entire novel. I think this is another sign of my lack of confidence. I need to try a few different openings, just so that I feel I know what I’m doing.

Maybe one day I’ll be a bit less neurotic about my writing, and then, I won’t even have to discuss the thing with next door’s cat.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

When you have an idea for a book or story, how do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Do you outline?

From Jim

I get ideas for books in different ways. Sometimes it’s a character that comes to me first, other times it’s a setting, or a plot idea. But all of these elements have to bend to fit the overarching theme I have in mind for the book or story. And, in the case of my Ellie Stone books, the theme is ideally tied up in the meaning of the title.

As I’ve discussed here before, the titles of my Ellie Stone books are all common expressions—or parts of expressions–using the word “stone.” 

The title of my first book, STYX & STONE, is obviously a play on the old “Sticks and stones will break my bones...” But its thematic relevance is the infernal reference to the River Styx. Dante and the Divine Comedy are central to the plot. In Western tradition, the Styx is probably the most well-known waterway in the underworld, even if in Dante’s Inferno the Acheron features more prominently. This pun of a title serves to set the dark mood for the book and Ellie.

Some of my titles are more versatile than others, meaning they convey more than the obvious meaning. NO STONE UNTURNED, however, is hardly the most compelling. It connotes thoroughness and persistence, but little more. And STONE COLD DEAD is pretty straightforward. There’s a brutal cold snap that frames the story of a missing schoolgirl. But HEART OF STONE, CAST THE FIRST STONE, and A STONE’S THROW all  at multiple themes within the plots within those books. HEART OF STONE certainly applies to the whirlwind summer romance Ellie embarks upon. But the expression typically means a cruel, or stern nature. CAST THE FIRST STONE, set in 1962 Los Angeles, calls to mind Biblical judgment and the Hollywood film industry at the same time. Finally, A STONE’S THROW does double duty as well, conjuring thrown horse races and the idea of proximity. In this case, the distance between the excitement and glamour of Saratoga Springs during racing season and the mill town in decline where Ellie lives and works. 

I won’t comment on TURN TO STONE, which comes out January 21, 2020, other than to say it’s without a doubt my riskiest title in terms of giving a clue to the denouement. You’re just going to have to read it to figure it out. 

But none of this really tells you how I start writing a book. In the best of all scenarios, I begin with the solution, that clever aha! moment where Ellie figures things out. If I’m lucky, it’s unassailable in its logic and the reader is left satisfied. Then I work backward from there, outlining the plot and fine-tuning the characters along the way. Unfortunately I can’t really give any examples of those “brilliant” solutions here as they would be spoilers. The one time I didn’t outline in advance was for TURN TO STONE, and it proved to be a challenging book to write. I think the biggest problem I encountered was the secondary characters. Some of them were not clearly formed in my mind when I began, so there was a lot of reworking, rewriting, and hand-wringing. I vowed never to neglect to outline again. Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m satisfied with the result. It was simply a different path to the finish line. 

Besides starting with the solution, I spend lots of time thinking about the story and the the setting. Usually a couple of months of staring into space. Then I write down the general plot and start the four-to-six months of writing the the first draft. I work every day, aiming to hit a word count. The average is typically about 800-1,000 words per day. And at the end of a hundred or so days, I have a first draft ready to be revised and revised and revised before it’s finally ready for others to see.

And that’s how I do it. Your results may vary. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Keeping it close to the vest

When you have an idea for a book or story, do you tell people about it? How do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Outline?

by Dietrich

I keep a story to myself while it’s taking shape. It’s not so much that it’s a secret, but it’s a work in progress. Everything’s still building at this point, and there’s not much to tell. So, I don’t look for a lot of outside input; I just want the story and characters to evolve, and I want see where it all leads.

My stories usually start with an idea for a single scene, and I just start writing and let one scene take me to the next, and I let that first draft roll out from there. By the time I’ve got the second draft finished, I might ask those closest to me what they think about a particular scene or get their input on some titles ideas. But, for me, writing is basically a solo effort, and once I feel I’ve polished a final draft and done my best, then I submit it to my publisher and leave the rest in their more than capable hands.

I often have ideas for the next story while I’m working on the last one. I’ve even tried writing two stories simultaneously, alternating between drafts. There are some advantages, like setting one story aside for a while and looking at it with fresh eyes when I come back to it. But, working like this did make me feel like a machine, so I’ve gone back to just writing one at a time.

I usually have notes all over the place. When I think of something I want to include but can’t use it immediately I scribble notes and let these bits of paper stack on my desk, using them when I find the right spot. Sometimes the notes just end up in the bin, and sometimes I tuck them in a file and save them for another story.

The scene comes first, then I come up with the character(s) I’d like to see in that particular situation, and everything just takes shape through the first draft.

I don’t plot the story out ahead of time. I usually don’t see more than a scene or two ahead during that first draft. I like to think working like this gives me something better than if I sat down and plotted the whole thing out ahead of time. It gives me a chance to build the story and get to know the characters early on. And it allows for those surprises that come along through the writing. Maybe if I wrote a very complex story, I might map it out beforehand.

As it is, once I’ve got that initial draft, I put together a timeline of events and character sheets before I go on to a second pass. It’s not the only way to do it; it’s just what works for me.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Starting your Book

Terry here:

When you have an idea for a book or story, how do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Do you outline?

There is another choice—just start writing and see where the story takes you. I did that far too long before I realized that being a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants)  doesn’t mean just opening your computer and hitting the keys. That’s a little like starting to cook a meal and taking everything out of the refrigerator and throwing it in pots, setting the pots on the stove, lighting the stove and hoping for the best.

I have a few complete manuscripts that I did that with, and each of them came out a hot mess. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a story. Yes, each has a story line, characters, and settings. But not ones that are readable.

The second mystery I wrote (the first one was a sci-fi story) was a nightmare. When I got to the end I realized that  I had never given the slightest thought to “who dunnit.” Nor had I thought about how the protagonist would solve it. Which means my clues were all over the place, my characters the same. At least the setting was nice. I rewrote that book many times. The only thing that stayed the same was the setting and some of the minor characters.

When I finally landed on a good protagonist, I wrote a second book with the same guy, same setting. This time I had a bit more of an idea of what happened, and it was a smoother ride.
 Another one I wrote, I continue to pick at occasionally like a tasty carcass, revising, messing with it. It may be a good book by now, but I haven’t looked at it in a while.

Others I wrote and just moved on. These manuscripts may have served me better had I sat down and thought about them first. I could have saved myself a lot of time if I had asked myself the following:

1)What kind of book is it? If it’s crime fiction, what corner of the crime fiction world will it inhabit? Is it a romantic mystery? A police procedural? A thriller?  

2)Who is my reader? What do I want them to get from the book? Do I want to include social issues? Do I want the reader to be entertained? Enlightened? Scared? Do I want them to sit down in front of a cozy fire and feel like all’s right with the world when they finish it? Do I want a puzzle for people to solve? Do I want adventure?

3) Who are the main characters? The protagonist and the antagonist. What do they each want? What do they need? How do they usually attain what they want? Are they used to getting it?

4) The situation: How did they get in the situation they are in now? Where do they want to be by the end? Do they know, or is it part of their journey to find out?

5) Who are the important minor characters? The protagonist’s helper? His secret friend? Her staunch ally? Which of them will be betrayers?

6) Where will the book be set? Do you know the place well, or will it require some research (Oh, please, no, don’t make me go to Florence!)

7) Are you the right person to write this book? This isn’t a question that gets asked often. I don’t mean is it an appropriation of someone else’s culture. I mean, is it a situation, a setting, and characters that you either know well or that you are willing to put in the hours of hard work to find out what you need to know. In other words, how passionate are you about the idea? I have an idea for a book based on a real story, set in the 30’s and 40’s—in Mexico City. I’ve never been to Mexico City. It involves the KGB and madness. I know only what I’ve learned superficially over the years about the KGB. And I only know madness through tearing my hair out when I’m writing. The only thing I know is that I keep thinking about, mulling it over. Maybe I am the right person.

You don’t have to know the complete answer to all these questions before you begin, but it helps to at least give it some thought before you start flinging words around.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Getting The Ball Rolling

Question: When you have an idea for a book or story, do you tell people about it? How do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Outline?

The start of a project can come about in a few different ways, but usually I've put a lot of thought into the characters and the crime. A few times, I've sat at the computer with a vague idea in my head and just started typing. The opening scene to 5,000 word scene in Cold Mourning was really a writing exercise that I expanded into a book and then a series. 

I've found that making chapter notes (after written) and a running list of characters is immensely helpful, particularly as a way of keeping track of days of the week and weather (very easy to lose track of from one chapter to the next), physical descriptions and all the minutia. I confess that my memory for names is a weakness, both real and fictional, so keeping a page of characters' names with their details is a godsend. A running chapter summary also comes in handy for when my publisher asks for a detailed synopsis. I'm lucky that they are willing to wait for this until after I've written the book.

I do not reveal anything about my manuscript in progress until it's completed, and even then, I don't say a great deal. I'm one of those people who like to be surprised and don't like to reveal too much. Some of the book blurbs on the back cover of books by other authors (and occasionally my own) have bothered me because of how much they reveal about the crime(s). I often don't read an entire blurb by a book I'm buying or about to read because I don't want to know what's coming. Even the previews to a show or movie have me closing my eyes or leaving the room. Otherwise, I'm waiting for the preview scenes that I watched to happen in the episode, and my enjoyment lessens. I'm not the typical marketing target, perhaps, but in my mind, what is suspense if not full of surprise and the unexpected? Knowing less beforehand makes the experience more. 

To end my post, I'd like to share two new releases this week for my Anna Sweet mystery novella series that I've been writing for adult literacy - Grass Roots Press is a strictly adult literacy publisher in Edmonton, Alberta, and they contracted me to write this series. The parameters were: strong female protagonist, set in Canada, a good puzzle, humour, conflict between characters, and, oh yes, adult comprehension but at a grade 3/4 level. Having once been a special education teacher, this challenge was most appealing. Killer Heat and Too Close to Home are the last in the series which has previously been nominated for four awards. So bittersweet for sure, but good to think the books are a fun read for anybody as well as an educational resource for those working on their reading skills. You can find out more about the series on the publisher site where you'll also find chapter questions for each book to assist teachers and tutors.

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Friday, September 6, 2019

A Clean Well-Lighted Place to Read

Where do you normally read? In bed? A favorite chair? Listen to audio when commuting?

by Paul D. Marks

Well, since I basically commute from the bedroom or kitchen to my home office, a distance of about thirty or forty feet, I don’t do much reading on my commute. But if I did – and if I had a self-driving car – I’d be reading a hardcopy book or one on a Kindle app. I find that if I try to listen to an audio book my mind drifts too much. I don’t know why.

These days I do most of my reading at home, because I’m home most of the time – you see, there’s a logic to it. There’s various spots I like, nothing out of the ordinary like sitting in a tree or while hang-gliding. There’s three or four places that I do most of my reading: in bed, a chair in the bedroom that faces out to the view, on the family room couch, a particular chair in the living room and outside on the patio. I don’t take many baths but when I do I like reading in the tub, but I’m very careful not to get anything wet…except me. Most of my books look unread and if I got one wet – or too wet – I’d freak out. Not really, but almost. I guess I’m pretty nitpicky about that, but I like to keep them pristine. So much so that sometimes we buy Amy, the wife, a separate book of the same thing so mine doesn’t get messed up. She’s not as particular as I am. And when we had a pool I liked reading outside on the deck or on a pool lounger. I wish I could say I read at the beach these days, but alas I don’t get there as much as I used to. We do live just outside the national forest and sometimes I think about going up there and reading but it’s pretty nice here and if I don’t have to go anywhere, I pretty much don’t.

Here's one of my favorite reading spots with the ubiquitous slip covers because of the dog hair everywhere. I forgot what the upholstery looked like until I took the cover off the ottoman.

When we travel I like to read on planes, as long as there’s no loud or obnoxious flyers, so that does limit plane-reading sometimes. And if we had a boat, ah, but I can dream, can’t I?

Like others have mentioned, I have stacks of TBR books all over the place and a virtual stack on the Kindle app. I have some audio books around that I listen to now and then, but as I said, I tend to lose focus. Amy reads on audio a lot, as she commutes to work on the train. However her brain is wired vs. the way mine is allows her to concentrate on audio books and her mind doesn’t seem to wander. She really enjoys her audio books and I’m envious because I would like to “read” them. It just doesn’t work out.
Buster was enjoying the July/August, 2019, issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which includes my story Past is Prologue. Then he just zonked out using my leg as a pillow. Hope it wasn’t my story that put him to sleep.

And like Frank, I often have at least one non-fiction (though sometimes more) and one fiction book going. I usually don’t read more than one fiction book at a time, but I might be reading short stories while I have a novel going.

Here's the view at sunset from another of my reading spots.

How about you? Where do you like to enjoy a book? And now excuse me, I gotta go hit the hang glider and get some reading done.


And now for the usual BSP:

Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Such A Perfect Day - I'm glad I spent it with books

Since feeding animals in the zoo is the job of trained zookeepers these days, thankfully.

By Catriona

"Where do you normally read? In bed? A favorite chair? Listen to audio when commuting?"

My ideal reading day goes like this:

Wake up at six-ish. Get coffee (either by stretching out my hand to the thermos pot of coffee on my bedside table or by stumbling out of bed and staggering to the kitchen, like Dolly said, and making my own).

Read a novel in bed until seven. It's amazing how regularly this bit of my daily routine surprises, or even shocks, people. I never knew there was a rule that you can only read the newspaper or letters in the morning. Did you? Apparently there is.

Go to the gym. I don't listen to books on the elliptical or treadmill. I listen to . . .

Monday: The News Quiz (or other substandard Friday night comedy when NQ is off).
Tuesday: The Archers Omnibus (Tum-te-tum-te-tum-te-tum. Tum-te-tum-te-TAH-DAH . . .)
Wednesday: The Food Programme (masochist)
Thursday: Books and Authors + Gardener's Question Time (with presenters including Bob Flowerdew and Pippa Greenwood, honest.)
Friday: Loose Ends.

The Archers: as thrilling as it looks

I know that's got a whiff of incontinent hankering for the old country, amounting to a rejection of my new home but outside the gym I'm glued to NPR, honest.

Work from nine till five twelve. (Pipe down, Dolly!)

Make lunch. Read the novel while I eat it.

Post Office, email, washing, etc.

Work from from two till five.

Make dinner, eat dinner, wash dishes.

Read from seven till nine in my dumpster-dived toile de jouy recliner in the livingroom, or in my estate-sale lounger on the porch, depending on weather and mosquito activity. It'll be the novel if I'm lucky, but it might be research for work, if I'm - let's face it - still pretty lucky.

Go to bed and read the novel till I drop it.

Listen to a chapter of an audiobook while drifting off.

Bliss, right? It doesn't always work. Sometimes it goes like this: wake at six, check email, discover crisis in the UK (eight hours ahead) that I need to deal with before everyone in London goes home. Drink coffee. Spot more emails while sending crisis solution. Deal with them. Stomach rumbles. Need to eat before the gym. Panic at how late it is. Work for an hour. Panic at how badly work's going. Cancel gym. Get dressed. Work some more. Panic. Go out to buy lunch (quicker). Pass by gym. Feel rubbish. Buy hopelessly unhealthy lunch. Eat at desk. Work and burp till six. Tell returning beloved that there's no dinner. Panic out loud till seven. Eat hopelessly unhealthy cobbled-together dinner. Work till ten. Go to bed and read. Realise a. I should have done that at six am b. it wasn't a crisis c. I'm an idiot.

Last Summer's RSRO Books
That's everyday reading. There are Special Reading Occasions too, both regular (holiday-based) and extraordinary (author-based). Extraordinary Special Reading Occasions (ESROs) are days when a new Stephen King comes out or (like right now) when the sequel to The Handmaid's Tale is about to appear. I will drop everything and read it immediately.

My second favourite Regular Special Reading Occasion is in the summer on a beach for two weeks, reading till I'm hot, swimming till I'm tired, repeating till it's dark. That doesn't happen every year but ohhhhh when it does. (One time in Rhode Island we found out on the last day that some other beach users had dubbed us "The Book People" and had got a good measure of harmless enjoyment out of laying bets on how long we could read without talking to each other. But then they were newlyweds.)

My absolute tip-top favourite RSRO,though, is at Christmastime, where for two weeks I do a spot of gardening or walking in the morning (after reading in bed), then light a fire and read on the couch until bedtime. It's total luxury and I know exactly how lucky I am to get to do it. I'm starting to curate the book pile for this Christmas already. Won't be long now . . .

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Night, night. Sweet dreams. by Cathy Ace

Q: Where do you normally read? In bed? A favorite chair? Listen to audio when commuting?

It might be easier to tell you where I don’t read; not in bed, before sleeping. That’s about it, really. Anywhere and everywhere else is fair game. 

The view from the lower deck to the upper deck
I like to sit outdoors whenever I can, so the upper and lower decks at the back of the house are favourite spots. The upstairs deck has an awning which means the ultimate indulgence of reading “under canvas in the rain” is possible; the sound of the rain takes me back to my youth when I spent a fair amount of time camping (in a tent!), either with my dad or with the Girl Guides/Ranger Guides/Venture Scouts. 

View across the side-lawn from the lower deck
When I read indoors I like to be comfy, with my feet up, but not lying down. This is my chaise with a good reading light – as you can see, it might not always be available for human use (this was the only piece of furniture in the entire house our dearly-missed Gabby was NOT allowed to sit on, thus it was, of course, her favourite place...I miss her a great deal, and always think of her when I sit here). 

Gabby's no longer with us, but I think of her whenever I sit here

When I have to leave the house (frankly, not something I like to do!) I always have my phone with me (because the one time you don't have it is the very time you'll need it, so if I forget to pick it up initially I have to go back into the house, give Poppy another "Sorry I'm leaving's a treat so I don't feel so guilty about it" marrowbone treat...yes, we still have Poppy, and she's doing well despite being over thirteen, very arthritic and possibly a bit annoyed she gets cuddled so much) and my phone has a Kindle app on it. This is extremely useful because - even if I've had to go back indoors to fetch my phone - I can be relied upon to sometimes forget to pop my actual Kindle into my handbag!

If I’m off on a trip, I always take my Kindle (I check at least three times that I have it with me before I set out to the airport). In a hotel room I sit ON the bed to read, but I don’t read IN bed before I go to sleep. This is true whether the bed in question is my own, or one in a hotel room.

Why this aversion to reading IN bed, before I go to sleep? I don’t find that reading is a good segue to sleeping – it makes my mind whirl rather than relax. That’s possibly just me. When I want to sleep, then the semi-vegetative state induced by watching TV is – for me – the perfect precursor to a good nap/night’s kip.

I don’t listen to audio books. Not yet. If I need a secondary activity to accompany gardening, driving or anything else that means I can’t read, I’ll either enjoy the peace and quiet and allow my mind to romp through my Work In Progress, or I’ll listen to music and indulge in singing along. 

If you fancy trying some of my work, you'll find all the info and links here: click here to reach Cathy's website

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Reading is an Everywhere Sport

Where do you normally read? In bed? A favorite chair? Listen to audio when commuting? 

- From Frank

The short answer is - everywhere.

Like I'm sure many of you do, there's a stack on my nightstand, and a virtual stack on my Kindle app. I read a lot but I wish I had even more time to do so.

When I read at night, in bed, I've usually got one fiction and one non-fiction title going. That way, I can go with whatever I'm feeling like reading at the moment. The non-fiction is usually history, and the fiction is usually crime fiction. But not always.

If I read during the day, and if weather permits, I enjoy the back patio of our house. There's wicker furniture or the swing, so comfort is never an issue. I finally finished James Ziskin's Cast the First Stone out there (a great book autographed by Jim that kept getting bumped by library books with return dates).

But I can read literally anywhere. Like a lot of us these days, I've got a slew of books on my Kindle app on my phone. I'll read one of these if I'm caught somewhere in a long line, or waiting for an appointment, or if I'm on an airplane and forgot to bring a physical book along.

Audio is another great medium that I take advantage of. I like to listen while I'm on a bike ride, a walk, working out (if I'm by myself), or while I'm doing yard work. The distraction of good prose adds to these experiences, making the difficult parts go easier, or providing a soundtrack for the good parts.

Reading is a necessity for a writer. Luckily, it is also a joy.


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