Thursday, October 30, 2014

With a Bare Bodkin...

A number of readers have asked me to write about the reasons I pick one method rather than another to kill my victims.

For a start, I must confess that I prefer my murders not too messy. The messiest one was in The Bloody Tower, and Daisy closed her eyes before it got too horrible. Considering the setting, close to the spot where Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, and many others lost their heads (literally), a bloody death could hardly be avoided.

The method of murder is quite often suggested by the setting. What better to cover the sound of a gunshot than a Guy Fawkes party, with fireworks exploding at irregular and unexpected intervals? And at an ancient manor house with ancient weapons decorating the walls, a stab in the back with a dagger is an ever-present danger. If you find yourself in the Natural History Museum, a primitive flint spear can do the job just as well, though with less finesse.

One prime consideration in choosing how to commit murder is what means I have used in previous books in the series, especially recent ones. This applies especially to the more dramatic deaths.

When I’ve pushed someone over a cliff, I want to stay away from high places for quite a while. And I doubt I’ll ever again blow anyone up in a coal-gas explosion. Poisons, on the other hand, are so varied as to be endlessly useful.

You can kill someone with a misused medication, an easily available lab chemical, or some leaves from a nearby bush. You can even have one victim with two different villains feeding him two different poisons at the same time, unknown to each other. Poisons can be slow acting or fast acting. The murderer need not be anywhere near the victim when he dies. There’s a poison to suit practically any situation.

Do I want the body to be hidden away—buried in a garden, say—or somewhere where it will soon be found, such as a dentist’s chair with a patient expected? Each requires a different modus operandi.

The most fun I’ve had killing people was in To Davy Jones Below. It’s set on a transatlantic liner, so obviously you’re going to have people falling overboard port, starboard, and amidships. The fun part was figuring out a different way to make each one fall.

I’ve never murdered anyone at Halloween. Now the season is upon us, it’s time to make plans...

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


This post has been reprised and updated from one that first appeared Oct. 17, 2011.

Having suffered from insomnia in the past and now facing a new journey of life alone after the loss of my husband, I know fear can raise its ugly head during the wee hours when you are between awake and doze. You are most vulnerable then and negative things keep running through your mind in a continuous loop.

As writers, we all experience this to some degree at various stages of our work. First it might be “I can’t come up with an idea.” Then, after a great start where the story flows effortlessly, there is that sudden stop and “Oh no! Where do I go next? What if I can’t finish the story?” The fear seems real.

After you finish the story and polish it to a high sheen, then fear sets in again: “What if I can’t get it published? What if nobody likes it?” Any small word of critique becomes that F.E.A.R.

OK, say your book gets published and after the happy dancing and celebrating calms down, then next phase of fear sets in. “What if I’m a one-shot wonder? That was just a fluke. I’ll never be able to do that again.”

I’ve been there, done that—all of it. Fear is destructive and counter-productive. We all need to confront that Fear and talk it down. You know you are doing the best job you possibly can, and you WILL finish that WIP, and readers WILL like it (especially if you hire an independent editor to help you)!

Think positively, take the next step, and persevere. Don’t let fear rule your writing life. And check out this article by Katherine Swarts about overcoming fear.

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreamsis based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series, Dare to Dream, and a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, have just been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fear of Success

Afraid of success? We can fix that.

Are you tired of succeeding in this writing game? Below is my tried-and-true 12-step method of making sure you don't get stuck working as a professional writer for the rest of your life.

1. Turn off grammar and spellcheck in your writing program. Spell words however the hell you want to spell them. It's your work. Be exprimental and break boundaries. Rules are for suckers.

2. Don't write more than two drafts of any particular work. More than two and you'll lose the magic. Be raw.

3. Disregard critical comments your critique group partners and beta readers make. It's all due to jealousy anyway.

4. List all the agents you've queried on your blog, and their response times, so other writers will know not to query agents who take too long.

5. When you query an agent and the agent declines to read a full or a partial, let her know what a golden opportunity she has missed out on. When you're famous, instant karma will get her.

6. If an agent does request a full, email him daily for updates. They like those continuous reminders.

7. Write lots of blog posts criticizing other authors. This will boost your own popularity. Be sure to attack these other authors for their personal beliefs; don't make it so much about the work. Everyone else comments about the work, so you
need to stand out.

8. You got an agent! My condolences. Be prepared to fight tooth and nail when she or the editor suggests "improvements" to your manuscript. It's your baby; don't let anyone mess with it.

9. You got a book deal! My condolences. Now take a few months off. You've earned it.

10. Quit your day job. The royalty money is going to start rolling in soon, so take out a loan to float you until then.

11. You can stop blogging now. All that hard work you did building your platform is finally over!

12. When you're published, respond to those 1-star Amazon reviews so potential readers will know those other guys just didn't get it.

And that's it! When my twelve-step method works for you, be sure to drop a comment in the section to say thank you. And you're welcome, by the way.

Jim Heskett is a writer of short fiction, long fiction, and the snarkiest blog posts in three states. You can currently find him slaving away at a laptop in an undisclosed location in Broomfield, Colorado. More details about current and future projects at

Monday, October 27, 2014

Scared Stupid

I remember a movie I attended in a theater many years ago. It was a romantic thriller. I munched from a container of popcorn as the tension ramped up and love scenes grew steamier.

Then the female lead, for whatever reason, crept down the stairs in the dark toward the front door.

No. Don’t. Not a good idea.

The front door was glass at the top, but fogged so the character, and the audience, could not see what was on the other side.
Was there a shadow? Maybe.

Did the shadow move? Not sure.

A fist slammed through that glass panel. The audience expected something to happen, but the impact of fist with glass was so sudden and so loud, there was a collective gasp. I jumped. My right hand flew toward my mouth, flinging popcorn at the moviegoers sitting behind me.

I’m not sure anyone noticed.

That’s why characters do stupid things in books and movies. Fear…or terror…leads to bad decisions, often making a situation worse instead of better. The reader or movie fan is happy with the increased tension, the surge of adrenaline, the anticipation of what will happen next.

It’s only the occasional book reviewer who will call a scene “over the top” or the offending character “stupid.”

The main character in my November 2014 release, Dead Wrong, is forced to make a whole series of decisions based on fear. Fear for her life. And fear for the safety of the young people she connects with along the way.

Lynnette Foster married a cop without giving herself enough time to discover he had a serious anger problem. She’s not the “stay-forever-no-matter-what” type, so she heads for the Miami airport to put a lot of miles between her and the cop’s fist. A few hours later, Lynnette walks away from the Denver airport with the wrong laptop case. The real owner, a thug carrying stolen goods to his criminal boss, is desperate to retrieve his case. A runaway kid begs Lynnette for help and a college student tries to rescue them. And Lynnette discovers her husband was murdered and she’s a person of interest in the case. With a killer on her trail and the troubled kid she’s taken under her wing telling a new lie every few hours, Lynnette is so scared she can’t think straight.

Scared stupid? No. But scared enough to do foolish things or pick the one really crazy option from a long list.

In real life, sometimes the craziest option is the bravest, like trying to pull a passenger from a burning car that might explode at any second. Or rushing to help a sick person and risk exposure to a serious disease. Or trying to stop a mugging, or a parent mistreating a child, or a kidnapping.

On the other hand, the crazy option might be that tendency to creep down the stairs in the dark and find out what caused the noise in kitchen. I’ve done it a couple of times, armed with nothing by my cell phone. Shoulders tight with tension. Stoked on adrenaline. Ready for anything.

As long as a fist doesn’t crash through a window as I walk by.

Patricia Stoltey is the author of two amateur sleuth mysteries, The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders. Originally published in hardcover by Five Star and paperback by Harlequin Worldwide, both are now available as e-books for Kindle and Nook. Her November 2014 novel from Five Star/Cengage, Dead Wrong is a standalone suspense. The novel has been described as “…lightning paced…” and “…a fantastic combination of suspense and action…”

You can learn more about Patricia and her fiction at her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Notes from a DIY Book Launch

This morning I held a book launch for my first published book, and, since I am also my own publisher, I was the one who had to organise and run the event. Here are some considerations that worked for me, and some wish-I’d-thought-of-that-earlier ideas that occurred to me during and afterwards:

1. Food and books. It seems like a good idea at the time to treat one’s guests to yummy cake... Luckily I have two small children, so, as par for the course, I grabbed a packet of wet wipes as I dashed out the door – and placed it on the table beside the books for cleaning any sticky fingers.

2. Crack open as many of your sale copies of your book as you have time for, and check that there is nothing obviously amiss. I had a book with two folded pages, with the print broken across the fold line - embarrassing when someone picked it up for a browse and pointed it out.

3. Hire a “publicist”. If you own a teenager (or can borrow one), this is a perfect job for them.

I’d had in mind that I would take some photos with my phone and upload them to my Facebook Page when things got a bit quiet, so I could run a virtual launch at the same time, but the quiet part didn’t happen. I also didn’t work up the nerve to ask someone to take photos of me until the end.

Instead, have someone who knows their way around a phone and social media running around taking snaps and tweeting or Facebooking on your behalf (but not pretending to be you, of course – Facebook Pages can have multiple contributors, so simply add your “publicist” and select an appropriate role).

If you do a reading, have your slave “publicist” record it on your phone, upload it to YouTube, and then post the video on Facebook.

4. Hire a “stylist”. Again, a great role for a bored teen (as long as they don’t have it in for you). This job involves a quick check that you don’t have spinach in your teeth before a photo/video session, that your hair (piece?) is in place, clothing and jewellery straightened, etc.

5. Hire a “PA” (who could double as your “stylist” if you’re running out of victims to rope in). This job involves bringing you water, lip balm, pens for signing, or your phone if you have a call or a message. Perhaps even making a note of numbers of copies sold, and replacing the books on display as they sell.

6. Keep it simple (unless you have all these people, plus an event co-ordinator and crew, available to run around for you).

My car broke down yesterday, so I planned my worst-case-scenario on having to walk to the location with books and cake in a back-pack, carrying a two-year-old. Luckily I didn’t have to do that, but, after that, everything extra was a nice bonus rather than a necessity. Simple equals less stress.

What about you? Have you stage-managed your own book launch, or do you have a publisher who organised your launch for you? What went wrong, or right, on the day?

Elle Carter Neal is the author of Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin, a science-fantasy for tweens and teens. She blogs about the craft of writing at

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Building a Critique Group

Midwest Writer's Workshop 2008
I'll start out by saying, I am not a group-oriented person. I like working alone. I work faster and better without distractions. As a writer, that is a good character trait to have. You have to spend time alone and palely loitering over a pad of paper or keyboard to get the story out. I can disappear into a project for weeks and forget to eat, sleep, and bathe.

That does not mean I don't enjoy other people. I love other people: witty people, clever people, preferably with a wicked sense of humor and an appreciation of the ridiculous. Writers, artists, and other creatives make the best, funniest, and most interesting friends and acquaintances.

You can write alone, but you cannot publish or promote alone. You need people to help you edit, to point out the things you miss, and make certain you are telling the same story on paper that you tell yourself in your head.

My first experience with a group was when in I lived in my home town of Cincinnati. I started attending classes at Women Writing for a Change. "Class" isn't the right term, though tuition was involved. It helped pay for the building, the session leaders, and the outreach programs, and, quite frankly, encouraged people to show up regularly.

WWFaC was an excellent greenhouse for my budding voice to bloom. It forced me into public speaking at read-arounds, a concept that still makes my knees feel like jelly. I even guested on the radio show where no one could view my panic attack. I spent many happy years there. Then we moved.

My transplant to south of Indianapolis was bumpy. Friends, family, and greenhouse were two hours away and I did not immediately find my tribe. In fact, we had to move north of the city to find them two years later. I was introduced to the Indiana Writers Center and met the first of my critique partners.

I then attended the Midwest Writers Workshop where I met more talented writers.

Critique partners have come and gone along the way, each one mega-talented in my humble opinion. I have been inspired by all of them. I could not have published my young-adult series without their sage advice and encouragement.

I am currently part of a critique group called the Ladyscribes, made up of myself (YA Fantasy and nonfiction), Rita Woods (YA Fantasy/Paranormal), Sharon Pielemeier (High Fantasy), Cameron Steiman (Sci-Fi, Steampunk, and Literary), and Cynthia Adams (YA Paranormal). I decided to go indie. Rita is agented. The others are waiting for that golden ticket to the traditional route.

I feel each member has a unique voice, exceptional worthsmithing skills, and an excellent grasp of plot and character.

We try to meet in person at least twice a quarter, sometimes closer to Chicago, sometimes near Indianapolis. Sometimes we meet in the middle for a day. We make it a long weekend when possible: combination writing retreat and critique session.

We each submit 20 pages (double spaced) and prepare a written critique before we meet. We then take turns giving our feedback for each piece. When time isn't limited, we have hilarious, lively debates.

As with any group, there are challenges. We all have lives that keep us busy, illnesses, and family crises.  Some have kids at home, grandchildren to spoil, and full-time jobs.

Here are my tips for creating a successful critique group.

1. The crucial secret to success is to seriously commit and make it a priority. There is no other way. It's too easy to let life intervene.

2. To build a critique group you have to get out and meet other writers. Local is best. Long distance is harder, but well worth it for the right group. Skype is also a possibility. Email and forming an online group on Facebook, Yahoo, etc. can also work.

3. It helps to be at a similar level of skill. We are all advanced craft. It would be hard to work with someone who has never heard the term story structure. It also helps to be in similar genres.

4. Communicate your wants and needs up front in terms of critique. What exactly are you looking for? Do you want advice on how to fix it?

We do it all: line edits, plot arc, character development, word usage, grammar. We each catch different things.

5. You have to have mutual respect. We've become good friends. That helps. Ego and defense shields are left at the door, along with the cell phones. We do our darndest to never hurt each other, but are honest in our feedback. If you start from a place of caring and want each other to succeed, that is half the battle. It also helps to cross-promote one another.

6. Dissension is okay. We don't always agree. If one person says something, we listen. If two people notice it, we pay close attention to the details. If three people notice it, we change it, period.

7. A sense of humor is a must. If you can't laugh at yourself, you probably won't do well in a group. You have to be able to take the critique for what it is: an analysis of a product, not a personal attack. Which leads to ...

8. Bullies, snobs, and narcissists need not apply. There is no room for anyone in a critique group if they aren't there for the right reason: growing your craft and helping each other create the best product you can.

9. If there is a rift or misunderstanding, heal it immediately. Simmering conflict is counterproductive. Personality clashes can ruin a group.

10. Keep it even. Everyone submits. Everyone critiques. If one of us does not have a submission for some reason, we still have to critique everyone else's work and at least present something story related to discuss.

Most of all have fun. If it isn't fun, you won't make it a priority.

Further reading on critique groups:

Finding a Critique Group

How Not to Burn Your Critique Group to the Ground

Beta Readers and Critique Groups

Readers, Writers, and Pressing the Flesh

The Importance of Communities for the Writer

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Body Talk

(You Say It Best) When You Say Nothing At All
by Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz

In the real world, human communication doesn’t depend exclusively on the spoken word. On the contrary, the non-verbal aspects of communication in any conversation entail a whole range of signals – both voluntary and involuntary - including vocal inflexion (pitch, intonation, changes in breathing), facial expression, and body language (posture, gesture, manner of movement). Consciously or unconsciously, these non-verbal aspects of communication bespeak our moods, intentions, personal likes and dislikes, social attitudes, and responses to any given situation.

Playwrights have the luxury of being able to rely on their actors to supply all the relevant details of intonation and body language to bring a scripted scene to life on stage. In fiction writing, however, the writer has to inject occasional descriptions of body language into the text to show us how characters are reacting to circumstances. This kind of detailing enriches the tone, atmosphere, and texture of the story overall.

This is especially true in passages of dialogue. Take for example the following very basic four-line script.

Scene: two people meet at a bus stop.

Speaker One: Nice morning, isn’t it?

Speaker Two: Beautiful.

Speaker One: Do you think it’s going to last all day?

Speaker Two: Your guess is as good as mine.

Pretty flat, huh? Ok, let’s recast this exchange as fiction, adding in aspects of intonation and body language:

A man dashed across the street and ducked into the bus shelter. Shaking the rain from his jacket, he remarked, “Nice morning, isn’t it?”

Maisie backed up to avoid getting splattered. “Beautiful,” she muttered.

“Do you think it’s going to last all day?” the newcomer asked chattily.

Maisie made a show of studying the bus timetable. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

The addition of these extra features sets up the contrast between the two characters: the man is good-humored; Maisie is in a bad mood. He’s inviting further conversation; Maisie attempts to rebuff him. This raises our interest: Why is she so grumpy? Will her mood prevail over his and make him shut up? Or will he persevere and talk her into a better frame of mind?

Of course, given the original script, simply tweaking the body language of the participants will completely change the tone of the scene. Let’s try it again:

The man dashed across the street and shouldered his way into the bus shelter. Pushing his way past Maisie, he growled, “Nice morning, isn’t it?”

“Beautiful,” Maisie agreed with a rueful chuckle.

The man adjusted his collar. “Do you think it’s going to last all day?” he demanded irritably - as if Maisie would know.

Maisie sighed inwardly. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Now the situation is completely reversed. For whatever reason, the man is behaving very boorishly. Will Maisie’s temperate responses to his snappish remarks make him aware of his behavior and alter it? Or will she leave the bus shelter and walk on to her destination in the rain just to get away from him?

In fiction, as in life: it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Make this precept work for you!

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


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