Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Storytelling Roots

Have you ever read a book expecting tension and mystery (and maybe a touch of romance) but been hooked by the historical background of the setting? I just finished a novel that fascinated me with details of the development of New York City’s Central Park in 1857. This rich background enhanced the contemporary plight of the homeless and the elderly while the plot spun around a murder investigated by a lawyer and her romantic interest, a sexy detective. My attention was riveted by the many subplots, and I lost sleep turning pages. Exactly what a writer wants to accomplish.

I have to confess that I am attracted to historical tales but I wasn’t expecting one here. In the current  zeal to categorize, this novel might be described as a hybrid genre or genetically modified storytelling, but I would call it a contemporary story with roots in the past. An old standard doesn’t need a fancy name.

The western North Carolina county where I live is poor by today’s standards, but rich in family legends. One neighbor owns a home continuously occupied since 1763. I am intrigued by the settlers who put down roots in this area and stayed to raise children and grandchildren’s children. Seemingly embedded in their DNA is respectful recognition of past communities. An archaeological dig identifying the oldest fort in the country is forty miles north of us. The Cherokees’ reservation is sixty miles to our west. And we live on top of the first gold rush site in America. Folks still travel here from all over to try their luck mining the creeks along Vein Mountain Road carved out of the wilderness in the early 1800’s.

I started blogging about my neighbors because I like to reach backward and see the beginning of stories that are lived today. ( My locale is not unique. All over this country there are stories to tell. Buddhapuss Ink’s own Tracy Lawson (debut novel Counteract out this month) wrote a nonfiction book based on her great-great-great grandfather’s journal detailing his travel in a horse-drawn wagon from southwest Ohio to New York City.

I recently wrote a short story about the flood of 1916 in my area. I was able to find eye witness accounts gathered and recorded by a wise journalist years ago. Those reports made a credible backdrop for a fictional murder mystery with characters inspired by period photographs. When I learned through research that one of two survivors of the Little Big Horn lived in this county during the flood. My imagination took off.

An adjacent county was the setting of Frankie Silver’s trial. The 1823 legend is still alive because a New York emigrant wrote down her neighbors’ stories when she moved to the Toe River Valley in 1928. These interviews combined with newspaper articles preserved a tale that later appealed to 1990’s readers when there was a renewed emphasis on women’s rights. Frankie may have been a victim herself, but she was hung for her husband’s murder and dismemberment. Judging by the frequent plays and stories still written about her, she might garner more sympathy today.

I am a member of the local historical society and have associations with many who are interested in the lives of our forefathers. Actually, I’ll use anyone’s ancestors to write a story. The background has to be accurate, so attention to detail is imperative. When I write that a horse and buggy was parked on Main Street next to a Model T, I better be certain that it was within the realm of possibility. 

Historical fiction does not have to be centered on an event, but detailed description adds credibility. Ken Follett comes to mind with his account of the lawless days of twelfth-century England when bishops controlled the villages where great cathedrals were built. Follett sifted through history to enrich his tale but recounting facts does not provide enough tension to hold a reader's interest. They are hooked by character and plot, so a mystery needs a protagonist with a conflict and challenges. And maybe a dead body or two. 

This is a great age to be a writer. Margaret Mitchell had to carefully piece together Civil War background with news articles and interviews. We have the Internet where bountiful information has been recorded, analyzed and stored. Saturated investigation is possible, but having time for it, well, that's another story. 

Today's issue of our #WW Writer Wednesday was written by our own Georgia Ruth. We hope you enjoyed it, and we encourage you to check out her links, and leave comments for her.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on the Writer Wednesday series now that it's almost 6 months old. What have you enjoyed? What type of articles would you like to see in the future? Leave a comment, drop us a line, send a smoke signal…we're all ears.  ~The Black Cat

Georgia Ruth lives in the foothills of North Carolina. Now retired, she managed a family restaurant for ten years and worked in sales for fifteen years. Both experiences produced rich soil for her fertile imagination. Georgia is a member of Sisters in Crime and Short Mystery Fiction Society. She has stories published online for Stupefying Stories and Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, and in print, Mystery Times Ten 2013 by Buddhapuss Ink. Her story “The Mountain Top” will be published in a Sisters in Crime anthology in 2014. Her website is

Friday, August 1, 2014

Join Tracy on her Virtual Book Launch & Giveaway

COUNTERACT by Tracy Lawson releases August 6th,

but the fun begins Monday, August 4th!

 Join us as we celebrate her book launch with a Virtual Book Tour and Giveaway

GRAND PRIZE: A replica of the vial necklace from the book's cover—retail value $50, provided courtesy of Bella Beads Studio—plus a copy of the book, and swag!

Five lucky winners will receive a Counteract - Join the Resistance wristband, plus a bookmark.

We're hosting today's stop on her virtual tour and giveaway with a post on how she created Counteract's leading man, Tommy Bailey.

Tommy Bailey was already his own man when he came into my life. Tommy was a lot like his creator, a student who, in my estimation, was a fine example from which to start crafting an interesting protagonist. But Tommy faced a daunting task. In order to anchor the cast of characters as the hero of Counteract, he would have to confront obstacles, make mistakes, and change and grow as a person. 

Who Tommy became as the story progressed was entirely up to me. 

I began to think of Tommy like a son—I loved him unreservedly, but I was aware of his flaws and shortcomings. I knew he wasn’t always going to make the best choices, but I knew he’d learn from his mistakes and be the better for them, so I put him in a bunch of tough situations. I wanted to see how he’d react, because I didn’t always know as I was writing just what he would do. 

It was a lot like watching the real teenagers in my life as they take the last steps toward adulthood.

At the outset of the story, Tommy has been through a traumatic, life-changing experience. He’s recovering from a serious injury suffered in the auto accident that killed his parents. During the summer and fall that his classmates are preparing to head off to university, he’s learning to walk again.

Just when Tommy feels as though he’s regained some control over his shattered life, he wakes to the wail of a disaster siren. 

9:59 a.m.

Tommy Bailey lay tangled in his blankets, one arm hanging off the side of the bed. He usually slept soundly, thanks to his pain meds, but not today. He opened his eyes, blinking back the bright sunshine that filled the room. What the hell was that noise? He glanced at his bedside clock. Only ten a.m? He’d have slept much later if not for that siren howling outside, but now that he was awake, he was curious enough to roll out of bed and hobble downstairs. The television in the living room was on, which was no surprise since it powered up automatically any time there was an important announcement or mandatory programming. He lowered himself onto the sofa to find out what was going on.

“…OCSD expects repeated large-scale attacks. The National Weather Service, in cooperation with the OCSD, will monitor the atmosphere and report discernible toxin levels. The Emergency Broadcast System will conduct practice drills and notify the public in the event of an actual chemical attack. Remember, the antidote will counteract the effects of hazardous toxins if taken each day, so for the next three weeks, the Emergency Broadcast System will issue morning reminders to help everyone acclimate to the dosage schedule. Take action to protect yourself and your family. Your safety is our greatest concern. Go directly to the distribution center in your quadrant.”

The OCSD’s PeopleNet address and an information hotline number flashed on the screen.

Tommy shook the cobwebs from his head. Do I want to live or die? Shit. Not again.

As I wrote Counteract, and then the sequel, Resist, I put Tommy in all kinds of situations I wouldn’t want any flesh-and-blood offspring of mine to face, knowing as I did that I was giving him the opportunity to test his limits and realize his potential as he fought to overcome the many obstacles in his path. I made sure he’d have the chance to determine what was right, and decide whether or not to take a stand. He’d realize he’d been sheltered, and begin to search for truth. The secrets he discovers about the events that led to his parents’ deaths are significant in the present. Will he figure out what’s going on in time to stop something awful from happening?

Follow Tracy as she travels the blog-o-sphere for more chances to win.



Monday, 8/4 - Guest post on Jessica Dall's Blog

Tuesday, 8/5 - Author Spotlights at SR Staley's and Adventures of the Crafty Critter

Wednesday, 8/6 - BOOK LAUNCH!

Twitter Party at #WritersCoffeeBar  11AM EDT

Buddhapuss Ink 

Review by Mariam Kobras 

Thursday, 8/7 - Author Spotlight at Bernadette Marie

Friday, 8/8 - Author Spotlights at S.L. Wallace & Nancy Wood

Monday, 8/11 - Author Spotlight at Peace, Love and Writing

Tuesday, 8/12 - Author Spotlight at Worlds Apart


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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How to Write Like a Pro, Even As a Beginner

In the thirteen years I've been editing professionally, I've had clients from all different levels of experience. Some come to me after having had several novels published traditionally, and some seek me out after completing their very first book.

Nine times out of ten, I can spot a first-time novelist because of certain tells in the manuscript that don't appear as often in work by more experienced authors. Here are some habits to avoid so you can seem like a seasoned writer no matter where you are in your career.

Overwriting/stating the obvious

Using too many words to describe something implies you haven’t learned how to self-edit, which is an important part of writing. I see the following most often.

Unnecessary mention of body parts: shrugged her shoulders, nodded her head, blinked her eyes, clapped his hands, kicked with her leg, held her hand in his (where else would he hold it—in his mouth?). I'd also say both of her hands is long-winded, when her hands or both hands would do. We all know how many body parts we have, what they do, and where they're located, so pick the right verb and eliminate the body part altogether.

Obvious location of things: the sky above, the ground underfoot, the weather outside. Unless a character is God, or walking on his/her hands, or has a wind machine in his/her house, readers know where the sky, ground, and weather are in relation to that person.

Obvious directions: fell down, lifted up, raised up, lunged forward. The simple verb will do, because you can't fall up, lift or raise down, or lunge backward.

Extra steps in describing actions: She reaches out and pulls him to her. You can't pull someone to you without reaching out first. I’d say “reach” is almost always redundant when it’s followed by another verb, such as in these sentences: She reached up and smoothed down her hair or She reached down and grabbed her bag from under her seat. Another example of including too many steps: She gets in the car, starts the engine, and drives away. We all know she started the engine before driving away. She probably also closed her door, put on her seat belt, put the car in Drive, and pressed the gas pedal. Don’t bore readers with details they already understand.

Obvious adverbs: crept slowly, rushed quickly, gripped firmly, hollered loudly. The adverbs in these examples are built into the meaning of the verbs so no qualifiers are necessary.

Bad dialogue

The following are the most common blunders.

Dialogue repeating what the narrative just stated: I looked at the picture and didn’t recognize the man in it. "I don't recognize him," I said. Put a period after picture and cut to the dialogue.

Awkward, unnatural dialogue: “You are upset I divorced him? I am surprised. After all, he likes to wear my underwear, and furthermore, he is a slob.” The lack of contractions makes this sound too formal, and when was the last time you heard someone start a sentence with “after all,” or say “furthermore” in a casual conversation? Make sure the dialogue fits the occasion and character. A lawyer making closing arguments should speak differently than when he’s having beer with friends, and a teenage crack addict shouldn’t talk like a sixty-year-old grandma. Read your dialogue out loud to check how it sounds. I recommend reading your entire book out loud to screen for any clumsy sentences.

Obvious dialogue tags: "I'm sorry," he apologized. Or: "Don’t ever do that again!” she admonished. The dialogue clearly indicates the speaker’s intent in both cases so the tags are redundant.

Fancy dialogue tags: she uttered, bellowed, chided, groused, etc. Said doesn’t need to be used for every line of dialogue, but when writers try too hard to avoid that word, its substitutions can be distracting. If something other than said is used—whispered, for example—have a good reason for it, e.g. the scene being intimate, or characters hiding in a closet from a killer in the house.

Too many direct addresses:

          Will I see you tomorrow, Butch?”
          I don't know, Luanne.”
          Oh, come on, Butch, say you'll be there!”
          OK, Luanne.”

In real life, you can chat with someone on a plane for hours and never learn that person’s name because our names don’t come up that often in conversation.

Excessive dialogue attribution:

          He and I sat in his car.
          "Are you getting out?" he asked.
          "I'm waiting until the tornado passes," I say.
          "You’re a chicken," he says.
          "At least I didn’t call for my mommy," I say.

When only two people are in a conversation, readers can figure out who said what. Attribution isn’t needed for every line.

This list isn't comprehensive, and contains copyediting issues rather than structural ones, but keeping these suggestions in mind will help tighten and strengthen your work.

What do you find distracting when you read?

© 2014 Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Elyse Dinh-McCrillis is a writer and editor who has worked with authors such as Brett Battles, Richard Bard, Naomi Hirahara, Jordan Dane, and Laura Benedict. She specializes in crime fiction, and might stab you with her red pencil if you write things like "I could care less" or "I literally died." For more info, visit The Edit Ninja. She also blogs as Pop Culture Nerd.

We hope you enjoyed this edition of Writer Wednesday!
              ~ The Black Cat