Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An Idea is Just the Germ of a Story

Writers are often asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" The answer is easy: ideas are all around us.

You discover them in what your read, what you hear (writers are notorious eavesdroppers), in what you see, and so many other places. But an idea is not a story. An idea is the germ of a story. It's what gets you asking, "what if..."

The next step in the process is creating character(s), a plot and a story location. There has been argument over which is more important--character or plot. In my opinion, they're equally important. You can't have one without the other.

For instance, you want your main characters to have substance, not be paper cutouts. Readers can relate to a realistically portrayed character. So how do you do that? You give them lives. You describe them, their characteristics, their personalities. Many readers are turned off by two much description. Some want no description of a character so they can employ their imagination as to the character's appearance. My feeling is it's your story. Their imagination may not match your vision. That's why I prefer to describe my key characters.

Others will quote Elmore Leonard's famous 10 Rules for Good Writing, citing Rules 8 and 9, which tell you to avoid detailed descriptions of characters and not to go into great details describing places and things. The important points are "detailed" and "great details." He doesn't say don't describe. Read Leonard to see how he subtly introduces characters and place, so aptly we feel we'd recognize the character anywhere and know the place even if we've never been there.

So you don't want to give them everything about your character in one lump. Introduce details gradually throughout your narrative.

Now, as to plot, this is the narrative of your story. It introduces the crime, the detective, the investigation, discovery of the motive(s) and, eventually, the identity of the culprit. Some mysteries disclose the identity of the killer at the beginning, but I think that takes the fun out of the story for many readers. Most like to try and outsmart the writer, determining the identity of the criminal before it's disclosed by the writer. Traditionally, mysteries started as this type of puzzle, providing clues through the narrative to lead the reader to the conclusion. Being the sneaky people we are, we throw in red herrings (misleading clues) to throw the reader off the track as well as sub-plots to add a little more substance to the story.

This is how an idea becomes a story.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

(My guest today is Carol Crigger, author of the wonderful China Bohannon Western series and other novels in a variety of genre. Welcome, Carol. The floor is yours.)

“What inspires you to write? “This is often the second question I’m asked when I speak about my writing. The first is  usually “Where do you get your ideas?” Third asks “What is your process?”

All three questions, as you might guess, have multiple answers, but today inspiration is on my mind. With me, music is often a flash point. So here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts on the subject..

Writers say in order to write, you need to sit your butt down in front of the computer and peck away. And that’s true. It just isn’t necessarily the whole story. Inspiration is a funny thing, you see. I’m pretty sure what catches the imagination of one person may well leave another cold.

For instance, I couldnt write a song if my life depended on it. It takes more than a couple dozen words for me to tell a story. How do lyricists, or poetsand the two are often one and the samedo it, anyway? How do they put together words that can take over your mind and, even years later, put you right in the middle of a memoryor a storyjust by hearing a few bars of the song. They are a special kind of writer, for sure.

Truly though, sometimes it’s the singer who makes the rhyme. Listen to Adele! She can bend words to fit like nobody’s business, and in the most heartfelt way possible. It makes me laugh.

It’s funny how a tune can get in your mind. Earworms, right? Only for this purpose, it’s not quite the same thing. You don’t need to know all the lyrics of the song. All you need hear is one certain phrase and it’ll catch you up and form a whole story in a matter of seconds. Or a whole book. Isn’t that amazing? From just a few simple words and a tune?

I don’t rely on music as much as I used to. I guess I’ve gotten more businesslike over the years. But more than twenty years later the song Lightning Crashes by the band Live, puts me right into a science fiction story I wrote that featured a child bitten by a spider. The bite morphed her into a monster, even though she fought the venom.  The story never  got published, but I still like it. Maybe I should find the CD and listen again as I try for a rewrite.

Counting Crows has helped along a couple of my books, including the first book of my Gunsmith Series, In the Service of the Queen, which got the title from the song. Rob Thomas and Matchbox Twenty account for more than one of my books, as well. Natalie Marchant helped with another, and . . .well, you see what I mean. All it takes is a few words put together in just the right way.

A lot of people say they listen to classical music as they write. A different kind of inspiration, I’m sure. Some prefer jazz, or maybe even opera. As for me, I need only to hear the part of the song that grabs me. Once properly inspired, I turn the music off. I like silence when I write, when I can hear my own words telling the story, and my characters talking to each other.

BIO: Imbued with an abiding love of western traditions and wide-open spaces, Ms. Crigger writes of free-spirited people who break from their standard roles. In her books, whether westerns, mysteries, or fantasy, the locales are real places. All of her books are set the Inland Northwest. Her short story, Aldy Neal’s Ghost, was a 2007 Spur finalist.  Her western novel, Black Crossing, won the 2008 Eppie. Letter of the Law was a 2009 Spur finalist in the audio category. Four Furlongs is her latest release.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What Does One Writer Read?

Someone asked, what kind of books do I read.

Well, it's a mixed bag.

In fiction, I lean heavily toward mysteries. But in the past year and a half I've read a number of Westerns, some historical fiction, Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman," Howard Frank Mosher's "God's Kingdom" and even Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane."

Who do I favor in mysteries? James Lee Burke, Ann Rendell/Barbara Vine, Harlan Coben, Ian Rankin, Wayne Dundee, Douglas Quinn, Elmore Leonard, Mark Billingham, Denzel Meyrick and many new ones I'm constantly discovering.

In non-fiction, I'm all over the place: history (particularly 19th century), archaeology, anthropology, travel, biographies, psychology, philosophy--whatever catches my fancy or may be vital to my research.

I don't, in general, read fantasy, paranormal (especially zombies), sappy romances or much sci-fi, but those are personal choices and not a condemnation of those genres.

I'm currently reading Juliet Barker's "The Brontes," an in-depth study of that remarkably talented family and JM Gregson's (another of those authors newly discovered) "A Little Learning."

Much of what I read, I also review. No one but a writer understands how important reviews are to a writer, be he/she known or unknown. So, if you read, please review. It doesn't take much to say you enjoyed (or didn't) reading a particular book. And reviews, no matter how brief, help a book rise in the ratings on Amazon and elsewhere. Besides, who doesn't like to give their opinion on something?

Stephen King says you can't be a writer without being a reader. And that admirable Brit Samuel Johnson once said, "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write, a man will turn over half a library to make one book."

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

James Patterson--love him or hate him?

There’s no denying James Patterson is a phenomenon in the modern world of writing.

Type “author James Patterson” in a Google search box and it’ll return 32,500,000 hits (compared to my own paltry 20,000 more or less on a given day).

Reportedly, one in 17 of all novels sold in the U.S. today bears his name and he generally outsells Stephen King, John Grisham and other big names in fiction. Only a fool would not admire him for his contributions to literacy, his efforts to save bookstores and libraries.

Yet, he seldom writes a book himself these days, churning out plots and handing over the actual writing task to a stable of auxiliaries.

Personally, I preferred the early books he wrote himself like The Thomas Berryman Number and the first Alex Cross novels. And I admit, I haven’t read much of his more recent output. Note, this isn’t the result of jealousy.

He, himself, acknowledges he’s not a great writer. He’s more of a plot-master and is definitely a great storyteller, virtues in and of themselves. Nor is he the first writer to work with assistants and collaborators. One of my favorite writers, Alexandre Dumas, the elder, who like Patterson was a fabulous marketer of his work, employed the same tactic (though the writing style of the two men is world’s apart).

Patterson worked for years in advertising and it is as a result of that experience, as much as writing ability, that contributes to his success. He knows marketing and exploits it in every way possible. He treats his work as products, not works of art. That is not meant as a negative.

His “product” wouldn’t sell if it didn’t have something to attract and retain readers. The man knows and utilizes story arc. He knows how  to grab and hold onto an audience, one always eager for more of his work. 
Though I liked that first novel of his, it is vastly different from later output. While the latter often appear more like sketches or TV scripts than novels and the first was more complex and descriptive, Patterson found his formula and it works for him.

I’m not saying we should imitate all he does but, rather, suggest he does have merit and it doesn’t hurt to consider adapting some of his ideas from time to time.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Rustling Not Restricted to the Wild West

Rustlers generally make on think of the Wild West. But an incident in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, in 1894 makes it clear they existed here in the Wild East as well.

Pat Love, who lived at Vine and Commerce streets in that year, had a fine spotted cow who was wont to graze contently along the streets and byways of the community. According to a report in the Tuesday, Sept. 4, 1894 edition of The Evening Item, Sunbury, “She was turned out as usual last Saturday and was seen at different times during the day until 2 p.m. when she disappeared.

“As evening approached the cow always went home but on that particular evening failed to show up. Mr. Love mistrusted that she had been stolen and at once began a search. In a short time inquiry revealed the fact that the cow had been led away by some man. Love went to the law and W. H. Wagner was deputized to seek the thief. He traced man and cow to Bear Gap and from there over the mountain to Danville. From there the trail led over the river bridge and along the towpath to the Halfway House where the thief arrived Sunday morning, having driven the cow 35 miles by a circuitous route. The Item reported the rustler remained there until evening and then again started off cross-country, headed toward Chillisquaque and sleeping in the woods along the way.

On Monday morning after failing in several attempts to sell the cow, the thief succeeded in persuading Joe Wolfe, a Chillisquaque trucker, to buy her for $12.

Deputy Wagner arrived about an hour later. He notified Love who came to Wolfe’s, identified his property and took possession of her. The Item’s article concluded: “They took her to Northumberland Monday evening and started for home Tuesday morning, going through Sunbury about 8:30. Mr. Love was pleased that he recovered the cow but said he would like to get his hands on the thief.”

Cattle were not the only target of such thieves. There was a time when horse theft was the number one crime at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia. Among those incarcerated at the famous lock-up was Joe Buzzard of the notorious Buzzard brothers gang who terrorized the Commonwealth's Welsh Mountains from the late 1800s till the mid-1900s. Joe, youngest of the gang, considered himself the premier horse thief in the country. He was the only horse thief in custody when he entered Eastern for the last time in 1939.

Rustling plays a major role in my Western, "The Tithing Herd." If you like the genre, you'll find the novel at

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some Recommended Reads

Health concerns prevented my usual practice of recommending in January some of the books I enjoyed in the past year. To make up for that omission, I’d like to suggest some reads by friends and by a few writers I don’t know I think worthy of your time.

The prolific Wayne D. Dundee added several titles to his Western bibliography in 2015. If you like the genre, you’re in for a treat with any of them. His Joe Hannibal mysteries aren’t to be missed either:

Liz Zelvin brought out Journey of Strangers, the second in her Diego Mendoza triology. I’m already looking forward to the third novel. You might want to check out her Bruce Kohler mysteries, too.

Doug Quinn added Egret’s Cove to his fine Webb Sawyer mystery series:
A satisfying mystery with a well developed cast of characters, plenty of twists and turns and an entertaining storyline.

I don’t know Tim Bouman, but his literate debut mystery Dry Bones in the Valley, set in northeastern Pennsylvania, blew me away. Looking forward to reading more of his work:

Not a new release, but definitely worthy of mention is my friend Frank Stewart’s River Rising: A Cherokee Oddysey. Sadly, Frank is in the grip of a devastating disease, preventing his completion of the sequel to this historical novel:

Jim Callan offers Over My Dead Body, second in his delightful Father Frank mystery series. An unexpected legacy puts the parish priest at odds with his church superior and, worse, a killer.

Then there’s The Count of the Sahara by Wayne Turmel, An entertaining fictional account of a phase in the life of an actual Philadelphia born amateur archaeologist who might have been the model for the tomb-raider Indiana Jones.

Finally, another by an author I don’t know personally: Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale, rich with historical detail, surprising twists and a satisfying conclusion.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Shopping Center of Yore

Two of my fictional characters operate general stores.

Lydia Longlow, the love of Sheriff Sylvester Tilghman in a two-book series, runs a general store started by her father in the fictional community of Arahpot, Pennsylvania. And Ellen Kauffman is proprietor of a similar establishment in my latest novel, Something So Divine.

In the 19th century, the time period of both novels, general stores were the center of rural communities. Not only did they supply food and other necessities for the community, they also served as a central meeting place for gossip and business and, often, as post office, polling place and even courtroom.

But I realize younger readers more familiar with shopping centers and specialty stores might not realize the importance of these mercantile operations to our ancestors.

Unlike the spacious, orderly and convenient stores of today, these emporiums were generally cramped, cluttered and dark. An array of shelving took up wall spaces and boxes, barrels, crates and other containers crammed the floors. A main counter for dealing with customers would hold the cash register, coffee grinder and scales for weighing various items.

The air in the store would be heady with a mix of scents, both pleasant and unpleasant--ripening fruit, various spices, teas and freshly ground coffee beans, cheeses, honey and molasses, soaps, toiletries and patent medicines, cigars and tobacco, not to mention human body odor and possibly animal manure tracked in by customers who failed to wipe their feet at the door.

The average store would have a supply of any of the various items that might be needed by town-dweller or farmer, from food and wearing apparel to tools and agricultural implements, sometimes including luxury items not otherwise available in rural areas.

Since money was often scarce in such locations, storekeepers usually ran a line of credit for regular customers as well as sometimes engaging in barter for items they might sell to others.

As a youth I accompanied my father to country sales where he purchased antiques and curios, some of which he refinished and sold to dealers and other collectors. We sometimes stopped for refreshment at country stores which served the Amish and Old Order Mennonites in our area of Pennsylvania. Because I was familiar with these old-fashioned stores, it needed little research to create such establishments for my fictional characters.