Have You Googled Today?

I just Googled myself. I’ve done it now and then, and I’ve set up a Google alert (but all that does is tell me someone with my name got arrested for cruelty to animals, which really isn’t what I had in mind), but I was reading an article on making sure you have a “platform” and decided to do it again.

Of the first six items on the main page, the top two were Facebook telling people they could find me there. The third one was LinkedIn saying there were fifty Terri Bensons listed. Googling

But, the next three were my website and my book. Yeah, me! A co-worker suggested I look at images as well, and I found myself starting on line three – so not too bad again. I don’t post a lot of photos of me or my family – most of them are business photos from our office website or RMFW, or the ones associated with my book launch. There was this lady in the orange jumpsuit (no, it’s not the new black!) with the big label “Terri Benson” and side bars that say CaseyAnthony.com – not a good look for her, and not really anyone I want to be associated with. Image of

But it was interesting to see how much I showed up (or didn’t) online. I only have the one book out, but I do have a website and a personal Facebook, which may or may not be connected to a business and/or author page (Facebook and I are having a bit of a battle about that). I had a Twitter account until my provider quit (providing, that is) and Twitter demands that you log on only with the original e-mail address, no matter what, in order to change your e-mail (??!!??), so the two Tweets and three followers (how the heck did that happen) I had are out there somewhere in the ozone, all alone.

I realize I need to do better. And I’m thinking about it. I use Facebook and Twitter daily for work, and so far my stubborn brain is telling my marketing brain that I’ve already done my share for the day and it isn’t going to go any further. That’s another thing I’m working on – getting my brains all on the same wavelength, but no luck so far.

So, have you Googled today? If not, try it. And if nothing else, you’ll find some really creepy person who has the same name and will explain the looks you got from co-workers a couple weeks ago, right?

Oh, and Write On!

WHEN, WHERE, and HOW do I write a book?

I’ve been so busy writing, editing, and reading, I almost forgot about this blog.

 

WHEN:

A wise friend of mine said to me, “Time is there, you just have to take it.”

If you have trouble with it, then tough. That’s right, I said it—tough! Too many writers use lack of time as an excuse not to write. When you say you don’t have the time, what you are really saying is, “Something else is more important right now than writing.” ~Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D

Create a schedule (please don’t forget about pets, spouses, children, and a steady income).

An old song’s chorus begins like this: "To everything there is a season..." Be sure this is the right season for you to write an entire manuscript. If not, one suggestion is keeping separate files for future characters, settings, plots, etc.

If you ride a bus to and from work, well, there you have it.

 

WHERE:

Be prepared to write wherever you may safely do so. Jeffery Deaver writes in his office in the dark. The only light is from two computers, one for internet use and one for writing. Anne Perry often writes (by hand) overlooking a beach.

“When you’re reading, you’re not where you are; you’re in the book. By the same token, I can write anywhere.” ~Diana Gabaldon

 

HOW:

Invest in you. Join RMFW for classes, retreats, conferences, blogs, critique groups, or monthly presentations. There are many incredible authors (traditionally published and self-published) willing to help—check out the wealth of education, knowledge, and experience our members have.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.” ~Stephen King

“You start at the end, and then go back and write and go that way. Not everyone does, but I do. Some people just sit down at the page and start off. I start from what happened, including the why.” ~Anne Perry

Be observant. “You see something, then it clicks with something else and it will make a story. But you never know when it’s going to happen.” ~Stephen King

Participate in RMFW’s NovelRama. “25,000 words in 4 days. Because you can.”

Interaction, Engagement, Influence

Back in the 40's Abraham Maslow(1) put forth the proposition that humans are motivated by needs. Maslow postulates that each low level need must be satisfied before the next higher need can be addressed. It makes a certain sense. Without the foundation, you can't build walls. Without the walls, you can't build the roof. His pyramid of needs has served as a model for understanding human behavior ever since.(2)

I maintain that a similar hierarchy exists in social media marketing.

Marketing is about getting people to do what you want. Doesn't matter if you're selling toothpaste, insurance, or an elected official. Your goal is to get people to do the thing you need them to do. Buy the toothpaste. Enroll in the plan. Vote for the person. For that to happen you have to influence the public's behavior.

Mass marketing has been with us almost forever. From the Molly Malone to carny barkers. From paperboys to fast food restaurants. From magazines and billboards to television and radio. Mass media has developed some pretty compelling models regardless of what scale the seller operates on. The mass marketing is getting your message to as many people as possible in the hope that some tiny fraction of people will hear your message and take the desired action.

Social media marketing has only really been a thing for the last twenty years or so. The desired result - get people to take the desired action - is the same but the process is different. Social media marketing strives to get your message to only those people who want to hear it so that a large percentage of those people will do what you want. Mass market techniques are antithetical to social media because social media messaging is controlled by the receiver, not the sender.(3)

That's a long set up to understand the three levels that govern social media marketing.

Interaction is the base. Without some level of interaction, nothing else is possible. It's where you get likes, retweets, and followers. It's requires nearly nothing of the receiver - only that they don't block, unfriend, or unfollow you. Most social media marketing advice tells you how to grow your numbers but not how to move up the pyramid.

Engagement is the next tier. This is where people actually pay attention to you, maybe talk back to you by leaving comments or adding their own ideas to a re-tweet. Engagement is a required - but not sufficient - condition.

Influence is the goal. Just like mass media marketing, social media marketing works to get people to do what you want. For authors - particularly self published ones - it's "buy the book." There are other less demanding goals that you might pursue - sign up for the email list, leave a review, tell a friend - but the ultimate goal for authors in doing social media marketing is to sell more books.

Here's the thing:

Most measures of influence *kough*klout*kough* use interaction as a proxy for engagement. Advice on how to get more followers, more friends, bigger numbers only applies to interaction. Sure you need to reach people but these numbers by themselves are meaningless. How many are bots? How many just follow you because you're a joke to them? How many just clicked like because it's almost a reflex action and not any kind of thoughtful response?

You can actually get a sense for engagement by comments and quoted retweets. It's a rough measure because most engagement will come from the lurkers - that 90% of people below the surface who actually follow what you do and pay attention to it, think about it, but don't actually step out of the ether to make themselves known to you. It's why counting doesn't really work here. Numbers aren't the answer and can be misleading.

Influence is even harder to measure because the action you want people to take isn't an action done in social media. It's invisible in that realm and only shows up in sales. The problem gets compounded by delays between message and action fostered by the internet. _Once on the internet, forever on the internet._ A comment you left on somebody's blog last month could drive a sale next week. Messages you put out last year could result in actions taken next year. You find yourself in the position of seeing a spike in sales when you've done nothing to promote your work, because somebody somewhere referenced a tweet that you responded to and forgot about.

Bottom line:

Keep interaction going by remembering that - on social media - "yes" is conditional but "no" is forever. Foster engagement by being engaged with your audience - don't robo-tweet, reply to comments, like and +1 posts. Remember that your goal is not numbers, but engagement. A mailing list of 20,000 names where only one or two percent click through to your book is much less valuable than a list of 1000 names where eighty percent open and fifty percent click through. It means you have more influence and it's influence that gets you sales.

 

  1. Maslow, A.H. (1943). "A theory of human motivation"Psychological Review50 (4): 370–96. doi:10.1037/h0054346 – via psychclassics.yorku.ca.
  2. The other model is called the "expectation theory" - or sometimes "drives theory." It suggests that people are motivated by experience and that a person's motivation to undertake a task will be based on prior experience and their expectation of how much they'll enjoy the reward they'll get from doing it. Restated: If you expect to enjoy your day on the job, you'll be more motivated to do it than if you expect your day will suck. If your day doesn't suck (or doesn't suck as much), you're going to be more motivated to go back tomorrow and vice versa.
  3. Social media is "pull." The receiver pulls messages they want to get by controlling who they're willing to get messages from regardless of channel. Mass media is "push" because messages are pushed to every receiver who uses the channel regardless of whether the receiver wants it or not.

Jack Up The Moderation

The 'Urban Noir' panel at Bouchercon 2017 last month in Toronto.

Such a calm word—moderator.

Merriam Webster: “Someone who leads a discussion in a group and tells each person when to speak: someone who moderates a meeting or discussion.”

I’ve been going to book conferences for years and for some reason this year I sat in on a few panels led by some truly awful moderators.

I’ve also seen some knock-outs.

So I’m offering the following suggestions and recommendations.

I mean, holy cow people! If you get asked to moderate a panel at Bouchercon (the annual conference for mystery writers and mystery readers) it’s very possible that several hundred people will be watching. Listening. It’s their chance to meet new writers, get to know them. As moderator, it's your job to give them a showcase moment.

ELEVEN RULES FOR BOOK CONFERENCE PANEL MODERATORS:

1. Read your panelists’ latest books. Really read them. Don’t skim. Get to know their themes and characters. Yes, this takes time. But the moderator gig is a good one—for you, too. Don’t give it short shrift.

2. Study up on your panelists’ bios. Do a bit of research and dig out a fun fact or two about their lives—it might come in handy.

3. Speaking of bios, don’t use up a quarter of the panel time reading introductions. The bios are in all the programs. A couple sentences will do. Thirty seconds! Think top line of Wikipedia. Sample: “Stephen King writes horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, science fiction, and fantasy. His books have sold more than 350 million copies, many of which have been adapted into feature films, miniseries, television series, and comic books. King has published 54 novels and six non-fiction books. He has written around 200 short stories. His bookshelf is crammed with major awards.”

4. Huddle with your panelists before the show. A huddle on email is fine, sure. Tell them how you’re going to run things. Send them a few sample questions to give them an idea of the issues you want to cover. Help them look good. The more they can prepare, the better their chances of leaving a good impression (and not stumbling around for an answer).

A Left Coast Crime panel (2016) moderated by William Kent Krueger (center). Also, left to right: Lou Berney, Lisa Brackmann, Chris Holm, James W. Ziskin.

5. Write meaningful questions that show a bit of insight and analysis. Look for genuine comparisons among your panelists’ works. And also how the works diverge—setting, style, narrative voice, level of morality, anything.

6. Write those questions down and then make them tight and clean. The more the questions are precisely about the writers on your panel, the better. Stock questions lead to stock answers. Stock answers are snoozeville. Develop questions designed to provoke debate or, at least, solid discussion. Do not show up and ramble your way into a question.

7. Speak up. At Bouchercon this year in Toronto, one moderator spoke as if she was in a back booth in a dark restaurant whispering like a nervous informant to the FBI. If she smiled more than the Mona Lisa, I missed it. If you’re not up for showing a bit of enthusiasm, don’t take the gig.

8. Listen to the answers! You may have a list of questions, but react to what’s being said. Engage. It’s a dialogue. You’re sparking conversation. On the other hand, cut off the spotlight hogs. (You can warn your team about your expectations on the issue of rambling on during the pre-panel huddle.) You are in charge so … take charge. And if other panelists are too brisk with their comments, probe deeper. Press for more detail.

9. Pretend it’s the only panel that matters. Your panel is NOT just another panel. This is YOUR panel. It’s the only one as far as you’re concerned. The writers you’re leading? If they are on one panel during the whole conference, then this is their moment in the spotlight—even if it’s 8 a.m. on Sunday morning. It’s your job to make that light bright, entertaining, meaningful, and fun.

10. Leave time for audience questions. If you’re running a 50-minute panel, leave at least five or ten minutes for the audience. If there are none, have a few more questions ready to go.

11. Leave yourself out of it as much as possible. That includes criticizing something that’s been said. Even if your impromptu quip is meant to be funny, it’s a really bad idea to accidentally put one of your panelists down in front of a crowd. This ain’t about you. Wait your turn to be a panelist and hope for a good moderator. A really good one. Like you.

Writer, Beware

One of the things agents and editors will often say is “Don’t write to the market.” The idea is that by the time you finish the book, the market will have moved on and something else will be popular. Unfortunately, the writers who usually get the most interest in pitch appointments are those who are pitching something that is popular at the time. Those writers also often end up selling those books, because even though agents and editors may really be looking for something new and different, their marketing departments want something that’s a sure bet.

Gone Girl came out five years ago and was immediately a sensation. It “created” a new sub-genre: the domestic thriller, with a twisty-turny plot set within the intimate circumstances of a relationship/household. The phenomenon grew as the movie came out, and then Girl on the Train and several other “girl” books had huge sales.

Suddenly, the domestic thriller/psychological thriller was the hot ticket. Of course, writers had been writing books like that for years, but now editors were clamoring for them. Other unpublished writers thought “I can do that,” and started writing them, too. Some of them sold those books, probably thinking they were finally breaking out and embarking on a great writing career.

Fast forward to this year, and I can tell you, as someone who purchases popular fiction from literary journals, that there are dozens of domestic thrillers being published. Dozens. I order quite a few, because it is a popular genre. But I can’t possibly buy even a majority of them. I have to spend our budget on other types of books for other readers. There are just so many domestic thrillers to choose from. And the longer the trend goes on, the pickier I have to be.

I think about those writers who wrote those books that are coming toward “the end of the wave,” and I feel bad for them. Because their books are probably going to tank. No matter how good they are, their books are going to get lost in the staggering pile of similar books. And suddenly, those writers’ new careers, which seemed so promising, will be over. Some of them will reinvent themselves and write something else, and find another genre where they will be successful. Others, who are really prolific and determined and energetic, will go the indie author route and keep writing the same kind of book and building their fan base and also be successful. Some of them will flounder around for years trying to find “the next big thing” so they can get another shot. Some of them will, probably, at least for a while, quit writing.

What can a writer in the early stages of their career learn from all this? There are lots of things to think about: Are you the kind of writer who can write to the market? Do you have lots of different types of stories in your head? Or are there really only one or two genres that truly call to you? Can you write fast? Are you a natural marketer, someone who knows how to promote themselves and is comfortable doing so? Are you comfortable “writing to live” (i.e., making money writing is your main goal)? Or do you “live to write” (i.e., writing feeds your soul and you need the satisfaction of creative expression to be happy)? Is your main goal to be published and get that validation? Or do you really want a long writing career?

These are things to think about before you go down the path of writing to the market. It’s a tricky, sometimes treacherous route. There can be huge rewards at the end. Or there can be desolation and despair. In this era, when there is so much information on writing, so many tools and resources, it just makes sense to think about the hard realities. I wish it wasn’t like that. I wish we could all go back to being starry-eyed, creative dreamers, hoping for our lucky break. But you can indulge those things. You just have to put all that emotion and passion and heedless longing into the creative process. Which is something that will never break your heart or let you down.

Thrillers, Part 3 of 4: Villains

The villain in a thriller is generally not your run-of-the-mill murderer. He is someone with a goal in mind, and he is driving toward that goal, regardless of the damage he causes along the way. While he may enjoy that destruction, whether human (serial killer, assassin, strong-man dictator) or property (arsonist, bomber, unscrupulous land baron) he could just as easily be someone who reluctantly sees the damage he leaves in his wake as an inevitable cost to the good he thinks he's doing (religious fanatic, environmental extremist, patriot assassin). While she may be evil, to me it is much more fascinating to read about the villain who thinks she is the hero of the story, who is a true believer in a cause she has either lost perspective on or has just gone too far in support of.

Either way, his plans are greater than a single act, usually building to some larger, ultimate goal that our protagonist must prevent. In the book Silence of The Lambs, [SPOILER STARTS] Buffalo Bill is building himself a lady-suit [SPOILER ENDS]. In the film Taken, [SPOILER STARTS] Marko is seeking to keep a steady supply of fresh flesh for his human trafficking operation [SPOILER ENDS]. In my own book, Presence of Malice, [SPOILER STARTS] Gerald Gannery is determined to gaslight his partner for the embezzlement of which he, himself, is guilty in order to free himself up to take a lucrative development deal for cable TV [SPOILER ENDS].

The villain's evil usually comes not just from his own selfishness, but from his willingness, even eagerness, to accede the pain and suffering of others in order to meet his aims. Even if she agonizes over each and every life taken, she takes it anyway because to her, the end will justify whatever means she sees necessary to apply.

In a thriller there is the concept of the ticking clock, which I will explain in more detail in the next and final part to this post, but I wanted to mention here (and will most likely repeat next month) that the ticking clock doesn't necessarily have to be a literal clock. In many cases it is the deadline for the fruition of the villain's plans, whether arbitrarily set by him or by his own need for urgency due to other schedules being enforced upon him (the president's plane departs, a shipment to be hijacked is en route, the laundry truck departs the prison, etc.).

As I mentioned before, my favorite villain is the one who thinks she is ultimately doing good, or better yet the one who is besieged by guilt over her own actions but compelled to do them anyway. But there is also something to be said for the gleefully evil - the serial killer, the psycho musician convinced he is a soldier for Satan, the unhinged skinhead with a hidden lair full of torture victims, etc. Whatever your taste, always remember that to keep the tension, either the villain must not be redeemed, or if she is, it must already be too late to stop the events she has put in motion (or seemingly so, until our hero takes action).

I wanted to spend time on henchmen and other companions of the villain who must be defeated on the way to the villain himself, but that will have to wait for another, longer discussion on villains.

Meanwhile, what are your favorite villains? What bad guys do you love to hate? Let me know in the comments, below.

Can I Write About That? by Pat Stoltey

My first attempt at novel-writing was based on my brother’s experience in the transportation industry in the 1970s. He provided the basics—overall plot, knowledge of 18-wheelers and trucker jargon. I did the writing—just barely well enough to get an audiobook contract. I had an expert co-author, so writing out of my own experience made sense. The only research I had to do concerned the real-life events of the time, a little union background, and enough information to at least mention Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance.

Then I tried a thriller. One of the main characters had been kidnapped by terrorists in Lebanon so there were scenes involving the hostage conditions, escape through the backstreets of Beirut, and the aftereffects of a long incarceration with a group of prisoners who did not escape. That was before I heard of PTSD, before Google Earth, before easy online research. Needless to say, I had bitten off more than I could chew at the time. That novel sits on my shelf, still wondering if it will ever get my attention again.

I learned my lesson. My next book was set in an environment I knew well, involved characters more like me and other folks I’d met in real life, and involved an easy-to-research crime. A sequel took the same characters to a new setting, but still one I knew well.

Even the thriller, Dead Wrong, is based in the U.S. and follows a path from Florida to Denver to Fort Collins—territory I’ve traveled through many times. The crime was easy. I based the plot on a check theft ring I’d learned about first hand when I worked for a company that was victimized by a similar case.

 

When I decided to try a historical mystery, I still used the countryside where I’d grown up, east-central Illinois, so the research built on information I already knew. But here’s where I drifted into new territory. One of the main characters in Wishing Caswell Dead is an elderly Kickapoo Indian, a kind man often subjected to cruel treatment by the novel’s villain. There is also a French trapper, a woman who seduces another woman, and a survivor of a lightning strike. Some of the information I use is based on solid research. Other parts of the storyline are 100% imagination.

Where must we draw the line in today’s super-sensitive world when writing about places we’ve never been, characters we’ve never met, situations we’ve never experienced?

 

I’m an older, white female. Is it okay that I had a female character in The Prairie Grass Murders whose parents were Mexican and Puerto Rican? I often write from a man’s point of view—one character is a Vietnam vet with PTSD, another a Cuban male crime boss.

Mental illness plays a role in some of my stories. I’ve never been hospitalized for a mental illness, but I have characters in a couple of my novels who have suffered such a fate. I do know a couple of people who have serious mental conditions, but that doesn’t mean I understand their experience. Can I write from what I do know and what I discover with research?

I think most of us want to indulge our creativity and let our imaginations weave stories that might have happened, that could happen, that probably will happen someday. Limiting ourselves to writing only about our own experience would stifle that magic.

Will I try to write a novel about a young single African-American mother who lives in an old housing project in Detroit? Probably not. That experience is way too remote from my middle-Illinois farm upbringing. Traveling to Detroit to do the kind of involved research required is not something I’d do at my age and level of creakiness.

But could I write a story about a white girl living with an old grandfatherly Kickapoo Indian during a cold Illinois winter in the 1830s? I gave it my best shot!

 

Bio:

Pat Stoltey is the author of two amateur sleuth novels, The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders. Her standalone thriller, Dead Wrong, was a finalist in the 2015 Colorado Book Awards. A short story, “Three Sisters of Ring Island,” appeared in the 2014 anthology Tales in Firelight and Shadow. Wishing Caswell Dead is scheduled for release December 20, 2017 and is available now for pre-order in ebook and hardcover (https://www.amazon.com/Wishing-Caswell-Dead-Pat-Stoltey-ebook/dp/B074VKLK8F/).

A former accounts payable manager, Pat began writing seriously after retirement. She has lived in Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, and the south of France, but now she’s a resident of Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Katie Cat, and Sassy Dog. Learn more about Pat at her website/blog (http://patriciastolteybooks.com), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/patricia.stoltey) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/PStoltey).

 

 

My NaNoWriMo 2017 Roadmap

After spending nine months on a first draft and another year and a half on revisions, I resolved to make my next book a more streamlined process. That’s why I’m spending October of this year on research, outlining, and pre-writing, and I hope to use NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to write my rough draft. As November approaches, I thought I’d share the roadmap I’ll be using.

This is an in-depth outline adapted from the books Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld and Writing Deep Scenes by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson. It’s just one of countless outlining methods available. I’ve studied several, and they all boil down to pretty much the same thing—but for some reason, this one clicked the most with me. It breaks your novel into four parts, each taking roughly 25% of the total word count:

  1. Beginning
  2. Emerging Middle
  3. Deeper Middle
  4. End

It also focuses on four “energetic markers,” which can be thought of as key scenes or turning points:

  1. Point of No Return
  2. Rededication
  3. Dark Night of the Soul
  4. Triumph

The Beginning introduces the main character in her normal world. It sets up the central story conflict, as well as the protagonist’s flaw or wound—in other words, how she will need to change over the course of the story. The Beginning ends with the first energetic marker, the Point of No Return, a critical juncture where our heroine decides or is forced to plunge into the new world of the middle. She can no longer return to her old world and status quo. She may be physically trapped in a new world or situation, or she may make a promise or commitment that she can’t renege on.

When she emerges from the Point of No Return, the protagonist is thrust into the new and mysterious world of the Emerging Middle. Here, the action is controlled by antagonists and obstacles. Our heroine faces many setbacks, but is still winning in this stage. Her shadow side begins to reveal itself, both to the reader and to the character herself. She must begin to face her flaws and wounds, which will eventually force her to change. The Emerging Middle ends at the midpoint, a.k.a. the second energetic marker, the Rededication. This is where the main character is forced to reevaluate her progress toward her goal, and either recommit to that goal or identify a new one.

After the Rededication, the protagonist enters the Deeper Middle. This place is even more mysterious and challenging than the Emerging Middle, and our heroine is no longer winning—instead, the antagonists take the lead. The mindset and techniques that served the main character well in her old world no longer work, and she is forced to change her plan of attack. She faces greater setbacks and higher stakes than in the Emerging Middle, and her emotional outlook becomes increasingly bleak. Then, just when she thinks she’s about to reach her goal, she loses everything at the Dark Night of the Soul. This energetic marker turns the story in a new direction. It also awakens the main character to her flaws, strips away her old self, and gives her what she needs to succeed in the upcoming climax.

The protagonist enters the last quarter of the novel, the End, by formulating a plan and gathering resources. These include external resources (information, allies, tools, supplies, etc.) and internal resources (bracing herself emotionally for what’s to come). She no longer hesitates or second-guesses herself—she knows exactly what she must do and why, if not how to do it, and she moves toward her goal with courage and determination. This leads to the final energetic marker, the Triumph, a.k.a. the climax of your story. The Triumph is the heroine’s final confrontation with both the external antagonist and her own internal flaws. In order to succeed at the Triumph, she must come to terms with her shadow side and complete her character transformation. She is now fully united with her new self-awareness, understanding of the world, and sense of responsibility. The Triumph is followed by a brief resolution or denouement, which wraps up any last plot threads and provides a glimpse of the transformed protagonist in her new world.

What I like about this approach is that it’s a roadmap, not a formula. It helps me find the bones of my story before I start writing, while giving me the flexibility to discover the rest as I write. It also forces me to keep in mind both central story threads, action and character arc, and how they work in tandem. I’m looking forward to trying it out in November. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, good luck, and I’ll see you there!

It’s Research, Dear

When I plan a trip, one of the first things I think about is what kind of research I can do there. Not because I’m looking for a tax write-off (because, hey, I still have to pay for the trip even if I can write some of it off later), but because I want to make sure I know where to go and what to do to get the most bang for my hard-earned bucks. It doesn’t matter if I’m by myself or with family. It might mean I plan some alone time for when they want to do something I don’t, or I look especially hard for places to do research that I think they’ll enjoy. I hate sitting in a hotel room, so I go out of my way to find something to do.

I was in New Orleans a year ago and took a walk after lunch, just to stretch my legs. I headed south, away from the French Quarter, and found myself in a not-really-nice part of town, but not scary. About the time I decided to turn around, I came across this amazing old Civil War Museum that had a ton of information I was able to incorporate into an historical romance I was working on. The next morning I got up at 5 a.m. so I could walk two miles to a huge outdoor market in the French Quarter and had hot beignets for breakfast—I can now accurately describe the sights and sounds, the tastes and smells. I rented a bike and rode around the French Quarter residential district, photographing beautiful old homes with mansard roofs, ironwork, gingerbread trim, and walled gardens. I visited the building that housed the New Orleans Mint during the Civil War (which gets robbed in my story) and I could describe the different rooms, the door lintels, the stonework—it was fantastic. A work trip to Philadelphia let me see what the Founding Fathers saw, read what they wrote, and see a pop-up Stevie Wonder concert (only because I’d taken a walk and turned down a street).

If I’d wasted these times in new places, what a loss it would have been for me. Yes, I was often alone as I wandered around, but it didn’t matter. There were people everywhere. I could ask questions, get directions. Waiters, bartenders, hotel staff—they all knew places for me to visit. I had only to ask.

I’m headed to Las Vegas this week to visit my son. But I have to admit, going to a Barrett Jackson classic car auction holds almost as much attraction (but don’t tell my son). I want to see the layout, hear the talk, see the cars, the people who attend, the booths and what they sell—all for my Bad Carma series. Yes, I could fake it. I’ve been to auctions before and I’m not using the Barrett Jackson name in my story, but I like realism, even in fiction. I think readers like it, too.

So if you’re planning a trip, even to the next town, think about what kind of research you could squeeze in. Is there a museum you haven’t visited? A road that leads to an interesting canyon? A building you could take a photo of and use somewhere, sometime? Don’t just think of current WIPs; plan for what might come later. File this information away for when you need it, even if you never do (you won’t know, though, will you?). After all, it’s research, dear.

I’m off to do some research, and to Write On!