WRITING THEMES: Do we choose them? Or do they choose us? by Joan Johnston

Book ShamelessWhy do all my books have “abandoned or neglected children” as an underlying theme?  Until about book 25 (I’m writing book 57 now), when another writer pointed it out to me, I had no idea that this issue resonated throughout my writing.  I’d grown up in a family of seven children and my parents had remained married until my father died late in life.  So why was I writing about abandoned children?

When I asked my mother why I might have focused on this subject, she replied, “When you were four years old, your father (who was in the Air Force at the time) left to go to the Philippines and we stayed behind in Little Rock.  You took a photo of him to bed with you for a month, until it was in tatters, and cried yourself to sleep.”

Aha!  All questions answered.  I was “abandoned” when I was four years old and, according to my mother, didn’t see my father again for an entire year.  No wonder the topic of abandonment—and subsequent healing through love—pervades my books.

But as in my novels, mothers don’t always tell the truth.  Or at least, not the whole truth.

Recently, my sister Jeanne, who was one year older than I, died of complications from diabetes.  My cousin Ron wrote that he had “a nice story about Jeanne” to share with us.

Here’s what he said:  “I remember when your father was stationed at Langley, Virginia, my mother got the wild idea that she had to visit her baby brother [who was my father].  I know there were presents, so it was probably around Christmas.  We got in the car [in Baltimore] and drove down to your parents’ house.”

At the time Ronnie wrote about, my mother had a brand new baby (my sister, Jackie, born October 22), a three-year-old (me), a four-year-old (my sister Jeanne) and a five-year-old (my sister Joyce).  From Ron’s story it appears that she wasn’t getting much help from my father, and there wasn’t enough money to buy a refrigerator or pay for heat.

“When we left,” Ron finished, “we took Jeanne with us.  I don’t remember if she stayed a few weeks or a few months.”

Cousin Ron’s story provided answers to questions that had remained unanswered all my life, but which had appeared in my writing all along.  Apparently, in an effort to help out my overwhelmed mother, Jeanne was taken to live with my aunt’s family.

My sister Joyce and I have always been best friends, even though she’s daughter #1 and I’m daughter #3.  We shut Jeanne, daughter #2, completely out.  I’ve always wondered why.  Now I know.  Jeanne left.  She went away for three weeks—or three months.  But during that period, Joyce and I bonded. My mother never acknowledged having sent Jeanne away, so we were unaware of what had happened when we were children.

When Jeanne returned, my family immediately left Virginia and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where we stayed while my father moved to his new station in the Philippines.

Within the period of a year, I had lost my sister, who “disappeared” and then “reappeared,” then moved from one home to another, and then lost my father, who “disappeared” and didn’t “reappear” for an entire year, at which point we moved to the Philippines to join him.

This is a fascinating story all by itself.  I can see how I might have ended up writing about abandoned and neglected children.  But there’s more.

In December 2013, Harlequin reissued a book I wrote in 2002 called Sisters Found.  Interesting title.  I’d previously written a book called The Substitute Groom in which the two heroines, twin girls, were named Hope and Faith. I was at a dinner meeting when a Harlequin sales rep asked, “So where’s Charity?”

I sat there stunned.  And realized suddenly, “There’s a Charity!”

It doesn’t take much psychology to figure out that I wrote The Substitute Groom about myself and Joyce, completely excluding Jeanne, even though the names I chose suggested there was a third child.

What I wrote in Sisters Found, eleven years before I learned the story of what happened to my sister Jeanne, is little short of astonishing.

In Sisters Found I wrote that Faith and Hope weren’t twins, they were two of a set of triplets.  Charity was given away when she was two years old because her parents couldn’t afford to care for three children.

Charity confronts her parents about why she was given away in this wrenching scene from Sisters Found.

         “Why me?” she demanded.  “How did you choose? I want to know.”

          Her mother and father exchanged a glance before her Book Sisters Foundfather turned to her and said, “Of course we kept Faith,    because we would always love her as she is [with a missing hand], when others might not. Hope was the troublemaker,   the one who howled with colic. You were the most beautiful      of our three lovely daughters.”

          “We’re triplets,” Charity countered. “We look exactly alike.”

          “You were the prettiest, with deep brown eyes that saw so much,” he continued.  “Such a perfect baby, always   laughing, always smiling.”

          “Newborns don’t laugh or smile.”

          Her parents exchanged a troubled glance, and she remembered what her father had told her.  She’d been two years old when they’d given her away.  Had spent two years being loved by them, held by them, a part of them.

          “We tried so hard to keep all three of you,” her father said.  “But it wasn’t possible.  We knew that whoever became your parents would have to love you, because you were such a good child, such a happy baby.  We gave up our most precious child.  The one most certain to be loved by strangers.”

I don’t know if I actually heard a conversation such as that as a three-year-old, but I will always wonder how much truth there is in it.

Most authors I know write some consistent theme.  Mary Balogh’s books feature terrible family rifts that are mended through loving the right man.  Susan Mallery also writes about relationships that mend families.  Sandra Brown’s characters all have conflicts with authority.  Debbie Macomber’s books focus on family and faith.

I didn’t consciously choose to write about abandoned children, but the subject has found its way into every book I’ve written.  If you haven’t already done it, you might want to take a closer look at your own novels and see what you find.

I’m working now on a new series of Bitter Creek novels, Sinful, Shameless, and Surrender, which just happen to feature women who’ve been physically abandoned by their mother and emotionally abandoned by their father.  Imagine that.

I don’t think I can consciously change what I write.  Nor do I want to.  The powerful emotions that end up on the pages of my books come from the wounded child inside.  My sister’s death, as sad as it is, has brought me solace and understanding.  I can’t wait to see what wonderful stories of healing and love find their way onto the pages of my books from now on.

Joan Johnston

Joan Johnston is the top ten New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of 56 novels and novellas with more than 15 million copies of her books in print.  Watch for the reprint of Outlaw’s Bride in mid-October and the second book in her King’s Brat series, Shameless, in stores December 29.  You can reach Joan through her website, www.joanjohnston.com or Facebook at www.facebook.com/joanjohnstonauthor.

WTF Was I Thinking? One Month until CO Gold

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

The Lady in PinkIn a few short days, August 18th to be precise, my tenth book, THE LADY IN PINK, will be released. Yes. 10 whole, big books. I can’t hardly believe it.

Don’t stop read!

I am not bragging nor am I trying to subliminally mind control you into buying it

*buy my book, buy my book, buy my book* Okay, maybe that time I was. Can’t blame an author for trying…

Anyway, my post has a much more important and relevant to you, I hope, point.

Though I’ve had 10 books published since 2010 when I sold my first series to Kensington at the CO Gold Conference, which, in case you missed it, is ONE MONTH AWAY as of today, I still feel that twisty, sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach at the thought of pitching to an editor.

Which I will be doing at this conference.

For the first time in over 3 years.

If anyone says it’s like riding a bike, they are LIARS.

Or maybe they aren’t. I was never any good at not falling off a bike either.

The very thought of having to tell someone about my book in 30 words of less or at all gives me the willies. Why can’t they just read it, love it, and pay me millions?

I plan (if she’s not full already) to pitch to Chelsey Emmelhainz, Associate Editor at HarperCollins. Now the question is, what to pitch? And how to do it? I need to stand out, to make her love me in the first 3 seconds (no pressure). Bribery is nice. Maybe she’d like a cookie? Or $5?

Maybe I shouldn’t pitch.

Maybe I shouldn’t even be a writer.

Yep, you are witnessing my nervous breakdown in blog post form.

Lucky you.

I hope I don’t throw up on her.

I should bring a vomit bag just in case.

If you didn’t get my point in all my neurotic rambling, it is this, no matter how many times or how many books someone has, they are writers at heart. Meaning they are half desperate, crazy and unsure with equal parts terrified of failure. Can’t forget sweaty. We are a sweaty people.

Oh, that’s just me, huh? Sure it is….

The key to surviving the next month as terror sets in at having to pitch, is to remember, Chelsey Emmelhainz probably won’t stab me in the eye with her pen. I think HarperColllins frowns on that. But maybe not.

So if you see me at the conference wearing an eye patch, well, you know what occurred at my pitch session. Same if you see her walking around with cookie crumbs on her shirt and me with a huge smile on my face. If I see you, please tell me all about how yours went. I love to hear practice pitches too. Sharing is caring after all.

Or share your pitch in the comments.

See you all in a month.

And remember--buy my book, buy my book, buy my book—to smile, shake the editor/agents hand, and give them all you’ve got.

 

Come stalk me on my shiny new website or on facebook, where I spend most of my writing time.

Query Letter Basics – Western Slope Recap by Samantha Ross

Query letters are a one page- yes, that is right, one page business letter that you are sending off to an editor, agent or publisher. It’s you and your story packaged up in one page, sent off to that coveted publisher, editor, or agent of your choice.

This is a brief overview of Angies Hodapp’ s presentation that she gave in July at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Western Slope event. The presentation that Angie gave is a shortened version of the class she teaches on this subject.

A query letter consists of:

- A personal greeting - one or two sentences

- The project summary - again short, one or two sentences

- Story synopsis - a few paragraphs that sums up all of the story

- Your biographical information

All on one page.

The first step is to finish your book, short story, poem, what ever it is. Make sure it is complete, critiqued, edited, and polished. If all of that is not done yet, you are not ready to send out a query letter. Just because your friends and family love it, does not mean it is polished. Several of them need to belong to a writers group, or are in the writing business. If not, find people who are. Get it reviewed before you say you are done.

Second step is research. Make sure you are sending the query to the right place. This is where research comes in. A common mistake is to send your query to everyone. Huge waste of time for you, looking up everyone and typing in all those addresses. And a waste of effort for the incorrect person who has to read it, and delete it. Make sure you are in the correct market. If the agent/editor/publisher only accepts memoirs of rodeo clowns, don’t send in your science fiction futuristic utopian poem to this person.

Third, and this one is important - follow the rules. Meaning the submission guidelines, those rules the publisher/agent/editor has set out there for you. These rules are online, and in books such as the yearly Writers Market. In the rules are great pieces of useful information such as genre(s)they accept, length of story, who to mail it to, how to mail it, what to mail, what happens after you send it, and many other things. Don’t deviate from the rules. That makes you a deviant, and no one wants to play with you.

Be professional.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Claiming you met the person, when you never have
  • “Dear Sir or Madam.” Find out who you are querying and make you sure spell the name correctly
  • Don’t do a page count, do a word count
  • Flattery of the person you are querying
  • Self depreciation
  • How hard you worked at this/how long it took you

Take a class on writing query letters if you have never written one before, or you feel overwhelmed, confused, or clueless.

Don’t forget the person on the other end of the query letter wants to hire you.

Editors/agents/publishers want to find you, and they want you to succeed. When you succeed, they do also. It’s a win-win situation.

“There is no such no thing as a perfect book, and no such thing as a perfect query letter.” Angie reminds us.

Finish it, follow the rules, be professional. Send it off.

 

Samantha Ross pictureSamantha Ross is a ghostwriter, freelance writer and editor. She lives on the Western Slope in Montrose, Colorado. For years she taught adults, organized lesson plans, developed curriculum, and encouraged everyone to be a success. One day she stumbled into her high school librarian who pointed her toward the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Now Samantha’s days are spent writing fiction and non fiction that covers a wide range of topics. If she’s not standing in front of her desk working, she’s spending time with her family and friends.

My Secret Battle With Writer’s Block

For the first twenty years I wrote fiction, I didn’t understand when people spoke of “writer’s block”. Of course there were times when I got stuck, and it took me a day or two to figure out where to go with a story. But usually, when I sat down to write, the words flowed. It was partly because of the way I wrote, snatching hours and minutes here and there from my hectic life. Writing was a pleasurable and gratifying experience, something I yearned to do, rather than a chore. But gradually the joy I found in writing began to diminish, until a few years ago, it stopped being something I sought out at every opportunity and became something I had to force myself to do.

Part of the change came from my dwindling hope for my writing career. For ten years I steadily sold books and had writing contracts and deadlines to motivate me. Even after my career stalled, for a long time I was able to convince myself that my latest work-in-progress was the one that was going to get me back in the game. By the time I finally realized that wasn’t going to happen, self-publishing had opened up new opportunities.

I excitedly began to re-release my backlist, and indie-published three manuscripts I’d finished but never been able to sell. But it soon became apparent that marketing my books to readers was going to be as difficult as finding a publisher. And marketing those books consumed more and more of the time I had available for writing. For an entire year, I didn’t write any new fiction. Instead, I edited and revised, proofread, wrote blurbs and blog posts. Finally, I said “enough”, vowed I was done with self-publishing, and decided to return to writing fiction. But it now seemed a lot more difficult.

I told myself I was “rusty” because I’d gone so long without working on new material. I’d broken my long-standing pattern of writing nearly every day and it was difficult to get back into it. I tried. I sat at the computer with my manuscript file on the screen and waited for the words to come. Some days I actually got through a few paragraphs before flipping the screen to the internet to answer email or do some on-line shopping, or check my sales figures on Amazon or Smashwords, anything to avoid writing.

When I did write, it was at a snail’s pace and a grim, grind-it-out process. I got stuck all the time. Even when I knew where I was going in the story, the words wouldn’t come. Or they came so slowly it was ridiculous. I went from regularly writing a chapter a week to a chapter a month and then less. I wondered if it was over.

Most of us have heard the ironic line about writing as an addiction: “You’d quit if you could.” Well, maybe I could. Maybe, having realized my dream of being published, and now realizing that the dream was over, I didn’t care anymore.

I told no one of my fears, my gnawing sense that I was no longer really a writer. Because, after all, “writers write”, and I wasn’t. At least not much. And yet, because I am driven and goal-oriented, I did manage to finish three books over the last three years. All of them were partially written before my “crisis of faith”, which made it easier. And my intuitive sense of plot and story, honed over the years, got me through the worst stretches. And I sold those books. To small presses that offered no advances, but still, they did the editing, formatting and cover art and helped with promotion. These books are probably not as good as my most inspired stories, but they’re decent books. I’ve gotten good reviews on them, especially from readers, which are the ones that really count these days.

So, yes, I can still do this. But what about the joy? a little nagging voice asks. What about the way the words used to flow? The way I used to be excited to sit down and “get to write”?

I’m afraid to talk about it much, for fear it will go away. (We artists are a superstitious bunch.) But I’m beginning to have those moments again. Those out-of-nowhere revelations about my story. That tingling thrill when the characters come to life and the story unfolds before my eyes. I’m starting to have days when I sit down to write, and what seems like a short while later, I realize an hour or two has gone by. I’m no longer making myself write. Instead my story is calling to me, tantalizing and seductive.

Maybe I was right after all. Maybe writer’s block isn’t real. It possible it’s nothing more than a loss of faith. In yourself. In the words. In the process. Maybe the creative process really is magic, and all you have to do is believe.

For more tales of struggle and how various authors get through the rough spots, join me and authors Jeff Seymour, Julie Kazimer, Bonnie Ramthun and Shannon Baker for our panel at the Colorado Gold Conference entitled Failure and Self-doubt, the Silent Battle.

ONE OF THESE THINGS JUST DOESN’T BELONG HERE…

My ruminations today are on the delicate balance between presenting our readers with something they want to read vs. challenging them to read something that is uncomfortable and even Clasicsunpleasant but that might stick with them a little longer. It starts with the photo I've included with this post. While browsing blogs and online news articles about books and literature I came across the ad you see at right, and it struck me as blasphemy that Fifty Shades of Grey should be listed among such classics as Catcher in The Rye, of all things. It is outrageous that a book that, by all accounts, is barely more than poorly written Internet porn should find itself on a shelf, albeit an imaginary online shelf, with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Now, being an expert on web design and development I know ads such as these are rarely put together by humans any more. These days there are algorithms smart enough to detect the topic of the article or blog being read and assemble ads automatically that are aimed to draw the attention of a reader with similar interests. It is more likely that this ad was put together by what is called an ad-bot (short for advertisement robot) based on the content of the article I was already reading than by a human being. He doesn't know any better, all he knows is the criteria around which his algorithm was written. Which made me wonder what that criteria might be, that would list a universally panned piece of populist tripe amongst such literary gems. Artificial intelligence is still decades away from being able to program value judgments into computers, so it had to be some mathematically quantifiable metrics on which the ad-bot made the choice to include those particular books in this particular ad.

This got me asking what these books had in common. Emotionally I wanted to reject the notion the Shades could have anything in common with the other three. But I looked at them objectively. Since the article I was reading made reference to Atlas Shrugged, it made sense that it was this book which seeded the initial algorithm, which them searched for other books in common with Shrugged. For one thing, all four books are listed on most retail book sites as General Fiction. I would've though Shades would be Romance, but I looked and before Erotica it is listed on most sites as General. Next, each of these books had a profound impact on our culture when released. Again, a bot cannot make a value distinction as to whether that impact was good or bad, only that there was indeed a measurable sea change as a result of the release of each of these novels. For better or worse, each book was destined to go down in history as a classic, if by no other definition than that it impacted society in some significant way.

This got me to thinking about the books I've read that I enjoyed, and those I did not. Oddly enough, I found that there was a much greater number than I wanted to admit that I found uncomfortable or unpleasant to read but that stuck with me, that I could not shake. These were not necessarily badly written books, in fact most were quite well written, but books that forced me to confront things I usually avoid, or made me see things in ways that made me uncomfortable, or even changed my outlook on life against my will. Books like, for example, The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, a very dark look at attraction and rejection that includes the most detailed POV description of a suicide I ever read; or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess in which a young man's love of Beethoven is stripped away from him as a casualty of an experimental behavioral modification procedure (read torture); or Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs which I'm still not entirely sure I understood but that contained some of the most disturbing images I've ever read.

What surprises me is, arguably, these books that I profess to dislike have impacted my life to a greater degree than any book I read that I liked. I say arguably because there are some neck and neck.

And that brought me to an assessment of my own writing. Even as a small boy I aspired to write books that people don't just enjoy, but that they cherish and want to keep in their libraries to read again and again. I still go back and read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, The Hobbit, and Dune. And you can have my original hardcover copies of the Harry Potter series when you pry them from my cold dead fingers!

But I ask myself, is it better, for my own immortality, to have written a series of dearly beloved books, or to have instead left a legacy of disturbing, uncomfortable, haunt-you-in-your-sleep books that nevertheless impact people in a significant and long enduring way? I waffle on this occasionally. I still have no answer, except that in the end I write whatever I write the best way that I know how, leaving it all on the court, so to speak, and let others decide where my legacy falls. If you, dear reader, have an opinion on the matter, I'd love to read it in comments, below.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

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The Game of Writing by Guest Kara Seal

So you successfully defeated the boss on level three and achieved a high score. You think to yourself, “that wasn’t so hard, this game is easy.” Level four is a little more demanding, but thanks to your well-honed skills, the dungeon is soon in sights and victory is inevitable! Only this boss has moves you’ve never seen before, and after three hits it’s game over. Sometimes, this is it how it feels starting a new writing project, except the game’s not over unless you give up.

There are several ways to write a book, and every writer has their own process. But what happens when your tried and true method fails? What worked for one book might not work for the next. To date, I’ve completed four manuscripts, all of which were written chronologically and all of which I employed the “edit as you go” approach. The method was golden. Or so I thought. Enter current project, which after four false starts still didn’t feel right. Things weren’t clicking. This story refused to let me write it in the way I thought was MY process. Somehow my book decided it wanted to be written out of order and without much fixing before moving on to the next scene or chapter. When I lamented my trouble, several writer friends expressed similar frustrations. Just as no two writers create in the same way, every book is a different game.

If, like me, you find yourself reinventing your process, how do you know if you’re doing it right? After fighting this story for months with very little progress, I realized I needed to stop resisting and listen to my characters. I needed to go where the story took me. Like real people, characters aren’t cookie-cutter creations, so why should I expect the telling of their stories to be a uniform process? This isn’t to say that your method SHOULD change from book to book; some of us are creatures of habit, and if the shoe fits, wear it. But for those of us who thrive on variation, we might find the need to adapt our process with each new idea.

The bottom line is writing is hard no matter how you go about it. The key is to keep putting words on the page and keep improving your craft. And remember, the game isn’t over until you give up, so press start to continue and play again.

 

Kara SealKara Seal holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Colorado State University. By day, she's a Programming Assistant at a public library district. By night, she's a writer of young adult and middle grade fiction, and an active member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and Pikes Peak Writers. Kara was a finalist in the 2013 Colorado Gold writing contest. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two high energy dogs.

Attitude

Another note-to-self in the form of a blog …

I’ll cut to the chase: what we do is a choice.

We put ourselves in this situation—“forced” to think about stories and characters and plots and craft.

The burden of it all; the agony!

The tortured artist at work--just look. Over there in the corner, writhing in pain. He's squirming in the corner in sheer horror, drowning in his own drool, recoiling at the thought of having to pound out one more precious sentence.

Sheesh, really?

Did you listen to the recent RMFW podcast with Aaron Michael Ritchey? If you need a lift, check it out. You’ll hear a guy who a) produces at an impressive rate (he’s currently working on a six-book series, under contract) and b) embraces the work.

On the podcast, Ritchey recalls a key moment when he was complaining to fellow writer (and RMFW Colorado Gold Writing Contest chair) Chris Devlin about writing. And Devlin apparently told Ritchey how much she enjoyed it all, getting lost in her worlds and her characters.

That changed everything.

Ritchey decided then and there he didn’t want Devlin’s pity. “I forced myself to love writing,” he recalled.

Ritchey’s enthusiasm is infectious. I’m not saying you can wrap yourself in a cloak of enthusiasm and the books will come flying out, but starting with an upbeat thought or two about the writing day certainly couldn’t hurt.

A few days ago, I listened to Meg Wolitzer deliver a stand-up, no-notes story on “The Moth." (Yes, another podcast.) Wolitzer's storytelling style was so natural, unforced, easy-going (and funny) that I’ve got to dive into her novels. (Like my pile of books isn't tall enough.)

And this particular story, “Summer Camp,” concluded with a message similar to Ritchey’s: “The world is always trying to tell you what you’re not,” concludes Wolitzer. “And it’s up to you to say what you are,”

Funny, isn't it? How some times you run into the same message twice within the same couple of days.

Must be true.

 

Tone Up Your Setting – Western Slope Recap by Guest Samantha Ross

By Samantha Ross

Our characters come to life through their attitudes, perceptions, personality, their point of view of themselves, and the their world. The reader knows this is a person. The reader is on this journey with them.

Setting should reach out and grab the reader, pulling them into the moment. It’s just as important as character. They need to know this place you have transported them into. It needs to be lived, experienced.

How do we, the author, the storytellers, do this?

We go to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Events. In July, at the RMFW Western Slope, Warren Hammond presented “Setting - Set the Tone with Mood and Atmosphere.”

Setting can be similar to the story, such as a horror story in a horrible place. Or you can contrast the story by placing your horror story in a beautiful place. Choose your setting, and the descriptions that will enhance the story the most. The key is that it needs to be vivid. It has to grab the reader in the gut, in the heart, in the soul deep places. Sounds complicated? Take it piece by piece. All those pieces make it a whole.

Lets start with location. Location can be anywhere. Outer space, an alternate world, Africa, Texas, made up places, Russia, Ireland, a mansion, a trailer park, the Mississippi, a bedroom, a tree house, the roof - the list is endless.

When is it? Past, present or future? Is it world war one or fifteen? Han Dynasty, Middle ages, 1960’s? What time - day, night, morning, nap time? Remember this world needs to be in proportion to your story. Characters without advanced technology are not going to say to each other “Meet me here at exactly one twelve this afternoon.” A letter on horseback takes a different amount of time to get there than modern day snail mail.

Is it raining, snowing, blizzard like, sunny, inside with an air conditioner on or a tiny little fan going? Fire blazing trying to beat back the cold, or cozy? All are very different atmospheres. And moods.

Mood, and atmosphere go hand in hand. Is the place desperate, upbeat, decietful, creepy, hopeful? Remember to show, don’t tell. If you have to use the word creepy, you’re telling. Show us what makes it creepy. Mood and atmosphere have to enhance the story.

Use all five senses. Smell, taste, touch, sound, sight. Is the air foul or fresh? When you breathe it in can you taste it on your tongue? Are the vibrations of the car or spaceship making your teeth clench? Is the horse or dragon breathing hard underneath you? Are you moving so fast everything is a blur, or can you see the pollen blow off in the breeze?

Your character needs to view this all through their perspective. If your character hates living in the city, her world, and circumstances may be ugly, and cruel to her. If she loves the excitement, a different world altogether. A story about building a new football field on foreclosed land will view the stalks of wheat growing on that property as something to be cut down, and controlled. The story about losing the family farm will view that wheat stalk another way. If that location holds an ancient buried evil, the stalk of wheat may be mutated, or simple part of an idyllic small town. Same location, same time, but all very different tones, which will set the mood and atmosphere, drawing your reader in.

The word choice you use will affect the tone also. Are your words luscious or stark? Gritty or wondrous? Everyone has their own style of writing. And every story has its own style. The goal is to take the reader there, make them forget about the chair they are lounging in.

Setting is a mix of the place, the time, the conditions, the vibes, the senses that draws the reader into the story. It’s a creation as powerful as character is. They both reflect and effect each other.

 

Samantha Ross pictureSamantha Ross is a ghostwriter, freelance writer and editor. She lives on the Western Slope in Montrose, Colorado. For years she taught adults, organized lesson plans, developed curriculum, and encouraged everyone to be a success. One day she stumbled into her high school librarian who pointed her toward the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Now Samantha’s days are spent writing fiction and non fiction that covers a wide range of topics. If she’s not standing in front of her desk working, she’s spending time with her family and friends.

Rigors of Research … by Katriena Knights

Knights_SummoningSebastianOne of the great things about writing is that you can use it as an excuse to research almost anything. String theory, exoplanets, the Alaskan bush, ancient Sumerian literature, conspiracy theories—you name it, it’s story fodder. In fact, I’ve been known to tweak a story plot specifically to give me a reason to read up on something I’ve found that looks interesting.

Sometimes I might take it a little too far… But heck, that’s part of the fun, right?

In my new book, due out August 5th, I researched something that’s interested me for a long time—the Tunguska event that occurred in Siberia in 1908. I first heard about it on The X-Files (I’ve learned a lot of things from The X-Files); in fact there’s an episode called “Tunguska.” (It’s part one of a two-part mythology arc sequence—“Tunguska” and “Terma,” but I digress.) In that show, the mysterious explosion is blamed on aliens (because of course it is), but in my book I’ve come up with a different explanation.

Interest in Tunguska has come into popular culture again since the 2013 meteor flyby in Chelyabinsk, also in Siberia. That gets into the story, too, although not in terms of mystical origins.

This all sounded pretty cool when I came up with it. Then I started writing the story and realized how much research I had to do. My characters spend time in Chelyabinsk, then go to Vanavara, which the nearest small town to Tunguska. In the process, I ended up researching the layout of Moscow’s main international airport, including reading Russian maps that showed where to find the Burger King as well as menu items from a couple of airport restaurants (including one where you can get a baked potato with crab on it). So the time I’ve spent learning Russian—which came about partially due to another book, which has a Russian protagonist—paid off for that one. Otherwise it might have been tricky to figure out what was on those potatoes, because Google Translate, while an awesome innovation, isn’t always the most accurate.

I spent a lot of time on YouTube, too, watching video tours of Chelyabinsk and Vanavara, and then on Google Street View, taking a tour of a pedestrian mall in downtown Chelyabinsk. All the time, I was thinking not only that it was a hell of a lot of fun, but that it’s amazing the kind of access we have these days to details we previously could only get by spending time in the places we want to write about.

That’s not to say everything in Summoning Sebastian is a hundred percent accurate. I’m sure I made mistakes. But I did the best I could, and I enjoyed writing the book. And, best of all, I was able to travel to Siberia without having to deal with the bugs.

Summoning Sebastian is currently available for pre-order from Samhain Publishing at a reduced pre-order price.

Stop by my blog for news on upcoming books and other ramblings, and follow me on Twitter.

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem when she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinios, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children. Visit her at her website or her blog.

Trust is Earned in the Details … by Tracy Brisendine

Tracy BrisendineI have a confession, but it’s not that juicy of one. I won’t be sharing any of those until the statute of limitations expires. But…I have anger issues.

I have thrown books, slammed the cover shut on my Kindle, and cussed so profusely that it alarmed the dog. I once boycotted an entire genre for over a year because I was so fed up.

So what makes me so frustrated and angry? Authors who don’t research or only do it half-way.

Nothing ruins my trust as a reader faster than a faulty action scene, inaccurate firearm portrayal, careless crime scene processing, or shoddy police procedure (unless your character is a dirty cop then by means cut those corners, plant evidence, and line their pockets with the bank heist money).

I’ll admit I’m far more critical than the average reader when it comes to crime and police-related stuff. Yes, I too have watched my fair share of NYPD Blue, Dexter, and CSI. But I have also worked as a street cop, processed crime scenes, attended autopsies, and gone to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations’ Crime Scene Approach and Investigation School.

Obviously I’m not an expert on every topic that appears in my writing, but I learn enough so that I can realistically tell my story. And I expect other writers to do the same.

As authors, we have to know enough to get our readers to buy into what we’re telling them. It’s about trust, and trust is earned in the details. Every time I pick up a book, I trust the author to hook me, keep me interested and entertained throughout, and not leave me feeling gypped when I reach the final line. Readers have to trust that we’ve taken the time to learn about our subject matter. If they utterly trust us, they will be fully sucked into our story, and we will have earned a fan. They’ll stick with us, and repeat business helps keep the lights on.

So how do you learn, especially if it’s police procedure, criminal law, uncovering dead bodies, and processing crime scenes? I’d highly recommend a ride along with your local police agency. Most departments have instructions and the requirements on how to set up one online. Another thing to do is read. Read the law (the Colorado Revised Statutes are available online through Lexis Nexus). Read non-fictional texts and text books, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service has thousands of downloadable PDFs available ranging from drugs and the justice system to processing a death scene.

Brisendine_Colorado Gold 2015I also just so happen to be teaching a class at Colorado Gold. How convenient is that? This particular class, Homicide for Writers Not Criminals, will be focusing on well, you guessed it, homicide. It’ll be a nitty-gritty and graphic look at the basic characteristics of gunshot wounds, stabbings, and blunt force trauma. But before I dive into the gore, I’ll be talking statistics, motives, and scene investigation.

The first time I taught this class it gave one guy nightmares and made two other attendees ill. So for those of you not interested in looking at a ton of pictures of bloody injuries, violence, and death…I’d skip the second hour. It might save your lunch. And I promise I won’t think less of you. Not everyone loves this stuff as much as I do.

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Vernon Geberth of the New York City Police Department once said, “Death investigation constitutes a heavy responsibility, and as such, let no person deter you from the truth and your personal commitment to see justice done.” He was speaking to law enforcement personnel, but it could apply to any character (fictional or otherwise) involved in the solving of a crime. Death and the bodies it leaves in its wake lead people to want the truth, and as authors we have the ability to make it a colorful, exciting, and satisfying.

As the schedule current stands, I’ll be teaching Friday at 1 pm. I hope to see all of you at Colorado Gold! If you can’t catch my class but have a question you think I might be able to answer message me on Facebook or Twitter. I love talking about this stuff. :)

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Tracy Brisendine’s invisible pet dinosaur landed her in the principal's office in second grade, and it was downhill from there. To protect her mental health, she allows some of her ideas to bleed out onto the page. Her short story Ghostly Attraction appeared in RMFW’s 2014 Anthology, Crossing Colfax. When Tracy isn’t battling demons of deviance, she lives happily in Denver with her husband and snaggle tooth dog. She has seven years of experience working in law enforcement and a degree in criminal justice from Colorado State University.