Tag Archives: guest blogger

Mario Acevedo Shares Some of His Favorite Authors

By Mario Acevedo

A recent questionnaire on Facebook asked to list fifteen authors that influenced you personally. I jotted down some names, then as I thought about it, kept revising the list. After I had posted the list I realized I had overlooked one of the authors. So I’ll start this edited list with him.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange. The hoopla about Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation is what drew me to this novel, I was in high school at the time. I bought my copy from the rack at the local Quick Check (really, there was a time when you could buy literary novels at the convenience store). I devoured everything about the story including the Nadsat glossary. I was hooked by the narrative’s subversive, violent tone. This was not a “feel-good” read. When my best friend and I saw the movie, we followed the screenplay with the same reverence as Twilight fans tracking the exploits of Edward and Bella. We geeked out so much that we wore Clockwork Orange costumes (this was in the primordial days of fan-cons and nobody wore costumes except on Halloween). I even made a bloody eyeball cufflinks. However, Burgess was horrified by the mass-appeal of the book and the movie (the infamous gang-rape scene was based on what happened to his wife when American soldiers broke into their home), and he wrote an opera to lampoon his own creation. And I’ve seen this musical adaptation, performed in Austin, TX, with women playing the gangsters.

Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade. I ran across this book during my “What good does Christianity do?” period in my life in the aftermath of a family murder-suicide. Having grown up in a Southern Baptist fundamentalist environment, for most of my life I had been reading the Bible as the “Great Book of Wisdom,” but it never made much sense to me. Then I came across The Chalice and the Blade and Eisler’s arguments opened my eyes that the Bible was a book of fiction, mostly, and written to serve a political agenda.

Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird. I found this book on the shelf of my uncle’s home when I was on leave from the army. The story is an orphan’s wandering through Eastern Europe during World War Two. As a history buff I could easily put the hapless boy’s ordeals in context, and that’s what made it so chilling. This is only of two books that I’ve read that were so horrific I had to put them aside to process the brutality. In contrast, the violence in A Clockwork Orange struck me as theatrical and lacking in empathy for the victims.

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I learned about this book from the most unlikeliest of sources, an after-school Warner Brothers cartoon. Bugs Bunny warded off a pack of dogs by showing them the book and they ran over the Brooklyn Bridge in search of said tree. Was there such a book? There was, and I checked it out of the public library. The novel was published in 1943 to much acclaim and success. It’s the coming-of-age-story of Francine who overcomes her family’s impoverished circumstances. The book was an enlightening detour from my usual fare of military history. Though I enjoyed the story it was the first time that my internal literary critic was activated. I thought the last chapters had rushed through the girl’s life and as a reader, I felt cheated.

Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain. I’m not a Crichton fan but I have to give him his due with this book. My dad used to buy the bestsellers when they were released in mass-market paperback. My memories were of him crashing on the couch during the weekend and churning through the pages. Because of his example I didn’t spend any time with the “classics” but with John D. MacDonald, Leon Uris, Frederick Forsyth, James Clavell, Trevanian, and of course, Michael Crichton. When I read The Andromeda Strain I was twelve years old and in hindsight, not a very sophisticated reader. So it pains me when today people get so worried about what kids read and get exposed to. Even I was able to tell fact from fiction. My dad finished this book late on Saturday afternoon and so I started early Sunday morning. I was so mesmerized by the tale that I faked feeling sick so I could skip church to finish the story. When I put the book down, I was amazed that the narrative had put me in a trance, oblivious to the actual world. Such is the power of a good story.

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AcevedoMario3x4Mario Acevedo writes the best-selling Felix Gomez detective-vampire series for HarperCollins. Mario’s debut novel, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats, was chosen by Barnes & Noble as one of the best Paranormal Fantasy Novels of the Decade. His short fiction is included in the anthologies, You Don’t Have A Clue: Latino Mystery Stories for Teens and Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery from Arte Publico Press, and in Exquisite Corpse and Modern Drunkard Magazine. He was a finalist in the Colorado Book Awards and the International Latino Book Awards. Mario lives and writes in Denver, CO.

Find Your Weirdness

By Julie Luek

Julie Luek1I’m almost fifty. There it is in black and white, a milestone in my life. My kids, 23 and 18, are flying the coop this year, out into the world to pursue their passions. My daughter, bless her heart, has inherited my creative passions and will pursue her love of music. She’s not choosing an easy road, nor one that will automatically lead to a steady job and income. I won’t discourage her though. I remember being her age, wanting to pursue English as a major, and my engineer father strongly suggesting (with his financial support) I pursue something more “sensible”. It turns out there’s nothing practical in studying a subject you have no love for.

Life ended up all right though. I got the MA that helped me land a satisfying job in higher education. I found it challenging and fulfilling for over 20 years until the day, three years ago, when I didn’t. At some point you realize you can’t fight your passion and no longer want to. Time is short. Three years ago I did the unpractical and walked away from a good career to pursue this writing gig.

I’m glad to say I haven’t looked back. It hasn’t been easy, and although I’ve had small successes, it’s not like the world of publishing has opened its arms to me in a warm and grateful embrace. Publishing is a fickle lover. Like most of you, I have to work hard and snuggle up to a lot of rejection to get my writing out there.

Luek_pathposteraAlong the way, I’ve also had to define who I am as a writer and what I want to write. It’s been a journey of self-discovery. I began by trying to write short stories. Baby steps, like little stories to prompts on Writer’s Digest. I entered a few contests and, eventually, even wrote a full-length, fiction manuscript. (It was pretty awful, by the way.) I also read a lot… a lot… of books, on story development, plot development, saving cats, the writing life, and how to put fire in my fiction. The more I read, the more I wrote (some really bad stuff), the more I realized I didn’t want to write fiction. But writers write novels. We all know that.

It took me three years to get it through in my thick head and probably thicker ego, that my first love is reading nonfiction and it follows, my true passion is writing nonfiction. It’s satisfying for me to see my articles in magazines, my essays on international writing sites like She Writes, and even an essay in Chicken Soup for The Soul. It’s like coming home.

The other day I read this quote by Annie Dillard:

Read for pleasure. If you like Tolstoy, read Tolstoy; if you like Dostoevsky, read Dostoevsky. Push it a little, but don’t read something totally alien to your nature and then say, “I’ll never be able to write like that.” Of course you won’t. Read books you’d like to write. If you want to write literature, read literature. Write books you’d like to read. Follow your own weirdness.

This is why I made the decision to try other supportive organizations for nonfiction, outside of RMFW. (Although thank goodness the friends I made here haven’t abandoned me!) It’s why I play around with writing styles and topics on my blog Julie Luek, and it’s why I keep sending pithy little ditties off to the Chicken Soup folks. I’ve even finally worked up the courage to test the waters on a book idea again; this time, of course, a nonfiction manuscript.

Like Ms. Dillard says, I have to follow my own weirdness. What’s yours?

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Julie Luek is a writer, living in the mountains of Colorado, published in numerous regional and national magazines, Chicken Soup For The Soul, and a regular contributor to the sites She Writes and Joyful Home and Life. She authors two blogs, Julie Luek and A Thought Grows. As an observer and participator in her own life, she continually rediscovers her purpose, learns to let go and not take herself too seriously. Julie believes if we generously share our stories and hearts we can all learn, laugh, and grow together.

Stay with the FLOW

By D A Gordon

Ann GordonDuring the last twelve months I have edited, critiqued and judged a bunch of stories. This is partly due to the fact that I belong to five writing groups and I’m a contest judge. Because I’m a semi-retired English teacher and technical writer, I tend to scan for grammatical errors when I first look at a page.

But this year I’ve started looking for something else as I critique fiction: Flow.

What Flow Does for Us

When our sentences and paragraphs flow, readers find it enjoyable to keep reading; they’ll turn page after page because the mental and emotional flow makes comprehension effortless – the words easily flow through mind, the characters come alive, and we don’t want to put the book down. When the story flows, we continue to read with little concept of passing time.

Gordon_Christmas-Meadows-Utah_smallIt doesn’t take non-stop action to keep the audience reading. What helps satisfy the reader is when the action, dialog, and narration flow uninterrupted, like a valley stream with no dams or boulders.

Misplaced Backstory

The other day I reviewed five chapters of an unpublished novel for a friend. She had a good plot and an interesting protagonist. But she had a bad habit of adding a sentence or two of backstory the minute any character came on the scene instead of waiting for a better time. This completely stopped the flow and left me thinking, Now, what?

For instance, some good guys were running toward the fort to get away from the monsters. During this pursuit the stakes were high and everyone was breathing hard, scared witless and running fast to reach safety before being torn limb from limb. When a soldier in the fort saw them coming, he opened the gate to let them in and should have just as quickly closed the gate afterwards while everyone caught their breath and said, Thanks George, you saved our lives.

But sadly, no. As soon as the attentive soldier opened the gate, the author stopped us in mid action to explain who the solder was, including his place at the fort and his relationship with the people running for their lives.

Because I was caught up in the action sequence, this interruption stopped me cold. At that moment I didn’t care about the soldier’s relationship to the frightened people or to the fort; I just wanted the action to keep going until it reached a logical conclusion. Then later, maybe over dinner, I could learn who the guy was and why he mattered.

Reading Can Be Hard Work

Good fiction has a rhythm that readers can feel, and they’ll want to keep reading in order to keep that feeling. But when the reader starts having trouble following the sequence of events and has to back track several lines or paragraphs to pick up the trail again, this is a sign the flow has stopped.

This can be bad news for the author because the reader may decide it’s time to get a soda and not return.

Breaking the flow isn’t the same as surprising your reader with a piano falling from the sky. Surprise is good. But incongruent activities or discordant dialog frustrate the reader because it breaks up the flow.

Flow stoppers make the story more difficult to stay with, and instead of being easy and enjoyable, reading becomes hard work.

Checking the Flow

A great way to check the flow of your writing is to have someone else read it, someone who is also a writer or at least a prolific reader. That’s where writing groups with critique sessions are mighty handy.

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Ann Gordon a writer and editor who lives in Moab, Utah. She’s a chapter president with the League of Utah Writers. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Writing and Juggling

By Kristi Helvig

Kristi HelvigIn light of the upcoming launch for my sci-fi debut, BURN OUT, someone asked me in an interview about how I managed to balance my work as a psychologist, my writing obligations, and parenting two young children. I laughed because ‘balanced’ is the last word I’d use to describe myself right now. Coinciding with my book launch is the due date for edits on Book 2. In the midst of said edits and book launch is my youngest child’s birthday. To give you an idea of how crazed I’ve been, when I asked what she wanted for her birthday, she said, “For you to stay off your computer the whole day.” (Cue massive maternal guilt).

Under these two deadlines, I’ve turned from the super-involved parent who takes their kids to parks and musuems to the one who mutters “yeah, sure” when they call out from the other room asking if they can take a knife, scissors, and crazy-glue upstairs for ‘a project.’ After several days spent editing on the couch in sweatpants last week, my husband almost burst into song when I announced I was going to shower. Okay, he actually did burst into song, and that song was “Hallelujah.” I wish I was kidding.

As writers, we’re always juggling. Whether it’s time spent promoting vs. writing, day job vs. writing, laundry vs. writing, etc., it’s hard to hit that sweet spot where we feel balanced. Though I have no magic answers for this, the following things have helped me along the way.

Helvig_BURN OUT Cover1)  Prioritize the tasks at hand. My motto: deadlines and family first, everything else where it fits. I still make time to walk the dog, volunteer in the kids’ classrooms, and do yoga because those things matter to me—plus yoga helps to offset the vast quantities of chocolate I eat while editing. Sadly, laundry hasn’t seemed to fit anywhere lately. I was going to include a picture of the current state of our laundry basket, or rather the mountain of clothes that ate our basket, but it’s just too embarrassing. Even with writing related tasks, I’m a firm believer in old-school ‘to-do’ lists and arrange things by dates of importance. There is something satisfying about crossing things off of lists.

2)  Enlist help. My family has fair warning when I’m entering the Deadline Zone—just like the Twilight Zone but without the cool background music. My awesomely supportive hubby will take the kids out for outings so I can have quiet writing time, and make dinners, etc. Then we’ll switch when he’s under a time crunch. My oldest is slowly taking on some household chores, though even he doesn’t see the appeal of laundry. Even when it’s not a matter of deadlines, there is always some sort of chaos in the schedule, so it’s important to have a plan in place to manage it. Juggling is easiest when there are more hands to handle the balls.

3) Schedule non-juggling time. Even if it’s just an afternoon at the movies with a friend or a weekend away in the mountains with family, it’s so important to take time away from the insanity. It makes all the times when you are juggling more bearable.

In the end, I think it’s impossible to be perfectly balanced all of the time. If you know otherwise, please tell me your secret! I’ve come to accept that there will be times, like now, where I’m barely hanging on, and that’s okay. Things seem to go in cycles and there’s comfort in the knowledge that in a few weeks time, I’m going to be a showering and laundry machine. Unless someone wants to come do my laundry—I’m totally open to that.

What are your tips for maintaining balance in your life? Anyone else’s laundry basket qualify as a Colorado Fourteener?

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Kristi Helvig is a Ph.D. clinical psychologist turned sci-fi/fantasy author. She muses about Star Trek, space monkeys, and other assorted topics at her website. Kristi resides in sunny Colorado with her hubby, two kiddos, and behaviorally-challenged dogs. Follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook. Her publisher, Egmont USA, is giving away 5 finished copies of BURN OUT on Goodreads through April 17th.

Don’t Listen to Mr. Scrooge

By Lucinda Stein

Lucinda SteinHistory. Research. “Bah, humbug!” some might say. But as an author, I’ve found writing historical fiction brings surprising benefits.

A writer needs a good understanding of the time period, including clothing and hairstyles, transportation, customs, lifestyles, political and social trends, architecture, etc. Whew! Research takes time and effort. But like writing a book, take it one day at a time, bit by bit. The good news? Ideas for characters and scenes will constantly spring to life.

I’m currently working on a rough draft for a novel set in Depression-era Oklahoma. There’s a wealth of information available on this time period. But I need information specific to a particular state. Writers can access state historical society websites rich in old photos, documents, and researched articles. Many states also maintain online digital historical newspapers.

My protagonist is a Comanche woman, so I need to explore the unique aspect of a Native American living during this time. While searching online for the tribal website, I serendipitously came across haunting photographs of abandoned three-story buildings. Turned out it was a boarding school dating back to 1883 with students in attendance for over a century. Bingo! I “enrolled” my protagonist in the school. Added bonus—the website referred readers to a nonfiction book published by the University of Nebraska.

This leads me to the subject of resources. As a retired librarian, I like to use primary sources of information for authenticity and a definite sense of the time period. I purchased the aforementioned book and discovered it included interviews with former students. What a wealth of ideas for the chapters in which my protagonist attends the school. I also located a biography about a Native American man from Oklahoma. I wanted the book for two reasons—it was the same time period that takes place in my novel, and it included the man’s experiences growing up on an Oklahoma farm, something I had decided would be my book’s initial setting.

Stein_Tattered CoversI also found a historical novel set in Oklahoma during the Depression. Why use fiction to write fiction? This resource was valuable since the novel was written by a reputable author who knows the state well. The author is a university professor from Oklahoma whose family dates back to this time period. I took special note of the natural landscape described in the book and paid close attention to references on life during the Depression. Of course, this book is only one of many resources used to gather information.

In the beginning, I create several lists for information I’ll need in my story. As I continue to research, I add new details to my digital file. For example, I have a list for Prohibition. One list includes native plants of Oklahoma. Another list contains specifics about the Depression such as shanty towns, hopping trains, and the plight of the homeless.

I also create a timeline for my story. It’s important to know what was going on in the country and even the world during that time. Noteworthy items are included in my timeline. In the process of writing my rough draft, I frequently refer to my timeline for additional ideas for new scenes and plot points.

In writing fiction, the writer enjoys exploration of his/her protagonist and the challenge of navigating through a plot. On top of that, the creator of historical fiction weaves history into the dramatic life of a believable character. As in reading any well-written novel, the reader learns new things along the way, so it is as a writer of historical fiction. I come away with a new perspective on history—just as I hope my readers will.

Sometimes I feel my research practically writes the novel for me. In reality, it’s more like continual brainstorming. For example, I discovered popular bands of the era and—voilà—a scene with a speakeasy hidden at the rear of a building came to life. Another illustration of research inspiring story ideas: During the Depression, movies proved a popular diversion from difficult times. One movie of this era was Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. I created a scene in which I compare crude surgical practices for tuberculosis patients to Dr. Frankenstein’s bizarre experiments. Amazing where research will lead you. Even Bonnie Parker (as in Bonnie and Clyde) makes a brief debut in my novel. Who said historical fiction can’t be fun?

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Lucinda Stein lives on the Western Slope of Colorado with her husband and her shelter-rescue dog, Opie. Her novel, Three Threads Woven, was a 2010 WILLA Finalist and her short story, Sulfur Springs, won the 2011 LAURA Short Fiction Award judged by Pam Houston. Her short stories have appeared in Fine Lines, The South Dakota Review, and Women Writing the West online. Her recent novel, Tattered Covers, is a mix of contemporary and historical fiction.

Enter to win a free copy of Tattered Covers. Place “free copy” in the subject field of your email and send to: lucinda (at) lucindastein (dot) com.

The Secret to Scoring a Tradtional Book Contract

By Shannon Baker

IMG_westernslopeI’ve got a new book coming out! This has been a dream of mine for a very long time. In fact, if the first novel I completed had been a baby, it would be able to drink in any state of the union now. If you’re here on the RMFW blog, it’s a pretty good bet you’ve got this dream, too.

This message is for everyone struggling to land a traditional publishing contract. I do know the world has turned and this isn’t the only road to publishing. I’m dabbling in indie publishing, too, which is a story for another day.

Congratulations! You’ve come to the right place and you’re doing exactly what you should be doing—along with writing every day. (Okay, I know successful writers who don’t actually write every day. But unless you know you are special, I’d recommend “touching the ball” every day.)

That other thing you should be doing? Getting informed and involved. You’re here reading about writing, learning what’s new, what people are publishing and reading, who the publishers are. That’s good. You need to understand your market and how it works. While remaining isolated and researching publishing might work for some people, I don’t think it’s enough for most of us.

There is no substitute for good writing and you must study your craft and practice it. I highly recommend peer critique. (Again, I know bestsellers—CJ Box, Joseph Finder—who never had critique partners. But most of us are regular folk and need help from our friends.)

There is something else you can do to get more involved. In my case this made a huge difference in my road to publication.

Volunteer.

Yeah, I know how it goes. We’re all busy. If you volunteer it takes time away from writing and improving your craft. That’s all very true.

Baker_Broken TrustI remember sitting at my first RMFW Colorado Gold conference watching this boisterous, supportive group of writers who had known each other for years. Most of them were published. One of the speakers gave full credit for her success to RMFW and pointed to a table of published writers, all of whom were volunteers in some aspect of RMFW. Every one of them.

But I lived in Nebraska. How could I volunteer from out of state? (Remember, this is before everything was online.) I kept returning and meeting more people every year but still felt like an outsider, shy and afraid to join in. Then my chance came. Someone suggested I volunteer to run the agent/editor pitch appointments. It was something I could do long distance. I jumped at the chance. The first year was a disaster. I didn’t notify the agents and editors of their schedule, assuming they knew they had appointments starting at 8 A.M. They didn’t. The next year was a little better. With the help of dedicated writer friends who volunteered beside me each year, we got better and better. I worked in that position for nine years. After that, I was registrar for three years, and now I serve as board treasurer.

Every single one of these positions has been purely selfish. In the truest Ayn Rand tradition, there is no altruism. I am not that good at meeting people. I am a terrible self-promoter. (For instance, I’ve had business cards printed for each of three books I’ve had published. I have never made it through handing out one box of 250.) But working with conference, I met so many people. While I got tongue-tied around the agents and editors, I felt comfortable joining groups of my writer friends and these Golden Guests would be part of the group. That made getting to know the professionals very easy. I even learned most of them are regular folks.

I didn’t parley volunteering into a book contract overnight. Some may argue volunteering had nothing to do with signing with Midnight Ink. I know otherwise. Because I’d met so many people through working at the agent/editor pitches and registration, I felt at home and comfortable at conference. I’d learned that editors and agents are real people. So when I had an opportunity to meet Midnight Ink editor, Terri Bischoff at conference, I didn’t pitch her my book. We spent time getting to know each other.

Terri didn’t acquire my book because we’d made a connection at the conference. But she read it with a more open mind than she might have. She also was willing to take on a book that needed an extensive rewrite and I don’t think she’d have done that if she hadn’t met me first. Or, if I’d missed my opportunity to get to know her because I was too nervous to talk to her.

So here are my bullets on getting that traditional contract:

  •  Write every day
  •  Read a lot
  •  Learn all you can about the publishing industry
  •  Get involved
  •  VOLUNTEER (especially with RMFW)

Roll call: Who’s going to join us in Denver in September for the Colorado Gold conference? What a line-up! Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords and William Kent Krueger, the amazingly wonderful mystery writer. Also, loads of Golden Guests (agents and editors).

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Shannon Baker writes the Nora Abbott Mystery Series, a fast-paced mix of murder, environmental issues and Hopi Indians published by Midnight Ink. Broken Trust, due March 2014, takes place in Boulder, CO. Tainted Mountain, the first in the series is set in Flagstaff, AZ and is a New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards finalist. She serves on the board of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and is a member of SinC and MWA. Visit Shannon at her website.

About Broken Trust:  Nora moves to Boulder and lands a job as an accountant at an environmental non-profit. But the trust is rife with deceit and corruption. Nearly half a million dollars is missing and one person has already been killed for knowing too much. Complicating matters are Nora’s uninvited visitors: her mother, Cole Huntsman, and a Hopi kachina that technically doesn’t exist. As the body count climbs, Nora races to stop a deadly plot to decimate one of the planet’s greatest natural resources.

Keep Your Eyes Open

By Yvonne Montgomery

Yvonne MontgomeryAs I draw near the end of my current project, A Signal Shown, Book Two of the Wisdom Court series, I’ve reached one of my favorite phases of writing a novel, what I call the Gifts from the Universe stage.

All writers are scavengers, gratefully and greedily snatching what we can find to flesh out the narrative. We eavesdrop on conversations and watch interactions among strangers, squirreling away precious bits and pieces to adorn our stories. Everything is grist for the mill, and someday that episode will find its place in a story, said Louis L’Amour. The man knew writing—and writers.

What I’m talking about is a little different. When you’ve been eating and breathing your work in progress, you come to a state of hyper-awareness. Perhaps it’s an inevitable tip into creative madness, maybe just a turn of the kaleidoscope making everything you encounter take on the characteristics of your particular focus. I prefer the idea of a generous, creative force presenting me with extra elements of completion for my manuscript.

One pre-dawn morning this week I was lying in bed and I saw a small triangle of light overhead. As I watched, the light skimmed across the ceiling and disappeared. Undoubtedly it was a stray shaft of light from a car driving through the alley.

But my novel is about a haunted place where strange happenings are eroding the comfort of its residents. The light floating along the surface of the ceiling set off my imagining another room where the moving glow was a sign of an eerie presence. The scene I wrote later in the day informed the chapter I was working on, and it had a little extra chill to it because of what I’d seen and felt that morning.

As I’ve mentioned my work lately, some people have generously related shivery anecdotes of otherworldly events I’ve found both evocative and worth stealing. (Of course I always ask their permission.) I’ve stumbled across reminders of ideas I’d forgotten, resurfacing now when I need them the most. A few weeks ago my grandchildren badgered me into watching a kid-TV show with them, and an element of its story let me see how a point-of-view shift in my narrative would enrich one major character. Pure gift.

We RMFW members are well aware of the creative community resulting from interaction with fellow writers, from attending critique groups, from combining our energies in conferences and educational programs. With each novel I’ve written, be it mystery, saga, or metaphysical thriller, I’ve had the additional, lovely experience of being a part of a realm in which those inspiring energies surround me. Whether generated in my fevered mind, lobbed my way by benign writing partners in the ether, or as a result of the overwhelming desire to be done with this book, I take great pleasure in these Gifts from the Universe. Their appearance truly means I’m nearly at the end of telling myself this tale. Before long the fervor of its creation will subside and I’ll be looking for another story to write.

Keep your eyes (and ears and minds and hearts) open to the creative gifts available to us as writers. They’re all grist for the mill.

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Montgomery_Scavanger Hunt Yvonne Montgomery lives in an old three-story house in Denver’s historic Capitol Hill. Its nooks and crannies and odd noises in the middle of the night have inspired her latest works, Edge of the Shadow and A Signal Shown, Books One and Two of the Wisdom Court series, to be e-published in early 2014. Her e-books are widely available, including at Amazon, B&N Nook, iBooks, Kobo.

Yvonne is the author of two mysteries, Scavenger Hunt (aka Scavengers) and Obstacle Course, and co-author of Bridey’s Mountain, a Colorado saga awarded the Colorado Authors League Top Hand Award for Best Book Length Fiction of 1993.

For more information, please visit Yvonne’s website, Writer in the Garret. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

WORLD-BUILDING WARREN’S WAY

By Warren Hammond

Why do you read fiction?

You might say compelling characters. Or high-stakes drama. Maybe you love the plot twists you didn’t see coming.

Those are all valid responses, but when taken alone, isn’t each of them inadequate? Don’t you read fiction for all those reasons, plus probably dozens of others that I didn’t list?

So I’ll ask again, why do you read fiction? It’s a simple question that seems to defy a simple, one-sentence response. Yet, I’m about to attempt it.

You read fiction because you want to be transported to a different time, place, and emotional state.

Reading is travel.

Visit any location in the world or any point in history from the comfort of your own sofa. Pass the time on that dull bus ride exploring fantastical worlds that push the limits of imagination. Journey into the mind of a serial killer or the queen of a medieval realm. Tour all of the emotions available to us humans. Love and despair. Joy and terror. Satisfaction and guilt.

Fiction can take you anywhere you want to go. Every last remote corner of human (and non-human) experience is accessible through fiction.

That is why you read.

And why you write.

Accept that premise, and you see why world-building is a required skill if you’re going to write good stories. I don’t care what genre you write, world-building is required. You can’t transport your reader unless you have a fully realized location to take them to.

That said, the amount of world-building you do will very much depend on your genre and the kind of story you want to tell. For example, you’d expect to do lots of world-building for an epic fantasy set in an imaginary but vaguely medieval universe. None of your readers have ever lived in such a world, so you’ll have to spend a hefty percentage of your word count orienting them so they don’t feel lost. Lucky for you, in this case, many of your readers have read other books set in vaguely medieval universes, so you’ll have a broad range of well-known tropes to borrow from. But use too many of those tropes and you’ll be accused of being derivative. The trick is to find a pleasing mix of original elements and tried-and-true tropes accepted in your genre.

Write a novel with a contemporary setting, and you’ll dedicate fewer words to building your world. Your readers will already be familiar with cars and computers and cell phones. Set your novel in a city like New York and your job will be even easier since your readers will certainly be familiar with the city even if they’ve ever been there in person.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll be off the hook entirely. Say you want to write a mystery centering around the murder of a yacht racing captain. Now you’ll have a sizable job ahead of you. Most of your readers won’t be familiar with many of the nautical terms, nor will they have much of a clue of how professional yacht racing works. What are the racing rules? Where do yacht teams get their funding? What is the social structure within that world?

Okay, so now that we’ve established the fact that all stories require world-building to various degrees, I’d like to share my guidelines. Guidelines? But you wanted a step-by-step how-to manual. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist. Writing is a very organic process, and also very personal. What works for one person will likely fail another. The best anybody can do is offer a framework of generalizations, and I hope you’ll take these guidelines as such.

1.       Build a fully-formed world rich with detail. Your world should include all of the following:

Culture – Traditions, clothing, food, language, architecture, manners

History – War, famine, exploration, scientific advancement

Environment – Flora, fauna, weather, geography

Economy – Trade, currency, class structure, resources

Religion – Beliefs, ethics, values, rituals

Unreal* – Futuristic or alien technology, magic, supernatural elements

Politics – Government, military, foreign relations, legal system

This first guideline even comes with a built-in pep talk. Notice the first letters of each line spell CHEER UP!

*Not all genres include elements of the unreal

2.       Use only the relevant details

Now that you’ve built a complex and compelling world, you have to seriously consider which details to include in your story. Include them all, and you’ll slow your plot to a crawl. Instead, you’ll need to choose only those details that have a significant impact on your story and its characters. Don’t bore your readers with minutia they don’t need to know.

3.       Avoid info dumps

Don’t tell us about your world. Put us in your world.

This is fiction, not an encyclopedia. When you introduce a new gadget, show a character using it, and we’ll learn soon enough what it does. When you want to dig into the nitty-gritty of a subject, let your characters discuss the subject in dialog. Or better yet, amp up the tension by turning that discussion into an argument.

Long passages of background information need not apply.

4.       Imbue your world with mood and atmosphere

Don’t forget my original premise, that readers want to be transported to a different time, location, and emotional state. How do you want your reader to feel when they’re in your world? Scared? Awed? Enchanted?

To achieve this goal, show us how your world affects your characters. If the world makes your characters feel scared, it’s likely your reader will feel scared too.

Also be smart with your word choices. Take a simple sentence like this one.

The wind rustles through the leaves.

Replace the word rustles with any of these verbs (whistles, weaves, whips, roars, whispers, barges, snakes), and I think you’ll agree that each one invokes a unique mood.

Create a proper mood, and your world will come alive!

Happy writing!

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Warren grew up in the Hudson River Valley of New York State. Upon obtaining his teaching degree from the University at Albany, he moved to Colorado, and settled in Denver where he can often be found typing away at one of the local coffee shops.

Warren is known for his gritty, futuristic KOP series. By taking the best of classic detective noir, and reinventing it on a destitute colony world, Warren has created these uniquely dark tales of murder, corruption and redemption.

Always eager to see new places, Warren has traveled extensively. Whether it’s wildlife viewing in exotic locales like Botswana and the Galapagos Islands, or trekking in the Himalayas, he’s always up for a new adventure.

Engineering a Mystery

By Beth Groundwater

Beth GroundwaterI’ve taught a number of workshops at many different writing conference, library programs, and to writing groups, and one of my favorites is “Engineering a Mystery.” I apply my engineering background from my first career to help fledgling mystery writers build some scaffolding for their projects, or formulate recipes for their mystery novels.

The first essential ingredient in a mystery is the sleuth, who investigates the murder(s) and tries to deduce who the killer is. In my case, with two mystery series in the works, my sleuths are well-defined: whitewater river ranger and rafting guide Mandy Tanner for the RM Outdoor Adventures series or gift basket designer Claire Hanover. Both of these characters are old friends, but when I switch from one to the other, I usually need to go back and read at least the last few chapters of the last book starring that character, so I remember what emotional and physical state I left her in and move on from there.

The next essential ingredient in the recipe for a murder mystery is the victim. The dead body that falls on the floor in Act One. There may even be more than one victim to keep things interesting if the plot starts to drag in the middle. Without a victim, we wouldn’t have a mystery to solve and we could all go home! Along with defining a victim, I try to give him or her a family and/or friends who will sorely miss them, because we should never forget how truly horrible murder is.

Usually the victim is not well-liked, so there are many people who’d like to see him or her dead. And, I, like most mystery writers, try to use my creativity to find an interesting way for the victim to die—a mysterious poison, a unique weapon, something that might be construed as an accident or suicide and so on.

Groundwater_Basket of TroubleThe third essential ingredient is suspects, those people who may have killed the victim(s). There are usually between 3 and 7 suspects in a murder mystery. Detectives or amateur sleuths look for means, motive, and opportunity for suspects. All three are needed to identify the killer. Means is the ability to commit the murder, such as access to the murder weapon. Motive is the reason why the suspect wanted the victim dead. Opportunity is the potential for the suspect to be at the right place at the right time to kill the victim. And an alibi is a story for why a suspect didn’t have the opportunity. That story can be true or false.

I try to make sure that all of my suspects have at least two if not all three of means, motive, and opportunity. And bringing in suspects often drives the addition of subplots (activities the victim was engaged in that may have led to his murder) and the addition of research topics I need to study.

The fourth essential ingredient in a murder mystery is clues, pieces of evidence that help the sleuth solve the crime. A good principle that detectives use is that the killer usually leaves something at the crime scene and takes something away. What the killer leaves may be fingerprints, shoe prints, a lipstick stain on a glass, or the murder weapon, say if the knife is stuck in the body. What the killer takes away may be hairs, carpet fibers or bloodstains, money or jewelry, or a special memento of the crime. I try to sprinkle the discovery of clues throughout the manuscript, as well as conversations with the suspects, to keep the reader stimulated with more information that she or he can use to try to solve the puzzle.

The last ingredient that spices up the recipe is red herrings. These are false clues that point to the wrong suspect, such as the gun in my first mystery, A REAL BASKET CASE, that incriminated Claire’s husband. The term comes from a fish that’s been cured in brine and smoked, which turns it red and makes it very smelly. The smelly herring then is dragged across a trail to try to distract hunting dogs from their prey. A good hunting dog—or sleuth—is trained to not be distracted by the strong false scent but to stay on the trail of its prey. What makes things interesting in a murder mystery is when a piece of evidence points to more than one suspect, so it’s both a red herring for the innocent suspect and a clue for the killer.

I like to have at least half a dozen clues and red herrings, if not more. Once all the essential elements are defined, I work on putting scenes in order in an outline, figuring out what happens when and what gets discovered when. During this process, I shuffle scenes around until I come up with a flow of events that I think will most interest the reader. And, of course, there have got to be some surprises!

It’s a complex process, and one that I always find daunting in the beginning, wondering how I’ll ever come up with the final product–a scene by scene outline, a set of detailed character profiles, and thorough research notes from which I can start writing. But, I have to trust in the process and my abilities. I keep telling myself that I’ve done it many times before, so I should be able to do it again.

This post previously appeared on Inkspot, the blog for Midnight Ink authors, on February 11th, 2013.

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Bestselling mystery author Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series (A Real Basket Case, a Best First Novel Agatha Award finalist, To Hell in a Handbasket, and in November, 2013, A Basket of Trouble) and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner (Deadly Currents, an Amazon #3 overall bestseller, Wicked Eddies, finalist for the Rocky Award, and Fatal Descent). Beth enjoys Colorado’s many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting, and loves talking to book clubs.

For more information about Beth and her books, please visit her at her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook and Goodreads.