Join me on Facebook, too!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Writing Prompts and The Detective

Reading responses to a writing prompt is like interviewing witnesses to a crime. No one says the same thing, even though the impetus is the same. The gunshots sounded, nothing can change that. The prompt is what it is, no one dares to change that. Everyone comes to the prompt (or the crime) with their own biases and sees things from their own angle. Witness or writer, each has something important to say.

One of my writers' groups starts each monthly critique session with a different line chosen at random from pages of one sentence prompts. We never do the same prompt twice and allow less than a minute for each of us to write the prompt at the top of our pages. Then we have a firm five minutes to write the first thing that comes to mind. We read our responses to the group, with a combination of embarrassment, frustration, futility, or...very rarely...pride.

Today, I'll try something a little different and play detective with my only clues being the words on the page and my knowledge of the each author. Okay, I'll be cheating a little bit because I collected the responses via email and know the answers. But, even without remembering who read what aloud or seeing the emails, I'd be able to match respondent with response. My deductions will follow each prompt and may help you get to know my Pen Friends a little bit more. -cjh


The professor stopped dead in the middle of his sentence when…

...the student stood up.

The young man was silent. Silent, serious but not menacing, with eyes as black and shiny as obsidian.

The professor gestured for him to continue, then waited patiently. He understood indigenous people carried a deep well of silence that persisted even in their descendants.

During this pregnant silence, some students squirmed in their seats, others shot meaningful looks to their friends. The athletes, male and female, threw their heads back to take a long-awaited nap.

“You tell us,” the young man finally spoke, “our horses came here with the Europeans.”

“Yes,” the professor replied eagerly, glad that the conversation was about classwork.

“But you’re wrong.”

Students’ eyes widened, heads perked up.

“My people have always had horses.”

If it wasn't mentioning horses, or alluding to their history, it was in grounding the response in "indigenous people" that was the dead giveaway that Cyd Raschke wrote this. Cyd is working on a wonderful YA novel of the first horses brought to the New World. She has meticulously researched equine history and the Native American tribes in what we know as Texas. Horses, history, and Native Americans gave this the tri-perfecta of clues.


The Fishes’ Perch
The professor stopped dead in the middle of the sentence when...

... a fish fell from the ceiling onto the stage in front of where he stood.

The fish was a large sea perch. The kind of perch that really no one cooked or ate at all anymore because ocean stocks had dwindled so alarmingly.
The fact that it had been a perch was vital to the unfolding investigation and figured largely in the reason that two hours, twenty-seven minutes and forty seconds later the professor was removed from the classroom in hand cuffs.
It fell to detective Smith-Collins to untangle the market chain in order to follow back to the origins of the perch.
Detective S-C began with a walk around the desk where the professor had stood in beginning his lecture.
“Why would he have placed the fish above,” the detective asked no one in particular, while looking up and stroking his goatee in that manner that drove his wife crazy.
He noticed that not just one perch had been stored above in its’ lofty perch, but dozens of other fishes, all of endangered species, were stored there as well. There were rows of swordfish, cod, mussels and even salmon.

The first clue? The respondent sent their response neatly typed with a title! That was the dead giveaway that the author takes her writing and presentation very seriously. Only a freshly minted MFA recipient would take the meticulous steps to present a five minute work product with such care and a title! Geez!

The second clue? The subject matter. Sustainability issues and protecting endangered species, whether fish, fowl, or fauna, tipped the deductive scales to Elizabeth Rose. Elizabeth is writing a memoir of her travels to Guatemala to help people with issues surrounding poverty, farming, clean water, and literacy. She is a gladiator, and even a simple five minute prompt provided an outlet for her warrior spirit.


The professor stopped dead in the middle of his sentence when...

... the black shaggy pup scrambled up the three short stairs to the stage. The class, afraid to be too disruptive, twittered softly to one another. 

The puppy trotted proudly across the stage and sat, with ceremonious dignity on the foot of the professor. The professor reached down and picked up the little fella. He held him an arms length away from himself and with a look of disgust, asked, “To Whom does this belong? Please claim him.” 

At that point my face had turned cherry red. I slipped out of my seat and approached the stage…out of the corner of my eye I saw a squirt!

A puppy? Wholesome drama? A scene that could have been plucked from a Disney movie? Oh, yes. It must be Donna Burke Seim! Donna's recently launched, middle grade targeted, Cheeky and Charlemagne is populated with adorable animals and playful drama. I don't know how Donna does it, but each of her responses channels an innocence of another time, and you don't have to be a kid to love her writing or her books. 


The professor stopped dead in the middle of his sentence when...

...he saw me standing in the doorway. I wasn't sure it was him, but when he stuttered over his words and blushed crimson, I was sure.

Thirty years and a lifetime, and now I had found him.

We were each other's first lovers when war tore us apart. He came back to a changed world. I had married. I had to marry, but I made the most of those years.

It took him all this time to emerge from the Hell war had torn into him.

It took this time for life to free me from a marriage that was fine, but without love.

When he stuttered, "C-c-class d-d-dismissed," we stood and looked at one another and the years vanished.

The class emptied and we stared.

I took a halting step forward. He said, in halting phrases, "I've been waiting."

Okay, no deduction here. This one is mine. Usually I try to have a murder or a crime be central to the prompt concept, but this time, I tried for love. Remember when I said that each writer or witness brings their own set of biases? Well, the readers do the same thing! I got a kick out of hearing the other writers were waiting for the narrator to kill the professor.

Does writing about love mean I'm losing my edge? I hope not. Killing people on pages is too much fun.


The professor stopped dead in the middle of his sentence when… 
 that freakish-looking girl waddled in – more like swaggered, if you can imagine that – this big, wide girl, swaggering.

Well, good for her, I thought, studying her straight bangs that circled her head midway up the back of her scalp. Yipes! She had used a bowl, with that below, at the back, shaved. She took off her coat and was instantly more statuesque.

Professor’s face had gone red. He picked up his chalk piece – to send it from hand to hand – then shoved it in his pocket. “Are you quite comfortable, Miss - ”

“It’s MS, and no, I’ll need a minute to set up my desk. I once pinched the inside of my arm on one of these swivel tops.” She sat down then, after adjusting her leopard skin coat. Faux, I’m sure. No! there was a stain of orange paint – wet! I could smell it, edging

And this is when the timer goes off leaves us all wishing we could complete our thoughts and shape our responses. Oh, if we writers only had more time! Observing and capturing snippets of life is what Bette Lischke does with her writing. We've all seen backs of heads shaved with the tops untouched, but bowls! As a style guide! Only a person wearing a leopard coat would think of such a thing. But was it faux? Hmm, I wonder!


Monday, November 12, 2018

A Glimpse Inside an Author's Life

Okay. I'm writing this in an exhausted state. For all of you who think being an author is a life of writing by the warm hearth with a mug of steaming tea by our sides, with the occasional foray to events in our literary honor, stop reading and slap yourself upside your heads.

Maybe its like that for a few lucky souls, but let me tell you about my week.

It started with every emerging author's rite of passage. I submitted the full manuscript of my WIP, Find Cally, to two agents and a publisher. Yay! I had pitched to them at Crime Bake 2017 and was thrilled to receive their interest. In truth, the submissions were long delayed because my personal life detoured, but I was determined to submit the buffed and polished MS before this year's Crime Bake. (My WIP is a new venture and direction from my trilogy, so a fresh start makes sense.)

The beginning of the week was doing what writers do...revising, second guessing, revising, and hitting SEND.

Now a bit of backstory. I'm VP of the New England chapter of Sisters in Crime and on the board of this year's Crime Bake, a premier writers' conference. Being a hot-wired, detail-oriented person, I was doing my hot-wired, detail-oriented follow through on all things Crime Bake. As hotel liaison, my role was more Project Manager than Supreme Commander, but if something went wrong, it was my job to fix it. Oh, it was also my job to make darned sure nothing went wrong to begin with.

And then, on Monday, the boxes started to arrive.

Ever wonder about those nifty conference totes attendees get? Or about what goes in them? Yeah. Details matter.

Along with my real life and my author's life, I have a volunteer life. As a horse handler at a therapeutic riding center, I've worked with one woman for years. Physically and intellectually hobbled by a childhood illness, her positive spirit and our bond gives me far more than I could ever give her. Since we've together, she has ridden independently for the first time and claims I have inspired her to write.

On Wednesday, she gave me a short story she had written. My heart swelled.

The day before Crime Bake should have been a day of last minute follow through. Instead, I had to see MY PEOPLE! Equine Affaire is an annual conference of all things horse. The four-day event draws over 100K attendees. I've been a panelist and speaker there for the past two years and have been signing books at Taborton Books ever since The Charity was published. To be surrounded by horse-loving, book-reading people is wonderful and catching up with fans I only see there is better than you can imagine.

I sell a lot of books and (hopefully) make more fans.

Yes, I drove three hours to meet, greet, and sign for seven hours the day before a three-day conference.

And yes, after I arrived at the hotel Thursday evening, I treated myself to a dirty martini. Very dirty.

Friday morning started with a meeting of the Crime Bake team with the hotel staff. Co-chairs Edith Maxwell and Michele Dorsey pulled together a great team and the Hilton Hotel's staff, from the General Manager on down, met with us to pour over final details.

In truth, the next 72 hours are a bit of a blur. I absorbed the words of our Guest of Honor, Walter Mosley, in his Master Class and felt both unworthy of the title of "author" in the shadow of his incredible talent and inspired to persist.

Authors and fans know this is a time of being surrounded by their tribe. Sessions range from drilling down into craft techniques, to learning the fine points of criminal investigations and forensics, to insights into writing cinematically. The intimate size of the conference fosters connections in a relaxed atmosphere. My local library will be thrilled with a personalized signed copy of Mr. Mosley's newest book.

Board Members of Sister in Crime New England with our very
own Sherry Harris attending as Sisters in Crime,
national president. SinCNE president Edith Maxwell is
seated to Sherry's left.
Bright and early Saturday morning was a board meeting breakfast of Sisters in Crime New England. (I have much more to talk about and I'll be sharing SinCNE news with you soon.) After breakfast, I bounced around from attending sessions to addressing those pesky issues and details that inevitably crop up. From rearranging risers and podiums to ensure all audience members could see panelists, to working with the hotel to fix an agent's room needs, I did what needed to be done and completely ignored Rule #1. I did not keep to my dedicated time to write. Emails and trouble-shooting notwithstanding, I did not write one word. Nada. Zilch.

Honoree Kate Flora with author
Connie Johnson Hambley
Saturday evening's banquet honored Kate Flora with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Kate is talented, accomplished, and generous. Her influence inspires minnows like myself more than she realizes. After sharing a glass of wine and a conversation that ranged from cases to craft to family, she greeted me the next morning with a copy of her newest book, SHOTS FIRED, and dedicated it to my daughter who is embarking on a career in law enforcement. Kate is all class.

Sunday's panels had everything an author could want. Even with a packed house, the atmosphere was warm and friendly.

After the last of the attendees packed up and returned to their own writing lives, my job continued. Sunday even included a search for a purloined bouquet of flowers that were given as a gift to outgoing SinCNE president Edith Maxwell. (The Hilton ordered a replacement and personally picked them up from the florist!)

Once again, I deployed the secret weapon all authors should have and packed the car for the return trip home. Challenged by most things spacial, I never would have been able to fit all of this (and more!) into my car without my secret help.

Sunday night I filled my home with boxes of stuff I'll be holding on to for the next events of SinCNE and Crime Bake. I was finally able to give my 91-year-old mom a call and fill her in on all the details...who was there, how everything went, what everyone wore, and yes, what I ate and if I slept well.

The whirlwind is over and some folks said I'll miss the activity.

Maybe. As much as I love being surrounded by my tribe, I adore the solitude of writing. So, I'm still in my jammies as I write this, mug of tea beside me.

NEW BOOK: TORY ROOF by Jill C. Baker

Technology Can Be an Author’s Best Friend           
Jill C. Baker

Welcome to Jill Baker to the author community! Bringing a new book into the world has twists and turns that puts many plots to shame. Jill shares a few of her experiences here and an introduction to her new book below. Read on!


As a long-time writer, but first-time author, getting a book out of my head and into someone’s shopping cart seemed a daunting task. I talked with numerous authors in various genres, including the accomplished thriller author, Connie Johnson Hambley*.
I did know something about publishing, have been a media marketer for years, but the book world was different.  I realized that habits for book consumption were changing and that competition for self-publishers was brutal. I did learn, however, that technology can be an author’s best friend.

(1)    Several people pointed out that there’s no need to work exclusively with Amazon in offering a Kindle format. Nor is there reason to distribute alone.  Publish Drive, which drew attention at the Frankfurt Book Fair a couple years back, offers an online distribution platform, strictly digital, that disseminates your ePub file to dozens of online bookstores, per your selection, in one fell swoop. No money up front. 10% of royalties which vary by outlet. Customer support, real-time and archived analytics, monthly sales report with disbursement options, best practices, direct links for social sharing, webcasts, newsletter – let’s just say, I’m a fan.

(2)    There are also new ways to sample books without going through a bookstore. (Full disclosure: I used to work for the person who created this platform.) Text CafĂ© offers an HTML solution that can be found in Search, embedded in an email, used in social media or on a website. The benefit is that it can attract casual prospects and convert them – with one click, from within the sample—to buyers. Ditto for sharing. In my case, the entirety of Chapter 1 is included, but that’s up to the author. Readers may also customize brightness, font size, and color scheme for optimal viewing.

Of course, there are many more tech avenues to try:  podcasts, webcasts, online chats. I ran into someone who was doing ‘book signings’ on Twitter. “How does that work?” I asked the author who goes by the handle, “Tea Pain.” He replied:
“Tea will take dedications by Direct Message (he follows you now) and he'll email you a copy of the first page of his book with your signed dedication you can print out and slip into your paperback. Tea Pain digitally signed almost a 1000 of his first book last year.”

Clearly, sky’s the limit.

For another post by Jill, click here.

About Jill's first book, TORY ROOF:

Sarah Sutherland didn’t go looking for the adventure that engulfed her. She was a modern woman -- a mom and real estate agent, who accepted her routine life -- until she encountered a fiery Revolutionary War agitator in a vintage home she was selling.
Rather than fear him, she was drawn to him physically and emotionally. Soon she found herself embroiled in the fight for independence with a passion she had long forgotten. Parallel story lines unfold, autumn to autumn, interweaving 1765 with the present day.

As Sarah struggles to co-exist in both realms, she learns that the people around her are not as they seem and that her life is in danger. In time, she discovers why she was chosen for an escape most women could only imagine.


Jill C. Baker grew up in a small town in New York state where, as a teenager, she wrote a weekly newspaper column and reviewed summer stock theater. She pursued her interest in media and writing at Boston University’s College of Communication. Upon graduation, she moved to Southern California to work in the film industry. With a relocation to San Francisco and eventually back to Boston, she returned to her newspaper roots, serving as a copywriter and promotion manager for leading publishers such as Hearst and Harte-Hanks. Following a detour into the non-profit sector, she became Director of Marketing for a digital publishing provider in the magazine sector. Constantly facing deadlines and rigorous commutes, she often wondered what it would be like to simply disappear and do something else -- thus the motivation for the Sutherland Series. She and her husband live in New England where they’ve raised two sons and several cats. The rich historic setting provides valuable inspiration.

Author Website shows how Jill is "an author and purveyor of guilt-free escape."

Facebook: Sutherland Series
Twitter:  SarahSutherlandBookSeries @SeriesSarah

*Connie's note: Thank you, Jill, for being my guest today. I'm so glad our chats in person and online have been helpful. 

Dear Readers: Are you an aspiring author? Are you an author looking to leverage your books into a larger audience? DM me on Facebook or Twitter and I'll help however I can!

Monday, November 5, 2018

Gotta Love That Writing Research

Writers of all stripes know the fine line between hyperbole and solid facts. (No, I'm not going to go there in this post.) From writing a term paper in high school to creating good fiction, writers need to know the solid facts before they put their spin into the words.

To write great suspense, authors know they have to play with their readers' trust. Readers must believe we are writing about the world just outside of their door, one they could walk into at any moment if they were as brave or as foolish as our main characters. I often say that we cajole readers into walking the plank with us, and at a certain point we pull the plank away, leaving them suspended in our fictional bubble. If we've done our research right, time will slip away and the only reality readers will experience will be the one we've recreated. 

Great research can structure an entire story. Whole plots of traditional mysteries with amateur sleuths or crime procedurals hang on sound investigative techniques. The sleuth or cop may decide to throw protocol out the window, but the reader and the character know what the price could be for going rogue. 

Other research can be on a point that might seem inconsequential. Maybe the character enjoyed a meal at a Five Star restaurant. The meal is not the point, but the texture added to the story of describing a mouth-watering Indian curry adds to the reader's enjoyment while deepening the understanding of who our character is.

I've often heard authors talk about hours spent researching a certain point only to have the result be a sentence or two of text or dialog. Details matter when it comes to getting and keeping our readers' trust. After our bond is sealed, our story grows in our readers' imaginations.

So, when my WIP needed an American oligarch enjoying a scotch, what kind of scotch would he imbibe? What booze would he stock in the bar of his mega yacht? Oh, yes. You want to know. I gotta say, this is the kind of research I love.

And a bottle of Macallan won. Never heard of it? Me neither, but when I learned that a bottle of 1946 Macallan sold at auction for $460,000, I knew I had a winner. As for stocking the bar? First off, only a Luddite would call crystal bottles of fine spirits booze. Secondly, the showier the better, and a swarovski crystal-encrusted bottle of Oval vodka (at about $6K per bottle) would definitely be on the shelf.

As for making sure I fully understood the difference between my usual plonk and a finer quality spirit? Hmm. Maybe this is where I let your imagination roam.