Friday, May 26, 2017

Bug Out Bag

In romantic suspense, danger can show up any moment. Whether or not your characters are prepared can be a key part of building tension and driving the plot. I’m currently developing a new idea that puts the hero and heroine on the run and cuts them off from their normal support systems. So how do they survive the conflict? Imagine having to run out of your house without your wallet or phone.

Many people with a mind for planning create a bug out bag that contains essentials for survival in different situations. This bag is usually placed in an easy to access spot so it can be grabbed quickly if the need arises. I won’t tell you if my characters have one, or what might be in it - that’s part of the excitement of discovery - but we can look at what common items are put in bug out bags.

The first consideration is the bag itself. It needs to be small enough that it isn’t too intrusive to your normal life, but big enough to hold what you need. Ease of carry is very important, especially if you’re on the run. A briefcase design would occupy your hands, so something with a strap would be better. Duffle bags are usually cavernous enough to contain gear, but organization can be difficult. A backpack seems to be an ideal bug out bag, especially if it is durable or even waterproof.

With the bag settled on, think about what day to day needs you have. Prescriptions? Contact lenses? A spare pair of glasses are good to have, as well as small supply of meds. Think about it like airline traveling. If your checked bags were lost, what items couldn’t you live without? People usually put these items in their carry on, which is a good analog for the bug out bag.

After the daily necessities, a stash of cash can be very helpful. That way, anything that isn’t packed can be obtained. A spare credit card is good to have as well, but if we’re thinking romantic suspense, cash is better because it can’t be tracked.

But you might not be able to get to a store, so extra gear should be in the bag. A first aid kit is a must. A lighter, or other fire-making supplies can help, even in urban settings - think defrosting a lock or creating a small signal. Duct tape has a ton of uses, from clothing repair to shelter building. If the situation includes things like temporary shelters, then a flashlight is essential. There are flashlights with crank generators or solar panels to store energy, so you don’t have to worry about batteries running out. Rope or cordage are other items that give a lot of use for the space they take up.

Ultra-thin mylar blankets or sleeping tubes pack small and can keep you alive overnight. This might not seem too important in an urban environment, but your characters might not be able to find safe haven in any house, and might need to spend significant time in the elements. Unfortunately, under a mylar blanket isn’t the sexiest place for the hero and heroine to express their physical attraction. That might have to wait until they use their cash to get a hotel room.

If the danger situation spans a few days, a change of clothes - at least socks and underwear - can help avoid morale robbing discomfort. Depending on the kind of person packing the go bag, as well as the kind of person chasing them, a simple disguise could be helpful as well. Hair dye, even a hat, can go a long way to creating visual camouflage.

Sometimes a life or death situation can depend on the battery level of a phone. Portable battery packs are cheap and easy to come by, and have a place in the go bag. Some of them even have built in flashlights or radios to extend their usefulness.

One of the largest considerations in a go bag is a weapon. If we’re talking fiction, it’s easier to place a gun in the bag for the characters. But in the real world, the consequences of a firearm are very different, and might cause more problems than they solve. In a matter of surviving within nature, a good, solid knife is a tool that can serve in many ways. The knife also doubles as a silent, discreet weapon as well.

A go bag is as personal as the person carrying it, and the contents can reveal a lot about the characters in your story. So what’s in your go bag?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Anatomy of a Cover


The Anatomy of a Cover

 

Guess who said, “There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”?

            Charles Dickens

 It’s probably safe to assume Charlie wasn’t referring to his own novels. A shakier assumption is that he never heard the old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” Maybe not, but as long as book buyers do, covers matter.

 So I was delighted when my publisher asked me for cover advice for the soon-to-be-released Listed and Lethal Series. To increase reader recognition, we wanted a theme--a recognizable thread--to span the series. 

 Since the books deal with real estate as well as murder, each cover will feature a house typical of the one where a killing takes place. In the foreground, the silhouette of a young woman, armed and ready to shoot, ups the menace. Though the image of the house and the woman’s pose change from story to story, a version of both appears on each cover. Also the font remains the same, and is set in the same position: Listed and Lethal Series on top, title in the middle and author’s name at the bottom.

 For the first book, Murder on Pea Pike, the killer strikes in a rural log cabin. The season is summer, and yellow diamonds play a role in the plot. Hence a color scheme of green, yellow, and brown with pops of white.

 The next step was to choose an appropriate background house. That proved challenging. Most available cabin shots didn’t fit the book’s description or were more horizontal than vertical.  Then we found the following image, and a clever cropping—at the roofline on the left and at the porch edge on the right—gave us the needed shape. And luckily, the cabin had been photographed in high summer.

 

 
 
         So far, so good.

 Now for the girl. Poised in front of the cabin, gun in hand, she’s big and imposing, ready to strike at anybody who gets in her way.

 So we’ve nailed the setting, the season, the danger, the colors, the series tag line, the title and the author. And here’s the finished product. Ta da!

 

 

           
        On September 1, 2017, Murder on Pea Pike will be available in trade paperback and in multiple eBook formats at Amazon.com and BN.com. Also on Kindle, Kobo, iBooks and Overdrive. In fact, even as we speak, it can be preordered on Amazon. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Is Your Reading Palate Biased?

I spent last weekend in California wine country and must admit to imbibing a few select years. Although, not a connoisseur of the fermented grape product, I’ve always considered myself more of a rose/red wine type gal, and have been known to steer away from anything but sweet white wines. That left me surprised, when at one tasting, I relished all the samples, including the whites.
Glasses lined up in front of each person, waiting for the wine to be adding for sampling.
Honestly, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because our hostess did her homework. She had checked the rankings of California wines from the area, learned where the leading brands’ grapes were grown, who used them in their products, and which wineries had the best reputations. Ultimately, she chose a winery for the tasting she believed would be perfect for her wine loving friends. Thus, even those wines I considered my least favorite, turned out to be excellent.

Before you quit reading, thinking I’m on a spoiled girl rant, this wine tasting set my writing and reading mind on alert. Several times before the tasting, people declared they only drank reds, didn’t care for blends, or preferred whites. Yet, at the end of the tasting, they had been pleasantly surprised and enjoyed a wine they had been convinced their palate disliked.

So why am I bringing to light this fermented topic? Because I’ve recently heard similar things from readers about books. Readers find a niche they feel comfortable reading. They like a romance with a happy ending, or a cozy mystery with a humorous heroine. When a friend suggests they might enjoy something slightly different, they respond with “I don’t read that genre. Tried it once and it wasn’t for me.”

Perhaps their reading palate is biased. Sure, they may have tried those genres in the past, but did they do their homework? Did the reader simply snatch up what “everyone else” was reading and discover, while popular, the characters didn’t pull them into the story, and the plotting was next to non-existent. I suggest to readers (and that includes me), do your homework. If you love strong heroines, ask other readers for authors who create them. Read about the author on Amazon or Goodreads. See if any of the reviews resonate with you. If you hate cliffhangers and that is the author’s specialty, move on, but broaden your horizons. There are so many great stories, don’t limit yourself and miss out on an incredible novel, character, or series.
So many wines, so many types. Surely there are more than one that will suit your taste...just like books.
Also, don’t discount authors because they are self-published or Indie. There are a lot of bad books out there in all publishing forums. Again, do your homework. What have other readers said about them? Do they have reviews? Have they won recognized national contests (not the kind their friends voted for)? Remember, many self-published authors today were previously published with “big” publishing houses and have since gone out on their own. One reason this is frequently done is because the publisher may have canned a series the readers love and the author decides to continue it on their own.


So, expand your reading palate. Take a chance or two on sampling new books outside your comfort zone. At the special wine tasting my friend set-up, we sampled seven wines, and even combined them with foods known to enhance the taste. I quickly became a fan. So I toast to you, hoping you do a little sampling on your own, and discover a few new authors and genres.
While chips and dip enhanced one of the wines, I have it on good authority (wink) that chocolate goes well with most books.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Other People's Houses


Growing up, our family Sundays were a hundred percent predictable. As soon as eleven o’clock Mass let out, my parents and I hit the road for a long, aimless drive in the Chrysler Imperial—to pretty much nowhere. I’d stare out the window from the backseat, resigned to my fate, as my mom pointed out houses that we were never going to buy. Most of them either weren’t for sale or were well out of our price range—but Mom just liked to “look.” And by the time I was seven or so, I could rattle off the differences between a Tudor and a Gambrel.

But that was just the beginning. I’m not sure what it was about other people’s abodes that fascinated Mom so much, but I spent a lot of time tagging along at open houses and garden tours and the furniture department at Bloomingdale’s. I half-listened as she chatted with homeowners, real estate agents, and designers, but mostly I sat in the corner making notes in my swirly-black composition notebook, pretending I was Harriet the Spy.

Then, after one snowy winter, construction began on a new home—Colonial, 4 bedrooms, 3 baths—just beyond our empty field. In my mind it took forever—but I couldn’t resist heading over as soon as the construction guys had quit for the day, to check on the progress. Rain or shine, I toured each room, tested the floorboards, and even the doorbell (just in case). I tried to imagine who our new neighbors would be, and whether there’d be a kid my age, and if they’d have a dog. As the home took shape, I planned where the Smith-Joneses would have their breakfast, where the TV would go, and who would take which bedroom. I also tested the stairs a little too soon, which was not one of my better ideas. As it turned out, no kids materialized, but the nice older couple did have a friendly Springer Spaniel and a Jaguar.

I thought I’d left my house-peeping days behind when I entered college, but Mom was not easily deterred. One of my classmates was a Crown Prince, and lived in a remote mansion well down the road from my dorm. On a drive to some convenient Parents’ Weekend festivity, she took a determined turn down an impossibly long driveway toward what looked like a real-live castle. I panicked in the passenger seat—partly due to the mortification in store when I saw my royal classmate in our next Poli Sci class, and also because snarling dogs had emerged from somewhere, along with two bulky guys in trench coats. They listened very politely as my Mom explained that she’d gotten lost, and sent us on our way. I don’t think I spoke to my mom much at the freshman parents’ dinner—but in truth, I wished we’d been able to look in the windows of that house.

By the time I was a mom myself—a very cautious, responsible one, I  might add—my parents had moved to Florida. Mom was in house heaven, because the investigative opps there were endless. But on one visit, I simply refused to accompany her. My older sister went instead—and the two of them ended up letting themselves into a home that actually wasn’t empty. Fortunately, my sister spotted the wallet and keys on the counter in time, as the couple was apparently busy upstairs.

So there you have it:  Nearly every member of my family has a secret history of trespassing and breaking and entering. And I ended up getting my real estate license last summer. But I still wonder about other people’s houses, and imagine their glamorous lives and shady secrets. And I can tell you the absolutely best places to store a body in your garden-variety Victorian.


Because that’s what we mystery writers love to do.

So, readers and fellow writers, have you ever done a tiny bit of snooping in the name of research?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Writing a Successful Series. Tips.


As Julie Moffett managed to steal write my blog about RT last week, I realized, I had to pretty quickly come up with something else to talk about.

I decided I‘d recap some of the tips I'd outlined for the panel Julie invited me to speak on: Series, sequels and spinoffs.
           
A book series can be linked either by the same characters continuing their fictional lives through ongoing books, or different characters linked by location, family ties, job, or various other options. In my opinion, books that have the same recurring main characters but have stories ending in a number of cliffhangers, are actually serials. Some people disagree.

Julie Moffett (who writes the same recurring characters in her Lexi Carmichael series) emphasized the need for developing an over-arching series arc. Some overriding question or mystery that starts in the first book and needs to be solved by the last. Then each individual book in the series has its own separate plot that will need to be resolved within each single title. The main characters should show growth in some way throughout both the book, and the series, until the series arc is concluded.

I don’t have an overriding series arc. I have some story questions that spread over more than one book, but my series is connected more by job (most of my characters work either for the FBI or are associated in some way with the FBI in some of the earlier books) and also by theme. One reader described my books as “Good people, doing bad things, for the right reasons.”

Most people are a little scared of my brain.

All my books can be read as standalones, but the strength of the series is you get a little more depth, a little more background if you start reading the books from the beginning. I don't summarize each of the previous books' plot in the subsequent books. And I try not to give away the bad guys. 

Plotting Tips
We all know not everybody likes to plot. But I find the only way I can write complicated stories is by detailed plotting and some crazy “what-iffing.” I like to plot out the emotional growth of the characters, the romantic interaction (attraction, first kiss, first time they have sex), the suspense, the evidence, and the progression of the police investigation—because it all has to make sense in the end. It doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t change or morph as I write, or even that I know everything that is going to happen. It just means I’m heading in the right direction to hopefully have it make sense.
I start the plotting process with Post-It notes. I also use Post-It notes to jot down ideas, little snippets of conversation, major plot points that come to me at the weirdest times. When the story feels like it might actually be something that might make a 100K novel I use Scrivener to plot it out in more detail. Scrivener is a software program designed for writers. It allows you to see your story in a much more flexible format. It also allows you to develop character profiles, allows you to store your research material within the same file, and allows you to move scenes around.

Hero Tips
There's a habit that many writers, especially Romance writers have, which is to make the current book hero the biggest, the baddest, the most handsome, the richest, the toughest, sexiest alpha dude imaginable. And then, if they are writing a series featuring different H/h, they write a book featuring another male in this same world. As a reader I find it very hard to fall for the new, secondary alpha hero because, to me, the writer already gave me the most important hero in the series.
So when writing my series I try not to make one hero so dominant that the other men are lessened in some way. I try to give each of the characters the starring role of their own book without diminishing the others. It’s not an easy balance.

Keeping Characters True To Themselves Tips.
Every character should sound or be a little different from the others. Be identifiable from their world view, in the language they use, in their priorities. It's really important to try and keep the voice of those characters consistent throughout the different novels, even when they switch from being a primary to a secondary character, or vice versa.
I do this in several ways. I have a notebook where I jot salient points about that character down. I reread sections that they've appeared in other books. And I sometimes re-listen and reread my entire novels. Yes, this is time-consuming and sometimes, frankly, torturous, but it immerses me in the characters’ world and reminds me what I was thinking when I created them. A quick and easy prompt is having a Pinterest board for each book. The actor that I pick for a character enables me to visualize that character more easily as I write about them.

Timeline Tips
I've been writing my Cold Justice Series for about five years, but anyone who pays attention will note that the actual timeline of the books only covers approximately four months. There's an awful lot packed into those four months. I used to write plot points on my computer calendar, but it gets a little weird to have the kids’ dental appointments next to a body dump. So what I do or what I've just started to do, is to input that timeline data into a program called Aeon.com. This allows me to actually insert when my characters are born, major life events, plot points that cross over the different books, and the timeline of each book. It allows me to know when my heroine’s baby is due (because the readers already know!!). Unfortunately, I'm working backwards when I'm adding this information. It would've been much smarter to start using this program when I started writing the books.

The Top Tip To Writing A Successful Series:
For me!!  Keep the time increments between books short. I said I've been writing the Cold Justice Series for about five years, but only takes up, so far, about four months. This keeps the series moving at a fast pace, it means that the readers don't feel like they've missed anything, and it gives the author a lot of flexibility with what happens next. This can create problems as real-life events shift and change, like we’re talking about a war going on that was happening at the beginning of the series and has since stopped. So another tip is to keep some of the real-life events a little vague. Same for some secondary characters, if you're thinking of using them possibly in future books, do so in a way that allows you to be flexible with their back story. Not so vague as they become indistinct, but nothing too concrete that keeps them out of the next story.

One last tip:
Someone once said to me something along the lines of “if you write books about the FBI’s BAU aren’t you going to get sick of writing serial killer stories?” But it was never my intention to just write about serial killers. Another key to writing a successful series is not to write the same book over and over again. My books are all Romantic Suspense stories set loosely around the BAU. I don’t believe I’ve written the same plot twice.


OK, I know that’s quick and dirty, but I have a sick child I need to check on and a dog who needs a walk, and book eight to finish. Hope you get something useful out of this blog J