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When an Author Has an Urge for Something Different

30 Jun

“I love your books! When is the next one coming out?” Music to a writer’s ears, to be sure.

But what happens when a writer has the urge to write something different than her previous novels? Maybe a different genre, a stand-alone that is not part of an established series, or a young adult novel when the previous ones have been aimed at adults. Will her audience stick with her and her new adventure? Will she find new readers?

I am about to find out. The novel I am currently working on is a departure from my first three which were all mysteries involving Nara Blake, an adventurous young woman from the fictional Caribbean island of Saint Clare.

I am now on about the third revision of a completely different type of novel. Different audience — young adult. Different genre — historical fantasy. The two consistent characteristics are the connection to authentic facts in British history (as I did in Lydia’s Story), and a strong female protagonist.

Without giving too much away, I will tell you that I have taken some historical events of thirteenth century England and created a parallel magic world that explains some of the mysteries surrounding these events. I just can’t get away from the mysteries! Creating a world for a fantasy novel has been great fun as well as challenging. On the one hand, I have the freedom to let my imagination run wild. What if I could slip through a secret doorway and emerge in a castle and in another century? At the same time, a new world needs rules. If magical people can slip from one century to the next, how much do they know about each time and place?

These are complicated questions, but fun to exercise the freedom of working it out. As I have told my students, writing is exercise for the brain, and brains need workouts just like bodies do.

Many well known writers have been criticized for writing novels outside of their established mold. J.K. Rowling will forever be known as the creator of Harry Potter and his magical world, no matter what else she attempts as a writer. John Steinbeck endured criticism for not writing a follow-up to The Grapes of Wrath. And while I don’t place myself in either of their categories, I understand the fine line between pleasing an audience and exercising my creativity, which is what led me to write in the first place.

And if you love Nara and her adventures in my first three books, I am planning another one, which will probably take her to Spain to solve another mystery involving art.

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Blog Hopping for The Writer’s Process

14 Jul

I’m doing a question and answer session today for The Writer’s Process blog. It is a little introduction to my writing, and those of you who know me may learn something about me you didn’t know before. I would love to read your comments!

What am I working on/writing?

I am currently working on a YA historical fantasy set in England in the early thirteenth century, tentatively titled Magic Words. It centers around the royal treasure that was lost by King John in the Wash, an arm of the North Sea along the coast of England. My main character is a young girl with magical powers whose family may have something to do with the location of the treasure, but of course because of her powers, she is accused of witchcraft and is running for her life. I chose the subject of the lost treasure because it truly is a historical mystery. The treasure was lost in 1216, and no trace of it was ever found, although treasure hunters have certainly looked for it.

I have the rough draft of the story finished, and now I am revising and verifying the historical facts that can be verified. This is the first YA story that I have attempted, and I am quite excited about it.

How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?

Although Magic Words is my first YA novel, it is similar to my other novels in that three out of the four are set in Britain. The fourth is set on a fictional island in the Caribbean. I get my best story ideas while I am traveling, and setting is very important to me both as a reader and a writer. The story grows out of the setting, and the setting is as much a part of the story as any character.

I write the kind of stories that I like to read, and that usually involves a foreign country and maybe a time set in the past.

Why do I write what I do?

I have been fascinated by British culture and history since I was a small child. When I was five or six years old I had a scrapbook where I pasted photos of the British royal family that I found in newspapers and magazines. I played “princess,” but a real princess, and I learned about the history of the royal family. As I grew older, I continued to follow the royal family, but I also studied British history and read every historical novel set in Britain that I could get my hands on. I taught history at the high school level for several years, and eventually traveled to Britain. I have been there several times now, including spending two weeks in Wales at writing retreats, and I never tire of it.

I was also inspired by the mysteries of Elizabeth George, an American writer who sets her novels in Britain. I admire her attention to detail and knowledge of present day Britain and their criminal justice system.

How does my writing process work?

As I said before, setting is very important to me. I usually start with a character in a scene, in a specific setting. Once I have this germ of a story written down, I think about what I want to happen with the character, and so give myself a direction with the story. I find outlines too rigid, and I don’t stick with them because I come up with other ideas as I write, but I do have a direction in my mind where I want the story to go. I sometimes write sketches of the main characters to flesh them out and learn about their personalities and how they handle situations. I keep track of the characters on a chart or list, because they tend to go off in unexpected directions, or pop up in a scene where I didn’t plan on them appearing.

Once my rough draft is finished, I go back and tighten and clarify the story, add color, and verify facts and historical details. I don’t try to do all my research before I start writing, but it is very important to have historical and geographical details accurate.

Writing the rough draft is the easiest part, because I can just let my imagination flow. I have even worked on rough drafts while walking around the classroom when I was substitute teaching. Revising takes more concentration and focus.

This is how I write. I would love to answer questions or respond to comments.

Who Loves Lady MacBeth?

23 Jun

 

Writers often create characters who are not likeable, to serve as foils or antagonists for the main characters. These antagonists exhibit qualities in opposition to the main characters in order to create conflict. Readers love an evil character. Think of the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. We love to have someone to cheer against and hope for a demise appropriate to their state of badness.

As a writer, it is fun to create a “bad” character. There is a kind of evil “bitchiness” that comes out in characters who do and say things that I would never do. I have heard the same said by actors who enjoy playing evil roles like Lady MacBeth. There is something very satisfying in the complexity of a negative character. Few people are truly evil, and the “good” people and characters have a little of the dark side hidden away,too.

Then there are some books whose characters are not likeable at all, but that still convey an important theme or idea. The Great Gatsby is one that springs to mind. None of the characters is a nice person, except maybe for Nick Carroway, the narrator, who may have gone on in life to be a good person, but the book contains an important message about materialism and selfishness.

All in all, writers want their readers to either love or hate their characters enough to care about what what happens to them, whether they survive and succeed, die a horrible death, or something in between. That is what makes a story. And even then, sometimes, the “good” don’t come out on top, and the “bad” are not punished enough for our liking. That’s life.

In my latest book, Hotel Saint Clare, I loved writing the character Crystal. While she is not 100% evil, she is a character I loved to hate.

Can you read a book in which the main character is unlikeable? Have you put a book down because you just didn’t like the characters?

A Good Book I’ve Read Lately

13 Feb

Every once in a while I like to post a review of a book I have enjoyed. Murder in Thrall by Anne Cleeland is in one of my favorite genres, a British detective novel, but with a twist. This is my review that was published in Suspense Magazine. I recommend it.

Rookie detective Kathleen Doyle is paired up with renowned Chief Inspector Michael Sinclair ( Lord Acton) in a Scotland Yard mystery that quickly becomes personal for both detectives. Doyle possesses an uncanny ability to detect when a person is lying, and Sinclair relies on her abilities even as he is falling in love with the red-haired Irish woman. He is something of an enigma himself, with a reputation for solving the most difficult of crimes while remaining aloof from his fellow officers. When one of their prime witnesses is murdered, Doyle and Acton find themselves increasingly in the eye of the killer, and the Chief Inspector endeavors to protect his partner for his own romantic reasons, while she struggles to do her job, and keep their relationship a secret from other members of the force.

Each chapter begins with Sinclair’s thoughts about Doyle, leading the reader to wonder if his interest is genuine, or if is he stalking her for nefarious reasons. As one murder follows another, Doyle struggles to prove her abilities as a rookie detective, but everyone in her department at Scotland Yard defers to Acton, and she can only follow his instructions, both to keep their relationship a secret from their professional associates and to protect Doyle’s life.

Author Anne Cleeland unfolds the story in an unexpected manner. The snippets at the beginnings of each chapter give insight into Acton’s mind and growing feelings for Doyle, and also increase the tension of the plot. As the author slowly reveals Doyle’s impoverished childhood in Dublin, she takes on depth as a human being with all the worries and uncertainties and life. When the killer is finally identified, it is totally unexpected. The test of a good book is always how much one thinks about the characters when the book is done, and I am still wondering what would happen next. I look forward to more Acton and Doyle Scotland Yard mysteries.

The “Nature” of Setting

17 Jan

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I have always wondered how a person’s surrounding affect they way they live. How is it different to grow up on the flat land of Illinois in the midst of corn fields and soy beans, compared to a city overlooked by an ancient castle (Edinburgh, Scotland), or the lushness of tropical trees and flowers. Different people react in different ways to their childhood environment, and I am not sure it has anything to do with whether or not a childhood was happy. I had a very happy childhood in Illinois in the midst of the corn fields, but I have no desire to go back there, and neither do my brothers. We were always taught to think big, dream big and explore the world, and we have done just that. Illinois is where I am from, not where I am.

In my latest Nara book, tentatively titled Hotel St. Clare, which is actually the beginning of her story, we go back to the island country of St. Clare, where she grew up, and will see how her island upbringing helped to shape her personality and character. At that time, and at the beginning of The Gate House, Nara had very strong ties to St. Clare and life on the islands. But circumstances and people change, and perhaps if she returned, it would not be the same. By the end of Lydia’s Story, how would she feel?

What do you think? I would love to hear how other people have been shaped, or not, by the place where they grew up.

Forward to the Past

27 Apr

Writers never throw anything away, or at least they shouldn’t. This week I pulled out an old “almost novel” that I wrote before my first one, The Gate House, was published.

This one, tentatively titled Nara of the Islands, is really the original story of my protagonist who appears in both The Gate House and Lydia’s Story. This book tells of the years just before she and her father moved to England, and her life in the fictional Caribbean island nation of St. Clare.

It is interesting to read something that I wrote almost ten years ago, and to see how my style has changed, and the images of my characters. It is a very different book from the last two in some ways. Although it is somewhat a mystery, there are elements of magic that I let go of in the later books.

I think it is a story that needs to see the light of day, for better or worse. I plan to polish it and at least self-publish on Kindle later this year.

If you are a writer, do you sometimes “resurrect” old pieces to rework them? And readers, what about other types of old projects? Is it fun or frustrating to go back something you worked on in the past?

Killing a Cockroach with Kindness

8 Jan
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Jump into life!

I was walking through the hallway of a local high school where I sometimes substitute teacher, and encountered a teaching standing in the hallway holding a small spray bottle in her hand and staring into a trash can.

“I’m trying to kill a cockroach with essential oils,” she said. She gave it another squirt. “Or at least make it drunk enough that I can step on it and it won’t crawl up my leg.”

“You need a cat,” I commented. My cats make short work of any kinds of varmints that they find.

The teacher continued to stare at the cockroach, giving it an occasional squirt of the essential oils. “We are out in the country. Well, we aren’t in the city. What is a cockroach doing here?”

The encounter made me think about how we react when we find something in an unexpected place. The teacher thought that cockroaches belonged in the city. It surprised me to see someone spraying a cockroach with scented spray. Somehow a discovery like this jolts us out of our everyday routine and forces us to think in a new way, at least for a moment. This is a valuable experience for writers in particular, but it works for anyone. We all need to be prodded every once in a while to just look at life and laugh or cry, or both.

As Ferris Bueller said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Review of David Bell’s The Hiding Place

21 Nov

Although The Hiding Place is certainly not a Thanksgiving book, I though it appropriate to post my review of this book which appeared in Suspense Magazine. This novel deals with two families and the secrets that were kept for many years. It seemed fitting for the holiday season in that it emphasizes how easy it is to hurt those we love the most.

Twenty-five years ago Janet Manning’s four year old brother disappeared. His body was found some weeks later in a woods not far from the family home. Now, all these years later, a mysterious man has appeared on Janet’s doorstep in the night, claiming to know the truth about her brother’s death. The man disappears, and Janet tries to put it out of her mind, but her teenage daughter has overheard the conversation, and begins an investigation of her own.

The memories of that day in the past, when Janet’s family was forever changed, begin to emerge little by little. Janet had been only seven years old at the time, but still blamed herself because she was charged with watching her little brother that day. But as time goes on, she learns that she was not the only family member who has lived with guilt and secrets for twenty-five years.

I found the title of the book to be particularly appropriate in that it can refer to the way family members often hide the truth from one another, as well as the location where a little boy was buried. The story is about a terrible crime, and also about the “crimes” that human beings can commit against the people they are closest to.

David Bell does a masterful job  of crafting a crime story, with the guilty and innocent existing next to each other, whether they realize it or not. He has also created a tense drama of emotions and relationships. It is a riveting book with surprising but believable twists on every page.

I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season.

Giving Birth to “Lydia’s Story”

25 Sep

My newest novel, Lydia’s Story, is now available all the major book sellers.

If you are a writer, you know what a wonderful rush comes along with writing those words. If you are not a writer, just think of any major project you have embarked on in your life — giving birth to a child, completing a college degree, running a marathon. And as with any major project, the work isn’t done yet. I want people to read my book!

I describe Lydia’s Story as a sequel/prequel to my first novel, The Gate House. I took the main character, Nara Blake, and moved her forward in time by about a year, but then I gave her a challenge. I placed a stack of her great-grandmother’s diaries in her hands, and posed a dilemma. The family has always held that Lydia and Allan Roberts died in the London Blitz in 1940 or 1941, but the diaries go up to 1942. As Nara reads and learns more about her ancestors, she finds that she is on a collision course with a brother and sister from France who are also looking for their lost heritage, but theirs are valuable works of art that were lost during World War II.

I loved the research into how the British worked to preserve their precious art works and cultural heritage as well as protect their island from invasion by the Germans. I loved putting the pieces of the novel together, melding past with present, and tying the sections together with Lydia’s diary entries.

My “baby” is out in the world now. I wish her the best. I will support her as best I can, and at the same time, I am ready to start something new.

 

Writing Honest Book Reviews

10 Sep

There is a lot of criticism these days about biased book reviews and writers reviewing each others books in order to post glowing reviews. I write reviews for Suspense Magazine, and I also occasionally read a book by a fellow writer and post the review on Amazon and GoodReads. I never write a negative review. And I have read some books that I did not enjoy at all.

Even if I don’t like a book, there is probably someone out there who will. There is no reason to trash someone hard work. I describe the plot and characters in the novel, and try to place to story in a category. If it is a story of zombie aliens rampaging the countryside, I make that clear. It’s not a story that appeals to me, but it appeals to some readers.

If I really believe some parts of the book are badly written, I may just question those aspects and try to put it in perspective. If a writer uses an expression that is regional, but doesn’t fit the character, I will mention it. If a writer makes a small error, as in a recent example when I reviewed a book in which the “French press was whistling in the kitchen,” my antenna for errors goes up, but I won’t mention it. Everyone makes mistakes.

I  have seen reviews that criticized the use of swear words in a novel, and either too many sex scenes or too few. As a reviewer, I want to be as honest as possible without dwelling on the weaknesses of the book or the author.

As a reader, I want to read reviews that tell me what to expect, but I always take extremely negative reviews (of anything, not just books) with a grain of salt. Long, negative rants just sound like the reviewer had a bad day, or dislikes the book or author for some other reason.

Check out some of my reviews on Amazon or GoodReads and tell me what you think. See if you can tell if I liked or dislike the books.