Friday, July 3, 2015

Making a List and Checking It Twice

by Linda Rodriguez

I’m a big believer in using all the help technology and professional writing books and programs can give me in writing. I’ve tried using all kinds of workbooks, charts, and forms in working on a novel. I’m even exploring Scrivener-type software programs for use in writing my next book. I’m hardly on the cutting edge, but I’m also not one of the “if it was good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for me” types. Still, sometimes we look around and find simple everyday solutions to our problems, and it would be silly not to take advantage of them.

One of the most useful tools I’ve found in writing a novel is the simple, old-fashioned list. If you’re like me, you use lists to remind you what you need to do during the day, what you need to pack for a trip, what you need to buy at the grocery store, and dozens of other mundane projects, large and small. It’s easy to assume we need something more sophisticated for this complex novel (for novels are all more or less complex) that we’re trying to hold in our heads and build on paper. However, I’ve discovered that simple lists can help in several ways with making that story in our head a reality in print.

First of all, I keep running character and place lists. I write a mystery series. When I wrote the first book, Every Last Secret, I was creating all the characters from scratch, as well as all the places in my fictional town.  I wrote personality and appearance sketches for each character, but in addition, I made a list of each character as s/he appeared with a few words to note key characteristics. I did the same for places in my made-up town. This meant I could look up the full name of walk-on characters easily when I needed to much later in the book. It meant that I could easily look up the important details of the buildings on the campus and the shops on the town square as my protagonist, Skeet Bannion, walked past them or into them.

These lists tripled in value when I started the second book in the series and now the third. No one will have brown eyes in the first novel and baby-blues in one of the later books. Old Central, the 19th century castle-like mansion on the Chouteau University campus, will not morph into a 1960s Bauhaus box of a building.

Next, when I’m plotting ahead, simple lists come to my aid again. I’m a combination of outliner and follow-the-writing plotter. I like to know where the next 25-50 pages are going, plotwise—or to think I do, at least. I do this by making a list of questions that I need to answer about the book. In the beginning, I have lots of questions. The answer to only one or two may give me enough to start the next several days’ writing. I stole the idea of asking myself questions and answering them in writing from Sue Grafton. She posts to her website journals that she keeps while writing each novel, and in these, she often asks and answers these types of questions. I took it a bit further by trying to make long lists of questions that needed to be answered, which often, in turn, add more questions to the list when they are answered.

Answering the questions tells me where the story wants to go, but these lists also help me keep the subplots straight and make sure they tie in directly to the main plot, and they keep me from overlooking some detail or element that will create a plot hole or other disruption for the reader. These questions can vary from broad ones, such as “What is the book’s theme?” and “How can I ratchet up the excitement and stakes in Act II?” to more detailed, such as “What clue does Skeet get from this interview?” and “What’s on Andrew’s desk?” Such question lists come in handy during revision, as well.

During revision, I make yet another kind of simple list. As I’m reading the manuscript straight through in hard copy, I write down a list of questions as I go. I notice a weak spot and ask myself, “How can I let the reader know how much Jake meant to Skeet, as well as Karen?,” “Should I have Skeet attend Tina’s autopsy?,” and all too often, “Reads competent enough, but where’s the magic?”

After going through my lists of hundreds of big to tiny fixes and changes to make, and either making them (most) or listing by scene where in the book to make the fix (for major issues), I sit down to wrestle with 5-15 major problems from almost but not quite minor to huge and complex. This final list is my guideline through the swamps of revision. The issues on this list require changes that thread throughout part or all of the book. Trying to do them all at once or even to keep them in my mind all at the same time would bog me down—perhaps forever. Listing them and working my way one item at a time through that list helps me to keep my focus even while dealing with very complex situations that must be woven in and out through the length of the novel.

In short, simple lists make the complex task of writing a novel doable for me. What about you? Do you use lists in your writing? Are there other tools you use for keeping track and keeping focused as you plot, write, and revise?

REPLIES TO COMMENTS (because Blogger hates me):
Sparkle Abbey, don't you find lists really help you juggle in your mind all those layers and levels that come into writing?

Kay, keep your lists on the computer in the same folder as your drafts of the book, and then you won't have to worry about losing them.

Marjorie, see my suggestion to Kay above.

Debra, I usually keep my lists, though I often use Word's cross-through feature to show myself that I've taken care of that item. This helps with revision and with series continuity, and I've found it very useful when teaching. I give my students samples of actual documents I used in writing my books, so they can see how the process works. As to the list of illnesses, etc., from your mouth to G-d's ear.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Independence Day Celebrations

by Sparkle Abbey

Laguna Beach Fireworks
Around the U.S. plans are being made for the upcoming Independence Day weekend. In Laguna Beach where the Pampered Pets Mysteries are set, residents and visitors will be celebrating the 4th of July holiday with free admission to the Art-a-Fair Fine Arts Festival and a patriotic band concert at 10:30 AM by the Laguna Concert Band. Then in the evening there will be fireworks originating from Monument Point at Heisler Park. With the Pacific Ocean as the backdrop, we bet they’ll be awesome!

Concert at Iowa State Capitol
Yankee Doodle Pops Iowa Capitol
Here in the Midwest, there will be parades with floats, high school marching bands, kids on bikes festooned with red, white and blue streamers. Later on there will be picnics, swimming, and community fireworks.  Some of the festivities begin today with the symphony’s Yankee Doodle Pops at the State Capitol. This year’s theme is America’s Musical Heartland which includes a commissioned movement, Symphony On A Stick, which depicts in music the sights and sounds of the Iowa State Fair. (At the Iowa State Fair, which isn’t until August, you can find almost any type of food on a stick.)

Dogs in sunglassesWe love the tradition of family get-togethers on the 4th.  Our celebrations will most likely include friends and family and fireworks. Parades, food on the grill and sparklers for the kids. What about you? What are your plans for the weekend? A cook-out or picnic? A lawn chair and a book? Check out our Pinterest board Celebrations for some other ideas for special Independence Day snacks. Leave a comment below to be entered in the #giveaway for a free Sparkle Abbey book and summer celebration reading tote!

Downton Tabby Cover
In our latest book, Downton Tabby, pet therapist, Caro Lamont, agrees to keep an office mate’s cat while he runs home. Little does she know that charming Brit, Graham Cash, will not be coming back for his feline anytime soon. Soon there’s a dead body, a missing person, a snoopy reporter, and a mysterious SUV. In short order Caro and the rest of her crew are involved in a dangerous game of cat and mouse.

Sparkle Abbey is the pseudonym of mystery authors Mary Lee Woods and Anita Carter. They’ve chosen to use Sparkle Abbey as their pen name because they liked the idea of combining the names of their two rescue pets – Sparkle (ML’s cat) and Abbey (Anita’s dog). The authors co-write the bestselling Pampered Pets Mystery Series which focuses on the wacky world of precious pedigrees, pampered pooches, and secrets in posh Laguna Beach, California.

They love to hear from readers so stop by their website: 
Or visit them on Facebook at:

Next up? Book 8: Raiders of the Lost Bark

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Motherhood and Murder

By Kay Kendall
Author Kay Kendall and bunny Dusty

When I conceived of my mystery series featuring Austin Starr, amateur sleuth, I knew she would become a mother by book two. My heroine would have the temperament of Nancy Drew, if only she had grown up, gotten married, and—wait for it—had a baby. And so it came to pass. That book launches next week on July 7. In Rainy Day Women, Wyatt Starr makes his first fictional appearance. He is three months old.

Sad to say, his gestation and birth were not easy. Even though I tried to make him an integral part of the story, when I took new pages to writing group on Wednesday nights, one member invariably asked, “Where’s Wyatt?” Sometimes the woman said, “Doesn’t Wyatt need a clean diaper now?” I admitted it was difficult caring for a child—even a fictional one—while solving the murders of  women’s liberation activists. Eventually after many sessions like this, I internalized the voice of that group member. She seemed to sit beside me as I typed on my PC. “What’s Wyatt doing now?” she whispered in my ear.

A man in our group once pounded his fist and asked, “Can’t you get rid of Wyatt? Austin Starr doesn’t need to be a mother.” I replied, “Yes, she does. Her pregnancy is announced at the end of book one, and she will not miscarry.” All group members agreed we had come to comprehend more fully why so few children are found running through murder mysteries.  

Determined to retain baby Wyatt, I needed to ensure I didn’t make any missteps about him on the page. After all, my own child was now in his forties. What did I recall about the day-to-day care of an infant? Visits with my two darling grandchildren weren’t enough to refresh my mind sufficiently.

Houston writers Cathy (l.) and Emily
That’s where two budding novelists came into the picture.  I met Cathy and Emily at a previous writing group I attended. Cathy was married and had children who were four and seven years old, and Emily’s children were even younger. As we all became good friends, I saw how much they had to juggle in their lives. Viewing their unending childcare duties refreshed my memories of how my own life had once been that hectic too, when my son was small. Both women were kind enough to read through my manuscript before I sent it to my editor and found a few details to tweak that related to Austin Starr’s baby. For their diligence, Cathy and Emily earned hearty thanks in the acknowledgement section of my book.

But one last read-through was required. My college friend Regina had earned
Dr. Regina Miller
her Ph.D. in child psychology, and she agreed to read my manuscript looking for missteps too. In fact, she did triple duty. Her command of the Russian language is better than mine so she checked my occasional uses of Russian. Similarly, being of Jewish faith, she reviewed my references to several characters who were Holocaust survivors. Regina is also gratefully thanked in my acknowledgements section.

I encourage you to read Rainy Day Women and decide for yourself if Wyatt's welfare is adequately tended to. Just keep this in mind. The mystery takes place in August 1969—so long ago that no laws existed to require the use of car seats for children. Austin Starr was following the custom of the day—and would not have been considered negligent—when she cuddles her son while she is a passenger in a car. Children have come a long way, baby!
Kay Kendall is a long-time fan of historical novels and writes atmospheric mysteries that capture the spirit and turbulence of the sixties. She is also an award-winning international PR executive who lives in Texas with her husband, three house rabbits, and spaniel Wills. Terribly allergic to her bunnies, she loves them anyway! Her book titles show she's a Bob Dylan buff too. RAINY DAY WOMEN publishes on July 7--the second in her Austin Starr Mystery series. The E-book and paperback are available for pre-order now--for purchase on July 7th. The audio-book will be soon. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Summer Reading - Part I - Murder on Wheels

The end of the school year always meant the beginning of the library’s summer reading challenge. My goal was to read the most books for my age level while enjoying what I was reading. Recently, when I finished the first draft of my WIP, I closed my computer and kicked off ten days of fun summer reading.  I devoured mysteries, biographies, literary fiction, and an anthology of short stories.

This post and my July 10th blog will discuss my Summer Reading and a bit of its impact on my writing. Fair disclosure, although the next blog will be devoted to books I purchased, today I am writing about Murder on Wheels, a book given to me because of my interest in reading, writing and reviewing short stories.

Murder on Wheels, published by Wildside Press, LLC (2015), contains eleven stories written by Austin Mystery Writers Kathy Waller, V.P. Chandler, Gale Albright, Kaye George, Laura Oles, Scott Montgomery, and invited authors Earl Staggs and Reavis Z. Wortham.  Ramona DeFelice Long deftly edited the “11 Tales of Crime on the Move.”

The genesis for this wheel related vehicle was a trip Kaye George’s husband took on the Megabus, a commercial double-decker bus.  Seeing the bus, Kaye’s mind instinctively wondered how one could successfully commit a murder and hide the body on the bus.  She consulted members of her Austin Mystery Writers group and their imaginations ran wild.

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round ties together George’s idea and the Austin Mystery Writers' suggestions for where to hide the body.  What I found to truly make the story is Kaye George’s excellent characterizations.  With few words, she brings a reader into the heart and soul of her characters.

Although the literal me needed to ignore how a few minor things might happen in real life, much as I do when I read the Harry Potter books, Kaye George’s The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round and Have a Nice Trip, and Kathy Waller’s Hell on Wheels and A Nice Set of Wheels hit the mark for delivering perfectly pitched characters.  Each story was different, as were its characters, but there wasn’t one character in the four stories I wouldn’t want to read about again.

Gale Albright’s stories Mome Rath, My Sweet and Aporkalypse Now also depicted characters well, but their literary references to Alice and Wonderland and play on words required a bit more attention than I anticipated sharing with an author during my mindless state of fun time reading.

Rota Fortunae by V.P. Chandler was not a cozy read.  Rather, it was compelling.  Very different than the other stories in the anthology, it used setting, characterization, dialogue, and a sinister feeling to evoke a feeling of unrest that carried this reader from the first to the last word.

Whether reading about tractor, bicycle, bus or car wheels, I found myself transported by Family Business (Reavis Z. Wortham), Buon Viaggio (Laura Oles) and Red’s White F-150 Blues (Scott Montgomery).  Each individually is worth the price of a ticket for a Murder on Wheels ride.

Because it left me thinking afterwards, my favorite story in the anthology is Dead Man on a School Bus by Earl Staggs.  Staggs is a master storyteller who didn’t let his perfect use of the mechanical aspects of short story writing get in the way of crafting distinct characters and plot points. Whether talking about a pencil that isn’t being twirled, using an internal thought flashback, or juxtaposing concrete and suggestive feelings, Staggs managed to summarize a lifetime of feelings into a few pages.

Watch for my July 10th blog to see what else I read during my summer reading excursion.