Thursday, July 28, 2016


by Jackie King
Realistic dialogue with clear attributions makes the characters in your story come alive. Natural sounding dialogue helps distinguish one character from another. 

The death knell for a writer:
Have you ever been reading, and suddenly wondered which character is speaking? I have, and the experience frustrates me. I'm forced to stop reading and count quotation marks backward to the last attribution, then count forward to learn who’s talking. I’m annoyed right out of the story. I want to throw the book across the room. If I haven’t bonded with the characters in a special way, I might quit and move to another book in my TBR (to be read) stack.

Solution to the problem:
Dialogue confusion occurs when attributions aren’t given or when characters all sound alike. Realistic dialogue makes the people in a story come alive. Natural sounding dialogue can help distinguish one character from another even without names. If there's any doubt about the reader knowing who is speaking, use the simple attribution, said The word, "said," is almost invisible to American readers. Don't be afraid to use it .

 How do we keep the reader turning pages?
Try the following exercise to hone this skill:

Write a scene with three people without using names of characters.

I did this in a class once, and it was so much fun! I chose a high school principal’s office as the setting. The three characters were a teenage boy, his father and the principal. I worked all afternoon on this project, and finally achieved the goal to my satisfaction. I used body language and conversation only. No names.

My challenge:
The boy needed to sound young, and inexperienced. He's embarrassed, and intimidated  by the situation, but trying not to show his feelings to the grownups.

The father channeled a middle aged businessman, highly annoyed and embarrassed by his son’s bad behavior. He snapped at his son, was tersely polite with the principal, and he looked at his watch every couple of minutes.

The principal was professional, but obviously most interested in solving his problem and getting on with running the school. The premise of the scene was to portray a student getting little real guidance from either adult

A stealthy technique:
Good dialogue is not easy to write. Some people seem to have a natural flare for this, and others have to work hard and rewrite a number of times. Both writers create successful novels, and entertain readers.

Eavesdropping is a good tool for improving dialogue. When you’re at a restaurant, listen to the conversations nearby. This works even better, if you can’t see the people who are talking. Picture their appearance, age, color of hair, level of education, and apply that method to your own characters. Is one person from a different part of the country? How does his speech pattern and lingo differ from locals?

Moving on.

None of us, writers and readers alike, graduate from the school of life. We experience either joy or vexation, both through books and in life. We learn continually, and writers record this fine journey. 

Everything that’s going on in our seemingly mundane lives, will one day be considered history.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Writing Mistakes

by Jean Henry Mead

It’s often difficult for novices to break the writing habits they've learned in school. Perfect grammar, especially when writing dialogue, is one of the worst mistakes a writer can make. I was in an online critique group a dozen years ago, comprised mainly of unpublished writers. I’ll never forget a critique that said, “You need to clean up your characters’ grammar.” The characters were uneducated farmers.

Author William Noble once said, “The grammar rules we learned in eighth grade should never be followed absolutely. At best they are one choice among several, and at worst, they will dampen our creative instincts.”

The use of clichés is another fledgling blunder. The rule of thumb is: if it sounds familiar, don’t use it. If you can’t come up with something original and your muse is tugging you on, type in a row of Xs and write it later during the second draft. But if you must use a cliché, add the word proverbial as in "as profitable as the proverbial golden goose."

Of course there are rules that must be followed, such as adding commas for clarity and periods at the end of sentences. Some writers have felt that innovative sentence structure signals creativity, but the practice is only acceptable now in poetry. In Ulysses, for example, James Joyce’s last chapter begins with:

Yes, because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs. Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for the masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever. . .

Joyce’s stream of conscience continues for forty pages without a single period. I wonder how many people actually read it to the end. Creative and innovative? In my opinion, anything that slows the reader for even a few words may cause him to abandon the book.

On the opposite end of the sentence spectrum, Hemingway taught novices to write declarative sentences: “The day had been hot.” “The rifle was long and cold and strange.” “She wore black shoes, a red cape and a white tunic. . .” However, short, choppy sentences must be interspersed with longer ones to make them read well. A good practice for beginning writers is to read one’s work aloud to avoid clumsy phrasing. If words don’t flow well together and your reader stumbles over them, you’ve lost her.

Reading the classics doesn't prepare anyone well to write for today’s market. I’ve judged writing contest entries that contain the most formal language I’ve seen since reading War and Peace. Some fledglings avoid contractions entirely, even when writing dialogue. The result is stilted language.

Studying the bestsellers for style, content, description and characterization helps the beginner gain a handhold in the current market. Some writing teachers advise copying your favorite author’s work, as artists have done with the masters—as long as it’s only practice and doesn't result in plagiarism.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


by Jackie King

People have asked if there's a specific book that changed my life, and that question always stumps me. Many books have influenced me but what transformed my life was discovering books in general.

I remember the first time that I fell into the pages of a book all by myself. I can still recall the awe of it all. Between my hands I held the promise of a lifetime filled with adventure and pleasure and comfort. I was overcome by the wonder of it all, and, much like Dorothy in The Wonderful   Wizard of Oz, my world turned Technicolor.

My mother had read books to me, and I had loved that. But hearing those stories was limited by Mother having time available, and she was a busy woman.

The ability to read my very own hardcover book was a thrill that I’ll never forget.
I was seven years old and riding home on a school bus filled with high school kids who were Mother’s English students. Being a teacher's kid automatically made me a stationary target. All of the contempt these teens felt for being forced to write complete sentences without using double negatives found its way to me. The short ride to our small house in the country was usually an ordeal. But suddenly I had found a hiding place.

God smiled on me in the third grade when Miss Hinkle, an aging old maid whose life was teaching her students, put a book into my hands and encouraged me to read it as a way to entertain myself.

My earlier experience with reading books had featured the perfect world of Dick, Jane and Spot. While I admired these siblings and their pet, I didn’t have one thing in common with them.
Dick and Jane never got into trouble, and I did. Their parents agreed on most everything. Mine were divorced. Their mother stayed home with them, and mine had to work. While I admired such paragons of virtue, I couldn't identify with them.

In the book I read that day on the bus, the girl telling the story got into all kinds of trouble, and suddenly, magically, I was that girl!

The terrors of the bus didn’t disappear, but I had found a hiding place. Each time after that, when I opened the pages of a book, I found my life filled with excitement. That was the year I read my first mystery, one about the Bobbsey Twins. In another year or two came Nancy Drew. And when I was eighteen I discovered Agatha Christie and I was a goner.


What I'm reading now:

If I’m able to give my readers even an ounce of the pleasure that I have received from other authors, then I will have made Miss Hinkle proud.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Technically Challenged

by June Shaw

This is for all of us who were born technically challenged. I mean, Bob tells my sons not to use mechanical equipment--like a wheel barrel.

When computers became the thing (okay, I have to admit the first one was in our local college, and it took up two walls and was kept in a cold, locked room--but we could see it through all the windows), I said whoever knew how to work that thing was certainly brilliant. (Hint: I should have known then it wasn't going to be me.)

Fast forward awhile, and computers changed. They grew smaller, did not need to be kept in really cold conditions, and a few businesses had them.

"I think it's great that my children will probably learn how to use one of those things when they're in college," I'd tell everyone, so glad I would never have to go through that immense learning curve. After all, I'd given birth to five children, completed a B.A. plus in college, and began teaching whatever from my school's textbooks. There was one computer, and it was in the office, and as a lowly English teacher, I certainly did not learn to use it. (Remember the wheel barrel?)

Okay, but I did want to become a writer. I wanted to write novels, and yes, I had paper and a typewriter that usually worked, but did not have much extra time.

Getting to the point: Yes, I learned the basics of using a computer, which is so much easier to work with than a typewriter (but not the paper and pen), and I'm thrilled that I know what I do. I've written a number of books--maybe nine or ten--and they all come out of a computer until they come out in print or as e-books.

So why can't I use this blog? I'm on it with a number of great mystery authors who post regularly when they're supposed to, but my posts? Sometimes I think I've gotten one written and scheduled to show, and a week later I discover nope, that didn't happen. Now I'm trying again. I hope you'll all cheer for things to work out for me this time because, okay, I am better than a wheel barrel (although I do not want to use one.)

Am I the only one technically challenged? Gosh, one of my sons teaches computer usage to a group of people who work with him and one of my grandsons writes programs.

Please tell me some other person like me is out there. Thank you.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Don't blame the author!

by Carola

I'm in the middle of checking the galleys (known these days as First Pass Pages) for the third of my Daisy Dalrymple mysteries, Requiem for a Mezzo. It's going to be reissued with new artwork next January.
The process involves re-typesetting the text. I'm very glad I've been given a chance to go over it. You wouldn't believe how many fresh errors have crept in. There are letters missing from the middle of words; letters replaced with a different one; transpositions; and even one four-word phrase printed twice consecutively.

Last week I was checking the first pass pages of Buried in the Country, my fourth Cornish mystery, due out in December.

The manuscript went through my own final edit before sending it off, my editor's reading, the copyeditor's reading, my reading and editing of the copyeditor's corrections and suggestions, and then typesetting. The result was--not unexpectedly--considerably worse than Requiem's. Besides a few things all the editing eyes had missed, I found the horrid results of the typesetter's trying to make sense of my red-pencil changes to the copyeditor's brown-pencil changes. But as well as those, there were several introduced errors such as missing letters (as for was, offical for official), a name not capitalized, and oddest of all, scotch for splotch!

I hope I caught everything, but I wouldn't swear to it. Nor can I be certain that my corrections will make it correctly into print.

It's a complicated business going from a .doc file to a book. If the end result isn't perfect, don't blame the author!