The Nose Knows

The Nose Knows
Terry Odell

Sense of Smell

Image by MarionF from Pixabay

When we learned to write (and it’s an ongoing process, so I shouldn’t be using the past tense), we were told to pay attention to using the senses. Most of us focus on sight and sound, but there’s another sense that can bring additional life to your writing–the sense of smell. Sure, we might mention it if a character walks into a restaurant, or stumbles on a dead body, but otherwise, it’s frequently left out of our writing, or not utilized except in passing. Elaine did an excellent post about this several years ago, with excellent examples, but I thought the subject would be worth another visit.

Why is the sense of smell important? First, it’s another way for readers to connect to our characters. It’s also one of our most powerful senses. A brief detour into basic biology. I’ll spare you a lot of the technical talk, and cut right to the chase. If you’d like to delve deeper into the physiology, I’ll leave links at the end of this post.

The part of our brain that processes olfactory stimuli (smells) is closely connected to both memory and emotional centers. The other senses, like sight and sound, make a stop at the thalamus, which is the main relay station for the brain. From there, they go on to their processing centers. Not so the sense of smell. Scents go straight to the olfactory bulb, the brain’s smell center. This center is directly connected to the amygdala, the center for emotions, and the hippocampus, which plays a major role in memory. No, there’s not going to be a test, but this explains why a smell can trigger a detailed memory or a powerful emotion.

Okay, so there’s scientific documentation that smells are linked to memories and emotions. Any writing connections? Marcel Proust explored the phenomenon in Swann’s Way, wherein his character is transported to his childhood after savoring a madeleine cake soaked in tea. These memory/odor connections are referred to as the “Proust Phenomenon”—the ability of odors to cue autobiographical memories.

Many of us could stand to do more with the sense of smell in our writing.

Characters should not only be noticing smells, but they should be reacting to them as well. Detecting an odor could mean danger. Smoke waking them up at night. Food that doesn’t smell ‘right.’ A character’s scent memories can be a way to introduce back story, or move the plot forward.

A reminder, too, that sensory details shouldn’t be used like a laundry list. They need to mean something.

While I don’t pretend to have any remote similarities to Proust, I do try to include the sense of smell in my writing. They’re not deep, or ‘beautiful prose’, but they add to characterization, or move the story along.

Show, don’t tell, so here are a few examples from my own work.

From Finding Sarah, when the inevitable romance plot ‘black moment’ has separated Randy from Sarah. Throughout the book, he’s noticed the scent of her peach shampoo.

Randy spent the next few days wallowing in his own misery. Feeling like a first-class idiot, he’d even gone to Thriftway and bought a quart of Peach Blossom shampoo, only to pour it down the drain after using it once.

From Nowhere to Hide. We get a hint of the kind of taste Graham has from this snip:

Deputy Graham Harrigan sat at his computer in the Sheriff’s Office substation, the normal sounds of office activity fading to white noise as he hunted and pecked his way through the report he needed to file. As he’d told himself countless times, he should take a keyboarding class so he could get through the drudgery faster. The smell of stale, burnt coffee permeated the air, and he wished he’d taken a few minutes to stop at Starbucks.

And, from the same book, a look into Colleen’s past

Colleen jerked awake, drenched in sweat and tangled in the sheets. She sat up and fought the nausea as the memories came back, crystal clear and in freeze frame, like a slide show from hell.

A domestic dispute. By the book, she and Montoya using all the right phrases: “Yes, Mrs. Bradford. You don’t need the knife. Relax, Mr. Bradford. I’ll take the bat. Let’s sit down. Talk to me, Mr. Bradford.” The tension lifting.

Someone on the stairs. “You bastard! You’ll never hurt my mother again.” Kid, late teens at best. Brandishing a gun. Shooting. So much shooting. The noise. The smells. Gunpowder. Blood.

Our brains are wired to recognize unfamiliar smells. They also acclimate to prolonged exposure. My husband never noticed the smells he brought home after performing necropsies on marine mammals. One nick in his glove, and I knew it, but he was oblivious.

Check your current work for scent references. One way is to do a search on words such as odor, aroma, wafted, scent, smell.

Many of our scent memories relate to childhood because that’s when we experience them for the first time.

What scent memories do you have? For me, it’s the smell of birdseed. My great aunt and uncle had an egg ranch (which meant they raised chickens), and when we visited, we’d help feed the chickens. I’m transported back there every time we open a bag of birdseed.

My references for this post beyond my aging memory of physiology classes:

Why do smells trigger memories?

Here’s Why Smells Trigger Such Vivid Memories

Why Smells and Memories Are So Strongly Linked in Our Brains

What about your characters? How have you used the sense of smell to add depth or move the story? Examples welcome.


In the Crosshairs by Terry OdellNow available for pre-order. In the Crosshairs, Book 4 in my Triple-D Romantic Suspense series.

Changing Your Life Won’t Make Things Easier
There’s more to ranch life than minding cattle. After his stint as an army Ranger, Frank Wembly loves the peaceful life as a cowboy. Financial advisor Kiera O’Leary sets off to pursue her dream of being a photographer until a car-meets-cow incident forces a shift in plans. Instead, she finds herself in the middle of a mystery, one with potentially deadly consequences.



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Interview with Blackstone Publishing’s Rick Bleiweiss

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Today, please welcome Rick Bleiweiss, Head of New Business Development for Blackstone Publishing. Rick is a former record company senior executive, Grammy-nominated producer, podcaster, and journalist. He is also the author of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, a mystery set in 1910 in a sleepy English village, to be released in February 2022.

Rick Bleiweiss

 

 

…what I’m doing at 77 years of age [is] an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.

 

 

 

Debbie Burke: Blackstone Publishing is unusual in that they started with audiobooks then later added print and ebooks. Could you tell us about that shift and the reasons behind it?

Rick Bleiweiss: The decision to begin publishing books and ebooks in addition to audiobooks was made about seven years ago. We published our first books in 2015. It was primarily driven by three things.

First, the more popular audiobooks became the more other publishers held onto those rights, made their own audiobooks, and stopped licensing them to other companies, such as Blackstone.

Second, we felt that we could succeed well as a publisher of books and audiobooks and have those as another income stream. And we felt we could ramp up quickly as we already were evaluating manuscripts, involved with authors and storytellers, and selling and distributing audiobooks to many of the same buyers at accounts whom we’d be selling books and eBooks to. So that would make it an easy transition.

An added benefit of licensing all rights to a book – print, ebook, audiobook – is that we would be getting the audios, which would start making up for the ones we were no longer getting from some other publishers.

Third, the vision of Blackstone’s CEO (and owners) was to make Blackstone into more than just a traditional publishing company, but rather to turn it into a media company that has publishing and storytelling as its foundation, but also is involved in securing film & tv deals and being a media producer, creating intellectual properties, doing video games, comic books and magazines, and creating and selling merchandising. And we are doing all of that today and more, including owning our own printing plant so that we can make everything in house and never be out of print.

Regarding how we started our print program, early on we obtained the rights to the Max Brand and Loius L’Amour catalogs and signed a number of authors who had some past success but were not yet major sellers. Then it really kicked up a notch when I signed PC & Kristin Cast and we published the last of their books in their 12-million selling House of Night series. Then our CEO Josh Stanton and I got the James Clavell catalog, and I signed Natasha Boyd, who has had one of our biggest on-going books, the USAToday best-seller, The Indigo Girl. That was closely followed by signing Nicholas Sansbury Smith and his Hell Divers series.

DB: In 2019, Blackstone, a family-owned, independent press, made news by luring heavy hitters Meg Gardiner, Steve Hamilton, and Reed Farrel Coleman away from Penguin Random House. Without spilling any secrets, do you anticipate Blackstone’s further expansion of authors who may be disgruntled with the Big Five?

RB: Actually, they were not the first nor have they been the last, although they were major signings. I wouldn’t characterize it as disgruntled with the Big Five as much as wanting to go with a different publisher paradigm. Josh Stanton and I were able to license the aforementioned entire James Clavell catalog (including his classic Asian Series featuring Sho-Gun) and Gregory McDonald’s catalog (Fletch and Flynn series) both of which I believe had been with Dell for many years but whose estates were looking for something different. Other authors who we have signed to do print and eBooks who have also been with major publishers are Sherilyn Kenyon, Heather Graham, Catherine Coulter, Rex Pickett, James Carroll, Peter Clines, Andrews & Wilson, PC & Kristin Cast, Josh Hood, a good part of the Leon Uris catalog, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Al Roker, Eric Rickstad, Brian Freeman, Adrian McKinty, Orson Scott Card, M.C. Beaton, Matthew Mather, Don Winslow, Shelley Shepherd Gray, Catherine Ryan Howard, The Black Berets series and quite a few others.

I think that many people are starting to realize that we are expanding well beyond the role of a traditional publisher and that we are looking at what tomorrow’s successful media/publishing companies will be like and look like, rather than the traditional way of doing things. Hopefully, we have taken the best time-honored industry practices and augmented them with newer ways of looking at what a publisher can and should do. As an example, we have a head of film/tv who got deals for eight of our books within the last three months.

DB: Please describe a day in the life of Head of New Business Development.

RB: Fortunately, because it keeps my business life interesting, there have been many different things I’ve done in that role. I’ve bought other companies for Blackstone (such as the direct-to-consumer company, Audio Editions), licensed our technology to other audiobook companies, arranged distribution deals with other publishers, made introductions between Blackstone and high-profile tech and content companies, I am on Blackstone’s Board of Directors, I put together the relationship between Blackstone and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival which resulted in Grammy-winning audio versions of their Shakespeare plays, I co-created a series of books by Native American elders to preserve their wisdom, humor and teachings.

In short, I have had my fingers in a lot of different pies and strive to be one of the people at the company who keeps Blackstone moving forward as well as in new directions.

DB: What specifically captures your attention when you review submissions?

RB: Since the majority of the acquisitions work that I’ve been doing lately has been more focused on celebrities, best-selling authors and hit catalogs, rather than on debut authors, I look for different things now than I did when I was evaluating day-to-day acquisitions. When I did that, I would look to see if the synopsis intrigued me, if I thought the story was something that the public would be interested in, what the author’s background, social media involvement and overall commitment to being a writer were, and what our sales and marketing people thought they could do with the book. And, of course, finally, was the writing any good?

For an author who wants to submit a query to an agent or a publisher (and submitting to an agent is probably a way lot easier than submitting directly to a publisher) they should make sure to know something about each person they are submitting to so they can personalize each letter/email. The author has to make sure the genre they are submitting is a genre the agent or publisher works in. The query letter should also contain a short, but effective, synopsis of the story, the author’s bio, comps to other books, anyone they could get to endorse the book who would be meaningful, and, if possible, something that perks the reader’s interest and sets the query letter apart from the hundreds of others that the agent/publisher has received.

DB: Tell us about your own writing.

RB: When I was twelve, I hammered out the first two-page sports newspaper that I wrote on my old Royal manual typewriter and sold the two carbon copies I made of it to neighbors. Over the decades since that time, I have written multiple newspaper columns, magazine columns and articles (including cover stories), blogs, copy for a local political committee and candidates, contributed chapters to two anthologies of short stories, and have written six, as yet unpublished and unproduced books and plays, and a rock opera.

My “breakthrough” came when I wrote Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, an historical fiction mystery novel set in the countryside town of Haxford, England in 1910. It will be published in hardcover by Blackstone on February 8, 2022. An eccentric, but gifted police inspector named Pignon Scorbion, who possesses the skills of Poirot and Holmes, comes to Haxford to head its law enforcement. Through a prior friendship with the town’s barber, Scorbion begins solving his cases in the barbershop assisted by a colorful group of amateur sleuth assistants – the barbers, the shoeshine man, a young reporter, and a beautiful and brilliant, female bookshop owner who is more than a match for Scorbion in observation, deduction and brains.

Scorbion’s ‘universe’ includes Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Dr. John Watson, with whom Scorbion has become friends, and I’ve written the book in the style of the authors of that time and genre.

DB: What’s in the future for author Rick Bleiweiss?

RB: I’ve completed writing over 95% of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives, Book 2 which I believe will be published in early 2023. Without spoiling anything, it contains a case about a man who is shot and killed by an arrow while riding alone in a hot air balloon, another about the shoeshine man’s visiting cousin who is attacked and brutally beaten, a third involving a blacksmith who is murdered while walking home in the early morning, and lastly, a moneylender who is poisoned and dies in one of the barber’s chairs.

I also have a piece in an anthology of mystery short stories called Hotel California that is publishing in May, 2022. I join some real heavyweights in the book including Heather Graham, Andrew Child (who has contributed a new Jack Reacher story to the anthology), Amanda Flower, Reed Farrel Coleman, John Gilstrap, Jennifer Dornbush, and Don Bruns, all of whom have written new stories for the volume.

My story is about a premier NYC hitman named Walker who escapes a hit on his life and hides out in Maui while another hitman is sent to finish him off. It’s a cat and mouse game of who gets who.

I also will have another Walker story in the follow-up anthology, Thriller, due in mid-2023.

Lastly, at least for now, in January I have stories being published in Strand Magazine detailing a lot of the research I did for the Scorbion book, and another in Crime Reads Magazine in which I talk in depth about my favorite all-time mystery authors.

DB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

RB: We are launching Scorbion in a somewhat unconventional manner. There is a Pignon Scorbion ‘Find the Hidden Objects” video game that will be available for free on the Apple and Android app stores. It will have six levels based on scenes in the book, but you will have to input an unlock code to play the last two – and that code is in the book and the audiobook. Shane Salerno of the Story Factory made a wonderful video trailer for the book, there will be retail display contests, we are making and will be selling Scorbion t-shirts, the book has already been voted the Buzz Book of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Assn’s fall conference, has been featured multiple times in Publishers Weekly (including an excellent review), will be featured by BookBub on publication date, I am hosting a YouTube show interviewing authors and literary agents as they talk about their careers and give advice to aspiring authors, and we are going to make a strong media push hoping to get what I’m doing at 77 years of age as an example to other seniors that you are never too old to try something new or follow your dreams.

~~~

Thank you, Rick, for joining us at The Kill Zone. Best of luck with the February 2022 launch of Pignon Scorbion & The Barbershop Detectives!

Christopher Columbus and the Discovery Method

 

Discover: verb. to see, get knowledge of, learn of, find, or find out; gain sight or knowledge of (something previously unseen or unknown).

Before I begin, let me note that I’m not addressing the issues of the treatment of indigenous peoples by the early explorers. I’m simply looking at the accidental discovery of the Americas.

One might argue that Columbus didn’t “discover” the New World since people already lived there. Others may point out that Norsemen landed in Newfoundland hundreds of years before Columbus. But the discovery in 1492 was the singular event that led to a worldwide understanding of the geography of our planet and resulted in an exciting new age of exploration.

In the fifteenth century, many European leaders longed for quick access to the riches of the Far East, but land travel to Asia was perilous. The only known sea route was by sailing south along the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean and on to Asia. But that was a long, slow journey.

Into this moment in history stepped the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, and as we all know, he proposed a different solution to the problem: sailing directly west from Europe to Asia. Columbus wasn’t the only person who believed the Earth was round – most educated people of that era agreed – but he was the one who was willing to risk his life on it.

Columbus was an excellent seaman and one of the most experienced navigators of his time. However, the data he used to calculate the length of the voyage was faulty. The circumference of the Earth was considered to be much smaller than it actually is, and the Asian land mass was thought to extend much farther to the east than it does. Using these data, he calculated the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan to be about 2,400 miles. Actually, it’s more than 10,000 miles. One can only wonder if he would have attempted the voyage if he had known the true distance.

By 1484, Columbus had drawn up plans for a westward expedition into the Atlantic Ocean to fulfill the dream of finding a faster route to Asia and its riches, but his request for support was turned down by every government he approached as being too risky.  Undeterred, he kept trying, and eventually he secured funding from several sources including the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. The rest, as they say, is history.

***

Perhaps we can define Christopher Columbus as the first hybrid plotter/pantser. (Okay, now you see where I’m going with this.) There are a lot of similarities. Columbus had an end goal in mind, but he didn’t simply hop in a boat and head out. His persistence and hard work got his voyage funded. He used the knowledge that was available to him at the time to plan his voyage (albeit his calculation of the length of the trip was woefully mistaken). He was a skilled navigator who had made many successful voyages around the coasts of Europe, and he wisely decided on the starting point from the Canary Islands to take advantage of the favorable trade winds. Still, to set sail into the unknown was an act of courage and faith that I suspect few had then or have today.

Of course, he could not have foreseen the magnificent surprise that awaited him some weeks after he set sail.

***

The Discovery Method in writing is often defined as pantsing or “writing by the seat of your pants.” But maybe it’s closer to the Christopher Columbus hybrid method. Is using this approach a way to happen onto an idea or a phrase that we wouldn’t have come upon otherwise? Will the discovery method offer us the opportunity to learn more about ourselves by launching into the unknown with a partially-developed plan? Is it possible to produce a work that is new and revolutionary through the discovery method?

So, TKZers: Are you a plotter? A pantser? Or a hybrid plantser? Have you happened onto any unexpected discoveries in your writing? Maybe you’ve experimented with a new idea to extend yourself beyond the safe haven of what has always worked for you.

Is the possibility of discovering something new worth the risk of failure by launching out into the unknown?

 

 

 

How to Write Short Stories Worth Reading

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love rooting around in Project Gutenberg. This amazing site has been digitizing public domain works since 1971! But wait, there was no internet then, so what gives? A visionary, that’s what. A 24-year-old grad student named Michael Hart at the University of Illinois foresaw the coming of a network of computers sharing knowledge. Gaining access to a university mainframe, he started adding digitized literary works in the public domain.

Thus, Hart was the inventor of the ebook. Really.

He spent the rest of his life (he died in 2011) dedicated to his project, which he called Gutenberg. And how did the books get digitized and uploaded? They were hand typed! By Hart himself and a team of volunteers. This work went on for 25 years until the coming of scanning technology. Since that time Gutenberg’s growth has exploded. It now has over 66,000 works in its collection available for free download on any reading device. Among works that have just come into public domain are Winnie-the-Pooh and The Sun Also Rises.

And not just books. Gutenberg is adding pulp magazine stories from the golden age, e.g., science fiction, detective. Also some audiobook versions. I have dozens of Gutenberg books on my Kindle.

I get their daily update and always find some interesting titles to have a look at. The other day it was Modern Essays and Stories: A Book to Awaken Appreciation of Modern Prose, and to Develop Ability and Originality in Writing by Frederick Houk Law, Ph.D., published in 1922.

Dipping inside, I came across the entry on what makes a good short story.

Brevity is the first essential of a short story, and yet under the term, “brief,” may be included a story that is told in one or two paragraphs, and a story that is told in many pages. A story that is so long that it cannot be read easily at a single sitting is not a short story.

That’s a good definition, as it includes what we now call flash fiction, and draws the line before crossing over into the novelette and novella range.

So what does a good short story do?

To make one strong impression on the mind of the reader, and to make that impression so powerfully that it will leave the reader pleased, convinced and emotionally moved is the principal aim of a good short story. To the production of that one effect everything in the story—characters, action, description, and exposition—points with the definiteness of an established purpose. All else is omitted, and thus all the parts of the story are both necessary and harmonious. Centralizing everything on the production of one effect makes every short story complete in itself. The purpose having been accomplished there is nothing more to be said. The end is the end.

Well now! If I may modestly mention my own book on the subject, How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career, this affirms the “secret” I found by analyzing thousands of short stories. I call it “one shattering moment.”

What that moment is depends on the type of story you write. If it’s a crime or mystery story with a “twist,” that’s one kind of moment, and usually comes at the end (see Elaine’s post on that subject here).

Another type of story is the one that lays you flat with an emotional punch. Here the shattering moment may happen in the middle, as it often does in a Raymond Carver story. The emotional shattering can come at the end, as in Irwin Shaw’s classic “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.”

Keeping one shattering moment in mind gives you all the direction you’ll need to write a short story worth reading. Just add your own stamp and creativity.

A good short story can be a gateway for readers to discover you and your full-length books. So where can you publish? There are established venues, like Alfred Hitchcock and Analog. These can be hard to crack and take a long time to hear from.

Some authors, like yours truly, use Patreon. (Hey, can I urge you to give it a try? No obligation, and I’d love to hear what you think!)

Many more use sites like Wattpad, Medium, and Comaful. Heck, you can start your own blog just for short stories.

Or why not go right to Kindle? Publish it in Kindle Select, price it at 99¢, and run a free promo every 90 days. Make sure you have links to your website and books in the back matter.

And if you can find a real bookstore with a window, you can sit there and type a story on the spot, like Harlan Ellison used to do. Ha!

Embed from Getty Images

Short stories and flash fiction are good ways to keep your creative muscles juiced, and offer a nice respite from full-length fiction. And if you can give readers that shattering moment, they’ll come looking for your other work!

***

BONUS: For you craft fans, I’m participating in a great StoryBundle of writing books. Check out how you can get them all at Write for the Win.

The Hat and Telling Details

The Hat and Telling Details

by Steve Hooley

Today is National Hat Day. The topic is the hat, more specifically the type of hat and the telling detail.

So, let’s put on our writer’s hat, take off our hat to the “telling detail,” and hang our hat on the proposition that the hat may be the best telling detail.

I had no idea that hats were so popular. When I looked on Pixaby for an image of a hat, I found 101 pages with 10,012 images. Who knew? People love their hats (their specific hat). Consider a number of idioms that use the word “hat.”

  • Put on your (occupation) hat
  • Take off your hat to (someone you want to give praise)
  • Hang one’s hat on (something you can rely on)
  • Hat’s off to (someone you want to praise)
  • Where do you hang your hat? (live or reside)
  • Tip one’s hat (congratulate)

And then there’s a list of superstitions about hats. which we won’t go into.

The following is some information listed on the National Day Calendar:

NATIONAL HAT DAY HISTORY

Since at least 1983, National Hat Day has been observed in libraries, schools, and museums. They have invited students and patrons to wear their favorite hat or hats of their occupation. People of all ages show up in pirate hats and football helmets. Patrol officers, postal workers, restaurant servicers also wear their hats to various events. That date also commemorates the day in 1797 when the first top hat made its appearance in court. Created by haberdasher John Hetherington, the judge claimed the tall, rather prominent hat disturbed the public.

Hats FAQ

  1. When did hats become less fashionable?
    A. Before the 1950s, men and women wore hats as much for a fashion statement as for protection and warmth. However, several possible reasons that faded the hat fad include:
  • Improved technology – Heating buildings became more efficient and effectively reduced the need for a hat indoors.
  • Freedom – During World War II, hats were part of many uniforms including the military. When service members returned home, they ditched the hat with the uniform.
  • Transportation – Before affordable transportation and smooth roads crossed the country, most people rode public transportation or walked. With the increased popularity of the automobile came decreased headroom for hats.
  • Hairstyles – Especially for women, hats covered big, fancy hairstyles.
  • Hatless public figures – One notable figure who may have started a lasting trend was President John F. Kennedy.

So, why do people wear hats?

Again, according to the National Day Calendar:

We wear hats for numerous reasons. Many hats protect us from elements or harm. Others were worn for ceremonial or religious reasons. Some hats just make us look good or cover up what we think doesn’t. Through the centuries, we’ve given our hats a lot of meaning.

  • In the Middle Ages, hats indicated social status.
  • In the military, hats may denote one’s nationality, branch of service, rank, and/or regiment.
  • A Thebes tomb painting depicts one of the first pictorials of a hat.  The painting shows a man wearing a conical straw hat.
  • Structured hats for women began to be worn in the late 16th century.
  • Millinery is the designing and manufacture of hats.
  • The term “milliner” is derived from the city of Milan, Italy. The best quality hats were made in Milan in the 18th century.
  • Millinery traditionally began as a woman’s occupation, as the milliner created hats and bonnets and chose lace, trim, and accessories to complete any outfit.
  • In the mid-1920s, to replace the bonnets and wide-brimmed hats, women began to wear smaller hats that hugged their heads.

Okay, now to the telling detail. Besides social status and occupation, hats often tell us about attitude or what people think of themselves. I noticed on Pixabay that some people (I’m not mentioning gender) seemed to think “their” hat said it all, or at least “they” didn’t need to wear anything else. (Don’t everyone rush over there at the same time to look.)

This all made me finally realize—okay, I’m a slow learner—that instead of flowery descriptions of characters’ height, weight, eye color, hair color, fit and expense of clothing, etc., etc., what we really need to know is what kind of hat do they wear.

Yes, I’m exaggerating to make a point. A majority of people don’t wear hats. But what better telling detail can you find than the character’s hat? I’m certain that you will find some. That’s the point of today’s exercise.

And, if you don’t wear a hat, and want to know all the different styles, and what would be right for you and your personality, here are links to hat styles for men and women:

Men’s Hats

Women’s Hats

Now that we’ve reviewed hats, it’s your turn:

  • What kind of hat do you wear (or would be appropriate for you)? Any interesting history behind that choice? And what does it say about you?
  • Have you created an interesting character whose hat (or item of clothing they always wear, or something they always carry) tells the reader what they really need to know about that character?
  • Any interesting hat stories about you, your family, or your characters?

Naming Your Baby

 

By Elaine Viets

I’d rather write an entire mystery than come up with a title for it. So much depends on choosing the right name for your baby: Will your title grab the reader? Describe your book? Boost your sales?
If you’re writing for a traditional publisher, your contract will probably call your mystery Untitled Work. It’s your job to give it a snappier name. You’ve lived with this book for months, even years. Maybe you’re too close to think of a good title. It’s time to step back and take a look at tips for mystery titles.
Ask your family and friends. I originally wanted to call my Angela Richman mystery about the murder of an aging Hollywood diva, Death Star. My editor said the title sounded too much like science-fiction. My husband Don came up with a play on a classic movie title. The new book was christened A Star Is Dead.
Keep Your Title Short. Yes, I know The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t hurt by its long name. But short, snappy titles sell well. Consider Michael Connelly’s mysteries, starting with Black Echo. His titles are short and to the point. Stephen Cannell was another master of titles. My favorite is The Vertical Coffin, which he said was a cop term. When the first law enforcement officer rushes the door in a takedown, that doorway can quickly become a vertical coffin. Especially if firearms are used.
Early in my career, I wrote a collection of humor columns called The Viets Guide to Sex, Travel and Anything Else that Will Sell This Book. Lots of laughing readers didn’t line up for that title. Instead, drooling old men infested my signings, saying, “I want that book on sex travel.” Apparently the old boys missed that comma between Sex and Travel in the title. My mystery novels with titles like Killer Cuts attracted a better reader.


Search Shakespeare. Some authors, including Marcia Talley, find titles in the Bard’s work. My favorite Talley title is Unbreathed Memories, a phrase from “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” You can hunt for titles in OpenSourceShakespeare.org
Hymns and the Bible. Julia Spencer-Fleming has found a number of titles in hymns, beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter. They are perfect for her Rev. Clare Fergusson series.

Want to go trendy? For a while every third book had “Girl” in the title. That trend started with novels like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, not to mention  The Girls With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. None of these women were the girl next door, but their books sold. By the way, The Girl Next Door was used by a wide range of writers, from Brad Parks to Ruth Rendall. It’s even a horror story.

There were also a raft of “Daughters,” as in Leslie Welsh’s The Serial Killer’s Daughter. Now I’m seeing lots of “Wives,” including Daisy Wood’s debut novel, The Clockmaker’s Wife, and Alice Hunter’s The Serial Killer’s Wife.
One word titles can sum up the book. This works well for thrillers, such as Jeff Abbott’s Panic and Aaron Elkins’ Loot. I had a one-word title for a Dead-End Job mystery. I wanted to call the book Catnapped, but there was another mystery with the same name that year.

My editor added an exclamation point to the title and made it Catnapped!, leaving me with a punctuation nightmare. How would you end this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!
Should I add a period at the end of this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!.”
Or keep the exclamation point and look like a hyper-excited ditz?
Some words have a mystery mystique. Currently on the Pub Alley Fiction Mystery Bestsellers list are titles with words that seem to grab readers:
Paris. Gets them every time. At the top of the list is The Paris Detective: Three Detective Luc Moncrief Thrillers by James Patterson and Richard Dilallo.
Curse. Another intriguing word. Curse of Salem by Kay Hooper made the list.
Midnight. Two titles with “Midnight” are on the list: The Midnight Lock by Jeffrey Deaver and The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths.
Book Title Generators are another tool for clueless mystery writers. You can find several of them here: https://kindlepreneur.com/free-book-title-generator-tools/
I sampled the Mystery Book Title Generator, which claims to be the “Ultimate Bank of 10,000 Titles” that will “generate a random story title that’s relevant to your genre. You can pick between fantasy, crime, mystery, romance, or sci-fi.” http://blog.reedsy.com/book-title-generator/mystery

I clicked on “I’m just starting to write” and got this title: “The Mystery of the Three-Inch Stranger,” which struck me as a bit personal. It’s not the size of the stranger, it’s what you do with him.

Series titles: Sue Grafton has her alphabet series, beginning with A Is for Alibi and ending with Y Is for Yesterday. Mary Higgins Clark and her partner-in-crime Alafair Burke have a song title series, starting with You Don’t Own Me. Stephanie Plum uses numbers. Her latest is Game on: Tempting Twenty-eight.
I’d wanted to call my first novel for Penguin The Dead-End Job. My editor thought that would make a good series title, so that book became Shop Till You Drop.
When you write for a publisher, potential titles are batted back and forth. My fourth mystery in that series featured the murder of an overbearing mother of the bride. I wanted to call it One Dead Mother.
My publisher nixed that title as “too urban.” The novel was named Just Murdered.

Enter to win a free copy of Life Without Parole, my latest Angela Richman, death investigator mystery. Stop by Kings River Life magazine: https://www.krlnews.com/2022/01/life-without-parole-angela-richman.html

 

Whose Story Are You Telling?

By John Gilstrap

I’ve heard writing instructors over the years tout the three elements of storytelling: plot, character and setting. We all know what the words mean, and we know how they apply to creating entertaining fiction, but all too often, I think that new writers think of the elements as craft silos instead of the strands of a craft cable–intertwined elements that must work together if a story is going to resonate with the reader.

I prefer to think of the elements this way: interesting characters doing interesting things in interesting ways in interesting places. (If you’d prefer, you can replace “interesting” with “compelling”.)

Character is king. A plot by itself is merely an outline. It doesn’t come to life until the reader experiences the plot through the eyes and feelings of a character they care about. Setting is merely a descriptive essay until a character interacts with it.

Let’s say, for example, a section of your story is set in a desert on a hot afternoon. An English 101 professor would likely be happy to reward an essay that presents a mental snapshot of the bright sun, colorful rocks and sparse flora. That reporting of facts might please a newspaper editor as well.

But look what happens when we inject characters into the equation:

Bob pushed the door open and climbed out into the brilliant sunshine. Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon.  The beauty of the place took his breath away.  Rock formations glistened in shades of copper, gold and bronze. The vegetation, while sparse, seemed to vibrate with intense reds and blues and yellows.  He was stranded in an artist’s paradise.

The description, as presented to the reader, also lets us learn about Bob’s worldview. We don’t have to say that he thinks the place is beautiful, because that’s all in the narrative voice.

Here’s another description of the exact same scene, but filtered through the worldview of a very different character:

Opening the car door was like opening a blast furnace.  Superheated air hit Danny with what felt like a physical blow.  The desiccated ground cracked under his feet as he stood.  As he took in scrub growth and the rocky horizon, he understood that he no longer rested at the top of the food chain.  Now he understood why we tested nukes in places like this.

A desert is a desert, right? From a plot perspective, each description takes the story to the exact same place, but by filtering the observations through the characters’ souls, the reader gets to know them better, and they don’t have to endure a disembodied descriptive paragraph.

That voice of the character can infect every paragraph of every scene. I like to say that I make a point as the writer for MY voice to be invisible throughout every story. Every scene is presented to the reader through the voice and view of the scene’s POV character. This is less complicated (note I didn’t say easier) in a first person POV, I think, because the narrator tells the entire story. When writing in third person, one of the critical decisions the writer needs to make for every scene is to determine to whom the scene belongs.

Consider this: Your story requires a scene where a thirteen year old boy steps out the back door of a bar at midnight and lights a cigarette. Let’s say that the kid is signaling someone with the match.

If we present the scene from the kid’s point of view, if he chokes on the smoke, we have a character detail that is different than if he were to inhale deeply and find peace. Is his heart pounding, or is he calm?

If we present the scene from the point of view of the guy being signaled to, his voice will tell us whether he likes the kid or hates him. Is the signal a happy event or a troubling event?

Perhaps we present the scene from the point of view of a passing cop. That would put the story on a different path–unless, perhaps, the cop was the one being signaled.

Assuming that any of the points of view would advance the plot to the same point, we need to decide whose POV is most compelling for the reader. Let’s say now that the scene ends with the kid getting shot. Perhaps we start the scene from the kid’s point of view, and then switch after a space break to the shooter’s POV. Or, vice versa.

These decisions make all the difference between a compelling story and a ho-hum one.

So, TKZ brain trust, what are your thoughts? Do your characters drive every beat of your story?

Would I Lie To You? A Case Against The Unreliable Narrator

By PJ Parrish

I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott’s movies. Yeah, even that smaltzy one A Good Year, with Russell Crowe as a heartless London banker who chucks it all to live in a moldy French villa with Marion Cotillard. So I was a happy clam when I unwrapped a Christmas gift from the husband — the director’s cut of Blade Runner. 

The husband had never seen the seminal 1982 cyber-noir masterpiece so I was thrilled to introduce him to it. But then…

Toward the end of the movie, there are two scenes that Scott had reinserted. In one Harrison Ford’s character Deckard has a dream about a unicorn. Later, when he’s escaping with his lady-love replicant Rachael, he finds an origami of a unicorn, left by his ex police partner Gaff.  This signals that Gaff knows about Deckard’s dream because it’s not really Deckard’s. The dream is fake, implanted to give a “back story” needed to stabilize the replicant’s artificial personality.

So Deckard is really an android? I had always seen him as human. But with this latest viewing, now I have to question everything he says and does.

This debate, I’ve discovered, has been raging for more than three decades. I haven’t read the Philip Dick story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” but it’s said Dick wrote Deckard as a human in order to explore the increasing similarity of humans and replicants. Harrison Ford has long maintained that Deckard is human. (One reason is that replicants are super-strong and Deckard gets the snot kicked out of him throughout the movie). But Ridley Scott is on that record saying Deckard’s a droid.

Does it matter? In terms of my enjoyment of the movie, no. But in terms of Deckard’s reliability as a narrator, it certainly does. The story takes on completely different tones depending on whether you see him as man or machine — and whether or not Deckard himself does.

Which is a long way to go to introduce what I wanted to talk about — unreliable narrators.

We’ve had many great posts here on the subject. But I’m sort of obsessed with this today, given that now I am dreaming of electric sheep. Plus I just cracked open Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I loved the movie so thought I should finally read the book with it’s uber-liar Briony Tallis.

Reading a well-conceived unreliable narrator is a treat. Writing one can be a nightmare. It’s a hard technique to pull off, and frankly, it’s become a bit stale in crime fiction and thrillers since Gone Girl.  So if you’re thinking of trying this at home, give me a chance to try and talk you out of it.

What exactly is an unreliable narrator? It’s not a matter of just fibbing. Simply put, this is a character whose account of the story is supposed to be authoritative for whatever reason, is suspect.

There are as many reasons for this as there are demons in the human heart and head. Unreliable narrators can be just pathological liars like Verbel Kent in The Usual Suspects and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Or they might be biased in some way that affects their thinking and ability to give the reader a clear picture. Some unreliable archetypes:

Mentally ill: Chuck Palahnick’s narrator in Fight Club has debilitating insomnia that makes him sound irrational. Amnesia is a trope on verge of cliche. I used it myself in my thriller She’s Not There and you find in the cult movie Memento. Vonnegut warns us about Bill Pilgrim’s unreliability in Slaughterhouse Five’s great opening line: “All of this happened, more or less.” And in A Beautiful Mind, we don’t find out until the movie is well along that John Nash is schizophrenic and that his version of reality cannot be trusted.

Children: By virtue of their limited experience and gullibility, kids can’t be trusted narrators. I loved the 9-year-old boy in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close who is searching for his dad post 9/11. But I didn’t buy the narration of the boy trapped with his mother in Emma Donoghue’s celebrated Room. In the latter, the boy tells us, “When I was a kid I thought like a kid, but now I’m five and I know everything.” Right…

The Naif. The narrator here has a limited world view, naive in nature, as in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or in Winston’s Groom’s innocent in Forrest Gump. I’d even put Huck Finn in this category.

Dead People or Ghosts: Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones is the best example here, although I wasn’t crazy about the book. A little sentimental for my taste. Amy Tan has a great ghost character in Saving Fish From Drowning. This trope is popular in movies — Kevin Spacey’s first person narrative in American Beauty, for example. And of course, poor Bruce Willis is in deep denial over his protoplasmic presence in The Sixth Sense. This is not a device for beginners, I’d say. Unless you’re solidly in paranormal land.

Okay, so you still are determined to try to do this in your book? I haven’t scared you off or convinced you to go with an easier method? Sigh. All righty then. Let’s ask some tough questions:

Can you write well in the first person? In a way, all first-person POVs are unreliable in the sense that all the info the reader gets is filtered only through one consciousness. Most unreliable narrator novels are in the first person. So unless you can sustain a normal first person POV, taking the next leap to a true unreliable narrator will be above your pay grade.

Are you going for a gimmick? Be honest. If you’re writing from a kid’s POV or using amnesia or a mental illness, you have to ask yourself if you’re merely looking for a crutch to prop up a weak plot. Or are you looking for easy way to get noticed?

How much stamina do you have? I’ve written one first-person POV book and it was exhausting because I had to find so many other methods of providing depth. It will be even harder with an unreliable narrative because you, the writer, have to constantly assess how much — or how  little — information you are dribbling out to the reader. Also and this is very important: You must be in total control of a character who is not in control of himself. If you’re a pantser who believes that characters just lead the writer around by the nose, you’ll be lost with an unreliable guide. Consider, too, that it is not easy for a rational person (you, the writer) to “become” an irrational person. This is why so many serial killers feel wooden.

Can you act someone else’s age? If your narrator is too young or immature, it’s hard to entrust them with the full weight of an entire story. Teens are easier to pull off, but children can be wearying. Why? Because everything you write — words, syntax, description — must be filtered through a child’s mind and eye. This is why I couldn’t finish Room. I just got tired of listening to a 6 year old.

And the last and most important thing to ask yourself:

Confess or conceal? You must decide whether to reveal that the character is unreliable up front or make it a twist deep in your story. In one of my fave books, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, we are told that everything Odd Thomas says should taken with a grain of salt:

Understand, I am not a murderer. I have done nothing evil that I am concealing from you. My unreliability as a narrator has to do largely with the tense of certain verbs.

Don’t worry about it. You’ll know the truth soon enough.

The unreliable narrator is one of the trickiest literary devices to get right. Get it wrong, and your plot falls apart and the reader gets bored or frustrated. It can feel manipulative, confusing, and often pretentious. When it’s done right, though, it can be powerful.

Believe me, I know. Would I lie to you?

p.s. No matter what Ridley Scott says, I still think Deckard was human.

How To Spot + Rewrite Fluff

Those dang pesky buggers that sneak into first drafts and weaken the writing are called filler words and phrases—also known as fluff.

If a filler word serves a purpose, keep it. The objective is to tighten the writing by eliminating unnecessary words and anything the reader might find distracting.

For example, a Bigshot Author I adore had the strangest writing tick in her debut novel. It’s a good thing I unknowingly started with book 5, or I might not have devoured two of her thriller series. I can’t tell you her name, but I will share the tic.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she said, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” he replied, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

Almost every line of dialogue had “she said, and then.” The writing tic distracted me, yanked me right out of the story, and made me want to whip my Kindle out the window. To this day I recall favorite passages from many of her high-octane thrillers, but I couldn’t tell you the basic plot of her debut till I jumped over to Amazon to refresh my memory. She’s since re-edited the novel. 🙂

FILLER WORDS

Just

Just should almost always be murdered.

Original: I just couldn’t say goodbye.

Rewrite: I couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

That 

That litters many first drafts, but it can often be killed without any harm to the original sentence.

Original: I believe that all writers kill their darlings.

Rewrite: I believe all writers kill their darlings.

The original and rewrite have another problem. Did you catch it?

Believe in this context is a telling word. Any time we tell the reader things like “I thought” or “He knew” or “She felt” or “I believe” we slip out of deep POV. Thus, the little darling must die.

Final Rewrite: All writers kill their darlings.

So 

Original: So, this huge guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Rewrite: This musclebound, no-necked guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Confession? I use “so” all the time IRL. It’s also one of the (many) writing tics I search for in my work. The only exception to killing this (or any other) filler word is if it’s used with purpose, like as a character cue word.

Really

Original: She broke up with him. He still really loved her.

Sometimes removing filler means combining/rewording sentences.

Rewrite: When she severed their relationship, his heart stalled.

Very

Here’s another meaningless word. Kill it on sight.

Original: He made me very happy.

Rewrite: When he neared, my skin tingled.

Of

To determine if “of” is needed read the sentence with and without it. Does it still make sense? Yes? Kill it. No? Keep it.

Original: She bolted out of the door.

Rewrite: She bolted out the door.

Up (with certain actions)

Original: He rose up from the table.

Rewrite: He rose from the table.

Original: He stood up tall.

Rewrite: He stood tall.

Down (with certain actions)

Original: He sat down on the couch.

Rewrite: He sat on the couch.

Original: He laid down the blanket.

Rewrite: He laid the blanket on the floor.

And/But (to start a sentence)

I’m not saying we should never use “and” or “but” to start a sentence, though editors might disagree. 🙂 Don’t overdo it.

Original: He died. And I’m heartbroken.

Rewrite: When he died, my soul shattered.

Also search for places where “but” is used to connect two sentences. Can you combine them into one without losing the meaning?

Original: He moved out of state, but I miss him. He was the most caring man I’d ever met.

Rewrite: The most caring man I’d ever met moved out of state. I miss him—miss us.

Want(ed)

Want/wanted is another telling word. It must die to preserve deep POV.

Original: I really wanted the chocolate cake.

Substitute with a strong verb.

Rewrite: I drooled over the chocolate cake. One bite. What could it hurt?

Came/Went

Came/went is filler because it’s not specific. Substitute with an a strong verb.

Original: I went to the store to buy my favorite ice cream.

Rewrite: I raced to Marco’s General Store to buy salted caramel ice cream, my tastebuds cheering me on.

Had

Too many had words give the impression the action took place prior to the main storyline. As a guide, used once in a sentence puts the action in past tense. Twice is repetitive and clutters the writing. Also, if it’s clear the action is in the past, it can often be omitted.

Original: I had gazed at the painting for hours and the eyes didn’t move.

Rewrite: For hours I gazed at the painting and the eyes never wavered.

Well (to start a sentence)

Original: Well, the homecoming queen made it to the dance, but the king didn’t.

Rewrite: The homecoming queen attended the dance, stag.

Basically/Literally

Original: I basically/literally had to drag her out of the bar by her hair.

Rewrite: I dragged her out of the bar by the hair.

Actually

Original: Actually, I did mind.

Rewrite: I minded.

Highly

Original: She was highly annoyed by his presence.

Rewrite: His presence irked her.

Or: His presence infuriated her.

Totally

Original: I totally did not understand a word.

Rewrite: Huh? *kidding* I did not understand one word.

Simply

Original: Dad simply told her to stop.

Rewrite: Dad wagged his head, and she stopped.

Anyway (to start a sentence)

Original: Anyway, I hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

Rewrite: Hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

FILLER PHRASES

As with all craft “rules,” exceptions exist. Nonetheless, comb through your first draft and see if you’ve used these phrases for a reason, like characterization. If you haven’t, they must die. It’s even more important to delete filler words and phrases if you’re still developing your voice.

A bit

Original: The movie was a bit intense. Lots of blood.

Rewrite: Intense movie. Blood galore.

There is no doubt that

Original: There is no doubt that the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Rewrite: No doubt the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Or: The Pats will be in the playoffs.

The reason is that

Original: The reason is that I said you can’t go.

Rewrite: Because I said so, that’s why. (shout-out to moms!)

The question as to whether

Original: The question as to whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Rewrite: Whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Whether or not

Original: Whether or not you agree is not my problem.

Rewrite: Whether you agree is not my problem.

Tempted to say

Original: I am tempted to say how beautiful you are.

Rewrite: You’re beautiful.

This is a topic that

Original: This is a topic that is close to my heart.

Rewrite: This topic is close to my heart.

Believe me (to start a sentence)

Original: Believe me, I wasn’t there.

Rewrite: I wasn’t there.

In spite of the fact

Original: In spite of the fact that he said he loved you, he’s married.

Rewrite: Although he professed his love, he’s married.

Or: Despite that he said he loved you, he’s married.

The fact that

Original: The fact that he has not succeeded means he can’t do the job.

Rewrite: His failure proves he can’t do the job.

I might add

Original: I might add, your attitude needs adjusting, young lady.

Rewrite: Someone’s panties are in a bunch. *kidding* Adjust your attitude, young lady.

In order to 

Original: In order to pay bills online, you need internet access.

Rewrite: To pay bills online you need internet access.

At the end of the day

Original: At the end of the day, we’re all human.

Rewrite: In the end, we’re all human.

Or: In conclusion, we’re all human.

Or: We’re all human.

Over to you, TKZers. Please add filler words/phrases that I missed. I’m hoping this list will help Brave Writers before they submit first pages for critique.

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