How to Write a Mystery – A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America

By Debbie Burke


Photo credit: Difference Engine, CC by SA 4.0

From the 1931 through 2018, Clifton’s Cafeteria was a venerable Los Angeles landmark. Starting a new restaurant in the depth of the Great Depression sounded like folly. Even crazier was the policy of Pay What You Wish at a time when many people were jobless, broke, and hungry. Yet founder Clifford Clinton’s Golden Rule guided the business through many successful decades, his vision shaped in part by his childhood in China as the son of missionaries who ministered to the poor.

Reportedly, at one point, Ray Bradbury was a starving writer who enjoyed a helping of Clinton’s generosity.

Clifton’s Cafeteria took up multiple floors of a downtown LA building and was a decorating mash-up of art deco neon, tiki bar, mountain resort, and cascading waterfalls.

Buffet lines were laden with acres of salads, soups, entrees, fruits, vegetables, colorful Jello creations, pies, cakes, and ice cream. Diners could pick and choose from more than 10,000 food items and no one ever left hungry.

Photo credit:

What, you ask, does this have to do with writing mysteries?

Recently, I received a gift of the book How to Write a Mystery – A Handbook from Mystery Writers of America, edited by Lee Child with Laurie R. King. With nearly 70 contributors, the book feels like the literary equivalent to Clifton’s Cafeteria. It offers a hugely varied smorgasbord of craft tips, along with insights into different genres, trends, and analyses on the state of the mystery.

Some authors write detailed essays that take as much digestion as multi-course banquets. Others deliver bite-size epigraphs that you can pop in your mouth like cocktail meatballs.

Moving along the buffet line of advice, if one chapter doesn’t resonate, you can skip to another by a different author. Each contribution is self-contained, allowing you to read sections in any order without worrying about continuity.

Feel like dessert before your entree? Head to that part of the buffet line.

Craving a particular menu item? Flip to the table of contents to find that topic.

Even famous authors don’t always agree with each other. Jeffrey Deaver writes a chapter entitled Always Outline,” followed by Lee Child’s chapter, Never Outline!”

This book offers nourishing food for thought that’s useful to every reader, no matter your genre, writing experience, or where you come down on the plotting vs. pantsing spectrum.

Subjects range from bleak noir as dark as bitter chocolate to cozies as sweet and fluffy as lemon meringue pie.

The following are some passages that struck me. They made me look at a subject in a fresh way while others reinforced well-worn but forgotten wisdom.

Neil Nyren neatly boils down an important distinction:

Mysteries are about a puzzle. Thrillers are about adrenaline.

Carolyn Hart asks:

Aren’t all mysteries about murder, guns and knives and poison, anger, jealousy and despair? Where is the good?

The good is in the never-quit protagonist who wants to live in a just world. Readers read mysteries and writers write mysteries because we live in an unjust world where evil often triumphs. In the traditional mystery, goodness will be admired and justice will prevail.

Meg Gardiner’s simple definition of plot: “Obstruct desire.”

She also discusses the difference between suspense and tension. “Suspense can be sustained over an entire novel. Tension spikes like a Geiger counter at a meltdown.”

And one more gem: “The theater of the mind is more powerful than a bucket of blood.”

My favorite item on Lindsey Davis’s list of advice to aspiring writers: “A synopsis—write it, then ignore it.”

Alex Segura defines noir as:

When we can have some feelings of remorse for a character’s terrible, murderous actions, because deep down, we fear that in the same situation, we’d probably make similar choices.

Hank Phillippi Ryan’s editing suggestions:

Try this random walk method of editing. Pick a page of your manuscript. Any page at all. Remember, even though you’re writing a whole book, each page must be a perfect part of your perfect whole, and that means each individual page must work. Page by page…Is something happening?…[Consider] intent and motivation. Why is this scene here? What work does it do? Does it advance the plot or reveal a secret or develop the character’s conflict?

I always know when I’m finished, because I forget I’m editing, and realize I’m simply reading the story. It’s not my story anymore, it’s its own story.

Jacqueline Winspear talks about historical mystery: “Your job is to render the reader a curious, attentive, excited, and emotionally involved time-traveler.”

Suzanne Chazin says: “When I sit down to write, my fun comes not from looking into a mirror, but from peeking into someone else’s window.”

Medical thriller author and physician Tess Gerritsen makes a penetrating observation from a sales standpoint:

Thrillers about cancer or HIV or Alzheimer’s seem to have a tough time on the genre market. Perhaps because these subjects are just too close and too painful for us to contemplate, and readers shy away from confronting them in fiction.

Gayle Lynds believes research is more to benefit the writer than the reader:

In the end, we novelists use perhaps a tenth of a percent of the research we’ve done for any one book…only a tiny fraction of the details will make it into your book.

C.M. Surrisi sums up writing mysteries for kids: “Remember your protagonist can’t drive and has a curfew, and no one will believe them or let them be involved.”

Also on children’s mysteries, Chris Grabenstein says:

Here is one of the many beauties about writing for this audience: there is a new group of fifth graders every year. Your mystery has a chance to live a very long shelf life if kids, teachers, and librarians fall in love with it.

Avoid the broccoli books. The ones that are ‘good for children.’

For many adults, the books we read when we were eight to twelve are the ones we remember all our lives.

Art Taylor discusses the mystery short story:

In general, it’s a solid rule to try to do more with less—and to trust your reader to fill in the rest. Suggest instead of describe; imply instead of explain.

Charles Salzberg offers a response to the tired old saw of “write what you know.”

I’ve never been arrested; I have no cops in my family; I’ve only been in a police station once; I’ve never handled a pistol; I’ve never robbed a bank, knocked over a 7-Eleven, or mugged an old lady. I’ve only been in one fight and that was when I was eleven. I’ve never murdered anyone, much less my family, and I’ve never chased halfway around the world to bring a killer to justice. I’ve never searched for a missing person and I’ve never forged a rare book. Yet somehow I find myself as a crime writer who’s written about all those things.

How, if I am supposed to write only what I know, is this possible? Easy. It’s because I have an imagination, possess a fair amount of empathy, have easy access to Google, and like asking questions. If I were limited to writing what I know, I’d be in big trouble because the truth is, I don’t know all that much.

Lyndsay Faye observes: “The school of human culture is much cheaper than a graduate degree. Make use of it.”

She also talks about humor in the writer’s voice:

You needn’t be Janet Evanovich to incorporate jokes into your manuscript, and they needn’t even be jokes. Wry observations, sarcasm, creative insult—humor can be as heavy or as light as you choose. But writers who take their voice too seriously, without that crucial hint of self-deprecation or clever viciousness, will rarely wind up with a memorable result.

Steve Hockensmith covered the “Dos and Don’ts for Wannabe Writers.”

DO write.

DON’T spend more than three months ‘researching’ or ‘brainstorming’ or ‘outlining’ or ‘creating character bios.’ All this might—might—count as work on your book, but it’s not writing.

DON’T spend too much time reading about how to write.

DO keep reading this book. I didn’t mean for you to stop reading our writing advice.

Laurie R. King shares her method of rewriting:

Personally I prefer to make all my notes, corrections, and queries on a physical printout. In part, that’s because I’m old school, but it also forces me to consider any changes twice—once when I mark the page, then again when I return to put it into the manuscript. This guarantees that if I added something on page 34, then realized a better way to do it when I hit page 119, I’ve had the delay for reflection, gaining perspective as to which is better for the overall story.

Leslie Budewitz (a familiar guest on TKZ) talks about problem solving:

The same brain that created the problem can create the solution—but not if you keep thinking the same way.

So do something different. Write the next scene from the antagonist’s POV, even if you don’t intend to use it. Write longhand with a pen…instead of at your keyboard.

If you write in first person, try third. If you write in third, let your character rip in a diary only she—and you—will ever see.

Your brain, your beautiful creative brain, will find another way, if you give it a chance.

Frankie Y. Bailey explores diversity in crime fiction from the starting point every writer faces: “We have characters, setting, and a plot. We need to weave aspects of diversity through all these elements of our stories.”

TKZ’s own Elaine Viets offers this no-nonsense message: “When I spoke at a high school, a student asked, ‘What do you do about writer’s block?’ ‘Writer’s block doesn’t exist,’ I said. ‘It’s an indulgence.’”

Talking about protagonists, Allison Brennan shares “two particular qualities that leave a lasting impression on readers: forgiveness and self-sacrifice.”

T. Jefferson Parker sees “two types of villain: the private and the public.”

The private ones seek no acknowledgement for their deeds…they shun the spotlight and avoid detection. The public ones proclaim themselves, trumpet their wickedness, and revel in the calamity.

He also touches on the crime author’s moral dilemma:

My literary amigos and I go back and forth on this. We know we traffic in violence and heartless behavior. We ride and write on the backs of victims. We suspect that our fictional appropriations of the world’s pain do little to assuage it. Worse, we wonder if we might just be feeding the worst in human nature by putting it center stage. Do we inspire heartless violence by portraying it?

Stephen Ross demonstrates the use of subtext (unspoken meaning) in his example of a shopping list:









I highlighted many more passages but I’ll stop now because this post is running almost as long as the book itself.

How to Write a Mystery is a book that you can read whether you need a substantial dinner or a quick snack.

It might not offer the 10,000 items that Clifton’s Cafeteria did but it comes close.




TKZers: Did any of the above quotes especially hit you? Do you have a favorite craft handbook you refer to over and over?

First Page Critique: Kangaroo Court

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is a British ‘book club thriller’ – initially set in Wales (note: Yr Wydffa is the Welsh name for Snowden – just to give some context – and spelling is English spelling). Enjoy – my comments follow:
Kangaroo Court
Dave leaned against the side of his car and savoured the pain of the hot metal on his legs. He looked at Boscombe, and Boscombe looked back, all hard eyes and cocky smile.
Boscombe the Bastard. Boscombe the Bogeyman. Boscombe the Dead.
Boscombe continued to exist in Dave’s memory, at Dave’s behest, trapped in a newsprint photo behind the plastic window of Dave’s wallet. And at the end of the weekend, Dave was going to snuff out this last, tenuous existence.
If Dave went to Penny’s reunion.
It was a year since he had stamped his footprints into the fresh soil of Boscombe’s grave, but was he ready for this last step of his DIY cure?
Far behind the houses opposite, the summit of Yr Wydffa shimmered blue in the afternoon heat. How much easier it would be to drive to Pen-y-Pass instead of the Forest of Dean, walk the Pyg Track to the top of Snowdon, cool air in his mouth and his thoughts as uncluttered as the space around him. His eyes wandered back to the grainy face in his palm and he found his answer. He brought up Paddy’s number on his phone and typed: Forgot to say to get the bubbles in the fridge for Sunday night. I’ve got a surprise announcement! Hit send so there was going back.
In the car, he took a dried date from the glove compartment, slid it between his lips, and swirled the warm, sticky fruit around with his tongue to mask the taste of bile.
He turned right at the end of the street and joined the traffic heading for England.
Overall Comments
When our brave submitter sent this in the note read ‘I don’t think the opening works but I don’t know what to do about it’…and this is where I think we all can help:)
For me, at least, the critical issue in this opener is understanding and caring about the main protagonist. The beginning is confusing as it already introduces us to 3 characters in addition to the protagonist – I was immediately asking myself who is Boscombe? who is Penny? Who is Paddy?..when ultimately what I really wanted to know is ‘who is Dave?’
My main advice to our submitter is to focus on introducing the reader to Dave and giving us enough insight into him as a character so we are motivated to care about him before introducing anyone else.
To be successful, this first page needs to draw the reader in close. We need to get a sense of the stakes and a hint at least of the kind of dilemma Dave might face. At the moment I don’t have a strong sense of his identity or character (or indeed what the book is going to be about). Everything about Dave is told to us/described in terms of a relationship to other characters which we also don’t know yet. This makes it very confusing.
Dave is also alone throughout the first page…and if you remember from my blog post a few months ago, agents and editors really don’t like this! Interaction with another character helps show us why we should care about the protagonist. Without dialogue or action, a character alone can feel very detached and inward looking. This first page illustrates this problem well – We’re so wrapped up in Dave’s thoughts that we don’t really understand who Dave is, or why we should care about his ongoing guilt/anger over Boscombe’s death. To overcome this, we need to see Dave in a situation where he’s interacting with other characters and where we get hints of backstory and more dramatic tension that leaves us wanting to read more.
Many of these overall comments can be best explained in a closer, more detailed, reading of the first page. To this end, I’ve copied the text and inserted my specific comments to (hopefully) better illustrate what I mean. I’ve also highlighted some recommendations in italics for our brave submitter – these are just some initial thoughts but they might help guide future revisions.
Specific Comments
Dave leaned against the side of his car and savoured the pain of the hot metal on his legs. So it sounds like summer, but why is he enjoying the pain? Where is he? Why has he stopped the car? Recommendation: Start off grounding us in the scene – maybe he looks at Snowdon right now – maybe we get a glimpse of backstory. Ideally he should have another character with him who can engage in dialogue/ conflict. What if it’s Paddy or Penny? What if they tell him to throw away the photo of Boscombe. Might even be more dramatic that Dave’s pulled over because of an argument – we can get all the backstory we need then as he and another character argue over Boscombe or Penny’s reunion – anything to get a reader invested in the story 
He looked at Boscombe, and Boscombe looked back, all hard eyes and cocky smile. (Why are we being introduced to another person/name when we don’t even know who Dave is?…) 
Boscombe the Bastard. Boscombe the Bogeyman. Boscombe the Dead. I like this stream of consciousness but it’s too early – we aren’t grounded yet in Dave as a character. Also confusing as previous sentence made us think Boscombe was actually there. Difficult for a reader to start off already confused.
Boscombe continued to exist in Dave’s memory, at Dave’s behest (The word ‘behest’ stopped me as it made it sound like Dave had asked Boscombe), trapped in a newsprint photo behind the plastic window of Dave’s wallet. And at the end of the weekend, Dave was going to snuff out this last, tenuous existence. (Again, we don’t know Dave, let alone his sudden motivation to get rid of a photo of a dead person we also don’t know…)
If Dave went to Penny’s reunion. (Who’s Penny? The reader doesn’t yet know enough about Dave to care about this – also what kind of reunion? What relationship is Penny to Dave – too vague for us to care)
It was a year since he had stamped his footprints into the fresh soil of Boscombe’s grave, but was he ready for this last step of his DIY cure? Recommendation: Slow down. Let us know more about Dave first and why he’s on this road – what kind of ‘cure’ or redemption  is he seeking? We need hints at least about backstory re: Boscombe so we can care. Still recommend having interaction or dialogue with another character to reveal this. Reference to Penny makes it only more confusing as we don’t have content for her (or Boscomber) at all.
Far behind the houses opposite, the summit of Yr Wydffa shimmered blue in the afternoon heat. How much easier it would be to drive to Pen-y-Pass instead of the Forest of Dean, walk the Pyg Track to the top of Snowdon, cool air in his mouth and his thoughts as uncluttered as the space around him. Like this but we need to be grounded – readers may not know these places at all and why are we getting so specific when we don’t really know the journey Dave is making? His eyes wandered back to the grainy face in his palm and he found his answer. He brought up Paddy’s number on his phone and typed: Forgot to say to get the bubbles in the fridge for Sunday night. I’ve got a surprise announcement! Hit send so there was no(?) going back. So we’ve switched from Boscombe to a surprise announcement and the introduction of another character we don’t know (Paddy)….also now a reference to a surprise announcement. Too may unknowns by this point in the first page. Recommendation: Slow down – don’t include this in first paragraph unless critical as it’s too confusing.
In the car, he took a dried date from the glove compartment (this is very specific and also sounds a bit odd. I don’t normally expect people to have dried dates in their car – more likely a mint or a sweet in England so this begs the question why dates and does this raise anything re: Dave’s background (?). Need more detail to feel authentic. Also we have far more detail about this sensation than why he’s stopped the car or where he’s headed etc.), slid it between his lips, and swirled the warm, sticky fruit around with his tongue to mask the taste of bile.
He turned right at the end of the street and joined the traffic heading for England. Still a bit confusing for those unfamiliar with geography or how Welsh people view England – need perhaps to make clearer. Also this is the first we know (as readers) that Dave’s driving to England.
Recommendation: Make it clear from the start that Dave is driving to England from Wales for Penny’s reunion. Then have an argument/conflict to reveal Boscombe backstory. Then add something about Dave’s conflicted feelings/guilt.
Hopefully both these overall and specific comments help provide a guide for revising this first page moving forward. I think the key thing to focus on is anchoring the reader in the scene (where is Dave? where is he heading?) and introducing us to the protagonist through action or dialogue that helps us feel invested in the conflict (and the Boscombe backstory) moving forward.
TKZers what advice or feedback would you offer our brave submitter?

Plotting for Pantsers and Pantsing for Plotters

by James Scott Bell

Remember the Dionne Warwick song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” I always chortled at that. It’s about someone who grew up in San Jose, came down to L.A. to make it in the movie biz, and now wants to go back home. So she asks, “Do you know the way to San Jose? I’ve been away so long…”

Wait, what? You don’t know the way back to your own home town? Sheesh! This is California. You get on the 101 and head north and keep driving till you see a sign that says SAN JOSE, NEXT EXIT.

How hard is that? You’ve got to know enough not to head south toward San Diego! Or you shouldn’t be driving.

Besides, it’s hard to rhyme with San Diego.

Do you know the way to San Diego?
Which way do I point my Winnebago?


My post today was inspired by Brother Gilstrap’s recent thought-provoker, which has the following:

As for plot, I have to know where I am going before I start–or at least before I get too deeply into the story. What I discover along the way is the most fun route to take me there. It’s like knowing you want to drive from DC to Los Angeles, but not knowing till somewhere in Indiana whether you want to take the southern route or the northern route. Or, maybe you want to park at a train station and finish the trip by rail.

This is similar to Isaac Asimov’s practice. He said he liked to know his ending, or at least a rough idea of it, and then have “the fun” of finding out how to get there.

Fun is good. It creates energy. It shows up on the page.

So let me suggest how to up the fun factor in a way that will please both plotter and pantser. (And they said it couldn’t be done!)

This post is a long one. Pack a lunch.

Plotting for Pantsers

Now, don’t get the hives, pantsing friend! You probably think of an outline as some gargantuan document that locks every scene into a cold, heartless shape that you cannot undo.

Nay, not so. I’m going to offer a method that will make outlining just as fun—and ultimately more productive—than pure pantsing.

It’s based on what I call signpost scenes. (For a full account of signpost scenes, I shamelessly refer you to my book Super Structure. But it is not essential for purposes of this post. We now return you to our regularly scheduled blog.) I’m going to suggest that you brainstorm three—just three—signpost scenes as the basis of your plotting. Here they are:

  1. The Disturbance

This is your opening. This is your hook. This is what will often make or break the sale of your book. We have talked many, many times here at TKZ about that first page. You might want to search for “First Page” and look at some of our critiques. But definitely read Kris’s post on what makes a great opening.

Now, sketch out your first scene. If you want to write it, go for it! I love writing openings that grab readers by the lapels. But you can also sketch it out in summary form. Or do a little of both. Then rework and reshape that summary until it you see the scene vividly in your head.

See that? You’re outlining! Whee!

  1. The Final Battle

That’s right. Come up with a rip-snorting ending!

PANTSER: But wait. I don’t have any idea what the plot is, let alone the villain!

ME: Who cares? You’re a doggone pantser, right? So pants! Just start playing with a big, climactic scene. Let it suggest to you what the story is about. Play around with this sketch. See it in your mind, like a movie. Then have the actors do it again, only bigger and more exciting.

Don’t get the cold sweats! Listen: You can tweak or change this scene all you want as you write your draft. But having this scene in mind gives you something to write toward.

Often—quite often, actually—I’ll have an ending and villain in mind, and a concluding final battle, but will change the actual villain near the end. You know what that’s called? A twist ending!

So now you have a gripping opening and a slam-bang ending, the essential bookends of an outline.

See how fun this is?

  1. Mirror Moment

How long does it typically take you, pantser, to know what your story is really about? It varies, right? You may catch it early, or you may not know it until the end of a draft. Or you may finish a draft and sit back and ask, “So what’s really going on here? How can I make it better?”

Why not figure it out from the get-go with a mirror moment?

This idea occurred to me as I studied the midpoint of great movies and popular novels. (I once again shamelessly declare that I wrote in depth about this in my book Write Your Novel From the Middle. But you can get the gist of the idea by reading this post and this other post, so I won’t go over that same ground.)

Brainstorm at least five possible mirror moments. What is your Lead forced to confront about himself in the dead center of the action? One of the ideas you come up with will resonate. It will feel right. And then when you start pantsing in earnest (assuming Ernest doesn’t mind) you will have a through-line that gives all your scenes an almost magical cohesion. And that is really fun.

Now that you’ve got the big three signposts done—that wasn’t so hard, was it?—I suggest you brainstorm a bunch of killer scenes.

What is a killer scene? One that is stuffed with conflict and suspense. One that a reader will be unable to tear his eyes from. Let your boys in the basement start sending them up (the boys love to do that!)

I used to take a stack of 3×5 cards to Starbucks, quaff my joe and come up with 20-25 killer scene ideas. I’d shuffle the cards and look at them and choose the ten best ones. Then I’d ask myself where those scenes might best fit—the beginning, middle, or end? (Gee, sounds like the 3-Act structure, doesn’t it?) I do the same thing now, only in Scrivener (more on that, below).

Pantsers, making up killer scenes on the fly is right in your wheelhouse! You should love it.

Then you can sit back and assess your burgeoning plot outline. Want to change something? Do more cards. You are testing different plot directions without locking yourself into a full draft. Listen to what one former pantser says:

Honestly, I had a hard time believing [outlining is fun] myself until I really got the hang of planning. But really? Planning can be really fun. It allows you to explore all the scenarios and opportunities without having to deal with pages and pages of rewrites.

Imagine a character at a crossroads. Turn left for good, turn right for evil. Up for adventure. Down for home. Which way do they go?

If the author was pantsing, they would have to pick one, follow it, and see where it ultimately leads. This could wind up being a brilliant book, or it could lead to fifty pages of useless material when they realize they would’ve preferred to take a different way.

But not so in planning. In planning, it’s easy to list out every possibility, follow every whim and feel out every thread. It’s possible to try out the wildest storylines and test out ridiculous theories just to see how they pan out. And since you don’t write them until after you’ve planned, you won’t waste time rewriting scenes if, in advance, you see that they won’t work out.

View planning a novel as a time to explore and indulge in all the silly whims you have about your book. Get your ideas out, and then decide which ones make the pages.

After all, what happens in the book plan stays in the book plan.

Pantsing for Plotters

The same method given above will work for you, plotting friend, as you begin to lay out your scenes. Let yourself have fun pantsing your outline, playing with it with the same wild abandon as your pantsing buddies, being free to change things up before you start the long drive of a first draft.

You are more structure-oriented than the pure pantser, so go ahead and lay out your cards with that in mind. I do my plotting on 3×5 index cards. As I mentioned, I do this on Scrivener. My beginning template is made up of my signpost scene cards, waiting to be filled in. I then add scene cards in between as I come up with ideas. I love looking at my growing outline on the Scrivener corkboard, being fee to move the cards around as I see fit. (I know many of you have looked at Scrivener and thought it too complicated to learn, etc. But if you just use it for the corkboard feature, I think it’s worth it. You can learn other bells and whistles later.)

My cards have a title, so I know what the scene is about at a glance. The card itself can hold a synopsis of the scene, or a big chunk of the potential scene. I often write some dialogue for the scene, because it’s fun. I transfer that to the scene card.

Here’s the corkboard for Act 1 of Romeo’s Town:

At this point in the process, I’m just concentrating on the most important scenes. I’m not thinking about transitions or subplots or style. I’m thinking about getting down the big picture of a plot that will deliver the goods.

In days, or maybe a week, I have all these scene synopses. Scrivener lets you print these out so you can sit down and, in just a few minutes, assess your about-to-be-hatched novel.

Need to change anything? Maybe a lot? Maybe the whole book? No problem! You’re not locked into anything. You can try out another route to San Jose! And another.

Whew! That’s quite enough for one Sunday.

Let me leave you with this advice: try something new in your methodology every now and again. Explore other approaches. Give a new idea a whirl. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

Enjoy the drive.

Building the Next Generation of Readers

Building the Next Generation of Readers

Encouraging Children to Read

Steve Hooley


With children going back to school, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss reading and children.

Most of us have children, nieces and nephews, or grandchildren. We want them to be successful in adulthood, and one of the best correlations with success is early reading. Reading is required to learn in every area of knowledge.

As writers, we want more people to read and more people to buy our books, so we want everyone’s children to become readers.

But, like construction, the process of creating an interest for reading in children takes repetition and multiple steps. It takes time, and it takes someone (parent, relative, teacher, friend) dedicated to helping the child learn and grow.

So, how do we build passion for reading in children? What do children want to read? And what do the “experts” suggest as the best processes to achieve that goal?

Current trends

In this age of TV, computers, and cell phones, all competing for children’s attention, how do we interest them in reading? And what are children today interested in reading?

A quick look for current trends of what children are reading revealed this list:

10 Current Trends in Children’s Books

  • Empowered females
  • Dragons
  • Unicorns
  • Pugs (Yes, apparently children like that breed of dogs)
  • Wild creatures
  • Ghosts, monsters, and scary things
  • Mysteries
  • Gross and goofy
  • Nonfiction titles

And a quick look for an “expert’s” tips on developing good reading habits, revealed this list:

8 Tips to Help Young Kids Develop Good Reading Habits

  • Make reading a daily habit – read to your children at a young age
  • Read in front of your child
  • Create a reading space
  • Take trips to the library
  • Let your child pick what to read
  • Find reading moments in everyday life
  • Reread favorite books
  • Learn more about how children read

I’ll add my thoughts:

  1. Read to children at an early age
  2. Allow them to explore picture books
  3. Help them learn to read at an early age
  4. Give them access to age-appropriate books
  5. Provide/protect a time to read (with TV, computer, and phone turned off)
  6. Give books as gifts
  7. Show an interest in what they write. Encourage them to write stories.

 Okay, now it is your turn:

1. What factors encouraged you or made you a reader?

My story

I don’t remember being read to at an early age, but I’m certain I was. I do remember going to kindergarten for two years before first grade, and reading second grade material by the end of those two years. During my third-grade year, our county library started a book mobile that included a stop at our elementary school. I remember the excitement of being allowed to explore those books. I also remember a large collection of “Bible fiction” given to my father and placed in the family book shelves. I became especially interested when I discovered that many of those books contained adult material. I spent too much time exploring those books, and my parents soon discovered why. The books disappeared. One of my best influencers was the elderly librarian in our little town, who wrapped her arm around my shoulders and directed me toward “the classics” that I “needed” to read.

2. What has worked with your children or relatives to create an interest in reading?

My failure

After my wife and I spent every Wednesday, this past summer, watching two of our grandchildren, reading to them, having them read to us, taking them to the library, and working through a workbook on language skills, I asked each of them, “Has anything made you interested in reading?” The first answered, “Nothing.” The second said, “No, not really.”

My success

On the other hand, I have a granddaughter who lives two hours away whom we visit every several months. She likes to read and write. We trade stories when we see each other, and she loves to read her stories out loud to me.

3. What suggestions do you have to build the next generation of readers?

I hope you have better ideas than I did., and I hope you will share them.

Reader Friday: Your Vacation Destination

Congratulations! You won an all-expense[s]-paid trip to the location of the last book you read or are currently reading. 

Where’s your vacation destination? 

For the next 10 days feel free to explore.

Will you venture outside or stay locked in your hotel room? Why?

True Crime Thursday – Are You Dead or Alive Scam

by Debbie Burke


Photo credit: Annie Spratt – Unsplash


Attorney Steve Weisman runs a great website called where he posts daily updates about scams making the rounds. I subscribe to it and highly recommend it to keep current with the latest iterations concocted by criminals.

Added bonus: scams make good story fodder in the devious minds of crime writers.

Recently Steve wrote about a particularly funny email from Nigeria (quoted with Steve’s permission):


“From: Mr. Chris jack <>
Sent: Thu, May 6, 2021 10:26 am
Subject: Good Day

I am writing to confirm if you are DEAD or ALIVE and failure to reply back within 48hrs, simply means what Rev Patrick Larry said today was right that you are dead. As he was trying to claim your compensation funds worth $ 850,000.00 from United Nations for USA scams victims. Rev Patrick Larry has offered to pay the needed fee for the Bond Stamp Duty fee of your funds, but we have not gotten the money from him yet, as we want to find out if you are dead or not, Below is the information needed from you Name: ______ Phone: _________ Address: ________Email:
_______ Occupation: __________ So if you are still alive you are advice in your own best interest to reply back immediately with your full details as stated for your funds.Best Regards,
Mr Chris jack,
chairman payment transfer department IMF.”

That rascal Rev Patrick Larry is spreading false rumors about your demise, while greedily attempting to cash in on compensation that’s rightfully due to you.

How dare he?

Of course, there is no United Nations fund that compensates scam victims.

A Bond Stamp Duty fee is typical scammer BS. To an unsuspecting victim, the term sounds official but is totally bogus.

If an innocent soul fell for this, the next email might request payment of the Bond Stamp Duty fee by a gift card or wire transfer (both of which are untraceable and cannot be recovered). Mr. Chris jack also needs bank account details so he can deposit the $850K. And for good measure, better include the beneficiary’s Social Security number in case taxes have to be withheld.

For the beneficiary’s further convenience, Mr. Chris jack also graciously sent a link to click…that downloads malware.  

Side note: I learned about the above criminal tactics from Steve and Scamicide.

If you receive such an email, you could respond by quoting Mark Twain: 

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

On second thought, better to just hit the trash button.



Are you dead or alive? 

In the comment section, please share the latest scam email you or someone you know has received. 




In Stalking Midas, a glamorous con artist creates an elaborate scam to bilk senior citizens who are concerned about their pets. Please check out Debbie Burke’s thriller at Amazon or other online retailers.


Different Roads To The Same Destination

By John Gilstrap

As I read Reavis Wortham’s post last Saturday on how his characters evolve in his head, I marveled at how vastly different our writing processes are. I often tell people that my characters are all day workers: they hang out at the social hall drinking beer and having fun until I call on them to do something. Then, they’re like, “Don’t ask me what I should do, Mr. Writer Man. This is your gig, dude. I just do what I’m told.”

My stories are told from a very close third-person point of view. I don the character like a costume and and live the story from the inside. I know what the character wants to do (or wants to stop, depending), and then I go on the great pretend. I document what that scene’s POV character sees, feels, and smells. Somehow, through that process, I become close to those characters, and they come alive for me.

In any given scene, then, the most important choice is assigning POV ownership. It becomes especially critical when two or more POV characters are interacting. While they all can speak and emote, only one of them can feel. The POV character knows that his heart is racing and that his face feels flushed, but he can only observe or surmise that the other characters in the scene appear to feel emotion.

I’ve written in this space before that I have never described my character Jonathan Grave in any detail. In part, this is because if he is in the scene, he is 99% likely to be the owner of the action. As I write this, I have no idea what my facial expression is as I type, but I do know that my back is sore from where I tweaked it the other day. If we were having this discussion live and in person, you wouldn’t know about the twinges of pain unless I mentioned them.

As for plot, I have to know where I am going before I start–or at least before I get too deeply into the story. What I discover along the way is the most fun route to take me there. It’s like knowing you want to drive from DC to Los Angeles, but not knowing till somewhere in Indiana whether you want to take the southern route or the northern route. Or, maybe you want to park at a train station and finish the trip by rail.

Because I write on tight deadlines, there’s no such thing as a mistake. If I push Jonathan and his crew into a corner that I shouldn’t have, I don’t have the luxury of going back and rewriting a week’s worth of work. Instead, I climb into the POV character’s skin, and I figure out the solution from behind his or her eyes. And you know what? Some of the most poignant, memorable scenes in my books grow out of those “mistakes.” It happens frequently enough, in fact, that I’ve come to trust that the subconscious somehow knows what has to happen, and if I relax, I’ll get there.

Which is good, because those lazy-ass characters love to chuckle at me and guzzle suds and eat wings while they watch me try to figure things out.

All of this harkens back to my oft-stated and heartfelt belief that there are no rules to this writing thing. What works, works. Hard stop. I don’t understand the need to outline and do character sketches before I start, but if they work for another writer–and I know such things work for many other writers–God bless them.

But here’s some food for thought: If you are an outliner or character sketcher, and you find yourself plagued by writer’s block, consider the possibility that your outline is the problem. Perhaps your preproduction vision of the story is not the best one, and that your real problem is trying to join parts that aren’t sized properly, or have simply fallen out of fashion. Try putting the outline away and going on a great pretend.

Plot Or Character? What’s
Your Starting Point?

By PJ Parrish

If you write long enough, you will eventually get this question: Where do you get your ideas?

Readers seem to be fascinated by the novel writing process, thinking it some mysterious alchemy, stories arising from the ether of the writer’s soul. (Which, of course, it is). But where the ideas come from is often quite prosaic and, well, practical.

I’ve never really given much thought to where my story ideas come from. They just do. Thank God. But I ran across a good blog at Jane Friedman’s site the other day that got me to thinking that maybe the kernels of our stories are an either-or thing.

Guest blogger Susan DeFreitas posits that, in her experience as a book coach, novelists fall into two camps: those who start with character and those who start with plot or story concept. To quote DeFreitas:

CHARACTER: Writers who start with character tend to be empathetic people—“people people,” you might say. A new story for these folks may arrive in the form of a certain voice in their head, or a line or two that seems promising. Or they might be struck at first by a type of character—for instance, a character who’s a bit like an intriguing person they happen to know, or a bit like a character in a book or movie they loved.

PLOT: Plot people, generally speaking, are idea people. A new story may arrive in the form of a concept they’re fascinated by—say, the idea that aliens might be symbiotic beings, in much the same way that lichens are—or an intriguing question: What if two twins, dissatisfied with their lives and marriages, decided to pass as each other for a year? Or they might be interested in writing a type of story. Say, a thriller that revolves around the trafficking of endangered species, or a story that combines elements of space opera and noir.

Well, my Louis Kincaid series, of course, started with my protagonist. He’s a biracial man with a rough childhood as a foster kid who gets kicks off the police force and spends most of ten books trying to reclaim his badge — and his tortured past. Which dovetails with what James wrote about Sunday: backstory as conflict catalyst. So I am character driven, right?

I always thought I was. But as I read DeFreitas’s blog, I realized I am more plot-driven when it comes to inspiration. Which was something of a revelation to me. I seem to fall head-over-heels for the big “what if…?”

Example: My sister and I were doing a book signing in Ft. Myers years back. Kelly and I had just returned from lunch at a rustic inn way out on a tiny island in Pine Island Sound. The waters around Ft. Myers are dotted with hundreds of islands, most just green tufts, but a couple privately owned and quite secretive. We were jawing about setting a book on such a remote place but getting nowhere with an actual plot. A woman came up to our table to get a book and we chatted. She said she was a psychologist who specialized in the sociopathology of extended families forced to live in close quarters.

What if…

There was a big family living out on one of the sound’s remote islands. What if they ran a run-down restaurant to make ends meet but no one knew anything about them? What if one of the women tired of the forced isolation and tried to run away by stealing a boat? What if a hurricane was coming? What if her body was found washed up in the mangroves near Ft. Myers? What if no one could identify her but she was wearing a strange ring carved from coral? What if there were, Louis discovered, a list of unsolved cases of missing teenage girls from the area that extended over thirty years?

So was born Island of Bones. It turned out to be one of our best sellers and won the International Thriller Award.

As I think back now, I realize almost all our stories were plot-hatched. Quite a revelation to this writer who prides herself on character development.

To get back to Susan DeFreitas’s blog: She makes some interesting points about the strengths and challenges for writers of plot versus character inspiration. See if any of this resonates with you:


Strength: It’s inherently high-concept

Writers can describe their book in a sentence or two that will get the attention of both readers and publishing professionals, because the story concept speaks for itself.

Strength: Readers love plot

Yes, there’s a solid market for character-driven fiction—but the market for plot-driven fiction is substantially larger, encompassing genres like speculative fiction and mysteries/thrillers. Writers with an intuitive sense of plot don’t struggle to keep their readers turning the pages. In their stories, A leads to B leads to C, and D is that mind-blowing twist that keeps the reader up way past her bedtime. Such writers tend to have a lot of rabbits hidden up their sleeve, so to speak, and for the reader, there’s a real sense of delight when one after the next is revealed.

Strength: There’s no question of what happens

Writers who excel with plot are really people who excel at ideas: they know the field they want to traverse, so they pick the path that hits all the vistas they want to reveal. That’s a very different—and easier—proposition than trying to figure out what a given character or characters should do, or what should happen to them.

Challenge: Lack of character arc

The characters often start as a means to an end, the who that will discover the what. In order for the story to develop a sense of meaning and depth, these writers have to dig deeper with their characters in revision, exploring who these characters really are, what makes them tick, and the emotional journey they’ll make over the course of the story. Plot keeps the reader turning the pages…[but] it’s the characters, and the way they’ve either learned and grown over the story or, tragically, failed to. This is the part that writers who start with plot often have to figure out, and layer in, in revision.

Challenge: The incredible expanding plot problem

The thing about being good at plot is…it’s hard to know when to stop. One thing leads to the next, leads to another, leads to a fascinating subplot, and then another, and then, before you know it, you’ve got 160,000 words of something that may not in fact be publishable. Writers with this problem either have to train themselves how to outline in a way that addresses character arc or develop an eagle eye in revision for what’s really important in the story and what’s not.

Challenge: Lack of a real ending

Writers who tend to start with plot often find themselves writing a series. One pitfall of this tendency is that such writers often don’t know how to actually end their first book in a way that will be satisfying for the reader. Such writers often want to hold onto some big development until Book Two, or even Book Three. My response to that is this: Don’t hold your best cards for some imagined future story, because if you don’t end Book One in way that’s satisfying for the reader, and brings all the major threads of the story through to compelling climax and resolution—even if that resolution is just the troubled situation that will begin the next book in the series—there won’t be another book in the series, because the first one won’t get published.


Strength: Characters make us care.

Writers who start with character don’t struggle to create characters who seem alive on the page, whose struggles touch upon universal themes, and who exhibit the sort of complexity that makes us as readers really feel what it is to be human.

Strength: There’s a solid market for character-driven fiction.

The vast majority of novels that fall into the genres known as contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction are character-driven. Which is to say, there’s a solid contingency of readers who read fiction for exactly what writers who start with character are generally able to deliver, on every single page: The sense of being someone else, seeing the world through their eyes, and going through a meaningful transformation or change over the course of the story. Writers who start with character generally don’t struggle to determine if there’s a market for the sort of thing they do, because that market is broad and well defined.

Strength: There’s no question whose story it is.

Other types of writers may spend some time in the planning stages of a novel wrestling with the question of who their protagonist should be. But for writers who start with character, this generally isn’t an issue (unless there are so many compelling characters in their head that it’s just hard to choose among them). These type of writers are not like directors looking for actors to play a part in their story—they’re more like directors making a biopic, with the story as a whole built around a certain character.

Challenge: Too many POVs

If you do something well as a writer, why not do more of it? That’s often the position taken by writers who start with character, whether they realize it or not, by adding many different POVs in their novels. POV comes easily to such writers, and they generally find it fun, because they don’t struggle to get inside the heads of the protagonist’s husband, for example, or her kids, or even the checkout clerk at the grocery store where she shops. These other POVs [can be] compelling and well written. But that doesn’t mean they serve the story. sometimes these other POVs are no more than game trails that lead the story off on tangents without contributing to the main story line.

Challenge: Lack of arc

Sometimes writers have so much love and sympathy for their protagonists that they have a hard time imagining a real flaw for that character, or some real issue in the way that person sees the world. But without an issue or flaw there’s no real character arc, no clear way that the story will push the protagonist to grow and change.

Challenge: Episodic or slow plot

Readers in general find deep character work compelling. But that doesn’t mean a novel can just rely on character to keep the reader turning the pages. For that to happen, there needs to be a causally linked series of events, with emotional stakes, that escalates over the course of a story to a distinct breaking point—in other words, a real plot.

So…which compels you — plot or character? And do you find yourself sometimes struggling with some of the challenges of either as outlined by Susan DeFreitas? Maybe you’re a hybrid like me. Yeah, I seem to start with plot, with some big idea. But for me, character must win out in the end.

A really great story is like juggling. You have to be able to keep all the balls in the air. And make it look like the easiest magic trick in the world.


First Page Critique: Side Effects

Another brave writer submitted their first page for critique. Enjoy! I’ll catch ya on the flip side.

Title: Side Effects

Genre: Psychological Thriller

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood, only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh.  He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not so quickly as to attract attention.  It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing than the closeness of the warm bodies surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent that still lingered in his mind, and as the scope of his concentration narrowed he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow.

Things had gone even worse than he had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been to avoid contact with the target.  Just simple surveillance and data collection, no face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad.

An alleyway not choked by storage crates or piles of trash appeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stopping behind a dumpster and immediately pulling a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket.  It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain.  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley.  The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

After a moment he stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal.  There were no sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d come.  It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment, and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now.

Let’s look at all the things Brave Writer did well.

  • Compelling exposition
  • Action; the character is active, not passive
  • Raised story questions
  • Piqued interest
  • Great voice
  • Setting established. We may not know the exact city/town, but s/he’s planted a mental picture in the reader’s mind and we can visualize the setting.
  • Stayed in the character’s POV
  • The title even intrigues me. Side effects of what? Did an injury or drug turn this character into a killer?

The writing could use a little tightening, but nothing too dramatic. 

All he could hear was the thunder of rushing blood (anytime we use telling words like hear, we distance the point-of-view. Remember, if you and I wouldn’t think it, our characters can’t either. Quick example of how to reword: Blood rushed like thunder in his ears,) only distantly aware of the sharp, bright pain (Excellent description: sharp, bright pain) in his palms as his fists tightened and fingernails sunk into flesh. from his fingernails biting into flesh.

Technically, only distantly aware would be classified as telling, but I like the juxtaposition between only distantly aware and sharp, bright pain. Some might argue both things can’t be true. Hmm, I’m torn. What do you think, TKZers? Reword or leave it?

He pushed (use a stronger verb like shoved or jammed) his hands deeper into his pockets and poured his focus into quickening his pace moving more quickly along the crowded sidewalk, but not too fast or he might so quickly as to attract unwanted attention. It was a good thing to focus on, a much better thing Better to focus on his stride than the closeness of the warm bodies strangers (the warm bodies sounds awkward to me) surrounding him or the intoxicating coppery scent (Love intoxicating here! Let’s end well, too, by replacing scent with a stronger word. Tang? Aroma? Stench?) that still lingered in his mind,. and

As the scope of his concentration narrowed, he felt the wild pounding of his heart begin to slow. “Felt” is another telling word. Try something like: As he focused on his footsteps, the wild pounding of his heart slowed to a light pitter-patter, pitter-patter.

Things had gone even worse than he’d had imagined.  Much, much worse.  The entire point of taking this job had been  was to avoid contact with the target.  Just Simple surveillance and data collection,. No face-to-face interaction.  No unspoken promise of violence.  It hadn’t turned out that way at all, but even with the plan shot all to hell, part of him he couldn’t honestly say that he hadn’t hoped for this.

And that was bad. The inner tussle between good and evil intrigues me. 🙂 

He ducked into aAn alleyway—swept clean, no not choked by storage crates or piles of trashappeared ahead on his right.  He darted into it, stoppinged behind a dumpster, and immediately pullinged a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his (coat?) pocket.

Something to consider: Rather than use the generic word cigarettes, a brand name enhances characterization. Example: Lucky Strikes or unfiltered Camels implies he’s no kid, with rough hands from a lifetime of hard work, a bottle of Old Spice in his medicine cabinet, and a fifth of Jack Daniels behind the bar. A Parliament smoker is nothing like that guy. Mr. Parliament Extra Light would drink wine spritzers and babytalk his toy poodle named Muffin. See what I’m sayin’? Don’t skip over tiny details; it’s how we breathe life into characters. And it falls under fair use as long as we don’t harm the brand. For more on the legalities, read this article.

 It was dry here, the layers of fire escapes overhead blocking out the steady drizzle of warm summer rain (If it’s raining, we should know this sooner, perhaps when he’s focused on his footsteps).  He lit up with surprisingly steady hands, the tip of the cigarette flaring as he inhaled deeply and pressed his back against the wall of the alley. Love surprisingly steady hands! Those three words imply this is his first murder, and he’s almost giddy about it. Great job!

The cigarette flaring is a bit too cinematic, though. The last thing smokers notice is the end of their butt unless it goes out. If you want to narrow in on this moment, mention the inhale, exhale, maybe he blows smoke rings or a plume, and him leaning against the brick wall. That’s it. Don’t overthink it. Less is more.

The brick was pleasantly cool and rough through the damp fabric of his shirt, and as his lungs burned he felt the first wave of nicotine-fueled calm wash over him.

Dear Writer, please interview a smoker for research. A smoker’s lungs don’t burn. If they did, they’d panic, because burning lungs indicates a serious medical issue. Also, a smoker doesn’t experience a wave of nicotine-fueled calm. It’s too Hollywood. The simple act of him smoking indicates satisfaction. Delete the rest. It only hurts all the terrific work you’ve done thus far.

After a few moments, he chanced a peek at stepped forward and looked around the corner of the dumpster towards the street.  Everything seemed normal. There were Nno sirens, no sprinting cops, no gawking onlookers wandering in the direction from which he’d coame. Nothing It was unlikely that anything could tie him back to what would be found in that apartment (let him be certain so when the cops find something later, it throws him off-kilter. Inner conflict is a good thing. Also, simply stating that apartment is enough. We know he killed somebody. Kudos for not telling us who.), and that possibility wasn’t what worried him about the situation anyway, but it was good knowing that there was one less problem to deal with right now. I would end the sentence after apartment, but if you need to add the rest, reword to remove “knowing,” which is also a telling word.

One last note: Use one space after a period, not two.

All in all, I really enjoyed this first page. It sounds like my kind of read. Great job, Brave Writer!

I would turn the page. How ’bout you, TKZers? Please add your helpful suggestions/comments.

Squeeze More Conflict Out of Your Settings

by James Scott Bell

Clare’s post on Monday brought up the subject of what I call “the lifeblood of fiction”—conflict. This is usually the first lesson a young writer learns, and rightly so. No conflict, no story. No conflict, no interest. Maybe you can skate along for a page or two with a quirky character, but said character will soon wear out his welcome if not confronted with some sort of disturbance, threat, or opposition.

When the subject comes up in fiction workshops, we focus on conflict between characters—story people with differing agendas, clashing. It can be as simple as a couple arguing about what to make for dinner, or as crucial as a cop interrogating a suspect. But some sort of conflict or tension—even if it’s inner conflict when the character is alone—is needed in every scene.

And don’t ignore the potential for conflict in a setting. Where you place your story world and each individual scene should never be done without a little brainstorming on the physical locale as a way to create more trouble.

Three areas to consider:

  1. Story World

What is the macro world of your story? How can you use it to heighten the tension?

Most of my Mike Romeo thrillers, like Chandler’s Marlowe novels, are set in my hometown, Los Angeles. Not just because I know it, but because it is in my humble opinion the greatest noir/crime/suspense city in the world. Any big city has its crime beat, but in L.A. it’s marvelously varied and malleable. So many neighborhoods, each with a unique vibe. Crime is not limited to the night, which is usually what you get in a film noir set in, say, New York. Here in L.A., crime is a daytime thing, too.

Every now and then Romeo goes off to another place. In Romeo’s Way it’s San Francisco. I wrote about that research here. I felt I had to visit and walk the streets I was writing about. I came up with some great details I wouldn’t have found any other way.

Romeo’s Stand, on the other hand, takes place in a small desert town in Nevada. What was my research on that one? My head. I made the place up. That’s a time-honored method (think of Ross Macdonald and Sue Grafton using Santa Teresa as a Doppelganger for Santa Barbara). It allows you to make up physical locations as you see fit.

But do make them up, just as if they were real places. My imaginary town was as vivid to me as any place I’ve ever visited, right down to the heat on the streets and the paint peeling on the buildings.

  1. Scenes

Los Angeles has an infinite variety of locations for setting a scene. Some of the settings in my new Romeo, Romeo’s Town, are Skid Row, Juvenile Hall, Paradise Cove, Hollywood Boulevard, Simi Valley, Box Canyon, even little Johnny Carson Park in Burbank. I’ve visited them all, and when writing each scene I let my imagination roam a little bit over the landscape to see what popped up.

For example, Box Canyon is the most rustic community in L.A. county, tightly packed into hills made up mostly of sandstone boulders. I chose this location for a particular scene because the rocks presented a unique challenge for the characters.

  1. Backstory

And don’t forget backstory as a means of generating conflict. Only in this case, it’s inner conflict by way of “the ghost.” That’s an event that deeply and negatively affected the character in the past which now hovers over her present. A vivid setting helps here, too.

A prime example is Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. She is haunted by the memory of when she was ten years old. The setting was a sheep and horse ranch owned by her mother’s cousin, where Clarice went to live. Clarice would wake up early in the morning, while it was yet dark, hearing the screaming of spring lambs being slaughtered. The diabolical Lecter prods this story out of her and uses it to dig deeply into her psyche. This ghost intensifies our sympathy for Clarice.

I’m not one for massive character biographies or dossiers before I begin to write. I like a few salient details, mainly about looks and vocation. I flesh the character out as I write to fit the developing story. But for main characters I do spend time brainstorming key backstory settings and events. I’m looking for that ghost that can partly explain how and why a character is acting the way he is, and not revealing it until later in the story.

Suffice to say Mike Romeo has such a ghost. It’s with him in every book.

Which brings me to my announcement that the new Romeo I mentioned, Romeo’s Town, is up for pre-order. You can lock in the deal price of $2.99 by ordering now. Here is the link. If you’re outside the U.S., simply go to your Amazon site and search for: B09CFTLDKJ.

The ad line:

L.A. is Romeo’s Town. Keep off the grass.

Lets chat:

In your WIP, where is your Lead’s story world? Have you thought about its physicality as a source for conflict? Does your Lead have a “ghost” from the past that haunts the present?