Let There Be Light

Let There Be Light
Terry Odell

Light and Color

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Light is important when we’re writing—and I’m not talking about having enough light to work by. I’m talking about how much we can describe in our scenes. One of my critique partners questioned a bit I’d written (yes, it’s from one of my romantic suspense books).

She stepped inside and closed the door behind them. Placing her forefinger over her lips, she shook her head before he could speak. She unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. Then walked her fingers to the second, sliding the disc through the slit in the fabric. Then to the third, then the next, until she’d laid the plaid flannel open, revealing the tight-fitting black tee she’d seen at the pond this morning when he’d given her the shirt off his back.

His comment: “It’s night. Do you need to show one of them turning on a light?” Maybe. More on that in a minute.

In a book I read some years back, the author had made a point of a total power failure on a moonless night. There was no source of light, and the pitch-blackness of the scene was a way for the hero and heroine to have to get “closer” since they couldn’t see.

It didn’t take long for them to end up in bed, but somehow, he was able to see the color of her eyes as they made love. I don’t know whether the author had forgotten she’d set up the scene to have no light, or if she didn’t do her own verifying of what you can and can’t see in total darkness. Yes, our eyes will adapt to dim light, but there has to be some source of light for them to send images to the brain. If you’ve ever taken a cave tour, you’ll know there’s no adapting to total darkness.

In the case of the paragraph I’d written, the character had seen the man’s clothes earlier that day, so she’d probably remember the colors, especially since the tee was black. And you’ll note, I didn’t say “red and green plaid shirt.”

I won’t delve too deeply into biology, but our retinas are lined with rods and cones. Rods function in dim light, but can’t detect color; cones need more light, but they can “see” color. (All the “seeing” is done in the brain, not the eyes.)

We want to describe our scenes, we want our readers to ‘see’ everything, but we have to remember to keep it real. This might mean doing some personal testing—when you wake up before it’s fully light, check to see how much you can actually ‘see’. The ability to see color drops off quickly. So even if you see your hands, or the chair across the room, or the picture on the wall, how much light do you need before you can leave the realm of black and white? What colors do you see first? When it gets dark, what colors drop off first. Divers are probably aware of the way certain colors are no longer detectable as they descend.

Here’s a video showing what happens.

And another quick aside about seeing color. Blue is focused on the front of the retina, red farther back. This makes it very hard for the brain to create an image where both colors are in focus. It’s hard on the eyes. For that reason, it’s probably not wise to have a book cover with red text on a blue background, or vice-versa. You can look up chromostereopsis if you like scientific explanations. For me, I’m fine with “don’t do that because it’s hard to read.”

How do you deal with light and color in your books? Any examples of when it’s done well? How about not well?


Heather's ChaseI’m pleased to announce that my upcoming Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is now available for preorder at most e-book channels.

(If you’d like to see some of the pictures I took on my trip, many of which appear in the book, click on the book title above and scroll down to “Special Features.”)



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.

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If They Buy the Premise

If They Buy the Premise …
Terry Odell

A comment from my editor on my current manuscript, saying “This should have come up 200 pages ago” was a good reminder about using foreshadowing.

If they buy the premiseIn talking about comedy, Johnny Carson said, “If they buy the premise, they’ll buy the bit.”

The same goes for fiction. You have to sell the premise early on. You can’t stop to explain a character’s skill set, motivation, or fear at the height of the action. Nor can you bring in great-uncle Phineas in the last chapter of your mystery and reveal him as the killer. No fair using the deus ex machina method of resolving your story.

Consider Raiders of the Lost Ark. If the movie had opened with Indy in the classroom, would viewers have “bought” that he was really capable of everything he’d have to do in the movie? No, but by showing him in the field in a life-and-death situation first, we’ll accept that he’s a lot more than a mild mannered college professor.

Before James Bond pulls off his miracles, we’ve seen Q show him the gadgets that will save his life. We know MacGyver has a strong background in science, so he’s got the theory and knowledge to pull off his escapes using duct tape and a Swiss Army knife.

Foreshadowing isn’t only for the “Big Stuff,” though. You should consider making sure you’ve set things up for the “Little Stuff” as well. Think of setups as breadcrumbs you scatter for readers to follow.

You should set things up early on, and in a different context. Setup Scenes should occur throughout the book, and should set up minor plot points as well as major ones.

Example. In a scene from my When Danger Calls, my stalwart hero has been tasked with supervising two little girls who are playing with dolls. They come downstairs and show their mom the fancy braids he’s created.

Would my macho covert ops guy really know how to braid a doll’s hair, or did I stick it in because I thought it would be a cool way to move his relationship with the mom along? Would I have to stop the story to explain where he acquired the skill? Not if I’ve shown it, and better to do it in an entirely different context. Earlier in the book, readers see this:

Ryan leafed through the snapshots while he waited for the earth to start revolving again. He knew which one he wanted as soon as he saw it. He remembered the day it had been taken, right after he’d won third prize at the fair with Dynamite, his pony. He’d been so sure he’d get the blue ribbon and hadn’t wanted to pose for the family picture his grandfather insisted on taking. He saw the look in his mother’s eyes. So proud, she’d made him feel like he’d won first prize after all.

There’s no mention of him actually braiding the horse’s mane or tail, but it shows that he’s had experience with horses, all couched in a scene that’s about something entirely different—his emotional reaction to seeing old family photos.

Then, later in the book, when the girls display their dolls’ hairdos, Mom asks where Ryan learned to braid. One of the girls responds, “On real horses. He used to braid their hair. For shows.”

You’ve set the premise, so reader should buy the bit.

We know Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes at the very beginning of the movie. Because of that opening scene, we know to expect something with snakes, which adds to the tension.

Lee Child foreshadows almost everything he shows in his books. In Gone Tomorrow  a fellow passenger rambles on about the different kinds of subway cars in New York. That tidbit shows up front and center later on in a high-action climactic scene. And even the little things, that might not be significant plot points, such as the origin of the use of “Hello” to answer the phone will appear, letting the reader know that the character was paying attention, too.

What will lead to book-throwing by readers? How about this?

Hero and heroine are hiding and the villains are closing in. (Since I write romantic suspense as well as mystery, the genre requires both as protagonists, but it could be your hero and partner, or someone he’s been charged to protect.)

The hero is injured. He hands the heroine his gun and asks her if she can shoot. She says, “Of course. I’m a crack shot,” and proceeds to blow the villains away (or worse, has never handled a gun before, but still takes out the bad guys, never missing a shot). Not only that, but she is an expert in first aid and manages to do what’s necessary to save the hero’s life. Plus, she’s an expert trapper and can snare whatever creatures are out there. Or, maybe she has no trouble catching fish. And she can create a gourmet meal out of what she catches. All without disturbing her manicure or coiffure.

Believable? Not if this is the first time you’ve seen these traits. But what if, earlier in the book, the heroine is dusting off her shooting trophies, thinking about how she misses those days. Or she’s cleaning up after a fishing trip. Maybe she has to move her rock climbing gear out of her closet to make room for her cookbooks. You don’t want to dump an entire scene whose only purpose is to show a skill she’ll need later. Keep it subtle, but get it in there.

When you’re writing, it’s important to know what skills your characters need to possess. You might not know when you start the book, but if you’re writing a scene where one of these skills will move the story forward, and there’s no other logical way to deal with the plot, then you owe it to your readers to back up and scatter those breadcrumbs.

What about you? How do you make sure you’re not entering into deus ex machina territory? What kind of breadcrumbs do you scatter? How do you hide the clues?



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.

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Roaming Body Parts

Roaming Body Parts

I recently read a blog with a firm stance on how to deal with body parts. I don’t entirely agree. I don’t have trouble with figures of speech, and if I’m reading that a character ‘flew down the block to John’s house’ I don’t see her mid-air. If someone writes “a lump of ice settled in her belly” I’m not seeing actual ice.

How do you react when you read things like this?

Their eyes met from across the room.

His eyes raked her body from head to toe.

There seem to be two schools of thought on this one. I’m on the side that doesn’t mind. I understand that ‘eye’ can be used as a noun or a verb. “He eyed her” is acceptable. “He gave her the eye” is an idiom I have no trouble with. I don’t see him extracting an eyeball and handing it to her. So if a characters eyes move, I don’t get visions of eyeballs floating free. Others would substitute the word “gaze.” I’ll use either.

Which side are you on? Would the following pull you out of the story?

Her blue eyes, enlarged by her wire-rimmed glasses, rambled from Colleen’s head to her toes.

“What’s wrong with my face?” Her fingers flew to her cheeks.

Yet there are those for whom those would be book-tossing offenses. Me, I see the eye movement in the first example, but the eyes remain firmly set in their sockets. In the second, my brain assumes the fingers are still attached to the hand, and I don’t think about body parts floating in space.

If you give someone the eye, are you handing them an eyeball? Or if a character eyes the room as he enters, what’s he doing? Eye is a verb as well as a noun, after all. And as a verb, my Synonym Finder (great reference book, by the way) lists view, see, behold, catch sight of, look at. And what about all those expressions using ‘eye’? In a pig’s eye. Do we put things into the eye of that pig? Or, keep an eye out for. Do we take an eyeball out and hold it until someone comes for it?

Roaming body parts

Image by 272447 from Pixabay

If we took everything we read literally, a lot of the richness of the language would be lost. If his eyes are pools of molten chocolate, do we really think that he’s got Godiva eyeballs? Or just deep brown eyes?

(That’s a metaphor, I think – if his eyes look like pools of molten chocolate, that would be a simile, right?) I’ve never been good at remembering terminology. Metaphors, similes, idioms, hyperbole—they’re things I use, but I don’t worry about what they’re called when I’m writing them.



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.

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What’s Up?

What’s Up?

by Terry Odell

What's Up

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

I’ve been going through my manuscript, getting it ready to send to my editor. I’ve run checks on overused words and phrases using a program called SmartEdit—which, as always, finds a new one every time. This time it was “about.” But there’s another word I check for.

My high school Latin teacher used to share his opinions on unnecessary words and redundancies. Saying “From its earliest beginnings to it final completion” pushed his buttons. He complained that the word “up” was overused, and often unnecessary. Why say ‘face up to a situation’? To which class clown Leon replied, “So what’s the guy robbing a bank supposed to do? Walk up to the teller and say “This is a stick?”

Leon’s wit notwithstanding, up is a word I run checks on, because it seems to slip off the fingertips without conscious thought—over 300 times in this manuscript—and often can be dispensed with.  Here’s an essay we used to use when we were training tutors for the Adult Literacy League in Orlando. I thought I’d share it today.

What’s Up With Up?

“We’ve got a two-letter word we use constantly that may have more meanings than any other. The word is up.

“It is easy to understand up, meaning toward the sky or toward the top of a list. But when we waken, why do we wake up? At a meeting, why does a topic come up? And why are participants said to speak up? Why are officers up for election? And why is it up to the secretary to write up a report?

“The little word is really not needed, but we use it anyway. We brighten up a room, light up a cigar, polish up the silver, lock up the house and fix up the old car.

“At other times, it has special meanings. People stir up trouble, line up for tickets, work up an appetite, think up excuses and get tied up in traffic.

“To be dressed is one thing, but to be dressed up is special. It may be confusing, but a drain must be opened up because it is stopped up.

“We open up a store in the morning, and close it up in the evening. We seem to be all mixed up about up.

“In order to be up on the proper use of up, look up the word in the dictionary. In one desk-sized dictionary, up takes up half a column; and the listed definitions add up to about 40.

“If you are up to it, you might try building up a list of the many ways in which up is used. It may take up a lot of your time, but if you don’t give up, you may wind up with a thousand.”

Frank S. Endicott

Do you have any crutch words that appear on the page all too frequently?

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Reader Friday: Characters

Reader Friday: Characters

CharactersJD Robb has just published her 50th “In Death” book. The cast of characters has grown over time, but her two main characters, Eve and Roarke, have anchored every book. Other authors write multiple series featuring different characters, often those who have played secondary roles in previous books.

If you’re writing a series, do you get tired of the characters, or are they old friends? For recurring characters, how do you keep them fresh?

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Transitions

Transisitions
by Terry Odell

On last Friday’s question, one person commented on transitions being hardest for her to write, so I thought I’d address my approach to the subject here.

TransitionsWhen we moved to Colorado, we did a lot of remodeling. We have a small tile area in front of the fireplace. We installed ¾ inch hardwood for the rest of the floor. One of the challenges the contractors faced was making sure the transition between tile and wood was smooth, because the new hardwood was thicker than the pre-existing laminate flooring.

In your manuscript, you have to decide how you’re going to get from one time or place to the next. You don’t want people tripping when they move from tile to wood. That’s why paying attention to transitions is important.

There are ‘big’ transitions: Switching POV characters, chapter breaks, and scene breaks. There are the ‘little ones: Making sure every sentence, every paragraph follows logically from the one preceding it. As you can see, it’s a broad topic, but I’ll try to hit some of the high points.

When I started writing, I felt obligated to be with my characters 24/7. It was a major writing breakthrough to be able to write, “By Friday” when the previous scene was on a Wednesday. Skip two days? Gasp! Things had to be happening. And they were, but they weren’t anything that moved the story. There are other ways to show passage of time. Some authors like to date/time stamp scenes and chapters. There are scene breaks. Or, just some extra white space.

Formatting note: if you’re indie publishing, some of the conversion software (for ebooks) assumes extra returns are mistakes, and removes them. Print is another matter. For ebooks, I take the cautious approach and use a marker. If it’s a break within a scene, and my normal scene breaks are ~~~, then I’ll use a single ~ to show I’m with the same POV character, same scene, but time or place has changed.

For new chapters and scenes, I want to make sure I’m grounding the reader in the who, where, and when. For my romantic suspense books, each chapter usually has 2 main scenes, one from each character’s POV. That requires a bit of leapfrog mentality from the reader.

The last sentence of a scene often won’t lead into the first of the next. There has to be a way to remind the reader of: first, whose scene this will be, and second, where the previous scene ended. And, if time has passed, there has to be a way to indicate that as well. When you shift scenes or chapters, look at your opening paragraph. Is it description? Yes, you want to show the reader they’re somewhere else, but it can be more important to show the reader who they’re with first. Keep them involved with the character; don’t slow the read to describe the sunrise.

An example: Protag Graham has a POV scene in Chapter One. We’ve learned he’s a patrol cop with a goal of a transfer into a detective position. He’s in competition with another cop, Clarke. That scene ends with the following, which was clearly in Graham’s POV. He’s been thinking of the woman he just met in his investigation.

Laughter erupted from the room. The sound of his name, coupled with Clarke’s guffaws, eradicated Colleen’s image like wind-blown storm clouds. Dammit. It had been five years. He was a damn good cop, and he was going to beat Clarke into CID no matter how many times the arrogant bastard tried to dredge up his past.

He appears again in Chapter Two, but not as a POV character. His next turn center stage is in Chapter Four. Here’s the opening:

Graham finished filing his reports, surprised to see it was four-thirty. Instead of going home, he drove to Central Ops. Roger Schaeffer in CID might let him poke around a little. The lieutenant seemed to be one of the few who thought Graham had a shot at the CID spot. His recommendation could make the difference.

For this scene, I opened by using Graham’s name (who), and also a time reference (when). The where, Central Ops is mentioned. Also, by showing something only Graham can be aware of (his surprise at the time), we’ve established it’s his POV scene. If there was any doubt, the rest of the paragraph is internal monologue, thoughts only Graham would know.

Another good reason for clear transitions between chapters and scenes is because those tend to be the logical stopping places for readers. If they’re not picking up the book until the next night—or later, but we hate to think they could possibly wait that long to continue reading—it helps if they don’t feel that they have to back up to get a running start.

You also have to consider the ‘mini-transitions.’

Whether you’re writing narrative or dialogue, there has to be a clear and steady flow from one sentence to the next, from one paragraph to the next. Just as you need transitions between scenes, you need transitions between individual paragraphs. And sentences. Consider dialogue. Normally, in conversation, if someone asks a question, we’ll answer it. Whatever the person who asked the question happens to be doing or thinking is going on simultaneously with our hearing the question and giving our response.

But in writing, if you stick all those internal thoughts and gestures in, it’s likely your reader will have forgotten the question. Look out for tacking on sentences after a character has asked a question. That’s not the best place to include it.

How do you handle transitions? Tips or problems you’re looking for help with? I’m sure there are a lot of folks here willing to chime in.



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.

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Ask Yourself Why

Ask Yourself Why

Terry Odell

Ask yourself why

Image by Anand Kumar from Pixabay

Everyone, I’m sure, has heard of using the “What if?” question to start a story, and to help move things along throughout. But for me, there’s an even more helpful question for me while I’m writing. WHY?

Disclaimer. I’m not a Plotter. Not a true Pantser. More of a Planster.

In one of his workshops, James Scott Bell has an exercise designed to help you understand your characters. There, he sets up a scene of a gorgeous room with a huge picture window overlooking a pastoral view and your character picks up a chair and throws it, breaking the window. He asks Why he or she would do that.

While that can be helpful when it comes to characterization, my question relates to the story. Even though we write fiction, it has to come across as reality. One technique I use to make sure things seem “real” is to ask myself Why a character would do or say something.

If the answer is “Because I need it for tension/conflict/humor/plot advancement,” it’s probably wrong. When I was writing Danger in Deer Ridge, the first major ‘error’ I spotted in my opening draft was having the hero appear while the heroine was looking in her car’s trunk for her tool kit.

  • Why didn’t she hear him drive up?
  • Why did he park the truck there?
  • Why did he come down without a toolkit of his own?

All these Why questions require answers. Answering them drives the story forward for me. My thought processes might not end up on the page, (and this is most prevalent in the early chapters, while things are taking shape) but the results do.

So, where it ended up: She didn’t hear him drive up because he parked at the top of the drive. Why?

He parked the car there because his son is asleep in the truck. It’s a quiet rural area, one he knows well, and he’s not concerned that someone will come by and Do a Bad Thing.

That’s still weak, so I added a dog who would take the head off of anyone who tried anything. (Note to self: don’t forget you’ve now saddled yourself with yet another ‘character’ to keep track of.)

More Why questions.

Why not go all the way down the drive? It’s steep, curves, and riddled with potholes, and he doesn’t want to wake the kid.

Weak. What if he’s not an experienced father? Why not? Because his wife left him, took the kid and remarried, and he hasn’t seen the kid since he was an infant.

Why does he have the kid now? Because the ex-wife and the boy’s stepfather were killed in a Tragic Accident? Works for now. (Note to self: revisit this before Grinch has to tell anyone about it.) Also, having him a new and inexperienced father allows for more conflict between hero and the Very Caring Mother who is our heroine.

More notes: Why doesn’t the hero work for Blackthorne, Inc. when the book opens, since the other books in the series open with a scene of a Blackthorne op. Why does he live conveniently near the heroine’s new digs?

By the time I’d written the scene, answers to my Why questions gave me more insight into my characters. I realized that the hero’s friendly demeanor and magnetic grin weren’t consistent with a man who’s worried about leaving a young child asleep in his truck. I ended up tweaking that scene, which added to the tension, because the heroine sees someone who’s in a rush, who keeps looking over his shoulder. She extrapolates from her own secret-keeping life, and it seems logical for her to worry that this guy might be out to get her.

If you don’t want your story to seem contrived, try asking yourself “Why?”

What other questions help you move forward in your writing?



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.

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