#BookTok Tips for Writers

Last week, Steve asked for a post about #BookTok on TikTok. Since I wrote an article for Anne R. Allen’s blog in October 2022, I’ll repost it here so all of TKZ can benefit. I’ve included 2024 updates in bold.

When the buzz of TikTok started spreading, I wanted no part of it. With two Facebook accounts, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Goodreads, etc. the last thing I needed was another social media site. I could barely juggle the audience I’d amassed on social media over the last twelve years. Then I discovered #BookTok, and my outlook changed.

#BookTok

The hashtag #BookTok opens a doorway to a subsection of TikTok where thousands of voracious readers spend their time, along with #WriterTok and a host of genre hashtags. #BookTok exploded over the last two years. In fact, #BookTokers call the dancing/singing videos “the wrong side of TikTok.” Rarely, if ever, do we venture outside of #BookTok — a loyal, generous community bonded by our love of the written word.

Remember when social media was your guilty pleasure, your happy place, and you looked forward to hopping online? For many of us, that drive faded away when politics and rants filled our timelines.

Yet, having a social media presence is a vital part of an author’s career. The problem is, once we form the emotional connection between social media and publishing, engaging with readers can start to feel a lot like work. #BookTok reignited my spark, and it can do the same for you. Not only is it a blast, TikTok in general is a selling machine.

WHAT IS TIKTOK?

TikTok calls itself an “entertainment platform.” Statistics show people spend more time watching TikTok videos than Netflix. Shocking, right? By its very nature, TikTok is a storytelling platform. The videos that reign supreme tell some sort of story, engaging the viewer through drama, comedy, or bewilderment.

The beauty of TikTok is that even with only a handful of followers, content can still go viral. I’ve personally witnessed new accounts gain 20-30K views on one video. Romance (all genres) do the best, followed by fantasy/sci-fi, mystery/thriller/suspense, YA, paranormal, and horror. True crime and nonfiction have their own massive audience. No matter what genre you write in, your audience is on #BookTok. All ages, all genres.

TIKTOK MYTHS

  1. I’m too old for TikTok.

As someone in their — ahem — mid-fifties, I thought the same thing. Nothing could be farther from the truth. When TikTok hit the scene, it did cater to a younger demographic. That’s changed over the years. #BookTokers range from 20s to 80s.

  1. I refuse to make a fool of myself to sell books.

Sure, there’s a lot of silliness on TikTok, but you don’t need to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. Be your beautiful, reserved, crazy, funny, introverted, or extroverted self. That’s who readers want to know, not some made-up version of yourself. Although, if you write spicy romance and want to conceal your identity, that’s okay, too.

  1. I don’t have time to learn another social media site that’ll probably disappear in a few years.

All writers suffer with the same issue. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Here’s a cold, hard truth: sooner or later authors won’t have a choice about joining TikTok. Our audience is turning away from Facebook and Twitter. At the end of last year (2021), Facebook reported its lowest daily views yet, and they attributed the loss to TikTok.

Of all the social media sites, X-Twitter has the lowest ROI for selling books. Do you know who has the highest? TikTok. Why? Because it’s unlike any other social media site.

  1. You must be tech-savvy to create videos.

TikTok does have an advanced video creator built into the app, but it’s very easy to use. They also provide video tutorials. If you still have trouble, head to YouTube. Creators post step-by-step instructions that anyone can follow.

  1. You must be comfortable in front of the camera to use TikTok.

I’ll tell you a little secret. The thought of shooting videos scared me half to death. The few videos I posted on social media took me forever to create, obsessing over every tiny detail, and I still wasn’t happy with the end result. Before I jumped on TikTok I froze in front of the camera. I wasn’t a fan of public speaking, either. Sure, I could hold my own at a book event, but I still trembled inside.

#BookTok helped me overcome that heart-stopping fear. And tomorrow, I fly out to film three episodes of a true crime series for TV (UPDATE: They’ve aired. Check out A Time to Kill, Season 6, on Investigation Discovery). Guess how the producers found me? Initially through my website — I still say authors need a home base — but they got a feel of my personality through my TikToks (videos). I can’t say that sealed the deal — they also read my books — but it definitely helped.

HOW DO AUTHORS START ON #BOOKTOK?

Download the app and setup an account. I started with a business account, but that was a mistake. Personal accounts get more views. Be sure to use your author name. If you use more than one pen name, then either create an account for each or umbrella them all under your real name. Choice is yours.

All you’ll be doing at first is lurking. Let me warn you. TikTok may seem overwhelming at first. You can spend hours watching talking dog videos, cooking videos, and any other passion you may have. Here’s the thing. The more content you watch that’s not book related the more you’ll confuse the algorithm. Learned that lesson the hard way.

Once you gain a thousand followers, the link in your bio becomes clickable. Still include one, though. People know to copy/paste a dead link. I use LinkTree. Back in 2016, LinkTree solved social media’s most annoying problem — only allowing one link in bios. Now, all your social media, newsletter sign-up page, website, blog(s), books, giveaways, etc. can be housed under one LinkTree link. And it’s free!

THE TIKTOK ALGORITHM

TikTok’s secret algorithm far exceeds all its competitors. When a new user signs up, it throws all kinds of videos at you, then watches and learns which ones you react to or re-watch. If you stop at every talking dog, the algorithm will flood your For You Page (timeline) with more talking animals. The longer you watch, the more it thinks that’s what you want. I can’t resist anything animal related. Hence why it took me a while to train the algorithm to gain more #BookTok followers.

Some authors advise to create two accounts. One to watch animals or whatever. The second for book related content. Alas, I use one account for everything, but I’m cognizant of the type of videos I watch. The algorithm has figured out that I love books and animals. Since I include animals in my books, I feel it’s related.

Pay close attention to authors in your genre.

  • What type of content do they create?
  • Do their videos get a lot of interaction?
  • Do they post only book content?
  • What other type of content do they post?
  • How does their audience react?

CREATING YOUR FIRST TIKTOK

Once you get comfortable with the app, you’ll feel the urge to jump in. Resist that urge for another week. I did nothing but lurk for a solid month. By the time I created my first TikTok *cringe* I felt I knew the rhythm of #BookTok. I didn’t. And neither will you. But that’s okay. The only way to learn the ins and out of #BookTok is to jump in headfirst.

Then why did you tell us to lurk first?

Because you’ll be ahead of the game if you do. All that knowledge you’ve acquired will benefit you when you’re ready. Think about this… You’re in #BookTok and stumble across a how-to video. If you don’t know what they’re talking about, you’ve wasted valuable information. For example, Trending Sounds or “how to invert” the title on your cover so it’s not a mirrored image.

WHAT IS A TRENDING SOUND?

A Trending Sound could be a fragment of music or a voiceover that helps you connect with an audience. All of TikTok uses Trends. You’ve probably seen the dance videos that everyone copies. Well, #BookTok has their own Trends and Trending Sounds.

2024 UPDATE: TikTok also owns CapCut, a video software app. If you use a trending CapCut, you’ll get more views. This video sold 100 books in one day. Why? Because I used a trending CapCut. When’s the last time one of your Facebook or Twitter posts sold that many books in a day? A video, I might add, that took me less than one minute to create.

It’s fantastic exposure. TikTok content lives forever. Unlike other social media sites, the algorithm constantly pushes old TikToks to new people.

Early on, I created a video of calling “my” murder of crows for breakfast. I showed the empty trees, me calling for Poe (the alpha), and the crows flying in moments later. That one video has over 5K views and climbing (2024 UPDATE: 31K views and climbing). It relates to my books because in my Mayhem Series, my antihero has three wild crow companions (Poe, Allan, and Edgar).

DUETS

Duets are when you, well, duet someone else’s video. Here’s an example of me duetting a cop’s video.

It works for my audience because I’m a crime writer. Romance writers duet male models, and their audience goes crazy. Paranormal writers might duet a medium or ghost hunter. If you write cozy mysteries in a library setting, duet a librarian. Write about vampires? No problem. Duet a vampire (yes, they’re on TikTok). Serial killer thriller author? Duet videos about serial killers. Think outside the box.

FINDING YOUR AUDIENCE

Are your books geared toward an older audience? Use the #GenX hashtag along with a genre hashtag. Are you targeting millennials? Use #GenY. Knowing who your audience is the key to finding potential readers. Niche down from there.

Some authors say never to follow other authors, but that’s a mistake. Writers are your people, your tribe. We learn from each other. We help boost each other’s views. #BookTok wouldn’t be nearly as fun without other writers. And we read, too!

TRENDS

We also start our own Trends, and they’re hilarious. Last week, a writer friend used the videotape filter. I’d need a whole other post to discuss filters. Suffice it to say, the TikTok looks like you’re being videotaped by someone else. In this case, the police were searching for a missing person: Grammarly. She was Suspect #1. In her video, she named me and a slew of other mystery/thriller authors as possible suspects, and we all created videos of being interrogated by the cops. Mystery & thriller readers loved it! We all gained new followers and sold books from that one idea.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the genius behind #BookTok. It’s marketing that doesn’t feel like marketing. Some savvy authors sell between 200-600 books per week from #BookTok alone. Still think it’s a waste of time?

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’m not sayin’ it’s easy to get started. Finding your groove takes time. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll find your audience much faster than any other social media site. If you’ve never watched a video review of one of your books, you’re missing out on something special. It’s humbling to witness the reaction of a reader who just closed the cover, tears still in her eyes while she gushes about how much she loved your characters or the story, and how she felt while reading.

Duet every review.

Authors can either “blind react” to a review or prepare themselves first, both done via the Duet feature, helping the review reach more and more readers. After watching a particularly emotional review of I AM MAYHEM, my son said to me, “Imagine how many other readers you’ve touched in the same way?” He’s right. Before #BookTok, authors never had the pleasure of witnessing immediate reactions from readers. Now we do.

Have you considered joining TikTok? Has this post inspired you to see if you’d be happy there? What are your biggest concerns?

How To Write a Dance Scene

I was eavesdropping on Quora again and stumbled across a thread about how to write a dance scene. Because I included a sensual dance in the WIP, the question piqued my interest. I’ve written dance scenes before, but my characters spent most of their time spying on bad guys. Nothing like the scene I wrote in the WIP (which also ties into the plot).

The writers who responded on Quora had such great advice, I had to share.

Each answer attributed to the writer, of course.

Original question: How can you describe a dance in writing?

Emma Thomas, Novelist wrote:

Here’s two examples of how not to do it.

She stepped onto the floor and awed them all with her dancing.

Under-descriptive. Dancing is such a physical and emotional movement that you have to balance those two in your writing and neither happened here (Sue: She means in the above example).

She gazed across the lacquered wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped onto the dance floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, she began to dance.

Sliding her right foot back and the other one forward, she dropped low so that her dress brushed the ground, then sprang back up again, so quickly that she got whiplash. She threw her arms out and waved them from side to side, perfectly in tune with the beat, before jumping into the air. Her dress spun around her and for a moment it felt like she was flying … then the ground was beneath her again.

That hurt as much to write as it did to read. I shouldn’t be telling the reader each one of the movements that our dancer makes, unless I want an incredibly monotonous one-hundred page instruction manual on how to jump up and down and fling your hands in the air, like what the MC is doing here. Did you catch that? Possibly not; it sounded like it had taken an hour for her to dance when it was really just a split-second.

When you write about someone dancing, make sure that it’s obvious. It’s okay to say the word “dance.” Not everything has to be a ten-page description — but not everything can be a one-word summary, either. Tie in enough of the surroundings to establish a mood and a sense of place. Lastly, make sure that the dance conveys what you want it to — if it’s careless, make it sound careless. If it’s more meaningful, make it sound like that.

Let’s try this again.

She was dancing. Arms flailing in the sky above her, she whirled around and whooped her happiness into the sweat-stained air. Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? A hand grabbed hers and she was swung backward, dipped low, then soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her … she touched ground again and skidded to a smiling, breathless halt.

That’s a rough paragraph but it conveys what it needs to. It established a sense of place, action, and a connection with the dancer. Not under-descriptive or over-descriptive, just effective.

Aaaand that’s it. Hope it helped.

Shreya Pandey wrote:

Do not describe each and every dance step in detail. It’ll get complex and it’ll sound very mechanical. Describe one step, then follow it up by describing how a character felt while they did it. Do they feel dizzy? Happy? Feel an adrenaline rush? Feel scared?

Describe what they see. Does the room start to spin? Do they see the audience looking at them in awe? Describe the way their body moves. Is it effortless? Are they having trouble remembering the steps? Is any part of their body sore?

Describe the atmosphere. Are they dancing at a party? What kind of music is playing in [t]he background? What kind of beats does it have? Can they fee the bass thumping through their body? Is it a popular song? How many people are there? Are they dancing in a crowd, or alone on a stage? What are they wearing?

Give meaning to the dance. It must be significant if you are introducing it in your text. Why is it significant? Is it about how liberated, happy and care free the character feels when they dance? Is it an intimate dance sequence the character shares with someone they love? Does the dance bring back memories? Is it demonstrating their hard work? Is it something they are doing to lose some steam? Do they have a purpose behind it?

The dance scene is always more than just the movement of the character’s body. It is significant to the plot in some way. You need to subtly highlight that significance. At most, if it isn’t anything serious, it can be used to manipulate the reader’s senses. Make them feel, hear, touch, smell, move, see, etc. Transport them. Make them feel as if they are dancing, or as if they are the audience and they are watching someone dance from up close. Writing the perfect atmosphere perfectly is the key.

And my favorite answer…

James Sams, Writer/Editor wrote:

I’d like to caution you against “over describing”. Books are not movies. We can see every step of the Tango in a movie, but no one wants to read what every step is. If you write things like…

“He moved his left foot backward in a smooth motion, sliding across the slick floor. She slid her right foot forward, chasing his retreating foot with hers, like a fox on the hunt. Dipping forward and looking into her eyes, his fingers tightened on her ribs as his left foot came forward again, surprising her foot and chasing it back. They stopped, toe to toe, and he pulled her hips in close to his.

Threatening to brush his lips against hers, he looked to the left, and then to the right. She mimicked him, turning her head opposite. To the right, then to the left.

He pushed her away as though she were too terrible, yet to[o] wonderful, to be near, yet he held on to her left hand with his right, catching her as their arms pulled taut and spinning her out and away. Then he reeled her back in, unable to give her up.

She fell into him, his strong arms wrapping her tight, protecting her before casting her out again.”

… you can get away with it for a paragraph, maybe two. Even with the nice similes and small details, it will soon become agony for a reader to get through. You have become a puppet master, forcing the reader to imagine each foot, each hand, each head motion exactly the way you want it to be. Readers don’t like that. They like to use their imaginations. They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.

To give them those subtle colors, only give sweeping descriptions, and add in the senses. Put in the emotions, even if they are only faux representative ones [that] describe the types of movement.

The best thing you can do with a dance, is keep it short, at least in your description. Focus on the characters’ feelings, fears, hopes and thoughts, and then come back for another quick description. If you took the dance I wrote above and stretched it out for the full dance, describing every move in detail, I guarantee even an editor will begin skipping over it as they read. Even if you don’t give every little dance step, it will be too long and people will just let their eyes slide over it, looking for the place you stop describing and get back to the story.

Don’t be afraid to use a dance, just remember, readers are reading for the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and stories. The descriptions, backgrounds, clothes, etc. need to always take a back seat.

I hope that helped.

What do you think, TKZers? Have you written a dance scene? If so, did you follow these guidelines? Any other tips to share?

Who Is In Control of What You Do?

It’s no secret that I’m slightly obsessed with the brain. Okay, okay, it’s a full-blown obsession, but it’s such a fascinating organ!

The other day, I watched a neuroscience documentary (like I often do). One episode asked the question: Who is in control of what you do? The neuroscientist then said…

“Every action you take, every decision you make, every belief you hold is driven by parts of your brain that you have no access to. We call this hidden world the unconscious, and it runs much more of your life than you would ever imagine.”

Shocking, right? The entire episode blew my mind (no pun intended) and drove me down a rabbit hole of research. What I discovered shows just how many superpowers we writers possess.

Let’s dig in…

The conscious you, or conscious awareness, makes up the smallest part of your brain. The conscious brain believes it’s in full control of the body, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Have you ever driven home and not remembered how you got there? One minute, a thought crosses your mind. And the next thing you know, you’re turning on to your street. It’s a wild feeling that we write off with, “I’ve driven this route so many times, the car knows its way.” But the truth is, this sensation occurs because the action is being done unconsciously and automatically. And somehow, you arrive home without harm.

Through clinical trials, Freud discovered that beneath the surface of each of us lies a swirling sea of hidden motivations, drives, and desires. The way we think and feel and act is profoundly influenced by our unconscious mind.

As the twentieth century progressed, many others dove into the brave new world of neuroscience. They were trying to uncover how much control the unconscious brain really has, but what they soon discovered was far stranger than anyone could have predicted.

In the 1960s, Eckhart Hess ran several experiments. In one, he asked men to look at women’s faces and make snap judgments about them.

  • How kind does she look?
  • How selfish or unselfish is she?
  • How friendly or unfriendly is she?
  • How attractive is she?

What the men didn’t know was how Hess manipulated the experiment. In half the photos, the women’s eyes were artificially dilated. Same women but with different sized pupils. Dilated eyes are, among other things, a biological sign of sexual arousal. This manipulation was meant to influence the choices made by the men, but without them being aware of it.

Can you guess the outcome?

The men found the women with dilated eyes more attractive. Here’s the important part. None of the men noticed the dilated pupils in the photographs, nor did any of the men know about the biological sign of sexual readiness. But somehow, their brains knew.

Hess and his team ran deeply evolutionary programs to steer the men toward the right sort of mate (the feminist in me is holding back here; please do the same). The subjects’ brains analyzed and recognized tiny details in the photos and then acted upon them. All of this occurred without a flicker of conscious awareness.

This type of experiment revealed fundamental knowledge about how the brain operates. The job of this organ is to gather information from the world, then steer appropriate behavior. And it makes absolutely no difference whether you (your conscious awareness) are involved. Most of the time, you’re not. Most of the time, you’re not even aware of the decisions being made on your behalf.

Check out these findings:

  • If you’re holding a warm cup of coffee, you’ll describe your relationship to your mother as closer than if you’re holding an iced coffee.
  • When you’re in a foul-smelling environment, you’ll make harsher moral decisions.
  • If you sit next to a bottle of hand sanitizer, it’ll shift your political opinions a little toward the conservative side, because it reminds your brain of outside threats.

Every day we’re influenced in countless ways by the world around us. And most of this flies completely under the radar of our conscious awareness. Though clueless to us, the unconscious brain is continually reacting to the outside world and making decisions on our behalf.

What separates us from zombie-like beings?

Even when we’re on autopilot, if we come across something we weren’t expecting, our conscious mind is called into action to figure out if this new thing is a threat or opportunity. It’s one of the jobs of consciousness—to assess what’s going on and make sense of the situation. When our expectations are violated, our conscious mind is summoned to work out the appropriate reaction.

But reacting is not its only mission. The conscious brain plays a vital role in resolving internal conflict among the brain’s many automatic sub-systems, each working on its own task.

Take, for example, if you’re hungry but you just started a diet to drop a few holiday pounds. This is when the conscious brain needs to rise above the unconscious and make an executive decision on what to do. Consciousness is the arbiter of conflicting motivations in the brain, with a unique vantage point that no other part of the brain has access to. It’s a way for trillions of cells to see themselves as a unified whole.

For writers, our unconscious brain stores our superpowers.

Our unconscious is capable of truly remarkable feats if we stay out of its way. Therein lies the rub. We can train our unconscious to do many skills automatically, and some of them can seem almost superhuman. Through intense practice, we can harness the brain’s ability to run on autopilot to achieve almost anything.

See where I’m goin’ with this? Note the words “through intense practice.” Meaning, the more we practice, the more we hardwire our brains to work on autopilot. And yes, that includes writing. Those who write daily or several times per week have an easier time than writers who step away from the keyboard for weeks or months at a time.

We also enter the zone more often.

When our conscious awareness relinquishes control to our unconscious brain, we enter the flow state—a form of brain activity experienced by different kinds of people, from elite athletes and meditation experts to professional writers and musicians. Many of whom call this state “the zone,” which arrives during total emersion in a task. In flow states, neural circuits run without conscious mind interference. Our perception clears, our unconscious awareness heightens, and feel-good chemicals flood the brain, which allows for intense focus and gratification.

Thanks to neuroscience, a distinct pattern in the brain emerges when we’re in the zone.

When we first enter flow, dopamine increases attention, information flow, and pattern recognition. It’s essentially a skill booster.

Norepinephrine speeds up the heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration. It triggers a glucose response to give us more energy, increase arousal, attention, neural efficiency, and emotional control, thus producing a high.

Endorphins (rooted from the word “endogenous,” meaning naturally internal to the body) relieve pain and induce pleasure. Strangely, these chemicals function like opioids, with 100 times the power of morphine.

Anandamide (stemming from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”) is an endogenous cannabinoid and feels like the psychoactive effect of marijuana. In flow states, anandamide elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels, and aids in respiration. It also amplifies lateral thinking—the ability to link ideas together.

At the end of a flow state, serotonin floods the brain with an after-glow effect. This leaves us with a feeling of bliss and only occurs once we exit the zone.

Unlike many ordinary people, writers dip in and out of the zone on a regular basis. Did I just call us extraordinary? You bet I did! We have a pretty cool superpower. Don’tcha think?

Tips to Achieving Flow

  1. Balance challenge and skill.

If you’ve never written nonfiction, for example, you may find it difficult to enter the zone because your conscious awareness is stressed out. You’re too afraid of making a mistake to enter flow.

If something isn’t challenging enough, you’ll get bored easily. In turn, so will your reader. Not only will adding plenty of conflict improve your plot, but you’ll enter the zone quicker while writing.

  1. Establish clear goals.

I will write for three hours. I will write at least 1000 words today. I will write two scenes or one chapter. By establishing a daily writing goal, it relieves the pressure of having to finish the entire first draft by a certain date. How you choose to establish those goals is up to you.

  1. Reduce distraction.

You will never enter the zone if you’re checking for social media notifications or email every ten minutes. When it’s time to write, write. Save play time and the inbox for later.

  1. Stop multitasking.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? You’re instinctively helping your brain to concentrate on a visual task. For more on why multitasking is so difficult and why we should avoid it before a writing session, see my 2021 post entitled Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

  1. Don’t force it.

Some days, you’ll enter the zone. Other days, you won’t. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. You’ll still produce words and make progress.

  1. Enjoy the process.

You won’t enter flow unless you’re enjoying yourself. Simple as that. If you view writing as a chore, it may be time to step away from the WIP for a while. Yes, penning a novel is hard work, but it also should be enjoyable. If it’s not, you may want to ask yourself why you do it.

What were your biggest takeaways from this research? Are you surprised that we live on autopilot most of the time?

Are You Moonstruck?

For the last few days, I’ve felt off. Writing had been difficult. Words refused to flow. Pumping out a decent chapter likened to delivering a 10 lb. baby with wide shoulders and oversized head. Even my playlists didn’t match my mood.

And sure, moments of melancholy go hand-in-hand with the holidays, but that wasn’t it. So, like I often do, I turned to nature for the answer. Specifically, the ebb and flow of the Moon.

When the lunar calendar showed the waning crescent phase, I’d found my answer. We’ve done battle before, her and I.

The waning crescent means one thing: early nights. With the final stretch of this lunar cycle, it’s normal to feel exhausted by the past month and want to unwind as the New Moon approaches. It’s also a time of reflection. Perfect time for journaling and self-care.

I’ve long known how the Moon affects me. It’s undeniable. I also know my views may conflict with yours, and that’s okay. We’re writers, after all. It’s our job and passion to question the mysteries of life.

Why would I believe the Moon is responsible for my lackadaisical mood?

I’m glad you asked. 😉

Let’s first look at the composition of the human body.

According to the Journal of Biological Chemistry 158:

  • An adult human body is made up of about 60% water.
  • The brain and heart consist of 73% water.
  • Lungs are about 83% water.
  • Skin has 64% water.
  • Muscles and kidneys are 79% water.
  • Even bones are 31% water.

The above percentages vary by age, gender, and where people reside. An adult male, for example, needs about 3 liters per day of water while an adult female only needs 2.2 liters. Some of which we derive from food. Keep in mind, fat tissue doesn’t have as much water as lean tissue.

Infants are born with the most water — about 78% of their body. By their first birthday, that number decreases to about 65%.

Water serves several essential functions:

  • first acts as a building material, then provides nutrients to every cell in the body
  • regulates internal body temperature through sweating and respiration
  • metabolizes and transports carbohydrates and proteins in food to the bloodstream
  • assists in flushing waste through urination
  • acts as a shock absorber for brain, spinal cord, and fetus
  • creates saliva
  • lubricates joints

With all the water in our bodies, how could the Moon not affect us? 

If you’re still not convinced, perhaps it’ll help to understand how and why the Moon wields great power.

Tides

The Moon’s gravitational pull generates something called “the tidal force.” The tidal force causes Mother Earth — and its water — to swell on the sides closest and farthest from the Moon. These bulges of water are high tides. As the Earth rotates, our regions pass through both stages every day. If we’re in one of the bulges, we receive a high tide. If we’re not, it results in a low tide. This cycle of two high tides and two low tides occurs on almost all of the world’s coastlines. The rare exception is when the tide circles around an island, like in New Zealand.

In addition to the tides, the Moon controls time, light, and stable seasons.

For many animals, particularly birds, the Moon is essential to migration and navigation. Others will time their reproduction to coincide with the specific phases of the lunar cycle. There’s also a whole world of fascinating adaptations relating to tides and the unique properties of moonlight.

Power of Lunar Cycle

The lunar cycle changes circadian rhythms — day/night cycles driven by Earth orbiting the Sun. Human circadian rhythms are easily thrown off by jet lag or when we change the clocks. But circalunar rhythms, which are tied to lunar cycles, can also impact us.

Circalunar rhythms are difficult to discern, but they effect different types of organisms. Some animals respond to both a circadian rhythm and a lunar clock. I recently wrote an in-depth article about why animals don’t get lost that may interest you.

“The Moon has been up there as long as evolution has been taking place, and lunar rhythms are embedded in the life cycles of many organisms. The challenge is working out when the Moon truly is a factor and what is merely myth and legend.”

— Dr. Tom White, Senior Curator of Natural History Museum

Day Length

The gravitational pull of the Moon is slowing Earth’s rotation, an effect known as “tidal braking,” which increases the length of our day by 2.3 milliseconds per century. Early Earth was spinning at a much faster rate. According to computer models, we had a six-hour day 4.5 billion years ago. Since then, with the help of our Moon, the Earth’s rotation has been slowing. The result is longer days.

Seasons

The giant impact that formed the Moon may have tipped the Earth and contributed to the 23.5° tilt of our North Pole. This tilt gives us our seasons.

The Moon’s gravitational pull acts like training wheels for Earth on its journey around the Sun, and keeps the axis pointed at a consistent angle. Without the Moon, the Earth’s stately progression through spring, summer, fall, and winter would have massive fluctuations.

If the Moon controls tides (with help from our Sun), time, light, and seasons, it’s naïve to think it can’t impact human life. Or maybe, you’ve never given it much thought.

Fair enough. We do live busy lives and have different interests.

A few fun facts:

  • Behaviors of several species have been linked to lunar periodicity.
  • The word “lunacy” stems from the Latin word “lunar,” which means “Moon.”

Ask your local police if crime rises during a full Moon. Many will say yes. A registered nurse friend of mine swears the nursing home goes berserk during a full Moon. Yet, neither have been scientifically proven as cold, hard facts. Doesn’t mean they aren’t true, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

  • Some philosophers say the Moon affects human behavior and health by its gravitational pull on body fluids.

The gravitational pull is so strong, our planet’s crust is stretched by these same tidal effects on a daily basis.

Can the Moon Disrupt Sleep?

2021 study found that people fell asleep later and slept less overall on the nights before the full moon — called Moonstruck sleep. Other research suggests the full Moon may be associated with less deep sleep and increased REM (rapid eye movement) latency.

Sleep latency is the period between when you first fall asleep and when you enter the first stage of REM sleep. So, increased latency means it takes longer to reach REM sleep.

As restrictions in sleep duration have been shown to adversely affect glucose regulation and physical activity to improve glucose regulation, one could argue cardiometabolic risk factors might also be affected by the lunar phase.

Despite dismissal by many non-holistic practitioners, scientific studies show we sleep less during certain Moon cycles.

“While the sun is the most important source of light and synchronizer of circadian rhythms for almost all species, moonlight also modulates nocturnal activity in organisms ranging from invertebrate larvae to primates. Moonlight is so bright to the human eye that it is entirely reasonable to imagine that, in the absence of other sources of light, this source of nocturnal light could have had a role in modulating human nocturnal activity and sleep.

 

However, whether the moon cycle can modulate human nocturnal activity and sleep remains a matter of controversy. Some authors have argued against strong effects of moon phase on human behavior and biological rhythms, but recent studies have reported that human sleep and cortical activity under strictly controlled laboratory conditions are synchronized with lunar phases.”

Some people are biologically more sensitive to the lunar clock than others, along with the Moon’s alignment with astrological signs.

So, TKZers, if you’d rather snuggle up with a good book or watch a sappy Christmas movie, I grant you whatever permission you may need to go for it. When the New Moon arrives on the 13th, light up the keyboard!

I have only one question for you today. How are you, friend? 

This is my last post before our holiday break. Wishing you and yours a joyous season!

 

 

 

Wrapping It Up

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” ― T.S. Eliot

* * *

As we approach the end of another year, it’s time to look back on 2023, assess our performance, and make preparations for 2024. If you’re like me, you have a list of goals you set for 2023 that you’re reviewing to see how you did.

I had twenty-eight writing goals for 2023. It was an ambitious list (I tend to be overly optimistic about what I can accomplish) that included books I wanted to write and publish, audiobooks I wanted to have made, and the number of books I intended to read. I also set goals for blog posts, reviews, book sales, X (Twitter) posts and followers, conferences, and other categories.

I reviewed the list a couple of days ago. I accomplished some things (specifically 65% of my goals, depending on how you count them), but others will have to wait until 2024.

* * *

Do you take time at the end of the year to reflect on the past and plan for the future? Here are a few suggestions I came across recently that may be helpful:

  1. Celebrate the accomplishments. Whatever progress was made in 2023 is worth a pat on the back. If you published a book, met your weekly word quota, got more Bookbub followers, or did anything else that moved the ball forward, take time to bask in the joy of your achievements. Chocolate is always a nice reward.
  2. Take a look at areas you want to improve in your writing and make a plan to tackle them in 2024.
  3. Acknowledge the people who helped you with your writing this year by sending them a thank-you note or donating to a charity in their honor.
  4. Decide on the number of words you want to write in 2024 and make a note of it. Tape the note to your desk.
  5. Choose a social media platform you want to concentrate on and decide how many posts you’ll make each week.
  6. Look over the writers’ conference schedules for 2024 and start making plans to attend one.
  7. Decide on promotions you want to run.
  8. Become a part of a blog community by commenting regularly.

Maybe most importantly, remember the words of the great runner Dean Karnazes, who ran a marathon in each of the 50 states in the U.S. on 50 consecutive days: “Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must, just never give up.” It’s just as relevant to writing as it is to running.

* * *

Since this is my last TKZ post for 2023, I want to express my gratitude to all of you for the insights, guidance, humor, and friendship I’ve enjoyed here during the past year. I wish you all a Happy Holiday season and best wishes for a productive and joyful writing year in 2024.

So TKZers: Did you achieve your goals in 2023? What accomplishments can you tell us about? What are your plans for 2024?

* * *

 

“DiBianca launches her Lady Pilot-in-Command series with a spectacular tale of decades-old murder mystery, human drama, and a hint of romance…. a surefire winner.” –Prairie Book Reviews

Lacey’s Star is on sale here.

What type of writer and reader are you?

Back in 2015, I was chatting with a dear writer friend, Paul Dale Anderson, about the different types of writers and readers.

If you’re a new writer searching for your voice, understanding which classification you fall into might help. Professional writers should also find this interesting.

Some of you may be familiar with Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). Though many call it junk science, most agree with the basic theory behind it: Our brains process information through one of our five senses. Though some rare individuals favor their sense of taste or smell (usually together, and these people are often chefs or perfumers), for most of us, it comes down to either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic.

Kinesthetic links the process of learning to physical activity. Meaning, kinesthetic people can read or listen to instructions, but deep learning occurs via the process of doing. Obviously, this doesn’t mean kinesthetic readers need to act out the plot — though that’d be cool to watch! — they better absorb the storyline when it relates to experiences and actions.

Clear as mud? Cool. Moving on…

Paul Dale Anderson authored 27 novels and hundreds of short stories. He earned graduate degrees in Educational Psychology, taught college-level Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), and earned an MA in Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin. He also taught creative writing for Writers Digest School (both Novel and Short Story) and for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Paul was also a Certified Hypnotist and National Guild of Hypnotists Certified Instructor.

Sadly, the writing community lost our dear friend Paul on December 13, 2018. You can still plant a tree in his honor here, which I just discovered. Seems fitting for such a kind and generous soul. Anyway…

What he shared with me in 2015 is pure gold. And today, I’ll share it with you. The italicized paragraphs below are Paul’s words, not mine.

Even from beyond the grave, his knowledge and expertise still dazzles…

Too many writers are unaware of how the human mind processes language. Various structures in the brain—some in the left hemisphere and some in the right—work together to make sense out of symbols. Symbols include, besides alpha-numeric digital representations, sounds, gestures, signs, maps, smells, tastes, and physical feelings. It is the mind that gives meaning to each symbol based on prior associations dredged out of memory. The map is not the territory but merely a representation of the territory.

During conversations with fellow writers at the 2015 Nebula Award Banquet in Chicago, I identified successful new writers by which symbols had salience for them and the way they accessed information.

Some writers were very verbal and had a fluidity of language based primarily on auditory processing of sensory input. Those people were able to instantly duplicate and respond to what they heard as they heard it. Sounds themselves had salience. Those writers are akin to the musician who plays mostly by ear, translating auditory input into kinesthetic output without the additional steps auditory-digital types like me require to process input and output.

I work differently. I “see” stories, then translate them into words that describe my visions. First I see the scenes. Then I see the written symbols that best represent that scene. I see each letter, each punctuation mark, each space at the beginning of a new paragraph, the way words and white space look laid-out on a page, the way each page contributes to the story as a whole.

I write at the keyboard where my fingers automatically translate the symbols in my head into kinesthetic actions that produce the symbols that appear on the screen or piece of paper. I cannot listen to music while writing. Background music interferes with the words in my head. Other writers find that listening to music while writing is a big help.

If you are primarily kinesthetic, you might prefer to write with a pen on paper before revising your works on a keyboard or sending your notebooks to a typist. The feel of the paper itself, the touch of the pen to paper, produces words from your subconscious faster and better than any other process. Kinesthetic writers also love to pound out words on manual typewriters. They write with a flourish that adds to their style. James Patterson is a kinesthetic writer.

If you’re more like me, however, you separate the process into a series of “drafts.” The first draft is primarily visual, and you describe what you see.

The second draft includes imagined sounds, tastes, feelings, smells. During the third draft I read all the words aloud to hear how the words sound and to feel how they roll off my tongue. I add punctuation marks to match my pauses, inflections, intonations. I tend to cut unnecessary flourishes out of my stories unless they add momentum to the plot or help describe a specific character.

If a story is to work, it must engage all of the reader’s senses. Some readers are primarily auditory, some are visual, some are kinesthetic, some olfactory, and some gustatory.

The majority of people in this world are auditory. They respond best to dialogue, to alliteration, to phrasing. If you are primarily auditory like Stephen King, you might find writing easier if you dictate and capture the words into a digital recorder. Kinesthetic people respond best to action and they translate words on paper into muscle movements. If you want to appeal to every reader, you need to reach each of them in their own personal comfort zones.

That last line is a killer, right? No pressure. LOL

I fall into the auditory category, both as a writer and a reader. I write with headphones on, but the music becomes white noise that narrows my focus, transporting me into my story worlds. My first drafts consist of mainly dialogue with no tags and minimal narrative and description. After I gain critical distance, I’ll add sensory details and other enhancements.

As an auditory reader, I can’t listen to audiobooks. I need to read the words to hear the story rhythm. Audiobooks rob me of that.

Paul told us readers fall into the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic categories. For fun, let’s look at reading subcategories as well.

  • Motor reader: These readers tend to move their lips and may even mimic speech with their tongues and vocal cords when reading. Their reading range is very slow (150 to 200 words per minute) because they must read word-by-word at the rate they speak.
  • Auditory reader: These readers vocalize minimally or not at all, but they do silently say and/or  hear the words. They read in the 200 to 400 words-per-minute range. Auditory readers are skillful readers with vocabularies large enough that they can quickly recognize words.
  • Visual reader: These readers engage their eyes and minds when they read, but not their mouths, throats, or ears. They can read many words at once because they read ideas, not individual words. They read at a rate of 400+ words per minute.

If we believe Paul, with all his experience and degrees, most people fall into the auditory reader category. If your sentences don’t sing, the auditory reader may DNF your book. We also can’t forget about the visual or kinesthetic reader. Striking the perfect balance for all three can wrench a writer’s stomach, but it’s a goal worth shooting for.

What type of writer are you? What type of reader are you? If you’re an auditory reader, do you enjoy audiobooks? Or can you only hear the story rhythm by reading the actual words?

The Project Plan

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

* * *

Last week, Garry Rodgers wrote a TKZ post about Leonardo da Vinci that explored the idea of using both sides of the brain: the left (analytical) and the right (emotional). Today’s post on project plans is all about the left side.

* * *

Let’s start with software. Software development projects are carefully planned and tracked. At least they should be. A large deliverable may involve many actors including developers, documenters, administrators, and testers. A good project manager will maintain a gantt chart much like the one pictured below (intentionally blurred), to document the various deliverables, dependencies, and milestones.

Gantt charts can contains hundreds of line items, so they’re a good way to keep track of everything. But there are pitfalls. Some project managers become so enamored with the bells and whistles of project planning software that they end up managing the plan rather than managing the project.

* * *

So what does this have to do with writing? Although writing is considered a right-brain function, the tasks that go into publishing a book are lefties.

My first book was traditionally published. Once the publisher offered a contract and I signed, they took the steering wheel. They had their own editors that I worked with. They also came up with several different cover designs for me to choose from. They purchased the ISBN and arranged for the copyright. They also decided on the release date and took care of uploading the book to the retail sites as well as Ingram Spark. I didn’t have a lot to do during that phase except ask some people for endorsements and review the situation whenever the publisher contacted me. There was no need for me to have a formal plan. But then things changed, and the rest of this post has to do with all the things that go into self-publishing a novel.

* * *

When my husband and I decided to self-publish the next book, we established our own publishing company, Wordstar Publishing, LLC. The process of publishing a book became a lot more difficult.

I started with a simple to-do list, and things went fairly well, but I only had one book to worry about. It soon became clear that I needed a project plan to keep track of all the threads.

So now I have a project plan for each book. I don’t use a gantt chart, but I maintain an excel spreadsheet with categories. Each category has a list of tasks and each task has a target date, completion date, and notes.  Although I’m an avid follower of the KISS principle, there are well over a hundred line items on the plan for my latest book, and it will grow as I add book promos and feedback.

Here are the major categories and a brief description of each one:

  • Writing / Editing – Everything it takes to get the ms ready for publication. Original ms, dev editor, revisions, line editor, proofreader, text to speech.
  • Beta Readers – List of all the wonderful people whose feedback makes it a better book.
  • Endorsers – More wonderful people who add credibility to the book.
  • Cover Design – Work with the designer, finalize the image, provide back cover copy
  • Copyright & Library of Congress – Get copyright and Library of Congress number. Send copies to gov agencies.
  • Wordstar Publishing tasks – ISBN, barcode, contract with author
  • Website – Update kaydibianca.com with book info
  • Format and Finalize – Format in Vellum, finalize front and back matter
  • Launch-related activities – Identify launch team, finalize emails, newsletters, images
  • Prep for Pre-order and Final ebook – Choose ebook release date, prepare pre-order and upload to retail sites. Upload final version.
  • Prep for Release of Print copy – Choose print release date for retail sites. Upload final version.
  • Ingram Spark and Draft2Digital – Upload ebook and print to Ingram Spark. Upload to Draft2Digital for library distribution.
  • Editorial Reviews – Identify and contact orgs for editorial reviews
  • Marketing – Promos, giveaways, book store contacts
  • Mail books – Send copies to all the folks who helped along the way

So there you have it. A way to keep organized and stay on-target.

* * *

Over to you, TKZers. How do you organize publishing your books? Do you maintain a project plan? What other activities do you track beyond what I have on my list? 

* * *

Cassie Deakin has one item on her to-do list: find out why two ex-cons attacked and almost killed her beloved uncle. But can she complete the task before she becomes the next victim?

Lacey’s Star: A Lady Pilot-in-Command Novel.

 

Name That Car

 

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. –William Shakespeare

* * *

Last week Sue Coletta wrote a post in which James Scott Bell facetiously commented his dream job would be to be a wine critic. That got me thinking about a vocation I’ve always said was my dream job: naming new models of automobiles.

Driving down the street is like sailing through a sea of fantasia. Those little boxes that are designed to carry people from here to there in various states of luxury have names that have nothing to do with their engineering.

Take the Aston Martin Valkyrie for example. If there were a contest of fantastic auto names, this would surely be the winner. According to Merriam-Webster, the meaning of VALKYRIE is “any of the maidens of Odin who choose the heroes to be slain in battle and conduct them to Valhalla.”

I have to say I haven’t seen any Valkyries driving around in my neighborhood, but I’m keeping an eye out just to see which end of this car is the front and which is the rear.

* * *

Many automakers prefer animal names for their cars. Here are a few:

  • Chevrolet Impala
  • Plymouth Barracuda
  • Dodge Viper
  • Mercury Cougar
  • Ford Raptor
  • Ford Bronco
  • Ford Mustang — My husband owned one of these when we were married.
  • The Jaguar — I owned a Jaguar XKE when I was young, single, and foolish. To this day, I’m not sure if I owned the car or the car owned me. It seems like I spent a lot of time taking care of its issues.

 

  • Volkswagon Beetle — A hugely popular car that didn’t follow the ferocious animal paradigm.

 

 

* * *

Weather seems to be big in car names. Consider these

  • Mercury Cyclone
  • GMC Syclone — The misspelling was intentional and used to avoid trademark infringement. But who would buy a misspelled name?
  • GMC Typhoon – GMC apparently likes weather names
  • Oldsmobile Toronado – Toronado is not actually a word, so I assume Oldsmobile was looking for a cool name to conjure up the force of a tornado.

 

  • And then there’s the Renault Wind. I don’t think this one was intended to invoke feelings of a powerful storm:

 

 

* * *

Other notable car names:

  • Jeep Gladiator
  • Dodge Stealth
  • AMC Javelin
  • Triumph Spitfire
  • Acura Legend
  • Nissan Armada (One car is an armada?)
  • Aston Martin Superleggera (And the name doesn’t have anything to do with legroom!)

  • Nissan Maxima – Years ago, my husband and I had to replace an old car, and I had picked out a new Maxima as my car of choice. When I took Frank to the dealership to show him the car, the salesman took great pains and a lot of time to describe all the fantastic features. When the spiel finally concluded, Frank asked about the price. The salesman spouted a big number, then said, “But remember, this is a MAXIMA!” Frank didn’t bat an eyelash, but replied, “Do you have a Minima?”

(In case you’re wondering, we bought that Maxima and kept it for over ten years.)

* * *

Another of the great cars I owned in my life was the Audi A4. Uninspired name. Fabulous car.

* * *

I identify the cars my characters drive. Kathryn in The Watch Mysteries drives an old Maxima. Her boyfriend, Phil, owns a car repair shop and drives an Audi. Cassie Deakin in Lady Pilot-in-Command drives a Mustang. None of the cars in my stories have a personal name, but Cassie’s airplane is named Scout.

* * *

So TKZers: What cars were special to you in your life? Do you identify the cars your characters drive? Do you give them names? If you could give a name to a new model car, what would it be?

* * *

 

Kathryn Frasier prefers running to driving. You can find her training for marathons in The Watch Mysteries. The ebook boxset is on sale for $1.99

 

 

What Spelling Bee Taught Me About Writing

“Handle a book as a bee does a flower, extract its sweetness but do not damage it.” –John Muir

* * *

If you haven’t played the NY Times Spelling Bee game, here’s a brief intro:

The game involves making words out of seven letters. I suppose one reason I’m attracted to it is how the game is presented: Each of the seven letters is inside a hexagon-shaped cell. Six of the cells surround a central one, and it all looks like a honeycomb. Clever, eh?

The idea is to make words (at least four letters in length) using the letters. You can use a letter more than once, but you must use the center letter in every word you make. For example, the word “TAUNT” wouldn’t work in the example above because it doesn’t contain the letter G. “GAUNT” would be a good word.

You get one point for a four-letter word. If the word is longer than four letters, you get a point for each letter in the word. If you use all seven letters in a word, you get the number of points for the word plus another seven. It’s called a pangram. In the example above “UNTAGGED” would be a pangram.

As you rack up points, you move up a scale from Beginner to Genius. If you get to the Genius stage, a screen pops up telling you how wonderful you are. If you continue and get every possible word, you achieve Queen Bee status. (Very hard to do without using hints.)

* * *

My husband and I play this game almost every day while we eat lunch. We figure it takes both our brains to get to Genius. In our experience, we usually move up the scale and get one step short of Genius, but getting that last step is hard. Sometimes we make it and other times we don’t. So why am I telling you all this? What does it have to do with writing?

It’s because of a “boys in the basement” pattern that’s developed.

* * *

If we haven’t reached Genius by the time I finish lunch, I’m ready to move on. I may stay around for a few minutes, but I have other things to do. (My husband, on the other hand, will diligently stare at the letters for much longer, and he sometimes gets us to that last step by himself.)

I leave the table and either clean up a little in the kitchen or retire to my office to invent some new disaster to throw at the characters in my WIP. However, in either case, I’ve put the word game out of my mind, and I’m thinking of the next thing on the schedule.

Lately, I’ve noticed a phenomenon that occurs frequently during these “moving on” sessions: As I’m dealing with another item on my to-do list, a word will pop into my mind. It’s not something I was thinking about or trying to come up with. It just appears.

For example, a while back I had stopped working on the puzzle and was putting dishes in the dishwasher when the word “EJECTABLE” popped into my mind. Now that’s not a word I think of very often. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember ever having heard of it before. I wasn’t even sure it was an actual word. I turned to my husband. “Does ‘ejectable’ work in the puzzle?”

Yep. And it was a pangram.

* * *

The process seems to be that I stare at the letters, make words, and keep trying until I’m convinced I’ve made all the words I can possibly make. I walk away, my brain relaxes, and those little neuron pathways that were blocked by my mental overexertion clear up. Then a word slips through and presents itself in tiny little neon letters.

I’ve noticed the same thing happens when I work on a tough crossword puzzle. I’ll get stuck on a clue and can’t find a solution, so I put the puzzle aside. When I return to it the next day, I immediately think of the word I was looking for. If that had happened once or twice, I wouldn’t be mentioning it now. But it happens often enough that I’m wondering how to consistently apply this to writing.

* * *

Is the same process possible as we pound away at developing our stories? Like so many cells in a honeycomb, the answer we’re looking for may be there, but we can’t seem to dig it out. We have to let it come to us.

So TKZers: Do you play word games? What are your favorites? Have you had a similar experience of ideas popping up only after you start another project? Do you deliberately try to use a shift in focus to get those boys in the basement into the game?

 

Interview with Karen Odden, Historical Mystery Author

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Recently I attended a Zoom workshop by bestselling historical mystery author Karen Odden. The opening slide of her PowerPoint presentation wowed us. It was a striking photo of an old-fashioned steam locomotive that had rammed through a wall on an upper floor of a building and was hanging down to the street below.

Karen Odden, historical mystery author

 

For the next 90 minutes, Karen kept us riveted with tales of actual catastrophes from Victorian England. Those events launched her down the research rabbit hole for her historical mystery series. Every discovery led to new story possibilities.

In addition to sharing her research adventures, Karen incorporated an advanced character-building workshop with fresh ideas I hadn’t run across before.

She kindly agreed to visit TKZ for an interview.

Welcome, Karen!

Debbie Burke: The inspiration process for your historical mystery series is a compelling study in itself. Would you walk us through that, including the turning points in the development? What was the moment of realization when you knew you had a winning concept?

Karen Odden: My fascination with the Victorian era began in grad school at NYU, in the 1990s, with a class called “The Dead Mother and Victorian Novels.” The professor noticed all these orphans running around Victorian novels – Jane Eyre, Pip, Oliver, Daniel Deronda, etc. She suggested the orphan was a trope for a profound historical change in England. Whereas in the 18th century, someone’s fortune and social status was inherited from their parents, in the 19th century, people (largely men) could make their own fortunes, in manufacturing, shipping, or whatever. So the orphan was a marker for how it was newly possible to define one’s self without reference to parents.

I found this way of thinking about literature and history fascinating, and I took more classes on Victorian literature, reading everything from Browning’s poems to Henry Morton Stanley’s African memoirs to Darwin’s scientific papers. I wrote my dissertation on the medical, legal, and popular literature written about Victorian railway disasters and the injuries they caused – with an eye to showing how those texts provided a framework for later theories, including shell shock and PTSD.

After graduating, I taught at UW-Milwaukee and did some free-lance editing. But around 2006, I decided I wanted to try writing a novel. For my topic, I leaned into my dissertation, putting a young woman and her laudanum-addicted mother on a railway train and sending it off the rails in 1874 London.

After many false starts, it was published, and I have remained in 1870s London for all my subsequent books. It’s a world I know, down to the shape of the ship rigging and the smells of tallow and lye, and although I have been told (more than once) that WWII books are an easier sell, I hope my books show the Victorian world in all its messy complexity, with all the possibilities for redemption. 

DB: What is TDEC?

KO: TDEC is The Day Everything Changes. Basically, it’s the time when the main character’s equilibrium is thrown off, and (with few exceptions) it occurs in chapter one. For example, it’s the moment when Magwitch grabs Pip on the marsh, or Scarlett attends the ball that will devastate her as she finds out Ashley is engaged to Melanie. The reason TDEC is important is every character brings their own personal myth – what they have gleaned from their unique past experiences – to page 1, and that personal myth shapes the way they approach, perceive, and make meaning of every important experience that happens from TDEC on.

A funny story – when I was writing the book that became A LADY IN THE SMOKE (2016), TDEC is when Lady Elizabeth and her laudanum-addicted mother are in a railway crash. But I originally had it in chapter 8. (!) The first seven chapters were backstory about why Elizabeth and her mother didn’t get along and historical facts about railways, accidents, Victorian medical men, and so on. My free-lance editor told me I had to cut it. When I winced, she said it was fascinating; however, it needed to be in my head as I was writing, but not on the page, at least not like that. Much of the material in those 7 chapters is feathered in throughout the book, but the train wreck happens in chapter 1, as it should.

DB: One of your themes is PTSD, a psychiatric disorder that can be traced throughout history under different names. Could you talk about how you identified the condition in the past?

KO: One of the starting points for my dissertation was the account of Charles Dickens, who was in the Staplehurst, Kent railway crash in 1865.

Charles Dickens, Getty Images

He climbed out of his overturned carriage, helped his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother out, and then began ministering to people. The railway company sent an express to bring passengers back to London, and Dickens went home to bed. But the next day he was so shaky he couldn’t sign his name. He developed ringing in his ears, nervous tremors, and terrible nightmares, dying five years to the day afterward.

Some of the medical men at the time called this “railway spine” — the theory being that all the shaking around passengers experienced inside the toppling carriage caused tiny lesions in the spinal matter, which resulted in symptoms across the whole body. Of course, these lesions were a complete fabrication — but under existing medical jurisprudence, people couldn’t obtain financial compensation for injuries that were only “nervous”; they had to be organic — literally, tied to an organ — and the spine counted.

I am persistently curious about what injuries and experiences “count” in our culture — and how they reach the tipping point of being worth discussing, litigating, researching, compensating, and curing. To my mind, the medical profession has failed us at certain times in history; and these failures can be devastating because the disavowal of injury lays on a whole second layer of trauma.

DB: You divide conflict into two categories: intrapersonal and interpersonal. Please explain the difference and how you use them in your fiction.

KO: For me, intrapersonal conflict occurs within a character and is usually the result of a conflict between an MC’s personal myth – the beliefs they have about the world and themselves, derived from past experiences – and their current lived experience. For example, in The Queen’s Gambit, chess prodigy Beth Harmon learned early on, in the orphanage, that mind-numbing drugs are an acceptable way to escape her world; but later, her lived experience shows that she loses chess tournaments when she plays hung over. So she must amend her personal myth, if she wants to achieve her desire of being chess champion. In parenting, sometimes this is called “natural consequences.”

Interpersonal conflict happens when two characters have personal myths that cannot be reconciled. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth is a distrustful loner who doesn’t like to depend on others; but secondary character Benny Watts finds a sense of self-worth through teaching other people chess and being appreciated for his efforts. At the level of plot, Beth and Benny are in conflict because both want to be chess champions; at the level of character, they are in conflict because Beth’s personal myth includes the belief that gratitude is a sign of weakness, while for Benny other people’s gratitude contributes to his self-worth.

In my Inspector Corravan mysteries, Michael Corravan is a former thief, dock-worker, and bare-knuckles boxer who was orphaned as a youth and earned his place in his adoptive family by saving young Pat Doyle from a vicious beating. So Corravan comes out of Whitechapel scrappy, good with his fists, and with a belief that his value lies, in part, in his ability to rescue others. These are all fine traits for a Yard inspector.

But as his love interest Belinda points out, being a rescuer means Corravan never has to be vulnerable, and being vulnerable would make him a better listener and a better policeman. At first Corravan ridicules the idea, but when he finally allows himself to empathize with a powerless victim, the case breaks open. So there’s a combination of interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict that brings about a change in Corravan. He’s still a rescuer, but he understands the value of abandoning that role on occasion.

DB: Many writers fall into the bottomless well of historical research and can’t climb out to finish their story. How do you decide when you’ve done enough research and are ready to write the book?

Thames Disaster, Getty Images

KO: Often I begin with a single, large nugget of Victorian history – for example, in UNDER A VEILED MOON, it was the Princess Alice steamship disaster of 1878, in which over 550 people drowned in the Thames. But after a few chapters of writing, I wanted to add complexity to what history says was a mere accident, so I read more and discovered that there was no passenger manifest because it was a pleasure steamer, like our hop-on-hop-off buses. No one had any idea who was on the boat!

I also read some articles about anti-Irish discrimination and thought it would be a good element to have the Irish Republican Brotherhood blamed initially, especially as Corrovan is Irish.

What I’ve noticed about myself is that as I reach somewhere around the half-way mark and know how my story is unfolding, I stop directed reading about the topic, but everything I read and hear incidentally becomes fodder. As I was finishing A TRACE OF DECEIT (about the theft and forgery of priceless paintings), I happened to read a New Yorker article that mentioned a piece of little-known English law that added a new, crazy twist. I try to stay flexible; when I find something intriguing that might fit into my book, I give it a try.

To some extent, setting all my books in 1870s London makes it easy. I have a repository of historical information about economics, laws, social mores, buildings, railways, injuries and illnesses, etc. So I don’t have to reinvent the world with each book. In fact, I’ve recycled several secondary characters, most notably Tom Flynn, the newspaperman for the (fictional) London Falcon.

DB: In How to Write a Mystery, Gayle Lynds wrote, “In the end, we novelists use perhaps a tenth of a percent of the research we’ve done for any one book.” What percentage actually makes it into your books? Do you have suggestions of what to do with leftover material?

KO: I would agree with that! Somewhere around 10-20 per cent. The key thing is to have it firmly in my head as I write — the way I know how to use a toaster, for example — so that historical information feathers in organically. I try to avoid info-dumps (unprocessed history plopped in) and what I call shoe-horning. Sometimes I want to stick in some cool historical factoid, and it just doesn’t fit. So I save it for a fun blogpost!

DB: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I haven’t asked?

KO: I’d just like to share that I’ve found it vitally important to develop a robust community of practice. Writing is often solitary; but my books are certainly better because of my beta-readers, and my writing life more joyful and productive (and successful) because of the librarians, booksellers, and other writing professionals I have met. No one told me this about being a writer – that I’d find a smart, generous community, which helps immensely as we all navigate the often challenging publishing industry.

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Thank you, Karen, for sharing your fascinating journey with TKZ!

USA Today bestselling author Karen Odden received her PhD in English from NYU, writing her dissertation on Victorian literature, and taught at UW-Milwaukee before writing mysteries set in 1870s London. Her fifth, Under a Veiled Moon (2022), features Michael Corravan, a former thief turned Scotland Yard Inspector; it was nominated for the Agatha, Lefty, and Anthony Awards for Best Historical Mystery. Karen serves on the national board of Sisters in Crime, and she lives in Arizona where she hikes the desert while plotting murder. Find out more about Karen’s books and writing workshops at www.karenodden.com.

FB: @karenodden

twitter: @karen_odden

IG: @karen_m_odden

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TKZers: Do you read and/or write historical fiction? What era interests you the most? What’s your favorite research trick?