Mystery Writing: Historic Detecting for Today’s Reader

Detective, Clues, Find, Finger, Fingerprints, MysteryWhen you write a mystery set in the past, you have to do it knowing what your detective would have known about solving crimes.  It seems obvious but a detective going after Jack the Ripper wouldn’t have known anything about profiling or the psychology of serial killers.  The problem is that you still have to write with these things in mind because they are a part of your reader’s knowledge.

What does this mean for my story set in the 1970s?  I will have to find out:

  • Whether or not blood evidence was used and tested for blood type.
  • What were the prevailing theories about crime and criminals.
  • What did they call PTSD?  What were the theories about same?
  • Suspects civil rights.

In spite of these things, I will have to write with the following in mind:

  • My readers will have a set of expectations based on too much NCSI.
  • No matter what the theories are about crimes and PTSD, my characters will have to behave in accordance to today’s theories/expectations.

My detective and her investigation have to mesh with the time period.  She may be progressive or think in ways that are not typical for her time period, after all people are not part of a hive mind.  But she cannot know things that have only recently been discovered.

The more I learn, the more that I realize — writing historic fiction is like walking a tightrope strung between then and now.



The Key to Successful Characters: A.R.F.

Collie, Dog, Water, Barking, Protect, Sea, Baltic SeaYesterday, I wrote a post about what a fickle pickle I am when it comes to reading.  I give a book 10 pages.  If it doesn’t pull me in by then, too bad, so sad, into the library bag it goes.  There are a variety of reasons to dump a book and they range from missing plots to contrived dialogue.  But for me the absolute worst problems relate to character.

To get your readers to connect with your characters you need three things and lucky for us there’s a handy acronym — A.R.F.

Active.  Your character has got to be active.  Characters who don’t want anything or do anything are boring.  It’s just that simple.  Characters who wait around for other characters to solve the problem and rescue them are beyond irritating.  To achieve a truly active character, you may need to eliminate some of the characters in your story.  Take out the one who solves things for your main character (bye-bye helicopter parents) and the extras you simply don’t have space to use to their best advantage.

Relatable.  You can’t be expected to create a character who is exactly like your reader.  After all, the plan is to have more than two or three readers. But your character has to be relatable.  This might mean that they like the things your readers like (bands, movies, sports, or foods), that they have problems similar to those your readers have (parents and school come to mind), and also that they feel recognizable emotions as they face the world.

Flawed.  Last but not least, your character cannot be perfect.  Perfect people are perfectly annoying.  I’m not saying that it has to be huge.  Your character doesn’t have to be an axe murderer.  Just give your character a flaw (temper, absent-minded, lazy) and if you do it right this flaw will feed into the plot of the story.

Special thanks to Fran Price who wrote ARF up in this SCBWI British Isles blog post. She wrote up ARF as it relates to picture book characters.  Her post came to mind as I forced myself through a novel with a main character who languished while waiting to be saved.  Novels need characters with ARF just as much as picture books do.


Read or Stop: How long do you give a book before you stop reading?

Adult, Book, Education, Female, Girl, IntelligentRecently, a friend asked a group of us how long we will continue to read a book that just hasn’t caught our fancy.  She was half way through a book that has received critical acclaim and it just hadn’t clicked with her.  How much longer should she give it.

I have to admit that I was surprised how many people said that they would read the whole book.  After all, the critics loved it.  Other people read at least 50 pages.

Me? I’m a fickle pickle.  It comes from reviewing books for years.  When you read a dozen or more books (picture book through novel) each month, you just don’t stick with a book that bores you.  After all, I didn’t review books to pan them although I ultimately realized that this would have made my editor happier.  I reviewed books so that I could recommend books to people who wanted to read something good.

I give a book 10 pages.  Yes.  10.  I understand that that seems harsh but . . . oh well.  There are just too many books out there to spend a lot of time with a book that I’ve failed to enjoy.  That said, there are two exceptions to this rule.  First, if I know the author I will muscle through one book.  One.  Second, if we are reading it for book club then I will make myself finish the book.

If I hate the book, I just drop it back into the library bag.  Ninety percent of what I read comes from the library.

If I’m so-so about the book, I’ll read the ending.  Sometimes the ending will surprising me and then I’ll want to see how the author got there.  In those instances, I’ll usually finish the book.

The thing about it?  I get the feeling that a lot of people who read for a living read like this.  And this, my friends, is why so much emphasis is placed on chapter 1.  Hook your reader or you risk loosing them.


Writing a Novel: Can a plotter pants?

plotter vs panterYou know how it is — when you have a deadline that involves a check, that’s when another MOST EXCELLENT idea reaers its head and you simply have got to start writing it.  The problem is that I need to research my next piece of nonfiction for Red Line.  Chapter 1 and the outline are due a week from today.  I convinced myself that I could work on my new idea too but I would have to start writing it NOW.  That meant that I’d have to start writing without an outline because I just didn’t have time to cook one up. This plotter would have to pants.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the terms, a plotter plots out a novel before starting to write. It doesn’t have to be a detailed outline, but there is a plan of some kind.  A pantser, on the other hand, writes by the seat of her pants.  She doesn’t have an outline.  She just starts writing.  I convinced myself that this was the way to go if I was going to have a chance to write on my new idea and meet the Red Line deadline.

I convinced myself I didn’t have time to plot.  Instead, I dug out the first Boxcar Children book — research — and read chapter 1.  With that bit of inspiration, I sat down to write.  Five days later, I was 4 chapters and 2,275 words into the manuscript.  That’s good, yes?

Well, yes and no.  The problem was that the book was already drifting.  I know that I need a plot and a subplot and I had the plot and the subplot came to me as I drafted Chapter 3.  This meant that I would have to work some clues into Chapters 1 and 2.  The other problem is that without a plan my characters were already doing their own thing.  Left to their own devices, they were skewing too old.  To solve this, I’d have to go back and completely change a character I introduced in Chapter 2.

Yes, I could make myself keep plowing forward but . . . I won’t.  At this point, my chapter book/lower middle grade is reading more like a young adult.  I don’t mean that in terms of the plot itself but in the behavior of some of the characters.  And I have to change the ship.  I mean completely change the ship.

Can I say it?  This plotter does not like pantsing.

The good news is that I’m glad I just jumped in and started to write.  Now I have a much better feel for my story world and my characters.  And with that knowledge, I am going to create a bare bones outline and then start my new official draft.  The one with the age appropriate characters, a plot and subplot and solid setting.

I think it is fair to say that this plotter is not a pantser.  Nope.  This plotter is a plotter.



People Your Books with Plausible Characters

Summer, Young Woman, Hat, Striped Dress, Blue DressNothing pulls me out of a story faster than a character who acts or speaks in a way that isn’t believable.  The absolute worst are male characters who do something or say something that just doesn’t ring true.  And, when this happens, the author is always female.  Always.

Most recently, I was listening to an audio book with multiple POV characters.  Sometimes we were in the villain’s head without knowing which character the villain was.  Sometimes we were in a suspects head; at times like this, we always knew which character’s head we were in.  Other times we were in the head of one of the two main characters — one male and the other female.

The female main character was a well-educated woman in her mid-twenties.  She was a researcher who often worked with the lawyers of well-healed clients.  She was used to being around money but not snobbish about it.

The male main character was an ex-cop who co-owns his own business.  He and his brother had been orphaned and then raised by a military uncle.  The pair now use computer analysis to help solve cold cases for US law enforcement.

Normally, I had no problem following along as the narration jumped from one POV to another.  But then the time came when I thought I was in the male-lead’s head.  He’s watching the female lead approach thinking about how fetching she looks in a sun dress.  In fact, it is his favorite type of dress.

Whoa.  What?

I’m sorry.  I just couldn’t buy it.  I could have gone along with him liking the blue dress, the short dress, even her new dress, but the sundress?  Uh, no.  Not this particular character.

Slip up on this type of detail and you risk pulling your reader out of the story.  Do that and you just might lose them.


New Editorial Director at Sky Pony Press

Bethany Buck, who  has worked at both Scholastic and Simon and Schuster, joins Sky Pony Press as their new Editorial Directory.

Sky Pony, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, produces children’s books including picture books to middle grade and young adult.  One area of success has been their books for Minecraft lovers.  They currently have a backlist of 350 titles and the plan is to release between 100-150 titles in the next year.

In a press release, Buck said, “I could not be more thrilled to be joining a house with such a dynamic team, and smart, innovative publishing. I look forward to creating more books for this already stellar list.”

Sky Pony accepts submissions and has this to say about what they are seeking:

“We will consider picture books, early readers, midgrade novels, novelties, and informational books for all ages. Although we are not searching for YA fiction in particular, we would consider projects that tied in with the subject areas in which we are publishing. We are mainly publishing single titles but are open to series ideas.

“Our parent company publishes many excellent books in the fields of ecology, independent living, farm living, wilderness living, recycling, and other green topics, and this will be a theme in our children’s book line. We are also searching for books that have strong educational themes and that help inform children of the world in which they live. We are also interested in books with special needs themes, such as autism, ADHD, food allergies, and so forth.”

For more information about Sky Pony, including the e-mail address for submissions, check out their site.



Censorship: What It Is and What It Ain’t

Mute, According To, Quiet, Title, Music, CharactersRecently, I read an interesting post on YA Interrobang, a site that helps connect YA readers with the latest and greatest YA books.  It seems that they have decided not to cover a particular book.  Why?  It is book #2 in a series.  Book #1 was about a date rape with the rapist as the protag.  In book #2, he is still in denial that he has done anything wrong.  The focus seems to be his insistence that he is a “good guy” who made a mistake.  Not surprisingly, the group of women who operate this site don’t seem inclined to help advertise this book.  They are concerned that they will be accused of censoring this book.

I get their concern.  No, this is not censorship, but their concern makes sense because censorship is one of those words that gets thrown around willie nillie.

In short, censorship is the process of supressing unacceptable books.  The key word here is supressing.  If Interrobang tried to get the publisher to quit printing the book, that would be censorship.  If Interrobang tried to keep book stores from carrying the book or libraries from letting people check it out, that would be censorship.  If Interrobang attended school board meetings and demand that schools get rid of the book, that is censorship.

Interrobang has said “we don’t like the sounds of this book because violence against women is a serious topic.” Interrobang has said “we won’t review this book or interview the author.”  That’s the same as Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly not reviewing a book.  It is a simple editorial choice.  You can still buy it.  You can still read it.  It has not been censored.  It has not been banned.  It has not been challenged.


Me?  I’m not planning to read it.  There are too many books that I’m eager to read.  I’m not going to spend the time on this one just to see what it is about.


Quit or Write

Hand, Keep, Gears, Colorful, Clouds, Way Of Thinking


When you are struggling to write and things just aren’t coming together, do you take a break or push through?  I tend to push on through but based on what happened last week I still can’t decide if that’s good or bad.
I’ve been working on an article for several weeks now.  The subject is the difference between a nonfiction picture book manuscript and a nonfiction magazine piece. 
Version #1 gave an excellent description of picture books but relegated magazine nonfiction to manuscripts that simply didn’t work as picture books.  Um.  No.
Version #2 did a better job defining magazine nonfiction but the second half of the article felt unfocused. I took version #2 to critique group and Rita suggested a fix.
Version #3 used Rita’s suggestion.  After discussing a quality that makes a manuscript either a good picture book or a good magazine piece, I described a picture book and a magazine piece on the same subject.  These examples would show readers how each suited their category (picture book vs magazine). It was better but it still wasn’t good enough.  I kept pushing my way through the manuscript, but finally I took a break.
On the way back from the bathroom, it hit me.  My format was still too complicated.  I needed to focus on the 3 traits that determine whether an idea is better suited to a picture book or a magazine piece.  The second half of the manuscript, the unfocused section, would then become a tightly focused sidebar.
I still can’t decide if it was wise to push myself to keep working.  Did my organizational epiphany come about because I pushed myself.  Or did it come about because I took a break? I’m still not sure but I am relieved that somehow, someway, it finally came together.

What kids are reading…

Kids, Reading, Book, Kids Reading, Girl, CuteOn March 2, 2016, An American Book Sellers Association Panel discussed books that resonate with young readers.  You can read the entire Publisher’s Weekly article here but I’ve listed some of the highlights below.

  • Hannah Lambert at Little Simon (books up to age 8) reports that they have good luck with nonfiction that tells a story.  Young readers want a character to lead them through the piece and/or they want to know how it relates to their world vs being a bunch of facts.
  • John Rahm from Capstone says that they’ve had good feedback on their interactive You Choose series which includes a Choose Your Own Adventure vibe.
  • Capstone has also had good luck with STEM titles although Rahm prefers the acronym STEAM which inserts art and emphasizes how art and design work within the context of the science, technology, engineering and math.
  • Celia Lee from Scholastic mentioned “recasting” a fiction character in a nonfiction story as Ted Arnold does with the Fly Gus presents nonfiction readers.
  • Lee also noted that books that include both illustrated images and photography are selling.
  • Increased interest in picture book nonfiction, especially biographies.
  • Increasted interest in books that combine simple concepts, styles and forms such as Herve Tullet’s Press Here.
  • More craft and how-to books for ages 4 – 12.  Something they might want to see?  Cookbooks for this group with recipes that require minimal adult help.
  • Books that are interactive such as coloring books and Capstone’s Wearable Books with masks to punch out.

Their final words of advice?  Avoid fads.


Summer Reading List: AKA Watch Me Try to Make Up My Mind

PicturePictureBreaking News for PAL* Members:  SCBWI is creating PAL Summer Reading Lists! Fifteen regional lists (the same regions used for Crystal Kites) will be created and divided by grades and within the grades, genres. These lists will be beautifully designed, then marketed and publicized to schools, libraries, bloggers, and more. Look for a special invitation to submit one book for the list. Submissions will be due by April 1st.



I was so excited when I got this message from Kim Pidding, the Missouri Regional Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  Yay!  A chance to get my books into the hands of young readers!

PicturePictureThen reality hit home.  This means that I have to pick one and only one of my books for the list.  At this point, I have 6 books:

  • Ancient Maya (Abdo)
  • Getrude Ederle vs The English Channel (Schoolwide)
  • The Bombing of Pearl Harbor (Abdo)
  • Black Lives Matter (Abdo)
  • Trench Warfare (Abdo)
  • 12 Incredible Facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis (12 Story Library)

SCBWI plans to make electronic and print copies of the list available “to schools, libraries, bookstores, and consumers.”  This immediately eliminates Gertrude Ederle vs The English Channel.  It is part of Schoolwide’s electronic library.  What this means is that schools that pay for a subscription have access to the book.  There’s no point in putting it on the list because aren’t going to pay to access the whole library for one book.

PicturePictureThat still leaves 5 candidates and, let’s face reality, they are all about hard realities.  These aren’t your light and airy summer reads.

Right now, my choice is Black Lives Matter.  Yeah, I might just hack someone else off but I might also get my book into the hands of a young reader who really and truly wants to know what it is all about.


*A PAL member is a member of SCBWI who has published a book with a recognized, professional publisher.  The list of publishers is available on the SCBWI site.