Writers Are Reviewers Too

Writers Are Reviewers Too

I’m as guilty as the next person.  I read a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction.  I don’t often write reviews.  Yet I complain that I don’t get a lot of reviews on the books I write.  So, what’s going on?

I decided to examine the reasons why I don’t write book reviews so I can forgive those who don’t write reviews for me.  Maybe.

  1. No time. Classic excuse but I don’t buy it.  It takes only a few minutes to go to Amazon or other book venues, click on “write review” and write a few lines.
  2. Didn’t like the book and don’t want to write a bad review. Well, I don’t have to write a “bad” review.  I can constructively criticize without tearing the book apart.  This does take a little bit more time, however.
  3. What can I say? It can be as simple as “I loved this book” or “I couldn’t put it down.”  It helps to add some details such as “I loved the main character’s fortitude in dealing with her sick mother,” etc.  This does help the writer plus future potential readers who are looking for stories with strong characters.
  4. I could compare the book with others that I’ve read, both positively and negatively. Readers like to know, “this thriller was equal to The DaVinci Code in tension,” or “this writer should leave romance to Diana Gabaldon.”

Then there are the star ratings.  I definitely use them in selecting books and find them helpful when there are a lot (maybe 50 or more) of similar ratings.  I rarely will select a book that has 100 2-stars, but I might consider 100 4-stars.

As a reader, I do look at reviews.  I am remiss, however, in writing book reviews.  Still, I wonder, why can’t I get more reviews?  At the very least, from my friends, who, by the way, you cannot count on to write reviews.  And perhaps, you shouldn’t.

After writing this, I am setting my own goal to write reviews on books I read in the future.  I’ll let you know how that goes.

I would love to hear your experiences.  Please share.

Conflict and Characters: A Winning Pair

Conflict and Characters: A Winning Pair

The dictionary defines conflict as “a struggle or an opposition.” Conflict comes from the Latin word for “striking,” but it isn’t always violent. Conflict can arise from opposing ideas.  But conflict, in any form, is essential for your story.

Characters must struggle with conflict, even in a simple form. If your character is torn between two different desires, say, marrying a woman who lives in Boston, but dying to take a job offer in Saskatoon (where is that, anyway?) he’s conflicted.

Conflict is key to your characters’ relationships.  If everyone gets along beautifully and there are no differences of opinions, arguments, debates, fisticuffs . . . no screaming, pulling hair, beating up or murdering someone, well, there’s not much conflict.  And not much interest.

Conflict can occur within a person’s mind.  This is the most interesting of conflicts and defines the character’s character, if you will.  When a character confronts another character, there is drama.  When a character confronts his/her own self, there is drama plus.  Now, the stage is set for future interactions with everyone he/she meets.

In The Triangle Murders, my protagonist, Frank Mead, is overwhelmingly conflicted about his relationship with his daughter, whom he feels he has abandoned after his wife’s suicide.  The daughter feels similarly.  However, circumstances bring the two of them together, creating not only conflict, but often tension.  There is great strain between them and the reader must wonder if it will ever be resolved.

Emotions play a large role in portraying a character’s conflict.  If a character keeps his emotions hidden, any conflicts he faces may stretch these hidden emotions to a breaking point.  As a reader we need to know what’s happening in his head–how this conflict is affecting him.  We also need to see how it manifests itself in his behavior.  Do serious money problems cause him to drink more, beat his wife and kids, or retreat further into himself?  How your character handles conflict makes him unique . . . or not.  Unique is better, by the way.

Conflict between characters can take many forms.  It can be job-related, school-related, socially-related, sexually-related, family-related, or other-related.  Often all.  However, too many conflicts in too many places can cause the reader to get worn out.  Give your character, even a cranky one, at least one amiable relationships, even if it’s with another cranky character, please, or we won’t like him very much.

I like to find new ways to help my characters resolve their conflicts.  For instance, in Frank’s case above, he enlists his daughter’s help to solve an ancient murder.  They form a tentative truce to accomplish this, which may, or may not, last into another book.

My advice is to maximize the use of conflict in your story.  It is a great tool to keep readers turning the page.

As always, I welcome your feedback.

Good Grief, Bad Grief

Good Grief, Bad Grief

Emotional upheavals can translate to great writing

I’ve had a rather tumultuous week since I returned from Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks.  I started out high on beauty and serenity, natural landscapes and wildlife.  I was calm, tranquil, close to meditative.

Then my sweet dog of thirteen and a half years passed away.  It was downhill from there.

You know that feeling of being gut-punched, but you weren’t?  Of having your throat close up but you’re not sick?  Of crying during a comedy?  Of laughing during a tragic drama?  High one minute, low the next? Forgetting why you walked into a room?  Not feeling particularly hungry one minute, but ravenous the next?  In the words of C.S. Lewis:

“Grief … gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.”
This is grief.  Grief . . . at the loss of a loved one, human or animal, or even the loss of a job, a car, a house.  Not pleasant.  Still, for writers, it can give us that added insight into the emotional underlay of our characters.  Grief, or other intense emotions, like anger, can provide that extra dimension to boost ordinary characters into incisive, sharp, exquisite personalities.  It’s hard to write what you can’t feel, or what you haven’t ever felt.

Actors practice getting into character by living or reliving these emotions and translating them into behaviors.  Screaming, crying, yanking their hair out, pounding the table, running away or simply sleeping.  So many ways to act out grief.

Writers must translate those same emotions into the written word.  I encourage you to take these emotions and render them to words, then to sentences and scenes.  How have your own experiences of these sensations, like grief, helped you bring your characters to life?

Experiences Make You a Better Writer

Experiences Make You a Better Writer

It was three in the morning.  A slight tremor shook the windows.   The doors began to rattle in their frames.  The bed seemed to move.  Now the windows were banging against the shutters and a strange howling sounded in the air.

I leaped up and ran to the French doors of our room at the Hotel Tramontano in Sorrento, Italy.  I knew what was happening.  Mt. Vesuvius was erupting, just as it did in 79 AD, when it brought Pompeii and Herculaneum to its knees.  What a story!

I threw open the doors and peered through a curtain of mist, across the Bay of Naples to the majestic volcano. Nothing.  Not a wisp of smoke nor a glow of lava trails.  I was peculiarly disappointed.

My husband stepped outside to join me on the veranda.  He had just called the front desk.  “Just a strong wind.”  Combined with old windows and doors and perhaps my sub-conscious wish to be Pliny the Younger and witness the infamous eruption.  Nothing.  Bummer.

Earlier this same day we had traveled by train from Naples and my husband had been pickpocketed.   Now, of course, Naples is the pickpocket capital of the world.  But how could that happen to us?  It only happens to others.  Well, we lost our credit cards and cash (fortunately, not our passports,) and spent hours on the phone with Visa when we arrived.  Nice folks.

Not an auspicious start to a holiday in Italy.  Maybe that was it.  Instead of a mystery, I’d write a travel book:  Misadventures in Italy.  Uh uh.  Stick to mysteries.  How about an artifact newly discovered, buried under layers of excavation in Pompeii.  A humerus bone that was only two hundred years old.  How could it possibly be buried here along with remains almost 2,000 years old?  Whose bone was it?  A female, young, small, delicate with a knife wound slicing across the bone?  Maybe a swath of fabric is found near the bone.  How old could the material be?  What about a tool or a bowl or utensil nearby?

Clues.   Ahhh.  More, more.

And what about Pliny, the Younger and Pliny the Elder?  The life and times of Pompeiins, Napolitanos, Herculaneum— uh, ers, ites?  People from Herculaneum.  What a backdrop for a historical mystery.  And forensics can help resolve the bone, fabric, bowl conundrum.  (Maybe the forensics expert was pickpocketed on his way to the crime scene?)

Whether I  write a mystery about Pompeii or not, the point is, so many of our experiences can be evolved into a full-fledged story with characters, events, descriptions, and rich background.  Those incidents in our lives that are memorable are often traumatic when we live through them.  Find the humor and spin them into a grand story.

I can laugh at the faux volcanic eruption of Vesuvius now.  Trust me, it wasn’t funny at the time.

A Tragedy Revisited

A Tragedy Revisited

March 25th, 2016, will commemorate the 106th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  The 1911 fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC before 9-11.  It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated significant reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future.  You may remember a similar fire at a factory in Bangladesh last year.

When I decided to write a mystery against the backdrop of the Triangle, I had no idea what I was in for.  Research took me in several directions: the forensics of fire, the consequences of “defenestration,” that is, vertical falls from high places, the difficulty in identifying bodies falling from such heights, the safety hazards for garment workers, women’s rights, workers’ rights, changes in the American workplace.

But I also researched the time and place of the disaster.  1911, Greenwich Village, New York City.  A time when Ellis Island kept its arms open to immigrants from many countries — immigrants who came for a better life, but often wound up in sweatshops, or worse.  A time of Tammany Hall and corruption.  A time of women’s suppression.  But also a time of new beginnings, hope, and freedom in a new land.

I am a native New Yorker and was amazed at the fantastic bits of information I dug up.  I learned, for instance, that Washington Square Park is built on what was once a potter’s field, where 100,000 people were buried for a century and a half.  I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, saw the buildings my characters would have seen, drank in bars they patronized, and gazed up at the ninth story of the Asch Building (now part of NYU)  to visualize the flames bursting through the windows and the workers leaping to their deaths.

The cover of my book is a photo I took of the building in 2010, with smoke and color added for dramatic effect.  For those of you who write about history, or simply enjoy reading it, I know you’ll agree that real-life events in the past make a grand backdrop for a fictional story.

Murder, in particular.

B.R.A.G. Medallion Award Interview

B.R.A.G. Medallion Award Interview

This week I’m posting my interview with Magdalena Johansson:to honor my B.R.A.G. Medallion award for
Time Exposure.

I hope you enjoy.

 I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Lynne Kennedy to A Bookaholic Swede to talk with me about her story, Time Exposure. With a Masters’ Degree in Science and more than 28 years as a science museum director, Lynne Kennedy has had the opportunity to study history and forensic science, both of which play significant roles in her novels. She has written five historical mysteries, each solved by modern technology.

 

Time Exposure: photography meets digital photography to solve a series of murders in two centuries.

The Triangle Murders was the winner of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Mystery Category, 2011, and was awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Award for independent books of high standards.

Deadly Provenance has also been awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion and was a finalist for the San Diego Book Awards. With the release of Deadly Provenance, Lynne has launched a “hunt for a missing Van Gogh,” the painting which features prominently in the book. “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” has, in actuality, been missing since WWII.

Her fourth book, Pure Lies, won the 2014 “Best Published Mystery” award by the San Diego Book Awards, and was a finalist in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award.

Time Lapse, her fifth and latest mystery, premiered at the end of 2016 to all 5-star reviews. She blogs regularly and has many loyal readers and fans.

 Can you tell me what Time Exposure is about?

Briefly: In present day Washington, D.C., renowned digital photographer Maggie Thornhill discovers a mummified corpse in her basement. She believes it to be her ancestor, famed Civil War photographer Joseph Thornhill. The truth she uncovers, however, will change written history as we know it.

Can you tell me more about Maggie Thornhill?

Time Exposure is the first of the Maggie Thornhill series. Maggie is 30-year old digital photographer who heads up a lab at Georgetown University, Washington DC. She often works with law enforcement to help cases in which photography can be used. She is bright, does not suffer fools and, essentially, wants to rid the world of bad guys.

Why is Maggie Thornhill convinced that it’s Joseph Thornhill that she has found in the basement?

Maggie’s great, great grandfather was a famous Civil War photographer (and the reason she pursued a career in photography.) Through his diaries and photographs, she learns that he had taken photographs of a mysterious civilian on the battlefield, whom he believed was a killer. Maggie assumes that this killer found out about Joseph, murdered him, and buried him in his own basement, now her basement.

Who is Joseph Thornhill’s mentor Alexander Gardner?

In all my novels, I try to make the historical parts of the story as authentic as possible, both in real events and real characters. Alexander Gardner was, in fact, a famous Civil War photographer who began working under Mathew Brady, but then became famous in his own right. Many of the well-known Civil War photographs, and those of Abraham Lincoln, were taken by Gardner. He is an important character in Time Exposure, because my fictional character, photographer Joseph Thornhill, works with Gardner on the battlefields.

Can you tell me more about photography during the Civil War?

The Civil War was the first major “conflict” to be photographed extensively. Besides the portraits of soldiers, etc., done as tintypes and ambrotypes (replacing daguerrotypes, for the most part), photographers who ventured onto the battlefield had a difficult task. They used wagons for their supplies, often called “Whatizit” wagons since they looked odd. The newest technology at the time was the “wet-collodion” process, where an image was captured on chemically coated pieces of plate glass, a time-consuming venture. Also the cameras themselves were big, bulky, and heavy and took time to set up. One interesting note: photographers often set up the scene after a battle to get the best shot. Sad to say, but yes, the photos were often staged.

What inspired you to write this story?

When I was a museum director in San Diego, we hosted a Smithsonian Lecture Series. One program from the National Museum of American History was about Civil War photography. I was hooked. That, combined with my love of history plus my experience in science and technology, inspired me to write mysteries that took place in the past, around real historical events, but solve them today with modern technology.

Any author’s that have inspired you in your writing?

I think the book that launched my writing adventure is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. A western, can you believe? The reason I found this book so special was its characters. They are so real and rich you cannot possibly forget them. Any of them. The plot, the setting, the atmosphere, dialogue, etc. all work too. But the characters are simply unforgettable.

What are you reading now?

 I read many types of books: mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction. I also read a lot of non-fiction, particularly in researching my books. My favorite author these days is Kristin Hannah. She has a lovely style and characters that resonate and remain with you long after the book is finished. Unfortunately, when I try to think of a favorite mystery, none really come to mind. They all blend together. I write mysteries, so what does that say? At the moment I’m reading David Baldacci’s The Last Mile, and, frankly, am disappointed. The good news? There are so many books to choose from. The bad news? There are so many books to choose from.

How did you come up with the title for your book?

Since my book goes back in time and is about photography in two centuries, Time Exposure seemed like a fitting title.

Who designed your book cover?
Based on an idea from a friend and colleague, also a writer, the concept of looking through a digital camera screen at a scene back in time to the Civil War was a perfect fit. The artists at BookBaby Publishers did the execution.

 A Message from indieBRAG:

We are delighted that Magdalena has chosen to interview Lynne Kennedy who is the author of, Time Exposure, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ®, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Time Exposure, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.