Tuesday, May 22, 2018

RT Booklover's Convention--Endings and New Beginnings!

by K.J. Howe

I first attended Romantic Times years ago, and the experience was absolutely memorable.  The people were super friendly, the parties out of this world, and the classes inspiring.  I was fortunate to win Bobbi Smith's Writing Contest and I received my trophy from a man wearing a bearskin loincloth.  What's not to like???  Last week in Reno, I had the pleasure of returning to the final RT conference--and what a week it was.

I taught a class on pacing at the Boot Camp.  I've attended many writing retreats, learning the craft from some very talented people, including David Morrell, Steve Berry, and Lee Child.  I also returned to Seton Hill to pursue a Master's in Popular Fiction.  I hope to keep growing as a writer, and it was a real joy to share some of my experiences with an enthusiastic group of students.  I loved seeing the fire in their eyes as they absorbed new concepts and ached to apply them to their work.  And it sure helped me to share my thoughts, as I'm a big believer that the teacher learns the most from the students.  And hats off to Tere Michaels and Damon Suede, as they did a brilliant job with the heavy lifting during the boot camp.

Another highlight was the Romantic Suspense party.  Talk about enthusiastic fans!  Some people lined up for an hour to secure their autographed copies.  It was an honor to sign books beside Cherry Adair and Karen Rose, two giants in the romance world.
K.J. Howe, Cherry Adair, Karen Rose

The enthusiasm of the readers made this event a highlight.



Sunday, May 20, 2018

Summer schemes

S. Lee Manning: It’s the end of May, and since I’ve been traveling, I’ve experienced spring three different times: California, New Jersey, and now Vermont. In Vermont, spring comes late. It was thirty-four degrees last night, and when I drove past Stowe, there was still snow on the top of Mt. Mansfield. Still, the trenches of mud that mark early spring have been smoothed over on my road; the lilacs are budding; the daffodils dance in the breeze; the bears have been rooting in the garbage, and the black flies are biting. It’s finally spring, and by the end of June, it’ll be summer.

Spring planting in Vermont - but not in my yard.

Yeah, end of June. It’s Vermont.

But given the proximity of summer, even in Vermont, and the fact that it’s the topic of the month, should we choose to write about it, it’s time to discuss my summer plans.

Another aside – didn’t you hate that essay when you were a kid?

Okay, back on subject. My summer plans. I have a few concrete plans. A weekend in Maine for Maine Crime Wave in the beginning of June, a lovely spot and a good time last year; Thrillerfest in New York in July again, always great fun. Many of us Rogues will be in attendance at Thrillerfest – and we’re doing a panel together. Come say hi.

But except for those weekends, I’m having a hard time planning my summer. I will be writing and editing, of course, but when I’m not, I don’t know what I’m going to do. So here’s some of my possibilities.

Maybe I’ll plant some roses. I’ll need to recruit Jim to dig the holes, because I suck at digging holes,  
and I’ll plant dozens of rose bushes. Okay, not dozens, the yard’s not that big and I’m not likely to talk Jim into digging dozens of holes– so maybe five – but they’ll be edible roses. Actually, all roses are edible unless you spray them with stuff to kill beetles and diseases, which limits what kind of roses you can grow to those that are disease resistant and able to survive winters with temperatures of 30 below in the winter. It’s Vermont. So, there’re maybe two different varieties of roses that fit the criteria. Okay, so I’ll order two of one, three of the other, and then I’ll make rose petal jam, rose petal liquor, and rose petal vinegars. I’ll become the Vermont queen of rose products.But that will leave me little time to write, and anyway, I’m not really all that good at growing things – or cooking for that matter. So maybe I’ll plant five rose bushes and enjoy how they look.  Or maybe not.

 Or maybe I’ll take a long bike ride all around the Eastern Provinces of Quebec, passing forests and farms, stopping at small towns to eat perfectly prepared French food and speaking in perfect French. But that would mean leaving the cats for days, which I don’t want to do, not writing, which I do want to do, and sunburn. So totally unrealistic, especially the idea of speaking perfect French. More realistic: maybe one afternoon sometime over the summer, we’ll load the bikes, drive north an hour to cross the border, take a four or five mile ride, have dinner at a great French restaurant in the country – and manage to order in our broken French.


Maybe I’ll get through the stacks of books that I’ve accumulated and want to read. Do people ever get to the bottom of their stacks of books? I remember doing so as a kid. It was part of the allure of summer: Long hot days on the front porch, curled up with a book, but the stack was smaller –because the library only let me take out five at a time - and there were only three television stations. Yes, I’m that old. So maybe I’ll read some of the stack, but I’m not getting to the bottom, especially since I restock every time I go in a bookstore or to a conference.

So, I’m back to the fact that I don’t really have much in the way of summer plans.

Truth is, I don’t want to plan the summer.

The view from my porch. Not bad, eh?
Truth is, I want to wake up to my cup of coffee, watch the news, and write. Sometimes I’ll take afternoon walks up the mountain road or shop at farmer’s markets. I want to eat freshly picked raspberries and chicken burned to a crisp on our grill. Sometimes, I’ll splurge on a soft swirled vanilla and maple syrup ice cream. As the spirit moves me, I want to read, or play my guitar. And sometimes, I’ll sit on my screened-in porch overlooking the garden, watch the sky darken into a glittering display of stars, and taunt the mosquitos buzzing outside the screens and hungering for my blood.

So, maybe I do have plans after all. And they sound pretty good to me.

How about you? What do you plan for the summer?




Wednesday, May 16, 2018

WHAT'S IT LIKE TO LIVE WITH A THRILLER WRITER?


Taking a windblown break from writing

By John C. Sheldon, AKA: Gayle Lynds’s domestic accomplice and occasional co-author

What's it like to live with a thriller writer?  I’ll tell you, but first, let’s clarify:  does the question ask what it’s like to live with a thriller writer, or does it ask what it’s like to live with a thriller writer?

Answer #1 is easy: it’s fun.  Well maybe not all the time—not, for example, when an editor’s deadline looms and said writer is pulling all-nighters.  And not when she’s trying out the new garrote she just got from Amazon, on my neck.  In the middle of the night (as required by her plot).  Or accidentally blowing up the garage with the C-4 she got from the Army-Navy surplus store downtown.  (Just kidding—it was only dynamite.)  But otherwise it’s great.  Especially when I get to read drafts and suggest ever more clever ways to grease the bad guys. 

Option #2—what’s it like to live with a thriller writer?—involves a more complicated answer.  The reason is that I’m a writer too.

I usually write legal stuff.  Want to know the difference between res judicata and collateral estoppel?  How about a city’s liability for negligence under the Maine Tort ClaimsAct?
 
Not interested?  Of course not, because there’s no plot, no characters, no excitement.  So when Gayle and I first worked on a story together—for an anthology to which she’d been invited to contribute—I had to learn to write fiction.
Now we're on the backhoe. Will we ever finish the story?

I’d never done fiction.  Fiction, as far as I knew, was all about, well, making it up by yourself.  But all I’d ever written about (since college) was law, and in the law, everything’s about precedent.  You want your client to win, you gotta show there’s precedent for it.  If there isn’t precedent for your argument you’re in trouble; if your argument is brand, spanking never-heard-of-before you’re looking at a malpractice suit.

Fiction, of course, is the opposite:  avoid all precedent, eschew everything you’ve ever read.  Retired CIA agent who prefers to tend his begonias but is reactivated to combat an unprecedented enemy?  Forget it—more common than trucks on the N.J. Turnpike.  Wanna try the road less taken?  Forget it—“less taken” means “already been taken,” and you’re angling for pink slips and charges of plagiarism.  It’s gotta be the road never travelled by anyone before, and even better, never thought of before.
 
That means inventing a “plot.”  I didn’t know how to “plot.”  With legal stuff the plot’s a virtual given.  Consider O.J.  We know the location, the characters and the evidence—Los Angeles, glamorous victim and defendant, the glove.  The lawyers argue within the boundaries set by the characters and by the evidence that already exist.  Not an ounce of thriller.

But in fiction, nothing exists until you invent it.  You make up a story line:  Woman stops at motel for the night.  You imagine the characters: woman is a thief, has stolen money from her employer and is on the run, while the guy who manages the motel has (shhh—had?) a mother who abuses him.  You mix in pizzazz:  someone stabs the woman to death in the shower.  Creepy, thrilling.

And stop to think about it:  had anyone ever done that story line, with those characters, with that particular pizzazz before?  And would anyone ever use those things again?
  
Meriwether Lewis asking directions.
Now you understand why, when asked to do fiction for the first time, I felt like Meriwether Lewis, out there in the frontier with no map, no roads, no paths even—no idea where I was going or what I’d find if I ever got there. 

Talk about feeding my insecurities.  When Gayle and I did that first short story I needed reassurance, so we agreed that the bad guy should be a judge.  We set it in Lewiston, Maine—somewhere I knew.  The good guy was a prosecutor—something I’d been.  The story worked, and I’d successfully groped my way a couple of hundred feet into fiction’s wilderness.

A few more stories and we got more adventurous.  The most recent one takes place among the grottoes of an island and involves a time warp.

A time warp.  Think I learned that in law school?  Think my next submission to the Maine Law Review will involve a time warp? 
 
Precedent, I disown you.  From now on it’s Gayle and me and Meriwether Lewis.  We’re heading back to where thrills flourish.  

P.S. In case you're interested, our short stories are "A Card for Mother," in Ice Cold; "A Triumph of Logic," in A Study in Sherlock; and "Time & Tide," The X-Files: Trust No One.



Who are the thrilling people in your life? Please leave a comment and tell us!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

WHEN FACT MEETS FICTION, CHAOS ENSUES

by Chris Goff

Here is the question posed: How do you deal with history and the real world?

My answer: I’ve struggled with using historical truth in my fiction since Day #1.

My first book, A RANT OF RAVENS, was a cozy Birdwatcher’s Mystery. Wanting to infuse a sense of realism, I based my story in a real location and on a real life incident. In the mid-1990s, an eyass (a young peregrine falcon) was stolen out of a nest in Rocky Mountain National Park and sold to a sheik in Saudi Arabia for $100K. Falconry is an ancient sport in the Middle East, and the peregrine falcons had nearly all been "tamed." The sheik wanted to breed “wildness” back into the population.

Long story short.

Before the book hit the stands in 2000, the peregrine falcon had been removed from the list of endangered and threatened species. The sheik did have to pay restitution by way of developing a rehab center for Peregrine Falcons in Saudi Arabia.

In Book #2, DEATH OF A SONGBIRD, I highlighted the coffee industry and its effects on migratory songbirds. In SONGBIRD, the owner of a fair-trade coffee importer in Estes Park, Colorado is murdered. My protagonist, the victim's silent partner, must figure out how the murder connects to the recent coffee shipments from Mexico and why her partner was killed before she herself becomes a victim. I based my coffee importer on a local Colorado resident, who was greatly admired.

Long story short.

The month the book came out, The Denver Post broke the story of how my fair-trade importer had engaged in illegal trade activities in Mexico. The end result. He was banned from setting foot in Mexico for three years. My good guy model had just become a bad guy.

In Book #3, A NEST IN THE ASHES, I wrote about the effects of the US Forest Service fire management policy of prescribed burns in our national parks. My hero was a Forest Service Ranger who lit a prescribed burn that ended up raging out of control.

Long story short.

Within weeks of the book's release, a Forest Service employee, distraught over a romantic breakup, burned a letter during a No Fire Ban and ignited the Hayman Fire. It was the largest and most devastating fire in Colorado history. It impacted four major counties, resulted in six indirect fatalities, burned more than 138,000 acres and 600 structures, and cost taxpayers upwards of $238 million.


Do you see where this is going?

You'd think I would learn, but no! 

My debut thriller, DARK WATERS, is set in Israel. Fortunately—in spite of a myriad of people telling me to beware of the changing face of the Israel-Palestine conflict— the status quo held. It wasn't until I was nearing the end of my second book in the series that things went awry. RED SKY was destined to open in Ukraine. Trust me, if you've read the first book you understand why. But just as DARK WATERS hit the stands, Russia invaded Crimea. My book was no longer set in an Eastern European nation with economic woes, but in a country at war. Needless to say, some things had to change.

Long story short.

It’s the nature of writing thrillers to have to work with changing realities. RED SKY takes place in European, Eastern European and Asian countries, each one effected by the geopolitics of the world. Fortunately, it's rare that the shifting sands change the whole topography of the land. The basic nature of the stories remains. As a writer, all I can do is trust my reader to understand that I’ve done my best to bring my FICTION to life. As a famous writer once told me: It doesn't have to be true. It just has to be believable.

Stay tuned.

Book #3 in the Raisa Jordan series seems destined to play out in Russia. So what happens? The chemical weapons attack in Syria that pits the U.S. and its allies against the Syrians and Russians. What can I say? It's just par for the course.


My questions for you are: How important is it for what you read to be accurate and reflect the current happenings? Are you willing to suspend your belief and go with a story, or do you draw non-negotiable lines in the sand?

Thursday, May 10, 2018

What if You Could Tweak History?


A day late and a dollar short…

This Rookie Rogue blew her first solo outing. My post was supposed to be up yesterday. Hoping for a bit of leeway here. Did I mention I was still a rookie?

But... if I could tweak history, the post would be on time, right? 

Speaking of tweaking history, the Rogue Women were discussing fact v. fiction and real history in our novels. (See Karna’s Rogue post on 4/29: Is it Fiction or Faction?)  A timely topic, since Clive Cussler and I have a new book coming out. Cussler, of course, is known for his real world historical connection tweaking (or as Karna puts it, "faction") as a plot component in all of his novels. 

I think that might be one of the reasons Cussler felt I’d make a good addition to his writing team. I've also taken real historical events and tweaked them for plot devices. 

In FACE OF A KILLER, the first book in the Sydney Fitzpatrick FBI forensic artist series, I tweaked the real-life world-wide scandal of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which was known in law enforcement circles as Banks of Crooks and Criminals, turning it into the central plot of the novel. (You can read the first chapter here.) I include a Fact or Fiction author’s note in the back of the book as well as other books in that series. It’s a good way of letting the reader know where the author has blurred the lines.

Cussler was a master of tweaking historical facts into fantastic fiction decades before I ever started writing thrillers. Every one of his novels has some connection to real history, often archeological, and often (especially in the Fargo series) with a treasure attached. In THE ROMANOV RANSOM (9/2017), we tackle the question of what happened to the missing Faberge eggs. There were 7 missing eggs, not seen since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. One, however, was recently found in America just a few years ago, and allegedly nearly sold for scrap gold. I say allegedly, because the egg is worth 33 million dollars, which makes me wonder how and where this scrap gold dealer "found" the thing.

 Sorry, flight of fancy on my part. It's the writer in me. 

The key to making a good thriller out of something like this is asking the question of how does it tie into present day? In THE ROMANOV RANSOM, Cussler and I added a sleeper cell of Nazis waiting to be called back to action should these eggs be found and sold for profit. It’s not hard to tweak history. You need only find a way to intertwine historical facts (Romanov royal family, Bolsheviks, Nazi history) with folklore (missing treasure and speculation as to what happened to it or where it might be found). 

Our third book, THE GRAY GHOST, comes out at the end of this month (5/29) and we’ve used this technique again. This time, however, Cussler wanted to try something different. Instead of the Fargos hunting for missing treasure, they’re chasing down a historical car. Cussler, an avid car collector, was intrigued by the first-ever Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost which made its public debut in 1907. The car, worth some 50 million dollars today, is still displayed at various car shows. Cussler wanted to explore what might happen if the car was stolen. And what if that theft occurred right beneath the noses of, well, everyone? Personally, I wasn’t sure how we’d come up with a plot to steal the actual Silver Ghost. But Cussler is the boss, so after hashing out our plot at his home in Arizona, I returned to California and started researching the real-life Silver Ghost. Then I started reading up on Charles Rolls and Henry Royce and how they started their company in Manchester, England. During my research of the Silver Ghost, which boasted the first-ever 40/50 six-cylinder engine, I made an interesting discovery: there was a single 40/50 chassis unaccounted for in their lineup of RR 40/50 chasses (one of which was used for the Silver Ghost). Each chassis had a serial number, and one was actually missing

Sometimes you have the greatest success in the smallest details. 

It occurred to me that before the Silver Ghost would have debuted in 1907, they’d surely have to have made a prototype of the newest, greatest driving machine to be found anywhere. After pointing this out to Cussler, we decided that the mystery wasn’t about the Silver Ghost at all. Instead, it was about this missing chassis (and the car attached to it). That’s how we came up with the Gray Ghost, the namesake for our book, along with the idea that the Gray Ghost (atop the missing chassis) was the prototype of the Silver Ghost. (Imagine if you’d found that in some old barn!) Essentially, the history tweaking had to do with the real Rolls-Royce company substituting the Silver Ghost as the debut car after the Gray Ghost was stolen. Of course, any Cussler thriller contains plenty of bad guys chasing after the good guys, all interested in the same treasure, so there’s plenty of action. 

An early review from The Real Book Spy declares: “Think National Treasure on steroids... The Gray Ghost is everything you want in an adventure novel and then some.”  

Granted, Cussler and I didn’t have to do a lot of history tweaking to make this plot work. We merely created a fictional car after learning about that non-fictional missing chassis. But sometimes all it takes is one little known fact to really open your eyes to the greatest fiction writer’s question of them all: What if?

(See how I’ve distracted you from the fact I’m a day late?)

So, Rogue Readers, what books have you read where history has been tweaked and intertwined into the plot? And did it work? Were you entertained because you were familiar with that period in history? 

Sunday, May 6, 2018


WRITING FOR TELEVISION

            For over a year now, in between writing books, I’ve been working on a pilot for a new TV show. Yes, I’m aware that I stand a better chance of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning than getting anything I write on film, but my labor is free and the time would otherwise be spent on the couch watching reruns of Law & Order—so, what the heck. Somebody’s gotta win, right? 


            Turns out, what you need to pitch a TV series is not that overwhelming—nothing like a 100,000 word manuscript, right?

            First, you need a script of the pilot episode. It only needs to be about 40-45 pages, the length of an hour television show minus those pervasive commercials, and if you’ve ever seen a script you know that those pages are mostly white space. Easy, right? That’s what I thought when my first book was optioned and I had to convert the full-length novel into a 90 minute script. Nothing but dialogue, none of that beautiful prose or scene-setting descriptions or getting characters logically from point A to point B. But as short story writers know, when your words are limited, every single one has to be vital. And that’s not easy at all.

            Along with this script you need to send a packet of other information. One item will be the character sketches of all the main characters and brief descriptions of minor ones. Who are they, where do they come from, what makes them tick, and most of all what do they want? All the rules that apply to writing books, of course, also apply to writing for film: 1) They have to want something in every scene. 2) We have to care about them in order to care what happens to them. 3) State their problem on the first page and don’t resolve it until after the last commercial break.

            You may need a page on setting/location. If you’re writing a sci-fi series that’s set on another planet, you will have to spell out what this place looks like, how it functions, how humans came to be there and how they’re doing in this alien landscape. If your story is set in current day suburbia, much less explanation is needed and might be incorporated on the pitch page.

            The pitch page is, in a way, the summary for all the other pages. It describes the show, the intended audience, the intended channel and time slot, other comparable shows, and the feel for what your show is: Light? Dark? A vehicle for social issues? A comedy of human errors? It will include your tagline(s)—you know, like an elevator speech on steroids. “It’s a cross between Dragnet and Gunsmoke!” “In space no one can hear you scream—unless it’s with laughter!”

            Then, the bible. This is the plan for the first season of future episodes, one by one, plus at least a summary of seasons two through five. You need to illustrate your plan for where the show is going, where the characters are going, and that your original concept can carry a series for as long as necessary without running out of plots. This is not so easy. Maybe in something like Battlestar: Galactica where the long-term plan was to escape the Cylons and find Earth, but characters in more everyday lives don’t really go anywhere…we just tend to lope along from day to day doing what we must. Fortunately, the rule here is: shorter is better. One advice guru I found said all episode summaries should be two sentences only: one for the ‘story of the week’ and one sentence charting the progress of the characters’ arcs.

            And that’s it. Stuff it all in an envelope or email, ship it off to Hollywood, and wait for the checks to roll in.

            Except I forgot to mention the hardest part of all. All these pages have to be fun to read. They have to be more than creative, they have to be can’t-put-down incredibly entertaining. Because, as we all know, the average human being’s attention span has dwindled to that of a gnat, and if you’ve ever seen The Player you know that it’s less than that in Hollywood. Griffin Mill explains that he hears about fifty pitches a day, and the studio gets 50,000 submissions per year. But they can only afford to make perhaps 12 motion pictures per year. I can’t find the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of “this means I have to say 'No' 18,249 times a year.” 


            So good luck.

            Now, a challenge to the reader: Give me the tagline for the series you’d like to see on TV!
           

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Picking Character Names

Hercule Poirot

Elizabeth Bennet

Percy Blakeney


I'm in the midst of a rewrite on a first draft of  new manuscript and decided that the protagonist's name isn't fitting the character that I ended up writing. Because I don't use outlines, but just sit down and write, a character arc will sometimes head in a direction that I didn't expect when I started the novel. For this latest manuscript I began with a contemporary name, because the protagonist is a contemporary musician and it fit. But as the story continued, it  became clear that my musician was steeped in classical music and the contemporary name felt out of place. I spent quite a bit of time trying names before I found a substitute that I believe might work. 

A little bit about the process of picking a name; for me the last name is far more important than the first, because my convention is to refer to characters by their last names throughout the book. Only when they have internal dialogue do I sometimes default back to the first name. This doesn't always follow for my lead protagonist, but it will for others. For example, for the first time I introduce my protagonist I'll write:

Emma Caldridge gazed out the open SUV window at the beauty of the savannah, unaware that in the tall grasses a man lurked. 
But once I've introduced those around Emma, I'll use their last names and they refer to her as "Caldridge." So for the bulk of the book everyone is called by their last names. Only Emma remains and in my next book in that series I'm using Caldridge as well. It's tough, because this particular character feels like an old friend, but I'll finish the draft and see how it works.

Another thing I'm switching up is my use of traditional "male" or "female" names. It probably surprises no one that as a woman with a gender neutral name, I lean toward those for my female characters as well. Well, with one exception. My all time favorite name is Elizabeth, after my Great, Grand Aunt Elizabeth who was the original feminist in our long line of strong women. Each time I write a new female character I find myself defaulting to Elizabeth.

So, if you're writing a character, think long and hard about the last name and the impression that you want to convey with that name. A Taylor or Brittany will often have a different, more modern connotation than Ruth or Adele or Claudia, but if you're using last names throughout the book it's the last name that you'll be living with for the next year or so.

And the last name that I picked for my musician? It's Marcus. We'll see how that works for the revision.

And I'd love to hear your thoughts on names. Any that fit perfectly? Any fails? Let me know in the comments below.

Best, Jamie