Sunday, July 30, 2017


By Francine Mathews

So it's August in Colorado, which means it's monsoon season--the time of year when the arid heat of summer gives way to daily waves of cumulus rising over the Front Range and bearing down in thunderheads above the plains. The temperature falls and the humidity goes up. The plants in my small garden sigh in relief and drop leaves that are crackling and scorched for a second round of hopeful green growth. And I start working again.

I find it hard to write when the sun is shining. My best possible work days are when there's a blizzard raging and a good fire in the hearth. Second best is rain and fog. At the tail end of summer, thunderstorms will have to do. I'm not actually writing at the moment in any case--I'm about to embark on a revision of my latest novel, and the research for my next. Which brings me to an issue that plagues writers as well as readers: How do I absorb information best? And what's the most effective way to revise?

I'm talking here about digital vs. print, of course.

One of the major revolutions in publishing I've witnessed in the past twenty-five years is the transition to digital manuscripts. When once my editors and I traded a ream of paper, a manuscript that grew shabbier and more precious with each mailing--redlined, corrected, crossed-out and stapled with sudden inspired insertions--we now trade digital files, from beginning to end of the editing process. I submit my manuscript electronically; it is edited that way; returned to me via email; and sent to the printers in digital format. There is no longer foul matter--which, in addition to being a humorous crime novel by Martha Grimes, is also a beloved publishing term for that shabby manuscript, once the actual book appears on a store shelf. 

Digital editing means there's nothing for archives to inherit.

And nothing, in hard copy, for me to revise this August.

Which brings me to the point of this post: I am about to descend to the bowels of my house and the printer I keep in my basement office--nearly as obsolete, absent its scanning function, as the fax service it also provides--to print out my manuscript in draft. Because to truly retain a sense of my story arc, I need to read it on paper. A digital pass--something that might take me only a few hours this Sunday--won't embed the story in my brain the way turning actual pages does. And that's true for me with research, as well. When I'm learning about a subject in order to write about it, I have to read actual books, not digital ones. Otherwise, the information slips away like water draining through sand.

I do not retain what I read electronically.

My friend and fellow blogger Jamie Freveletti would figure out exactly why this seems true, find studies that prove it, and offer up statistics that verify my hunch. I love this about Jamie. But today (because I have to get to printing out that manuscript), I'm throwing down this assertion on gut feeling alone. And a bit of chastening experience as a reader-for-entertainment. I download a LOT of books for pleasure on my iPad, my preferred travel companion. In the aftermath of the last presidential election, I sought solace amid chaos by devouring the entire oeuvre of Patricia Wentworth, a Golden Age mystery writer whose works are comfortingly predictable. I probably downloaded over thirty of her books. I scan the titles in my eLibrary now, a few months later, and have no idea what any of those stories were about. 

Gone from my head, like a sandcastle at high tide.

So tell me, folks--am I alone in this? Or does your brain need paper, too?



Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Book Covers: How Much Do They Influence You As A Reader?

One of the books offered by
Our last blog post asked whether it mattered to you if the author was a man or a women and many, many of you read it and some commented. One bookseller stated that while selling books they noticed women buy books written by men but that few men bought books written by women. This bookseller noted that covers should be neutral to avoid this issue. This comment got me thinking, how much are we driven to read a book by the messages we receive from the cover?

I started researching, my favorite thing to do, and found this site above, which offers books wrapped in brown paper and with only a quick synopsis on the cover. This image caught me. Those five lines are some of my favorite elements in a thriller and I wouldn't need more to buy it. And if it introduced me to a new author or to one I hadn't yet read, all the better! So what would happen if I unwrapped this book and the cover wasn't to my liking? Based on that first impression I'd still read it. How lucky would it have been that the author would have reached me despite a less than desirable cover?

Before I go any further, I should mention that as authors we often have little control over the covers we receive. We get to view them in advance and weigh in and sometimes our suggestions are adopted, but we rarely have the final say. In my case I've been more than willing to let the cover designer have at it--I'm an author not a graphic designer and more often than not the cover has been well done.

And this intriguing idea led me to think about all of the misleading covers on books that I've seen over the years. Most of these covers must have been driven by a marketing decision made somewhere by someone who didn't really understand the book or who picked up on one aspect of it but not the rest. For example, check out the cover to the right. If you saw this, what would you assume? Romance, right?

But you'd only be half right. This book is a sweeping story of India and two English citizens caught in the brutal Siege of Lucknow in 1857. At almost 800 pages and based on an actual wartime event, it's more aligned with Gone With The Wind, and the battle scenes are brutal depictions of historical fact. The incongruous cover must have been the subject of discussion, because I also found the alternative cover below, which plays up the exotic locale more than the romance.

All of this is not to say that covers that point us in a certain direction are bad, they're not. It would be strange to have a romance novel set in Regency England with a picture of a woman in modern dress, but I think that the idea of neutral covers and perhaps gender neutral names has some merit. I haven't yet gone that route, but I'm currently working on a historical thriller and it's not inconceivable that I use a pseudonym in order to clearly delineate that historical from my present day thrillers. I haven't yet made up my mind, but Karna's last post and the recent Wall Street Journal article discussing such names have me thinking.

Whatever I decide, I'll try to keep my covers true to the full expanse of the story and still give the reader an idea of what's within. In the meantime, I've written five short lines about my upcoming Emma Caldridge novel:

Dark Secrets
Conspiracy Thriller
Ruthless government
Tracking Assassin
On the Run

How do covers affect your choice of what to read? Do you recall any covers that surprised you once you've read the book? Would love to hear about it! 

Best, Jamie Freveletti

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Is the author a man or a woman? Does it matter to you? Karna Small Bodman

When you are buying a book, do you care of it's written by a man or a woman? If you're a woman do you instinctively pick up a novel with a woman's name on the front cover or vice versa if you're a man? And what about author's names that don't give you a clue to whether a woman wrote it or a man did  such as J. P. Delaney, A. J. Finn, or J. K Rowling (okay, so we know that's a woman, but she later used the pen name Robert Galbraith), or "gender neutral" names like Riley Sager, Dima Zales or (here's a clever pen name I found on Amazon) A. American.

J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith
It turns out that some of these authors go to great lengths to "disguise" who they really are. And their publishers cooperate by eliminating the usual book jacket photo, avoiding male or female pronouns in an author's bio, even keeping the author from appearing on book tours.  As one male author writing female narratives put it, "I didn't want to have people think I'm trying to deceive them, but at the same time I think it's cool to have a little mystery." 

The world has certainly changed since Mary Ann Evans decided she had to write under the name George Eliot to be taken seriously back in Victorian times.
Mary Ann Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot
  In fact, according to an interesting front page article in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal several male authors are trying to give the impression that they are female since their novels are written in a woman's voice, and they're afraid their stories won't be seen as "authentic" by women book buyers. Adding to the incentive, they have learned that 59% of all fiction (according to NPD Books) are purchased by women.

In addition to "name confusion" there is the question of whether a male author really can adopt a female persona when writing his story. I remember hearing New York Times bestselling author Andrew Gross explain how he got his start.  He said that of several writers  James Patterson was considering as a co-author, he chose Andrew because he felt that Andrew could really write from a feminine point of view. When asked how he did it, he explained that for some 20 years he had worked for a company selling women's lingerie.
Andrew Gross
The same question can be asked of a female author, of course.  How do we construct a scene where a villain is talking to his partner in crime if we've never been a villain or had an illegal thought in our heads? All of us authors, particularly my Rogue colleagues who write thrillers, suspense, and international intrigue, have to figure out the "GMC" of each of our characters...that's a term we learn in our Thrillerfest conference workshops -- it stands for Goal, Motivation and Conflict - which each character needs to have in order to construct a great story.

How do we - how does any author - identify with a goal of world dominance or a motivation of extreme revenge? Ah - now you have the challenge we all face: to dream up scenarios, interview interesting characters from all walks of live and do extensive research for each of our novels.  As for me, when I was a TV reporter and anchor in San Francisco, I remember gaining access to a prison where I interviewed a member of the Charles Manson gang.  I subsequently learned that Manson's mother once sold him to a waitress for a pitcher of beer.  That mother along with his uncle ended up in jail for committing several robberies. Bad seed? Bad childhood? Bad experiences? None of that could in any way excuse his later involvement in seven murders - and yet authors (and screen writers) have figured out just how to portray these monsters in believable novels and films.
Patty Hearst

Another of my own experiences "learning" about goals and motivations was when I had to write news stories and go on the air to describe the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the "Symbionese Liberation Army" and her eventual acceptance of their goals by joining the group.  (What a wild story that turned out to be!).

So yes, authors do have to "identify" with each of their characters, figure out how they would act, what they would say, and make it all believable to the reader.  And yes, it is quite a challenge but one that my fellow Rogue authors have done with great success.

You have writers like our own Francine Mathews who figured out how to write great dialogue attributed to the young Jack Kennedy in her novel, Jack 1939. She writes under her own name and uses her photo on her website and book jackets. No question about her identity.

Then you have other Rogue authors, Jamie Freveletti and Gayle Lynds writing Jason Bourne thrillers, K. J. Howe creating a new novel about kidnappers,  S. Lee Manning conjuring up a male Russian protagonist in her upcoming thriller. Chris Goff has a story, Red Sky, about Chinese prisoners and international intrigue, and Sonja Stone writes about a 16-year-old who is in training to be a spy (Okay, so she's raising teenagers, which helps when you're handling realistic dialogue, just as I have four sons and listening to their banter gives me all sorts of ideas.) All of my Rogue friends here have worked hard to "climb into the heads" of their heroes, heroines, villains and secondary characters -- not an easy task, but one with great rewards once an author can see she has a book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.

So the question is: what books have you read where a female author portrays a male character in a very realistic way or where a male author can truly write from a woman's perspective? And when YOU select a book to read, does it matter to you whether it was written by a woman, a man, or an author with a "mystery" name? Please leave a comment and give us your thoughts -- we'd love to know.

...Karna Small Bodman

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

ThrillerFest Recap 2017

by K.J. Howe

ThrillerFest is the annual conference of the International Thriller Writers, and I'm honored to be the executive director of the event.  We just had a whirlwind week in NYC as we celebrated the 12th annual conference, and it was memorable to say the least.  For those of you who couldn't come, we missed you.  If you'd like to listen to any of the fabulous CraftFest or ThrillerFest sessions, please feel free to visit and order up a set.  I promise you won't be disappointed.

2017 ThrillerMaster Lee Child
Some of the highlights included:

*The FBI hosted a special event focusing on forensics, talking about the cutting edge technology.

*Steve Berry interviewed Peter Cannon, Senior Editor from Publishers Weekly, and they dispelled the mystique of how books are considered and reviewed.

*The ATF and a US Marshall joined us to share some of the insights into their jobs.  Hoping they will come back next year.

*PitchFest was a resounding success with over 60 agents and producers.

*ThrillerMaster Lee Child shared his writing secrets in a jam-packed CraftFest session.  And New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin also interviewed Lee for his spotlight.

*Silver Bullet Award recipient Lisa Gardner was interviewed by Karin Slaughter for a very entertaining hour.

*MATCHUP authors at the Friday night cocktail party.  Karin Slaughter did a Facebook Live event if you'd like to see up close who attended and what happened.  Brilliant party with some of the most talented authors in the genre.

*David Morrell, Rambo's Daddy, moderated the Rogue Women Writers panel, and it was a riot.  We talked about international geopolitics, publishing, and the discussion was rogue hot!

*The debut author breakfast hit a milestone of 500 debuts, so this year was the Debutona 500.  We keep supporting our authors of the future, and I was honored to be on stage this year.

*The banquet is always a special evening.  I love seeing who wins all the coveted thriller awards.  We honored our first Thriller Legend Award recipient, Tom Doherty from TOR/Forge.  He's a true gentleman and a hero in our genre.

Then Lisa Gardner touched all of our hearts with her emotional acceptance speech for the Silver Bullet Award.  The talented Heather Graham sang a song to honor Lee.  The finale was brilliant with Daniel Palmer and Brad Parks singing a Beatles Medley to bring Lee Child, our 2017 ThrillerMaster, to the stage to honor his amazing career thus far.  What a week.  Please come join us next year where we will be honoring George RR Martin as our 2018 ThrillerMaster!  Yes, that's right.  The Game of Thrones creator will be coming to join us next year.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Climbing Walls

S. Lee Manning: Universal advice to writers has always been to write what you know. What that meant was to write from personal experience – which for me pretty much would have meant writing novels about middle class Jewish women from Cincinnati, Ohio – who wanted to be writers but wound up as attorneys and then worked part time so they could raise their families.

No offense to anyone. I know this life. I’ve lived it. I didn’t want to write just my life.

I tend to be careful and risk adverse. Yet I like writing about people who climb walls three stories high to break into a building. Or who have sit downs with gangsters who might kill them. I like writing about people different from me. For me, most of the fun of writing is in imagining situations and people that differ from me and my life.

So writing spy thrillers works as long as I do my homework and my research – although I did have one agent tell me that she would only consider spy novels written by CIA agents. (Sigh.)

But what about writing characters whose identities differ from our own? Is it kosher to write from a male perspective if you’re female? Or the reverse?

A lot of people, myself included, like to write characters from a different gender because it helps them get out of their own heads – and into the head of a character. I find it interesting to try to imagine how a man would think – how a man would act. I also write from women’s perspectives, and I’m contemplating a new series with a strong woman protagonist. Still I do like writing from the perspective of someone different – which Kolya, my current protagonist, certainly is.

What about writing a character from a different ethnic background? Is that kosher? There is a debate about that going on right now, and I’m sticking my foot in it, probably, to even ask the question.

I understand the perspective of underrepresented peoples who feel that their experience needs to be authentic. But does that preclude writing outside one’s own box?

A personal story.

When I was a kid, the Holocaust was not that long ago. We Jews felt it so strongly – we knew survivors – and we knew that but for existing in a different time and space, we would have been victims. But among all the stories of death and terror, there was a true story of Jewish heroism and courage. I was obsessed with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. I read every novel on the uprising, and the best, the most moving, novel I read on the uprising was The Wall, written by John Hersey.

The title, the Wall, referred to the wall around the Warsaw ghetto, meant to keep Jews in and non-Jews out. Trying to escape over the wall was punishable by death.  Smuggling food into the ghetto was punishable by death. Jews were crowded into the space, and the population of the ghetto was thinned out by starvation and disease. But the Jews didn’t die fast enough, so the German came up with another plan, deporting the residents of the ghetto for “resettlement” in the East – which was a euphemism for deporting them to be systematically murdered. As the ghetto was emptied out, and the Jewish residents sent to Treblinka to be gassed to death, those who remained obtained guns and made Molotov cocktails. On April 19, 1943, when the Germans entered the ghetto to gather the surviving Jews to be murdered, the Jews fought back. They fought against tanks and flame throwers with handguns and home made bombs.  The Germans didn’t crush the revolt until May 16, at which point any captured survivors were either sent to the gas chambers or killed on the spot. A handful of Jewish fighters escaped through the sewers to the forests of Poland.

The Wall is a superb novel - capturing the Jewish experience as people moved into the ghetto, as they were systematically dehumanized, as they realized the ultimate planned fate, and as they plotted to fight back.

Hersey was not a Jew.

The fact that he was not a Jew did not in any way diminish the power or the beauty of that novel. It remains to this day one of the best novels I have ever read about that particular moment in time.

But he wrote with such sensitivity, such care. Clearly, he deeply researched Jewish culture and the Jewish religion, as well as the historical event of the uprising. And that is so important for anyone writing a character different from one’s own ethnicity – to do so with sensitivity, to avoid stereotypes, and to research.

So while the question of writing outside one’s own ethnic box is one that every writer has to answer for himself or herself, I will say this. I am glad that John Hersey decided to climb that wall from the non-Jewish side into the Warsaw ghetto. I am the richer for it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

KYLE MILLS GOES ROGUE - Recreating Another Author's Characters - Could You Do It?

....posted by Karna Small Bodman

How does a New York Times Bestselling Author in his own right respond when invited to recreate another well known author's characters? I am delighted to welcome Rogue's guest blogger, Kyle Mills, who will tell us all about it....and there are more details on:  Now, let me tell you a bit about Kyle. 

Author Kyle Mills
Growing up, he heard many "stories" about spies, plots, national security and intrigue. But these stories were true -- his father was an FBI agent.  Years later, he gave up a business career and combined those early fascinations with his love of the outdoors." about spies, plots, national security and intrigue -- but those stories were true....related to him by his father, an FBI agent.  Later he combed his fascination with

He married a lovely woman who shared his passions, they moved to Jackson, Wyoming where Kyle began writing terrific thrillers, and also spent his off hours rock climbing, skiing and mountain bike racing. After hitting several national bestselling lists, he started to get the calls.  I'll let Kyle take it from here:

I never set out to become a book forger. Like my writing career in general, it just happened.

Years ago, I got a call from the estate of Robert Ludlum asking me if I’d like to resurrect a series called Covert One (later deftly handled by rogue Jamie Freveletti ).

I initially said no, but I couldn’t fully shake the idea. After ten books of my own, writing in someone else’s voice might be interesting.

And it was. In truth, though, the Ludlum project turned out to be pretty open ended—more my style than his, built around plots that had been banging around in the back of my mind for years.

When I was asked to take over the Mitch Rapp series for Vince Flynn, the challenge was very different. Vince passed away at the height of his popularity and had millions of rabid fans looking for the slightest misstep. Even more terrifying, our writing styles were different in almost every way.

Vince Flynn
That’s when I decided I needed to take on the attitude of a forger. I spent months studying every one of the 6,512 pages he’d written, taking almost a hundred and fifty pages of notes on everything from the location of the characters’ scars to how Vince laid out action sequences. I scoured the Internet for videos of Vince discussing his books and dove deep into minutiae, spending endless hours ferreting out details like the ages of secondary characters.

At the end of that process, I felt like I had a solid handle on where Vince would have wanted the series to go. He’d completed the first two and a half pages of The Survivor, so I started with those, crafting a prologue
and moving his contribution to chapter one. The goal was to make it impossible for fans to differentiate between what was his and what was mine. It was a strange headspace to spend a year in. Normally, I plot out a book and just let the characters do what they want. My style can vary depending on the story line and I rarely write series characters so I don’t have baggage from prior novels.

With the Mitch Rapp series, there were endless things to worry about. Was I capturing the soul of the character that fans know so well? Would Mitch really say that? Do that? The longest action scene I’d ever written was probably four pages. Vince’s could go on for forty. Was I sustaining their momentum as well as he had? My characters tend to be a bit ambiguous, neither entirely good nor entirely bad. Vince saw the world in starker terms. Was I capturing that moral clarity? And if all that wasn’t enough, did I get the color of Mitch’s boxer shorts right?

Heck, was it even a good idea to approach the project this way? Was I setting myself up for inevitable failure by trying to squelch my own voice and channel Vince’s?

The suspense was unbearable in the lead up to the release of the book. When it finally came out, I was uncharacteristically glued to Amazon and my email account, compulsively analyzing fan reactions. Because while I get to be the arbiter of what constitutes a good Kyle Mills novel, they’re the experts on Mitch Rapp.

To my great relief, The Survivor was accepted with a level of enthusiasm that was beyond my wildest dreams. Most people thought I’d captured the character they loved just as Vince had and no one ever correctly guessed which pages he wrote.

That’s not to say I was perfect. George Guidall, the inestimable audiobook reader, pointed out that I’d included humor that hadn’t existed in the series previously. Some fans thought that I’d made Mitch too harsh but later agreed that his rage continued a trend started by Vince. I even got needled for changing the maiden name of Mitch’s late wife from Rielly to Reilly. That non-standard spelling drove me nuts as a fan and I’d always attributed it to Vince’s dyslexia.

In the end, abandoning my own shoes and stepping into Vince’s was a fun and challenging project. But is it sustainable? Probably not. The world changes and thrillers have to keep up. Mitch needs to face new professional and personal challenges, his universe has to generate new threats, and he has to thrill a new generation of young readers picking up the series for the first time.

Finally, there’s me. Wrapping myself in Vince’s identity isn’t something I can do forever. The books have slowly shifted to being a mix of our styles. With the upcoming release, Enemy of the State, that transition is complete. Mitch is still the honorable, hard-charging CIA man we all love, action sequences are still edge-of-your-seat, and antagonists are still terrifyingly ruthless. But plots reflect an increasingly complex world, Mitch is working on his personal life, and secondary characters are becoming a bit grayer. Hopefully, it’s an evolution that will combine the best of me and Vince between the same Kyle Mills.

This great new thriller, Enemy of the State will be out September 5, but if you're like me and tend to pre-order a book when you first hear about it, you might keep this one in mind! Thanks, Kyle, for sharing your experiences as a "book forger" with us.  I know that besides Jamie Freveletti, another one of my Rogue colleagues, Gayle Lynds, has also accepted the challenge of writing in another author's voice - and did a brilliant job.  What about you? Could you do it if asked? Leave a comment and let us know.  Now thanks for visiting us here on Rogue Women Writers.

....Karna Small Bodman

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Rogues left to right: Chris, Gayle, KJ, Jamie, S Lee, Sonja, & Francine. For some reason Karna was AWOL.
by Gayle Lynds

Have you considered writing a suspense novel? Since five of us Rogue Women are attending ThrillerFest this week in New York City (more about that later), here’s a taste of one of the most popular programs — CraftFest, where a Who’s Who of authors gathers once a year to teach writing. We love it, and are gratified to see many of our students go on to publish fine books.

With that in mind, here are a few pointers from one of my favorite workshops that I teach: All About Suspense....

What is suspense?
One way I like to think of suspense is that it’s a hunger to find out what’s going to happen next.  In a good suspense novel, you’re so entertained that even though the suspense is keeping you up at night, you want to read on and on.

You’ve heard the phrase, “I was dying of suspense.”  We want our readers to pant, to salivate, to hunger, to hardly be able to stand it.  They must find out what happens right up to the very last page, the last paragraph, the last sentence, the last ... (are you waiting to find out whether I’m going to say “the last word” or surprise you with something else?  That waiting and wanting to know is called, well, suspense — right up to the very last period).

The need for suspense is embedded in all fiction, everything from mainstream novels to Westerns, from romances to thrillers.  It’s a classic tool.  Think of Beowulf, King Lear, or one of Dickens’s great novels. All through the ages, readers have wanted stories in which they feel compelled to keep reading. 

So how do we infuse our books with suspense?

Story and plot
Briefly, “story” refers to the idea of the book. For instance, two scientists are kidnapped and held for ransom in exchange for a secret bioformula they’ve created.  Here’s another idea: private jets are exploded in major airports around the world within seconds of each other to protest carbon-based fuels.

As for “plot,” it refers to the scenes necessary to dramatize the story.  (See previous paragraph about “story.”)

Would you get really excited if a beat-up paperback of a poor-quality novel were stolen from a used-book store?  Probably not.  But if that book were an illuminated manuscript missing for centuries, and if it were covered in hammered gold and sparkling gems, and if it were worth a half million dollars ... then you’d likely want to know about the people who'd had it all those years and the places it’d been hidden, and then you’d probably want the heroes of the story to find it so you could know where and in whose hands it ended up.  Again, that desire on the part of the reader is called suspense. 

By the way, I wrote that story in The Book of Spies.

To create great suspense, the stakes in any story have to be worth fighting great odds to achieve.  Here’s an example:  Uncovering terrorist financing is always interesting, but it becomes even more interesting if the financing is to fund destroying the House of Parliament in London.  Now you’ve just ratcheted up the suspense.  Can the heroes stop the villains from getting the money to blow up Whitehall?

Your hero and your villain

Your characters must have something about them with which the reader can identify, and that applies to both heroes and villains.  Why?  When we identify with a character, we more strongly want them to succeed — or fail.  In other words, we become more invested not only in the characters but in the story and plot.

As the author, how do you find those depths?  You can begin by asking yourself what each character fears most, what the greatest strength of each is, what each wants to achieve in the story, and, finally, what each is willing to risk to get it.

Beginning writers often overlook the importance of their villains.  Villains are critical because they drive the plot.  Without a great villain, you can’t have great conflict.  Without a great villain, you can’t have a great hero.  But with a great protagonist facing off against a great antagonist, your suspense will soar.

Write your own books, write your own life

If you’ve been thinking about writing, wanting to learn, but unsure how to begin, I always suggest what many of us did — we took writing classes, often from adult education.  We read books about writing.  We met people who shared our dreams of writing and publishing, and we talked with them, brainstormed, and often read their work while they read ours. 

The years are going to pass anyway, how much more rewarding it is to spend some of that time pursuing your dreams.  If you’re in suspense about whether you’re going to do it, take classes, then come to CraftFest at ThrillerFest.  We'd enjoy meeting you! Check it out here.

Sunday, July 9, 2017



by Chris Goff

I love this blog topic—discussing our personal relationships with the characters we create. It reminds me of a time when I was on the phone with a good writer friend, and we were talking about the protagonist in my thrillers—Diplomatic Security Service Agent Raisa Jordan.

In my first novel, DARK WATERS, Raisa (Rae) starts out as this "by the book"-type of agent. She works in Tel Aviv, and ends up assigned to the protection detail of a federal judge and his daughter believed to be targeted by an assassin. (Instead of issuing a spoiler alert) Suffice it to say, I had Raisa doing something that my friend insisted she would never do. (Such as riding a pig!)

The conversation went something like this:

Suz (my friend): That scene will never work. Rae would never do that.
Me: But she has to. It's the only way she can get the information.
Suz: That may be, but you're going to have to figure out a different way for her to discover that they've got it all wrong.
Me: Well, what if she kills so-and-so?
Suz: No. There's no way that Rae would ever do that.
Me: Well, what if she.....

Later, after Suz left,  my then seven-year-old came into the kitchen.
"Mommy, can I talk to you?" she asked.
"Sure, honey, what do you need?"
"Mommy, who is Raisa Jordan, and why did she have to kill somebody?"

It was that moment when I realized just how real to me the characters in my book had become, and just how real they'd become to those I'd introduced them to. We had been speaking about them as though they were flesh-and-blood human beings.

Soon I started noticing something

I wasn't the only one. ALL of my writer friends talked about their characters that way, too. I've heard Lee Child refer to his character, Reacher, as if he might be waiting in the bar. I've heard David Morrell call himself "Rambo's daddy."

It's like my Rogue Sister, Sonja Stone, said: "You must know your characters, so that when they talk to you, you'll recognize their voices."

It's also important to make sure that what your characters are doing is plausible—a tall order when you consider the things thriller protagonists do. Consequently, nearly every writer I know has spent some time reenacting a fight scene. Either alone in the office, or with a partner or friend, we've all spent some time in our character's shoes. How can we understand them if we don't walk a mile in their shoes?

Sometimes it's fun. Sometimes it's scary. Sometimes it's sad. 

A year ago last May, my youngest daughter and I traveled to Ukraine on a research trip for my latest thriller, RED SKY. The experience left an impression. For example, in Kyiv, many of the people were torn in regards to the war with Russia. While they all seemed nationalistic and loved the sovereignty of their country, many of them had grown up under communist rule and had ties to Russia through family and friends. Most had spent time in Moscow or St. Petersburg visiting or going to school.

As my daughter and I walked the streets, dined in the restaurants and watched the people of Kyiv, I tried to imagine how Rae would have seen it. For instance, would Rae have noticed that the men and women all dressed up, and went out each morning as if they were going to work, even though most of them didn't have jobs?

Or, like my daughter, would Rae have noticed that all of the women and young girls wore spiked high heels? We're talking 3" heels and stockings, regardless of whether they were twelve or eighty.

And how could she not have been struck by the difference between Kyiv and L'viv? In L'viv, the people were joyful. They dressed more casually, and had more money to spend. There was laughter, and dancing in the streets. And there's no way Rae could have missed the fact that with each course of the five course meal in L'viv came a shot of Vodka—all different flavors—and the waiters would gladly pour you a double. But would she have bought one of the rolls of toilet paper printed with Putin's face being sold in the outdoor market?

Just as it's impossible to know exactly what anyone else thinks, it's impossible to know how a character feels about any given situation. But, you can imagine. For instance, I don't know how Rae felt losing her father as a young child, but I do know how it feels to lose a parent, and I've seen its effect on others firsthand. My mother's father died when she was nine years-old. Twenty-three years later, when I was around seven, I vividly remember finding her sobbing her heart out in the bathroom. When I asked her what was wrong, she fought for a smile to reassure me, and said, "It's okay, honey. I just miss my daddy today."

By the time I've finished a book, my characters feel like old friends. And just like old friends, I am forever learning new things about them. But then, circling back, once they become real, there are some things that are set in stone. No matter how much I might want them to do something, if it's out of character, there's just no way!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


by Sonja Stone


My Rogue Sisters have been discussing our personal relationships with the characters we create. How do we find them/name them/know them? This article describes how I connect with my characters. Originally published by Writer’s Digest, it appeared last fall on Chuck Sambuchino’s GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS blog.

It’s been said that great authors act as stenographers, jotting down thoughts and actions as their characters dictate. Whether you’re focused on a single protagonist or penning a novel with multiple points-of-view, you must know your characters, so that when they talk to you, you’ll recognize their voices. But how do you develop this level of intimacy? Pretend you’re your character. Use all your senses to get into character.

1. Sight
What does your character notice? All the exits in a room? A great pair of shoes? Is he a coffee addict? Spend the afternoon at your local coffee house. Does the barista run out back for smoke breaks, spend his time hitting on customers, or cram for his economics exam between orders? Is your character a criminal? Go into stealth mode—take a stroll after dark, see if you can stay hidden in the shadows. Try to move through a department store without anyone noticing you. Where are the security cameras? Put on a baseball hat and keep your head down, out of the line-of-sight. How does it feel? Is your protagonist a foodie? Ask for a kitchen tour of your favorite restaurant. Notice the stainless steel work surfaces, the marble bench for rolling pastry, the heat lamps hovering over the plated entrees as they wait for food runners.

the Inn at Little Washington kitchen
My favorite place in the world: the kitchen at the Inn at Little Washington

2. Sound
You’ve already filled your scenes with visceral details—the popping of the olive oil as a thick piece of salmon slides into the pan; the hushed conversations and gentle clinking of glassware as your characters rendezvous in the smoky lounge. But don’t forget about sound as you’re getting into character. What piece of music does your protagonist love? I’ve created a playlist for each of my characters on Spotify. The same character probably doesn’t listen to Leonard Cohen and Panic! At the Disco, but if she does, that tells me something about her. Think about her age now, and play the songs that were popular when she was in high school. Music won’t necessarily work itself into your novel—this exercise is about eliciting the emotional response of your character. Does he cry while listening to Yo-Yo Ma? Put on your headphones, crank up the volume and feel it.

3. Smell
Scent triggers our deepest memories and emotions by engaging the limbic system, the most primitive part of our brain. Take the smell of vinegar—does it remind your character of dyeing Easter eggs? Or eating fries at the boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean twenty summers ago when he first fell in love? Or does she think of her mother, the hippie clean freak who couldn’t stand germs but never used bleach? Roses and gardenias conjure thoughts of hot, humid summer days, gardens humming with cicadas, lacy patterns playing across the lawn as the sun filters through the leaves of the oak trees. Which smells speak to your character, and what do they say?

Summer gardens, designed by Aardweg Landscaping

4. Taste
When she’s had a rough day, does your hero seek soul food or sushi? Is she vegan? Indulgent? A culinary snob? Go out for her favorite meal and think about how she might react—does it comfort her? Induce feelings of guilt? Love? Self-loathing? Does your star drink big red wines in Riedel stemware or draft beer out of red plastic Solo cups? Can he determine the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux? Does she prefer tequila shooters or icy martinis? Posh lounge or dive bar? Go there. See who shows up.

5. Touch
Hands-on research is my favorite part of the job. Does your character handle firearms? Take a class at your local gun range. Get the feel for different calibers, the weight of the weapon as you extend your arms. Is he a gardener? Put your hands in dirt, feel the warm heaviness of the soil—go deeper until your fingers reach the cool dampness underneath. Is she a carpenter? Whittle a small branch and sand it smooth, just for the feel of the wood, the powdery dryness of sawdust on your hands.

These were the first signs of spring in the Sonoran Desert.

6. When all else fails, listen to your gut (aka, the 6th sense).

Occasionally, I hit a wall.

The best way to get out of my head is to get into my body. Preferably with an activity I can’t perform on autopilot. Martial arts requires constant focus and attention. Yoga helps link my breath and my body. Zumba, Wii’s Just Dance game, dance-aerobics…anything with a fast-paced routine that I have to think about works for me. I love hiking through the desert, but I can think while I hike. Sometimes that’s great, and it often helps me get a feel for my characters (who also hike in the Sonoran Desert). But if I’m stuck in my writing, physical exercise that demands my full attention usually distracts me long enough to dislodge my writer’s block.

For those of you who write, do you have other tricks for getting in touch with your inner protagonist (or antagonist)?

photo credits: kitchen:
summer gardens:

Monday, July 3, 2017


By Francine Mathews

I rarely eat dessert. In fact, at this menopausal point in my life, I rarely eat at all, which is a tragedy for a woman who loves food and her kitchen as much as I do. I forego breakfast and lunch because I prefer dinner. I skip dessert because I'd rather take out the calories in wine. But there's an exception to this daily penance of denial: Summer holiday weekends. When there's so much fresh fruit in the market, who can resist pie?

One of my go-to recipes is so simple I have had it memorized for the past several decades. It's not my own--although I've tweaked it a bit--but the late author Laurie Colwin's. When she published it in one of her final (posthumous) columns for Gourmet magazine, she called it Nantucket Cranberry Pie, which was enough to endear the recipe to me. (I have a thing for that part of the world.) 

make this pie with cranberries during the winter, but in summer months I play havoc with Ms. Colwin's template. Instead of cranberries, I substitute nectarines and blueberries. Or apricots and Ranier cherries. Or black plums and tart cherries fresh from their leaky containers set out on the farm stand. The point is to balance sweet and tart in the fruit filling and make your effort as simple as biting into a ripe peach. Here's what you do:

1. Melt one and one-half sticks of unsalted butter (12 tablespoons) and cool.

2. Slice about 4 large nectarines or peaches, or 6 black plums, or 8 apricots, into a pie dish and toss about a cup of sliced cherries on top. If you're making this in the winter with cranberries, chop 2 cups in a food processor and throw them into the pie plate.

3. Add 1/2 cup sliced almonds and 2 tablespoons sugar to the fruit and combine gently. Laurie Colwin suggests walnuts, but I personally dislike them, and I've always found thinly sliced almonds (the kind with the skin still clinging to them, not blanched slivered almonds, which are icky and feel like plastic in the mouth) in this pie. If using cranberries, up the sugar to 1/4 cup.

4. In a bowl, stir together 1 cup flour, 1 cup sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add 2 slightly beaten eggs, 1/4 teaspoon almond extract, and the cooled butter. Stir vigorously until all lumps are gone.

5. The batter will be thick, sticky, and gorgeously shiny, like satin. Smooth it over the fruit in the pie plate.

6. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 minutes, depending on your altitude an oven, until the filling is bubbling and the top is golden and set.

You can gild the lily and dollop your piece of pie with whipped cream or even ice cream, which is divine when it's warm from the oven, but totally unnecessary. 

It's also excellent the next morning cold, for breakfast. 

But there won't be any left.