Wednesday, September 27, 2017



by Sonja Stone

Let me begin this post with a disclaimer: setting and description are the weak links in my writer's arsenal. Recently, my blog sisters have written about the importance of setting in thriller novels, and I wholeheartedly agree that setting enhances plot (like the Columbian jungle in Jamie Freveletti's Running From The Devil). HOWEVER, recognizing the importance of setting does not grant me the gift of descriptive writing.

My young adult series is set in the Sonoran Desert. The harshness of the climate lends itself to the rigorous survival courses embarked upon by the students of Desert Mountain Academy, a government-funded boarding school run by the CIA.

Sonja Stone, the Sonoran desert
the Sonoran Desert
Additionally, it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever lived. But how to translate the million shades of green, the ever-changing color of the rock, the smell of wet creosote leaves after a heavy rain? And once I've described the setting--a dorm room, the dining hall, the dojo, why must I ever mention it again? Isn't that redundant?

For those of you with adult attention spans, of course the answer is no, setting must be revisited (and mentioned more than once). When well written, setting adds to the mood of a story. So what's a writer to do?


The Successful Novelist, by David Morrell, addresses this very issue. Describing a scene visually leaves the reader with a feeling of dissatisfaction. When my setting feels flat or thin, Morrell suggests a "process of triangulation." He says, "I always make a point of crossing a detail of sight with not one but at least two other senses." Ideally, says Morrell, "I take the sight detail for granted and leave it out."

One of my favorite books, All The Light We Cannot See, does this brilliantly. The heroine of the story is a young French girl (who happens to be blind). In this passage, she's just been cornered by a man who believes she's hiding a precious gemstone. Anthony Doerr writes "...she can hear him reaching for her; she smells rot on his breath, hears oblivion in his voice, and something--a fingertip?--grazes her wrist as she jerks away and clangs the gate shut in his face." Doerr has already described the pounding waves against the seawall, the icy water seeping over her shoes, the fishy smell of the cavern hidden deep beneath the wall. The sense of the town is striking.

I believe to be so gifted a descriptive writer one must really pay attention. Therein, my dear friends, lies my problem.

Did anyone else watch USA's PSYCH? Here's a scene I can relate to: The detectives (Carlton Lassiter and Juliette O'Hara) are questioning a witness to a crime. They ask his whereabouts.

psych's black and tan

     Carlton Lassiter: You don't remember where you were this afternoon?
     Hassenfeffer: It was yellow... and boring.
     Juliet O'Hara: Are we talking about a restaurant?
     Hassenfeffer: I don't know. Maybe. Just write down that it was lame.

Yellow, boring, and lame. I feel you, buddy.

For you writers out there, what's your weak link? And for the readers, in your opinion, what makes a setting shine?

photo credit: psych, USA network

Sunday, September 24, 2017


By Francine Mathews

One of the teachers who made a difference in my son's life contacted me this past summer and asked if I would mentor a young writer during the coming school year.

I agreed, because I know how important it is to have the support of an adult when your dream is impossibly big, particularly an adult who seems to live that dream. It's important, too, to share the compulsion to write; otherwise, a kid can feel like a weirdo. Writers, like most people governed by unruly impulses, are never entirely in control of themselves; the words govern. Growing up, I had to write down what happened in order to understand it. I still do. But even for those of us born word-drun, fiction can feel like an enormous enterprise, replete with the possibility of failure. The overwhelming aspects must be contained and managed or the whole sorry art is abandoned before it has begun. 

Hence, the value of exercises.

Before our first session, I sent my mentee a list of twelve questions. Here they are:

1. If you could live in any other time than this, what would it be? (past or future, but it's fine to say none.)

2. If you could be someone other than yourself, who would that be? (different gender? Different ethnicity? Different life form?)

3. What sort of person do you find difficult to understand or befriend?

4. What qualities in other people attract you?

5. What qualities in other people intrigue you?

6. What qualities in other people repel you?

7. What frightens you? (about others, about the world, about yourself.)

8. what makes you feel safe or happy?

9. What makes you feel powerful?

10. What makes you feel weak?

11. What skill would you like to master that you have never attempted before?

12. If you could live anywhere else, where would that be?

Notice that these are all personal questions. Why, you may ask, was I offering a psychological survey to a young person who just wants to make things up?

Because all fiction is rooted in the mind and heart.

My mentee's answers were thoughtful and revealing. In the hour we spent reviewing them, we were able to pinpoint aspects of possible protagonists and antagonists in a future story; themes of personal values and integrity that matter to her; time periods and places that might serve as settings; and the psychological conflict or fears that may underly her story. She could imagine relationships between people with vastly different personalities, warring impulses that determine outcomes. Suddenly, she was able to contemplate a mental landscape and populate it, rather than despair over a blank and intimidating page.

Do I use such exercises myself before drafting the outline of a novel? Not formally. But similar considerations shape everything I do. I drift through time in search of stories, and find them in places and people who may only slightly resemble myself. Attempting to understand their motivations, fears, appetites and values--and my own response of fascination or revulsion--is critical to creating their worlds. Because every character, even those I abhor, springs from my own mind. That's part of the terror of writing.

Pick a question, any question--and answer it.
You just may have started down the road to fiction.



Friday, September 22, 2017


...posted by Karna Small Bodman

Here at Rogue Women Writers, we are delighted to welcome as our Guest Blogger, the New York Times bestselling author, C.J. Lyons. 

Author C. J. Lyons

I met this talented woman when we were both starting out as novelists with the same editor, and we both joined and attended one of the initial "Thrillerfest" conferences staged annually by  International Thriller Writers.  I recall being extremely impressed with C.J.'s background as an ER doctor, flight physician and expert who assisted police and prosecutors in criminal investigations.  Talk about "writing what you know" -- she certainly has a terrific resume and draws much inspiration from her varied experiences.  I invited her to tell us about her new thriller, Gone Dark, along with some of her other endeavors.  Here's her story:

From Cold Case to Hot Thriller
CJ Lyons

Thanks so much to Karna and the other Rogues for inviting me to join in on the fun! I’m especially grateful as I’m currently celebrating the release of my fortieth published novel and the tenth in the award-winning, bestselling Lucy Guardino thrillers, GONE DARK.

Who knew when I created Lucy that readers would fall in love with this Pittsburgh soccer mom turned kickass crime fighter? But I'm grateful that they have, following her struggles working crimes against children for the FBI, watching her fight to balance the needs of her family while serving the victims she protects, suffering with her when she had a career-ending injury, and now enjoying her second career searching for answers to cases grown so cold no one except the victims’ families even remember.

In all of my Lucy thrillers the crimes are real—torn from headlines, often with only the names changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty (I never use real life people in any of my books).

Why use real life crimes and in particular cold cases? Because, growing up in rural Pennsylvania and then working as a physician in various remote regions of the country, I learned that there ARE places in this country where you can get away with murder.

Not because law enforcement is lazy or ignorant. Rather because they are out-numbered, over-worked, and under-funded. This is the reason why I established my Buy a Book, Make a Difference  charity foundation that sponsors scholarships for community police officers to receive forensic training otherwise beyond their budgets. So far we’ve provided 78 scholarships to small town forces across the USA.

For GONE DARK, there were several real life inspirations. The first came from an FBI press release announcing the search for a fugitive who had been on the run since 1971. The enormous amount of time that had elapsed caught my attention so I kept reading to see why the FBI would be sending out a new plea for information on such a cold case.

That’s when I learned that the man had been a juvenile when arrested and sentenced to life without parole. During a riot in Pittsburgh in 1968 a Molotov cocktail set a house on fire and a woman died as a result. I couldn’t find any documentation that this man had thrown the incendiary device or even knew who had, merely that he’d been arrested along with several others and charged after waiving his Miranda rights to an attorney.

The twist here was that 41 years after this juvenile was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in adult prison and escaped custody, the Supreme Court declared juvenile life without parole unconstitutional.

Which meant that the manhunt for this escaped fugitive was based on his sentence being overthrown. He could conceivably return to his real life, even after all these years living a lie.

That idea had me scrambling to research the juvenile justice system. Only to be horrified by what I found. Entire jurisdictions routinely incarcerating juveniles with no access to a lawyer or to their parents once they were arrested—and often they were arrested, locked up, and days, weeks, months later with no charges actually filed. This was happening even after the 2012 Supreme Court ruling—to the point where the Department of Justice had to take control of entire juvenile justice systems in order to make sure kids were granted basic constitutional rights.

(If you’re interested in reading some of these horror stories yourself, here’s a 2017 report by the National Juvenile Defender Center:
As that idea rumbled through my mind, I came across several more real life crimes that warped the concept farther until I came up with the “what if?” that drove the plot of GONE DARK:
What if a girl accused of murder escapes and spends half her life on the run only to learn that she has a chance to go home? What would she risk to finally get the chance to tell the truth and leave her life of lies behind?
And who would pay the price?
Like all of my Thrillers with Heart, the answers aren’t black or white but rather lie in the grey areas between good and evil—that messy, dark place where we are all put to the ultimate test.
Thanks for reading!
Now, after learning about C.J, her experiences, extensive research and award-winning writing style, I'm sure you will want to check out Gone Dark, available at major retailers -- or simply go to:  Thanks to C.J. for visiting us here at Rogue Women Writers.

....Karna Small Bodman

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Fascinating Settings for Thrillers

The Sahara desert

Settings mean a lot for thriller writers. In some cases the settings are the thriller. I'm thinking of stories like The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air. The latter in particular utilizes the endlessly fascinating setting of Mount Everest. What could be more nerve-wracking than marching up a frozen mountain in air so thin that only 200 people since 1978 have climbed to the summit without supplemental oxygen? Where the corpses of those who died in the attempt litter the trail because it's impossible to carry them down? Just reading this, doesn't it make you want to find a book on the subject and learn more about the mountain, what it takes to climb it, and why those who attempt it feel compelled to do so?

Many thrillers combine dangerous locales and action into their stories. For my first Emma Caldridge novel, Running From The Devil, I had the idea to place an average person in an unusual area that cut her off from the support systems that most of us take for granted. That meant no police assistance, no ambulance, no hospitals and no way to reach any of it easily. Outside of war zones, such areas are usually found in extreme climates. I chose the Colombian jungle because it ticked off all the boxes. It's dense, so Caldridge would not see the sun rise or set and use it to determine direction, it's used by the paramilitary groups to hide their hostages and those same groups place land mines throughout to discourage intrusion, and it's vast and whole sections can only be reached by air. The setting informed the novel and allowed me to provide numerous, fascinating facts along the way.

Which brings me to another advantage of locale in thrillers.
Set in the Sahara Desert
Extreme locations allow you to discover some interesting, true facts. As you can tell from my comment above, I love to learn while I read, and this doesn't always require a non fiction book to do it. I've discovered fascinating facts reading thrillers. For my novels, I usually try to find intriguing, real, facts that I then weave into the thriller. I think it adds to the story.

For example, my next Emma Caldridge novel Blood Run starts in Dakar, Senegal and ends with a deadly march through the Sahara desert. I researched the political situations in various African nations as well as the climate of the countries. Insurgencies operate in various locations on the continent, and many can be found in a small area bordering Senegal, Mauritania and Mali. I decided to place Caldridge in this area and to have her take on the challenge of avoiding danger while crossing the Sahara. For this setting I needed to learn the average temperature in the desert, the existing trails, and the possible sandstorms that could occur.

Needless to say, the Sahara provides a lot of interesting facts. The average temperature is between 40 (C) or 104 (F) to 47 (C) or (117 F). Couple this with a complete lack of vegetation or shade and you get the idea of how deadly the desert can be. The photo at the top of this post shows you what you are facing on a march through the desert; miles and miles of endless sand. Camel trains still take the paths along the dry riverbeds, but the Tuareg nomads have the knowledge of the area that a Westerner might never learn.

Sandstorms in the desert are deadly. There's an ancient story that the Persian ruler Cambyses II's army of 50,000 conquered Egypt only to be swallowed up alive by a sandstorm on their way to the Siwa Oasis, never to be seen again. Can you imagine? 50,000 men buried without a trace? The number boggles the mind. Many thought this was a myth, but recently some artifacts have been found that some believe may be from this doomed army.

All of these facts added to the story and allowed me to get a real sense of what my protagonist was facing in attempting the trek. In this case the setting really informed the story, just as it did for the first in the series.

If you're writing a thriller and have an idea that can be set in an unusual locale, by all means give it a shot. Locations can add to the complexity and interest of the story, and the exotic ones give readers like me a chance to experience what it would be like to experience Everest or the Sahara and to learn something in the process!

Sunday, September 17, 2017


posted by Karna Small Bodman

     Have you ever seen a Legislative chamber that looks like this? Do you have any idea where this is - what country? What capital city? When I was sent to this particular location back when I was serving on the National Security Council staff at The White House, my first reaction was, "Wow, what a strange-looking place."  So when I wrote my second thriller, Gambit, and my hero, Hunt Daniels, traveled to the same place, I figured he would have the same reaction.  Here it is:

National Congress Building
"This place looks like a set for a sci-fi flick," Hunt said, gazing out the window of the embassy car transporting him and an NSC staffer from the airport to the National Congress building.

Metropolitan Cathedral
"When they built this capital back in the sixties they wanted to be on the cutting edge," she explained, turning to point to a building that looked like a flying saucer with a crown on the top. "See that one? It's their Metropolitan Cathedral."

She goes on to explain, "They literally carved the city out of the jungle . . .a lot of the buildings were designed by Oscar Niemeyer
. . . he was a communist you know."

One more clue, when I arrived, my luggage was stolen, I discovered the country has one of the highest murder rates in the world and drug gangs and corrupt politicians seem to be ubiquitous. However, it also has some of the nicest people and most beautiful scenery I'd ever encountered. So wouldn't you say that's a perfect setting for a political thriller? Or at least a place where an author could create some memorable scenes? That's what I was trying to do in Gambit.

I was so intrigued when I first set foot in that city, I simply had to write about it. Figured it out yet? Well, it was Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.

All this month, my Rogue colleagues are writing about the importance of settings to take the reader on an adventure to a location they might never be able to see for themselves, or to act as a "character" in the story, as another Rogue - K.J. Howe - explains in her great blog below.

When we think about locations, I'm reminded of an absolutely harrowing tale where the setting IS the story...a landscape of ice, snow and wind - the true account of unbelievably brave souls.  The title is Endurance: Shackelton's Incredible Voyage.

This story takes you back to the year 1914 when the famous polar explorer set out to cross "the last unchartered continent" but his ship became encased in ice.  It's a tale of determination and heroism as he and a small crew battle -- yes -- the setting.

Of course, an author can't always travel to every location she wants to use when creating a thriller. When I was working on my fourth novel, Castle Bravo, I had to conjure up a believable setting as it involved a former Soviet Republic and centered on  the threat of an attack on our country by villains using an "Electro-Magnetic-Pulse" (That's what happens when a nuclear device is detonated high in the atmosphere. The blast doesn't kill people. Instead it "fries" all electronics on the ground. We would have no internet, communications, refrigeration, sanitation, transportation -- as one Major General explained to me, "It would set us back to the year 1910 -- and don't think our enemies aren't working on this one.") As a matter of fact, several countries are - today - examining this technology to use as a weapon against us (North Korea recently made such an announcement). 
The location I wanted to use in that novel was Kazakhstan. Since I had never been there and didn't have any way to get to that country, I had to turn to "research." I contacted our former Ambassador to that country.
I have found that while government officials may not want to talk to a working reporter, they will usually be glad to share information with an author. In fact, when I asked for an appointment with this Ambassador to learn more about the country where she had served, her reaction was, "How great. Let's have lunch." She ended up giving me several books, along with wonderful descriptions not only of the cities, but the countryside, the languages, the "mood" of the people -- all absolutely invaluable to any story.

So the question is: What places have YOU visited that you believe would make great settings for a novel, especially a thriller? Please leave a comment. Your thoughts just might give inspiration to the eight of us here on Rogue Women Writers. Now, thanks for visiting.

....Karna Small Bodman

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

FULL IMMERSION: Don't Just Dip Your Toe In

International intrigue offers readers an exceptional opportunity to travel--without leaving their couch. And the more lush, precise, and immersive the setting, the better.  Like all elements of the writing craft, the way setting is utilized has evolved over the years, but the goal of entertaining and entrancing the audience has never changed.   

Before television and the internet, settings in novels played such a key role, as audiences couldn't easily access online photos and enjoy TV shows set in exotic locales.  In today's world, a few keystrokes or the click of a remote can bring the world to the anyone interested.  Given this tough competition on the setting front, how can you make your writing and setting stand out?  Three tips can help you travel to the bestseller list:

Character:  Setting can be powerful when used to reflect and reveal character as well as character emotions.  Character is central to most novels, and readers need to identify with the protagonist.  Setting can be used to reinforce many aspects of character.  This technique is actually a rebirth of the metaphoric use of setting.

Weather, used by the great romantic writers like Byron and Bronte, offered landscapes that mirrored and exemplified the inner lives of their characters.  This technique has seen a renaissance in the modern era where character is king.  The mood evoked by the environment can match the emotional state of that character, emphasizing their inner life.  The technique can also be used in the opposite fashion, where the emotion evoked by the setting is the exact opposite of your character’s heart.  Your character’s mood can be emphasized, defined, and clarified by its contrast to the surroundings. I enjoyed using this tactic in The Freedom Broker.  Thea Paris is climbing the stairs in Santorini, one of the most picturesque places in the world--the sapphire waters, the lapping waves, the stunning white buildings--everything seems picture perfect...until she reaches the top where the glorious view reveals her father's yacht is leaving the harbour.  Someone is abducting him.

Description:  The pre-internet reader had significant tolerance for, perhaps even craved, long amounts of description of detail and setting.  An example of this is James Michener, whose detailed descriptions are legendary.  While this technique brought him unparalleled success, the modern audience has different expectations--and a much shorter attention span.  Authors need to be more economical in the use of setting, using a microscope rather than a wide angle lens.  Focus on a few key details that exemplify the essence rather than penning broad and expansive descriptions of the scene.  

A surgical phrase describing a piece of jewelry, a feature of a building, a piece of clothing, an odd way of speaking, or even the local cuisine can quickly ground your reader in the location you want, and be far more pleasing than reading a description that sounds like a travel guide.  To capture the readers' attention:  less is more.  

Obstacles:  Settings are wonderful obstacles.  Unique and harsh milieus can create wonderful barriers for your protagonist, functioning as an antagonist.  Weather or a terrain feature can serve as an epically challenging obstacle to your character’s success, and classic and modern literature are rife with magnificent examples to learn from.  Who can forget the terrifying setting of London’s To Build a Fire?   A similar environment plays a critical role in Andrew Gross’ historical thriller The Saboteur--where the mountains and weather are perhaps the fiercest challenges his protagonist faces.  There is something quintessentially human and primal in how difficult terrain, culture or weather can be to overcome.  Adding it into your fiction can make your story come alive.

While the “dark and stormy night” opening is now in the cliché hall of fame, modern fiction can still be enhanced by the effective use of setting.  If deftly handled, and sparingly applied, thoughtful settings can elevate your fiction from good to great.  Take your readers on an unforgettable journey, and they'll never forget your books.

What are some of your favorite settings in novels?  Was the sense of place a powerful addition to the story?  

Thanks for stopping by today!  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

In the eye of the beholder

S. Lee Manning:  International espionage thrillers, by definition, include scenes in countries besides the United States. The reader needs to know something about the location of the action. Yet what matters most is not merely the description, but pulling the reader into that description.

In other words, how do you make the location come alive?

In the novel I am currently writing, Ride a Red Horse, my characters arrive in St. Petersburg, Russia and I start with the most prosaic of descriptions – because the reader needs to know something about the city.

St. Petersburg was a city of canals and bridges, built by Peter the Great, out of what had once been swampland, at the cost of the lives of men who toiled on its construction.

Something the reader needs to know, but it doesn’t really express what I want the reader to experience. To better capture the city, I decided to go into Kolya’s mind – and his reaction to being back in the city where he was born.

The last time he had walked this stretch of the Neva during the White Nights, the city had still been shabby, with decaying facades and few tourists. But he remembered it as beautiful. He had been nine years old, and his mother had held his hand. Nine o’clock at night, and the bright summer night had smelled of lilacs. Six months later, his mother was dead from flu.

Wasn’t it absurd to die of something so common?

So in seeing the city through Kolya’s eyes, you get a sense of place – but you also learn something about Kolya in how he views the city. His mother’s death when he was a child was the event that changed him into the man that he has become. The description of the city not only brings the place alive, but illuminates key aspects of Kolya’s character.

I do something similar in the beginning of Ride – where a Canadian smuggler is planning to bring a package across the border. I set the scene in an odd little town where one side of the street is Canadian, the other, American.

Despite the dark night and the pelting rain, he could see flags decorated with stars and stripes waving in the cold gusts of wind in the front yards of the Vermont homes, while across the street flags bearing the maple leaf of Canada whipped back and forth in the front yards of the homes there.

An interesting town, but how the smuggler views it is more important than the mere fact of the international line running down the middle of the street.

He’d grown up here in Beebe Plains, on this odd street that divided two nations. Back then he’d cross over to play with American kids, and they’d cross to play with him in Canada. In his teens, he’d briefly dated an American girl he’d met in a library in Stanstead where the international border was marked by a black line down the building’s center, the front door in Vermont, and the parking lot in Canada. Back then, everyone smuggled, at least a little.

The smuggler is not a major character, but it’s important to understand how he sees the border. He sees it as fluid, as something that should not be closed. Smuggling is something casual for him, like flirting with a girl when he was a teenager.  Again, by describing the town through the smuggler’s eyes and experience, I am trying to not only convey a sense of place – but a sense of character – so that you understand who the smuggler is – and why he does what he does.

How about you? What are the most memorable descriptions of place in books you’ve read? When is a location more than just a location?