Tag Archives: fiction

From My Bookshelf: Lorna Barrett

Cozy mysteries, anyone? Sometimes it’s good to sit down with a book that’s not moving at a blistering pace with graphic violence and brutal shocks. Sometimes, for me at least, a welcome alternative is a book that can tease my brain without making me feel I’ve walked in the shoes of a sadistic psychopath.

If you haven’t already encountered her, meet Lorna Barrett, aka L. L. Bartlett, aka Lorraine Bartlett, the prolific author of numerous snuggle-in-your-armchair-with-a-good-read novels.

A stroll past the mystery shelves at your local bookstore will yield up a plethora of subgenres: forensic mysteries, classic mysteries, traditional mysteries, historical mysteries, and the cozies. The latter stand out because they’re primarily published by Berkley, with a distinctive cover style and also because they have groaner-pun titles, such as Barrett’s Chapter and Hearse.

Within the cozy subgenre you will find food cozies, antiquing cozies, quilting cozies, thrift shop cozies, knitting cozies, decorating cozies, chocolate cozies, paranormal cozies, home renovation cozies, etc. If a reader has a hobby, there’s a cozy out there that panders to it.

These days, if you want to write a cozy mystery–meaning a small community, numerous quirky characters, and little if any blood–then you need to think series. You also need to create a lively setting as a reappearing character.

Barrett’s pretty good at coming up with interesting settings that hold up across more than one book. Her  cast of characters remain viable from book to book, and sometimes a repeated secondary character becomes the next victim just to put you on your toes. Her story people are distinctive without being so gol-darned quirky they’re too weird for words.

She’s had wonderful, bestselling success with her Booktown series. The tiny community revolves around downtown shops that are nearly all specialty used bookstores. The protagonist Tricia owns a mystery shop–which allows Barrett to throw in mention of current and classic mystery authors in the Carolyn Hart tradition.

Tricia’s sister Angelica owns a cookbook store, along with a lunch eatery. The two sisters have had a rocky sibling relationship in the past, but they’ve patched up many of their differences. Now there’s just enough of the old rivalry to keep up the flavor of conflict as a subplot to Tricia’s investigations.

I like that Tricia does get out and gumshoe. She has no official authority, but she’s curious and suspicious and thoughtful and active. Unlike some of the cozies that feature discovery of a body and then the characters pretty much putter along their everyday lives and chat about the victim from time to time with varying degrees of pity and/or sympathy, Barrett’s protagonist makes a real effort to uncover the culprit.

While I personally prefer the Victoria Square series written under her pseudonym Lorraine Bartlett, that’s primarily because I like its setting better than Booktown. But all her books deliver gentle entertainment that will keep you curious as to whodunnit without giving you nightmares thereafter.

 

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Yearn and Burn

Character emotions bring fiction to life.

You can have a well-designed, logical, plausible plot and characters that look good in the abstract with useful backgrounds, skills, capabilities, and personality traits, but without injecting emotions into their reactions, they will remain as lifeless as ventriloquist dummies latched inside carry cases.

Here’s an example:

Jane looked up at him. “Bob, I’m sorry, but we can’t see each other anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

Bob sighed and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”

They hugged, and Bob watched her walk away.

Flat, isn’t it?

Or are you thinking that maybe this example just needs some context. Maybe if we’d read all that had happened between the couple up to this point, we’d know what Bob was feeling.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

If a writer can flatten the breakup of a so-called passionate love affair to this extent, probably every encounter between this robo-couple will be equally ho-hum.

The only indication readers have that Bob experiences any feelings whatsoever comes through his sigh. And that sigh is too vague. It doesn’t convey whether he’s sad, relieved, miserable, exasperated, frustrated, or just clearing his throat.

Without emotional reaction to what’s happening in the story, Bob is boring. His lack of response and unfeeling acceptance trivializes what could be a strong, poignant moment.

What are the stakes for Bob? Is he devastated at losing Jane? Is she the love of his life? Is he afraid for her to return to her husband and desperate to persuade her to change her mind? Does he fear for her safety? Does he yearn to protect her? Does he burn to cherish her? Is he terrified of never seeing her again?

Or is Bob furious that she now wants to go back to her husband? Is he swept with jealousy and angry at the time and money he’s spent on her? Does he feel used and discarded?

Is Bob’s love about to morph into hatred?

From the passage above, we don’t know anything. And when the viewpoint character fails to feel, readers assume that the plot problem isn’t as important as it first appeared because the character didn’t react to it.

No character reaction = no importance.

Is that the effect you want? I hope not. Because why would you want to write about–much less design a scene around–something that’s unimportant or trivial?

Here are a few things that are awful about dealing with character emotions, at least from the writer’s perspective:

*They’re messy.

*They’re challenging to write.

*They’re exhausting.

*They’re hard to do well.

Many writers would rather dodge the whole business, but I’ve already explained the pitfalls of doing so. Your stories need characters, not automatons.

When I encounter a wannabe writer whining about the drawbacks of injecting emotions into characters, my response always boils down to a so what?

Never let yourself be dissuaded by how difficult some aspect of writing is. The degree of challenge you face is probably an indicator of how vital and necessary to your story that element will become.

Once writers grasp the necessity of including emotions, another area where they can stumble is by not writing them with sufficient intensity.

Try this:

Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

Bob sighed, feeling miserable, and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”

Well, we’ve got emotion in our example now–from Jane the non-viewpoint character who is about to cry–and from Bob whom we’re told feels miserable. Won’t that do?

It’s better than nothing, but it’s too tepid. If the stakes are high enough for the moment to be dramatized, then make it compelling. Push those emotions past your comfort zone.

Does this mean you must create hysterical, histrionic, over-the-top characters? Does this mean you have to write the way William Shatner acts?

Uh … why not? Shatner knows how to deliver a quiet, nuanced, restrained performance, but doing so hasn’t kept him working all these years.

Okay, your characters don’t have to be hysterical and histrionic, but they need to be E-X-A-G-G-E-R-A-T-E-D. And if exaggeration puts them over the top, so let it be written; so let it be done. You can always tone down the draft later in revision if it’s too much. But in rough draft, push the emotions until you flinch. Then push them some more.

Let’s try one more time:

Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore.”

“Wait! What? Darling, what are you saying?”

“I mean it. My husband is growing suspicious. You know I can’t risk him finding out about us.”

A sour, sick taste flooded Bob’s mouth. He curled his fists, wanting to drive down to the coffee shop and pound Eric Rankin to a pulp for what he’d put Jane through all these years. Still, for Jane’s sake, Bob tried to rein everything in. His stomach burned from the effort. It took all he had to speak normally, calmly. “I’d like for him to find out. I want him to know. Let me take you away. I can keep you safe from him. You know I can.”

Well, well. Look what’s happened to Bob. When I intensified his emotions, he came alive, and suddenly he has an ulcer, something of a violent temper, and he isn’t meekly agreeing with Jane’s decision. Instead, he’s arguing with her. He’s showing her (and readers) that he cares.

And maybe readers will start to care also.

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From My Bookshelf: Alistair MacLean

Recently I was out and about at a sale when I spied a slim book bound in fake blue leather. The title on the spine said The Golden Rendezvous. My heart leapt. I reached and took down the book. I opened it. Yes, indeed, it was written by Alistair MacLean. My favorite story among all his works. No mustiness. No damage. It even had a sewn-in ribbon to mark the place.

I bought it and carried it home with a small warm glow of accomplishment. Because at his best, nobody wrote action thrillers or spy books better than MacLean.

I discovered him in 1973, my attention caught by a book called The Way to Dusty Death. I read it and was hooked immediately. Little did I know that this novel marked the beginning of MacLean’s literary decline. It was just good enough to grab me, and I quickly busied myself in digging his earlier, better works out of the library. How I enjoyed his crisp, lean style, his flawless pacing, his relentless brand of action that pushed cynical protagonists to the edge of their endurance.

MacLean wrote from 1955 to 1986. At his best, he was superb. At his worst, he was both sad and truly awful, his efforts hindered by bouts of alcoholism. The last book of his that I read was a pathetic shambles of a story, published near the very end of his career, and I did not return to him until now.

So ignore the books published in the 1970s and 1980s. Hunt down his earlier stuff. It is terrific, whether his characters are struggling survivors of a plane crash in the Artic or a poignant spy assisting defectors over the Berlin wall during the Cold War. Altogether he wrote 28 novels, many of them NY Times bestsellers, along with a collection of short stories and three nonfiction books. For a time he fell completely out of print in the USA, but when I checked Amazon this evening, I found that some of his better-known titles were reissued in 2015.

Earlier this week, I remembered I’d bought The Golden Rendezvous and picked it up to see if the old magic would still work on me. I hadn’t read this novel since I was a teenager. But I remembered the plot twist and the danger the characters went through. I remembered that I once loved it.

Other than knowing what’s coming, it’s like reading the story for the first time. MacLean takes his time establishing the characters and the ship they’re on. I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s pacing. Introducing all the elements and players slowly, taking the time to firmly settle readers into the plot situation before BAM! trouble hits in a big way.

I’d forgotten MacLean’s style. It is as lean and precise as Dick Francis–only better. Man, I wish I could write that well. And to think, English was MacLean’s second language after Gaelic.

A Scotsman, MacLean served as a torpedo operator in the Royal Navy during World War II. His first novel, HMS Ulysses, was a hit and he is world-famous for The Guns of Navarone, which was made into a successful film.

If you like action-adventure or spy thrillers, give him a try. Just make sure the books were written before 1971. Then hang on to your seat! 

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Kindle at Last!

I’m pleased to report that my editors at Manchester University Press have–after much persistence–come through. The mysterious and perplexing glitch that’s been delaying the ebook publication of THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA is now “un-glitched.” TFFF is finally available on Kindle. Woo-hoo!

Some of you have been waiting quite a while for the ebook version. I’m sorry about the long delay, and thank you for your patience.

Sometimes there are gremlins in the house, but at last they seem to have gone away.

The Fantasy Fiction Formula Final

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Grab ’em quick!

Ever try to get your story started in a dynamic and exciting way, but you just can’t seem to pull it off?

Ever feel like you’re taking too long to set up and establish your story situation?

Ever feel like your story needs more oomph somehow?

Open with a hook.

Make it short and catchy. (pun intended)

Design it deliberately to grab the reader’s interest. Don’t worry if it feels cheesy or over the top. Just set the hook. Be blatant and obvious about it.

Consider the following examples pulled at random from my bookshelf:

Sidney Shelton’s IF TOMORROW COMES:  She undressed slowly and dreamily, and when she was finished she put on a red negligee so the blood wouldn’t show. [thriller]

Brandon Sanderson’s THE ALLOY OF LAW:  Wax crept along the ragged fence in a crouch, his boots scraping the dry ground. He held his Sterrion 36 up by his head, the long, silvery barrel dusted with red clay. [science fiction]

James Patterson’s ALONG CAME A SPIDER:  1932 … The Charles Lindbergh farmhouse glowed with bright, orangish lights. It looked like a fiery castle, especially in that gloomy, fir-wooded region of Jersey. Shreds of misty fog touched the boy as he moved closer and closer to his first moment of real glory, his first kill. [thriller]

Jack Campbell’s THE LOST FLEET:  DAUNTLESS:  The cold air blowing in through the vents still carried a faint tang of overheated metal and burned equipment. Faint echoes of a blast reached into his stateroom as the ship shuddered. Voices outside the hatch were raised in fright and feet rushed past. [science fiction]

Erin Hilderbrand’s SILVER GIRL:  They had agreed not to speak about anything meaningful until Meredith was safely inside the house on Nantucket. [women’s fiction]

Jude Watson’s LOOT:  No thief likes a full moon. Like mushrooms and owls, they do their best work in the dark. [children’s fiction]

And finally, Harlan Coben’s NO SECOND CHANCE:  When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. [thriller]

Although thrillers pretty much have to open with a hook, I’ve included other genres in this small sampling to show you how hooks apply to any type of fiction.

In each of these examples, there is an element of danger and/or action leading to danger.

You may be thinking that you aren’t writing an action-adventure story. You may intend something slower-paced. You want to make your setting an important element, and you feel the need to introduce it first.

So how about this from Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES?

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month:  school begins. Consider August, a good month:  school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine:  there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.

One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.

See what I mean?

Bradbury has taken longer than any of my other examples to set his hook, but once he’s caught you, you’ll keep turning the pages.

Keep in mind that stories need to start with a moment of change for the protagonist that has big consequences. And whether it’s positive or negative, change is perceived as threatening because change alters the status quo. It makes things different, and we aren’t quite sure we want them to be.

Use atmosphere or weather–spooky twilights, crashing thunderstorms–and make it extreme. Let your word choice set the mood you’re going for. (Spiky leaves, cracked sidewalks, houses hunched in silhouette against the setting sun) And try to either plunge the protagonist immediately into danger–say, within the first 25 words if possible–or put the character in the middle of dangerous action.

Don’t be subtle. Don’t cram too much information into the opening sentence. Don’t explain anything. Keep story action simple, clear, and direct. And set the hook. Grab your readers fast, and don’t let them go.

 

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From My Bookshelf: Perry Mason

To quote from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem: O frabjous day! Calloo! Callay!

I have just acquired a copy of the 1953 Perry Mason mystery, THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS, by Erle Stanley Gardner, and I am thrilled.

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As some of you know, I shun used books that are too musty for my allergies. And all too often, Gardner’s mysteries turn up foxed, cocked, gnawed on by mice, and reeking of mold. Just two weeks ago, I found a Mason mystery but regretfully had to pass. It was very hard to walk out of that antique mall without it, but breathing trumps reading every time.

However, good fortune was shining. Over the July 4th weekend, I stumbled across a  copy of THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS in Texas. Not only does it have its dust jacket, but it isn’t musty at all. Thank you to all its previous owners (whoever you are and were) for taking such good care of it! I came galloping back across the Red River in triumph.

Now, in case you don’t know about Gardner, let’s just say he was a writing fiend who got his start producing short stories in the pulp era. It was his goal to write 1.2 million words a year, and, during the Great Depression when most of America was out of work, he made $20,000 a year writing stories that paid 3 cents a word. Gardner was also an attorney, although he found the practice of law beyond litigation and strategy to be boring. From 1933 to 1973, he wrote over 80 Perry Mason novels in addition to his short stories, radio dramas, and other projects. He favored action and dialogue over characterization or complicated plots. He preferred to focus on “speed, situation, and suspense.”

Not a bad formula, folks. His characters are paper-thin, under-described, and far from stereotypical. And until his death in 1970, he was the best-selling author in America. I can’t remember the exact figure now, but I’ve read about how–in the 1960s–bookstores would position a clerk near the cash register with a stopwatch to clock how many thousands of copies the latest Perry Mason mystery sold in an hour.

It’s been said that the last decade of Perry Mason books are less than great. I haven’t read enough of them to know. Still, I prefer the earlier Mason stories, when Perry was a tougher and more hard-boiled character than later on when Gardner softened him to be more appealing to mass audiences.

As for digging up more of Gardner’s work, yes, there is Kindle as a potential alternative to inhaling mildew, but Kindle lacks the lurid pulpy covers of the tangible books and offers a scant selection to the contrarians like me who don’t subscribe to Amazon’s lending library or Prime.

Besides, I enjoy the hunt for those old, inexpensive, battered hardbacks–even if I have to leave most of them alone. (What did the public do decades ago with old Perry Mason books? Let them float in flooded basements?)

Meanwhile, I’ve got my nose in THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS. Is it amazingly, breathtakingly good?

Nope.

Can I stop turning the pages?

Nope.

 

 

 

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Book Promos

I just found out that Amazon has chosen two of my YA fantasy books–CRYSTAL BONES and THE CALL OF EIRIAN–to be discounted July 12, 2016, in connection with their Prime celebration. The books were published under my C. Aubrey Hall pseudonym. So if you know any youngsters–or just the young at heart–looking for fantasy adventure, please pass the word. Thanks.

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