The Story Behind the Strong Heroine

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West of Famous developed from a desire to create powerful women role models. This is the third book in the Compass Crimes collection. The stories are connected by the ensemble cast of characters whose lives intersect because of crimes. Like the previous two books, this one features a heroine whose life is overturned by a crime, but she does not react as a victim waiting like a fairy tale princess to be rescued.

I was raised on stories like Cinderella, but I wanted my stories to be more like the 1998 movie Ever After. My favorite scene in that updated version of the Cinderella story is when Drew Barrymore, playing Danielle, rescues the prince from a band of gypsies.

In West of Famous, Martina Ramos is mistaken for a celebrity by kidnappers. She does not have the option of waiting to be rescued because only the kidnappers know where she is, and they don’t value her life. Those who value her life don’t know she’s missing.

My desire to create strong women role models comes from a deep-seated sense of rebellion. When I was in grade school oh, so long ago, society expected girls to choose from a short list of roles: teacher, nun, wife, and mother, nurse, secretary, waitress, or stewardesses. But I wanted to write. It was as though all other career options were considered unsuitable for good girls. To say I wanted to write was tantamount to declaring I wanted to be homeless or insane. An outlier. An outcast.

Like Sara Paretsky so brilliantly describes in Writing in the Age of Silence, women have been told by society to be quiet, to keep their opinions to themselves, to be seen and not heard. But Dorothy Parker, Pearl S. Buck, Harriet Tubman, Virginia Woolf, and Harper Lee told entertaining stories that challenged people’s perceptions about the status quo.

My high school guidance counselor tried to dissuade me from going to college even though I was an honors graduate. By then I’d already started earning money as a writer. I told her that if she wasn’t going to help me, she should get out of my way. So off I went to Indiana University to earn a degree in journalism.

I write stories about bold women who fight to overcome whatever life throws at them because we need role models like that.

I have one. While I was in college, my mother was widowed for the second time. So, after raising three children and surviving two toxic marriages, she announced at age 55 she had quit her job as a legal secretary to go to law school. It was as inspiring as it was heartbreaking that she was finally going to do what she wanted to do.

I’d like to be a bold role model for my daughter Jessica, but if she gets any bolder, I’ll have to raise bail. There is quite a strong similarity between her and the heroine of West of Famous, but don’t tell her that.

___________

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Magazine, Winter 15, 2019 edition.

By the way, In my forties I fulfilled a lifelong dream and earned my pilot’s license. Only 6% of pilots are women, so yeah, this was life-affirming and empowering. I then earned my instrument-rating. My husband also flies, so we have to take turns to prevent a wrestling match into the cockpit. I want to lead by example and encourage other women to be bolder.

 

Love of Research

As a reader, I love to learn new things when I read fiction. I enjoy experiencing danger vicariously and seeing the world from different perspectives. As an author, I strive to craft that same thrill for my readers. Research is how to nail the details that create that you-are-there insider’s experience.

We’ve all read stories that fail at this. I am an instrument-rated private pilot with a little training in aerobatics. When I encounter blunders in a story about aviation, the magic of being in the story falls apart. I don’t want to be that author who breaks the magic.

Why write what you know when you can write about exciting things you are learning? As a pilot, of course, I’m going to use that knowledge and experience in stories. But I can’t become an expert in everything, so I find experts willing to share their knowledge and experience.

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HEROS OF RESEARCH

Authors James A. Michener, Ridley Pearson, David Morrell, and Steve Berry exemplify the serious kind of research that elevates their stories to the bestseller category. Michener’s tome Hawaii presents the geologic formation of the islands to establish the setting for readers. Pearson’s research in his crime stories is revered by detectives for thoroughness. Morrell spent 35 days carrying a 60-lb. backpack through the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming with the National Outdoor Wilderness School to research is book Testament.

Here’s my process.

SETTING

Where does the story happen? For North of the Killing Hand, I drew on travel experience in Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and Columbia for the scenes in the Amazon. The photos taken in these remote places reminded me of the density and types of foliage. Journals reminded me of the smells, sounds, oppressive dampness, and dangers.

Beyond personal experience there comes online research and trips to the library for demographics. How many people live there and who are they? What languages do they speak? How do they travel? How do they communicate? What cultural differences stand out? Crime? Education? How do people make a living in the Amazon? What are their religious and ethical beliefs?

jungle in fog

For West of Famous, which debuts February 17, 2019, I spent a week on a trawler because a huge portion of the story takes place on such a boat. All the library research in the world cannot capture the smell of diesel, the constant motion of the boat, the sounds of the engines, or how to find compartments large enough to stuff a body. The boat owners, Paul and Caryn Frink, went above and beyond in helping me.

Seeker Hosts Caryn and Paul Frink

They took me to the oh-so-remote site in the Everglades where part of the story takes place and dropped anchor. They let me ride in the engine compartment while the boat was underway. I had to test if screaming could be heard over the sound of the engine.

Seeker

I took copious notes and photographed everything at various times of day and night to nail the details. Online research cannot compare. Paul, retired navy with a strong engineering background, taught me more about boats and boat engines in a week than I learned from months of other research. Hands-on research beats online research any day! Fun, too! The rocking sensation stopped two days after I returned home.

CHARACTER

For each character, major and minor, I want to know who they are. What makes them behave the way they do? What does the character fear? What does the character want? For minor characters, the basic information reads like a police profile: height, weight, age, gender, race, education, and basic history. For major characters, deeper analysis works.

In South of Justice, the main character Dr. Terri Pinehurst-Clayton is a veterinarian. What does it take to become a veterinarian? The info uncovered during research appeared in the book, especially the items that grabbed my attention. Did you know it is tougher to enter veterinarian school than medical school? That tidbit of info led me to find out why. The answer found its way into the book because inquiring minds want to know. At one point in the story, Terri bolsters her courage by reminding herself that she graduated at the top of her class because of her intellectual tenacity. She then decides to begin her own investigation into her husband’s past.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the main characters empowers the author to leverage these traits in the story. I have interviewed experts to gain insight into the how and why of their work.

I suppose such research is similar to method acting. I want to learn so much that I can step inside a character to experience life from a new perspective in a new place under circumstances I pray I never have to experience in real life.

Which authors do you admire for creating stories that make you feel you are there?


This article first appeared on the Not Your Usual Suspects blog October 2, 2017. The president of Americas Great Cruise Loopers Association read my book and loved it. I was invited to their gathering in Norfolk, Virginia to sign books on a boat. I blogged about the Book Signing on a Boat.

Dialogue Workshop Offered Online

We’ve all slogged through novels with boring, predictable, or chit-chat dialogue. In many genres, dialogue makes up half of the novel, so dialogue can make or break your bond with readers. You can learn how to craft purposeful, quotable dialogue, by discovering and applying techniques used by screenwriters and playwrights. The 4-week Crafting Memorable Dialogue Workshop offers ten practical lessons to apply immediately to your work in progress.

The lessons present:
• discovering when and when not to use dialogue
• infusing a scene with the right level of conflict
• employing text and subtext
• creating suspense
• transforming the predictable
• cutting to the chase
• individualizing characters through speech markers
• applying the stimulus/response pattern for clarity
• using three types of tags to show goals, motivations, and conflict
• and formatting and punctuating dialogue properly.

After teaching this popular workshop for ten years, I cut back on how often I offer it because of writing commitments. This will be the only time it’s available this year.

STUDENT TESTIMONIALS:

“The lessons were exactly what I needed to know and I can’t wait to go through my WIP (work in progress) and apply my new knowledge.” Debbie Curtis

“My eyes are well and truly opened now. I shall read and reread your notes on dialogue.” Roseanne Smiles

“I love your teaching style and your charts are particularly helpful for quick reference.” Sharon Lightsey

Registration opens on July 22. The workshop is hosted by Romance Writers of America’s Online Chapter. The fee for non-members is a mere $ 15.

Register through this link: August online workshop on Crafting Memorable Dialogue.

Podcast Interview with Frank Zafiro

Frank Scalise (a.k.a. Frank Zafiro) is a cool guy. In the US Army he served in Military Intelligence. After that he rose through the ranks at the Spokane Police Department as an officer, detective, and retired as a Captain after twenty years. An avid reader, he had written some stories over the years.

Author Frank Scalise (aka Frank Zafiro)

In “retirement” he launched his writing career. With 27 books published and more on the way, he writes non-fiction under his real name. His River City series of police procedurals put him on the literary map. River City is a fictional version of Spokane. His pen name for his multiple crime series is Frank Zafiro. He has been featured as the Amazon’s top author of police procedurals.

As if that isn’t enough to fill his time, Frank also produces a podcast series called Wrong Place / Write Crime. Frank’s podcasts feature interviews with authors of crime, thrillers, suspense, and mysteries, and more.

We met at Bouchercon 2018 in St. Petersburg, Florida. My friend Donna Kelly and I were wandering the halls of the Vinoy Renaissance the day before the conference began. As newbies to the conference and the beautiful Vinoy resort, we wanted to get our bearings. Okay, yeah, we were goofing off.

Bouchercon lineup

Donna in the author’s lineup.

Dangerous passage.

We met Frank. Charming, funny, and just as eager as we were to discover Bouchercon, Frank admitted this was his first Bouchercon. Like kids at a theme park, we ran into each other over the following days to swap stories of meeting our literary heroes and all the free books we’d scored.

Bouchercon

Michael Connelly signs a book or two for Donna.

Bouchercon

Laura Lippman autographed a book for me.

Bouchercon authors

Hank Phillippi Ryan autographed a book for me!

Bouchercon

Donna Kelly meets Lee Child.

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Author Kerry Lonsdale put a selfie of us on her blog a few years ago, so…

Bouchercon

Authors Christine King and Diane Capri shared writing stories.

What is Bouchercon?

“Fill a hotel with few thousand socially-challenged introverts, folks for whom the ‘I’d rather be reading’ T-shirt was created, and force them to spend a long autumn weekend together, and what have you got? Bouchercon—and you’d be a fool to miss it.”~Lawrence Block

Bouchercon meeting roomAt the end of the conference, Frank invited me to schedule an interview for his podcast. We recorded it on February 7th. As a three-book author, I was thrilled to be included on his podcast. He’s interviewed best-selling and award-winning authors such as, Christopher Moore, Joe Clifford, Eric Beetner, Larry Kelter, and Dave Zeltersman. They talk about their experiences in turning a novel into a film, collaborating with other authors, the writing craft, and fearing that their internet searches put them on government watch lists.

Though I won’t be able to attend this year’s Bouchercon in Dallas, I know Frank will. He’s earned another fan by being himself. Frank is a cool guy. Frank is also an amazing author of crime fiction.

To listen to his 10-minute podcast with me, click here: Episode 33.

Thank you, Frank! You are a gentleman and a dangerously fun guy.

What’s in a Tagline?

With 1 million books are published each year, how do readers find books by new authors like me? Discoverability. They can’t find what they can’t see. Word of mouth is always the best form of advertising. And may God bless my enthusiastic readers for reviewing my first two books on Amazon and Goodreads and all the social media platforms I don’t use or understand. These loyal readers have helped me get regular royalty checks from retailers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Japan. But still, with one million other books coming out each year and over 13 million already available, how do I help readers find my books? Marketing experts suggest a tagline can help.

I would rather get dental work than figure out the mysterious world of marketing. Advertising gets expensive quickly and I don’t know how to measure whether or not the ad worked. I’ve done Goodreads Giveaways, and Facebook ads. I’ve searched for popular reviewers/bloggers who like suspense stories. All the time spent clawing my way up the steep learning curve of marketing takes away from time spent writing. Hence, book three is a year late–so far–in the publishing cycle. Yes, yes. I should have written the whole series before publishing the first book. One hard ard lesson learned. Hindsight 20/20.

David Ivester

Then, David Ivester spoke at the Florida Writers Conference in Altamonte Springs. Okay, I didn’t stalk him, but I did attend his workshops and asked him lots of questions afterward. I confessed my hard-learned lessons and failures at marketing and he didn’t laugh. He cringed. We set up an appointment to review my website and to suggest steps for book three. I now have a publicist to guide me through the landmines of marketing. Please, keep this man in your prayers as he explains marketing to me in small, simple words.

A TAGLINE?

While rewriting the last half of book three, I put his advice to work. David advised me to develop a tagline for my Compass Crimes Series. A tagline should evoke an emotional response, indicate the genre and tone of the book, create reader curiosity, and stick in the reader’s mind. North of the Killing Hand is a 107,000-word novel. South of Justice is a 96,000-word novel. The Compass Crimes Series features a crime, a strong woman protagonist, and characters who are prominent in one book appear in minor roles in the other books. The West book is in development and the East book is a bare outline. In all, the series will have 390,000 to 400,000 words.

“Distill the tagline down to 10 words,” David says. Ten. Words. I’d rather get a root canal, thanks.

I studied movie taglines that work at The 40 Best Movie Taglines. Examples:

Quiz Show
“Fifty million people watching but no one saw a thing.”

Cool Runnings
“One dream. Four Jamaicans. Twenty below zero.”

SUGGESTIONS WELCOME

So far, attempts at crafting a tagline are as follows. Which do you prefer?

  • Some heroes wear high heels. [too chic lit?]
  • A crime. A quiet hero. Help or get out of her way.
  • A deadly crime. A quiet hero.
  • A woman on a mission is a dangerous thing.
  • One woman’s quest to right a wrong.
  • From tragedy, quiet heroes arise.
  • A quiet hero navigates the aftermath of a crime.
  • A quiet hero navigating the aftermath of a crime
  • She’s a quiet hero navigating the aftermath of a crime.

For more information on taglines, see this brilliant post: What Makes a Good Tagline?

I am lurching back to my writing cave now.

Storyboards and Structure

Having wrestled with scene cards, cork boards, Post-It Notes and other tools to organize a story, I found one that works for me. In the interest of full-disclosure, I am a plotter and a visual learner. Partly this storyboard concept comes from the four-act structure, part of it comes from my infatuation with crime investigation boards shown on television. (Please don’t say detectives don’t use these. I want to believe…)

Using an easel stand and the largest magnetic marker board that my husband will abide, I plot using 4 X 6 index cards–one scene summary per card. The card names the point-of-view character, the setting, the character’s goal,  motivation, and the conflict, ending with the character’s goal for the next scene. When plotting the story structure, I usually prepare the scenes in chronological order. Later, I arrange them in the order of telling to structure the story for greater impact and pacing. For example, rather than front load the story with events that happen in a character’s childhood, I move those scenes later in the story as flashback or backstory.

The template on the left describes what goes on the card. On the right is an example.

I use the back of the cards to jot important details. Say, the main character is transitioning through the five stages of grief [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance], then I mark on the back of the card which stage the character is in. This reminds me how to shape the character’s state of mind and perspective of the world during that stage.

While writing the first draft, scenes combine into chapters. In a romance story one scene could be told from the woman’s point of view, and another from the man’s to create a chapter. Even if the action is simultaneous, they will appear as separate scenes, one following the other.

These scene cards stick magnetically on the story board along the timeline (a line drawn horizontally across the middle of the board). The scenes involving the antagonist appear above the timeline, protagonist’s below. This helps me track who is doing what and when. I watch for gaps in action, because neither the antagonist nor the protagonist should disappear from the story for too long. The protagonist’s scenes are linked by cause and effect or scene and sequel, like dominoes they follow a logical flow of action. Ditto for the antagonist. Using magnetically attached cards makes moving them easy. This encourages creativity.

By separating the story lines of the protagonist (hero) and the antagonist (villain), I can easily see if one character’s scenes dominate the story. Whichever character has the most point of view scenes becomes the focus of the story. Who’s story is this? If the villain has more scenes then the story becomes his, an anti-hero story. Which character do you want the reader to cheer for? Then be sure that character has the most time with the reader.

To my colleagues who write by the seat of their pants–those freaks of mental agility who do all this in their heads–let’s agree that readers don’t care how we produce great stories. All the reader sees is the final result. To my colleagues who buy fancy plotting software, or stick Post-It Notes on walls, may you find a way to efficiently plot so you can spend more time writing and editing. For anyone interested, here is a PDF example: Plotting with storyboard Enjoy!