Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How Can You Keep Them Straight?

I'm being asked continually when my next book is coming out. Okay, I released three in 2012. Impressed? Don't be. I'd been working on them since early 2011. One thing I'm able to do is work on more than one novel at a time. I have three going now.

When I mention that I have three works in progress, WIP, a needlework phrase since most people who knit, crochet, sew, etc. are very familiar with, I'm asked how can you keep the stories straight. For me it's not that difficult. Each novel has its own plot, events and unique characters. It's sort of like knowing what's going on with your in-laws on both sides of the family. You know who the individuals are and their triumphs and trials. How they handle them and whether they grow in character through them.

Just as we don't know the future of our lives but keep up and keep each family member straight I do the same with my characters. I find myself at least once in each novel knowing where I want to get to but not how to get there from where I am. That's when I'll switch to another WIP until I either get stuck in that one or the path the other needs to tread works itself out in my brain.

A couple of tips for doing this sort of multi-work writing. Keep a good character list with physical, family, dates, occupation, etc. in an easily accessed file. Having to hunt up the eye color of a minor character when needed because you haven't written about them in three weeks can save you from pulling out your hair trying to find the information.

For all you pansters out there, have a very rough synopsis of what goes on in each scene or chapter so you can easily pick up what happened when and where as you review a WIP to begin writing on it again.

Another thing I try to do is read a few chapters back to where I stopped writing so I know where I was headed. Not only does this refresh your memory of the story but also allows you to do some editing. Cleaning up your writing is something you'll do several times so cutting it up into little chunks can make that a less onerous task since you will have gone over it several times before you finish the first draft.

Some authors will look on this multiple works in progress and shake their heads at the lunacy of it. That's fine. I've always known I'm a little crazy. The creative process is different for each of us. Figure out if you can keep them straight or not. Either way. Go write and enjoy your method.
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Monday, February 25, 2013

Indie Pub Overview, Part 1

I put together some material last year for a class I taught to my local Writer's Group about navigating the new world of Indie Publishing, and given that I find myself referencing the material frequently in conversations with other writers, I thought I might offer it here to anyone who might be interested in it. This is less about giving you all the details in this rapidly changing environment of indie publishing than it is about helping you fill in the outer pieces of the puzzle. Nevertheless, I hope you find this useful.

Changes in the Publishing World

We are living in a time of tremendous opportunity, challenge, and risk when it comes to being an author. The last five years have seen a tsunami swamp the publishing world, causing many publishing houses to capsize and sending a lot of people adrift on a sea of misinformation.
I started my career as a published author right about the time when the wave was just hitting. I’d grown up under the old rules, and just when I was ready to put into practice all that I’d learned about publishing books the traditional way, everything changed.
I’ve spent the last several years learning how to navigate the flotsam and jetsam of publishing, how to surf the waves from those who are riding high, and I’m beginning to come out ahead.
I want to share with you what I’ve learned to this point, so that you can avoid some of the mistakes I made early on, and hopefully have a successful time as a published author.

Traditional vs. Vanity

Let’s start by talking about the antediluvian world of publishing. There was a time, not so long ago, when a writer essentially had two options when it came to seeing his or her work in print. You could go with the traditional, so-called legacy publishing houses, or you could go the self-publishing route with the so-called Vanity presses (sometimes called subsidy publishing).
The traditional publishers included the Big Six, and their subsidiaries (Hatchette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penquin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster), as well as a gazillion independent presses. Most of these publishing houses require you to have an agent before you can sign with them. You wouldn’t actually offer your book to them. That’s the agent’s job. The agents functioned as the gatekeepers of the Emerald City, keeping you, Dorothy, and her friends from getting inside to see the wizard who can make your dreams come true. Only if your book is of exceptional quality and likely to sell would you have a hope of making it through. Supposedly. In practice, it often came down to luck, whim, and connections.

            Proposals, Queries, and Synopsis

To publish in the traditional world, you first have to submit a proposal (for non-fiction), which includes a hook, the concept for the book, estimated length and time it will take you to write it, and your credentials. Non-fiction books are often written after the book is accepted, so that the editor has a chance to weigh in on the direction the book should take.
For fiction, you first have to compose a query letter. A query letter includes an opening hook, a brief blurb about the book, the intended audience, comparative works, word count, and your writing credentials. For fiction, the book has to be finished as well. Don’t even think of offering an unfinished book. No matter how good you think it is.
Along with your query letter, include a synopsis. This is typically one page long, which tells in a nutshell the complete story of your book. You must include the ending. The agent wants to know that you’ve told a complete, coherent story.
It’s also possible that you would include sample chapters or pages. All this is detailed in the submission guidelines for the agent. They vary from agent to agent, too.
And so you assemble all this material, send it out to a list of fifty agents, and then you wait. And wait, and wait some more. You will get rejections. Most will be form letters. Many agents won’t even bother to reply. It’s not ‘cause they’re mean. It’s because they’re buried under submissions. Sometimes, you may get a rejection letter that actually has some helpful criticism. This is gold. It can help you make your book a stronger book.
And on a rare occasion, you may get asked to send the entire manuscript. Once more you wait and wait and wait, and you can still get rejected, or accepted. And if accepted, you can wait and wait and wait while the agent shops the manuscript around to various publishing houses. This can be a very time consuming, very frustrating process. Your best bet during this phase is to put it out of your mind and get to work on the next book.
The hard part with the traditional publishing world is getting through the gate.

            Vanity of Vanities

If you don’t like the waiting game, you can always self-publish. Vanity or Subsidy presses, like traditional publishers, typically made use of “Offset Printing.” Offset printing is a commonly used printing technique in which the inked image is transferred (or "offset") from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface. It is very time consuming to make the plates, and there is a high cost involved.
Once the plates are made, then the printing begins. A typical print run of about three thousand books might make it cost effective.
In vanity publishing, you would pay the publisher an upfront fee to make the plates and print them. You have to do all the rest of the work yourself. The vanity publisher takes your money, prints the book, and then sends them back to you to sell or sit in your garage.
Some vanity presses offer marketing plans or editorial advice, but you still have an upfront fee that must be paid. Many so-called publishers are quite shady in this regard, because once they get your money, they have no more motivation to help you succeed. More than one author has been burned going this route.
Worse, the fact that you’ve been self-published was considered a red-flag by the traditional houses. It suggests that you don’t have the patience to go through the gauntlet of editing and rejection everyone else has had to run to be sure your book is of quality. So you wouldn’t even list it on your resume when pitching your next book.

The Tsunami

But now everything has changed. Two technological developments have met and caused a tidal wave that has swept away many small presses and is eroding the foundations of even the Big Six.
Recently, Dorchester Books closed, having sold out their lines to Amazon and released their writers from the contracts that Dorchester has been unable to pay or sustain.

            Print on Demand

The first development was a new process called “Print on Demand.” Print on Demand (POD) is a printing technology and business process in which new copies of a book (or other document) are not printed until an order has been received, which means books can be printed one at a time. This dramatically reduces the costs involved, allowing a writer to produce a book, and then have it printed when the book actually sells.  
Print on Demand sites have sprung up like weeds all over the internet, and writers are beginning to take advantage of them. There are some like Createspace, Bookbaby, and Lulu which don’t  charge anything to print and distribute your book. And then there are the vanity presses that have quickly jumped into the field, replacing their offset printers with digital printers, and keeping the same pricing strategy they employed previously. There’s also a whole new set of vanity publishers using POD technology and still charging for the privilege of selling your books through them. Caveat Emptor.


The second major development—perhaps even more significant than print on demand, is the creation and explosion of electronic books.
Ebooks started out as the bastard stepchild of the publishing world. Practically anybody could create a pdf document, call it a book, and sell it over the internet themselves. But as the technology that allows us to use mobile devices began to replace computers, so too did e-books start to come into their own.
Companies like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony, and Apple began creating small, portable devices called e-readers. Often these utilized backlit LED screens that weren’t very good. Then the technology for Electronic Ink came into its own around 2004, and the market took off.
The E-Reader Revolution has already claimed some victims. Borders Books used to have brick and mortar stores that were a solid competition to Barnes & Noble. But in 2001 they made the fatal decision to outsource their online sales to Amazon because it was more convenient than doing the hard work of developing their web sales themselves. Borders never recovered.
The sea-change has not only affected bookstores such as Borders and forced Barnes & Noble to compete in new waters, it has also destroyed the walls to the forbidden city of published author. True, the gates still stand, and many people wait patiently in line for the gate keepers to approve their work and let them pass, but meanwhile a horde of new authors are simply climbing through the breach in the wall and publishing directly to their readers without bothering with an editor or publishing house at all.
In July 2010, Amazon reported sales of ebooks for the Kindle outnumbered sales of hardcover books for the first time ever during the second quarter of 2010, saying it sold 140 e-books for every 100 hardcover books, including hardcovers for which there was no digital edition. By January 2011, ebook sales at Amazon had surpassed its paperback sales. The American Publishing Association estimated e-books represented 8.5% of sales in mid-2010, up from 3% a year before. By July 2011, net sales of e-books had jumped to 15 percent of the market, and ebooks outsold hardcover books in fiction for the first time.

What’s It All Mean?

To put it simply: you now have the potential to completely sidestep the traditional and vanity press models of publishing. There is no longer any middlemen between you and the reading public, except for the distributors themselves. No more gatekeepers.
On the positive side, anyone can become a published author today.
On the negative side, anyone can become a published author today.
The lack of gatekeepers means that there is no quality control anymore. The market is flooded with garbage—though hardly saturated. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to rise above the garbage being cranked out by people too impatient to hone their craft and succeed with no one else being responsible for your success but you.
Whether in print or electronically, you can make it as a published author. You don’t even have to make a million bucks in nine months like Amanda Hocking did. You could putter along as a midlist author like J.A. Konrath and still make a decent buck selling e-books, because as an e-publisher, you will keep a larger share of the royalties, meaning you don’t have to sell as many books in order to be successful.
And the advantages are huge: A) the market is only expanding as more people are born (7 billion at last count), as more buy e-readers (over 10 million sold by the end of 2011), and as these readers look for new content. You could sell a thousand books a day and spend more than twenty seven years doing it before you saturated the market. B) Your books will never go out of print. They will always be available as long as the internet is available in some form or another (and if that goes down, we’ve all got bigger things to worry about).
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Friday, February 22, 2013

Grab Your Sword!

Chicago journalist Chris Redston dreams of a woman on a black warhorse, galloping toward him through a mist in a world entirely different from his own, a world he soon wakes up in.

Chris is a Gifted, one of the few allowed to live in his world and his dream world--but his dream world, Lael, is very real and, thanks to his bumbling, engaged in a civil war.

All it takes to traverse between the worlds is for Chris to sleep. In his real world, Chicago, he is hunted by bad guys, admitted into a psychoward by a friend, and struggling to forgive a drunken father who isn't a drunk in his dream world. In Lael, he scrambles to learn who is friend and who is foe, how to wield a sword, and how to earn the respect of a woman he could learn to love, her father, her one-eyed body-guard, and an entire nation of skeptics.

In both worlds, Chris Redston has his hands full and his abilities and talents stretched to the limit.

This is a high-action, speculative fiction novel by AuthorCulture's one-time co-founder, K.M. Weiland. Katie has a way of dropping her readers into another world, another place in time, and making them forget their own realities. Unlike those of us in a structured writing culture, where we're taught to stay within our genre so we can develop our "brand," Katie writes in whatever genre suits her imagination at the time. She has a Western, a Medieval, and a Speculative, and she's hard at work on a Historical. But her faithful readers know that whatever she writes is going to be full of action and living, breathing characters populating vivid settings. She never disappoints.

Her newest is no different.

Dreamlander is available on her website, and in hard copy and Kindle on

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Writing Crap III

An old friend e-mailed me:

"Dear Kevin,
"I read your blog every day and while I enjoy it, you make spelling and grammar mistakes that would make your fifth grade teacher blush."

What? I couldn't believe it. I never make mistakes. What's she talking about? 
I reread some posts. Ouch. She nailed it; they contained errors. Humbling myself, I asked her ( a former legal secretary) to please edit my work. The posts take more time and effort, but the customer gets a better product. 

Because writing and publishing is so easy, anyone can and does publish anything. If you want to rise above the others, you must deliver a product superior to your competition in every venue. 

I remember a book- a thriller- that contained a mistake. The protagonist in chapter ten brought a coat, and in chapter eleven adjusted the heat in his car because he'd forgotten his coat. What happened? It took me out of the story. Instead of enjoying the read and getting emotional connection with the tome, I said, "What? Wait a minute..."  

I remember that mistake, yet these days there are myriad numbers of mistakes, typos, formatting errors and just plain bad writing that it's commonplace. 
It is more important than ever to produce first class, high caliber work, and not just manuscripts. Your e-mails, proposals, even your Facebook posts should be of good quality. I believe you should even deliver better texts than the norm. 

When your manuscript is complete, are you really ready to send it? The agent said to e- mail it, no editing necessary. Get it edited anyway. Take the time, spend the money, and stand out. Agents complain that prospective authors send work with candy, gifts and silly trinkets to stand out. They stand out all right. But a well presented manuscript will stand tall above the mediocre. 

An agent reads hundred of pages of work every month and if she seas a mistake, it  drives her crazy. In the spirit of 'show don't tell,' did you notice my misspelling in the last sentence? Of course you did. And what did you say/think? "That hypocrite, he talks about writing well, then prints a typo." It took you out of the post, and some people would just click away to another bright spot. Take note that Spell Check wouldn't have caught that word. I spelled it correctly, but used the wrong word. If you missed the spelling error, you may want to take some English classes. Seriously.  

That's the challenge of modern writing. People can drop you at the least provocation. You've done it. Have you read a post or article and clicked away halfway through? Why? Because you're overwhelmed with data, and much of it isn't worth your time and attention. Make sure your writing is worth the reader's investment. It could be the difference between a royalty check arriving in the mail and not.   

Tune in March 11 for 'The Business of Writing.' I've operated ten businesses in my life, so it will be fun. 

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Monday, February 18, 2013

Guest Post: Is Scrivener Right For You? with Naomi Musch

This month, welcome guest author Naomi Musch

Is Scrivener Right For You?

By Naomi Musch

Lots of writers are asking themselves whether or not they should invest in yet another writing program, but their friends are talking about Scrivener. You want to know, is it really worth it?

I didn't have to spend much time deciding after long-time friends gifted me with a Scrivener for Windows program last fall. I'm here today to talk about how that program is working for me and hopefully give you insights into why it might work for you, too. Yep, I'm a convert, but I'll fill you in on some cons as well.

Scrivener was created with novelists in mind. Though it can serve many purposes, its creators primarily wanted to build a program that attended to the specific needs of novelists. Not every program out there is like that. I've always been a "Word" girl myself. Though I've tried other methods -- story-boarding / outlining / snow-flaking / note-booking -- I've always tended to come back to Word and create file upon file that I juggle among for my research, outlines, ideas, chapter synopses, and so on.

But with Scrivener, it's all in one place, right there where it's visible while I am word processing, and I can refer to any tidbit of information I need in a snap.

With Scrivener, I can organize my work the way my brain thinks and still have all the features of a regular word processing program available. Here's what I mean -- I'm a messy writer. I fill notebooks here and there. I create character files, scene files, theme files, language files, history files. I jot highlights and scribbles in books I'm reading for research. I outline the whole novel in about fifteen points, but then I expand each of those points to further snarly outlines and scene ideas. These tend to all wind up in different -- or sometimes overlapping -- files. It's a mess! But it's how I work. Sometimes it slows me down, but I deal with it. If I didn't have a computer, it would likely mean a desktop covered with sticky notes and papers. In fact, it still does. (You gotta love the sticky note feature on Windows desktop!)

But with Scrivener, I can take all that mess and have it on hand in the same fashion you'd keep your work divided in a binder notebook. In fact, one of the main features of Scivener is the Binder.

Here's how it works.

In the center of your page is your word processor. On the left is your Binder. On the right is another feature called the Inspector. In your Binder you create your files, bunches of them if you're like me. It looks like you are holding a file cabinet drawer open and viewing them all in front of you. You can make as many as you like, on any subject you'd like. Because Scrivener was designed for the novelist, it provides a template where you have one binder full of Scenes, another for Research, another for Character details.

I use the scene portion of the binder to create a file for each chapter. I love being able to separate my chapters this way. Now, if I need to refer back to a previous chapter, I can just click on it and there it is instead of scrolling up or down to find it. I can hop all over the place without much effort. Later, it'll be a breeze to use Scrivener's Compile feature to put all these files together in an instant without having to cut and paste anything, and all according to an agent's, editor's, or publisher's specifications.

Now to the Inspector. On the top of the Inspector, under Synopsis is a note card. On it, you can jot a short synopsis of the file you're working on. I use it to write a brief synopsis of each chapter I can refer to at a glance. More on this later.

Below the synopsis card is the General Meta-Data section you'll use for compiling your work later. It'll guide you to compile it any way you want it, to suit the publisher you're sending it to.

Last, below the Meta-Data is a long section for Document Notes. Oh, I love this feature! As I work in each chapter, I can use this space to jot any notes that come to mind for what I have to do or points I need to remember. I can post links to websites or paste photos I need to refer to in my research. On the top tool bar in Scrivener, under Documents, there's a place to take a screen snapshot. Say you want to make changes to a scene, but you don't want to lose the previous version, just in case. Take a snapshot, and it'll show up in the notes section, as is. You can always pull it back in later if you don't like the changes you've made.

Primarily for a plotter like me, I can use the notes section to post my in-chapter outline. It's even handier than sticky notes! Pansters, take note, Scrivener has features you'll adore too.

Basic Scrivener Layout, Binder on the left of the word processor, Inspector on the right

Back to the Synopsis cards. Whether you're a panster or a plotter, one of the features that you'll love is the Corkboard. I've never been one for story-boarding, but I know a lot of folks who like to do that.

When you click on the Corkboard feature, all your synopsis cards will pin to a virtual corkboard. You can re-arrange them any time you want, and when you do, your chapter files will automatically rearrange themselves as well. You can add extra cards in between, thus adding an extra "scene" or "chapter file". You can use it to brainstorm ideas as you go along, or to rearrange an outline. In fact, if you're a writer who likes to write scenes as they pop into your head, out of order, then Scrivener's Corkboard is the ideal go-to tool for you to do that. There are numbers of ways to use the Corkboard feature, and creative minds will find a slew of them, I'm sure.

Corkboard with Synopsis Cards

This all sounds like a lot to absorb, and indeed, there's a bit of a learning curve. I'm discovering new things I can do with Scrivener every time I use it. Not everything in the word processor feature is arranged like it is in Word. I had to hunt to find out how to change my text format. There are buttons I haven't pushed yet. (Won't that be fun!) But if I can figure it out, you can do it too.

I don't particularly like the way the built in spell-checker works. It won't let me check the spelling on one word alone without going back to the top of the file document and starting there. In Word I like the way you can highlight a word or phrase and a little bar pops up to let you change the font, size, or switch to bold-face or italicize it. In Scrivener, you have to mouse to the bar at the top of the page to do that. A minor detail, but less convenient.

But those are all particular processing issues. The overall ability to organize is what really makes Scrivener work for novelists, and the $40 price tag is reasonable for those of us who haven't hit New York Times best-seller status. Plus Literature and Latte, the makers of Scrivener, lets you download a trial version for 30 days free. That makes it especially appealing. Do the free download when you know you're going to have the time to invest in exploring. Like I said, there's a learning curve.

One more thing about that learning curve, I recommend this video channel on YouTube full of succinct Scrivener tutorials. For a really quick jumpstart, try this one on Using Corkboard & Synopsis first. As for you Mac users, I hear there are even more Scrivener features with Scrivener for Mac. If you know about them and want to share insights, please do!

Are you a Scrivener user? What features do you love -- or find annoying? Which features did I miss writing about here that novelists are sure to find useful?

About Naomi:

Naomi writes both historical and contemporary women's fiction in which her aim is to surprise and entertain readers by telling stories of imperfect people who are finding faith and hope to overcome their struggles. Her most recent novel, The Black Rose, concludes her three-book Empire in Pine historical series. She invites you to visit her and investigate her series and other works at  on Facebook: or follow her on Twitter:!/NMusch

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Him and Me Want A Cookie
I've been reading a lot lately and more have been independently published novels. I'm no expert on grammar but the frequency of incorrect usage of pronouns has me bothered. I realize grammar isn't well taught in public schools today and many people use incorrect grammar when they speak and are not aware of it. However, as authors it's important, in my humble opinion, to set a decent example to those who are reading. So to help a little with this problem I'm giving you a common example I've seen lately. It seems that most of the problems come when there are two pronouns used in combination. He and I. Him and me.

Him/her - he she. It can be a possessive pronoun as in The ball is his. It can also be an object pronoun. Mary is going with her.
Her and I went shoe shopping. This is incorrect. The pronoun should be she. I hope you wouldn't say Me or Us went shoe shopping. Yes, Cookie Monster does, but in places other than Sesame Street we shouldn't. So the correct pronoun would be she.

The order of the pronouns also needs to be watched. It's proper to put yourself as the last in a combination. It's polite to do this. Jane and I rather that I and Jane. Another way I see this incorrectly used is Me and Jane went shoe shopping. Not only is the order wrong but so is the pronoun, unless you are Cookie Monster.

So, I guess the easiest way I've found to figure out the correct pronoun in a combination is to say it as if it's just me. I am going shoe shopping. If I works then use he or she. If it doesn't use him or her.

For a good easy site for grammar issues is: 

I hope this helps as you are writing to clear up some confusion about pronouns when more than one is used. Would you like a cookie?

Sophie Dawson is an author of Christian fiction. She has published three Historical Christian fiction novels; Healing Love, Lord's Love and Giving Love. They comprise the Cottonwood Series and are available on Amazon, Smashwords and other online retailers. Healing Love won best Religious Fiction in's 2012 contest. She is currently working on two novels for the new Stones Creek Series and one contemporary novel. She hopes to have all three released by the end of summer 2013.

Sophie lives on the family farm with her husband and cat. The mother of two grown and gone (yes! fist pump) sons and has the cutest granddaughter that ever lived. She loves reading, gardening and has done just about every kind of needlework.
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Monday, February 11, 2013

Research Ideas - Historical Accuracy Part 2


The review was a scathing commentary on a historical romance by an author with a big name publisher. The couple featured in this novel were actual historical figures and the reviewer’s complaint was this: The author should have checked with local historical societies to better characterize the protagonists.

I felt embarrassed for the writer. Despite the numerous four and five star reviews for this novel, I can only imagine the author’s consternation with such a criticism.

While it’s true that you can’t please everyone, most writers that I know want to be as accurate in their research as possible. And none of us wants that kind of criticism that says, “You weren’t careful with your facts.”

So how does a writer go about the practical aspects of research? Sophie Dawson’s recent post spurred my interest in carrying on this important discussion, because being accurate in both contemporary and historical venues is important. It gives our work credibility. And ultimately, if a reader trusts our research as well as appreciates our writing, they’ll often come back for more.

I confess to being far from perfect. In my second novel, The Promise of Deer Run, I inadvertently described a gunpowder horn as being a “deer antler.” One of my historian contacts pointed out that gunpowder was kept in cow’s horns. Duh! I knew that, yet I still wrote, read, and re-read this mistake. My editor even didn’t even catch it. But as Sophie so accurately pointed out, the responsibility lies with the writer, not the editor. It may seem small, but it was still an error.

When I wrote my latest manuscript, I had a question about oxen. Could oxen in a yoke reach the ground to graze? I had no idea. So I contacted my oxen expert (yes, I have one!). He assured me that it is possible for them to graze, even in a yoke, if left unattended. Voila. I had my answer. And it relieved me to know that no one would read that small excerpt and say, “Oxen couldn’t do that!”

I treasure my historian contacts that can verify or nullify my ideas. I have developed a network of experts in Massachusetts at several museums including the Springfield Armory, Storrowton Village, and the Springfield Museum itself that are an invaluable resource for details in my writing. With a quick e-mail or phone call, I can get all kinds of answers to questions that I might not find in my limited supply of books. The historians at museums are wonderful and usually more than willing to share their knowledge. Sometimes there are library archivists in larger museums that are also a font of knowledge.

A quick search of online museums in your desired location should produce one or more to check out. You want to find a museum that specializes in your era and in the locale that you are researching.

As far as books go, I have dozens. I tried using my local library as a resource but one very valuable volume that I found was limited to the numbers of times I could renew. I searched on Amazon for the out-of-print book and found a used copy. I have used it steadily ever since, proving it to be a wise investment.

Besides the books on my shelves, I regularly go online to check facts. In one of my searches for information on taverns (the motels of Colonial America), I found a group of descendants of tavern keepers from the 18th century!  

I also belong to a network of Colonial American Christian writers. We pick each other’s brains about details, hoping someone else might know the answer from their research.

Google is a gift, but I try to double-check my facts to be assured of authenticity. There are numerous Google books that are free to peruse that have historical facts. Some of them allow a download, which is extremely helpful.

But nothing beats the up close and personal visit to a site that is represented in a story that I am writing. The visual impressions that stir my imagination nourish the facts that I have learned, hopefully creating a novel worthy of anyone’s scrutiny.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Review: The Life And Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

I like to mix up my reading and one genre that I managed to overlook during my development was the classics. Yet as I've matured ("Aged," my wife would correct me), I've added them to my repertoire. 

'The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe' is the original deserted island story. Taking place in the mid 1600s, our protagonist, of English descent, moves to South America to farm and live a life of adventure, against his father's council. His entrepreneurial spirit yields excellent results and he becomes rather wealthy. However, rather than sit still, he decides to invest in the slave trade and sets sail for Africa. Getting caught in a storm, he barely survives shipwreck while his entire crew perishes. 

The tale is a story of survival and a great study of anthropology, as we look into a man's solitary life on a deserted island for over twenty- six years. Of interest is when Crusoe is walking on his island and discovers a footprint. He panics and runs back to his 'castle' and hides out for three days. 

The tome is written in such a different culture and time that it fascinates the reader, as Crusoe never flagellates himself for investing in slavery, yet with our perspective of the industry in the present, we would easily default to that mindset. Earlier in his life, Crusoe traveled by ship as well and was taken slave himself, a foreshadowing of his failure in seafaring ways. Additionally, you would think he would be repulsed at the idea of trafficking in human life. 

The story also depicts Crusoe's spiritual journey, as he manages to retrieve a Bible from the shipwreck. Upon his confession of faith, his perspective improves: “With these reflections I worked my mind up, not only to a resignation to the will of God in the present disposition of my circumstances, but even to a sincere thankfulness for my condition; and that I, who was yet a living man, ought not to complain, seeing I had not the due punishment of my sins; that I enjoyed so many mercies which I had no reason to have expected in that place; that I ought never more to repine at my condition, but to rejoice, and to give daily thanks for that daily bread, which nothing but a crowd of wonders could have brought...”

Reading classic works can be a struggle, as contrary to current work, they can be pedantic and slow. Yet while the book moves slowly (he can spend three pages describing how he protects and cares for his gunpowder), and the story itself depicts a deliberate and quiet life, the reading captures and holds one's interest. Contrary to what current writing teachers preach, the writer consistently tells rather than shows too, apparently not an issue in the seventeenth century. 

A captivating book, the story is similar to the analogy of watching a train wreck; one cannot not look at it. While a methodical train wreck, it nevertheless fascinates the reader.  
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Monday, February 4, 2013

Verbal Deprivation

Authors are depriving themselves. 

I don't know why, but for some reason, certain words and verb tenses have landed on someone's "hit list," and consequently have become taboo--to the detriment of clarity in our writing. I don't know who that "someone" is or why anyone should pay attention to his opinion, but editors who understand grammar wisely ignore him.

One of the words currently cloaked in shame is "was." To a certain extent, I understand this. "Was" is the primary marker of a passive sentence, something generally frowned upon in the world of fiction writing. But let's take a look at its other uses. One of these two sentences below is a sure-fire example of lazy writing. Guess which:
A. As I watched, I realized he was strong as an ox.
B. When I saw him, he was sitting by Sally.
Gold star to whoever said A.

"He was strong as an ox" is telling, and adding the simile--especially a cliche--doesn't help. That sentence is a sign of lazy writing. "As I watched, he lifted a one-ton Ford pickup with his bare hands" illustrates how strong he is and doesn't contain a single "was."

Past Continuous 

Example B, however, uses the past continuous (or past progressive) verb tense. It illustrates on-going action. To use simple past tense in this sentence changes the meaning: "When I saw him, he sat by Sally" means the main character watched him assume the seat beside Sally. "When I saw him, he was sitting by Sally" means he had already assumed the seat and was still there when the main character saw him.
Okay, granted, that seems like a fine line. The site describes it better:
The past continuous describes actions or events in a time before now, which began in the past and was still going on at the time of speaking. In other words, it expresses an unfinished or incomplete action in the past. 
It is used: 
often to describe the background in a story written in the past tense, e.g. "The sun was shining and the birds were singing as the elephant came out of the jungle. The other animals were relaxing in the shade of the trees, but the elephant moved very quickly." 
to describe an unfinished action that was interrupted by another event or action: "I was having a beautiful dream when the alarm clock rang."
Does that help clarify?

Past continuous is a valid verb tense and can't help it if "was" is part of its make-up. Be discriminating about the "was" verbs you're trying to obliterate from your work.

Past Perfect

Authors frequently write in past tense, but when they want to illustrate something that is further past in their story's history than simple "past," they should use the "past perfect" tense--which, unfortunately, is also on the hit list. This is another one I can understand to a certain extent. Reading that a character "had" done this and "had" done that through several paragraphs can be cumbersome, but leaving it out entirely can confuse the timeline in the reader's mind.

If you're doing a brief history, a brief backstory, use past perfect:
When she first got there, she had expected five-star treatment since she was a move star.  Instead, she'd been treated as if she were no one special. Now, she realized they had given her special treatment--they'd treated her as if she were family.
As short as this is, the past perfect tense isn't bothersome, and it helps to use contractions to cut down on the "hads." To stretch this into several paragraphs of backstory, however, the past perfect tense would be a pain.

The secret is to ground your reader in the backstory by using past perfect in the first several lines, then revert to past tense until the last several lines. Toward the end of the backstory, use past perfect again to cue the reader that you're ending the backstory and preparing to re-enter "story present" (which, of course, is told in past tense. Can we get any more confusing?).

But the best thing to do with long backstory passages is to determine whether the reader really needs to know what you're about to dump on her and whether there is a better way to present it--a topic best left to another post.

By the way, the paragraph I used for this example is complicated in itself, with several different verb tenses to describe an event in the character's backstory. Let's break it down:
When she first got there (simple past tense since she's still there), she had expected five star treatment (past perfect tense, the action had already occurred) since she was a movie star (and she still is--simple past tense). Instead, she'd been treated (past perfect) as if she were no one special (subjunctive tense--describing a condition that isn't true). Now, she realized (story present, which is written in past tense) they had given her special treatment (past perfect, the action had already occurred)--they'd treated her (past perfect) as if she were family (subjunctive).
Quick note on the subjunctive tense: it's used to describe a hypothetical--a condition that isn't true or event that didn't happen. It often sounds odd to the ear, so it's frequently omitted as a verb tense. For instance, "If I was president, I'd give everyone a tax break" should be "If I were president..." (but I'm not). "I don't know what I would've done if he escaped" should be "...what I would've done if he had escaped" (he didn't).

I believe this verb tense has been on everybody's hit list since we first learned it in grammar school. We rarely use it in writing, much less in speech where proper grammar is all but dead anyway. Which is why, when such sentences are found in dialogue, I don't mark them. Dialogue generally reflects the way we talk. I'm not so generous in the text, though. It doesn't hurt to use proper grammar--wait. I'd better quit here. I'll get on a soapbox, and you'll never hear the end of it . . .

(For more on the subjunctive, see "6 Forms of the Subjunctive Mood," by Mark Nichol on DailyWritingTips.)

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Friday, February 1, 2013

                                      Hide and Seek


                                        H. L. Wegley

It’s a minor security breach at National Aerospace in Washington state, but one that must be investigated: a single classified document left in a printer by a foreign national employee who shouldn’t have had access in the first place. Lee Brandt gets the assignment: investigate over the weekend and report on Monday. Lee checks the company laptop assigned to the foreign national, who has departed the country. There he finds Trojan horse malware that he can’t decipher. So he calls his former professor, who provides Jennifer Akihara, a computer genius who has worked for both the FBI and NSA.
Jennifer not only deciphers the Trojan horse, but finds that it leads to terrorist contacts outside the United States. Unfortunately, she disables the Trojan. So when she and Lee leave the building, they are marked for death by waiting terrorists. The terrorists bomb Lee’s car and give chase when Lee and Jennifer try to escape in hers. The chase forces the pair away from possible help into the mountains of the Washington countryside. There Lee’s boyhood knowledge of a mountain and its caves gives him temporary advantage over the terrorists. From that point in the narrative, the author’s detailed knowledge of caves and spelunking provides a chill-packed account of his hero and heroine’s attempts to escape their pursuers, resulting in a thrilling climax and a resolution very different from any I’ve encountered in suspense novels.
But interest is not limited to details of suspense, for the contrast of hero and heroine leads to built-in conflicts. He is a Christian who gave up the dating game years ago. She is a strikingly beautiful agnostic repelled by male responses to her beauty rather than to her character and talents. Their contrasting viewpoints precipitate delightful discussions that go both broader and deeper than those of the usual CBA novel.
The book is also aided by the author’s personal acquaintance with industrial problems such as outsourcing, and he shows good knowledge of real-life security clearances and procedures as well as intimate knowledge of computers. He is able to explain these complex subjects in terms that the ordinary layman can understand. These qualities and the quickly moving narrative maintain high interest throughout the novel. All in all, a very good performance in the author’s debut novel.

Reviewed by Donn Taylor, author of Deadly Additive, The Lazarus File, etc.
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