Sunday, March 24, 2019

Mapping a Story

I’m currently plotting my next book. I don’t mean plotting as in story ideas. I mean getting out a map and figuring where to put things.
This part of writing always brings up questions that can get trickier than whether my character should live in Oakland or Berkeley. The most consistent is whether I should stick with reality or make something up. The answer varies depending on the needs of my story—and my need not to get sued.
If the scene calls for a bustling restaurant in a busy commercial district, I’m probably safe using a real one if my characters are having a nice meal while gossiping about their co-workers. If they need to find a dead body—or worse, a rat infestation—I’m definitely better off making up an eatery and being vague on the location (the crowded restaurant was on Solano Avenue).
The same goes for where characters live. It’s not advisable to use an actual address, but saying “The house was a restored Craftsman on Elm Street” will work fine, unless Elm Street has only one Craftsman that can be easily identified in real life. If that’s the case, I can broaden it: “A restored Craftsman in the South City neighborhood.” Or I can consider making up an entire street. This can be really freeing—I can set an apartment building on fire, or turn a house down the street into a drug den, or do anything else I need to help advance my story.
Sometimes, though, real buildings are necessary. Maybe a story absolutely has to have a character live, say, in the famous Dakota apartment building in New York City. In a situation like this, I would probably make up an apartment number. That would get me a real place with just enough distance for fictional freedom.
Sometimes I really have to search for what I need. My current hunt is for a deserted, middle-of-nowhere location that still is within a specific distance from my character’s home. This is turning out to be tougher than I thought it would be. (And yes, I realize I wouldn’t be having this problem if I hadn’t set the book in the seven-million-resident Bay Area.) So for this, I dusted off the real, honest-to-goodness paper maps. For me, they work much better as I spatially orient myself. They’re also wonderful for writing on, which makes it a lot easier as I go back again and again the further I get into my manuscript.
When you write, how do you decide on your locations? Do you fictionalize? And when you read, do you check to see if the locations in the book are real?

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 12

Scott D. Parker

One event dominated this week. Another was just fun.


Being the Bronze Age kid I was growing up, the comics of the 1970s are the ones that shaped what I like about comics. The Jim Aparo Batman is my favorite Batman. He's the one I think of almost always first when I hear the Caped Crusader's name.

I own a ton of comics and I started re-reading some of the Batman titles I have, and a small run of four issues caught my attention. Published in 1976 to coincide with the Olympics that year, the Underworld Olympics find criminals from all over the world converging on Gotham City to try and best Batman.

Yeah, really.

I read these four issues (272-275) and, naturally, I wrote about them. Here are the links.

Batman 272
Batman 273
Batman 274
Batman 275


Wednesday night here in Houston, my wife and I were treated to something very special. A group of folks from David Bowie's touring bands now put on shows that showcase and marvel at the music of the Thin White Duke. Spearheaded by pianist Mike Garson, A Bowie Celebration is just that: a celebration. No, it isn't a tribute band, so don't think that. Heck, even writing those words does this group an injustice. These are professional muscians interpreting Bowie's music but adding their own individual spins on the songs.

It truly was something special. How special? Well, the length of my review pretty much says it all.

A Bowie Celebration Exceeds Expectations

Oh, and what do you think? Does Charlie Sexton resemble Bowie's American cousin?


I am readying the next story that'll be published on 1 April. By this time next week, I'll have the description ready. Boy, sometimes these are tough. One book among many I use to help is Dean Wesley Smith's HOW TO WRITE FICTION SALES COPY.

I'm also looking ahead to May when the third Calvin Carter novel, AZTEC SWORD, will be released to the world.


Here in Houston, if you look past the giant plume of black, chemically laced smoke, the week was one the chamber of commerce wishes would happen more often. The sun was bright, the sky mostly clear of clouds, and the temperatures ranged from the uppers 70s to the low 80s.

It was picture perfect. (Truth be told, I'm sitting outside my office on a picnic bench, table umbrella shading my screen, and loving that winter is finally in our rear-view window.)

With the change of seasons comes a change in what I prefer consuming. When the sun's out, I like action/adventure stories. Tales bigger than life. Beach reads, if you will.

I'm still reading Brian Daley's HAN SOLO AT STARS' END for my science fiction book club. And APOLLO 8 is still on my Audible.

But the book I will be finishing this week is the latest by "Richard Castle." CRASHING HEAT is the latest (last?) inspired by the TV show, "Castle." We all know who the real-life author behind the Richard Castle moniker is, and his prose is effortless. I learn a lot from how he structures a story, breaking down the book. I'll do it for CRASHING HEAT as well as soon as I complete my initial read.


The cover story of the March edition of TEXAS MONTHLY features the genesis of Buc-ee's, the chain of stores dotting the Texas landscape that have become destination spots for all travelers. I really enjoyed learning of its origins as well as the man behind the empire.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Dead.... and loving it


By Derek Farrell 

I've been raving about Jo Perry’s Charlie and Rose series – centring on a ghost and his sole constant companion, an emaciated phantom red setter dog – for years now, even getting my blurb ("Like 'The Wire' meets 'The Tibetan Book of The Dead,'" in case you're interested) quoted on the books and the lady's website, and have given copies of the books to friends and family and anyone who I think will love the mix of crime, metaphysics, and cynical humour.
That cynicism, I'm increasingly sure, is based not on pure negativity but on the idea that a cynic is an optimist who's been disappointed once too often; but Perry and her protagonist seem, as the series progresses, to be coming close to rediscovering some optimism: The world may be a seemingly bottomless pit of grim, but there are still good people occasionally. And dogs. Always, there are dogs.
The series is on its fourth outing this time round and shows no signs of series fatigue. Rather, it's getting better and better. If the first three novels (Dead is Dead is Better / Best / Good) gave us links to Charlie’s life pre-decease, but always focussed on people we feel might have liked if not loved him, this time the book is focussed on his “Shit brother,” a venal unpleasant bully who made Charlie’s life a misery, and who’s life is now about to become far more, shall we say, challenging.
Also in the mix is a homeless woman who’s vileness is brilliantly portrayed. This woman and her seemingly hopeless search are proof that despite the surreality of the concept, Perry writes real, complex, contradictory characters who feel alive. Even when they’re dead. Her story arc in this one is absolutely heartbreaking and – without spoilers – the ultimate outcome of both hers and Shit Brother’s stories are wonderfully drawn, genuinely touching and still edged with that ambiguity that is the mark of true Noir.
The other thing Perry has always been good at, but which really comes to the fore in Dead is Beautiful, is comedy. Here she mixes it with some amazing dramatic set-pieces, and the meld is never jarring, with one leading seamlessly and almost inexorably into the other.
A scene of an owl attack on the hapless brother, and its aftermath, had me literally crying with laughter, the intelligently written slapstick and foul mouthed tirades loosed in the aftermath like a wildlife documentary “When Owls Attack” scripted by Larry David, and the description of a natural disaster – the surreality heightened by the fact that the event is witnessed and described to us by a man who’s been dead for years – is chilling in its power and destructiveness, and cinematic in the writing (unsurprisingly, perhaps, as Perry has been a Hollywood writer on TV and movies in the past).
And this familiarity – with Hollywood, with (as she calls it) Beverly Fucking Hills – makes for a really entertaining read. Here is an understanding of some of the less loveable inhabitants of that town, an anger at the greed profligacy and venality, but ultimately – as happens with Charlie – a recognition that there are many good people trying to live good lives amongst them, many decencies lost in the noise, and that people can go astray. And, in some cases, be found again.
If crime novels are Redemption stories, either about the achievement of redemption or – in the absence of same – about the impact that a life lived without the possibility of some elevation has on the individual and those around them, then these books sit squarely in the cannon of great crime novels.

And if Netflix needs something in the lines of “Dirk Gently” but with a red setter and a corpulent dead guy who’s not only, in his afterlife, learning more about himself, the people he loved and the world he once inhabited; but about what it means to be human, to be afraid and, when all’s said and done, what it means to be truly alive, then they should definitely be talking to Perry’s media agent.

Highly – and genuinely – recommended.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Anthologies and Collections, Investigations and Love Songs

This year there is no Anthony Award for Best Short Story Collection or Anthology. Let me get this out of the way: there's no grand conspiracy, and the outcry is so great that there will certainly be one next year. Many attendees reached out to the Bouchercon board and steering committees, and they were surprised at the response.

I'm glad they will be back next year, because anthologies are a great way for new writers to reach readers without hiring a publicist. Not every publisher can rent the ballroom for a big gala at a major convention, but presses big and small publish anthologies of various themes, with big names as bait and writers you may not know yet. For example, Rogues edited by George R.R. Martin was a big one a few years ago, capitalizing on Game of Thrones and luring readers who might think every story was about their Dungeons & Dragons style level 2 footpad into reading a crime story by Joe Lansdale. Not that Joe is new. Scott Lynch was new in comparison to the other writers in the roster, and may be a better example, even if his Gentleman Bastard series is quite popular.

Crime fiction anthologies aren't quite as popular as horror, science fiction, and fantasy, but there are several great ones every year, such as The Highway Kind, or Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block, which I happen to have a story in next to giants like Lee Child and Joyce Carol Oates. It doesn't only feel good, but you get seen by more readers than you ever have before. LB's first art-themed anthology, In Sunlight or in Shadow, was even bigger, with Stephen King and Lee Child, plus newer writers like Warren Moore. It introduced me to writers I didn't know, such as Nicholas Christopher, whose story still haunts me. They are great for established writers and new.

And so are short story collections.

Some folks plain hate short story collections. I asked their reasoning, and was told that as soon as you like a character in a short story, it's over. So that's why "linked story" collections are more popular. And readers who don't have time to sit and finish a story have trouble keeping them straight, while in a novel, you can usually pick up where you left off more easily. I understand, I even prefer novels myself, as much as I love a great short story. It really can be like Forrest Gump said, a box of chocolates, where unless you get the Russell Stover Cherry Cordials, you just never know what you're gonna get. If you happen to just like the hell out of candy, you'll be a happy reader.

I have a dog in this race, because my first Anthony nomination was as editor of Protectors 2: Heroes. And a lot of my favorite lesser-known writers have had nominations for short story collections and novellas, such as Jen Conley, Chris Irvin, and Angel Luis Colon. Readers got to see their mugs in the Bouchercon program, and maybe they read their books. Story collections and anthologies introduced me to countless writers in all genres, from Octavia Butler and Vonda McIntyre, to Scott Philips and even Megan Abbott (her story in L.A. Noire is a killer!). So don't underestimate a story collection or a themed anthology. The themed ones seem to do best, and old pros like LB know the score. That's why his latest, At Home in the Dark, is themed around the dark outlook inspired by O. Henry's last words. And Holly West, editor of Murder-a-Go-Go's, themed hers around the music of the band The Go-Go's.

What's my theme around those? I happen to have a story in each of them, "We Got the Beat" in the Go-Go's antho (I had "This Town" in mind until no one took their biggest hit song, then I grabbed it) and "The Cucuzza Curse," in AHITD. LB has Joe Hill, James Reasoner, Joyce Carol Oates, and more in that one, so my readers can be introduced to them. Ha, ha. Joe Hill's novella "Faun" has already been picked up by NetFlix for adaptation, so hopefully we'll get a lot of new readers meeting Joe Cucuzza with this one....which was supposed to drop on April 30th, but is now available to order in ebook or paperback.

Since we can't vote for best anthology or story collection at Bouchercon, what were your favorites of last year? Florida Happens was a blast. You can always nominate individual stories! I don't have any published this year, but there were plenty of fine ones written.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Losers (But Not Really)

In fiction, we spend so much time with people who don't get what they want or who "lose" in some fashion. These stories hold appeal on many levels.  Among other things, those who strive but fail in some way are often more interesting as human beings than those who attain victory.   Also, those who "lose"  are more like us, you could say, since anyone who's honest understands that way more of life is about not getting what you want, not achieving success quite as you envision it, than getting what you want.  For every big so-called win, there tend to be innumerable small (and sometimes even big) losses. And then, of course, there's crime fiction, noir fiction in particular, which frequently explores loss, downward spirals, and destruction. If you like those kind of tales, or even if you don't, there's a good chance you'll enjoy the new Netflix series, Losers.

Losers, created and directed by Mickey Duszjy, is a spin on the sports documentary genre.  There are eight episodes of about 30 minutes each.  Each episode is about an athlete or team that in one way or another, in their particular sport, whether in one game or event or over the course of their career, failed. Duszjy grew up a Detroit Lions fan (which explains a lot), and he says, "It always struck me that everybody says that we learn more from our failures than we do from our victories, but that doesn't always manifest in popular culture or in conversations." 

Now let me say straight out that you most certainly do not have to be a sports fan type person to enjoy this series. Losers takes eight narratives about failure and turns them into fascinating character studies. They are also tales with wild reversals, twists and turns, and a good deal of humor.

There's the story of Michael Bentt, who in the 1990's, very briefly was a heavyweight champion.  As he explains, the knockout he suffered to lose that championship was the best thing that ever happened to him, and if he looks familiar to you, it might be because you've seen him since his time as a fighter in movies such as Michael Mann's Ali.

The epic saga of continual defeat and fight for survival that is the history of forth rate English soccer team Torquay United makes for an episode that is both poignant and very funny, and it has an ending that definitely rates as a "you could not make this up" classic.

There is a wonderful episode about Italian policeman and endurance athlete Mauro Prosperi who literally became lost in the Sahara Desert during the 1994 Marathon of the Sands and one about that Canadian obsession curling and how curler Pat Ryan took a shocking loss he suffered at the hands of legend Al (The Iceman) Hackner and used it to remake himself as something else within the sport.  

Actually, the only story I was familiar with was the one about figure skater Surya Bonaly, from France, since I remember her well from watching her skate during two or three Olympics. As a black skater in a lily-white skating world, whose athletic superiority over her competitors was clear, it's great to see how she has gone on with her life after all the years of frustration that came from judges underscoring her.

What's great is how each episode looks at failure from a different, unexpected angle, so that even the word "failure" takes on a quite nuanced meaning.  You never ever know where something major that happens to you will lead in life, and this series shows that in absolute spades.  It's marvelous storytelling, and the way it's done, with warmth and appropriate levity, mixing event footage with interviews and amusing animation, is great.  I had a wonderful time watching this series and would say again that whether or not you're a sports person doesn't matter. Losers is for anyone interested in good stories, life's oddness, and other human beings.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Magic of Miraculum

Steph Post spins a dark, mysterious tale.

Steph Post is known for her gritty, rural sagas. Having been a fan since the Hart family tale in A TREE BORN CROOKED, I, like so many others, jump with joy when she delivers a new book. 

I find it impossible not to be drawn in by her authentic and striking way of presenting a story.  Her purposeful way with words and intentional cadence, elements that perfectly illustrate a clear command of her massive talent and be sure, these skills are hard won through years of learning and teaching the art of writing. Immersing herself in the dark mystique of Southern Noir. Watching the world turn.

Her Judah Cannon series, LIGHTWOOD and WALK in the FIRE, is thick with characters living a hard life in north-central Florida, existing hand to mouth, desperate, and willing to do the unthinkable. These stories are packed with crime, violence, and greed, and a family dynamic that will remind you of the best mob tales. Only a writer with true talent can sew all these patches together.

With her latest release, Miraculum, Steph Post delves into magical and fantastical realms while using her Southern Gothic sensibilities for flavor. Post takes us to the Florida of 1922, after the Great War and before the Great Depression. We are introduced to Pontilliar’s Spectacular Star Light Miraculum carnival. 

We meet our main character, Ruby, daughter to the owner of the carnival, the snake charmer whose body is covered with tattoos. Ruby is a tough survivor trying to work past her secrets and lowly life, daring to dream of a life outside the carnival. We come to see what Ruby wants and what she fears. We get close to her.

Soon we meet a tall man by the name of Daniel, a fastidious man in an immaculate black suit who joins the carnival as a chicken-biting geek. He quickly charms the carnival troop, everyone except Ruby. As accidents and calamity befall the carnival Ruby begins to wonder if Daniel is more than he seems and what he may want with her family and friends.

Steph Post brings her characters to life with an extraordinary sense of detail. Her way around dialogue is tight and it is apparent she did her homework in researching the time period and the lifestyle of traveling carnivals. All of your senses are brought into play.You will feel transported.

The same striking aspects of Post’s previous works are present in Miraculum; atmosphere, action, and storyline, but she has followed her imagination and enlarged her world. Under Steph Post’s lyrical knack, Miraculum dances in the weird, creepy, and supernatural. An awesome read, this is a magical book that will leave you enthralled until the last word.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 11

Scott D. Parker

This was almost Week 3 redux.


Back in Week 3, I mentioned that there would be down weeks. It happens in just about every profession you can imagine, and it certainly happens in the writing life.

It was Spring Break here in Houston. Fewer people were actually in the office at my day job and the traffic was wonderfully light. Except for Monday when I took the day off, I woke at my usual 4:45 am (getting used to daylight saving time means no 4:30 for this week), exercised, and then wrote. It made for a quieter-than-normal week.

And it was nice.


On the day off, the family and I traveled north of Houston to Spring and the giant antique store up there. A few years ago when we last went, a book dealer with shelves was there. Well, it's not there anymore, but that was okay. There were about five dealers with hundreds of records.

And we looked through most of them.

I came away with only one LP: Chicago XI, Terry Kath's last. The wife purchased two, while our boy took home four. Yup, the teenager bought more records than his parents combined. Go figure.

It's a funny thing when you have a teenager and he wants a turntable. Now our game room/his fun room has a turntable to go with the stereo system. We can all jam to records while playing video games.


The new Ben Wade story is inching its way up to novella territory. Novelette for sure. It's up to Chapter 10 and I've got the big finale to finish with the obvious denouement afterwards. What struck me during the process of this story is that it's definitely not like the three Wade novels I've already finished. I mentioned in week 7 this novella is written in third person, not the usual first person POV. That's just a prose choice. What I'm finding interesting is the style. It's a shade darker than the three novels. Things happen that actually move Wade along in his character development.

It also means I'll have to publish Novel #3 first before this story goes out into the world.

Which means I'll need another short story ready for 1 April.


The big news this week was one I actually missed last Saturday.

"Castle," one of my all-time favorite TV shows, turned ten on 9 March. I wrote a lengthy post about it, and received some of my best feedback. I got lots of comments from folks over on my main author blog. It was really nice to revisit all that I love about this show.


Speaking of Castle, out of the blue, a new Richard Castle novel, CRASHING HEAT, was published on Tuesday. I had pre-ordered the audio and started listening on day one. Within seconds, I was back in the groove with Niiki Heat, Jameson Rook, the prose of "Richard Castle," and the narration of Robert Petkoff. He's got a great knack of getting the nuances of Fillion's voice without actually mimicking him.

The Castle novel put APOLLO 8 on the back burner for a couple of days, but I got back to it yesterday. What I enjoy about simultaneously listening/reading both non-fiction and fiction is being able to go back and forth depending on my mood.

In the chapter I listened to yesterday, the mission of Gemini 7 was described. Can you imagine spending two weeks in space inside a capsule little bigger than a Volkswagon? Yeah, I can't either.


I saw both Captain Marvel and Bohemian Rhapsody this week. I reviewed them both.

How was your week?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Summer of Noir

By David Nemeth

I'm proud to announce that in this summer I will be organizing four Noir at the Bars to be held at Stoney's Pub in Wilmington Delaware. The Summer of Noir series will be held on four separate nights of May 19th, June 9th, July 21st, and August 18th. These Sunday night Noir at the Bar events will begin at 6 PM and end 8 PM. The Summer of Noir series will give between 24 and 28 different writers an opportunity to read their best short fiction in front of an audience thirsty for dark crime fiction and British beer.

And you guessed it, we are looking for writers to read during the Summer of Noir series. One of the great things about Stoney's Pub in Wilmington, Delaware is that is located just off of I-95 and is about 2 hours from New York City, Washington, DC, and the Delaware beaches. By having the Summer of Noir series on a Sunday night this will hopefully allow non-Delaware writers the opportunity to come and read.

If you're from the Delaware area and you don't know what the whole Noir at the Bar thing is, come out to Stoney's on April 15th when I'll be putting on a Noir at the Bar which is part of Ed Aymar's infamous Noir at the Bar Crawl.  The Wilmington Noir at the Bar, which begins at 7 PM, will be hosted by Meghan Burns and have readings by Jason Beech, Robin Hill-Page Glandenm, Jeff Markowitz, Joanne M Reinbold, Chris Rhatigan, and myself.

As I mentioned earlier, I'm looking for between six and seven readers for all four nights this summer.  Reach out to me via email ( or on Facebook or Twitter. All spots are currently open, so please reach out to me. Stoney's Pub is a great place to bring the family to eat and are very supportive of hosting the Noir at the Bar events.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

50 Blog Tour Post Ideas for Crime Fiction Writers

Scott's Note: Richie Narvaez guest blogs today, giving some ideas on how authors, particularly indie ones like himself, can up their blog tour game.  Richie's doing the blog tour thing himself now because his debut novel is out - Hipster Death Rattle. 

Richie's a guy who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an area now known for trendiness and hipsters.  Into this mix, in his book, Richie puts a person who is using a machete to kill various hipsters in the neighborhood.  This can't be good for Williamsburg's reputation.  Hipster Death Rattle is a sardonically told crime novel, with the mystery playing out against a backdrop of gentrification, very high rents, and class tension.  It's an engaging read, quite well-plotted, with sharp social commentary.

But anyway, here's Richie with his ideas on authorial self-promotion.

50 Blog Tour Post Ideas for Crime Fiction Writers
by Richie Narvaez

Publicizing your new crime fiction book doesn’t have to be murder. With my debut thriller out in the world — Hipster Death Rattle (Down & Out Books, 2019), available on IndieBound, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Buy it! Buy it now! — I have to find the optimal ways to publicize. 

One of the easiest and least expensive ways is the blog tour, in which a writer, much like a movie star rounding the chat shows, takes a virtual tour of a number of blogs, writing about topics that directly or indirectly play up his/her cozy, procedural, noir, what have you, all in the hopes of generating interest and of course sales. 

Now, coming up with topics to write about can be difficult — it took enough out of you just to write the damn book! So I’ve taken the liberty of listing some ideas for you here to try to make your next blog tour that much easier. 

1. Blog Tours Are Vital to Your Publishing Success
2. Why Blog Tours Are a Waste of Time
3. Why You Need an Agent
4. Pshhaw! No One Needs an Agent Anymore
5. Getting to Really Know Your Agent
6. Why Sleeping with Your Agent Is a Not a Good Idea 
7. My Agent Stabbed Me in the Back — Which Gave Me an Idea for My Next Thriller!
8. How a Night in Prison Inspired My Whodunnit
9. Being Married to a Police Detective’s Distant Cousin Made Me a Better Crime Writer
10. How My Cats Inspired My Gritty Noir
11. So Long, Sam Spade! Private Eye Novels Are Passé
12. How to Interview Real Serial Killers for Your Book
13. Uh Oh, Are You Being Stalked?
14. Talking to Real Life Private Eyes and Security Experts 
15. Need to Change Your Identity and Live Off the Grid?
16. Welcome Back, Chandler! Private Eye Novels Are Back
17. Start Your Writing Career by Writing Short Stories
18. Why No One Reads Anthologies Anymore
19. Setting Could Be Your Procedural’s Most Important Character
20. Why a Cat Could Be Your Mystery Novel’s Most Important Character
21. Say What? How to Create Realistic Dialogue
22. Why Your Dialogue Can’t Be “Too Real”
23. Don't Overthink Dialogue. You're Not a Playwright, You Know
24. Writing Careers Are Tough on Marriages
25. Just Leave Me Alone and Let Me Write Already!
26. Can Your Relationship Survive Your Writing Career?
27. 10 Steps to Researching How to Commit a Murder
28. Why You Should Learn All You Can about Forensics
29. Where to Hire a Hit Man
30. 5 Steps to Clearing Your Browser Search History
31. A Cat Is a Writer’s Best Companion, Cheerleader, and Beta Reader
32. How to Come Up with a Third Act Twist No One Will See Coming
33. Why Do People Marry Serial Killers?
34. How to Create . . . Wait . . . Wait for It . . . Waaaaait . . . Here It Is: Suspense!
35. How to Plot Your Cozy in 5 Steps
36. How to Plot Your Cozy in 10 Steps
37. How to Let Your Cozy Plot Itself
38. Your Mystery Won't Sell without a Cat in It
39. Make Sure to End Your Book with a Surprise!
40. How to Write an Honest Book Review
41. I Give All My Friends 5 Stars on Amazon, No Matter What
42. 5 Reasons Why Crime Fiction Is Really Fantasy Fiction
43. 10 Reasons Why Crime Fiction Is Really Horror Fiction
44. One Reason Why Crime Fiction Is Really Crime Fiction
45. Why Serial Killers Don't Make Good Roommates
46. How Can You Make Your Villain Likable?
47. Get on Social Media to Sell Your Suspense Novel
48. Why Social Media Is Passé
49. Why No One Reads to the End of Your Blog Posts
50. Why a Human Sacrifice to the Cat God May Be Your Only Hope for Crime Fiction Publishing Success

You can get Hipster Death Rattle right here.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The 3 Essential Principles of Storytelling

I’ve been actively pursuing a career in writing for more than a decade and have read countless books on writing. I’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules, and was a devotee of Lawrence Block’s column on fiction writing in Writer’s Digest.

plants growing out of a manual typewriter
Photo credit: Shelby Miller on Unsplash
In all that time, I’ve boiled down what I’ve learned into three general principles. The overarching idea is to keep the reader reading.

The reader wants to be entertained. If your story does that (and your reader is hoping it does), then you will reap the rewards.

But all too often, a writer will violate one of these three principles, and the reader gets pulled out of the story. They stop reading.

When that happens, they don’t leave glowing reviews. They don’t recommend it to their friends. And they don’t buy your next book.

So before you submit your book to your publisher, or hit publish on KDP, take time to ask whether your story passes muster on these three points.

Principle #1: Don’t bore the reader.

Life is short. There are too many great books out there for your reader to waste time on a boring story. So you better make damn sure your story isn’t boring.

a bored man sitting in front of a taxi cab
Photo by Julian Howard on Unsplash
Elmore Leonard said he left out the parts that readers skipped over. He didn’t want to bore his readers. Which is why he would sometimes sum up bits of dialogue with a line of narration. Because maybe we already know what the characters would say.

If Raylan Givens tells a cop who just showed up on the scene what just happened, we don’t necessarily need to hear three pages of Raylan recounting what we already witnessed as readers.

So Elmore Leonard might instead just say, Raylan told Officer Jones what just happened, leaving out all the boring parts.

Info dumps also tend to be boring, especially in the middle of a scene. It’s like racing down the street and suddenly killing the engine for no reason. The action abruptly stops. The thrill is gone, baby. The reader tosses the book aside. Next!

Without giving the readers a full accounting of our character’s histories at the beginning of the book, we’re afraid we will pull the readers out of the story. But doing so can put readers in a coma.

The best way to fix this is by identifying the absolutely critical elements in the info dump, intersperse those bits into action and/or dialogue, then toss the rest. Because readers are smarter than you think. They are used to figuring things out from context. And what they don’t figure out right away can introduce a sense of intrigue that will keep them reading.

Also, look at how you describe characters. Does the reader need to know that the receptionist in the office has blond hair? Or is it more revealing that his clothes are rumpled? See what I just did there? You were assuming the receptionist was a woman, huh?

Describe characters in ways that reveal who they are, not just what they look like. Jim Butcher is especially good at this. He can tell you three things about a character, and you know as much about their personality or history as what they look like.

Okay, enough on this principle. You get the point. I don’t want to bore you.

Principle #2: Don’t insult the reader or their intelligence.

a woman with shocked expression staring at a laptop
That whole thing about writing what you know? It's bull hockey! Well, to an extent.

It's okay to write about things you don't have personal experience with, provided you do the proper research. This applies to writing about space exploration, police procedures, and locations you've never visited.

One of my pet peeves are scenes where someone’s house has been broken into and the cop says, “The lock doesn’t appear to be picked. There are no scratches on the lock.”

Granted most people aren’t as familiar with lockpicking as I am (long story for another time). Thing is, unless a burglar is a complete klutz, they won't be scratching up the outside of the lock. The picks go INSIDE the cylinder.

If you don't want to look like a fool, do your research and have an expert in the field beta-read your story to check for glaring errors. Because readers will tell you when you screw up and ding you in reviews. Better to learn about it before it goes out to the world.

woman holding a rainbow pride flag
Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
The same goes for writing about marginalized communities of which you are not a member. As an outsider to that community, you are missing a lot of context—lingo, cultural references, and social taboos, just as an example.

So if you are writing about a transgender woman, do your freakin’ research on what it’s like to be transgender in this day and age. There are lots of YouTube channels from trans people who share what they face on a day-to-day basis.

I can’t count the number of poor representations of trans characters I’ve read or seen on the screen. Trans women stumbling around in heels or the trans hooker trope, that kind of crap. It just turns me off.

Once you’ve done your research and have written as authentic a character as you can, have a sensitivity reader take a look at it. Not only will they help you avoid alienating readers, but they will help you create a more nuanced, authentic character.

Principle #3: Don’t confuse your readers (at least not for too long)

Stranger Things logo
It took me three or four episodes before I had any clue what was going on in the Netflix series Stranger Things. A lot of people quit watching after one episode because it was too confusing. Eventually, I caught on and fell madly in love with the show.

I also struggled quite a bit reading the first book in Jim Butcher’s Cinderspire series because the world was so different than what I could relate to. And I’m a big fan of his Dresden Files novels.

If you throw so much at your readers at once that they get completely confused, they will stop reading.

A little confusion is okay and can generate intriguing questions in the reader’s mind, propelling them through the story. But if you push it too far, they will toss the book aside. Readers don’t mind figuring things out from context, but don't make them do advanced calculus along the way.

I struggled with this a little bit with my outlaw biker series. There is a lot of lingo that is foreign and confusing to non-bikers. What’s a bitch seat? What does it mean to ride sweep? What’s a cut? What are twisties? What does it mean to scrape the pegs? I knew what they were because I'm a biker. But most of my readers are not.

So much of this is a balancing act. You don’t want to bore the readers or insult their intelligence by overexplaining things. At the same time, you don’t want them so confused that they throw your book at the wall in frustration. So how do you know where the happy medium is?

Get feedback from critique partners or beta-readers, especially people who may not be as versed as you are on the topic.

Final Thoughts and Parting Shots

Your book is a partnership between you, as the author, and the reader. Your goal is not only to tell a story, but to tell it in a way that keeps the reader reading. Because if they stop reading, they probably won't leave a review. They won't recommend it to their friends. And they won't buy or read your next book. So keep the readers reading. Follow these three principles.

photo of dharma kelleher
As one of the few transgender authors in crime fiction, Dharma Kelleher writes gritty stories for misfits, oddballs, and eccentrics. 

She is the author of the Jinx Ballou bounty hunter series and the Shea Stevens outlaw biker series. You can learn more about Dharma and her work at