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Mystery and Romance (Debra Black)

It’s early February and romance is in the air… or at least plastered all over store shelves. When it comes to mysteries the idea of a mystery-romance isn’t a new concept. Romance can add a certain spice to your writing, giving your reader another angle for targeting the “what if?” scenario while attempting to piece together the culprit and motive. However, there is a limit to how much some people can stand when the going gets sappy.

When you first write a mystery-romance, it may seem ideal to have your characters’ interpersonal relations be as detailed as possible. After all, you want to make sure the reader is fully aware and involved with the attraction between those characters. What doesn’t make sense is playing the romance up and forgetting about the mystery. Romances can contain elements of mystery, and mysteries can contain romance, but the tone of the book should make clear which of the two you are concentrating on.

If you want to write a romance, the relationships between the main characters should be your focus. The emotions, physical interactions, and interpersonal conflicts experienced should be more prevalent than any mystery that might cause a conflict or barrier to the relationship between those characters.

When writing a mystery, the plot should concentrate more on the details of the mystery. More of the romantic elements can be relegated to off-scene byplay. This leaves the reader more room for imaginative creativity. The puzzle, and its solution, should be the focus of the story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying a steamy scene in your mystery should be deleted or never written. Romance can be used to create conflicts such as the main character having to protect a love-interest from, or reveal as, an element of the villainous machinations behind the evil deed that he/she is trying to uncover. The romantic interest can also be a source of comfort or inspiration for the main character. The main interactions between these characters can be used to generate reader sympathy and deepen our understanding of the emotional forces driving those characters, but should not be so in-depth that we spend an entire chapter just working through their “feelings” for each other without any reference to the mystery at hand.

My final advice is this: If you do find yourself writing a mystery that is more romance than mystery, don’t stop! There are places in this world for both kinds of writing. If you want to concentrate more on the mystery, then write what you will, edit the extraneous romance out, and keep it for another book that may concentrate more on romance than mystery. It’s not bad to be romantically detailed. Just keep it in mind while you create your passionate scenes during this “season of love” that your significant other may become annoyed if you only write the romance.

–Debra Black

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When Words Grow Up & Want To Leave Home


January 2018  


If you’re like me, not really a novice anymore but not quite ready for that leap of insanity, or faith, then you scour magazines, sign up for webinars, and click on anything that might help you hone your craft. There was an article in the January 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest that I thought belonged in my time corridor.

I read my hot-off-the-press January 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest in December. A bit early, but I wanted to check out the deadlines for their 87th Annual Writing Competition. Once I noted the contest deadlines on my trusty calendar, I happened across an article by Lucy Snyder titled, “Applying Poetics to Prose” and subtitled “The Poetry of Flash Fiction.” Catchy title. I love writing poetry, and since flash fiction has always eluded me due to a tendency to overwrite, I wanted to know more. She suggested using a discarded poem or a poem that just wasn’t working, and transforming it into a short story, i.e., flash fiction! So obvious, why didn’t I think of it? After all, as she reminded us, poems are complete stories condensed, but they can easily be expanded into 300 or 500 words. What if your poem’s not working as a poem because it secretly dreams of being a short story? What would happen if you took that poem, stretched it a little, blended in some prose, and allowed it to blossom into fiction.

If poetry isn’t your thing, try tinkering with those little ideas that are pretty amazing—you know the ones I’m talking about—those germs of what-ifs that come at 2:00 in the morning, but don’t contain the wherewithal to morph into a novel. Yeah, those. Play with them, explore what prompted the idea to begin with, and lastly, “engage the senses” (as Lucy says in her article). But be careful. She warns us to be specific, bring the story to completion, and don’t forget plot or characterization.

Lightning struck, and I realized I’d already done that with a poem I wrote about a marriage falling apart on a train in Wales. It’s now a novella! Will it be a novel when it grows up? Entirely possible. Why didn’t I repeat the process with other poems? I considered it a fluke and didn’t purposefully try it with another poem that refused to stay a poem. When I expanded yet another poem, it worked again, and bloomed into a short story. I thought, hey, this is good stuff! Of course, my imagination flew into overdrive. Would it work just as well on nursery rhymes, or even songs! If the nursery rhyme of Old MacDonald Had a Farm had been fleshed out as fiction, would it have become something incredible like Charlotte’s Web? What about songs, which are simply poems put to music? I thought of the words to the famous Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. If that’s not a powerful story, I don’t know what is. Spoiler alert: it first appeared as a…you guessed it…poem. Allow me to tease you a little with the first three lines:

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there …

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to flesh that baby out, expand the setting, play with some dialogue, get into their mindsets, and follow wherever it leads me. Give it an actual ending. Even do a little head-hopping. Wait—did I say that out loud? Don’t forget about quotes, sayings, maxims, and proverbs. What’s the difference between Confucius’ famous saying, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” and Shakespeare’s MacBeth? Around 17,110 words, give or take.

So how about taking some time to resurrect what’s not working in one form and breathe new life into it. Does it work in reverse? Sure thing. If a novella isn’t working, try taking the best sections out, rework beginnings, endings, characters, and plot, and you might just have a super short story when the dust settles! Let me hear your ideas! I’d love to know if this works for you as well! Thanks for walking through the corridor with me.

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Research Your Historical Novel

by Mark H. Phillips

So you want to write a historical novel. Then it would be useful for you to know some history. Not just the kind of history you learned in school concerning who was the king of England during the American Revolutionary War or who was the Union General at the Battle of Vicksburg but the everyday level history like describing the posser your Victorian Era maid used on laundry day or how often a London homeowner would have to hire a gongfermor.

Getting details wrong is simply embarrassing and will throw your knowledgeable reader out of the story. Have your Victorian gentleman using a zipper on his pants is anachronistic. Although invented in 1893, the first practical marketing of the zipper didn’t occur until 1906 and it wasn’t called a “zipper” until 1923. In the movie Django Unchained dynamite is used in 1859 though it wasn’t invented until 1867.

The easiest way for a British Victorian writer to show vulgarity and boorishness in a character was to have them mis-use a title or screw up a mode of address. A man would never address the eldest daughter of an acquaintance the same way as the next eldest. Nor would a son address his father in the same way as a daughter would. A medical doctor is addressed as “Doctor” but a surgeon only by “Mister.” Do you know the difference between a parish priest, a curate, a rector, and a vicar? A modern writer, especially one not native to Britain, would have to do considerable research in order not to look foolish navigating their characters through the maze of Victorian class-based etiquette.

The kind of historical research necessary to bring your story alive is just plain fun. The housewife in 1920 Springfield, Illinois gets up in the morning and puts in her front window a colorful square of cardboard labelled in each quadrant with a different number. This particular day she makes sure the number 25 is in the uppermost position. Why? So that later that morning when the iceman knocks at her back kitchen door he will have the twenty-five pounds of ice for her ice box. Or in some locales there was a hatch in the wall behind the inbuilt ice box so the iceman could load in the ice without disturbing the homeowner at all.

In the same home late one evening a thug sneaks up behind the lady of the house as she is reading a book in her easy chair. He reaches from behind and begins to choke her. Defending herself, she stabs backwards with the knife she was holding, wounding him and driving him away. Why was she holding the knife? To slice open the pages of her book, of course.

A public library in 1920 Springfield would have been a quiet place. The Library of Alexandria in the ancient world was a horribly loud place because hardly anyone in the ancient world knew how to read silently. To read was automatically to read aloud.

Many details of the modern world are only explicable by reference to historical conditions that no longer exist. Why do women’s blouses button opposite from men’s shirts? Because a century and a half ago a lady’s maid would’ve been buttoning up her mistress’ blouse and the buttons weren’t backwards for the maid. Right handed women who dress themselves have been fumbling with buttons ever since because rich women used to use lady’s maids. Why are the letters on your computer’s keyboard arranged in the particular order they are? So that common letter combinations were as far apart as possible to keep efficient typists from tangling the keybars and jamming the machines. Now, after generations of touch typists have been trained on those deliberately inefficient keyboards, it’s impractical to change.

Fortunately there have been some excellent books on the history of everyday living published in recent years. Here are a few that I have found useful:

  • Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
  • Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and How to Be a Victorian
  • Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England
  • Robert Garland’s Ancient Greece
  • John Strausbaugh’s The Village
  • Tony Perrottet’s The Naked Olympics, Pagan Holiday, and Napoleon’s Privates
  • Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading
  • Michael Olmert’s Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella
  • Particularly excellent examples of well researched historical fiction are George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain series, Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (along with Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion), Against the Day, and Mason and Dixon, and Ed Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory.

The meticulous research that supports the writing of historical fiction is hard work and great fun. Bring your fiction alive with accurate detail that is evocative of place and time and that grounds the reader in the everyday lives of your characters.





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Suicide Prevention Week

Sept 10-16, 2017

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. If you are having suicidal thoughts, call. If you believe someone you know needs help, call. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for all.

Because September 10-16 is national suicide prevention week, I was asked to write a blog on the topic. I assure you, I am not an expert; in fact, I have zero qualifications to discuss this topic. But I do have research skills and what I found was chilling.

Do you think this tragedy can’t happen you your family? Think again. Here are a few statistics on suicide in the United States:

  • In the US, we average 121 suicide deaths PER DAY
  • 44,193 fellow Americans die each year by suicide; it is the 10th leading cause of death in our nation and it is 100% preventable
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death for our 15-24 year olds
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those who are 15-34 years old
  • Since 1999, the rate of suicide in the US has increased 24% to more than 13/100,000 deaths – the highest rate in 28 years
  • Women attempt suicide three times more often than males, but males are more successful and die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women
  • The rate of suicide is highest in middle age
  • ~70% of suicide victims are white males

Many people associate suicide with those on the fringes of our society, but that is a false and dangerous impression. By profession the highest rate of suicide is from physicians. The ten professions with the highest suicide rates in the nation:

  1. Physicians
  2. Dentists
  3. Financial Industry Employees
  4. Lawyers
  5. Law Enforcement
  6. Real Estate Agents
  7. Electricians
  8. Agriculture workers
  9. Pharmacists
  10. Scientists

Other groups with particularly troubling stats include:


  • Our veterans die by suicide twice as often as those who have not served
  • During some years of the gulf wars, we lost more active-duty soldiers to suicide than to combat (ex: 2012 – 185 suicides, 176 combat deaths)


  • Attempted rates in this group is three times higher than the national average
  • 1-866-488-7386, The Trevor Lifeline is a 24 hour crisis and suicide prevention helpline specifically for LGBTQ youth;
    • there’s also a chat line available 3PM-10PM eastern time
    • Text “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200 from 3PM-10PM eastern time
    • Call 1-866-488-7386 anytime, day or night

Rape Survivors

  • 13 time more likely to attempt suicide

Autism/Asperger Syndrome

  • Numbers with this group are not agreed upon, but there have been many studies and in all studies, the group has higher than average stats

By State

Your state is not exempt from the epidemic, but a few – very few – states do have single digit suicide rates. While seven deaths per day is still seven too many – congrats to New Yorkers who have the lowest rate in the nation. Other states in the single digit club include New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Connecticut. On the other end of the scale – what the hell is going on in Wyoming (highest suicide rate in the nation), Alaska, and Montana?

Clearly, we have a national crisis on our hands – and the numbers are rising. Find out what you can do to help reverse the trend.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. If you or someone you love needs help, make the call.

If you have other resources for people in crisis, please use the comments section to share that information.


Suicide Prevention Lifeline

The Trevor Project



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I (Almost) Finished NaNoWriMo… Now What? (Ana Vera)

I’ve tried to complete NaNoWriMo twice in my life. The first time, I was in a tough high school program and was crazy to even try. The second time was last year (2016), and I actually (almost) succeeded!

So what happened?

I’m normally a plotter, and so for months before November, I worked on my outline, and thought of little scenes to put in the book, and made index cards, and made Myers Briggs profiles for my characters, etcetera, etcetera. I even created a writing routine. Being a full-time engineer who had just bought a house and gotten engaged, I didn’t have a lot of spare time, but I gave myself 30-45 minutes each morning and another 30-45 minutes after work to crank out the words.

Things actually went really well.

Keep in mind, I had been working on this same novel all year, and had only about 25,000 words before I had started NaNoWriMo. In November, I put down an extra 40,000 words. Not quite at the finish line, but the bulk of my novel was done before Thanksgiving.

So what’s the problem?

Well, my plotter self turned into a pantser. I ran into a snag early in NaNoWriMo — my main character was not jiving with her love interest. There was just no spark, and I really liked their personalities as is. I went ahead and gave her a new love interest. Well, that’s not just something you do when you’re writing 1600 words a day, and the plotline depends on it. When I realized how little time I had to think through the scenes, and the characters, and the ultimate plotline, I just went for it. I made key decisions every day at the keyboard, and let it all unfold.

To be honest, I’m not sure how to feel about it. My gut says there’s gaps, and some parts are too long-winded, and the main character is too reactive, and there’s not enough little bits of personality because how do you come up with those things on the fly, without more percolation?

So, I’m doing my percolation now. I’m thinking through the whole thing all over again, and trying to figure out which scenes to keep, to delete, or significantly modify.

I’ll let you know how it went when it’s over. In the meantime, I’d like to point out that if you’re swinging between pantser and plotter yourself, give the other side a chance. Without doing what I did–moving the dial each day, and letting myself be okay with mistakes in the future–I wouldn’t have gotten more done in November 2016 than I had in the last five years combined. So kudos to that!

Ana Vera

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Comfort Zone (Debra Black)

I have been taken out of my comfort zone. I usually use Microsoft Word on my desktop to type whatever comes into my head at the time I want to do some writing. Now I am bereft of my steady-as-you-go computer tower and working on a different unit that has none of the same settings or preferences tweaked to my happiness level. That has made me wonder… what makes you comfortable when you are trying to crank out several hundred words on that new scene that is sitting trapped in your head?

Do you still use a pen or pencil and paper? Whatever floats your boat, I’m not judging. I like writing with pen and paper for my journal. I just personally cringe at the thought of several thousand words in one sitting with writer’s cramp impinging on that exciting plot point. How about a typewriter? You have one that still works??? Nice! I can’t type without several errors per line. Not the tool for me. If you use a computer, welcome to the modern world. This is where many of us slog through, typing hours of our lives away. The benefits of instant typing correction, spell check, and a plethora of other helpful tools puts this option in the front for me. If you are thinking of getting that fancy voice-to-text recording software… we’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

OK, so you may have noticed I am an I.T. technician, and you may wonder why I haven’t tried the last option. It’s simple. I am a casual writer. I haven’t found the expense of getting the program and training it to recognize my voice so that I can use it to be tempting enough. I didn’t judge you for your pencil and paper caveman approach. Don’t judge my lack of motivation! I do encourage those of you who are serious writers to try it, though. Once you get used to it, I hear it can be a major time-saver. Some of the programs have even been updated to put in appropriate punctuation without having to specify it.

Now you can tell a small device to turn on or off your lights or play a certain song and you can be instantly gratified. I have no doubt that somewhere in the near future you can tell that same voice assistant to start a dictated record of your newest chapter without ever having to turn on an actual computer or scrounge for paper you haven’t scribbled ideas on yet.

Some of us will avoid such luxury for the sake of security. Those voice assistants are notoriously easy to hack at the moment. Improvements such as locking the device with voice recognition for a particular user, and making it impossible for recorded sound to travel outside the residence network without a complex password would go a long way towards making me more comfortable with these devices.

I see a lot of potential in the ways new technology can be utilized to help writers progress. We can balk at new ideas, or we can learn and expand our abilities with improved techniques and technologies as they become available.

Here are some questions for you. Where is your comfort zone? What technologies, software, or techniques have you stumbled upon or researched your way into that may help other writers improve their output and quality of writing? Do you have any suggestions for a particular piece of software? Is there anything recent you have tried that you would tell other writers to avoid? Please feel free to post comments and let your fellow writers benefit from your experience!

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Strong: Word-lifting Techniques (Natasha Storfer)

As I sit in my local YMCA, watching my toddler learn to doggie paddle, I’m surrounded by people becoming stronger. A familiar gentleman lifts from his wheelchair and is lowered to the pool for his laps. Retirees wearing floats wade through water aerobics in the deep end. The woman training for a triathlon arrived before I did, and will be here long after I leave. My daughter’s class is building muscles, and learning to swim for the first time. With every movement, they are strengthening their bodies and demonstrating determination.

Can we apply those examples to become stronger writers? Yes!

Join a Group

There is power in groups:

  • Accountability
  • Continuing education (a good group will have this)
  • Peer encouragement

Mentors and Examples

Learn from others that have “been there and done that.” Find a mentor, preferably one with a similar writing style.

  • Read their blog, their books, the books they’ve written on how to write, or even send correspondence.
  • How do they create? Can you incorporate any of their techniques?
  • If you are feeling weak, find a teacher – and add more accountability.

Find a “Spotter”

Find someone with a good balance for your level of writing and goals to “spot” you, as someone would when lifting weights. Check in with each other to make sure both of you are okay.

  • “How is writing going?”
  • “Can you help me with this paragraph?”
  • “Are you going to the next critique group?”

Your spotter is also someone you spot for. Trust and respect go both ways in this relationship.


I see the same faces all week at the YMCA. The swimmers turned growth/improvement into a habit.


  • Today
  • Tomorrow
  • Every day

Even a sentence is better than a blank page.


When the water gets deep, keep swimming.

No one always feels “in the mood” to write. This separates the pros from the hobbyists. Sink or swim. And when you’re at the end of your buoy…


Find something that motivates you, which is specific to you. Have a goal, and a reward for each goal.

It can be productive in ways other than getting words on a page:

  • Glitter gel pens for editing
  • A new case for your laptop
  • The latest non-fic how-to writing book

It’s wonderful if something practical gets you writing but if…

  • chocolate
  • coffee
  • a “brain candy” paperback

…get the words on the page – go for it*. Just keep it balanced.
(See Spotter for accountability)


We grow at our own rate. Every writer has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Learn to improve your weak points and write in a way that highlights your strengths. The toddlers weren’t training for a marathon and the wheelchair-bound man used the tools available to help him get into the water. They know where they are, and work with what they have.

  • Know them
  • Study about them
  • Act on what you learn

Don’t Forget the Fundamentals

Just like push-ups (groan), there are things that we need to improve, even if we hate them.
(Spelling, my continual nemesis, mocks all software attempts to correct it.) No challenge = no improvement.

  • Do you have “favorite words” to eliminate?
  • Have a passion for passive verbs?
  • Are most of your sentences a similar length?
  • Be self-aware and find your fundamental challenge – and strengthen those writing muscles.

Invest in Yourself

We all need rest and recovery to improve. Invest in equipment – the most important being your mind.

  • Get enough sleep
  • Go on a walk
  • Schedule breaks

Take a moment to think of how you are feeling and how that impacts your writing. Find your needs and fill them.

Mix it Up

If your writing becomes repetitive, or you don’t see any improvement, you may have hit a plateau. Try something outside your comfort zone as a warm-up, stretch, and change the routine.

  • Like to write ‘em long? Try some flash fiction.
  • Try flipping the perspective in one of your chapters.
  • Write in a specific genre? Put a few different ones in a hat and write a short story in the genre you pull.


I hope you find your prefect combination to grow stronger!


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