Thursday, August 22, 2019

Location Location Location

When you’re reading fiction, how important is the setting? Does the town or city where the story happens become one of the characters, or is it just background for the story?
A sense of place is very important to me as a reader.  If I know the area, I enjoy seeing someone else’s take on it.  Harlan Coben writes about Essex County, New Jersey, an area I know well.  When I read his books, I can picture exactly where his characters live and work.  His mention of streets and specific locations add color and depth to the story for me. It’s the same with works by Philip Roth, a totally different kind of a writer, but also from Essex County who made me see the Newark he experienced as a boy. That Goodbye Columbus is based on a section of South Orange near where we lived makes me want to read the book again.
A Year in Provence inspired me, and thousands of others, to spend a vacation there. Children’s books by E.B. White are part of the reason my husband and I spent a lot of time on the coast of Maine. When I read Michelle Obama’s memoir I got a real sense of Chicago’s south side. We’ve a family wedding in Chicago next May and while we’re there, I’m planning on a trip to both the south side and Lincoln Park.  Knowing a bit about the area, I want to know more.
Locations are important as a writer. Not only do they add another layer to the story, they also ground it.  My first four published novels take place in New Jersey where I was living when I was writing them.  Three of the books are set in Maplewood, the suburban town where my husband and I raised our children.  Suddenly Lily takes place in Jersey City where I worked.  Although it's easier to write about a town or city that I know, because they are real places, I had to  be accurate.  Sometimes, in order to make sure, I would go back to Maplewood to check out street locations or the addresses of stores or restaurants.  If a writer gets it wrong, the contract between the reader and the author is broken and the reader stops believing in the story. 
I’m sure we’ve all read books where the writer makes a mistake and we, as a reader, spot it. Even if it’s minor, like calling a college a university or misnaming a street, when we come upon the error it takes us out of the story and makes us question the writer’s whole premise.
My work in progress takes place on the Upper West Side where I now live, and the North Fork of Long Island.  When I wrote the chapters about the North Fork I hadn’t been there in fifty years.  But I’d read articles about the area, especially food and wine columns since there are now so many vineyards there.  I was sure I knew what it was like. I’d been to the Hamptons, aka the South Fork, numerous times.  How different could the two areas be?  I pictured the North Fork like the Hamptons with fewer cars. The traffic in the Hamptons, in case you haven’t heard, is horrific.
My husband and I made a quick trip to the North Fork in July to check it out while visiting the Hamptons.  We made another trip there last week.  For the record, it is nothing like the Hamptons.  The differences are more than just the number of cars on the road. For one thing, there are the vineyards in nearly every town. For another, unlike the Hamptons where you know the ocean is close, but usually can’t see it, on the North Fork, the sound and the bay seem just an “9 iron shot, away,” to quote my husband.  As you drive on the main highway if you can't see water, hang a right or a left, go about a block and you’ll bump into the sound or the bay.  It’s amazing. And yes, I’ve fallen in love with the area, but that’s another story.
I’d already finished my first draft of my heroine Maggie’s first glimpse of the North Fork and Cutchogue, the town where she’s thinking of buying a house.  After my first trip, when I realized it wasn’t another version of the Hamptons, I thought of making up a name for the town where Maggie is looking.  Now, fresh off my second trip, I think not. My Cutchogue, or whatever I name the town, doesn’t belong on the North Fork.  There is no mention of vineyards or frequent glimpses of the water or the fact that the area is still a rag tag kind of a place that hasn’t been completely discovered.  My town, the Cutchogue in my first draft, sounds like the Hamptons without the traffic.  
My character Maggie would never buy in the Hamptons and probably can’t afford it anyway.  But she can afford the North Fork and knowing her, she’d love it. So my job is cut out for me.  I have to rewrite the Cutchogue chapters.  Even if I don’t name the town she’s looking at Cutchogue, it has to have the feel of the North Fork or I’ll be cheating myself and the reader and breaking my contract with them.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Of Kitty Cats... and Gardens... and Cozy Books

I have a new foster kitty, Miss Luna Dragon Sparkles. She came to us a, well, an insane, psychotic mess. L But who wouldn’t be a little psychotic with her history. Surrendered to an animal shelter when her elderly owner could no longer care for her, she languished in solitude for a while, unable to “play nicely with the other children.”
First day in our home when she was still
a psychotic mess, although she decided
my husband's chest was a pretty good
place to rest... warily.

Shelters, despite their wonderful works, are anxiety inducing places for animals that are used to a previously calm, quiet lifestyle, so Miss Luna Dragon Sparkles' unsavory disposition made her a social pariah and a difficult adoptee in that setting. Sadly,  the shelter to which she was surrendered is also a “kill” shelter, so when things get a little crowded... You get the picture. The shelter attempts to spread the adoptees out to other shelters before things turn bleak. Cue my hometown shelter that is a “no-kill” facility. In other words, the population in my city is large enough to support a steady stream of folks willing to foster animals to give them a break from the shelter until they can be adopted by their forever people. The foster family posts pictures, exposing the animal's true nature. In a more calm setting, you get a sense of their personality and are better able to describe the animal and determine the sort of family dynamic that would be best for the animal in your temporary care.

Sure, she was a psychotic mess when she came to us, but you should see her today! She is lovely! I work from home, “writin’ books and other litr’ary mischief.” It’s a solitary business, but she fills my quiet days with hilarity. She has decided that I work too hard, so throughout the day she brings me her toys. These are no little tiny squeaky furry things or light-weight feathery things. She brings me giant toys consisting of baubles on fishing poles, plushy squeaky things in wicker balls, heavy toys made of jute and feathers and MDF board. These, she drags up and down the stairs, in her mouth with a clunk, clunk, clunk of the solid bits. (She has to live in what we call the "tower", ranging from our bedroom and bath to my office below, separate from our other kitty.) She sounds out a cute little “frrrppppt” trill to inform me of her hard work in bringing me these things. At first, I thought she was seeking my attention, but no, she brings them, drops them, then goes to one of her favorite spots to curl up, usually in my lap or atop my keyboard. "Here, human. You've worked hard today. Enjoy a catnip-filled plushy 'possum while I sleep in your lap and prevent general productivity."
Luna Dragon Sparkles brings me her favorite fishing pole toy.
Luna Dragon Sparkles helps with the office renovation.
But what does this have to do with gardens and cozy books?

The hammock life is what this kitty cat needs. She needs someone with a quiet garden, (or a love of non-toxic house plants) and a fondness for cozy books. She is a tidy little thing, (although I suspect at one time she was quite rotund, evidenced by her very round rib cage and some solid fat that still resolutely resides between her shoulder blades. She does love her mealtimes.)
Imagine it: you, a beautiful, snuggly kitty cat… in a garden… with a cozy book. It just doesn’t get any better!

Sofie Couch writes sweet romance and cozy mysteries. Kitty cats rarely play a part in the plot, but there is a great deal of cat fur in the keyboard and feline spirit infused into each story. Her latest, Baby Byrd is available in paperback or in e-format for pre-order. 

Saturday, August 10, 2019

It’s the Little Things

by Karen McCullough

Detail can make all the difference.

One of the reasons I like to visit the places I use as  background for my stories is the need to get the details right. It’s not always necessary, and I confess that I’ve set parts of stories in places I haven’t been to, but not often. Sometimes, if the place isn’t the main setting, I can get what I need from Google Maps, Wikipedeia, travel and tourism websites, and Google Earth.

But settings are an integral part of most stories and I really try to get it right as much as possible. The setting for my current mystery series is a market center in Washington, D.C. that is the site of various exhibitions and trade shows. Because I’ve had family living in the D.C. metro area for a long time and have visited often, I’m comfortable writing about the geographic area. During my ten years working for various trade publications, I attended numerous trade shows and got to see a lot of what goes on. I’ve also spent time talking to some of the people who work behind the scenes to get a feel for what they do.

When I come to writing something I don’t know about, I try to do as much research as I can to get things right. What I often find is that almost everything is more complicated than one suspects and there may not be any cut-and-dried right answers. Different people, different places, and different organizations do things in different ways. But there are usually some definitely wrong answers, and I try to avoid those as much as possible.

But like most people I don’t always know what I don’t know, which is why I need editors and beta readers. I first wrote Hunter’s Quest a few years ago, but published it only last year. One of the editors who read the book pointed out that I had my hero and heroine toodling around in a car with a front bench seat, although no American cars have been built with bench seats for years. Why didn’t I know that? I haven’t owned a car with anything but bucket seats in front for many years.

A couple of books I’ve read lately also reminded me of how easy it is to slip up on things you don’t know. I was beta-reading a Regency Romance not too long ago, where the American author didn’t understand how the English nobility worked. She had a character in her book, Sir Somebody, being a knight who talked about passing his title onto his son. I pointed out to her that a knighthood was not a title that could be passed on, and she probably wanted to make him a baronet (also addressed as Sir Somebody but that title can be inherited).

A different author, for whom I was doing a beta read of an otherwise very good story jolted me out of it when she described her English hero’s house as having a wrap-around porch. Because my son lives in England and I’ve spent time there, I know that a porch  means something slightly different in England than it does here. (It’s a small, usually covered, and sometimes fully enclosed entryway to the house, not a broad, elevated platform in front of the house.) I’ve never seen an English house with anything similar to an American wrap-around porch. They just don’t build houses that way. Outdoor sitting areas are pretty much always in the back of the house. And by the way, don’t call it the back yard. It’s the garden.

The first picture below is my son and his daughter heading out for a walk in the neighborhood where they live in Kent. The house directly behind has just a small porch entryway. The one in the upper left-hand corner has a small enclosed porch in front of the door. It's very common.

An English country manor with an entrance porch.
I know those things from experience. But there are tons of things I don’t know, and I don’t always know what those things are. I try to check out anything I’m not sure about, but can easily miss things I think I know. Which is why I let other people read my book before I publish it, and why I’m always happy to hear from readers who point out where I made a mistake.  I’ll always investigate and update the book when and if I can!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

I would like to thank the authors at Classic & Cozy for inviting me back. I’ve followed the posts for years, staying quietly in the background.

When the group was formed, I was one of the original members with my Wally Morris mystery series. The books take place in Grosvenor, a thinly disguised town in New Jersey similar to my hometown of South Orange. Wally is in her early fifties, having failed to age as I did. She is a nursery school teacher and amateur sleuth.

Recently, I wrote a book called Hope’s Daughter, which was published by The Wild Rose Press. It is, to my surprise, not a mystery, but a historical romance set around World War II. Jane is a strong character determined to make her way in a man’s world. She is fiercely loyal to her family and her heart is huge, but not invulnerable to breaking.

Most people who know me are aware that I am very involved with raising Seeing Eye® dogs. That is so important to me that I put pictures of all the dogs I’ve raised with my family onto my no-frills website. Some people have bells and whistles, music and videos, but I have Puppies! Fifteen of them, plus one cat.

Many people also know that I have worked for man years as a technical processor in the children’s room of a local library. I get to read all ­the new books. Who could ask for more?

Sunday, August 4, 2019

In Praise of Lazy Day

by Victoria M. Johnson

Celebrated on August 10 every year, Lazy Day really is a national holiday.  Though no one knows for sure when or where it originated—perhaps laziness has something to do with the lack of historical record—the holiday has caught on.  I suppose we don't need too much persuading to take a lazy day.  However, while we like the idea of allowing ourselves to be lazy, actually doing it can be challenging.

Photo by Roberto Nickson
Many of us have a To-Do list that doesn't go away on holidays.  Taking a day of relaxation often brings feelings of guilt or anxiety for not tackling items on our list.  While we all know we need down time for our mental and physical health, many of us just can't do it.  That's where Lazy Day comes in.  It's only one day.  Surely you can allow yourself one day off.  One real, true, pure, day off.  Imagine that.

What would you do, or rather, what would you not do?  Perhaps read, watch a movie, take a walk, write?  While relaxing, those activities involve 'doing'.  Think lazier.  Think lounging.  For me, the best way to totally unwind is lounging at the beach, not reading, not writing, not looking at my cell phone, just being.  It's doing absolutely nothing.  While I'll admit I don't often have the time for a lazy day, when I do take that time I come back feeling rejuvenated.  Try it for yourself. 

For other ideas of what to do on Lazy Day, click here:

National LazyDay: 7 Easy Things You Can Do To Celebrate Holiday

For interesting facts about laziness, click here:  

What's your favorite way to be lazy?  Share in the comments below.

Victoria M. Johnson knew by the time she was ten that she wanted to be a writer.  She loves telling stories and she's happiest when creating new characters and new plots.  Avalon Books and Montlake Romance published Victoria's fiction debut, The Doctor’s Dilemma.  Her other fiction book is a collection of romance short stories titled, The Substitute Bride and a novella, Hot Hawaiian Christmas. She is also the writer and director of four short films and two micro documentaries.   Visit Victoria's website at for inspiration and tips and find her Amazon author page or connect with her on Pinterest and Twitter.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

How Nice Should They Be?

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Last Sunday I decided to take a vacation. I stopped in the never-ending task of cleaning the house, let the yard bask unmolested in the July sun and didn't even open my computer. Fortified by left-overs and junk food, I settled on the couch, turned on an oldies re-run channel and binge-watched old 1990s-2000s tv series, mostly crime series, most of which were not as good as I remembered. Still better than the majority of what is on now, but not as good as I remembered.

One thing that struck me was the female-centricity of the shows. The main character is always slim and gorgeous, overabundantly capable of everything and usually has more than a little attitude. The men on the show all have pretty much just one line of dialogue - "Are you all right?" - sometimes mutated into "You okay?" More often than not she is the one who rescues the male lead or shoots the bad guy. Occasionally she is kidnapped by a varying number of bad guys but always manages to overpower them all and rescue herself. Of course, the male lead always says, "You okay?"

What amazes me about these shows is that all too often these women do things without thought that would get them reprimanded if not outright arrested - and all without consequence. The queen of this is Brenda Lee Johnson on The Closer. Besides having a hideous mouth and the worst fake Southern accent I've ever heard, that character gets up to antics that would have her fired before the first episode was over. Or arrested.

What sparked this sour little screed of mine, though, was an episode of Crossing Jordan, a series about a doctor in the Medical Examiners' office of Boston, Mass. Jordan is a lovely young woman with the personality of a dyspeptic porcupine. She is moody, harsh, argumentative and cajoling. She disregards departmental policy and the law with equal glee. In this particular episode there was a huge plane crash in which another ME from the office was killed. This ME (whose name I can't remember) was also a lovely young woman, but there all resemblance ended. This character was happy, cheerful, funny and friendly; she was also just as courageous and feisty as Jordan, but on the whole operated within departmental and legal rules.

This started me thinking and I wondered why the main character of the show was the moody, rule-breaking one. The show could have been just as exciting, just as informative, just as suspenseful with the cheerful woman as the lead as with the edgy, abrasive Jordan. It might have been a much better show, too. After all, whoever said that being a strong woman meant ignoring the simple rules of good manners and good citizenship?

Now to drag this back to writing, perhaps we should examine our own leading characters. We're always exhorted to make them real, give them genuine personalities, create them as individual human beings. I don't see why for so many shows and books and movies the 'realness' has to come from argumentativeness or disregard for societal rules. Strong does not have to mean rude. Interesting does not have to mean ill-mannered. Honest, law-abiding, well-behaved people can be just as if not more interesting and strong as their disrespectful and moody counterpoints. Perhaps even more so.

This does not mean our characters should be saccharinely-sweet, cloying or brainless pushovers; that would be going too far the other way. Just as a real person can be law-abiding until pushed to the very brink where only a piece of illegality can save the day, so can our characters. And probably be the more real for it.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Reading & the Other Rs

When my first child came into the world, thankfully my mother was present to help me. In no time, she corrected a major deficiency in my parenting skills.
“Talk to your baby. Don’t be silent. The baby needs to hear your voice.”
From then on, I talked to my baby about everything from bathing and dressing, feeding and what happened in the world. My husband and I soon established a routine at bedtime — another of my mother’s wise suggestions. Regardless of where we were in the world, we stuck to a routine: bath, bedtime, read a book, down for the “night.”
By the time our third baby arrived, bedtime had become an assembly line marathon. No matter how old the child, each had a turn in Daddy’s lap reading a book of their choice while Mommy prepared the next in line for their turn or nursed the newborn.

This summer, my business group promoted the opportunity to participate in an ongoing reading program for children of all ages. “Reading Rocks” is held in the city’s parks, every day over a six-week period.  I volunteered to read with or to a child one day each week in the park closest to my workplace. Literacy is one of the necessary fundamental skills. Reading with my children proved to be essential to their education and future employment.
Today, July 25th, is my last reading session. Most of the children participating in “Reading Rocks” are enrolled in summer daycare programs while their parents are at work. Some of the children have no experience of hearing a story or reading with their parents or other adult.
I gained as much from the program as the children, from encouraging a group of middle school boys to make up their own story based on a title one of the boys had misread, reading to a little girl who was as interested in telling me her story, making the acquaintance of an armadillo from the local zoo and a border collie trained to assist PTSD sufferers.
I was reminded of the many hours I had spent with my children and how rewarding those hours were, especially in terms of the gift of time. 
Thanks to my experienced mother, reading and routine were regularities that established reliability in their young years. There’s more to raising children than reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.
Perhaps one or two of these young readers will become writers. Story-telling certainly came into my life at a very young age from hearing my mother and father read aloud and tell their own tales.