Friday, February 28, 2014

How Discovering a Unique Setting Can Inspire a Novel

How Discovering a Unique Setting Can Inspire a Novel

A novel idea usually evolves in one of three ways. A writer may have a certain plot in mind or start with an interesting character.  The third, maybe the least common way to start a story, is by coming across a setting that sparks the imagination. 

Sometimes a perfect setting appears when you are least thinking about it, and it becomes the focus point for a new novel.  You don't necessarily have to travel to find inspiration for a setting because it might be close by, but in many instances my sister and I have found settings that inspired novels through travel. For example, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana are favorite destinations for summer outings, and touring historic homes a favorite pastime of ours. 

One summer, after seeing several beautiful Victorian homes in the Colorado and Georgetown area, we became fascinated with the concept of the “painted lady” house.  These lovely homes, popular in the late 1800s get their name from being painted in colorful, multiple layers. You will find such a house, and the secrets that go with it, in our newest mystery/romance, The Vanished Lady. 

Two Painted Lady Houses with Colorful Detailing

When starting with a setting instead of a plot idea or character, a writer must ask themselves--what may have happened here?  An interest in the setting leads to reading about the history of a place and imagining the characters that lived in the town or area.

Whether or not a writer begins with setting, it is vital to every novel to establish a sense of place.  Being inspired by the setting adds authenticity to a story and gives it a sense of reality.

Vickie Britton and Loretta Jackson are sisters and co-authors of over 40 novels, and the ebook Fiction:From Writing to Publication.  Visit to read more about painted lady houses and find out more about their other books.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Little Things Do Matter

Last year I hired a housekeeper. I know it sounds so self-indulgent but I needed the help after I had a long recovery from some surgery. Even after I was up and about we decided to keep her on. Well…I was spoiled having her come in every few weeks. What I love about Jennifer are the little things she does for me. She'll arrange my knick knacks just so or fluff the pillows on my bed. My favorite is the way she folds the bath towels hanging on the rack on the bathroom door. She sort of does this tri-fold method and every time I see them it brings a smile to my face. This got me to thinking about all the other little things that have made me smile or warmed my heart over the years.

When we were first dating, years ago, my husband would bring me four leaf clovers. He’s the only person I know who can step out into a field of clover and look down to instantly spot one of them.  Considering your chances of finding a four leaf clover are pretty slim, I’m still pretty impressed by all the ones he brought to me.  My grandmother would always have molasses cookies and a big tin of Charlie’s Chips waiting for us when we arrived for a visit. Warms the cockles of my heart remembering sitting at the Formica topped kitchen table sharing those with her. More recently, due to our travel schedule my husband and I weren’t able to be together for this Valentine’s Day. I cut heart shapes out of red construction paper, wrote little notes on them and taped them up on the fridge before I left on my trip so it was the first thing he saw when he returned home. That gesture was a little thing for me to do, but I know it meant a lot to him.
As a writer and a reader I love to see the little things in books. Perhaps you’ve read a scene about a holiday tradition that brought back warm, long forgotten memories or there’s something a character does that reminds you of an event from your life. It’s those little things that make our lives special and the little things authors put in the pages of their books that makes them memorable.  So be it fact or fiction I really do believe all the little things matter! How about you? What are some of the little things in life or from taken from the pages of a book that have made you smile?

Tracey J Lyons sold her first book on 9/9/99! She is the best selling author of the Women of Surprise Historical romance series, Montlake/Avalon Books and writes the contemporary Wine Country Vixen series as Tracey Sorel. You can learn more about Tracey and her books by visiting her websites. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Classic, Cozy & Cunning

We've all read books set in different countries, regions, time periods with characters from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. The attempt to capture the sound of speech and cultural nuances is all part of the craft of setting a sense of time and place.

Regional dialects lend authenticity to stories set in specific localities. Regional dialects give authors nightmares and headaches. Regional dialects give readers nightmares and frowns. Walking the narrow line between authenticity and insult is an art. Achieving a sense of place and depth of character without confusion or irritation is an art.

In my most recent endeavor, the novel-by-installment, Nights Before, I returned to my childhood home state, Maine. I had been working on an historical novel set in a small town in Oxford County, and was inspired then to write a contemporary romance as well. I had clear visions of the streets of Portland from childhood and more recent visits, but it is the Maine accent that distinguishes the sense of place more than the images of snow and falling leaves. The whole of the Northeast can boast the brilliant colors of Fall and the quiet of a snow-blanketed scene. Only Mainers talk like Mainers. 

I was born into a family of native Mainers, I remain one myself though I've lived far away for most of my life. When I began this book-by-installments, I wanted to pay tribute to that distinctive way of speech, but, except for a few vague recollections of my mother saying 'cunning' or the proverbial 'down the rod apiece' and 'ya cahn't get theah from heah,' my Maine vocabulary was sadly lacking. 

I realized I had to research my first language!

Fortunately, there are Internet sites for that. I went to several, including How to Talk Like a Mainer which was a lot of fun and reminded me of all I'm missing here on the West Coast. And I realized that the Maine accent is a serious topic for wide discussion. There is something about the way we talk that fascinates those who don't — or I'm just putting a proud face on what the rest of the English-speaking world thinks is plain 'odd'. 

In any case, I had to get it right. The more I went through the pronunciations and the vocabulary, I heard the words in my head, spoken as they had been spoken by my parents and siblings before the great exodus to the other side of the country. They came more easily from my own lips. Ayuh is now my first response in the affirmative and has started to spread to other members of my west coast family. And as I developed the dialogue in the first story of the novel, I went all out.

Howevah, too much of a good thing spoils the affect. Here's an example: 
“Sure. Take it easy goin’ over tah Rosemont. The road’s open now, but I’ve heard theah’s a dip where theah weren’t one.”

Easy enough to read, but what if I'd written it like this: "Shu-ah. Take it easy goin' ovah tah Rosemont. The rod's open now, but Ah've hehd they-ah's a dip whey-ah they-ah wehn't one."

Not as easy. In Elements of Style, Strunk & White make it clear that an over abundance of apostrophes and colloquial spelling curtail the flow of reading. Giving a hint of a different dialect is desirable on all accounts relating to the senses of authenticity, place, time, character, personality. In this novel, I distinguish between native Mainers and those 'from away' or who've been away or have abandoned their roots. 

Although I will never knowingly abandon my accent, the ability to talk like a Mainah fades, returning only when I write like a Mainah and I have to admit, I'm wicked glad I've had the opportunity.

Here is a taste of the vocabulary in these stories: 

  • bug - lobster
  • cunnin' - cute, sweet
  • finest - term of endearment, the best
  • wicked - very

Monday, February 24, 2014

Need an Escape? by Fran McNabb

"Even in this high-tech world of fast living, each of us has a place of escape."
This statement is the opening "welcome" to my website and is a statement that I think applies to everyone. It doesn't matter if a person makes a living in the rat-race of the business world or stays at home to raise children, that person must be able to step away from his or her life to regenerate.
My place of escape is a quiet bayou harbor. The mirror slick surface of the black water and the swaying marsh grasses take me from season to season, not so much with changing colors, but with the wildlife it supports. Graceful herons, snowy white egrets, and crash-diving pelicans live alongside of alligators, blue crabs and playful otters. Thousands of minnows bring the water to life in the spring, and mullet jump across the water in summer and fall. It is my place of calm.
Today I'm retired and get to enjoy this setting everyday, but during my teaching career, by Friday afternoon, I needed to unwind, and my husband knew exactly what to do. He'd launch our small boat and take me on a cruise through the winding channels of the bayou. Sometimes we'd stay long enough to watch the sun set over the water, and by the time we were back at the dock, I felt revived and able to face my "real life."
Where do you go to regenerate? Is it a physical spot or is it only in your mind? If you can't physically get away, I hope you'll pick up a book and let yourself escape into a world where your problems are set aside for a few hours. Books are a wonderful "get-away." Emily Dickenson understood the value of books and compared them to a "frigate" that could take the reader "lands away." We may not be able to physically sail away to foreign lands, but we can travel across seas, across time and across continents through the pages of a book.
My husband still takes me on our bayou cruises, but when we can't do that, I can find that same elixir in the pages of a book or on the screen of my Kindle. I hope you too can find your own get-away as well.
Fran McNabb, who also writes under the name Fran Fisher, is a retired English and journalism teacher who lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Visit her at and

Saturday, February 22, 2014


When my son was quite young, we had to take him for a neurological evaluation.  The intern who was asked to help with the testing reported that he thought something was very wrong.

Already alarmed about the whole situation, we asked what he meant.  As an example he said that our son’s response to one of the questions was bizarre.  When asked, “What is the opposite of dog?” he told the intern there was no such thing.  The intern said that most children will answer that question by saying cat.

We were perplexed and not a little bit surprised that there was an answer to that question, but waited until the neurologist finished reading the report before asking how bad it was that our son did not have an answer for the opposite of dog.  The doctor put our minds to rest when he said he agreed with our child that it was a silly question.

Aside from in the above situation, silly doesn’t bother me. I live in a house where playing with words is a common occurrence and witticisms run rampant.  Double entendres and puns are the order of the day. Once started, the ridiculousness can go on for several long minutes until tears are running down our faces. I’m often left behind, rolling my eyes, pondering how to catch up with my clever family. So it’s no wonder that odd things occur to me.

The latest is this one and it hearkens back to the day of that intern:  Is the opposite of writing wronging?  I know that the spelling of write doesn’t lend itself to being the opposite of wrong, but sometimes when I write it does come out very wrong.  I can go on for pages in the totally wrong direction, down roads best left unplowed (sorry, there’s been so much snow here lately that all I can see is a brilliant white, like the blank pages that taunt me when I’m having trouble figuring out what to write next) and develop minor characters that do not even need to be in a story.  The character I have the most trouble with, invariably, is my heroine, who is often a muddled mess of inconsistency and contradictions throughout the first draft.

My writing group is very good at sending out the scouts to find and encourage removal of erroneous material, but they can’t help me clarify my character’s motivation.  The best they can do is wonder where it is, which of course sends me back to the computer to correct the wrongs I’ve committed and hopefully get the writing right.

Joani Ascher is the author of Vengeance Beyond Reason, Vengeance Tastes Sweet, Vengeance Cuts Loose, Vengeance On High, Vengeance Runs Cold, and Vengeance Acts up. The series was originally from Avalon but is now on Amazon’s Thomas and Mercer imprint. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Fact and Fiction by Sierra Donovan

"Oh! So THAT's how you two met!"

When I told people that my first novel was a romance set at a radio station, I got that reaction a lot. Yes, my husband is a disc jockey; yes, we did work at the same radio station together for seven years. But that happened after we were married.

I borrow from my life. I freely admit it. My stories are filled with first and last names borrowed from family members and friends. The afghan my aunt crocheted for me is in the first chapter of "Love on the Air." And that radio station is filled with small items and incidents from the station where I worked. We really did have a CD player we had to stick a butter knife into to rescue a disc that got stuck. And a break room where there was always danger of coming around the corner and crashing into someone (a perfect accident for my hero and heroine!).

I plant pieces of myself into my stories, and I love it.

But if people were to assume that everything in my books really happened to me ... brrr! That could open a can of worms. If my next hero were an auto mechanic, what if people started thinking I had eyes for the guy who fixes my car? Come to think of it, we have been seeing a lot more of each other lately, as my car gets older.... See? Instant gossip!

I wonder if people who write murder mysteries run into the same reaction. Do people realize it's fiction, since there are no bodies turning up on the author's doorstep? Or do friends start eying them uneasily, wondering if a character who resembles them might turn up as a victim in the next book?

Of course, no one ever said writing fiction was for the faint of heart.

The beauty of writing, as with reading, is that we get to escape into another world and experience it vicariously. Writing can have a tremendous advantage because we control this universe. On the other hand, sometimes it sends us down blind alleys or requires us to cause pain for those characters we love so much.

When I'm doing my job right, I experience the story every bit as much as my readers do. There's great joy in taking just a pinch of my favorite things, a dash of personal experience, and stirring it into a great big bowl of fantasy.

So, if any of you notice a good-lookin' grocery checker in my next book, why, pay it no mind.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

In a Nif-Tea Mood for Reading

Today's a snow day for me, which allows me to get some reading in. And perfect timing. I got my tea delivery yesterday. Yes, you read that right. My tea delivery. I get a lot of things delivered. Books (naturally), gifts, clothing, coffee, and...tea. 

My daughter turned me on to the Republic of Tea when she went away to school a few years ago and needed her tea fix on a regular basis. I would send her shipments with new flavors and some of them sounded so good, I had to try them for myself. A few sips of Caramel Apple and Pomegranate Vanilla, and I was hooked. So, yes, every month, my girl (now living home again) and I sit with the catalog, fight over the free sample that comes with it, and try to limit ourselves to no more than six flavors per order. It's not easy. They have black tea, green tea, red tea, white tea, herbal tea, and matcha. There's oolong, rooibos, and decaf. Loose tea or bagged. The possibilities are endless! Last month, they started a Downton Abbey collection with specific teas and flavors based on the popular television show. It's enough to make an Anglophile dizzy.

This time around, we grabbed the usual Caramel Apple for me, along with a Kiwi Pear and a Caramel Vanilla; she opted for Goji Raspberry, Chamomile Lemon, and Vanilla Apple Hibiscus. 

I have separate love affairs with tea and coffee. Coffee is my writing beverage. It's an adrenaline rush, a jolt that gets my creative spark awake and sends my fingers flying over the keys. Tea is my reading beverage. It's a slower, settling-in drink. There's something comforting in a cup of tea and a good book--especially when it's cold outside and I'm toasty warm inside. The word "cozy" leaps to mind.

So, yes, while the snow swirls and the wind howls outside, think of me, cozy in front of a roaring fire, a cup of caramel apple tea by my side, my current book open on my lap, a cat purring beside me. Now, if only I could get my husband to wear a waistcoat...

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Cats and Books

I know I'm not alone when I say that I love CATS and I love BOOKS. I loved cats first, since I couldn't yet read when I was a toddler who already loved cats, as evidenced by a picture of me in a sun-suit taking some of my first steps with a cat winding around my little legs. I grew up on a farm in eastern Pennsylvania where it wasn't unusual to see up to seventeen cats at a time eating from food dishes outside the kitchen door under the maple tree. We didn't know where all the mama cats came from who had kittens in the hay loft of our barn. I never got close to the skittish mamas, but I worked patiently until I tamed the kittens from each litter and became their best friend - that is, when I wasn't reading a book.

Have you noticed lately how many cozy mysteries have cats on the cover? Cats and cozies go together well, perhaps because cats can look so very cozy just about anywhere. Obviously, there are tons of cat-loving readers who have contributed to the success of cat-centered cozy mysteries. Some of my favorite fictional cats are Chablis, Syrah, and Merlot of Leann Sweeney's Cats in Trouble mysteries and Diesel of Miranda James' Cat in the Stacks mysteries. I'm prejudiced because Leann and Miranda (aka Dean) are dear friends who have been in my critique group for many years and who have both become New York Times best-selling authors. Thanks to Leann, I met my agent who urged me to write my new Bad Luck Cat series to be published by Berkley beginning in 2015. So now I'm enjoying my new feline friend, Hitchcock, the purported Bad Luck Cat, and I'm having great fun writing about him.

This morning I was wrapping a birthday gift for our five-year-old grandson (a gift which includes books, of course). My cat appeared at my feet within seconds of me pulling out the ribbon. How did she know I was working with ribbon? Does she know the sound of that particular drawer opening means ribbon is about to appear the way she knows the sound of me picking up a can of tuna as opposed to picking up any other canned food in the pantry? Cats are smart, and curious, and cautious. Nothing escapes their attention. They can squish into places they ought not be. They play with objects that aren't meant to be toys. They're dare-devils and fast runners. It's no wonder that cats make great sidekicks for amateur sleuth protagonists.

The combination of a warm purring cat nestled in my lap while I read a cozy cat mystery can't be beat. I love to immerse myself in a fictional world and forget, for a little while, all of life's little problems. Which is why I will always surround myself with cats and books, keeping them close.

Mystery author Kay Finch is currently writing her new Bad Luck cat Mystery series set in the Texas Hill Country. Her Klutter Killer mystery, Relative Chaos, features a professional organizer who finds a dead body in a hoarder's garage. Kay lives in a Houston, Texas suburb with her husband, two rescue dogs and a cat. Visit her web site at

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Story Stew
It’s rodeo time in San Antonio. City slickers are polishing their boots, hiking their jeans and donning fringed jackets. My nephew, seen in this picture, has to tighten  his suspenders to get ready for action. He’s a bullfighter (rodeo clown) and protects the riders when they’re thrown. Crazy, but someone’s got to do the job. 

In the stock barns, rows and rows and rows of animals are in stalls waiting to show. Kids have worked all year fattening those pigs or steers or chickens anticipating that magic moment in the ring when the judge gives the nod—and you’re handed a blue ribbon! My daughter competed with her lambs when she was in high school. Who knew I would ever learn to shear a sheep! (Did you know we washed them in Woolite before she showed them? Fact!)

As a kid, I yearned for the cowboy life. My cousins owned a ranch and I learned to ride a horse under tutelage from Uncle Voss, a stern taskmaster. He allowed me to tag along behind a trail ride and eat from a chuckwagon, though I admit sleeping on the packed earth wasn’t for me. Alas, once my feet hit the ground, my aching legs and sunburned face let me know right quick I wasn’t cut out to be a cowgirl. I’d rather read Loretta Rogers books nowadays.

So what’s rodeo time have to do with the writing life? Experiences! There’s an old adage that states write what you know. Well, I have a plethora of life experiences now that I’ve— ahem— aged a bit.  My genre is cozy mystery and sweet romance. And there the game begins!

Look at the vast arena of characters and situations I can choose from within just this rodeo season. Cowboys with spurs, rodeo clowns, riders, city slickers, regular folks. I’ve met all of them. Add the smell of the arena, the carnival and funnel cakes on the midway...... With all of those ingredients you can stir up a Story Stew:

WHAT IF—a cowgirl roped a steer and couldn’t handle it.
WHAT IF—an accountant moseyed his way down the aisle admiring the stock in the barns.
WHAT IF—that steer got loose and charged out the gate.
WHAT IF—someone was found dead behind the chutes.
WHAT IF—the accountant found a rope.
WHAT IF—the rope was bloodied.

Well, we can either bring in a detective, kill someone else or we can have the cowgirl and the accountant live happily ever after.

In my cozy mystery Dog Gone, a cleaning lady becomes aware of a dog-napping ring and ends up being kidnapped!  To research this story, I attended the River City dog show. And watched a psychic and a masseuse work with dogs. For real.

See you don’t have to reach far to find fodder for a story. That’s how we do it, Radical Readers. We spot a unique situation and mutter “WHAT IF…..” then let the characters take the lead.Come along with us, pardners. We'd love to have you!


Eileen Key retired after teaching school for thirty years. She is a freelance writer and editor, with two mysteries and three novellas published. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers.  Mother of three, grandmother of four, Eileen resides in San Antonio, Texas.