Friday, October 25, 2019

Setting -- More than a Name

by Fran McNabb

Recently on our Classic and Cozy blog, several of our authors wrote about using accurate details when creating setting in a piece of fiction. Those posts got me thinking and I’d like to add to them.

Setting puts readers into time and into the place of a story. Historical writers usually have a good grasp of setting. It’s easy to feel where the writer of historical fiction wants the reader to be because she or he understands that point must be made early in the story. Unfortunately contemporary writers sometimes neglect to place their characters in a specific place other than simply naming a town. If a reader can plop the character down in any town in the United States or in any other county, the writer has missed her mark to make setting as strong of an element as character and plot.

Even if the writer has accurately placed the character in a specific setting and built that world correctly, has she captured the feel of the place? I’m speaking from experience here. I recently submitted a manuscript to an editor whom I personally know and who works with one of the top ten publishing groups. I had my story set in Key West, a place I love and have visited several times. She rejected the manuscript because she wanted a series and she said she didn’t think I had captured the feel of the Keys and what I had written would not sustain the area's thread throughout three novels. Needless to say, I was baffled because I thought I had done a good job with the setting. Obviously, I had not.

When the manager of a very nice welcome center on my Gulf Coast suggested I have a book launch at the center for my next book release, I thanked her and hoped I’d actually have another book release. With that piece of information in mind, I started thinking about my rejected story and realized I might not know all the nuances of Key West, but I certainly understood the region where I called home. I took the same story and rewrote it with a Gulf Coast setting, outlined three books that could come from the idea, and found a small press to publish the series.

My point here concerns setting. Just finding a place on the map to put characters in won’t work unless the writer understands the place. Sure it can be done without actually living there, but when an author feels the setting, he or she has a better chance of helping the reader feel the area as well.

What’s it like to walk down the sidewalk of a town? Are sidewalks actually there? Do neighbors know each other? Do they sit on their porches and talk to each other? Do neighborhood children play in the streets? Do taxi cabs and other ride sharing vehicles get people around or do citizens rely on their own transportation?

Even though I know the area where my new book is set, I still did not use the actual name of the town. Instead I named the community Marsh Isles. Readers along the Gulf Coast should recognize the town where I placed my characters though I gave it a different name. By not using real names of cities or streets I can change the physical setting to fit my story while still keeping the feel of the town—I hope. It doesn't always happen though. The name of this book is PARADISE LANE, 

and at one of my talks a lady raised her hand and said she wanted a copy of the book because she lived on Paradise Lane in the same area where I set the book. I was floored. I thought there wasn’t a street by that name there, but who knew there would be one in one of the newer subdivisions?

I’m pleased that I changed the setting to the Gulf Coast, and so far I’ve had good feedback from my readers. I can’t wait to see what other locals think about the book. Fingers crossed.

Where are your books set? Do your readers feel the area? It doesn't matter if it's real or  simply based on a place you know, think about the little things that make it special and make your readers know where they are.

FRAN MCNABB lives along the Gulf Coast and uses this setting in most of her novels. PARADISE LANE is her newest book in the three-book GULF COAST SERIES. Check her out at

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

New York: My City

When I hear people who don’t live in New York City say how much they hate the city I always wonder what part of the New York they’ve visited. If it’s Times Square, I don’t blame them.  If that were how I experienced the city, I’d hate it too. 
I do understand the city isn’t for everyone.  Lots of people prefer to be in less congested, more bucolic settings and/or have more space to live in.  I actually can’t imagine living in the city without the ability to regularly leave for the country and space.  But I still love New York City and if I had my way, I’d live here part of the time for the rest of my life.  
I lived in the city right out of college for eleven years and then again as an adult after our children were launched.  This second time has been for 16 plus years, but in May that time will all be ending and we’ll be moving upstate to live in our country house full time. Knowing I’ll soon be leaving New York has gotten me thinking about why I like New York so much and has reminded me that why I love New York is, in many ways, contrary to how a tourist thinks of and experiences the city. 
My New York is a city of neighborhoods including mine on the Upper West Side. My city is a friendly, caring place where if everyone doesn’t know my name, they at least recognize me and will, if necessary, look out for me.  
Most tourists think of New York as the midtown area, consisting of Times Square—a place in my opinion that should be avoided at all costs—and the streets between Fifth and Park Avenue from 42nd Street to Central Park.  This is where the high-end hotels are as well as the most expensive restaurants and the same international boutiques you’re likely to find in every other major city in the world.  But it’s not my New York. 
Of course I go into midtown—but not often.  Most Christmas times, like so many tourists, I make a pilgrimage to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and the windows at Saks and Bergdorf’s and stop and have a drink at a bar in one of the fancy hotels. I also go to the theatre every chance I get and Lincoln Center and the art museums—all in midtown.  But otherwise, I stick to my neighborhood.   
I live in a medium sized prewar apartment building where the doorman knows me and my husband and my grown children, their spouses and my grandchildren too.  They may not know every member of my family by name, but they know them all well enough to let them into the building without calling up to check.  They’ll also give them our key if we’re not in town.  
The doormen also know the minute details in our lives and everyone else’s in the building.  They inquire if they see me by myself on a Friday night, wondering where my husband is.  They also keep tabs on me if they see my husband out by himself during the week.  They know we leave for the country most weekends and where we’ve gone on vacation. 
Some may think all this interaction is overly intrusive. I think it’s being neighborly. In many ways our building is like a small town where everyone knows who you are and looks out for you.
            It’s also true at our typical New York City grocery store just around the corner.  It’s not Whole Foods with its fancy labels and boutique cheese selection, but the produce, thanks to Asian owners who know what they’re doing, and fussy Hispanic customers who also know their fruits and vegetables, the produce is always fresh and reasonably priced.  It’s at least as good as Whole Foods and much cheaper—I know because I’ve checked. The store is also friendly.  I lived in a small town in New Jersey for twenty-three years, but no cashier ever called me Sweetie until I moved to this neighborhood and became a regular customer. Now I’ve come to expect it.  These people know me and I know them.  
            Contrary to many myths about the city, New Yorkers look out for one another and can be counted on to help if you’re lost or in trouble.   The city is such a communal place that when I rode the crosstown bus last week with my nineteen- month old grandson on my lap, the entire front of the bus where we were sitting got involved.  By the time we got out at Amsterdam, I knew where my seat companions were from, Poland, and they knew my grandson was in from L.A.  
            But you don’t need a baby to make a travel friend.  It’s not unusual when I’m riding the subway for women my age to ask where I’m headed and what show I’m seeing if I’m riding the train in the evening.  In every one of those encounters, what show I’m seeing is just the icebreaker with conversations then veering off from theatre and restaurant recommendations to quick synopses of each other’s lives.  This has happened so frequently that I no longer think of it as unusual and recognize it for what it is, New Yorkers at their best. 
            This is not to say that I’m sad about leaving the city.  I think it’s time to downsize and simplify my life.  But I’ll always treasure these past sixteen years and attribute my stay here as a great transition into retirement and helping me stay mentally fit.  I also imagine visiting often. After all, I know my way around and can get on the subway to reach my favorite neighborhoods. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Dogged Deadlines!

I've been Missing in Action for much of the last month. My family wonders where Mom has gone. My neighbors may be asking if I've moved away. Social media connections almost certainly believe I've unfriended them. I've been on deadline.

This particular deadline crunch began with a challenge. I attended a writers' conference in mid-September. A woman I've known for years and have worked with frequently, managing editor at a publishing house that has produced some of my books, attended the same conference. She issued a broad challenge to anyone willing to accept it: The publishing house had a contest going involving three different genres. They sought novellas in each of the three categories, with the best entry in each to be published next year. One of those categories is historical romance and my friend, the editor, challenged me to send her a manuscript.

The problem? She showed me the flyer for the contest and issued her personal challenge on September 14. The deadline for all entries was October 15. Could I write a novella start to finish in a month?

Now you understand why I've been MIA. I've been pushing that deadline. The good news is, the novella is complete at 36,000 words. Three lovely readers and an editor gave it a once-over for me, even when I gave them a two-day deadline to get it done, and I submitted my complete manuscript two days ago, on October 14, actually one day early. It's a good story, too. I did it! But that's about all I've done lately.

What has this experience taught me? For one thing, I can be stubborn about taking on a challenge, even if it doesn't seem realistic. Also, I can write a book in a month if I'm highly motivated. Those are good things to know. Not so good are some of the other lessons, like realizing I can disappear so completely into the black hole of my fictional world that I can practically vanish from the physical world we inhabit. Not good. Not good at all.

I'm back now, remembering where I live and reconnecting with the actual people around me. I'm even working again on my other deadlines, which got pushed back or snubbed altogether during my month of publishing panic. Today, I appear to be just like other people with other jobs, people who work given hours and live the rest of the time with family and friends.

I'm not cured, however. Deadline Fever will surely strike again. One day soon, I'll realize I've spent so much time playing with my imaginary friends that my actual, physical friends wonder what has happened to me. Or maybe not. My friends know I'm a writer, after all.

Susan loves to hear from readers. Write her at, or visit or her Facebook page, Watch for Amber in Autumn, Book 3 in the "Seasons of Destiny" series, coming early next year. Books 1 and 2, Paris in the Springtime and  Sunny's Summer are available in e-book and paperback formats. Winter Skye will follow soon. Who knows? There may even be an historical romance novella to add to the mix. Stay in touch for updates. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Books and Crabs... a lesson from the trenches

I usually try to write to appeal to readers, but today, I'm making an exception. This is for writers, and readers who want to see the man behind the curtain.

I recently participated in the West Point (Virginia) Crab Carnival as a vendor. Two friends and I, with riparian themed books, participated and here’s a smattering of what I learned. Although this isn’t my first time around the festival block, I always learn something new.
  • Don't expect to actually sell books. That's not the point at all.
  • The point is networking, name recognition, and goodwill. 
  • I know you're an introvert but bring your social face.
  • Bring more books than you expect to sell... just in case.
  • Know where the bathrooms/port-a-potties are located. You'll be giving a lot of people directions.
  • Know your audience. (Bring appropriate enticements to lure them in.)
  • Plan for inclement weather. (This was an outdoor event and we had beautiful weather, but oh, the wind.
  • Bring enough change to make change... for yourself and others in need.
  • Don't forget your Square reader or similar device for taking credit card purchases.
  • Appropriate (and easy to assemble/disassemble) tables, chairs, props, tents, etc.

So now, go out there and have fun! Practice makes perfect! See you next year!

Thursday, October 10, 2019


On a recent trip to the Lake District in England, we used a rainy day as an excuse to visit one of the few indoor attractions in Keswick, the Derwent Pencil Museum.

Before I talk about the museum, though, a bit of quick history – Writing instruments of all sorts have been in use for thousands of years, but a sort of proto pencil was a lead-based stylus used since the time of the Romans (which is why we still call them “lead pencils” even though lead hasn’t been used in pencils in hundreds of years).

The modern version of the pencil dates back to the 16th century with the discovery of a large deposit of graphite near Keswick in the Borrowdale Valley. The story says that it was found by accident by a group of shepherds who, on finding that it wouldn’t burn like coal, used the mineral to mark their sheep. But they soon discovered it left marks on their hands and other things that were hard to remove.

People soon discovered that the mineral was too soft to use by itself, but stuffed into a wooden tube, it made an easy-to-use writing instrument.

The World's Largest Pencil
By the early 18th century a cottage industry creating pencils had grown up in Keswick and the surrounding area. In 1916 the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company or sometimes just called The Cumberland Pencil Company was formed to manufacture pencils. The first Derwent color pencil was produced in 1938. The Derwent brand is still recognized for produced some of the finest artist’s pencils in the world.

The factory has since moved, but the museum remains in Keswick. It’s a fascinating place. In addition to displays showing the history of the pencil, there are numerous historical items, a look at the manufacturing process, the varieties of pencil and art supplies now available, and a couple of fascinating, related stories. It also features the world's biggest pencil, as certified by the Guiness Book of World Records.

During World War II, Brittain’s secret service operatives worked with the company to develop ways to incorporate various bits of miniaturized technology into the pencils. They were also used as a method for passing secret messages. None of this has ever been officially confirmed, of course!
The museum gave us each a plain Derwent pencil with our entrance ticket. I was glad to get one.

Personally I use pencils quite a bit. Although all my books are written on the computer, I do a lot of preliminary work and planning using a pencil and paper. I like a pencil that writes fairly dark and has a nice sharp point. There’s something about the physical act of holding a pencil over a blank piece of paper that gives opens the spigot and gives the ideas a channel to emerge and begin to grow.

Monday, October 7, 2019

My latest problem

My husband accumulates T-shirts. Not in a way that collectors of valuable items amass art, or fine wines, or vintage baseball cards, but more like the way a scoop of ice cream dropped on the sidewalk attracts ants.

The shirts are getting to be a bit of a problem, but I can’t really blame him. He comes by most of them without making actual purchases. Sure, we might get a souvenir Been there, Done that, Got the T-shirt when traveling, or a shirt proclaiming us as Seeing Eye Puppy raisers, but most of my husband’s T-shirts come from the numerous events, formerly on bicycle, now on foot, that he participates in.

He gets shirts from his walking events, with the name of the various walking groups emblazoned on the front. There are several from Freewalkers, EverWalk, Rails to Trails Conservancy, New York- New Jersey Trail Conference, and others. He also got shirts for participating in charity rides and walks, and various fundraisers. Some of the events take place annually and so there might be several shirts from the same organization, with only the years and sponsors on the backs changing. He gets shirts from radio stations for donations and shirts from conferences.

Lately, though, he’s picking up hats from conferences instead, but I won’t go into that except to say that Slobodkina’s monkeys from Caps for Sale have nothing on the stack of caps we now own.

There is no good place to store all these shirts and hats. There is also no reason to keep them all. But so far that has been a losing battle.
I’m not saying that I’m not also guilty of saving things beyond their period of usefulness.  I think many people may feel the same way about the items in their lives that bring back memories of some other time, when the keepsakes were new and held the full meaning of the moment. But memories fade and so do T-shirts.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Outrageous Pumpkin Carving Ideas (And Some Classics)

By Victoria M. Johnson

It's pumpkin carving season!  That means it's time to get out your serrated knife, scoop out mounds of seeds, and get busy designing and carving faces on your pumpkins.  Do you prefer whacked out faces or the classic jack-o-lantern face?  Either way, here are some ideas to get your creative pumpkin juices flowing.

But I NEVER Carved a Pumpkin Before!
Not to worry, you can find step-by-step instructions to carve your pumpkin on almost any food website.  Here is a sampling: BBC Good Food, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.

Photo by Rohan Reddy

Photo by David Menidrey

Photo by Paula Smith

Photo by Benedikt Geyer

Photo by Ian Dooley

I couldn't share enough pictures here so I included links below to more outrageously cool jack o lantern faces… just click on the name.

I adore this Whimsical Face

Here's a cute Zombie Pumpkin

Check out these eye-catching Eye Can See You Pumpkins

Here's an amazing Sweet Tooth Pumpkin

I hope you feel inspired to carve your own pumpkins this holiday season.  Are you already a pro?  What's your favorite design?  Please share in the comments below.  Happy Halloween! 

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.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Memoirs of a Stripper

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

I'm lucky. I grew up in my parents' ad agency - Don May Advertising, one of the top 300 in the country (as rated by AADA) for 16 of the 17 years of its existence. I started 'working' there when I was 9 - as, believe it or not, a stripper. (Bring that out at a cocktail party and see what happens!) No, my folks were not perverts; in those antique days the idea of what we know as computer publishing was not even a dream, it was the stuff of science fiction.

Back then you first thought up the ad, then did a rough pencil sketch of layout to the specs of the ad space, whether it was in pixels, columns and/or inches. Then you decided how much space you had for the information your client wanted in the ad and how much for graphics. Then you typed your copy - yes, typed, on a typewriter and in our office that meant on an office-sized manual. Some clients wanted blocks of typed copy instead of fancy fonts, so we gave it to them, which meant what you typed had to be not only within certain space parameters it had to be letter perfect. And if you had a client (as we did) who wanted typed copy in different typefaces, you had to buy different typewriters. When my folks' office closed back in the early 70s, we had 27 of them. All standard manuals, big as an old-fashioned monitor and heavy as an anchor.

You chose your clip art or photograph, your headline and sub-head, and added the client's logo/information. You chose which type font to use (if they didn't want plain typed copy) and then the fun began. You had to use that tool of the devil, the proportion wheel, to figure out how much space each unit needs and how it all fit into your space and design. The copy (perfectly typed and with every word - especially the names - correctly spelt) was then sent to the typesetter with the name of the desired type and the measurements of the space. The images were sent to the photostatter with the measurements of where they were supposed to go. Then you waited... sometimes up to three days, which was not considered abnormal.

Once all the elements were returned you could (hopefully) construct your ad. However, if some mathematically-challenged person got the proportion wheel readings wrong the process - which was quite expensive - had to begin again, which made both the agency and the client furious. Don't ask me how I know.

Once everything was right, you cut out the various elements and pasted them down on art board with rubber cement, then once it was finished, cleaned up the little escaping dribs of cement with a square of something rubbery whose name I have forgotten. I pulled the little bits of collected cement off the rubbery thing and, instead of discarding them as the other artists did, rolled them into a ball. When the office closed forever, I had a ball of rubber cement drippings roughly the size of a softball. Have no idea of whatever happened to it, though.

My first job, as I have said, was stripping, which meant taking an eyedropper of acetone and very carefully using the acetone to dissolve the rubber cement so I could lift off the reusable elements, put them on a sheet of typing paper according to type and file them, so we could re-use them later and not have the expense of photostatting. Hence - I was a stripper.

It was a smelly, sticky job and I did it proudly (remember, I was nine years old, and the status of earning a paycheck however minuscule was great) but when at the age of 12 I was promoted to writing copy I was ecstatic. It wasn't romantic or even really interesting - ours was an industrial advertising agency rather than a consumer one - but I took to writing copy about industrial washers and drop-coin meters and car washes like the proverbial duck. I worked there until it was time for me to go to college.

This was all long ago; aeons in technological time. When our agency closed copy machines were huge boxes with a tub of liquid that the copy went through to 'set' it, turning out a slightly slimy, slightly blurry copy - and we thought they were not only incredible, but almost magical. Computers were around, but they cost millions (millions then!) and took up entire floors of office buildings. The thought of a phone you could carry with you or a computer that would fit in your pocket only existed in the realm of fantasy. Now they're not only commonplace but ubiquitous.

I wish my father could have lived to enjoy the age of computers and desktop publishing. He would have delighted in it. I still do a few graphic jobs, mainly for organizations to which I belong, and in an hour or so I can produce a job (including the inevitable 'tweaking' time) in what used to take three or four days. How my father would have loved such ease and control! Unfortunately, he died before computers left the 'full floor of an office building' stage. My mother, on the other hand, lived well into the computer age and never ceased to regard them with suspicion and dislike. She said that nothing so easily done could be good and the internet was a tool of the devil. Well, I guess sometimes she can be regarded as being right, but on the other hand modern convenience can be wonderful.

The only sad thing about such ease and luxury is that there is no place left for 9 year olds to enter the business world by stripping.