Ask the Authors: Setting



In today’s installment of Ask the Authors, the panel will talk about setting and world building. Setting is one of the three basic elements of story, but one that is often overlooked. We spend hours plotting and developing characters, but it is important for us to give just as much attention to our settings. Through our writing, we can take readers to places both real and imagined. As authors, it is our job to paint a clear picture for our readers with our words, whether taking them to real locations requiring accurate descriptions or to whole worlds that spring from our creative imaginations, which need to be illustrated to come alive for them. Setting is important because readers must be able to immerse themselves within the world of the story for total buy-in. If readers don’t buy into our world, past, present or future, real or created, they aren’t going to read very far. Our job is to allow them to believe, and setting may be a starting point to do that.

What tools or strategies do you use in world building for your stories?

Carol Riggs: Sometimes it’s helpful to base even a fantasy or sci-fi novel on a real place or photo, then branch out from there. I use Google maps a lot (my latest novel is set around St. Louis, MO), where I can visually see where things are, and can often zoom into a street view of where I want to be. Awesome! I research places online; living with technology makes writing so much easier.

World locations

When the setting is a real one, whether past, present or future, knowledge of the location is necessary to describe in a way that readers familiar with the area, so research is necessary. Having experienced a location first hand can make it easier to visualize ourselves, and relate that vision clearly for our readers. Authors who write about their hometown or other locations they know quite well, are following the age old advice to write what you know, and it may pay off for them, if it helps provide a clear vision for the story setting.

Have you ever had places that you travel to end up in your books?

DeAnna Knippling: It’s usually the reverse.  I write about someplace and then try to travel there.  I totally geek out about seeing what my character saw.
Jordan Elizabeth: All the time!  I based Secrets of Bennett Hall after my visit to Hyde Hall near Cooperstown, NY.
Janet Garber: What I love most about writing and travel is that every experience, good or bad, can be woven into a story, used to enrich a setting. Nothing is wasted. My experiences living abroad (outside the U.S.) definitely have enriched my writing and given me incalculable insight into “foreiAgn” cultures. My next novel takes place in Mexico and in France and I was able to write about the locations with a specificity impossible to someone who had not lived in these countries.
Cynthia Vespia: In a way, yes. I was traveling to Alcatraz in San Francisco for a trip and at the same time I was in the middle of writing my thriller Sins and Virtues which opens with an escape from a maximum security prison. While I was at Alcatraz I went inside one of the cells to take a picture, as you do, and I swear something in there followed me home. When I returned to my novel I started seeing images inside my head of an attempted prison break from Alcatraz. The images were clear as day, and seen through the eyes of a middle-aged man. My character was a young female so it wasn’t just a case of a really good imagination coming to life…this felt like something else entirely. I felt this other presence through the duration of writing Sins and Virtues and it only left when I completed the book. True story.
Chris Barili: Of course. In fact, if I’m writing in the real world, I try to set things in places I have been, and preferably places I know well. Even when I’m writing in a fictional world or universe, though, the setting takes on elements of the places I’ve been, cultures I’ve experienced, and so on.  B.T. Clearwater’s current work-in-progress takes place in Denver, as did Smothered.  
Carol Riggs: I haven’t ever traveled anywhere exotic, unusual, or outside the U.S., but for instance I’ve been to (and lived on) the Oregon coast, so a few of my novels are set there. I’ve been to L.A.; one of my novels is set there but a futuristic version of it. Most of my novels are fantasy or sci-fi, so they are otherworldly and not set in real places anyway.
Art Rosch: Travel is good for writers.  Meeting other people is good for writers.  Any experience that engages the writer with the world is good for writers.  What would we write about if all we we did was hide out in our little cubbyholes and watched TV or played video games?
Fantasy Lake
In many cases however, we are called by our stories to write about places we haven’t been and are not familiar with. Although first hand experience is preferable, it is sometimes necessary to research a location without physically visiting it. Such research can lend a feel of authenticity to your story, if your research is thorough and you select details that enhance your story.
In a story we are often asked to create images for the reader of places we may not have experienced ourselves. When have you had to do that?
DeAnna Knippling: All the time.  Google maps is my friend.
Jordan Elizabeth: Most of my books require that because I write fantasy.  I like to imagine there is magic all around us, so that helps me in describing what the magic is like.
Janet Garber: When I write speculative fiction, short stories, obviously I have to make up and populate an alien world. I try to have as much fun as possible; in fact I label this “silly sci-fi.” A forthcoming story in Spectacle Magazine, entitled Seapocalypse, is about a fed-up seahorse who doesn’t like the division of labor in his household. “Shishkosh” (Newtown Literary and Tigershark) tells the story of an earthling of the future who crash lands on a very strange planet.
Cynthia Vespia: My fantasy series Demon Hunter is set in medieval times in places that didn’t really exist. That’s the fun of writing fantasy or sci-fi, or even some contemporary settings. You get to make up what it looks like. In that case, I generally will draw from places that I have been and embellish them with whatever I need to move the scene. If it happens to be a place that exists in reality that I haven’t been to then I will research it online. For instance, one of my early works had a meeting at a place called Musso & Frank in Hollywood. It is a very well known restaurant but I have never actually been there. Because it is so well known I wanted it to be described the right way, so I did my due diligence and researched the hell out of it!
Chris Barili: The entire Hell’s Butcher series so far has consisted of settings I haven’t actually seen, from Creede, CO to places in Maryland and Virginia. And not only were they PLACES I’ve never been, but during times I did not experience. So I had to immerse myself in research to get the right flavor for setting, both physical and culturally.
Carol Riggs: Yes, a lot! I write fantasy and sci-fi, so I love using my imagination to make up new places and experiences. Stories set on other planets, or even a world similar to Earth—but with magic or an unusual twist added. Fantasy novels in general tend to be set in a kind of medieval-flavored setting, more primitive with castles and huts/cottages and what not.
Sometimes it’s helpful to base even a fantasy or sci-fi novel on a real place or photo, then branch out from there. I use Google maps a lot (my latest novel is set around St. Louis, MO), where I can visually see where things are, and can often zoom into a street view of where I want to be. Awesome! I research places online; living with technology makes writing so much easier.
What are your favorite settings to write about?
DeAnna Knippling: Victorian England and parts abroad.  I love writing crime…and these people were criminals, pretty much just top to bottom.  But a close second is America during the Roaring 20s.
According to, there are four methods for revealing setting: through motion, letting your setting unfold as your character moves through the scene; through your character’s experience, or what he or she knows, which may be a good reason to use multiple POVs to show how different characters see their surroundings; through your character’s feelings, similar to using the character’s experience, letting his or her mood influence how readers see the setting, or through the senses and the use of sensory detail.
Summer Beach
I think we all reveal setting through motion, even when we’re not doing it intentionally, but I think the last is most effective. While not all readers will relate to the experiences your character has had, or whatever has put your character into such an angry mood, all readers can relate to sensory information, so they are more likely to form an accurate mental picture from the details of sight, taste, touch, sound and smell. Let’s see if our panel members agree.
What kind of details do you like to add to create a mental picture of setting for your reader?
DeAnna Knippling: Smell.  Food.  Texture…temperature.  Weather.
Jordan Elizabeth: I love smell.  Sometimes we take smell for granted in real life, but adding a smell to a story can really bring it to life.
Janet Garber: The gold standard: appeals to the senses.
Cynthia Vespia: I always remember to include the 5 senses. It rounds out a better picture if you can get a real feel for the place that isn’t just a visual painting from your mind but also has depth and reality to it.
Chris Barili: I tend to be a minimalist. Until I’m not. I try to use as many of the senses as possible, without stretching or forcing it, and I like metaphorical description. “The hills lay like slumbering beasts in the distance.” Things like that to paint a picture for the reader.
Carol Riggs: I like to add sensory images, like smells or sounds. I also think it helps a reader get a better picture of what a place is like if there is a comparison added. For instance, if a set of buildings are arranged in a horseshoe shape. I tend to be a minimalist as far as setting. I myself get bored when reading a description if it wanders on past one paragraph, and my rough “rule” for my own description is to keep it to three sentences. Any more than a short paragraph seems overdone (if not interspersed with action or dialogue).
Would you like to share a brief excerpt from one of your best setting descriptions?
DeAnna Knippling: I’m not sure about “best” but here’s one:

There was an armchair sitting at right angles to the wheelchair; he sat in it, and the receptionist set the tray in front of them, then poured.  The teacups had saucers to them, and delicate gold spoons in case you wanted to stir sugar into your tea.  Not a single rattle.

The room smelled of flowers, not the sickly-sweet artificial scent of “flowers” but green things, growing things.  Roses, maybe, not the kind that you got at the flower shops but the real ones that used to grow along the sides of the road with bees swarming around them, back when you got more than a handful of bees in the summertime.

The tea smelled faintly of tea, which always struck Frank not smelling like anything at all.  He liked the smell of coffee better.  Coffee smelled good, even when you knew it was going to be terrible.  Alice leaned forward a little.  The way she moved made Frank think she was in a lot of pain.

“Can I get that for you?”

“Thank you, dear, if you would.”

Janet Garber: From In a Tizzy:

Spinning in a 360 degree circle, arms raised like a little girl, I could view impossibly fluffy clouds touching down on the horizon and two magnificent volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Citlaltépetl, their views unobstructed by skyscrapers, highways, power lines or telephone cables. So this is what the sky looks like! I spun and spun, it was all sublime.

I was the darling novia, outfitted in a dazzling white Mexican blouse festooned with brightly colored embroidered flowers and sporting faded blue jeans with two sexy patches I’d sewn on to hide a rip, two fish swimming in the neighborhood of my crotch. I wore my yellow work boots and pinned my signature long hair up, off my neck, as a concession to the blazing sun.

I sat on the grass in the sun shunning sunglasses and hat since I never burn—all I ever get are more freckles—and I watched Pierre play soccer with his scientist colleagues.  Game over, he sauntered over to me—I watched him slowly cross the field, swinging his arms—so sexy and smiling and seductive and . . .short?

“I never noticed,” I confided that afternoon, “but you’re rather short.” How could I have missed that?

“What are you saying, Foolish Talking Bird?” He laughed and pulled me in for a kiss. “I’m at least 170 cm.”

I pushed him away and looked around; our friends made a show of turning their heads in the other direction. “No, you’re not, Skinny Little Laughing Skeleton.” I mocked. “You liar, you!”

By way of answer, he lifted me and swung me around until I was breathless. Taking my hand he ran with me across the fields to our dusty little car. As we approached, I looked at him questioningly. “No more lessons for you, Lady. You’ve been a bad girl.”  Well, during our previous lesson on driving standard shift, I had jumped out of the car three times, slamming the door each time. He’d done the same. Either I was hopeless or he was a bad teacher. The latter is unlikely judging by his popularity with the physics staff and the students. “Oh, please, one more chance to strip the gears!” I cried out. [©2017 janet garber, from WIP novel]

Cynthia Vespia: Here is a scene from Karma, Book 1 in the Silke Butters Superhero Series

She didn’t even wait for the van to come to a full stop before she raced out the door. Her feet just glanced the pavement as she hopped over the curb and rushed in through the sliding glass doors.

Los Angeles Memorial bustled with activity. People loitered in the waiting area anxious for their turn to be called. Silke weaved between the lot of them and made her way to the reception desk.

Her voice was frantic as she asked for Maki’s room number. The receptionist tried to tell her to wait while she finished a phone call. She attempted to disregard the fact that Silke’s very best friend, who was more like a sister than Honey, was lying in a hospital bed clinging to life. She wanted Silke to wait her turn before going in to possibly see her friend for the very last time.

Silke was done waiting. She slammed her fists down on top of the desk, sending papers into the air. The impact also proceeded to pull sparks from her hands that ran over the receptionist desk directly into the phone. It sparked and popped in the nurse’s hand, forcing her to drop it and turn her attention to Silke.

It happened again. Some type of spark emitted from her own hands. She felt it before when facing off against Rostov. At that time, she felt powerful as she could drop the much larger assailant. Now she attacked a poor nurse just doing her job. What was happening?



Chris Barili: This is from the opening scene of Smothered:

The old Victorian didn’t just sit on the street. It didn’t hunch, stand, rest, or exist. Instead, it loomed, seeming to lean out over the front sidewalk to intimidate passersby. The porch’s white rail gleamed like a sadistic grin, slashing through the pallor of the gray shingle siding, while dark windows stared like half-lidded eyes, their smoke-stained shades still in the half-drawn position they’d been in the last time human life had occupied the house nearly a year before.

The houses around it sported fresh coats of paint, most in bright, almost garish colors popular when they were built over a century ago. All had lush, green lawns and flower boxes bursting with color, not drab gray-green weed forests with wilted, long-dead skeletons of flowers. The house also lacked the bright Memorial Day banners, flags, and window trimmings of its neighbors, making it the only unpatriotic house on the block.

Carol Riggs: This excerpt is from THE BODY INSTITUTE (p. 284 paperback).

All human sounds cut off as the door closes. Cool air clings to my skin like clammy hands. A whirring, sucking noise of machinery fills the room, which smells odd, a sort of musty grease scent mingled with antiseptic.

Glow sticks hang by the door. Leo grabs one, activates it with a crack, and aims it down an aisle. Rows and rows of coffin-shaped capsules occupy the room, stacked three high like drawers in a macabre-style dresser. They make up a maze of walls a little taller than my head.


Art Rosch: Below is a descriptive passage from THE GODS OF THE GIFT, my first mature science fiction novel.


The Gods of The Gift on Smashwords

 “Chapter Six

The View From Castle Strobe

            Strobe, the castle of Prince Vizmir Borgomak, was the size of a small city.  An irregular wall surrounded it, made from materials that showed its antiquity.  Old stone ramparts supported later materials of brick, concrete, rammed earth and plasticene.  There were many gates, old and new.  Some were operated by winches and slid upward on squeaking chains.  Others opened by remote control, slid smoothly into recesses.  The castle had not required military defense in thousands of years.  The old arrow slits and catapult ramps had been converted into modern verandas and scenic windows. 

            The castle had eighty seven towers, each topped with a distinctive dome or minaret. Some were shaped like simple onions, pointed at the top, round and tapering at the sides.  Others had two or three flattened ovoids pushed together and topped with sharp spires. Yet others were slab sided triangles with cat-walks latticed onto their steeples. The designs on these towers were made with paint, gilding, mosaic tiles and filigree.  Color schemes were numerous and bizarre.  One large tower near the castle’s center was the shape of a tulip bulb with a flattened top.  It was decorated with blue and white triangles, alternating side by side, one triangle upright, the other pointing downward, and the triangles changed size according to the placement on the tapering shape of the spire.  Another tower was spiraled in red stipples, like a confection.  Yet another was painted as a tree against the sky, twisting gnarled branches weaving their way up the sides of the facade against the cerulean backdrop.

            There was no sense of unity to the structure.  It seemed as though the parts had been pushed together from a book of tourist architecture, showpiece images gleaned from cultures all across the galaxy.  Walls ran from one tower to another, and there were so many that the walls collided, forming useless closed yards, odd pens with little doors, dried up gardens that had been forgotten and walled off.  Some yards contained human skeletons or bones of animals and fallen birds. No two towers were the same height, or the same color.  Windows of synthglass shone in various elevations, many adorned with balconies.  Force fields protected these balconies from the intense heat of this hemisphere of the planet, which was also called Strobe.  On this hot afternoon, flags like the tongues of  snakes hung listlessly, without a breeze to sniff. At the base of the megalith, shops huddled against the castle walls, wares of many kinds were sold and traded.  Spices and electronic devices rested in adjacent stalls where their proprietors sat on stools and smoked from water pipes.  Half a mile beyond the perimeter of the castle, agriculture on an industrial scale was being practiced.  Vast fields of tall, slender plants drank from the arms of rotating sprinklers.  The plantations surrounded Castle Strobe, vanishing to the horizon in neatly planted circles.  The plants were blooming.  Each purple stalk held three or four gaudy flowers of mauve, chartreuse and orange.  The odor of a billion flowers, sweet and cloying like toffee, penetrated the skin and clothing of thousands of robiot workers, whose nervous systems were impervious to the effect of the plant.  This potent botanical was called Somniferum Cannabino Papaverum Vizmeria.  Its name in ordinary vernacular was Futufu.  It had many other names.”

This vision of the castle was inspired by the sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.  The cathedral is such a bizarre and colorful structure that it casts a spell over me.  In the novel, Castle Strobe is the home of a demented drug lord.  It reflects his chaotic character, his undisciplined extravagance.  This is but one of many settings that I devised in THE GODS OF THE GIFT.  I had absolute freedom to practice world building in “Gods” because there was no realistic counterpart to our own world.  I could create anything. In my latest, yet unpublished book, The Shadow Storm, I’ve had to constrain myself with a far more familiar setting  Here I had to draw a map of the planet Freeth before I began anything else.  The setting of Shadow Storm resembles our own world on the eve of World War One.  I was stimulated to write the book by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.  I applied a maxim, that is, “Geography Is Destiny” to create a setting that was completely different from our home planet yet reminiscent of it in almost every way.  Thus the work on the map was of primary importance.  I had to foresee battles that would have global consequences.  I had to think like a military master-mind and work out the ways in which armies would be thwarted by towering mountain ranges and navies would be directed towards the control of strategic waterways.

Mountain Retreat

In many genres, especially fantasy or science fiction, stories take us into fictional worlds which spring from the depths of our imaginations, which serve as the settings for our stories. In film, there is the luxury of visual images and through sometimes elaborate sets, and in more modern times digital imaging, we are able to bring a world to life for viewers. But in fiction, we must use our words to draw those pictures mentally for our readers through action and character. It is a different medium, but it is no less challenging to create a world through the written word.

Would you like to share some thoughts on world building?

Art Rosch: World building is intriguing because it challenges me to devise new religions, new societies, new terrain and all of these factors feed into the nature and behavior of my characters.  They are people of their time and place, and this time, this place, has only a peripheral relation to our own world and the people and events that have transpired here.  The Shadow Storm is about preparing for a global war, one that will sweep the book’s characters into violent and unusual events.  I have the warm gut feeling that I’ve written a fine book.  I hope I’ll be stimulated to continue its sequel and prequel.  That depends on whether I can find readers.  Ain’t that a bitch?  Our literary landscape is so bloated with writers and their books that it’s hard to get traction.

Every day I get emails from marketing gurus promising to show me how to do book releases that will get 100+ reviews on the day of release and earn me a seven figure income.  I think, perhaps, that the marketing gurus may be earning seven figure incomes from gullible writers, but the rest of us are confined by our own economic state.  Unless we too have seven figure incomes we won’t be able to invest in enough marketing to earn seven figure income from our books.  Is this Catch-23?

Sensory detail are a favorite for revealing setting amoung our panel members. How ever you chose to reveal setting, be sure you’ve done the needed research, whether that means traveling to the physical location or researching remotely, to be able to form a clear and accurate mental picture for your readers. Remember when dealing with real locations, that there will be readers out there who are familiar with the locations and they may be quick to point out any inconsistencies.

I think our panelists have given up some food for thought when it comes to setting and workd building. Be sure to catch next week’s installment, when Ask the Authors will talk about publishing. If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.

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Ask the Authors: Action/Dialog

Writer Frustration

When tackling dialog, we want it to sound as  real as possible, but if you capture every “um” and “ah”, the conversation may put readers to sleep, or even worse, they may just set the book down and never get back to it, because the fact is that everyday conversation is pretty boring. In writing, every word, every phrase, every scene should serve a purpose to the story. There’s no room for what screenwriters call “Hello. How are you? I’m fine.” dialog. In real life, these are things that we talk about, but readers don’t need to be privy to those kinds of conversation. Dialog should serve a purpose such as revealing needed information or character traits, but it also should help to move the story forward, just as much as the action does. It also should read smooth and sound realistic, making your characters more realistic for your readers. The question is, how do we go about doing all of that. Let’s ask our panel members if they have any tips they’d like to share.

Is it difficult to produce dialog that is natural and realistic?
DeAnna Knippling: If you think really, really hard about it and remove every possible flaw…you’ll end up with craptastic dialogue.  I maintain that good dialogue is about listening to how other people talk.
Jordan Elizabeth:  I’ve always been told that my dialogue sounds realistic.  I don’t try; I just write what I hear in my head.  Sorry if that sounds conceited!
Carol Riggs: Sometimes. I find I have to pare down my vocabulary so I don’t sound like my characters are reading from a dictionary. Again, reading the lines aloud help me catch those things and make the interchange flow better.

Tim Baker: I don’t find it difficult. I try to make my characters speak as if they were real people – the way you and I speak. If you have a guy sitting down at a bar the dialogue should be realistic…

“What can I get you?”

“Heineken. Thanks.”

As opposed to…

“What would you like to drink?”

“I would like a bottle of Heineken, please.”

What are your secrets for writing dialog that doesn’t sound forced?

DeAnna Knippling: A playwriting teacher made me go out to a coffee shop and write down every word of dialog that I heard for at least half an hour.  I haven’t been the same since.  I “hear” a voice saying things as I type, and I can “see” text as people talk.  “How would I tape out that grunt?”  “How would I punctuate that pause?”
Jordan Elizabeth:  I see the scene playing out in my mind and I hear what the characters are saying.  I also have a certain critique partner who is awesome at pointing out stilted sentences.
Carol Riggs: Reading it aloud! I also paste chapters into Natural Reader and let it read to me. Awkward stuff pops out pretty easily that way, if it doesn’t sound natural.
Chris Barili: Listen to real people talk, then apply the filter of your character’s personality, and you should have realistic dialogue. Unless you’re writing speculative fiction set in another time/place, of course.
Cynthia Vespia: Listen to the way people talk in real life. There are subtle nuances to every person, whether they have an accent or not. But when you write the dialogue, don’t try to be fancy.
Margareth Stewart: Very much – so very much. I have enrolled myself into screenwriting courses and also plays, so I can really master them. Besides that, I´ve also got some second-hand books with some masters of playwriting, you know from Shakespeare to Molière. So I guess by now, I´m on the way to crafting really good talking (lol). Let´s see!
Art Rosch: Once I had a dream in which a voice said, “Max wouldn’t say that.  It’s not in his nature.” So, I was getting dialogue guidance from the Dream Coach.  Dialogue must emerge from a variety of factors, and by the time I’ve got characters speaking their lines, what they say is almost pre-ordained.  I believe that words are objects, that they contain illimitable power and energy.  What people speak influences the world around them.  The dialogue between and amongst my fictional characters always serves a purpose.  Does it further the plot?  If it doesn’t it’s useless.  Is it stimulating, original, powerful?  If my characters are stimulating, their words ought to be. Dialogue emerges naturally from circumstances.  It’s organic.  The conversations that people have in fiction can be more interesting than what passes ordinarily in daily life.  They only sound forced if they don’t hew to the character’s true nature and the needs of the situation.
Dialog tags. Some authors, especially those in academia, will tell you that good writing only uses said, and maybe asked, or replied, while other authors prefer a more varied reportoir. Some say use them, others say use them as little as possible. Is there a right way when it comes to dialog tags? Let’s see what our panel members think.
Do you use dialog tags? Do you stick with the basics, or use varied tags?
DeAnna Knipling: By dialogue tags, you mean he said, right?  Of course I use them.  Why would I want my reader to be confused?  I only mix them up if it’s something satirical,” she pontificated.
Jordan Elizabeth: I tend to use varied tags, but I’m trying hard to use “said” more.  Most of the time I just use action tags.
Carol Riggs: Yes, I use tags, but usually the basics (she said, she asked). I do throw in a few mutters, whispers, and shouts; but I TRY not to overdo those. I’ve heard it said the best tags should pretty much be invisible, so the reader doesn’t even notice them anymore after awhile. I omit tags if it’s clear who’s talking, however. Not everything needs to be tagged!

Tim Baker: By tags I assume you mean attributions. I use them but I use them as sparingly as possible, and I rarely embellish them. 90% of the time I’ll use “John said.” And nothing more. Sometimes I’ll throw in a “John replied.” To prevent overuse of the word said. Then on very rare occasion I’ll use “John replied sarcastically.”

I do this rarely because I feel if the reader hasn’t learned enough about John, and isn’t “in the scene” enough to figure out that John is being sarcastic – then I’m not doing my job.

Chris Barili: As few as possible. I much prefer to use actions in place of tags to keep the reader clear on who’s talking.

For example, I could say: “Your zipper is down,” Toni said, giggling and covering her mouth with one hand. “The cow is escaping the barn!”

But I think this is much better: Toni giggled and her hand flew to her mouth. “Your zipper is down, and the cow is escaping the barn!”

Here’s a clip from Hell’s Marshal, Book one of my Hell’s Butcher series. Frank Butcher–dead and in Hell–has been told by the three judges of the underworld that he is now their marshal, charged with bringing back souls that escape eternal damnation. And his first target is Jesse James. Frank is asking the judges how to get James’ soul back to Hell.

“All right, so exorcism is out. How else?”

“You must kill the body, then use talismans we give you to send the spirit to the underworld. If you fail to send it across, it will simply possess another body.”

Bill Hickok spoke alone. “He may use people from the world of the living to do his dirty work. They’ll be his puppets as long as he needs them. Harm as few as
possible to keep things quiet.”

Frank stood, fists at his sides, taking slow, deep breaths. He hated being backed into a corner, but they’d done it nonetheless. He locked eyes with Webber.

“Why me? Out of all the souls you got down here, why pick me?”

Webber never looked away, the corners of his mouth turning up and his eyes smoldering.

“We have a history, you and me.”

So, it was personal. Frank could understand that, at least.

“One condition. If I do this, you increase my time in the pit so it’s what I deserve.”

The judges conferred, hissing.

“Agreed,” they said as one.

Frank nodded. “If I’m gonna be Hell’s Marshal, shouldn’t I get a badge?”

Webber grinned and a bolt of lightning shot down from the ceiling, crashing into Frank’s chest. His body went rigid, and a searing agony blazed on his chest. Fire
arced through his body, making his muscles contract until he felt his bones straining not to snap. He tried to scream, but couldn’t open his mouth even an inch. The acrid stink of burning flesh filled his nostrils as the skin on his chest sizzled and cooked like bacon over a fire.

An instant later, the lightning disappeared and Frank collapsed to the floor. When he finally mustered the strength to lift his head, a marshal’s badge had been
burned in swollen, pink flesh where the lightning had touched him. In the center of the six-pointed star, a skull stared out, flames dancing in the hollows of its eyes. The words “Hell’s Marshal” circled it all. The judges faded from sight, snickering as they disappeared.

“Send Jesse James back to us, Marshal Butcher,” echoed their voices. “Dead or dead.”


Notice there are only two traditional dialogue tags in all that, but action is sprinkled throughout, adding flavor and helping the reader follow the “palaver,” as Frank would call it.

Art Rosch: Dialog tags can be useful.  I’ve heard advice from prominent writers to never go beyond “He said/She said”.  But I like a little variation.  “What did she want?” quavered Tina.”  Something like that, the use of a descriptive word in a tag, sometimes changing an adjective into a verb…..that works for me.  “Where did he go?” Alice asked haltingly. “What happened to Dizzy?”she screached.



This quote found on “It’s All About the Words” by P.J. Braley



Emotion motivates characters’ actions and may come through in dialog. But just as real people in real life, characters don’t always say what they mean, and they don’t always mean what they say. So, how do readers know that although your character says one thing, she means another? Maybe the character rolls her eyes, or averts her gaze, or perhaps she says it with a sarcastic tone. In screenwriting, you put these things into the stage directions and the actors carry them out. In fiction, this type of thing must be apparent on the page. Let’s see how our panel members tackle this one.

What methods do you use to clue readers into subtext?

 DeAnna Knippling: My understanding of how subtext works is that it’s the gap between what is done and what is said.  In a play or movie script, subtext is developed by the actors, who literally act out physical cues in order to clue the audience in on what’s going on with longing glances, angry tones of voice, etc.  In fiction, you do the same thing, only through the descriptions of the characters and their actions.  As a reader or audience, you don’t always need to know exactly what the subtext of a scene is, but you do need a clue that all is not what it seems.  A lot of classic mysteries that use the noir tradition–for example, The Maltese Falcon–use subtext to tell the reader to pay attention to something in a scene, but not exactly what.  Solving the mystery of the subtext is part of the fun.
Art Rosch: It’s usually a character’s body language.  Is anyone familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Ekman?  He invented the concept of micro-expressions.  Subtle facial tells that reveal how truthful a person is being.  If you can work with a character’s body language and facial tells, a lot of subtext will emerge.
Any pet peeves with dialog?

DeAnna Knippling: When it’s “on the nose.”  In real life, do you talk about what your id wants on a running basis?  No!  Then don’t blurt out your deepest desires on a running basis in the freaking dialogue!

Jordan Elizabeth: No pet peeve, but I can safely say that I love using dialogue to break up the tension in an intense scene.

Carol Riggs: Saying fluff greetings and lengthy good-byes, as well as repeating things to other characters that the reader already knows. Especially the latter is a smart place to “tell” or summarize so the readers can skip to the parts they don’t know yet. Another pet peeve is information and background dumping in dialogue. You can reveal things in conversation, but it’s not the place to explain your worldbuilding and character’s personal history. I try (with various levels of success) to avoid these things.

Tim Baker: My biggest pet peave when it comes to dialogue is the writer who treats dialogue like narrative. Your narrative should be grammatically correct, but speech is not like that. When we talk, we use all sorts of lexiconic (I think I just invented that word!) tricks to get our point across – including body language. As I said earlier, I try to make my character’s speech as real and natural as possible.

Cynthia Vespia: I’ve read some very popular writers that used “he said” or “she said” after every line of dialogue. It’s unnecessary in my opinion.

Art Rosch: My only pet peeves are triteness and dialog that fails to emerge from the character’s personality in an organic fashion.  That will sound both forced and boring.


03-21_Margaret_Mahy Quote

This quote from “It’s All About the Words” by P.J. Braley


Action carries the story forward, keeping things moving, so to speak. Every scene is a combination of action and dialog, with maybe a little bit of exposition where necessary to offer setting and set the tone. It’s a tightrope we must walk, always struggling to find our balance between elements. Unneeded dialog can bore readers, while too much non-stop action too fast can wear readers out. Let’s see how our panel members handle action.

What is your secret to finding the right balance between action and dialog?
DeAnna Knippling: There isn’t one.  What, you’re going to regulate it as 50/50?  What if no one’s talking?!?  The “right balance between action and dialogue” is really a question of beat and scene structure, and there are 1001 ways to handle it.  Beyond the scope of this answer 🙂
Jordan Elizabeth: As I watch the scene play out in my head, I write down what I’m seeing and hearing.  It tends to form a smooth scene.
Carol Riggs: I sort of have an internal “feel” for it. If I start getting bored and antsy with one or the other, I know I need to change it up! The reader would be sensing the same thing, I’m thinking. I like a good balance of both, back and forth in a natural flow.
Tim Baker: In my opinion, dialogue is action – just not “car chase” type action. Whenever characters are speaking, the scene is moving much faster than if the author decides to use prose to describe the scene. So I try to use dialogue as much as possible to set scenes and let the reader know what’s happening.
Cynthia Vespia: I don’t try too hard to make a balance. Just let the story flow naturally, without forcing it, and it will find its own way. Having action in between dialog is helpful to build the scene so it isn’t just floating heads talking. Give a sense of movement and use it to build emotion.
Art Rosch: I’ve never really thought about it. I don’t have a secret.  If I did, I wouldn’t tell anyone.
What is your secret for making action scenes move smooth?
DeAnna Knippling:
Jordan Elizabeth: I watch the scene playing out and describe what I see in my mind. Critique partners also help to make sure my writing is coherent.
Carol Riggs: Short, punchy sentences. Active verbs. Fewer adjectives so readers don’t get bogged down. The character also tends to act more and think less.
Tim Baker: When I write a scene with lots of fast-moving action the key thing I try to do is keep the reader moving with it. By this I mean I don’t force them to read unrelated text (overly descriptive narrative). If a car is about to be hit by a train there is no need to go into detail about the car or the train. That should be handled (if necessary) before the action sequence is written.
Chris Barili: To me, an “action” scene is something like a fight or a car chase, etc. And for me, choreography is key. I have to know my setting, know my characters, and know what the end result can be. One technique I’ve heard of is writing the action scene backward from where you want it to end, which I may try sometime, but it doesn’t seem to lend itself to the creative flow taking over.
Cynthia Vespia: Action scenes need a certain energy to them that allows the reader to feel the pace of it. If it calls for a fight I act them out either with my own body movements, or using action figures. It is similar to the way choreographers block out action scenes in movies. You want the action to flow naturally. Knowing how the anatomy works, using the environment, and setting the proper pacing are all important elements.

Art Rosch: Action scenes are the movements of bodies through a matrix of space and time.  They may be people, ships, cars, horses, whatever…they have momentum and intensity. The movement is forceful, violent and partakes of the character’s attributes.  If I have characters engage in a fight, they will fight differently because they have different moral and physical parameters.  I’ve been a great fan of Samurai films and I’ve derived a lot of my sword action in “The Gods Of The Gift” from watching actor/martial artists like Toshiro Mifune.  Japanese Kendo (sword work) has a severe grace. The ideal outcome of a duel between individuals is death by a single stroke.  The victor defeats the vanquished by drawing his sword from its scabbard.  In one fluid movement the sword is drawn the strike is made and the enemy’s blood gushes from his body as he falls to the ground.  Zip!Sweesh!  Done.  Of course, this isn’t always ideal for film or fiction.  It’s too quick.  There needs to be stroke and counterstroke.  Tactical gains and losses.  In American action film, the car chase is almost obligatory.  That’s film.  Writing a car chase?  Boring, unless the writer can draw the reader into the sensory details of the scene.  Wind blows, shocks scream, cars bounce and careen.  Then there’s gun fights.  Why do the bad guys always miss?  Why do they fire eight hundred rounds from their automatic weapons and never hit any of the good guys?

I once tried a challenge to write a story using only dialog, but without subtext of facial expressions and body language, it was difficult to follow what was happening, and without actions, the characters never did anything but talk. It was really pretty boring. Action and dialog are both used to move the story forward. They are the bread and butter of the writing, because without them, the story goes nowhere.


03-12_CarlHiaasen Quote

This quote from It’s All About Words, by P.J. Braley

Would you like to share a brief excerpt from one of your best dialog scenes?


DeAnna Knippling: I have no idea what my “best” dialogue scenes are.  This one’s from a forthcoming book, Thousandeyes.  A detective, the mentor of the main character, is questioning a person of interest in a murder case that may or may not be tied to a local serial killer.  I enjoyed writing this bit because I finally felt like I was enough in control of the dialogue to layer in a number of lies and clues, even in just this short little bit:

“What did you smell that day in the apartment, Ms. Murphy?  Before the deceased arrived?”


“Mr. Demars had not yet brought sealed paint containers into your apartment.  Why do you say that you smelled paint?”

The woman had closed her eyes.

“It was on the dropcloths.  He had left them in a stack in the living room.”

“Did you touch anything that he had brought with him?”

“No, I was fussing around with a few last things.  I didn’t want him to get paint on everything.”

“Were you afraid that he would do so?”



“What has this got to do with the murder?”

“Just answer the question.”



Janet Garber: From Dream Job:


At last, after a choked-down lunch and a brief afternoon walk, Melie had an administrator to deal with.

“You know what, Deedee, just send her home.” Melie dabbed at her face with a tissue, wondering why the heat was turned up so high.

“I can do that?”

“Yes, she’s violating the dress code. You’re the Surgery Department Administrator. You told her to wear a lab coat.”

Will this day never end?

“Yeah, she’s a floozy with those cheeky little breasts of hers always peeking out of her necklines and those miniskirts . . .”

I have to concentrate, Melie told herself, noting that DeeDee had no figure of her own to speak of.

“Dee, wait—is it true you told the rest of the staff she had been on welfare?”

“Oh, everybody knows that,” Deedee said calmly, sitting back in her chair, holding out one hand, admiring her new manicure.

“They do now. And about her mother’s affair with the caseworker?”

Dee’s head snapped around. “What about it?”

“Wasn’t that told to you in confidence?”

“Look, Melie, I take these girls in off the street and give them careers in healthcare. If they’re smart and they listen to me. But they’re a bunch of tramps.”

“Dee—oh, never mind. Maybe next time you should look to hire someone a bit more mature?”

“Older? Nah! I like ’em young so I can mold them right.”


Tim Baker: Here is a scene from my novel Blood in the Water – It’s the first scene that came to mind, and I think it is a good example of how I use dialogue…


“Some clown with a metal detector found our body?”

Steve Salem shot a sideways look at his partner, who was shaking her head in disgusted disappointment while sucking the final drops of a pineapple-banana smoothie from a tall Styrofoam cup. She flipped the cup into the rear cargo area of the Jeep and returned Steve’s stare.

“What? Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?” Steve asked.

Val flitted her hand at him. “Like…that. Like you’re not thinking the same thing. In case you haven’t noticed, clients haven’t exactly been beating down the door. How have you survived this long?”

Val reached up and twisted the rear-view mirror toward herself and checked her long blonde curls, ignoring Steve’s glare. When she finished, Steve adjusted the mirror and returned his focus to the road. After a moment of silence, he shook his head.

“First of all, it wasn’t our body. His name was Patrick Donahue. We were hired to find him. Hopefully, alive.”

“Right,” Val interrupted. “And now some wannabe gold-digger, looking for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, found him and we probably won’t get paid.”

Steve sighed. “Okay, second of all, the Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a fictional treasure located in Mexico, about as far away from Flagler Beach and the Atlantic Ocean as you can get. And finally, you’re looking at it wrong.”

“Wrong? I’m looking at it wrong?” She crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows toward him. “Please enlighten me.”

“Joyce Donahue hired us to find her missing husband and gave us a two-thousand-dollar retainer.”

Val turned her brown doe-eyes onto him without a reaction. “A non-refundable retainer,” Steve said.


Steve nodded.

“You’re kidding. Right?”

“I don’t kid about money.”

“You can’t keep her money. We didn’t find her husband.”

“Now you want to refund her money? A minute ago you were complaining about not getting paid. Make up your mind.”

“I haven’t changed my mind. I still want to get paid…”

“Well, then…”

She held up a hand to interrupt him. “…but I want to earn my pay.”

Steve finished his smoothie and sent the cup to the rear to join Val’s. “Allow me to explain. We were hired ten days ago. We began an investigation, using man-hours and resources. The fact that we didn’t solve the case doesn’t change those things. That’s what a retainer is for. To cover our operating expenses.”

Val shook her head. “No. That’s bullshit. You make us sound like lawyers.” 


Cynthia Vespia: Here is scene from my novel Karma: Silke Butters Superhero Series Book 1


“This is insane, you know that?” she said, inadvertently pacing the floor. “Just a few days ago, I was living a normal life and now I’m being chased by supercharged mercenaries and blasting energy bolts out of my hands.”

Joe shifted up in his bed. She could tell every part of him ached to get out of it. Joe was never the type to slow down and rest. Now she knew why… he was enhanced, he didn’t need to rest.

“I’m sorry, Silke,” he said. “I tried to keep all of this from you. That’s why I didn’t want you wrapped up in the affairs of the Enforcer Factory. But you’re fooling yourself if you think the life you were living was normal.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean from the outset, there was something special about you,” he told her. “And I’m not just talking about your abilities, I’m talking about your drive. There was no way Silke Butters would wind up in some average nine-to-five job pushing paper in some cubicle. You had big dreams and you went to New York and accomplished them. That’s not normal what you do, it’s extraordinary.”


Art Rosch: I like this example of dialog between a therapist and Sarah Kantro, who is in a mental hospital and in desperate panic and depression.



          Sarah sits rigidly in the anteroom outside Serena Steinberg’s office.  Ellsworth’s voice attempts to soothe her with meaningless but necessary reassurances. 

          “It’ll be okay, honey, don’t worry, you’ll be all right.”

          Sarah’s body is hunched forward like a bow, as if a string is running from her forehead to her knees.  Breath comes through her nose in quick little snorts.  She is aware of Ellsworth’s sounds, grateful for them at a subliminal level. 

          Finally, the inner office door opens.  Sarah is not looking up, but hears her name being called.


          “Yes,” she raises her eyes.  At first glance, Serena Steinberg’s appearance conjures two words, two arrogant, presumptive and annihilating words: Fat Woman. 

          She must weigh at least two hundred, two twenty, Sarah thinks, as her eyes do the lightning-fast evaluation of a food-compulsive woman meeting another woman.  It gives her an immediate internal sense of leverage, of comfort.  The therapist isn’t huge, she isn’t waddling and jiggling.  Rather, she is rounded and soft.  She has a young pretty face with a bit of neck wattle and a pair of breasts that make her look like an ancient mother-goddess dug up from an archeological site.

          Then Sarah meets the therapist’s eyes and does not see what she expects to see in a Fat Woman.   She does not see shame, discomfort, apology, and victimization.  She sees an easy and compassionate smile.  She sees security. 

          “Come on in,” Serena Steinberg says, extending a hand towards her office.

          As if a magnet is pulling her, Sarah goes toward the door.  She looks back to Ellsworth and mouths the word “thanks”. 

          There is no desk in the office.  There is a couch, to the right of the door.  Flanking a large window that looks out over the park are two well-upholstered grandma chairs.  The therapist gestures to one of them and takes her place in the other, gazing at Sarah with obvious concern. 

          “I can see you’re having a really hard time.  Can you tell me about it?”

          As if the bow string that keeps her body in correct equilibrium has just snapped, Sarah hunches forward and puts her face to her knees and begins weeping convulsively.

          “I can’t tell where I end and my mother begins,” she howls between sobs.  “Or where my mother ends and I begin, or whose thoughts I’m thinking, if they’re my own or if I’m just hearing an endless tape recording of things I heard in my childhood.”

          She wraps her hands around her chest as if she is cold, and coughs hoarsely.

          “All right, all right,” Serena Steinberg encourages.  Sarah looks up into the face of the therapist.  She sees an emotion that startles her.  She sees sadness.  She sees genuine compassion, a compassion made not of pity or superiority but of true equality.  Serena Steinberg has wrestled with her own devils and has found a way to make peace. 

          I can do that, too, Sarah thinks. 

          Taking an immense risk, she voices her thoughts.

          “I don’t want to offend you, but you’re a pretty big woman.”

          The therapist laughs, throwing her head back.  It is a good laugh, it peals with a crystalline tone, ding ding ding, as if three different sized fine goblets have been struck with a fingernail. 

          “My secret weapon,” she says, eyes gleaming.  “The world is full of different shapes and sizes and tastes, and being ‘big’, as you put it, is something I was born with. Are you suggesting that I can’t help you because I’m fat?”

          Sarah puts up her hands.  “No no no no, just the opposite.  I think you may be able to help me because you are, uh, excuse me, ‘fat’.”

          “Well,” the therapist says with satisfaction, “we’ve got the word ‘fat’ out in the open already, don’t we?  See what I mean about my secret weapon?”

          “Fat,” Sarah reiterates.  “Fat fat fat.  Fat fat.”  She smiles, for the first time in weeks.  “Fat fat fat.”

          Serena joins the recitation and both women are saying “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat,”

and it acquires a rhythm, like they are a doo-wop band singing nonsense syllables. “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat.”

          The women begin to giggle, and then to laugh until they are holding their sides.

          The word “Fat” has been utterly drained of its destructive power.

          Sarah feels a lot better than she has five minutes ago. 

Find Me.  Read Me. Heal Me at


Margareth Stewart: Excerpt from Open/Pierre´s journey after war by Margareth Stewart available at 

He started walking around. People, always wary of strangers, didn’t approach him. He kept looking, trying to find something which could spark his attention. The sun was striking hot and, even with his hat on, he could barely see through the glare. Women carried umbrellas, with some balancing all sorts of things upon their heads, many with babies tied to their backs, too. He was so out of tune. Then he saw a wooden house with a blue sign above the door – Book Shop. “Book shop?” He stopped at the entrance. An Open sign hung on the door. He entered.

An old man stood up from a wooden carved counter and spoke in beautiful, polite English.

“Good morning, how can I help you, Sir?”


It took longer than expected for Pierre to say anything. He didn’t know what to say, if he was looking for a book or a job. The room was piled up with books.

“I´m looking for a job. I am at your service, for any payment.”

The man studied him. “Hum.”

“I´ve worked before.”

“I see.”

“I´m good with books.”

“What makes you think so?”

Pierre didn’t know how to answer that. The question wasn’t expected. Another, smarter person to cross his way. His only option was to be truthful.

“I´m looking for a job until the train returns to service. I´m on a journey to India.”

He thought about saying that he was fluent in more than five languages, or that he was a good organizer and could apply one of his many skills to sorting out the books there, or he could simply state that he had no other means to surviving. But he thought it better not to complicate things even more.

“Because I like books.”

He shrugged, unable to think now of anything more to say.

“Have you sold any books before? That´s quite a different thing.”

“A hard job, I know, but I’m reliable, and honest.”

“Have you ever sold books like this? Second-hand books?” He swept his arm, his hand open, across the book-laden table.

Pierre looked around piles and pile of books on the floor, shelves, a table and desk. What is this guy doing there? Who does he sell books to in the middle of nowhere? He knew if he asked such questions, the job would never come to him.

“Well, I´ve done a lot of things, from working on farms, to restaurants and tents, why should I not be able for this?” Each word needed to be carefully chosen. It felt like a chess game.

“Good point. Experience is a positive attribute. But books are not easy to sell. People are unwilling to pay for them, thinking they can get stories for free.”


I want to thank all of the panel members who shared their work here. These are some great examples of both dialog and action, and how they work together to move readers through the scene and progress the story forward. I can’t wait until next Monday, when we’ll talk about setting. I do hope you’ll all join us.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.

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Ask the Authors: Character Development


Let’s talk about developing characters. What makes them tick? What motivates them? Are they based on real people or achetypes or created from the gray matter in the writer’s head? What are they afraid of? And how do we as authors know these things? And how do we give our characters depth? Readers need to walk away from the story feeling as if the characters are whole, complex human beings, complete with personality and history. Let’s Ask the Authors about their methods for creating character, and feel free to share what works for you in the comments if you’re so inclined.

There are many methods we can use to create rich, in-depth characters, with backgrounds and histories, and belief systems ingrained from childhood. Some authors people watch and build from their observations. Others use the Proust Questionaire or similar tools to develop charaters and give them depth. A popular practice these days for bloggers to promote new releases is to interview the protagonist of the book instead of the author. I’ve never employed this practice here on Writing to be Read, but I have entertained the idea thinking it might be fun. 

What methods do you use to develop your characters?

DeAnna Knippling: I copy real people, or amalgamate real people, into a single character.  I’m trying to strip them down to one identifying “verb.”  My favorite example of a character who’s been simplified into delightfulness is Ash Williams from the Evil Dead franchise…his “verb” is “DO THE WORST POSSIBLE THING, BABY.”  Another good one is Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose “verb” might be something like, “do the thing that makes the situation not funny anymore.”  Like I said, still working on that.

Jordan Elizabeth: I’m not sure how to answer this one.  I write the first draft as the characters guide me.  Usually advanced character development happens in the editing phase.

Chris DiBella: I try to make my good guys likeable and I try to make my bad guys complete jerks. All my books have the same cast of main characters (good guys), so I want the reader to enjoy them enough to want to keep coming back for the next thirty novels I put out. I try to make them bad-asses, but also believable with how I project their characters. I also try to inject a lot of humor in my dialogue so that they appear like normal everyday folks. On the flip side, I want people to hate my antagonist so much that they actually scream out in cheer when Mercer kills them. I even get excited when I think about how I want to write their demise. It’s all just a fun part of the process.

Chris Barili: I start with a basic character triangle. What the character wants, what she needs, and her fears/faults. For shorter works, that’s all I do. For novellas or novels I’ll do a biography sheet on each major character.  That bio is four pages long when blank, and can be as long as 15 filled out. It has everything from their looks (which I often fashion after famous people) to their inner workings.

Tim Baker: My one and only method of character development is the story itself. At the beginning of the story each character (with the exception of recurring characters like Ike and Brewski) are strangers to me. I might know their basic personality but I learn about them as I write because I use their interactions with other characters, as well as their role in the story to bring out their individual personalities.

Cynthia Vespia: No matter the genre I build my characters with realistic qualities so they are more relatable to the readers.

Art Rosch: If a writer is not a psychologist (I mean one who studies human nature and matters of heart and mind, not a certified this-or-that) I’m likely to put down the book or story by said writer.  Psychology is fundamental to writing.  Where to start?  With yourself, of course.  You, in your mind/body system, are a living laboratory of human nature.  Extend your field of observation to your family, your friends, and then keep going.  We are more the same than we are different.  I’ve been helped immensely by reading psychology books.  I’m a Jungian and a great fan of James Hillman.  Jung gives us the archetypes.  We write in archetypes and flesh out our characters with individual quirks and traits.

It’s not only the protagonists that needs to be developed into a deep, rich character, but also our supporting characters. Like real people, experiences affect how the character relates to the world around them and to the other characters in the story. Characters have to have relationships and the backgrounds and histories of the minor characters plays into how these relationships function within the story. The nature of a relationship may also affect the protagonist’s actions and it need to be clear to readers why this releationship has such an effect.

Although characters with minor roles my not need to be developed as deeply as your main players, and their roles may be so minute that there’s not room to share their background with readers, we as the authors should at least have a vague idea of where each character is coming from. Backgrounds should be more detailed for the more major characters, with more of where they each are coming from being exposed to viewers.

Different methods of doing this may be dependent on the point of view(s) with which the author choses to tell the story. A Point of View (POV) offers the reader a window into a story which allows them to see a certain angle or perspective. When using a single POV, one of the drawbacks is that it is limiting, in that the reader will only know what the protagonist knows or experiences, and nothing more, which can make it difficult if you need to let readers know what the antagonist is up to. Multiple POVs, on the other hand, remedy that particular problem, but you risk getting the reader confused if you don’t make it clear who’s head we are in at all times. Let’s see if one is more popular than the other among our author panel members.

Do you prefer single or multiple POVs?

DeAnna Knippling: Depends on the story.  I do both.
Jordan Elizabeth: I love multiple POVs.  I get excited being able to explore different minds.
Carol Riggs: I much prefer single points of view. Limited ones, where the reader is locked into one character’s head throughout the novel, and no info is gained except from what that character learns. I love this setup because it’s exactly like our experiences in life—we only know our POV. It adds to a sense of mystery, with that not-knowing. I’ve thought about writing a multiple POV novel a couple of times, but I’ve actually never written one!
Chris Barili: Depends what I’m writing. Short stories are always single POV. Well, almost. I did sell one framed short story that had two POVs, and wrote another like that. Longer works, it depends. The stories in the Hell’s Butcher Series are one POV, either Frank’s for the larger books or someone else’s for t he shorter works. Smothered, my PNR novel (as B.T. Clearwater) has three points of view, one of which is a ghost. And the fantasy novel I sent to an editor this weekend has four POVs. It’s whatever works to advance the plot and make the story complete.
Tim Baker: I prefer multiple POVs. In my books I tend to write different parts of the story from the POV of one character or another. When I do – the reader only knows what that character knows. To me it’s more entertaining to learn the story at the same time the characters learn it.
Cynthia Vespia: As I’m developing a few new series I have found that multiple POV is alot more fun to write in, and it helps create a fuller world.
I think that, as our creations, our writings are a part of us. After all, everything we write has a little bit of ourselves in it. Whether we base your characters on real life people that we know, or invent them in our minds from the depths of our imaginations, they are bound to have traits in common with their creator. Let’s see what our author panel thinks.
Have you created any of your characters based on people who you know in real life?
DeAnna Knippling: All the time 🙂
Jordan Elizabeth:  Oma from Goat Children is the character most closely based on a real person.  She is my maternal grandmother personified.  (Goat Children is about a girl caring for her grandmother, who has dementia.  I based much of it off my real life experiences.)
Janet Garber: I take the 5th. Seriously, most characters are a blend or composite of people or I use some characteristic of their lives and take off from there.
I like to start with a person I know slightly or not at all  and make up a fantastic backstory. I did this with the wife of my husband’s work colleague – took a few details from her real life and embellished like crazy. I’ve been praying ever since that she won’t get her hands on this story! More recently after spending time with my 95 year old mother, I turned her into a character who decides to try online dating. At her age. And meets with success of a kind. I took care to describe a young relative in another story and made up a story of the rest of her life. Most often, I use elements of a living person as a starting point.
Carol Riggs: Sure! But not exactly like them. I just borrow a trait, whether a physical look or an attitude or so on. Like I see someone walking down the street with a certain gait, or I notice someone has allergies and is breathing through his mouth because his nose is stuffed up. Even something as simple as someone’s unusual name or my first high school crush’s name as a tribute to him. Real life is great fodder for spicing up my characters and making them more real.
Chris DiBella: I tend to use a lot of people I know in real life as references for my characters, and I even use the actual names of those people in the books. My two biggest examples of this are Pat Vigil and Tim Baker. Pat was my best friend in real life. He passed away unexpectedly a few years back and I was having a rough time dealing with losing him. At the time, I didn’t have a partner for my main character, so I just wrote Patrick in as that character. I decided to write him exactly how he was in real life. So every smart-mouthed reply or gesture he makes is how he would act if he was in those circumstances. It’s my way of honoring my friend and keeping him alive in the books. The parts about him always being the person I counted on for anything is also true, and even though he’s a snarky guy with a comeback for everything, he was the one friend I knew would come running no matter what I needed him for.
Chris Barili: Yes, both intentionally and unintentionally.
Art Rosch: Are you kidding?  Of course I have. See my answer on methods of development. I’ve portrayed my family and invented an extra sibling who is something of a composite with my sister’s qualities mixed with traits that are far more malignant.  It wasn’t difficult to turn my mother into a villain.  She was the kind of person who made everyone else miserable.  This is how I define evil: someone who escapes pain by transmitting it to other people.  My poor mom is gone now, so I can write about her with some objectivity.  What writer doesn’t use the human material, the people who populate his or her world?
Have you created characters from archetypes?
DeAnna Knippling: Meh.  I think archetypes are looking at character from a reader/critic’s point of view.  What makes an archetype an archetype and how do you write that?  Far more interesting.
Jordan Elizabeth: Not that I can think of.
Chris Barili: No, but after catching a class on that by Rebecca Moesta and Chris Mandeville at Superstars Writing Seminars, I plan to try it.
Tim Baker: I try to avoid this at all costs. I want my characters to ring true as real people. I don’t like clichés.
Art Rosch: Oh.  Again, see my answer on methods of development.  Looks like an archetype.  Feels like an archetype.  Smells like an archetype.  Has the texture of an archetype.  Good thing we didn’t step in it. (this is an old joke, one that I find very funny.  One of the other funniest things I’ve seen is the cartoon of two Indians (native Americans) walking in the desert.  A huge mushroom cloud is growing on the horizon.  One guy looks at the other and says: “It’s for you.”
It looks like archetypes aren’t very popular with these authors. Only Art Rosch admits to using archetypes in character development. In my studies I learned that archetypes are there, even when we don’t purposefully use them. I’ve found that some stories lend themselves to more obvious archetypes. While my Playground for the Gods series is science fantasy, encompassing world mythologies, it lends itself to the obvious use of archetypes. It is non stretch to see Enki as the trickster or to identify Inanna’s hero’s journey. While Delilah‘s hero’s journey may be a little less obvious, it is there, non-the-less. Every story has a hero and a villian, which are both archetypes, but it seems not all authors conciously set out to use them.

This quote found on “It’s All About the Words.

Anything we write which we have passion reflects that passion in the writing, the thoughts and opinions expressed coming from within ourselves. It’s inevitable, unless we’re writing ad copy or technical manuals. How can we expect to not inject at least a little of ourselves into our chacaters?
This post has me thinking about these things, and it occurred to me that Delilah is like my alter-ego. Delilah is tough and gritty and she she never fails to stand up for what she believes is right. She faces down outlaws and lynch mobs without showing the face of fear. She’s all the things I wish I was, but can’t be, at least not in polite society. Let’s see how our panel members see it. 
Do you have traits in common with any of your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: Sometimes.  More often it’s just that I empathize with them.  I have one character that I based on myself, for a series I don’t have out yet.  THAT was a weird writing experience, let me tell you.
Jordan Elizabeth: There is one character in a manuscript not yet published who I based strongly off of me.  Critique partners hated her!  They kept commenting on her flaws and they were things I do.  It was embarrassing! Since then I’ve tried to improve myself by being less like that character.
Janet Garber: 5th again!
Carol Riggs: There’s likely a little bit of me in every one of my characters. Although it’s awfully fun to write characters who are different from me in some way—more bolder, reckless, daring, and adventurous. They do things I wouldn’t have the personality or interest for. I can live vicariously through them. Even so, they still have basics that I value: a caring for others, a willingness to sacrifice for a greater cause, and a spirit that will get back up again and try again even after it’s been broken and stomped on.
Chris DiBella: I keep the answer to this question heavily guarded, and my wife is the only one who knows the answer with all the juicy details, so when you do an “Ask The Authors Wives” segment, perhaps this will be revealed…
(Kaye: You know Chris, that’s not a bad idea. Hmmm….)
Chris Barili: Of course. Anyone who says they don’t is lying. If nothing else, our characters pick up traits from us as writers the instant we put them on paper. I do have a woman with Parkinson’s as a character in a PNR novella I’m currently writing, though.
Tim Baker: People have asked me quite often, “which character in your books is the most like you?” I always give the same answer…”There is a little bit of me in all of my characters. How could there not be?”
Art Rosch: In my autobiographical novel, Confessions of an Honest Man, I have a character whom I love very much.  He is the jazz saxophonist Zoot Prestige.  He is Aaron Kantro’s mentor and  he knows enough about Aaron’s struggles during childhood to anticipate that Aaron is heading for difficult times. He admonishes his young friend.  He tells him “Ask for help when you feel overwhelmed.  You can’t get out of a crisis by yourself.  Remember what I’m telling you, ’cause I don’t like to give advice.  People who give advice are boring.  Just remember…when you feel like you’ve hit bottom, ask for help.” Aaron is a surrogate for myself.  I did ask for help.  And I found it.
Characters, especially your protagonist, must take action in order for the story to move forward. In order to take action, charactors must have some type of motivation. Motivation can come in many forms, usually an obstacle to be overcome. External obstacles such as nature, illness, or the institution must be tackled, but your character still needs to have some sort of inner motivation to take on the job.
The character’s flaws or fears are the basis for all character motivation. I mean think about it, if the character has a secret or a flaw they wish to keep hidden, it can be a motivator. Fear of what might happen may prompt a chacter to take action to avoid a negative outcome, whether that outcome is not being eaten by the monster, avoiding a punishment from the law or their parents or holding on to the love they’re afraid of losing. But, if you get right down to it, it’s not really the secret that motivates the character to action, but the fear of discovery that prompts them to do something about the situation.
What kinds of fears or flaws do you give your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: I love having characters who have blind spots, like the character who has issues due to PTSD remembering exactly who a serial killer was, because he was tortured by same, or the little girl who doesn’t have a lot of empathy until she’s experienced a situation or seen the consequences herself–and ends up hurting her friends.  I used to want to be a psychologist when I grew up, so there’s a wide variety of mental things going on with my characters.
Jordan Elizabeth: I try not to make my characters clumsy.  That feels overdone in YA literature.  I aim for emotional insecurities that they can overcome to be stronger at the end.
Tim Baker: I try to make my characters as “real” as possible. I give them whatever fears and flaws are necessary to fit the story. In other words I won’t disclose that a character has a fear of spiders if it isn’t relevant to the plot. I also trey to do the same thing with their flaws – without getting to cliché…you know, the alcoholic ex-cop bent on revenge…or the egomaniac villain stroking his white cat. Like I said – I try to keep it real!
Margareth Stewart: The main character usually takes the lead in actions, writing tone, and pace of the narrative. I give my characters autonomy to be doing so. This is something I have been trying to work out more and more with – the matching of the narrative and the main voice within the plot. If it´s a young girl in her thirties using slang and never settling down, the pace of the novel should be like that, too. That is in my new thriller Zero Chance. In Open/Pierre´s journey after war, for instance, I have crafted Pierre in slow motion, in pain, also moving slowly in time and space, and the narrative follows that way, too. So actually, it is all about giving the main character: the voice, the narrative, and the POV. I get a little tense if readers are going to understand that, anyway it´s how I have been working work my novels out.
Cynthia Vespia: Again, I like to base my characters in reality. That means giving them flaws and fears. The more rich development you can give to a character, the more the reader can identify with them.
Art Rosch: We all fear the same things.  We fear illness, pain, poverty, failure, loneliness.  Some of us fear death.  I’m not particularly afraid of death but I’m terrified by the processes that will inevitably take me there.  When I passed sixty five years I began a more intense conversation with death.  It changes things.  I transfer these emotions into my characters.  That’s what writers do.  We personify our feelings through the tools of literature.  I’ve noted that it’s much easier to identify with a flawed character.  People with addictions and weaknesses are much more approachable, they give us a warm and cuddly sensation.  Who loves perfect people?  High achievers give me the creeps.  I prefer characters who eat too many cookies in bed….or maybe have an appetite for substances….or maybe talk too much…you know…human beings.  In The Shadow Storm I have a world leader who is afflicted with bi-polar disorder.  It proves to be his un-doing.  The only characters who have no flaws are the villains.  Sometimes a villain can achieve an icy smoothness which is impenetrable.  There’s no way to approach a character like that.

Some authors claim that their characters come alive and not only talk to them, but take control of pen or keyboard and guide the scene in directions the author never expected. I personally experienced this while writing Delilah. Whenever I’d get stuck and not know where the story was supposed to go, I’d close my eyes and ask her, and she would make the scene unfold in my mind. And yes, there were times when the results surprised me, but the story was better for it. So, let’s ask our author panel what they think.



This quote found on “It’s All About the Words”

Do your characters ever do things that surprise you? Can you give an example?
DeAnna Knippling: My characters tend to annoy me.  “Oh my God, would you just stop being so…yourself?!?”  I tend not to remember specific examples because it all works out in the end, I’m just annoyed.  I have a real-life teenaged daughter, and she’s nowhere near as annoying.
Jordan Elizabeth: Constantly!  I never know where they will take the story.  An example I can think of is Treasure Darkly.  I didn’t expect Amethyst to play a big a role as she did, but she just kept jumping back into the scenes.
Janet Garber: My character decided to have an affair.  I was shocked. It didn’t fit in with what I knew about her, but as I wrote the scenes, I saw how it perked up the story.
Carol Riggs: Oh yes. In Bottled, my genie main character was supposed to get together with the love of her life after 1000 years of not seeing him. I imagined it in my head as this swoony and touching romantic scene. But when I got her together with her hot guy on a tropical island, they started arguing! It was really annoying. LOL After much frowning and deliberating, I decided to go with the flow and embrace the conflict.
Chris DiBella: Pat Vigil is always doing stuff that surprises me because I don’t even know what I’m going to have him say until I get to that point. I just imagine what he would have said or done in real life, and then I write it down. I’ve always been happy with the results. For example, there’s a scene in Whispering Death where the NESA team has been invited to dinner and they’re seated at a table with Thailand’s Prime Minister. The PM asks Vigil if he liked the lobster bisque, and Vigil blurts out, “Like it? I wanna bathe in it?” The best part about this scene is that it actually happened in real life back in my Executive Chef days. Pat was a server at my restaurant and one of his tables asked him if he liked the lobster bisque I had prepared that night, and that was his reply to the customer. So, there’s always that fun element for me when I’m writing.

Then there’s Tim Baker (yes, the same Tim Baker who’s part of this panel). I met Tim when I was 13 and he became a great friend and mentor to me after my dad died two years later. His friendship was much needed and appreciated, and that friendship is now going on over 30 years. He’s another person who’s character is close to how he is in real life, and I portray his book character in the same way as I just did here. I always try to interject him in the book one way or another, whether it’s just a friendly phone call to ask for advice, or as in my most recent novel, Blood Dawn, he actually has a role in the book. I didn’t make it too big of a role though, as I fear this would cause his head and ego to inflate to levels we wouldn’t be able to control…

Chris Barili: Sure they do, but of course I can’t think of one right now. Usually, it’s the bad guys who do it. But in Guilty (Prequel to the Hell’s Butcher Series), Frank Butcher surprised me with  how he ended the book and settled whether he’d go to heaven or hell. Totally was not planned. (No spoilers…read the book.)

Tim Baker: I would have to say that almost everything they do is a surprise, since I am basically learning about them the whole time I’m writing. I won’t give a specific example, but in my first novel, Living the Dream, one of the main characters is a perpetual loser named Kurt. His exploits surprised me so much that sometimes, as I was writing, I would literally laugh out loud at some of the situations he got himself into!

Art Rosch: My characters surprise me all the time.  Especially as I like to give them numinous powers and skills that are pure fantasy and wish-fulfillment.  I wish I could be more like Aaron Kantro.  Or more like Garuvel Zimrin, a man who has ultimate power but declines to use it any more than is absolutely necessary.  My characters talk to me and they appear in dreams.  They say things like “Go left”.  Or, “That spoon is funky”.  You know what the shrinks say: you are the main character in all of your dreams.  And this one from Jung: “Your pathology isn’t about what your parents did to you.  It’s about your fantasy of what your parents did to you.”

I was very surprised when Aaron Kantro went to Afghanistan and fell in with the Mujahiddin.  He was trying to buy and smuggle opium into the U.S.  He had sunk that low; become a criminal drug dealer and addict.  I was surprised by the way he was able to use his experience to change and heal his addiction.  I had to go through fifteen years of therapy.  Aaron found his healing in the cauldron of a Russian attack.  The friendships and bonds with Afghan warriors brought out the warrior in himself. Surprise is pretty much continual in writing.  I ‘m surprised I can write anything, much less finish so bold a project as a fantasy trilogy.  I’m surprised that I’m even conscious.

In more recent work I’ve created a world and a political situation that is based on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.  This is my trilogy, The Shadow Storm.  I’m pleased with the first book.  The characters are from a completely different milieu than the one in which we live.  I have nothing in common with them except my membership in the human race.  This is a project that involved huge amounts of research.  I read everything I could get my hands on with regard to Balkan history.  In school I studied Russian for four years.  That helped me build a world with a strongly Slavic flavor.  World building is a great pleasure for me.  Creating new and bizarre religions, mapping out geographical features, the entire endeavor is one that challenges both my imagination and my erudition.  I have the additional satisfaction of avoiding the High Fantasy genre, the medieval world of dragons, knights, the whole kaboodle of Game Of Thrones lore.  I love the stuff, but it takes masterful writers like Jack Vance to hold my interest.  If you’ve never read Jack Vance, start now!  He passed recently, at the age of 96.  He left behind a body of sci fi and fantasy that must add up to nearly a hundred books.  I read them and re-read them every few years.  Vance is a better writer, technically, than Philip K. Dick.  The late and sadly lamented Phil Dick is more widely known, has sold more movie scripts than Jack Vance.  Between the two of them, I’ve learned almost everything I  know, which amounts to about a bowl of split pea soup.


Do your characters talk to you? What kinds of things do your characters say?
DeAnna Knippling: Yes, although it depends on the character.  Often a very strong character will make observations about the real world.  I have one guy I’m writing who doesn’t like to eat all that much, and mainly eats sandwiches.  He looks upon some of the things I eat with suspicion.  I mean, the guy doesn’t even particularly care for cheese.  “It’s fuel.”
Jordan Elizabeth:  They don’t literally talk, but as I’m writing, I can see them acting out the parts.
Chris DiBella: I don’t know that they talk to me. I just try to write dialogue and plot as it comes naturally to me. I do, however, feel like I have a strong emotional bond and connection to my characters. Every time I start writing a new book, it’s like seeing some old friends after an extended timeframe and I can’t wait to see what they’re up to next.
Chris Barili: No. I don’t exist in their world. They talk to each other sometimes and I overhear…
Tim Baker: I would have to say no to this one.
And now for the fun question.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead? Why would they be a good choice?  
Jordan Elizabeth: Megan Fox would be perfect to play Krieg in Kistishi Island.  She has Krieg’s attitude and looks.
Janet Garber: Dream Job, Wacky Adventures of an HR Manager’s protagonist, Melie Kohl, should be played by actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead because she can be goofy, smart and appealing.
Chris DiBella: I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately, because I’m hoping my books will one day be on the big screen. When I began writing my first novel in 2001, I had a vision in my head of which actor looked most like my main character. That actor was Matthew McConaughey. Of course, Clive Cussler’s novel, Sahara, came out in 2005 and dashed my hopes of that ever happening…fyi: Cussler is my favorite author, so I wouldn’t want to steal his Dirk Pitt….but ya never know. If there was anyone more recent, I might have to say Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice). He’s got the charming personality and bad ass moves to get the job done….but only if he brings Fiona with him!
Margareth Stewart: Open/ Pierre´s journey after war has Pierre as the central character – I can easily portrait either Jeremy Irons or Clint Eastwood playing the main role in a film. They both have similarities with Pierre – tall, charming, with profound eyes – gentlemen. They have an inch of outsiders, a little bit like Pierre, too. It would be lovely to see them acting as Pierre.
Tim Baker: The lead character in most of my books is an ex-Navy SEAL named Ike. The prototype for him was originally the character of Wade Garret in the movie Road House (played by Sam Elliot). Since Sam is getting a bit old, I think the next actor best for the role is Anson Mount (from Hell on Wheels).
Cynthia Vespia: My latest Silke Butters Superhero Series was written with an Indian protagonist to showcase more diversity. While I was writing her I used actress Priyanka Chopra as inspiration so it would be a dream come true to have her play my lead Silke aka Karma.
It seems that we may all be different in our process, but our characters all come from the same place: within us. Everyone who answered it, said they use real people that they know to develop their characters and it seems our characters can’t help but have a little bit of us in them. Our stories and our characters are drawn from our own experiences, even if they are fictional, and our characters seem more real to readers when our writing comes from the heart. Be sure to drop by next Monday, when we will Ask the Authors about action and dialog.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.


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Ask the Authors: A Look at the Writing Process


When you think of a writer, what do you picture in your mind? Writers are portrayed as lazy sots who lounge around in their pajamas, clacking away on their laptops while sipping martinis by the pool, or as traveling all over creation, jotting down every impression. Emily Dickenson was a recluse, Virginia Wolfe was a depressed neurotic, and Stephen King, well, anyone would have to be at least a little nuts to come up with some of the ideas that guy does.

The truth is, very few writers live “the writer’s life”, whatever that is in your mind. Most of us are a little bit weird, maybe even eccentric, because we’re human beings, not because we’re writers, and every writer’s process is different from the next guy’s or gal’s. Some writers wouldn’t dream of beginning to write without a solid outline, while others just fly by the seat of their pants, (hence pansters), listening to their characters in their heads , and see what happens. Some binge write, while others follow a set writing schedule, getting a little done each day, or adhere to a specific word count. Some listen to music, others need quiet to write, some can write in a busy coffee shop with activity all around.

Let’s ask the authors on our panel what their writing processes look like. We may find some answers that we look at and go, “Wow! Wierd.” But you may also find some answers in which you can see traces of our own writing processes in, answers that make us say, “Wow! Somebody else does that, too!” Feel free to weigh in in the comments and share with us what your writing process is like, as well. Now, let’s take a close look at what works for our panel members and what doesn’t work, and why. Some of their answers may surprise you.

What is the biggest challenge of being a writer?

Carol Riggs: I would say getting used to sharing one’s work and allowing yourself to be put in a vulnerable position. It is risky to pour yourself onto a page and let others read what you’ve written. Growing a tough enough skin to accept feedback or criticism (constructive or otherwise) is a hard thing to do, but necessary.

Chris Barili: Actually writing. Writing is hard work, and most of us work day jobs to boot. So we get home and don’t want to sit down and do more hard work. It’s easy to be distracted by TV, video games, Facebook, and so on. Hell, I should be editing a novel right now, but I let myself do this because it’s easier and I’m tired.

DeAnna Knippling: The biggest challenge and the biggest reward of being a writer is that there’s always more to learn.  In other words, just when you think you know what you’re doing, something comes up to bite you on the ass, but at least you’re never bored.

Jordan Elizabeth: Marketing.  You love your book, but now you have to get it out there, and there are millions of books you have to compete against.  Some of the best ways to market are to purchase ads, but they cost money.  Most authors don’t see a return on their investment unless they are self-published.

Chris DiBella: For me, the biggest challenge is trying to write while everything else is going on. I’m currently pursuing another Bachelors degree (graduating this May!), and then there’s work, family life, and other activities that take up a lot of time. So, until I can get paid to write “full time”, I’ll just have to keep being a multitasking badass so that I can keep pumping out books!

Art Rosch:  My biggest challenge is finding readers.  No matter how much I market, schmooze online, etc etc, it’s terribly difficult to find readers.  When I do, they stay readers, but getting them started?  Oy, Vey!  You can use that if you want to change anything.  I think it’s much more important as a response to the question.


Janet Garber: Self Confidence. Feeling that you are not good enough, that you’ll be wasting your time, that you don’t have what it takes. So you avoid committing yourself to paper.  It’s a scary proposition. Most writers are masters of procrastination. I know I’d rather wash a kitchen floor or shred old bank statements than sit down and do the hard work.

Cynthia Vespia: Marketing. How to get your books to stand out in a sea of other writers all vying for the same thing. I’m not going to sugar coat it, this business is very hard. And even with the digital age making some things easier, it has made others that much harder. For instance, the market is SWAMPED with “writers” now. So as an author you have to do everything you can think of to stand out from the crowd. This goes for traditional as well as indie authors.

While attending the 2016 Write the Rockies Conference, I had the pleasure of catching the Genre Fiction Keynote, given by Robin Wayne Bailey. Mr. Bailey said something very interesting which has always stuck out in my mind. One of the most often heard pieces of advice that writers hear is “Write everyday.” In fact, one of my professors, Russell Davis’ favorite sayings is, “Ass in chair, write the damn book.” But what Mr. Bailey said was that this was bad advice, because we all have limited experiences, and we need to get out there and live life, so that we have something to write about.

I found this interesting because my writing proccess takes bits and pieces from my own life and incorporates them into my work, and all of this is part of what I call my prewriting stage. If I’m really honest, at least half of my writing process takes place in my head. I work out plot problems while I’m driving, or in the shower, or waiting to fall asleep at night. Characters have emerged from the woods during a hike, and whole chapters have been outlined while I cleaned house. So not only do we need to do things in order to create, at least for me, it’s required for the work, before my fingers ever hit the keys.

Is there anything unique or unusual about your writing process?

Carol Riggs: Not ultra unique or unusual. I never eat while at the computer, just a glass of water or tea. No music or other distractions after I check my morning email and social media. I open the document in Word and read over the last scene I wrote (the day prior), tidying it up a bit and getting myself into the flow of the story. Then I compose on the computer, aiming for 1-5 pages a day. If I need to stop and plot something out or research online, I do that. If I’m unsure of a word or phrase used, I highlight it in red to fix later so I’m not stalled too long in one place.

DeAnna Knippling: I don’t feel that it really involves a lot of brain cells most of the time.  Sometimes I have to stop and think about what the non-obvious-but-not-completely-wackdoodle next plot point should be, but mostly I just wind up the characters and let ’em go.  I don’t know that that’s unique, though.

Jordan Elizabeth: I have to be alone.  I can’t have any interruptions.  I don’t even listen to music.  Being alone is challenging when you have a broken bedroom door.

Chris DiBella: I don’t know if it could be categorized as unique, but I base all my books off real-life events. They are by no means historical fiction, but I usually stumble across a really cool history article and then I weave it into my own fictitious tale using my what-if radar. For example, I came up with the idea for my first novel, Lost voyage, after finding a book on tape in the Honolulu library. It was about a steamship that sank off the Carolina coast in 1857 with millions of dollars in gold. My what-if Spidey senses began tingling and I asked about a million what-ifs….What if there was another ship that took on the overabundance of gold from the first ship? What if the transfer of the gold was kept quiet and known only by the two captains to eliminate the threat of thievery from passengers on the second ship? What if, since the second boat was scheduled to arrive in port only a few days after the first boat, that it wouldn’t be an issue? But then, what if that second boat sank as well, but since no one knew about the transfer of the gold, no one would ever know about the cargo since there was no record of it? What if the second boat is found in the unlikeliest of places? What if there are two sides trying to get to it first? And so on… the book just keeps blossoming from there.

Art Rosch: I doubt it.  If you talk to writers you will encounter every possible variation on the process of writing.  There are improvisers and story-boarders, note hoarders and bizarre savants with eidetic memories among writers.  Why should I be unusual?  We’re all unusual.  If we’re not weird then we’re boring.

Janet Garber: Well, I tend to write in vignettes and then struggle to piece them all together and create good transitions between them.

Cynthia Vespia: I write my first draft by hand on a legal pad with a pen. It flows better for me that way. If I start on a computer it feels very final. So I save that for when I’m inputting the story from the pad. That becomes my second draft.

Is your writing process plot driven or character driven?

Carol Riggs: If I had to choose one, I’d say character, because who the character is determines how the plot will play out. But plot is very important. A story can have an awesome character, but if the plot wanders or is boring, things can fall flat.

Chris Barili: Characters drive the plot, which powers the story. So the answer is “yes.”

DeAnna Knippling: Character driven.  I struggle with plots and trying to make them more efficient.

Jordan Elizabeth:  It tends to be character driven.  I come up with a basic idea for my plot and then I start writing.  I see where the characters lead me.

Chris DiBella: I always want to have a fun plot with enough twists and turns to keep the reader interested in the outcome, but I also want to make my characters likeable. I inject a lot of humor into my books in the dialogue, and since my main character’s partner, Pat Vigil, is based off my best friend who passed away a few years back, I really get into writing his character and trying to keep his memory alive for others to enjoy. His character in the book is exactly how he was in real life – a goofy, quick-witted smart mouth who could be counted on at all costs – so it’s a lot of fun to get to remember my friend in that way.

Janet Garber: Definitely character driven. It’s what I’m drawn to when I read women’s fiction, too. I try to create interesting albeit neurotic, quirky, and funny characters.

Art Rosch: Many of us are familiar with the expression “Character is Destiny”.  In my writing, the whole point of having characters is to allow them to transform themselves. They change, evolve, grow, pit themselves against problems and survive.  So…in answer to the question, I suppose that my characters drive the plot.  It’s impossible to generalize in this way, because each of my books is completely different.  In my work-in-progress, The Shadow Storm Trilogy, I have built a world and that world is, in a sense, also a character.  The Shadow Storm’s world drives the plot: its politics, its geography, its people.

Stories often have the simplest architecture.  My hero gets trapped.  Then he escapes.  He gets trapped again, and the trap is more elaborate.  His escape requires greater concentration, more profound inner resources.  Thus the story builds itself the way an architect creates an edifice, or a composer writes a symphony. In much writing I can discern a concept of what I call “fulcrum moments”.  These are critical scenes in which heroes and villains collide and whatever happens, be it triumph or despair, is one of the defining moments of the story.  I don’t think one can separate character and plot. Our very lives are the stuff of fiction.  Do you believe the plot arc of your own life?  My experiences have been so strange, sometimes so grotesque that I can’t help but regard them as fiction.  That way, at least, I can preserve my sanity.

I am living fiction.  Sometimes this fiction really hurts. The ultimate survival tool is a sense of humor guided by a sense of serene detachment.  Easier said than done.

Cynthia Vespia: Both, but I do lean heavily on characters because I LOVE creating characters. I think every author has those characters they’ve written that stick with them long after the story is over. I have several of those and they are eager for me to revisit them.

What is the single most important element in a story?

Chris Barili: CONFLIT! Be mean to your characters. Make their lives difficult, dangerous, and yet rewarding. There’s no story without conflict.

DeAnna Knippling: The author’s perspective on life, the universe, and everything.  In the end, that perspective is why we read.

Jordan Elizabeth:  Love.  The character has to be in love.  It can be with a family member, a love interest, a hobby…the love has to be there to make the character real.

Chris DiBella: This varies from author to author and book to book. I write in the action/adventure genre, so it’s important for me that I have an element of suspense while keeping an action novel somewhat believable. Sure, my good guy can take on fifty bad guys by himself (that’s believable, right?), but I try to write those scenes in a way that doesn’t make the reader smack their head in disbelief. Everyone writes differently and everyone is hoping to achieve something different with their books. For me, the defining element is how I’m able to convey my thoughts and ideas into words that turn into a fun story to read and keep my readers coming back for the next thirty books.

Janet Garber: Whatever makes the reader care about the characters.

Cynthia Vespia: I don’t know if there is a single element, but one of the most important is pacing. Every genre has its own tempo that readers expect when they pick up a book. For me, if the book doesn’t have a genuine flow to it that moves the story along easily I get bored and put it down.

Art Rosch: Emotion.  If your readers don’t become emotionally involved they’ll stop reading. That’s why your own emotional life, especially the pain, is so important.  The great psychologist James Hillman writes repeatedly that your pathologies are your greatest teachers.  If you’re not crazy there must be something wrong with you.  Additionally, if you have no self esteem you probably don’t deserve any.

The single most important element in a story is Transformation.  That’s my opinion.  That means you have a responsibility to nurture your characters so that they learn lessons and are able to endure and survive through their tribulations.

Conflict, of course, is the entire basis of story.  Characters collide, struggle, compete and overcome obstacles.  Readers love to be born up into the battle between good and evil.  Readers love flawed characters because they are comforted with regard to their own flaws.  What’s more boring than a perfect hero?  From Ulysses onward we see flawed heroes struggling within themselves to become better human beings.

(Kaye: Hey Art, that’s three elements, but I’ll take them. They are all good answers.)

Atmosphere has a lot to do with creativity and writers are eccentric folk who can be quite ritualistic. Some more than others of course, but I guarentee that each one of us is different in the things we require in order to gear up and get creative, putting pen to page or fingers to keyboard. Let’s see what our author panel has to say about atmosphere and the writing process.

What is your favorite setting to write in?

Jordan Elizabeth: I write in my bedroom at my desk in front of the window.  The window makes me nervous, so I always have the curtain drawn.  I need my privacy.

Tim Baker: My favorite setting is in my office (at home) preferably with minimal distractions. that’s the ideal setting…however, if I don’t have that option I’ll write wherever I can. On a related note …one thing I will probably never do – unless there are no other options – is sit in a coffee shop to write. That’s one cliché I just can’t stand.

Stewart's OfficeMargareth Stewart: It’s in my office living room (lol). I have adapted a big table as a desk because I’m all surrounded by papers and books, and it’s easier to find myself in piles (piles of books to read, books to quote, students’ assignments and so on. I usually have tea by the left side – sometimes water, too. I also added some vases and plants to bring nature in, and as I don’t have any curtains, it’s usually very light. The black armchair was also a great acquisition, and it’s soft enough to hold me in for long hours! My kids are always around, and though it may sound weird, nothing disturbs me when I start typing.

Cynthia Vespia: I like to write in bookstores or libraries. I get a really juiced up, inspired feeling when I’m among the books. Also, if they have coffee it is a huge plus!

Do you write with music or do you prefer quiet?

Carol Riggs: I may listen to music to get in an initial mood or emotional state, but when I write, I prefer quiet. I shut out every noise and concentrate on the rhythm of the words, syllables, consonants, and sentences.

DeAnna Knippling: Music!  Usually this:

Jordan Elizabeth: It has to be quiet.  I get too distracted by music.  I start singing along or dancing.

Cynthia Vespia: I often write with music but it can’t have lyrics. So I only use TV/movie soundtracks. For instance, Game of Thrones has some lovely soundtracks that energize me when I’m writing. I’ve also put together some playlists for myself that have some of my favorite pieces on them.

Art Rosch: It’s funny.  I’ve been a musician for fifty plus years.  I hardly listen to music at all anymore.  I listen to my tinnitus.  It sounds like a river, sometimes like a train, or wind in the trees.  I wish I could record my tinnitus.  I wish I could record my deafness. When I need musical relief from being put on hold during a phone call and having to listen to Muzak crap, I’ll put on Coltrane’s song, “Lonnie’s Lament” or Leonard Cohen, “Darker.”

What is your favorite time of day to write? Why?

Chris Barili: I do my best writing of the day in the morning, but since I have to be at work by 6 a.m., I don’t get to do it much.

DeAnna Knippling: Before noon.  Your brain isn’t worn out by the 1001 things that are pinging for your attention.

Jordan Elizabeth:  I love writing in the morning.  I’m most awake then.  Unfortunately, I usually don’t get to write until nighttime after my son goes to bed.  That’s also when my husband wants to go to bed and my office is in a corner of the bedroom.  I like to write while I’m alone, and when he goes to bed, he likes to watch television.

Cynthia Vespia: First thing in the morning when it is still quiet outside.

Art Rosch: Favorite time of day?  It doesn’t matter. I don’t have kids around.  I have few responsibilities.  I suppose I write a burst in the morning after coffee.  Then I’ll write a burst in the early evening.  There are no hard and fast patterns to my writing.  I might write this year.  I didn’t write last year.  I expect to write a lot in 2018.  Probably in June I’ll hit my stride.

Titles are something that I often overlook until last, although some authors claim to have their title before they even start writing. Although with Delilah, I knew the title before I started writing. I’m currently working on the sequel, but I have no title as yet for it. I am  simply calling it Delilah Book 2 until I find a good one. But the right title can go a long way to creating a successful book, just as the right cover can affect sales. So how much thought should go into each title? I’m afraid there really is no right answer. The answers from our author panel are varied.

How do you decide the titles for your books? Where does the title come in the process for you?  

Jordan Elizabeth: Sometimes the title comes at the beginning, but usually I figure it out toward the middle of the manuscript.  As I’m writing away, the title will suddenly pop out at me.

Chris DiBella: I have the title of the book figured out before I even write the first word of it. That may sound odd, and there’s really no great way to explain it, but I have the next 25 books already titled. They’re all just based off ideas that I have for books, and I’ll navigate the plot around the title in one way or another.

Art Rosch: The titles of my books just come.  There’s usually no fuss about it. I will have the title before I begin writing the book.  I know the right title when I first think of it.  There’s one major exception.  For nearly fifteen years my autobiographical novel was titled The Vice Of Courage.  It seemed right for all that time. Something, however, niggled at my unconscious mental process, and that was the perception that readers may not understand my real meaning.  The word VICE can swing a couple of ways.  It’s really an unpleasant word.  It’s either a tool for squeezing things or it’s a bad habit.  Just before I was preparing to e-publish this most crucial part of my oeuvre, I had a change of heart.  I can’t explain how The Vice Of Courage became Confessions of An Honest Man.  It just did.

Janet Gaber: Usually titles just pop into my head without much effort on my part. I am though having problems deciding on a title for my next novel. It’s set in Paris and concerns a young couple, she’s American; he’s French as they adjust to 1970’s France.  I’d like Paris in the title if possible. So send me your ideas. Please!

Cynthia Vespia: More often than not they just come to me randomly. I’ll either have the title spring to mind before I even know what the book is about, or I’ll get the idea for the plot, start writing, and the title comes organically.

Another aspect  authors  differ greatly on is the amount of planning necessary to bring a book into existence. Some authors get an idea and just take off with it, waiting to see where the words lead, while others do in-depth planning, outlining and plotting to make their story come together before trying to make their story come together on the page. Some authors may even take a screenwriting approach using a whiteboard, and I know at least one author that lays out enough note cards to go at least once around the room.

Personally, I have tried both methods. With Delilah, I let my character tell me what would come next and then, of course a lot was changed during the editing process. However, with my Playground for the Gods series, which I made Book 1 my thesis project, I was required to have an outline and I was very glad I did, because my initial outline had so much backstory that my single book idea became a four book series that is still in progress.  But I think with world building for a series, you really must have some form of outline, as well as a Story Bible to keep track of all the little details.

A part of writing that most people don’t think about doesn’t take place on the page.  It takes place in our heads, before your fingers ever touch the keys to type out that first word. I call it prewriting, as I mentioned above, and it’s where most of my planning takes place. Others call it research, or plotting. Let’s see how our author panel weighs in on this aspect of the writing process.

Are you a plotter or a pantser (outline or frestyle)?

Carol Riggs: I’m basically a plotter with an outline, but a loose one. I like to map out the direction of my story, but leave plenty of room for those “happy accidents” that I never would’ve thought of at the beginning when initially plotting. Those serendipitous little happenings come about naturally, in an organic way, from the characters as they develop throughout the novel.

Chris Barili: Plotter. I use the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, made up of colored sticky notes on a white board to plot things out. This allows me to change things as I go along, move notes around or drop them entirely. And sometimes I’ll only outline a portion of the story, allowing the rest to respond to changes that occur organically as the story moves on.

DeAnna Knippling: Pantser.  I’ve talked to plotters who have accused me of lying, especially with regards to mystery-type plots.

Jordan Elizabeth: I go freestyle.  If I plot too much, it kills the joy and I find myself struggling to come up with sentences.

Chris DiBella: I’m definitely a pantser, however, I do outline a lot so that I have some point of reference for where I want to go with the book. The problem with me outlining so far ahead, is that by the time I get to certain chapters, I’ve “pantsered” my way into a completely different direction, so the outline usually doesn’t matter anymore. I use a lot of “what if” scenarios as I’m writing, so I’m always veering off from my original storyline.

Art Rosch: I’m a little of both.  I have a grand scheme, a goal.  I know what I want my long fiction to achieve.  My thinking is fairly structured, though I have never used outlines.  I write scene by scene.  As long as I know what the next scene will be, I can write it.  Generally, I am several scenes ahead of my writing.  I’m in trouble if I run out of scenes.  I continually surprise myself, devising scenes that I had not anticipated.  Oh, I think…where did that come from? The mind is like one of those miniature circus cars.  When the doors fly open, twenty squabbling midget clowns fly out, tumbling and fighting.  My scene selection is like deciding which of my midgets (uh, excuse me…Little People) I will put in charge of the steering wheel.

Janet Garber: Definitely a pantser when it comes to short stories and poetry and essays and such. Novels require a little sense of where you’re going so I usually put together some sort of general outline.

Cynthia Vespia: A bit of both. There are elements that I always like to outline in depth such as the character traits, background, etc. I’ll also write a very rough outline of the main spots in the novel just to have a guide. That doesn’t mean I always stay strict to it, but it is there to refer to.

In a story we are often asked to create images for the reader that we may not have experienced ourselves. When have you had to do that?

Carol Riggs: I do this all the time! The genres I like to write in are speculative, whether fantasy or science fiction or something else just as imaginative. So while the feelings behind these experiences are universal, the specific image or situation is not. I’ve never discovered hidden aliens like in The Lying Planet or become turned into a genie with magical powers like in Bottled. I’ve never had my mind downloaded into someone else’s body to help them lose weight as in The Body Institute. I’ve never been sucked into a portal that takes me to a dimension built by my personal dreams and nightmares (Junction 2020). I’m using my imagination—which is totally fun—but the basic emotions are something we all can relate to.

DeAnna Knippling: Every time I look up a setting on Google maps and squint at the polygon trees, then drop the little man on the blue stripe in order to zoom in.  Reality is way more random than we give it credit for.

Jordan Elizabeth: Most of my books require that because I write fantasy.  I like to imagine there is magic all around us, so that helps me in describing what the magic is like. 

Art Rosch: It’s called RESEARCH.  I do it all the time.  One of my most important literary passages involves war in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in 1982.  I’ve never been to Afghanistan.  I’ve never been in combat.  This piece is the climactic moment of character development for my protagonist, Aaron Kantro.  It is the plot fulcrum in “Confessions Of An Honest Man.”  This is supposed to be an autobiographical novel.  I decided that the REAL story of Aaron’s recovery ( that is, MY recovery) from drug addiction would not make gripping fiction.  Are you kidding?  Ten years of agonizing therapy?  It might contain a ton of drama but as fiction it would be tedious.  This passage provided Aaron with a profound motivation.  Quoting from the manuscript, “The irrelevance of his personal pain was a profound blessing.”  He sees the scale of suffering all around him and realizes that being a self-indulgent dope fiend is not enough, is unworthy of his capabilities.

My editor (at the time), a ruthless tyrant from Scott Meredith Agency, called it “authentic”.  This is not an editor who praises.  I was stunned when he consecrated this excerpt with such approval.

I read everything I could get my hands on about Afghanistan: its history, people, the Soviet invasion, the rise of the Taliban. I used the internet, I referred to Wikipedia.  There’s never been a greater tool for research than the internet.  Blessings be upon the INTERNET, the writer’s best friend (and sometimes worst enemy, given the distraction quotient with which we are always faced).

Cynthia Vespia: That’s what most of my writing is. I write alot of fantasy so the basis of my stories, though sometimes grounded in reality, will have a fantastical element to it that I couldn’t possibly have experienced. But that is the fun of writing. You get to create worlds and characters that bring you and your reader out of reality if only for a little while.

One thing I’ve learned on my writing journey is that authors are a tight knit bunch. They are quick to come together in crisis, and quite supportive of one another in most cases. That’s the reasoning behind the creation of my author’s blog. While I needed a place to promote my writing, I also wanted to be of assistance to my fellow authors with profiles and book reviews, hence Writing to be Read was born. It’s thinking along those lines which also prompted this next question.

What advice do you have for upcoming authors?

Carol Riggs: Never give up! If writing is something you truly enjoy, persevere. Rejection is part of the game—accept it despite the sting. Not everyone will like your work, so write for the readers who do “get” you and your stories. I spent 11 years writing twelve novels, and the thirteenth went on to become my debut novel, The Body Institute. A writer taking a longer time to break into publishing is the rule rather than the exception. Meanwhile, keep writing, and write for the sheer joy of putting your story down on the page.

DeAnna Knippling: Try your hardest.  Eventually you’ll hit a wall.  At that point, give up on “trying,” but keep writing.  “I don’t give a damn what my readers think!  This is for me!”

Jordan Elizabeth: Don’t give up.  It can be discouraging when you keep getting rejection letters. Sometimes other authors can get feisty or petty.  Write because you love writing.  Don’t write just to sell a story.

Chris DiBella: Use a damn editor. Everyone’s an author nowadays, but not everyone has the ability to tell a story. I’m not trying to sound like a jerk, but there’s a lot of garbage out there getting published every day. Some of it is contributed to bad grammar and sentence structure, but some people just don’t know how to plot out a book. A good editor can help with both of these issues. But, then again, there may be people who think my books are garbage, so who am I to say?….but my mom thinks I should already be bigger than James Patterson, so at least I have that going for me!

Also, my best advice is to fake it until you make it…plain and simple. When someone asks you what you do, tell them you’re a writer. I’m a project manager by day, but when I get asked what I do, my first response is always, “I’m an author.” I always put that out there first because it’s a great conversation starter that 99.9% of people will ask you follow-up questions to. And that is how you eventually get to the point of selling a million copies and telling people that all you do is write books.

Cynthia Vespia: Make sure you enjoy it. Writing is a difficult journey, and it is often very solitary by nature. But you have that story inside you for a reason and only YOU can tell it. Don’t put so much pressure on publishing straight away, enjoy the process first.

Art Rosch: Keep a day job.  You’ll hear this advice a lot.  Normally I don’t give advice.  If you expect to make a living as a writer you should prepare yourself by studying journalism or creative writing in college.  That way you can become a teacher and bore all your arrogant and rebellious students who think they know so much more than you do.

As anticipated, the writing process is different for each of us. And, as predicted, our author panel presents an interesting variety of individuality. It may turn out to be an interesting ride. I hope you will all join us next Monday when we will Ask the Authors about character development. Don’t miss it.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I received from panel members.


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“Ask the Authors” is Coming to “Writing to be Read”

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I’m excited to tell you about a new series of posts coming to Writing to be Read. Starting next Monday, “Ask the Authors” will pose the questions you want to ask to our panel of authors, and I’ll bring you their answers. The series will cover all aspects of writing, with topics including the writing process and elements of craft, and issues surrounding publishing, and building a platform, marketing and promotion, with members from our panel weighing in on each subject. If you have follow-up questions for the panel or for the individual authors, you can leave them in the comments. I will get them answered and post them in the concluding post, so be sure to catch the whole series.

Our panel consists of eleven members, which I’d like to introduce to you today. All of them, I have worked with here on Writing to be Read, either reviewing their books or interviewing them, or both. Many have participated in either my 2016 Publishing series: “Pros and Cons of Traditionional vs. Independent  vs. Self-Publishing” or my 2017 Book Marketing series: “Book Marketing: What Works?”. They are all outstanding authors and together, they cover a wide variety of genres and publishing routes. Feel free to pose any questions for them of for the panel in general in the comments of any of the posts and I will try to get them answered for you. I hope all my readers will give each of them a warm welcome.

Tim flagler filmTim Baker is a Florida author of ten novels, most of which I’ve read more than once. His work is well crafted and entertaining, with memorable characters you can’t help but care about. (See my reviews of Tim’s books: Living the Dream, No Good Deed, Water Works, Backseat to JusticeUnfinished Business, Pump It Up, Eyewitness BluesFull Circle, 24 Minutes) He started out his writing career with a publisher, but has now moved into the independent publishing arena.

Tim has played almost every sport imaginable throughout his life and currently enjoys S.C.U.B.A. diving, riding his motorcycle, reading and watching movies, (not necessarily in that order). In fact when writing a novel, he approaches it like he’s creating and watching a movie in his head. When asked who he’d like to play the lead character if one of his books were turned into a movie:

“That’s an easy one…in almost all of my books the hero is a guy named Ike. He is a 6’6” ex-Navy SEAL with a tendency to bend (and sometimes break) the rules. He was modelled after the character of Wade Garret, played by Sam Elliot, in Road House – but Sam is getting a bit old to play Ike so the next best thing is an actor named Anson Mount (from the series Hell on Wheels).”

Something his readers might not gues about him: “After reading my books I think most people would be surprised to learn that I am very non-violent. I don’t believe that violence ever solves anything. I also don’t own a gun (but I don’t care if you do), nor do I know much about them. Most of the technical jargon I use about guns in my books I learn from people who know. And I would go out of my way to avoid hostility.”

When asked to describe himself in three words: “Impossible to describe (that’s 3 words!!)”.

Living the Dream was one of the first reviews I did on Writing to be Read back in 2010. I’ve interviewed him for both my 2016 Publishing series and my 2017 Book Marketing series, as well as an author profile back in 2012, and I am pleased to welcome Tim to our Ask the Authors” panel.

You can learn more about Tim and his books at his website:

Author Jordan Elizabeth Hollack

Jordan Elizabeth is a New York small press author of Young Adult fiction. (See my reviews of Jordan’s books: Escape From Witchwood Hollow, Cogling, Victorian, The Goat Children, Path to Old Talbot, Kistishi Island, Treasure Darkly, Wicked Treasure, Runners & Riders)

One of her secrets for juggling her writing career and family is to set aside one hour a night just for writing. If she’s fortunate enough to set aside two hours, she uses the second hour for marketing. When asked: “What is one thing readers would never guess about you?” She replied: “I am terrified of costumed characters.  Think head-to-toe Mickey Mouse.  If I see one, I freak out.” 

I have reviewed Jordan’s work, both novels and short fiction since 2016, and I had the pleasure of interviewing her for both my 2016 Publishing series and for my 2017 Book Marketing series, and we started off the new year with another interview to talk about her latest book, Secrets of Bennett Hall. In fact, when asked to relate about the most fun interview she’d ever done, she replied, “Anything by you.  You always ask unusual questions that really get me thinking.” So thank you for that, Jordan. It pleases me to no end to have you join our “Ask the Authors” panel.

You can learn more about Jordan and her books at

Margareth StewartMargareth Stewart is the pen name for Mônica Mastrantonio, debut author of Open/ Pierre’s Journey After War published by She has also compiled and published three international Anthologies featuring global authors: Whitmanthology, Womenthology, The Pain that Unites us All.

She holds a PhD in Social Psychology, and she has been teaching and tutoring students over 22 years. This zen-mother of 3, loves life and her tattoos. She spends her time between Sao Paolo, Miami and writing residencies.

When asked about her favorite form of exercise: “Jogging – that´s kind of an obligation for me. As writers, we tend to sit for long hours, so every single day, I do try to keep that up and go out for a short run of 4 to 5 kilometers. If I have more time, I go round a park nearby and that makes 6 kilometers. I do recommend it – it keeps our mind sharp and our ideas bright.

I only recently met Margareth through my interview with her, but I am happy to have Margareth as a panel member.

You can learn more about Margareth and her book on her Facebook page.

Chris DiBellaChris DiBella is currently an independent California author. (See my reviews of Chris’ books: The 5820 Diaries, Whispering Death, Blood Dawn) I say this because Chris has been all over. Originally from New England, he began writing his first novel while living in Hawaii. I reviewed his debut novel, Lost Voyage, back when he was a Colorado author and I was the Southern Colorado Literature Examiner, as well.

I met Chris through another author on this panel, Tim Baker, and it is apparently Tim who gave Chris the best piece of advice he’s ever received:

“I wrote a blog piece about how it’s okay to sometimes alienate your readers…to a point. One of the comments on it was from my friend Tim, who said this:

“If Stephen King or JK Rowling want to piss people off, they can afford it. You and me? We should be a little more careful. Just sayin’.”

And that was the roundabout way of giving me the best piece of advice I could’ve ever received. I immediately got on my laptop, opened up a blank Word document, and typed in big bold letters “BE BIGGER THAN STEPHEN KING & J.K. ROWLING”.

Chris’ words to you readers: “I am however, an open book…..every pun intended….so if there’s anything you would like to know about me or about what makes me tick, please feel free to reach out and ask away. I love interacting with fans and I welcome any questions you may have.”

Soon you can learn more about Chris and his books at his website, which is under construction ans linked to his blog site: For now, it might be easier to contact him through his Facebook page.

Janet GarberJanet Garber is the author of both fiction and non-fiction who lives in the U.K. and bases her writing on her experiences as an H.R. manager in New York.

Janet says that if Dream Job, Wacky Adventures of an HR Manager were made into a film, anyone playing her protagonist, Melie Kohl, would have to be believable as a New Yorker, funny and self deprecating, wildly imaginative, more than a little neurotic.  She suggest Mary Elizabeth Winstead, star of that great political satire, BrainDead.

When asked what she would do in a life without writing, she says: “I would do what I always do when I’m avoiding my work: knitting, hiking, going to movies, cooking, getting together with friends, travelling, teaching. But . . .I prefer a future  with maximum creativity and that means writing.”

I reviewed Janet’s debut novel,  Dream Job, Wacky Adventures of an HR Manager,  and thought it was one of the quirkiest books I’ve ever read, but it was very entertaining. I hope you will all give her a warm welcome.

If you’d like to learn more about Janet or her books, visit her at:

Her website:

On Lulu:

Amazon Author Page:

Art RoschArt Rosch is an independent novelist and memoirist from sunny California. (See my reviews of The Road Has Eyes and Confessions of an Honest Man. Also see my interview with Art for my 2016 Publishing series here.)

Art says the best piece of advice he was ever given was to ask for help when you need it.  If you find yourself bottoming out, don’t hesitate to ask for help.  You can’t get out of trouble by yourself. When asked to describe himself in three words: Becoming more alive.

I’ve known Art since 2008, when I administered my own writing site, Writer’s World, and Art was a member. Later, he had his life partner, Fox, who is a pet pyschic, do a reading for me after my son died and we inherited his dog. I am so pleased to welcome him to the “Ask the Authors” panel.

You can learn more about Art and his books at Arthur Rosch Books or on his blog Write Out Of My Head.

Carol Riggs author_smallerCarol Riggs is a Young Adult fantasy and science fiction author, and dragon collector from Oregon.  You will usually find her in her writing cave, surrounded by her dragon collection and the characters in her head.

The most fun part of writing for Carol is “the freedom of drafting a first draft, and being imaginative with my storyline.” The least fun part: “The least fun is marketing, all that necessary left-brained business side of things.”

Carol’s favorite genres to read (and write!) are speculative, which includes fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, magical realism, contemporary fantasy, or anything else with a twist of weird or the imaginative.

When asked what she would do in a future where the was no writing: I would cry. Seriously (after I finished crying), I would return to my artwork, because I have a degree in Studio Arts and that is something I love to do, but haven’t had as much time to do it because I’m so busy writing. In general, I enjoy drawing people more than landscapes. I also like to create miniature fabric art.

I have reviewed Carol’s books on two occasions, and I welcome her as a valuable addition to our “Ask the Authors” panel. (See my reviews of Carol’s books: Bottled and The Lying Planet.)

You can learn more about Carol or her books at her website:

deannakDeAnna Knippling is another independent Colorado author and one of the a great example of what being a writer is all about. She writes full time as a writer for hire in addition to writing fiction in both short and long forms under her own name. (See my reviews of DeAnna’s books: Clockwork Alice; Something Borrowed, Something Blue; How Smoke Got Out of the Chimneys; ) Her stories are always fun and entertaining.

The most unusual or unique thing she’s done in her writing career to date: “I’ve written murder mystery party games for Freeform Games in the UK.  SO VERY COOL.  So very intense getting them edited…”

When asked about what she would do in a future without writing, she replied: “Be in a coma.” and in one where writing made her rich and famous: “I would buy a house in the mountains and support my husband in the sloth and luxury that he deserves.  I have other plans, too, but that’s at the top of the list.”

When asked to describe herself in three words: “I’m right heeeeeeere!”

I had the pleasure of interviewing her twice in 2017. The first time, a profiling interview and then for my 2017 Book Marketing series, and I am thrilled to welcome her to our “Ask the Authors” panel.

You can learn more about Deanna and her books by visiting the following sites:


colorheadshot - CopyCynthia Vespia an award nominated speculative fiction author, cover designer and promotional content developer. She also teaches internet advertising classes and marshal arts workshops. Her speculative fiction encompasses fantasy, the paranormal, and magic realism.

When asked if one of her books was made into a film, who she would you like to play the lead: One of my books is currently in the beginning stages of becoming a film. It is based on my novel The Crescent and it is a female gladiator tale called Gladiatrix. If I could have anyone in the lead role I would choose Gal Gadot. She is not only hot in features, but she is a hot name right now coming off of Wonder Woman and Justice League. The way she presents herself in the beginning of Wonder Woman on the island of Themyscera is perfect for my gladiator tale, and she can fight too!

Cynthia was another of Writing to be Read‘s first reveiws and, always willing to jump in where needed, she participated in a profiling interview, my 2017 Book Marketing series. (See my reviews of Cynthia’s books: the Demon Hunter Saga, including The Hero’s CallLife, Death and Back; Lucky Sevens)

You can learn more about Cynthia and her books at her website: 

Chris Barili-1521Chris Barili is a speculative fiction and romance author who was also my cohort in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program at Western. (See my reviews of Chris’ books: the Hell’s Butcher series and his romance, Smothered (as B.T. Clearwater).)

Besides writing, Chris lifts weights, mountain bikes, practices martial arts and battles Parkinson’s disease. Writing just may be his salvation. When asked about a future where writing left him rich and famous, Chris said he would write more. Regarding a future without writing: “Shrivel up and die. Writing is part of me. Without it, a part of me dies. A crucial part of me. I cannot  live without it. I can live without an arm or a leg. I can get by with this Parkinson’s thing. But without writing, I am sunk.”

The best piece of advice he was ever given: “Try genres outside of fantasy.” In addition to my reviews of Chris’s books and short fiction, he was also interviewed for my 2017 Book Marketing series, and I’m happy to have him as a member of our “Ask the Authors” panel.

You can learn more about Chris and his books at his Amazon Author Page:

As you can see, we’ve got a terrific panel of multi-talented authors, both experienced and rising, representing a diversity of genres, covering a wide range of knowledge. The way this series works is I will present a series of posts that will offer answers the panel gives  in reponse to my questions.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members. I hope you’ll all participate and leave your questions in the comments. I think if we can get enough particiaption it might be really fun.

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Exposition: Telling vs. Showing

Old Manual Typewriter

A writer should show the reader, rather than tell the reader. Help them form a mental picture in their minds. Put them into the story. How many times have we all been told this? Finding a balance between showing and telling is a hard thing to do, but to be a good writer we must strive to achieve that balance.

I’m a person who likes to think big, and in my writing it’s no different. As many of you know, in graduate school, my genre fiction thesis project was the first book in my Playground for the Gods science fantasy series, In the Beginning. But, what you may not know is that my original thesis proposal was for what turned out to be the third book, only in my mind it was the only book and it spans back beyond prehistoric time. While preparing my thesis proposal the feedback that I recieved from instructors and cohorts time and again, was that my proposal would require too much exposition unless I created an epic tomb of unfathomable porportions, way beyond the scope of my thesis requirements, and impossible to complete in the time allowed.

The main problem was that there was a lot of background that I felt the reader needed to understand where the character was coming from in the now of the story. Most of that information was being communicated to my readers through exposition. The story wasn’t taking them back to relive the scene, it was simply filling them in on what they needed to know, because the story I wanted to tell spanned over billions of years. That’s a lot of backstory. That’s exposition.

Robin Conley saw a similar problem in her review of the movie Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, “Almost all of these really big elements deserved a proper set up because they are major story parts that will potentially carry over… The long exposition and set up in the film makes the story drag and hard to stay involved, no matter how many interesting elements there are.” Thumbs DownRobin explains what exposition does and why we don’t want too much of it. Too much exposition is like coming in in the middle of a film you’ve already seen, and filling in other viewers on what is happening, instead of letting them watch the film and figure it out for themselves.

That was the problem with my PfG story – way too much exposition. It happens all the time. And it’s easy to overlook it when you’re the author. Which is exactly what I had done with my thesis. I had that story outlined and plotted, but I kept having to stop and fill in the background details with exposition. And exposition tells your readers something, but it doesn’t provide a mental image for them. It doesn’t pulace them in the scene. Action and dialog accomplish those tasks quite well. And my cohorts and instructors were right, although at the time, I didn’t want to believe them.

My solution was to turn my story into a four part series. Hence the Playground for the Gods series was born. All that backstory, which had come out mostly in exposition, became a story of its own, one that I could show my readers, rather than telling them about it. My original story idea will eventually be book three, and although I did have to write the whole first book instead of the story I set out to tell for my thesis, that story outline is still waiting for me to put it in story form.

Of course, that isn’t the only way to solve problems of exposition, but this can be applied without creating entire novels. You simply expand on some scenes to eliminate exposition and create a longer story, chosing those scenes that are most vital to the story. You can also chose to leave certain information out, thus eliminating exposition without lengthening, and perhaps even shortening your story. It is a delicate balance, but as the writer, you must do what the story needs to achieve it. What works for one story may not necessarily be the answer for another.

So, how much exposition is too much? That’s a very subjective question, but generally speaking, if you’re telling your reader what happened, with a few lines of glib dialog thrown in here or there, then you have too much exposition. Your reader wants to get lost in the book, and for that, they need a story that is told in such a way that they feel like they are there.

We’ve all read stories like that. For me, it’s Anne Rice. I may have never been to New Orleans, but after reading some of her books, I feel like the Garden District and the French Quarter are old frieinds. I can smell the magnolia blossoms, and see the old plantation houses as if I’d been there. That’s the kind of story we, as authors, strive to write, regardless of the genre we write in. It’s the kind of story that has the perfect balance, using exposition only when absolutely necessary to fill in details, providing plenty of action and dialog to fill in the rest. It’s a  delicate balance, but one we must all strive for.

Until next time, Happy Writing!


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Looking Back on 2017

Looking Back

Every year at this time I look back and so a review of what was published on Writing to be Read and my writing life. 2017 has been pretty eventful for both me and Writing to be Read, so this year I’m particularly excited about this look back. But, I’m also excited to get out my crystal ball and warm up my psychic abilities as we take a look forward that comes as we start the new year, because I think there may be some exciting things in store.

There were so many things that happened for me in 2017. In April, my western novel, Delilah was published by Dusty Saddle Publishing, which of course, is exciting. Delilah hasn’t done too bad on sales, but it didn’t make the best seller list. It has received some really excellent reviews, and is rated with four stars on Amazon. Although it may not be a huge success, for me it was a hard earned accomplishment, but the reward came the day I received my first royalty check. Yep, I’ve got royalties. Isn’t that the final proof that I’m a writer, at last?

Delilah and Horse Web Cover

I do have folks inquiring about a second novel, and for those who are wondering, Book 2 is in the working. My crystal ball tells me that it will be published sometime in the coming year, only this book, I may publish myself and skip the publisher as middle man. I’m having a time getting the sales data, and what I do have makes it appears as if what sales I do have, have been the results of my own marketing efforts, so I’m not seeing the benefit of sharing my royalties with a publisher, when I can do about everything they have done for me.  In addition, mid-year the rather generic cover the publisher provided for the book was replaced by a cover that fits the story better, done for me by Sonoran Dawn Studios, which I am much happier with.

The Collapsar DirectiveIn addition I had two short stories published in 2017 by Zombie Pirates Publishing. The first, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” came out on August 1, in their science fiction anthology The Collapsar Directive. The story is a futuristic dystopian tale with just a touch of humor, in a world where productivity is high, but you’re only allowed to be happy on the weekend. Relationship Add Vice

The second story, “The Devil Made Her Do It”, just came out the 15th of this month in their Crime Romance anthology, Relationship Add Vice. It’s a tale about the crazy things we do for love and a girl, Betty Lou Dutton, who leaves hereself open to be taken advantage of and ends up taking the rap. My fortune telling abilities see Zombie Pirates in my future for the coming year, as well. I submitted a little flash fiction story for consideration in their Full Metal Horror anthology. Wish me luck.

The really big thing that happened for me in 2017, or at least I think it’s big, is a landed an adjunct position teaching ENG102:Academic Writing at Western State Colorado University, my Alma Mater. Let me tell you, it has been a crazy ride. I got the position due to a last minute opening, when a scheduled lecturer was unable to teach for health reasons, which was unfortunate for the scheduled lecturer, but very fortunate for me. We got it all figured out and I was hired five days before classes started, so that’s how long I had to restructure both classes to be hybrid classes and figure out how to teach a method of writing I knew nothing about. It was a rocky start, and to be honest, I think I confused many of my students at first, because I was unsure myself, but as the semester moved forward, I gained more solid footing in the classroom, and the students began to figure it out, too. I have now successfully made it through a whole semester, teaching two hybrid courses and it feels great. I know I can do it and I have some experience teaching in a University setting, so I know there will be more teaching jobs in the coming year. My crystal ball is a little blurry in this area, but I know last minute stuff happens all the time, so who knows? Maybe I’ll end up back at Western.

teacher-owl clip-art

As for Writing to be Read, I’ve had an exciting year there, too. At the beginning of the year, I my friend Robin Conley helped me do a total overhaul of the site, and in August my friend DL Mullan of Sonoran Dawn Studios helped to redesign it. The results are what you see here now, but they were a long time in coming. I’ve added my website right here on the blog and you can reach the different sections by clicking on the tabs across the top to learn about my published poetry and fiction, my westerns, my Playground for the Gods series, or Write it Right Editing. Writing to be Read also gained some great talent in 2017, Robin Conley with her Weekly and Monthly Writing Memos, and Jeff Bowles with his Pep Talks and his God Complex posts, and I am thankful for benefit of their content for the short time they were with me. Unfortunately, life carries folks in different directions and both of these fine writers are no longer able to share their expertise and wisdom with us and I don’t foresee them rejoining us in 2017.


What my crystal ball does show me, is that Writing to be Read has grown in readership over the past year, and I feel it is due to the great and consistant content posted not only by myself, but by Robin and Jeff, as well. Most recently, the content has been almost non-existant, because I’ve had to focus on the classroom and I’ve discovered grading essays takes a lot of time. I don’t think the drop in content from losing my team members or from my not having the time to devote that I should have hurt my numbers yet, but I do foresee such a possibility if the lack of content continues.

In this realm, my crystal ball shows me something very interesting. I see new members of the Writing to be Read team and really great content in the coming year. In fact, a call for action is going out with this post, right now. If you are a writer who feels you might have something to contribute and you’d like to be on the Writing to be Read team, I want to hear from you. Shoot me an email at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com telling me what type of contribution you would like to make and how often you’d like to make it. I’m pretty flexible, so let’s talk.

In years past, I have given a rundown of all the posts throughout the year and which were viewed the most or which got the highest numbers of comments or likes, however that makes for a very lengthy, boring post, so this year I’m only giving you the most interesting facts. For instance, over the past year Writing to be Read has had viewers from the across the globe. The highest number of views coming from U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland, India and Mexico. It’s top referrer is Facebook, which doesn’t really make me happy, since I’m kind of peeved at Facebook at the moment, but I’ll take my viewers wherever I can get them.

The month to receive the most views was July, with my interview with writer, poet and cover designer Dawn Leslie Mullan being the hightest viewed post. Next up was a “Pep Talk” from Jeff Bowles, “I Think We Need a Break”, and third highest was my post, “An Adventure in Social Media Marketing“. The post that received the most viewed over the whole year was my post titled, “How Do You Measure Success?” which I wrote after signing the contract for Delilah. The second highest views overall were received by “Ah! Sweet Rejection“, which I wrote, oddly enough, after recieving a rejection for Delilah. The third highest was Robin Conley’s “Weekly Writing Memo: Word Choice is Everything“.

Looking ahead to 2018, my crystal ball says it’s going to be a good year. I hope it’s right. I guess only time will tell. So until then…

Happy New Year


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