Writing strong female characters

At the recent Bouchercon, a convention for mystery authors and fans, a panel of women writers considered the question of strong female characters. Even the phrase “strong female characters” raised some controversy, as the women felt that it was a bit of a put-down; after all, you never hear of “strong men characters.”

The authors spoke about their own protagonists, and what went into creating them. Sara J. Henry, author of Learning to Swim, which went on to win three prestigious prizes, said she modeled her protagonist, Troy Chance, on herself. Troy, is a freelance journalist who has moved… Continue reading

Pets: Such characters!

catIf it were up to my husband, we would have a dog. He even tells our neighbors, as they walk their dog (and we walk ourselves) how he’s working on me to get a dog. For now, no dog.

We do have a cat, mainly because he came with the house (see photo). When we were buying our house five years ago, the owner asked (in front of my husband’s sons) whether we also wanted his cat. So the cat, which we have never really named and therefore call Kitty… Continue reading

Crime Lab Visit

One of my favorite shows is NCIS, and one of the most interesting characters on it is forensics specialists Abby Sciuto, who singlehandedly seems to handle all types of evidence—from DNA to firearms to automobile.

Suffolk County Crime LabReal life, however, is quite different. Recently, I was able to tour the Suffolk Crime Lab on Long Island, New York, with a group of writers. The 40-person Crime Lab does what one person, Abby, does on the show. The scientists on staff are all civilians with degrees in science, and they… Continue reading

Point of View shifts

Point of view is a tricky thing and it often trips up writers. When revising your manuscript, it’s a good thing to relook at each scene for any POV slip.

POV can, of course, be done using first, second, or third person. It can be done through the eyes of one person, usually the sleuth. The first-person sleuth can be the narrator, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, or the narrator could be a sidekick, like Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Here, from A Scandal in Bohemia:

“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have… Continue reading

Last Lines

In a previous blog post, I wrote about great first lines. This time, I thought I’d write about last lines.

Mickey Spillane once said, “Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.”

Have you ever read a book that kept you hooked, but then came to an ending that was either so outlandish, or so unfulfilling, that it pretty much ruined the book for you? If you have, you know how important endings are.

Even well-known, longtime authors can anger their readers with an ending. Dana Stabenow has enraged loyal readers… Continue reading

10 Summer Reads

 It’s summer. For some of us, summer means the beach, vacations, and uncomplicated reads. With that in mind, I’ve recommended 10 reads that I think will fit in with this season of lightness and fun.

1) The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley, introduces 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, aspiring chemist, young sleuth, and the put-upon younger sister among three siblings who live with their dad in the once-grand mansion of Buckshaw in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. It’s the summer of 1950… Continue reading

Plotter or Pantser?

The other day I had a conversation with an author who outlines to the nth degree. He’s written his first book and has a narrative arc that stretches through the next two — a very dramatic arc and one I hope to read someday. I was in awe that he’s thought so far ahead, giving his characters deep psychological motives. I have trouble even scheduling my life out two weeks ahead!

unanswered questions - brainstorming conceptMystery writer Hallie Ephron is another one who carefully plots. But she says in her… Continue reading

Dash it all!

punctuation-marks-dashes-hyphensOne of the more common mistakes I see with writers is the use (or misuse) of dashes and ellipsis. When do you use ellipsis? And when do you use hyphens or the longer em dashes?

Here are the rules, as followed by The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and most publishers:

Use the longer em dash to indicate faltering or interrupted speech. Here are some examples from CMS:

“Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?” asked Mill.

“Well, I don’t know,” I began tentatively. “I thought… Continue reading

Opening lines: What they teach us

bonepedlarFor writers, one of the most difficult parts of the book is the beginning. Not only where in the story to begin, but also how. Those first lines are especially important in captivating a reader, especially in this age of free e-reader samples.

So here I offer some first lines that have captivated me; others appeared in Mystery Scene magazine. I’ll explain what’s so good about them:

This one made me buy the book:

“In the crypt of the abbey church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling… Continue reading

Getting the language right

In journalism, reporters often “clean up” quotes so the person being quoted doesn’t look ignorant, and so the newspaper won’t be accused of making fun of someone’s speech.

But, in fiction, you want the opposite. You want the reader, after all, to have feelings (either positive or negative) about a character. And language is one way to do that.

Perhaps the most well-known example of that is Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” in which Twain deliberately uses colloquial and what was sometimes considered coarse language to portray his characters. In later years, his books have been rewritten to exclude… Continue reading