Kicking Bad Writing Habits To The Curb

Happy New Year, everyone! It’s resolution time, when many of us commit to eating healthier foods, getting eight hours sleep, cleaning the closets, and watching less television.

I haven’t yet made a life-improving resolution for the year. What’s been on my mind these last few weeks are the bad habits I and many writers develop that, if left uncorrected, will result in manuscripts loaded with words and expressions that do nothing to advance or enhance the plot. They slow the story and make reading the work a chore rather than a pleasure.

Here are a few habits I’m mindful to avoid when I’m working on a Veronica Walsh mystery.

A Big As Problem

Type “Writer’s Overused Words” in Google and the search engine will provide links for the four, eight, ten, or thirty (pick a number, any number) words most abused by writers. You will also find articles offering plenty of advice on how to strengthen your writing if you just stop using “just.”

A word I have been guilty of using too much is “as.” It took me a while to realize I overused this two-letter word that can be used as (there it is again) an adverb, conjunction, and preposition. “She said as. . .” “As I walked . . .” “As if . . .” “It was as good as . . .” It’s so easy to load up a manuscript with the vocabulary equivalent of diet soda. All filler, no substance.

Along with “as,” “that,” “just,” “really,” and “very” are words that will boost word count but glut a manuscript.

Just say no to them in a really loud voice.

Giving Adverbs the Heave Ho

Adverbs are another class of overused words and, according to every article I’ve read on writing no-no’s, the scourge of manuscripts everywhere. The bane of every editor’s existence.

So why were adverbs invented if we can’t use them to describe how a line of dialog is said, or how the heroine ran up the street? Who knows, but “She sprinted down Broadway” and “He screeched in my ear” are more effective than “She ran quickly” and “He said loudly.” Don’t you agree?

I’ve divorced the adverb from my writing life, though we see each other from time to time. Casually, of course.

Too Much Description Can Be a Bad Thing

Writers use descriptive language to bring characters to life, plop readers in the middle of a setting, and put objects integral to the plot in the readers’ hands. Description deftly applied will leave readers salivating over the plate of lasagna a character feasts on, longing for a visit to a fictional country estate (despite the murder that takes place there), and twitching their noses for a scent of the femme fatale’s enticing perfume.

A little bit of description goes a long way, though, doesn’t it? I think it’s good to leave some things to the reader’s imagination. Draw the sketch and let us color between the lines, right? Let’s take, for example, a dinner party at the aforementioned country estate. It’s important to give readers a mental picture of the gathering, but we don’t need a head-to-toe physical description of all fifteen characters in the room, the minute details of every item on the mantel, and what type of booze is in every glass. Talk about information overload!

Writers sometimes use description to increase word count, but too much will stop the flow of the narrative and lead readers to skipping the paragraphs, sometimes even pages, of the writer’s meticulous reporting.

Eyes All Over the Place

“And please be careful about a character dropping his or her eyes. They could get stepped on.”

Thanks to that remark by editor Deni Dietz (the fabulous lady who opened the door to Five Star Publishing for me), my characters glance, stare, and gaze at each other and their surroundings. Their eyes never lock, fall, or, yes, drop, on any person, place, or thing. I smile and think of Deni whenever I encounter hyperactive eyeballs in other writers’ work.

I wonder, though, if I could occasionally write, “Her eyes popped out of her head” or “His eyes fell on the alligator-skin boots the woman wore” without causing irreparable damage to a character’s body. Maybe at the end of a scene, when everyone’s stopped moving around and the eyeballs can be retrieved and replaced in the proper sockets?

Here’s to a great 2017 for us all. And for today I wish you a good Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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Warm Wishes To You

I wish you a Happy Hanukkah and a Merry Christmas! Enjoy every moment with family and friends, with festive days filled with joy, peace, and love. May your spirits be light and your hopes bright for the coming New Year.

 

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It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Does this post’s title have you humming the Christmas song of the same name, or covering year’s ears, screaming “I can’t take it anymore!”? Carols and songs can do that to people, particularly those whose workplace plays holiday tunes from the open of business to its end.

I grew up listening to my dad’s collection of his era’s popular performers – Doris Day, Perry Como, Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence, Gene Autry – singing Christmas classics. “Frosty the Snowman,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Their voices became the sounds of Christmas to me and, though I like modern versions of “Jingle Bells” and “Here Comes Santa Claus,” I’d rather have Mitch Miller and the Gang, Robert Goulet, and Rosemary Clooney keeping me company during my Christmas preparation.

Here are a few of my December favorites.

“O Come All Ye Faithful” – Whether sung by my church choir on Christmas morning or Bing Crosby, this carol always stirs my heart. A verse or two in Latin is a bonus for this Catholic school graduate who studied the ancient language for three years.

“Go Tell It On The Mountain” – Mahalia Jackson, of course.

“The Little Drummer Boy” – No matter the rendition – The New Christy Minstrels, The Harry Simeone Chorale, or Bing Crosby and David Bowie combo with Peace on Earth” – I love the solemnity of this song. It’s quiet, rhythmic, and brings me right to the manger to adore the Holy Family.

“Toyland” – I just have to hear the opening notes of this Doris Day song and I’m back in second grade, hanging ornaments on the tree and hoping Santa Claus will bring me a Mrs. Beasley doll (he did).

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” – I’ve never heard a version I didn’t like. Judy Garland (the first to sing it, in Meet Me In St. Louis), Rosemary Clooney, Linda Ronstadt, Chrissie Hynde, and Sara Hickman are just a few of the many artists who have recorded this beautiful song. Thank goodness lyricist Hugh Martin’s original lines were rejected by the Meet Me In St. Louis filmmakers: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.”

“I Believe In Father Christmas” – I fell in love with this song, written by Greg Lake and Peter Sinfield in protest of the commercialization of Christmas, when I was in college. Lake’s passing on December 7 makes the song’s lyric, “All anguish pain and sadness leave your heart and let your road be clear,” even more poignant.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” – All great sing-along songs, yes? My family might not agree when I’m the one leading the chorus.

What Christmas carols and songs do you sing, or maybe just hum, at this time of year? Or are you tired of the music already and have tuned in to talk radio until January 1?

 

 

 

 

 

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Thanksgiving Wishes

I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving! May you kick off the holiday season with a delicious feast and laughter and fun with family and friends (just don’t talk politics).

I’m grateful to all of you who follow this blog and my Facebook page. Thank you to those who joined my patch of cyberspace this year!

To the readers of Murder, by George, a hearty thank you for going along with Veronica and friends on her latest sleuthing adventure. I hope you enjoyed the story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

A blessed holiday to all!

 

 

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A Few More Reader Questions

Since my last post, the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series and the U.S. presidential race ended in astounding fashion. Holy cow! is all I have to say about both historical events.

Today I want to share a few more questions I fielded during my recent meetings with readers of the Veronica Walsh series.

What research do you do for a book? Thanks to Google, I’m able to quickly obtain answers to questions I have on subjects such as the Adirondack region, police procedure and terminology, and what exactly happens in the body when a person is struck in the head with a cast-iron skillet or stabbed in the neck with a cheese knife.

There is a character in Murder, by George who was arrested years before the time of the story. I was very set on what her misconduct was and did quite a bit of research looking for evidence that would support the presence of her fingerprints in the police database. I didn’t find the necessary backup, but that research led to another charge I filed against the character.

I’ve also spent time seeking information on issues I won’t disclose here because they figure prominently in my current writing project!

Do you ever have writer’s block? Oh, yes. Sometimes it’s more like writer’s indecision. Do I want this character to be the murderer, or that one? I can go back and forth on motive and means. When I hit a roadblock, a walk around the neighborhood often helps. Fresh air, sunshine, and the beauty of nature are wonderful aids in clearing and calming my mind. Other times, a break from writing for a day or two helps.

At times my problem is procrastination. I can’t explain why it’s hard for me to sit down and do something I love, but sometimes it is (I’ve heard this is a common problem for writers). I recently read a book, Get It Done: From Procrastination To Creative Genius In 15 Minutes A Day by Sam Bennett, that gave me terrific inspiration and helped me out of a rut. Ms. Bennett includes easy, fun exercises to help readers get going on their creative projects and see them through to completion. Bennett suggests giving ourselves fifteen minutes a day of daydreaming, doing a repetitive activity such as baking, folding laundry, or pitching pennies to stimulate the creative part of your brain. It works; I’ve talked my way through a few plot matters while spending my daydream minutes assembling a jigsaw puzzle.  I wholeheartedly recommend this book!

Do you read reviews? Yes. Not only professional reviews – Publishers WeeklyLibrary Journal and Kirkus Reviews – but also the critiques readers post on Amazon and Goodreads. I find readers’ opinions to be helpful, even the reviews that aren’t glowing. I like to know what parts of a story readers enjoy, what elements did and didn’t interest them, and their thoughts on the characters. I appreciate the time they give to reading my work and writing a review. When a criticism makes me yell “ouch!”, I remind myself that tastes differ and even classic novels and runaway bestsellers have received a share of one-star appraisals.

Do you have pets? The woman who asked the question pointed out that animals are popular characters in cozies. Dogs and cats have left their paw prints on the mystery scene, while amateur sleuths have also counted horses, birds, goats, and cows as members of their families and sometime detecting sidekicks.

My answer is no, I do not have a pet. Unless you count my imaginary dog, who doesn’t cost me one cent for food, Milk Bones, and pet insurance. And he’ll never die.

Though I don’t have a furry friend of my own, I do love animals, dogs in particular. I also enjoy the wild life that roams my backyard: squirrels, birds, chipmunks, stray cats, and deer. Yes, I feed them seed and stale bread, and last week I threw a sliced up jack o’lantern among the leaves for their munching delight. The squirrels feasted on the gourds. I bet some other creatures had their own chow down under the cover of darkness.

I never considered giving Veronica a pet; an animal character didn’t cross my mind when I was planning All Things Murder. Ideas for a new series are drifting around my brain; when I finally get the story on paper, my new protagonist will definitely have a dog. And he’ll look a lot like my imaginary canine.

Have a great week, everyone. Enjoy the finale of the beautiful fall foliage and the busy days before we have our Thanksgiving feasts.

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A Very Cozy Halloween

One of the aspects I love about cozy series is the opportunity they give readers to go through the seasons with the characters. Take a tour of your library’s mystery section and you will find books filled with murder and mayhem during Valentine’s week, Saint Patrick’s Day parties, July Fourth fireworks, Thanksgiving feasts, and Christmas festivities. Halloween, of course, lends itself well to stories with a sinister character or two.

Here are a few cozy reads that will get you in the Halloween spirit, or at least help you fall into the autumnal state of mind (pun intended).

A Roux of Revenge from Connie Archer’s Soup Lover’s Mystery series.

Halloween Hijinks, A Zoe Donovan Mystery by Kathi Daley.

A Hannah Swensen Mystery from Joanne Fluke, Fudge Cupcake Murder.

Here are two from Mary Daheim’s Bed-and-Breakfast series (one of my favorite authors and series): Silver Scream and  the Oktoberfest-themed The Wurst is Yet to Come.

Leslie Meier’s long-running Lucy Stone series offers three Halloween installments: Trick or Treat Murder, Wicked Witch Murder,  and Candy Corn Murder.

Livia J. Washburn offers up Murder by the Slice and Trick or Deadly Treat in her Fresh Baked series.

There’s also my Murder, by George, which is set in October and includes a wild and wicked costume ball, where a few secrets are revealed.

Have a spooktacular Halloween!

 

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How Veronica and Barton Came Into Being

As I mentioned in my last post, during my library visits I was asked how I came to choose a soap opera actress as the protagonist of my cozy series and why I placed her hometown in the Adirondacks.

I grew up watching soaps All My Children and General Hospital. I got hooked on Days of Our Lives  in college and post-school drifted over to One Life to Live. I became a sporadic viewer, but kept an eye on the goings on in the soap industry (the soap magazines at the supermarket checkout were great sources of information). I liked to know the comings and goings of the actors I watched as a kid and what was going on with their characters.

The soap world underwent a great upheaval around the time I was developing what became All Things Murder. Ratings declined, causing the cancellation of several shows and the firing of actors from other soaps due to budget cuts. By 2011, only four soap operas remained on air. I wondered what all the actors who lost their roles (some had played their parts for decades) would do. There certainly wasn’t room for all of them on the surviving soaps and very few, like Susan Lucci, made the move to prime time television.

I realized it would be fun to write about a soap actress turned amateur sleuth, and I thought having this character return to her hometown after losing her longtime role would be an interesting introduction to my cozy series.

This is how Veronica Walsh came into being. Equally important to having an engaging protagonist is the setting in which she is placed. The cozy hometown needs to be a place readers will want to visit again and again, just as viewers love to return to the soap opera towns of Port Charles, Pine Valley, and Genoa City.

A real place of escape inspired the setting for Veronica’s hometown of Barton. Many of my childhood summer vacations were spent at Lake George in New York’s gorgeous Adirondack mountains. I have many wonderful memories of the time my family has spent in Lake George, so when it came to choosing a place for Veronica to live, it was a no-brainer to plunk her fictional, idyllic village of Barton in the Adirondack neighborhood. Veronica’s already paid a visit to the real Lake George; in Murder, by George she and her friend take a memorable evening drive past the lake.

When I visited the Investigating Mysteries group at the New City Library, I was asked if I considered basing the series in my hometown. I didn’t (sorry – perhaps in the future!), in part because I enjoyed creating a whole village out of my imagination. Also, for All Things Murder plot purposes, Barton needed to be a distance from where Veronica’s career is based (the Adirondacks are a three-hour drive from New York City). Barton is Veronica’s place of escape and respite, a place to consider her future and recover her spirit after her own soap world collapses.

My hope is that readers will fall in love with both character and setting and continue to come back for more adventures in the Veronica Walsh mystery series!

Have a terrific week!

 

 

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Wednesday Event Cancelled

This is a short post to let you know that Wednesday’s reading at the Sloatsburg Public Library has been cancelled. If a visit is scheduled in the future, I’ll be sure to let you know!

Have a great week!

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A Wednesday Reading Plus How It All Began

My very mini library tour ends on Wednesday with a stop at the Sloatsburg (NY) Public Library. I’ll be reading a passage from Murder, by George and will answer questions from the audience. I paid a call to Sloatsburg last year for All Things Murder and enjoyed the evening very much. I look forward to this return visit!

The readers I met at the South Windsor and New City libraries posed interesting, informed questions about the Veronica Walsh mystery series, the publishing process, and, well, me. Recognizing material for future blog posts when I see it, I made a list of the questions. Today I’ll answer the first I was asked by both groups:

How did you become a cozy writer?

Though I enjoyed writing stories when I was a kid and took a Fiction Writing class in college to satisfy a Fine Arts requirement, I didn’t dream of being a writer when I “grew up.”

In the early 1990’s, I was stuck in a boring, routine job when an idea for a story (about two friends who fall in love – not very original, and the result wasn’t terrific) came to me one day. Then another idea came, and another, and I kept writing. I couldn’t not write. Writing became a source of fulfillment and happiness and, over time, I developed a strong desire for an audience.

Fast forward to the late 2000’s and a story I wrote about the theft of a letter written by George Washington. In one rejection letter I received, an agent stated that the book was a cozy mystery. I liked the phrase, but I didn’t think of my murder-free story as a mystery. After Googling “cozy mystery” (or did I Yahoo it?), I paid a trip to my library, took a tour of the mystery section, and checked out Carrot Cake Murder, from Joanne Fluke’s bestselling Hannah Swensen series.

I ate it up, so to write.

I started catching up on Fluke’s series, while also discovering the work of Mary Daheim, Karen MacInerney, Ralph McInerny, and M.C. Beaton. Recalling the Bobbsey Twins books I read as a child, I realized I loved all things cozy. I enjoyed the mysteries, the characters, and the series aspect of the genre (though it was the work of non-mystery author Jan Karon that first sparked my desire to create a series).

Once I had found my writing niche, I focused on creating the characters, setting, and mystery that would become All Things Murder.

I’ll tell you more about that later – stay tuned!

 

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My Home Away From Home

Tomorrow evening I will meet with the Investigating Mysteries book group at the New City (New York) Free Library. If you’re in the area, please join us to talk about the first Veronica Walsh mystery, All Things Murder.

I’m particularly excited about this visit, for this is my lifelong home library. I have an early memory of sitting on the floor in the library’s children’s section, pulling picture books off the bottom shelf and contentedly thumbing through them. In my grammar school days, the library was located in a small, one-floor building across the street from the school. I recall many afternoons spent there, doing homework, research for a class paper, or simply wandering the aisles, looking at the books. Whether I was working on a science fair project, history paper, or geography report, the library always had what I needed to complete the assignment.

When I was in the eighth grade, the library relocated to its current home farther north on Main Street. On my first visit, I was awestruck by the size, more than triple in space than its former home, with thousands of books filling shelves across three floors. It was spectacular, though I have to admit I missed the cozy little library across from school. Whenever I pass the building, now a plastic surgery center, I remember my after-school visits and the place that helped me become the person I am today.

Thanks to a dedicated, talented staff, the New City library continues to serve our community very well. From stocking the latest bestsellers and new DVDs, providing free tax help to senior citizens, serving as a gallery for local artists, and offering programs on everything from genealogy to chair yoga, the library nurtures residents, both those who are just starting to read and those who have been doing it for decades.

Have a great week, everyone, and remember, if you live near the New City library, come investigate a mystery with us tomorrow night!

 

 

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