Writing Powerful and Evocative Settings

Guest Blogger: Allison Brennan

Tonight, I’m touring famous Los Angeles crime scenes with none other than James Ellroy.

The talented and intriguing Ellroy has a new show with the Discovery Channel called L.A.: City of Demons that premieres January 19. I was thrilled to be invited on a bus tour hosted by Ellroy himself (author of THE BLACK DAHLIA), along with a few other writers and bloggers and press types. I am very excited!

I’m never truly at a loss for ideas—they are everywhere, but mostly in my head. Everywhere, because I’m pulling in information all around me, from who I meet to what I see to what I read in the news. I don’t consciously think when I see a news story that I want to write about it, but I absorb it and when a variety of different snippets of information merge together in my head, a story idea pops out—often without me consciously thinking about it.

I’ve always found setting the hardest part of writing. My descriptions tend to be simple and functional—I personally don’t like reading long narrative about what a room looks like or what a character is wearing. If my character is driving through a wealthy neighborhood, it seems sufficient to me to write, “She drove through an affluent neighborhood with established trees and long driveways.” If it’s important that she drove through the neighborhood in the first place.

At the same time, I know that atmosphere is crucial especially in suspense. To be able to drive through some of these crime scenes with Ellroy at the helm talking about what happened, the visual plus auditory stimulation will be awesome. I’ll still write brief descriptions—because that’s part of my writer’s voice—but I hope to make those descriptions more powerful and evocative by experiencing setting myself.

As a full-time writer, I do a lot of research. A few years ago, I participated in the FBI Citizens Academy in Sacramento. The 8-week course has been one of the highlights of my many research excursions. Every week we had new speakers, from our ninth district U.S. Attorney to FBI SWAT to experts across all FBI squads.

It’s easy to research Quantico—the FBI’s training academy on the Quantico Marine Base—there is a wealth of information on the FBI website. And the Media Relations agent distributed DVDs of their recruiting video, so we can visually see what new agents go through during their 21-week training.

But nothing was as helpful to me as going to Quantico myself, walking through the halls, walking through Hogan’s Alley, eating in the cafeteria, sitting in the auditorium where they hold the graduation ceremony—experiencing a day in the life of an FBI recruit was far more helpful to me, as a writer, than reading about Quantico, or even talking to those who’d gone through the program.

Lucy Kincaid, the main character of my new series, dreams of being an FBI agent. Everything she’s done in the last six years has led her to where she is today—waiting to hear from the FBI if her application has been accepted. Her sister-in-law Kate teaches at Quantico, and her “office”—essentially a room full of computers and equipment because Kate’s a cybercrimes instructor—is based on a room I glanced in while on my Quantico tour. I don’t know if the room was used in part as an office, but I could imagine that a computer guru might feel more comfortable there with all the machines than in a typical office.

Before Lucy ends up at Quantico herself, I hope to return. I have more questions and more places I want to see—like I didn’t get into a dorm room, and that’s a must next time.

Though I’m traveling today, I’ll have computer access on and off and I’ll pop in several times if anyone has any questions! (I love Q&A.) But I want to ask, what do you think of setting? How much or how little do you like in your romantic thrillers?

Two commenters will win a complete, signed FBI Trilogy: SUDDEN DEATH, FATAL SECRETS and CUTTING EDGE. So even if you don’t have a question, say Hi!  Thank you again, Janice, for letting me spend the day with you and your crew!

Allison Brennan is the NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY bestselling author of fifteen romantic thrillers. LOVE ME TO DEATH launches her Lucy Kincaid series. She lives in northern California with her husband and five children.

Be sure to check out Allison’s latest thriller LOVE ME TO DEATH, on sale now, and leave a comment to win her signed FBI Trilogy. Winners picked on 1/11/11.


It’s a Wonderful Life

Guest Blogger: Wendy Corsi Staub

Christmas was, in my small-town childhood, everything it’s supposed to be. It was a Hallmark flurry of family, friends, Santa, church, parties, lights and decorations, sledding and skating, giving and receiving gifts, baking cookies, volunteering our time and giving to charity, watching annual TV specials together, perpetually hearing carols on the piano, stereo, and car radio.

And then there was the snow. Having grown up in southwestern New York’s blizzard belt, I remember white Decembers, always. Reeeeeeeeally white. As in, three or four feet — sometimes more — of white. When I reminisce about childhood Christmases, it’s like peering at a festive scene through a swirling snow globe.

The celebration always began Thanksgiving Day, when my father drove the long way from one set of grandparents’ house to the other (for our second meal) in order to see the candy cane lamppost decorations lit up along Central Avenue. No school the next morning, and we kids were up early to stack the stereo spindle with our collection of vinyl albums (Perry Como, Bing, Barbra, and our favorite: The Partridge Family). The merriment lasted through New Year’s Day, when my parents came home from a night of dancing to serve a wee-hour breakfast to a houseful of friends, then managed to get us all to my grandparents’ house by noon for their once-a-year homemade egg pasta.

White candles in the windows, seafood on Christmas Eve, incense at midnight mass. Taking turns opening gifts in chaotic living rooms crammed with wrapping paper and homemade cookie platters and people and noise. Milk spilled, candle wax dripped and hardened on tablecloths. There were instantly broken toys, toys without batteries, unassembled toys that were impossible to put together. Toddling cousins tripped, toppled.  China teetered. Teetotalers tippled. There was caroling. There was, of course, plenty of snow. There was love — plenty of that, too.

Now I live with my husband and children in the New York City suburbs more than four hundred miles from my hometown. We’ve kept all those holiday traditions alive and embraced countless new ones with our sons, so that they cherish the season as much as I did growing up, and still do, to this day.

Yes, it’s hectic and expensive and cluttered and there is too little sleep and too much to do—especially this year, amid the stress of writing the final chapter of my latest manuscript and embarking on a book tour as my new thriller, SCARED TO DEATH (Avon Books), hits stores on December 28.  But it’s a wonderful life and I’m blessed to have so much to celebrate. I wish all of you the perfect blend of peace and joy this season, and I hope to see some of you as I hit the road next week. For my tour stops and to read more about my latest thriller, visit my website here.

Bestselling author of more than seventy novels Wendy Corsi Staub has penned multiple New York Times bestselling adult thrillers and more than two dozen young adult titles under her own name. Her latest bestseller, LIVE TO TELL (Avon, March 2010) received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  The book is the first in a trilogy, to be continued with SCARED TO DEATH and HELL TO PAY. Her young adult series, LILY DALE, has been optioned for television by Freemantle Entertainment.

As Wendy Markham, she’s a USA Today bestselling author of chick lit and romance, including her most recent title, THE BEST GIFT (Signet, November 2009).  Industry awards include a Romance Writers of America Rita, three Westchester Library Association Washington Irving Awards for Fiction, the RWA-NYC Golden Apple for Lifetime Achievement and the RT Bookreviews Career Achievement Award in Suspense.

Wendy lives in suburban NYC with her husband and children.

Ready – Set – Action!

Guest Blogger: Karen Dionne

I love action. Not in real life. In real life, I’m a writer, which means I spend 90% of my day sitting in front of my computer. Oh, once in a while I get up, stretch a little, put on my shoes, and walk out to the mailbox to see if the mailman happened to drop off a royalty check. Or I head into the kitchen for a drink of water or a cup of coffee and a cookie. But that’s about as exciting as my life gets.

Still, I love action. I love watching it on TV or on the big screen, and I love reading it. Give me a heart-thumping chase scene over an introspective walk in the woods any day. Too much exposition in a novel, too much description, too many paragraphs and pages going on and on about chaos theory, and I start flipping pages. (Sorry, Michael. Much as I loved Jurassic Park, I’m pretty sure I actually read only 3/4s of the book.)

I also love writing action. As a thriller writer, I get to blow things up. Burn things down. Maim, terrorize, and destroy. Get all the meanness out of my system and onto the page.

Action scenes are fun to write. There’s no lengthy introspection, no character development, no scene-setting or descriptions – just short, declarative sentences that propel the reader through the scene:

Her foot caught. She pulled. Pulled again. Looked up. Phillipe and Ross were still at the edge of the waterfall, still hanging on. She pulled again, reached beneath the water with one hand and jerked at the boot lace. The knot held, the lace wet and swollen. She pulled again, ripped at the knot. Tore her fingernails. Didn’t care.

Action verbs are exciting all on their own. Nobody runs – they dash, sprint, dart, spurt, race and tear through the scenes.

Action scenes are also the only time an author can indulge in what would normally be an appalling overuse of em-dashes and exclamation points:

Phillipe – Ross – struggling in the water – the hot, hot water – boiling up her ankles, her legs, her thighs – the helicopter ladder dangling the rescue sling – but Ross – Phillipe – they were in trouble – they needed her –

“Go!” Ross screamed as he struggled to hold on to her stepfather. “Grab the cable! We’re right behind you! Go – go – go!!”

“Sheila!” Rebecca screamed. “Hurry!”

But action is so much more than superficial wham-bam. If that’s all there was to it, then watching the roadrunner chase the coyote off a cliff would be as gripping as watching “Inception” or James Bond.

The reason action scenes get the heart thumping is not because they’re exciting. It’s because the reader cares about the characters.

Back when I was working on my first novel, that understanding hadn’t yet become clear. Three-quarters of the way through the book, I got stuck on a scene where my characters were drifting in a small, engineless boat toward a huge waterfall (no, not the same waterfall in the excerpts above – apparently, those Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” stories about people going over Niagara Falls in a barrel made a deep impression on me when I was a child). No matter how I tried writing the scene, it felt artificial and cheesy. I knew the characters weren’t going to die, and since this scene took place three-quarters of the way through the book and these were the principal characters, I knew the reader would know the characters weren’t going to die, either. It all felt contrived and silly.

The one day, I suddenly realized that the characters didn’t know they weren’t going to die. It seems obvious now, but at the time, it was a revelation. I put myself in the characters’ heads, imagined the events as they were experiencing and feeling them, and the scene practically popped of the page.

Inadvertently, I’d discovered the key to writing a compelling action sequence. It’s not the short sentences or the strong action verbs or the exclamation points that carry the scene. It’s the emotion. Fear. Anxiety. Terror. Apprehension. Desperation. It’s us sitting in our comfortable armchairs feeling what the characters feel as they drift inexorably toward that waterfall that raises our adrenalin level. We’re not reading. We’re sitting beside them in the boat.

And that’s why I love action.

How about you? Why do you love reading or writing action?

Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of Freezing Point, a science thriller nominated by RT Book Reviews as Best First Mystery of 2008. Her second environmental thriller, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming, finishes with a 40-page action sequence that takes place in the caldera of an erupting volcano.

Operation Thriller USO Tour

I felt honored when I was recently approached by the International Thriller Writers to write a summary of the Operation Thriller USO Tour. Here’s a link to the article. This was the first author tour in the USO’s 69-year history. As I virtually experienced the tour through the pieces the authors wrote for the Huffington Post, I felt like I was there with the authors who participated (Steve Berry, Andy Harp, David Morrell, Douglas Preston, and James Rollins). Even before I was asked to write the article, I posted information on Facebook in anticipation of the tour and also posted links to the authors’ dispatches from the tour because I wholeheartedly endorsed what these authors were doing to support the troops.

When I wrote my article, I felt it was important for the piece to be more than a play-by-play of where the authors went, who they met, and what they saw. I wanted to convey the heart of the tour, the emotions of the authors—five of the most generous and caring people I’ve ever met—and the service men and service women they visited. You can read my article by clicking here.

Here are links to the Huffington Post articles written by the authors who participated in the tour:
Day One: David Morrell
Day Two: James Rollins
Day Three:  Steve Berry
Day Four:  Douglas Preston
Day Five: Andy Harp
Day Six:  David Morrell

Here’s links to the authors’ posts on Larry King Live:

Operation Thriller: The Images Remain Vivid by Steve Berry

Operation Thriller: It All Started with a Conversation by Andy Harp

Operation Thriller: Real Life ‘Rambo’ by David Morrell

Operation Thriller: We Met the Real Heroes by Douglas Preston

Operation Thriller: There and Back Again by James Rollins

Best of Bouchercon

I hit up a bunch of authors and other publishing professionals who attended Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, for a bit of writing wisdom they took away from the con. Here’s what they had to say:

BRAD PARKS—If you’re going to take writing advice from anyone, might as well be Michael Connelly—I can’t think of anyone with 20-plus books to his name who is still so consistently outstanding. When asked by Gregg Hurwitz the most important characteristic for a writer to have, Connelly offered just one word: “Relentlessness.” It’s a pretty good word for those of us well short of 20, too.

JEN FORBUS—Enthusiasm and a positive attitude are contagious; they can make all the difference.

CARLA BUCKLEY—I loved my first Bouchercon! Not only was it great to see my author buddies and meet readers, but I got to do the fan thing with some of my longtime heroes. For example, Sara Paretsky offered up an interesting take on managing suspense by saying she always follows a moment of conflict with a moment of relief. Otherwise, unrelenting conflict grows wearisome and has no effect.

GREGG HURWITZ—I learned one should never knock over one’s glass of bourbon onto one’s keyboard.

REED FARREL COLEMAN—Writing wisdom…hmmm. As I teach writing, it’s usually me imparting my wisdom to students. I can give you a line I usually impart to people asking for my advice. That line is: “Fall in love with writing, not with what you’ve written.” To explain, I believe new writers tend to hold too firmly to their early work instead of seeing their early work as part of a growth experience. Even the most talented writers have issues to work through. The more you write, the sooner you work through those issues.

ALAFAIR BURKE—I was reminded once again that writers like Michael Connelly and Lee Child have worked their asses off to get as good as they are. I also learned that turning 41 at Bouchercon while wearing a tiara and boa on the dance floor is pretty fun.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN—The jam-packed “Lunch with Declan Hughs and John ConnollyTen Crime Novels You Must Read Before You Die” panel was intimidatingly fascinating—and I have the whole list if anyone wants it! But as they discussed Hammett and Chandler and Highsmith, I wrote down these phrases from John or Declan: “A twist should be a revelation, not just a twist.” “A detective has a criminal’s mind.” “The characters are telling you the story.” And “Is this reality? Or is it just what I see?” It’s not “writing wisdom” in the form of a “do-this” instruction, but each of those things really got my brain going.

MICHELLE GAGNON—My favorite part was Lee Goldberg’s comment about the impending “tsunami of swill” in the ebook panel, and the fact that not every author should count on an early retirement thanks to Kindle sales of their books. He made some excellent points, especially with regard to the importance of solid editing and that the authors doing well in that format by and large had already developed an audience through traditional publishing.

BRUCE DESILVA—It was an honor for this new novelist to appear on a panel, and the panels I attended were great; but the best part of my first Bouchercon was the hallway and bar conversations with fellow writers—some of whom I’d developed online friendships with but never met face to face. I’ll never forget chatting with the great Daniel Woodrell about the importance of sense of place in crime fiction. It’s something I worked hard at with “Rogue Island,” and Woodrell is a true master. 

TASHA ALEXANDER—The main thing I learned at Bouchercon is something I’m reminded of at nearly every conference—there will never be enough time to read all the books. I’ve always believed there’s nothing better an author can do to improve her craft than read voraciously and across genres.

OLINE COGDILL—I think my favorite Bouchercon moment was the energy that was at every panel. I have felt that since Madison, there has been a renewed energy at Bouchercon. That, and having Lee Child and Laurie King remember who I am. And seeing how gracious John Connolly was to my brother in law, Peter; making a special point of coming over and saying hi to him.

MEREDITH COLE—Bouchercon 2010 was a blur of delightful encounters for me. One of the highlights of this year was having brunch with the members of my blog. Except for Kelli Stanley, I had not met Shane Gericke, Tracy Kiely, Joshua Corin, Michael Wiley or Rebecca Cantrell before. I knew them only from their witty writing and funny comments on-line. Not surprisingly, they were all hilarious and tons of fun to hang out with. And they were all so full of positive, creative energy. Spending time with all of them inspired me to keep stretching myself in new directions and fit even more writing into my daily life. I needed the reminder that the kitchen floor can wait to be mopped, but my latest book idea needs to be tackled right away.

Meet the Contributors:

Brad Parks’ first novel, FACES OF THE GONE, is the winner of the 2010 Shamus Award for Best First Novel and has been shortlisted for the Nero Award. The Dartmouth College graduate spent a dozen years as a reporter for THE WASHINGTON POST and THE NEWARK STAR-LEDGER and is now a full-time novelist. EYES OF THE INNOCENT, the next Carter Ross novel, releases February 1, 2011, and the third and fourth books in the series are also written and awaiting publication.

Jen Forbus is a book blogger who has a special love of crime fiction.  She reviews and mystery and crime and interviews authors, and more at Jen’s Book Thoughts.

Carla Buckley is the author of THE THINGS THAT KEEP US HERE. Her next novel will be published in 2011.

Gregg Hurwitz is the critically acclaimed, internationally bestselling author of  ten novels, including  THEY’RE WATCHINGTRUST NO ONE, THE CRIME WRITER, and LAST SHOT. His books have been nominated for numerous awards, shortlisted for best novel of the year by International Thriller Writers, nominated for CWA’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, chosen as feature selections for all four major literary book clubs, honored as Book Sense Picks, and translated into eighteen languages.

Reed Farrel Coleman has published twelve novels—two under his pen name Tony Spinosa—in three series, and one stand-alone with award-winning Irish author Ken Bruen. His books have been translated into seven languages. He is a three-time winner of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year. He has also received the Barry and Anthony Awards, and has been twice nominated for the Edgar® Award.

Alafair Burke is the author of the NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and the Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid crime series. Her books include, 212, ANGEL’S TIP, and DEAD CONNECTION.

Hank Phillippi Ryan is an Agatha, Anthony and Macavity award-winning mystery author and an investigative reporter for 7News (NBC) in Boston. Her books in the Charlotte McNally mystery series include, DRIVE TIME, AIR TIME, FACE TIME and PRIME TIME.

Michelle Gagnon’s novels have been published in North America, France, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Australia. Her books include, KIDNAP & RANSOM, THE GATEKEEPER, THE BONEYARD, and THE TUNNELS.

Bruce DeSilva worked as a journalist for 40 years before retiring to write crime novels full time. At the Associated Press, he served as the writing coach, responsible for training the wire service’s reporters and editors worldwide. Publishers Weekly hails ROGUE ISLAND as one of the ten best debut novels of 2010.


Oline Cogdill is a mystery fiction critic whose reviews are picked up by more than 250 publications around the world, including Publishers Weekly and Mystery Scene Magazine.

Meredith Cole was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Mystery Novel for POSED FOR MURDER. Her second book, DEAD IN THE WATER, came out in May 2010.

The Fascination With Good Vs Evil in Storytelling

For WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE, we interviewed tons of experts aboutthe struggle of good vs evil in film, comics, pop culture, world myth, literature, and the real world. Here’s what some of them have to say about why people are so fascinated with storytelling about good vs evil?

DOUG SCHOONER—People are fascinated by stories of good and evil because of our desires to feel and be all the things we are not, and also to believe that we have the power to save as well as be saved. We like to feel the things that a good story can give us. It enhances our imaginations and aspires us to dream, to go beyond what we have previously known.

BRIAN PATRICK O’TOOLE—Every story needs a hero and a villain, whether it’s in a novel, a film, a religious sermon or just office gossip. The battle between good and evil is the essence of all storytelling. As an audience, we need someone to root for and someone to hate. There’s an old saying that God and the Devil can’t exist if one goes away. So there will always be the “good” looking for someone to “hate”. Good vs. Evil is the story structure of Life. Fascination with this life view turns dangerous when zealots take the concept off the page or silver screen and apply it to their own personal agendas. Good and Evil are also a matter of opinion and sometimes it’s the opinions of the wrong people that are the only ones heard and followed. The corruption of good by evil is also fascinating in storytelling because it gives the audience a chance to view redemption and hopefully take that into their everyday lives.

RICHARD MYLES—I think that people are fascinated with storytelling about good and evil because it helps us to deal with their own belief, disbelief, insecurities, affiliations, and fears of the unknown. Anything that is enigmatic, people tend to probe and question its’ origins, purpose, and destination to seek comfort.

DOUG JONES—Good and evil battle it out in our hearts every day. Watching or reading fantasy stories where these forces have names and faces inspires us to go back home and finish that battle of our own.

AMBER BENSON—The battle human beings wage between good and evil goes on into perpetuity, but a book or film dealing with that subject has a resolution. I think that can be very appealing to people. It shrinks something huge and overwhelming down into a more palatable size.

MELISSA BACELAR—I think people struggle with Good and Evil everyday. It’s part of being human and having the ability to make choices. It could be as simple as having the salad as opposed to the grilled cheese and french fries. But its good vs evil. Watching a movie, especially one that involves extreme good and evil makes us feel better about our little “evil” choices. My Mom would always tell me misery likes company. I think one of the downfalls of the human race is enjoying other peoples failures.  That is what I think the fascination is. Enjoying that someone else is MORE EVIL than we are.

MONIQUE DUPREE:  I think the reason why people are so fascinated with this is because of their own struggles of good vs evil within themselves. We all hold the power to do good and evil. Some people live vicarious through television & film others, well that’s another story.

RUBY ROCKET—Good versus evil is something that plays out every day. Often times it’s not as evident as it is in the movies and we can become frustrated by it, though. Seeing it laid out so plainly in movies offers us a sense of relief and hope. We always hope that good will prevail and I think seeing that played out on screen helps us basically cope with the evils of the every day.

DOUGLAS CLEGG—It is the duality we bring into life as human beings. The world itself is not about good and evil. It’s about creation and destruction and new creation from the destruction itself. It is a constantly changing world that keeps cycling on and on without regard to human values.

But the human perspective is that some things are good and some are evil—and it’s virtually impossible to get away from this, but the problem is defining the evil versus the good.

Human life is inherently contradictory.

The nature of what is evil seems to be very human in form: we create monsters from our minds.

Ultimately, we have the monster within us.

And this always makes for good reading.

Meet the Experts:

Doug Schooner is an artist who also plays guitar and writes.

Brian Patrick O’Toole is a screenwriter and independent producer whose works include Dog Soldiers and Cemetery Gates. He writes the monthly Horrorcade column for Fangoria magazine.

Richard Myles is Co-Executive Producer for Viper Productions, LLC , Mental Scars, LLC, and Viper Productions’ DEADZONE Magazine. His classic horror film Mental Scars was released in 2009.

Doug Jones is an actor who plays ‘Abe Sapien’ in the Hellboy films, among other works.

Amber Benson played ‘Tara’ on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and is the author of Death’s Daughter and Cat’s Claw (Ace Books).

Melissa Bacelar is an actress, model, producer and animal activist.  You can see her pictorials and film credits at www.MelissaBacelar.com

Monique Gata DuPree is a scream queen and star of SHADOWHUNTERS 2: ORIA and BACHELOR PARTY IN THE BUNGALOW OF THE DAMNED.

Ruby Rocket (aka Ruby Young) is an actress, model, and seamstress who can often be found portraying her favorite superheroes at comic book and other conventions.

Douglas Clegg is the award-winning author of more than 20 novels, including Isis, Neverland, The Priest of Blood and others. His fiction has won the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild and Shocker Awards

For more on the struggle between good vs. evil, check out WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE by New York Times best-selling and multiple Bram Stoker award winning author Jonathan Maberry and Janice Gable Bashman. It includes interviews with folks like Stan Lee, Mike Mignola, Jason Aaron, Fred Van Lente, Peter Straub, Charlaine Harris and many more; and the book is fully illustrated by top horror, comics & fantasy artists

Rooting for the Monster

Guest Blogger: Sophie Littlefield

Thanks for having me, Janice! I am so intrigued by the work you and  Jonathan Maberry do in your book (WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE), where you examine the age-old good versus evil theme in fiction.

I’ve thought a lot about the concept of evil in monsters. My dad was a huge Boris Karloff fan, and as kids we got to watch the old monster movies with him when they showed reruns on Saturday nights. Dad always took the side of the monster. He loved the lurching, confused Frankenstein and always protested his innocence.

The swamp thing, the mummy, the wolf man, King Kong – all could be argued to be innocent, doomed creatures, unleashed or provoked by their human facilitators and manipulators to wreak havoc.

Maybe that was in my mind when I wrote the zombies in BANISHED. They were only a tiny part of the plot in the first draft of the novel, but my editors thought it would be interesting to explore them further and give them a bigger presence.Banished

My zombies are created as a result of a healing gone wrong, so they are “innocent”. Their soul departs, so they aren’t really people any more in any meaningful sense, but I thought there was still something wistful and poignant about a body – the earthly form of a person once loved and cherished – that, lacking will, could do nothing but follow orders until it literally disintegrated.

They’re quite horrible, of course, and it was kind of fun to write the scenes of dread and mayhem – pure, campy horror. But I also thought a lot about the double tragedy of my zombies’ not being allowed a dignified death, and then being forced by circumstances to commit unspeakable acts they did not even understand. I often found myself thinking back to poor old Frankenstein, and the 1970’s split level basement where I and my brother and sister and my dad and the family dog shared a big bowl of popcorn and cheered for the monster.

Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri and attended college in Indiana. She worked in technology before having children, and was lucky enough to stay home with them when they were growing up. Fifteen years into a writing “hobby,” she landed an agent and made it her full-time job. Her first novel, A BAD DAY FOR SORRY, was nominated for an Edgar Award and won an RT BookReviews Reviewers Choice Award. Her young adult novel, BANISHED, will be released by Delacorte in October 2010.

What monsters grabbed your heart?

She’s such a character!

Guest Blogger:  Alan Jacobson

Nearly every interview I’ve done the past three years has included at least this question: you’re a guy and your main character’s a female. (Then the question takes on various iterations.) What the heck? Why? What were you thinking? (Or my favorite:) How do you do a woman so well?

Some writers are taught to create their characters as if they were filling out a form for their doctor’s office. Here are the blanks; fill them in and presto, you’ll have your character. What color does she like? What’s her favorite food? Where does she go for coffee? And so on.

I’ve never done that—but if you’re one of the writers who does fill out such forms—if it works for you, keep doing it. For me, there’s little correlation between listing nuances about my character’s preferences and my ability to create a compelling individual with depth and credibility the reader will care about.

My main character, the first female FBI profiler, Karen Vail, came to me one day when I was writing a scene for an unpublished novel. I had not planned her. She wasn’t part of my outline. She just emerged from my fingertips—and blew me away. I realized right then that I would have to write an entire novel featuring her as the main character. At the time I was in the midst of two years of study and research with the FBI Behavioral Analysis (profiling) Unit in Quantico. I had profiling on the brain, living and breathing it in an attempt to get a handle on it to such an extent that I felt I could create a compelling story—with believable and credible characters. Still, at that point, I had not yet met the real female profiler. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I was shocked when she walked in the room a few weeks later. The real woman bore an uncanny resemblance to my fictional Vail: a redheaded, sarcastic, tough woman who was very skilled at what she did.

I did not finish writing The 7th Victim until five years later. And though it was a long slog through the minds of serial killers and behavioral analysts, I don’t regret any of the time it took me to build up my knowledge base to the point where I was able to write the novel that The 7th Victim ultimately became (named one of Library Journal’s top five best books of the year).

Oddly enough, the first 75 pages of The 7th Victim were written not just by a male writing as a woman. I wrote them in the first person. My agent, however, told me that because I’d written my first two published novels in the third person, I would “confuse my readers.” She wanted me to start over. I was frustrated because this was some of the best writing I’d ever done—and this is how Karen Vail came to me. I didn’t know if her personality would come through the same way if I changed point of view.

But my agent was the industry professional with all the experience, so I followed her advice—sort of. Bizarre, but true: I used the Find/Replace feature in Microsoft Word and replaced all the I’s with She’s and My’s with Hers, etc. I then sat back and read the first few paragraphs. I was mesmerized. I’d created a new “Karen Vail point of view,” which was third person with a first person sensibility. It brought the reader very close to Vail.

I liked it so much that I wrote the rest of The 7th Victim that way—and when my publisher told me that Vail “had to be” a series character because of the terrific response they’d received, I wrote Crush (last year’s release) and Velocity (just released on 10/5) with the same point of view.

So what does this mean about character creation? If the creative juices are flowing, follow your instincts and give yourself the freedom to go with it and see where it takes you. Many times characters are composites of people we know. That’s not my preference, either, though I have done it once or twice. My characters come from who they are as people, how they respond to the story’s actions, how they deal with the consequences of their actions and the actions of others in the story. But I always know who they are as people.

In Crush, although I had the basic story fully outlined before I started writing, there was one thing I did not know: Vail’s chemistry with her task force partner, Roxxann Dixon. (Again, a woman—what’s gotten into me?) When Dixon walked into the room and Vail took a look at her, I instantly knew who Roxxann Dixon was: she was an attractive blonde who was into working out and who had a strong relationship with some of the men on the task force. In some sense, she was the anti-Vail—on the surface. Deep down, however, they’d had a lot of similar challenges in their lives, and they built a common bond based on that. Rather than becoming rivals, as it appeared would happen in that first scene, they became close friends and confidants. Their relationship was so stimulating for me as the writer that it took on a life of its own. I can’t imagine having written Crush with Vail’s partner being someone else.

One of the best parts about writing a series character is being able to explore new sides of that person in future adventures. In Velocity, for instance, we see a very different Karen Vail than we did in Crush; in Crush, Vail’s in a new environment—the Napa Valley—and knows nothing about wine except that she likes it. But learning about the industry ultimately becomes a key for her in working the case. But in Velocity, she’s driven because of what’s at stake—and it’s deeply personal. I actually wrote a vision statement for Vail before I started writing Velocity. I’d never done that before. But it came to me, so I started typing. It focused solely on the emotions behind what Vail was feeling. And when I finished the novel, I realized that Vail had emerged from my fingertips exactly how I’d envisioned her. Publisher’s Weekly picked up on it, as did Library Journal and almost every Velocity reviewer that I’ve read thus far. We see an edgier Vail, but one who also has a heart, despite her take-no-prisoners attitude.

I guess the point is this: character creation is not a science, it’s an art. You can fill out all the forms you want, but if it doesn’t give you a sense of who that person is, deep down, emotionally—not colors and food favorites—you don’t really have a character that you, the writer, can confuse at times with a real person. If you sometimes forget that your characters aren’t real people, you’ve succeeded. You, the writer, has to find what works for you. No two people think alike. No two creative people create alike. What works for me may not work for you. Find what works for you and do it. Again, and again. Because if you’ve got an engaging main character, everything else will follow. Including success.

One last unrelated thought: One of the FBI profilers I’ve worked with now for almost 18 years co-wrote a personal safety booklet with me. It’s totally free—and vitally important for you and your loved ones, men, women, teens, children. Get it at www.AlanJacobson.com. Stay safe.

Do you have an unusual story as to how you created a character? Let us know!


ALAN JACOBSON is the national bestselling author of the critically acclaimed thrillers Velocity, Crush, The 7th Victim, The Hunted, and False Accusations. Alan has a degree in English and a doctorate in chiropractic medicine. Both The 7th Victim and a forthcoming thriller, Hard Target, are under development as major feature films. A native New Yorker, Alan migrated to California, where he now cracks spines of a different sort.

Where Do I Write?

Guest Blogger: Bekka Black

Thanks, Janice, for giving me a place to talk about writing on the week that my latest novel, iDrakula, is released from the coffin and into the world. Coffins would be a tough place to write. No light.

When I write, I do need light. And some peace. But not too much. I grew up with four siblings and it seems like even now we constantly have house guests or extras around. So, I like to write anywhere that no one is poking me, talking to me, waving their arms, sitting on my hands while I type (you know how you are), talking loudly on the phone, asking for food, handing me papers to sign, standing around with bandaids or pressing medical issues, or just in general expecting me to interact with them. This means I usually need to leave the house.

The good news: I can write any place I’m not being actively bothered. I’ve written outside at my blue desk staring at the ocean, at cafes, in airplanes, in airports, on friends’ couches, at the beach, in the closet, in a snow cave (that one’s hard to do for very long), on the subway, and in the bathroom at night (hotel room with roommates). I started iDrakula on a plane and wrote most of it in my bedroom with headphones on and my husband pushing flat food under the door for me to eat.iDracula

Right now I mostly write at Starbucks. I put on my headphones, sip my chai, and drink up the air conditioning. I like to write where it’s chilly enough to need a light jacket or a long-sleeved shirt. In Hawaii, that’s not easy. I like to write in the corner with my back against the wall so no vampires can sneak up on me. I like to go out into the bright, warm sunshine when I’m finished so that I can remember that, as real as it seemed while I was writing it, I actually made it all up and the real world is much warmer and fuzzier and gentler (yes, I know that’s not really true, but it’s what I like to think, so don’t burst my bubble).

My favorite place to write: from deep inside my head, from that place where you can’t hear any noises no matter how loud they are, where you don’t notice people walking by, where you don’t even realize that time is passing. As long as no one pokes me, I can get there almost any where. On good days.

How about you? How do you get to the magic place?

About Bekka Black: After a childhood often spent without electricy and running water, Bekka escaped the beautiful wilderness of Talkeetna, Alaska for indoor plumbing and 24/7 electricity in Berlin, Germany. Used to the cushy lifestyle, she discovered the Internet in college and has been wasting time on it ever since (when not frittering away her time on her iPhone). Somehow, she manages to write novels, including the award-winning Hannah Vogel mystery series set, in all places, 1930s Berlin. The series has received numerous starred reviews and the first book, A Trace of Smoke, was chosen as a Writer’s Digest Notable debut.She lives in Hawaii with her husband, son, two cats, and too many geckoes to count. iDrakulais her first cell phone novel.

Picking Favorites

Guest Blogger: J.T. Ellison

At nearly every event I do, someone asks me which book in my Taylor Jackson series is my favorite. That question is nigh on impossible to answer, because you’re always in love with the book you just finished, because its done, and you’re always in love with the book just published, because it’s your newest baby, and you’re always in love with your first, because it’s your eldest child. You can see where that leads… no good answer.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. My newest Taylor Jackson, THE IMMORTALS, is hands down my favorite in the series.

To start with, the minute I started the research and began the planning process, all the horrible nightmares I’d been having while I worked on THE COLD ROOM stopped. Stephen King would probably be really annoyed that his source of story ideas dried up. I, on the other hand, was thrilled. Good night’s sleep, happy dreams… wow. It was stunning.

Secondly, I wrote this book very quickly, and submitted it short because I was worried about the story. I was missing something, but, forest for the trees as writing is sometimes, I couldn’t see what that was. My awesome editor, who has sadly left the company, read it and pinpointed the problem immediately, I needed a bigger subplot. We tossed around a couple of ideas before I realized I already had the perfect story, the background of FBI Profiler Dr. John Baldwin, Baldwin BEFORE Taylor.

Third, writing the subplot was a massive challenge. It ended up being almost 25,000 words all by itself, and in order to tell the story properly, it had to utilize flashbacks. I’d never written in flashback before.  I was scared to death that I’d mess it up, but I think it worked, and my editor loved it. It made the book, which leads me to the fourth reason…

Fourth, I learned how to trust my instincts. I love to take risks with my books. I never want a reader to finish and think, hmm, JT did the same story over again. I want them all to be different: some serial killer stories, some mysteries, some heavier on the romance… heck, the one I’m working on now if a Gothic. Learning that it’s not just all right to challenge myself with intricate, time-bending stories, to get out of my comfort zone of forensics and into the world of mysticism and the occult, it’s better that way, truly gives this book an edge.

I hope you enjoy reading THE IMMORTALS as much as I enjoyed writing it!

JT Ellison is the bestselling author of the Taylor Jackson thriller series, including THE IMMORTALS  and THE COLD ROOM. She is a former White House staffer who moved to Nashville and began research on a passion: forensics and crime. She worked extensively with the Metro Nashville Police, the FBI and various other law enforcement organizations to research her novels