10-17-2016: The Right Style

Last week, I started reading a novel by a local author I know and stopped at the first page in disgust. The book was self-published—many fine books are self-published-but the author knew nothing about the nuances of typesetting, a time-honored profession that is both art and science. Its traditions and rules are essential to a reader’s pleasure. Ignore them at your peril.

What greeted me on the first page was not a novel but a business letter or report. That was the format, and it’s the format of this blog, which is fine for a blog. But in a novel, the result is like driving a car with bad spark plugs. It’s a jerky ride. We expect a novel to be a smooth read, gently moving from paragraph to paragraph with a slightly indented first line and no space between paragraphs.
A shift in time, place, or person is indicated by a blank line between paragraphs.

When a novel is formatted like this blog, our expectations of a shift arrive after each paragraph, but there is no shift, just an extra line for no reason. Bumpy ride.

How can an author who has read novels all his or her life, not notice the novel’s format of indented first line of a paragraph, no space between paragraphs unless there’s a shift? The exception is the first paragraph in a chapter, which may or may not be indented.

Granted, that the Word default seems to be the business letter format, but it’s an easy change to make. With “Home” selected, click on the “Paragraph” menu, then click to draw down the menu under Indentation – Special. Click “First line” and then either .5” for manuscript or maybe .25” for a smaller page or the final layout ready for printing. Then go down to “Spacing” and make Continue reading “10-17-2016: The Right Style”


10/3/2016 – Be Careful With Conflict

I once read a biography of Earl Stanley Gardner, an attorney and prolific author who wrote close to 150 novels. His most popular books starred attorney-sleuth Perry Mason, and that became a hit television series in the late 50s and early 60s and then again in the 80s.

How did he come to write such successful books? One anecdote mentioned in the biography said that when he was a beginning writer, he sent a story to Black Mask Magazine, that was rejected, but along with the rejection was another note, apparently meant for the editor’s secretary that was a rant on all the faults in Gardner’s story.

Gardner took it as advice on how to write, so he paid attention to the editor’s criticism. He rewrote the story. When he resubmitted it, he thanked the editor for the suggestions and his storyperry-mason-bk was accepted, probably because of the editor’s embarrassment.

Recently, I picked up a copy of Gardner’s first novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, at a yard sale. As I read it, I had to smile. All of us involved in writing fiction are told about the importance of conflict in keeping reader interest. Gardner took this advice to heart, and his book is almost a parody or maybe a lesson on conflict in fiction.

It begins on the first page when Della Street walks into Mason’s office and says she thinks the new client is a phony. She’s opposed to this client at every turn in the plot. Then it’s obvious that the client is lying and withholding information and Mason knows it, but how to find out the truth? From what she tells him, Mason knows he’s up against some tough foes, and he’s in danger of being disbarred. And then Paul Drake, the detective, comes in, and he becomes another source of conflict. So by halfway through the book, Perry Mason is in conflict with his secretary, the detective he uses, the client, and an assortment of tough characters. Gardner establishes Perry Mason as a tough fighter who will battle any and everyone, but to me it seems like the conflict was laid on so thick that it became a parody.

Conflict is important, but when it becomes obvious or biased, it becomes trite, irritating, and boring. For instance, when the wife opposes her husband’s dream of adventure. Boringly obvious set-up. And biased. For one thing, why can’t it be the wife’s dream of adventure? And why can’t the conflict come from another source than the obvious spouse, who could be supportive.

Surprise us with the conflict. We’re inundated with the standard issue, and a lot of us are too sophisticated to buy into a writer’s lazy use of it.

9/26/2016 – More from the Police Academy; Baltimore Book Fest

So far I am impressed at the professionalism of the police teaching our class at the Citizens Police Academy in Howard County, Maryland. It makes me want to revisit my mystery novels and redo the police investigations parts. We pick up so much from our own experience and television shows that we tend to make assumptions that may not be true.

Reminds me of a scene in my latest novel, In Rembrandt’s Shadow, where I blithely have a character in 1616’s Antwerp lighting a match. Stop. Matches weren’t invented until much, much later. CoverFinalMD-InRembrandtsShadow 2Someone had to point that out to me. I changed that to a tinder box. In another scene, I had a character stepping out of a house in early 17th century Paris and stepping onto a sidewalk. Most likely, he stepped out onto the road.

So I’m in the Police Academy class soaking up the details. Last week, the subject was the Columbia Mall shootings of January, 2014. Fortunately, the police had already studied the Columbia Mall and conducted training sessions there, noting exits, entrances, hallways, and basement areas. They had already developed strategies for dealing with such an event there. In fact, our local police will come to any Continue reading “9/26/2016 – More from the Police Academy; Baltimore Book Fest”

9-19-2016 – Citizens Police Academy / Book Launching

My guest blog, “A Day in the Life of My Character,” will appear Sept. 20 at

Since I write mysteries, I want to learn the details of police work so when I’m describing an investigation, my mysteries will have the texture policeand flavor of the real thing. Toward this end, I have begun the 12-week free course held by the Police Department to familiarize local citizens with police procedures and activities. Many police departments around the country hold similar academies.

I’m not shy about asking for the correct details. In my 90s Club mysteries about 90-year-olds at Whisperwood Retirement Village, I contacted the West Virginia Sheriff’s Department to find out what exactly a sheriff’s uniform in West Virginia looked like. I also asked a firefighter friend exactly what the protocol was when paramedics were called to the scene of a beating victim. He gave me excellent detail which made the scene live.

The Police Academy is another resource. It will include a ride-along with a police officer Continue reading “9-19-2016 – Citizens Police Academy / Book Launching”

News Notes: Sept. 5, 2016

A Nod to

Most of the books we publish are offered as e-books through in a variety of e-book formats and through as Kindle e-books. What makes this possible for us is Smashwords’ manual, The Smashwords Style Guide, written by Mark Coker, the genius behind Smashwords. The guide can be downloaded from the site.

The guide is written in simple language and is easy to follow with diagrams and pictures in the difficult areas. The Table of Contents begins with an introduction on how to get started and frequently asked questions then continues on to Formatting, which has 22 steps. Steps 22 through 28 discuss Post-Formatting including a Book Marketing Guide, and helpful resources.
Continue reading “News Notes: Sept. 5, 2016”

NEWS NOTES: Aug. 22, 2016

We spent Saturday clearing our brains by canoeing on the beautiful Pokemoke River on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay. We’ve done the trip before, always using the Pokemoke River Outfitters in Snow Hill, MD because they are organized, reliable and pleasant. The place even has an inside rest room instead of a Jiffy John, so you can properly prepare forCanoeing the Pokomoke-1 the journey. The stretch of the Pokemoke we canoed is narrow, winding and wooded on both sides. Only towards the end of the trip did we encounter the wider river subject to breezes and a little harder paddling. This is the kind of thing that rates as four star with me.

Our paddle-mates brought along a woman from Ethiopia who had never been in a canoe before and was terrified. But she seemed to enjoy it. No crocodiles on the Pokemoke.

So back to the real world. As president of the Maryland Writers’ Association, I’ve been looking at the list of writers’ conferences in the Maryland-Washington-Pennsylvania areas. Continue reading “NEWS NOTES: Aug. 22, 2016”

NEWS NOTES: Aug. 15, 2016

I belong to two critique groups, which I find extremely useful in pointing out plot and character discrepancies as well as problems in descriptions and in the writing overall. Recently, one of the group members asked other members to respond to the questions below. How would you respond?

1. Question: At what point is too late to introduce a new character? The editor who looked at my book before said everyone needed to be introduced somehow before the sixth or seventh chapter. But when I try to do that, it seems cluttered and disorganized. I have many books, great books, I had read over the years where characters come in much later. What does everyone think about this? I have never heard of any rules and am lost on what to do.

Eileen’s response: If you were writing a travel adventure, some of your characters would have to be introduced as you traveled, I would think, even as late as several chapters before the end. If you were writing a mystery, Continue reading “NEWS NOTES: Aug. 15, 2016”

NEWS NOTES: Aug. 8, 2016

Citizens’ Police Academy

I’m getting ready to sign up for the Citizens Police Academy in my county. If you write mysteries, this is a great way to learn the gritty details about how the police operate and the experiences shared by our law enforcement officers. Many areas offer this kind of program, so if you’re interested, check with your own police department. And it is free.

I heard about this opportunity from other members in Sisters in Crime. There’s also a week-long police academy for writers held once a year in North Carolina, I believe, but that is pricey.

In my area, the academy runs a class once or twice a year, depending on budget availability. The 12-week program is conducted one evening a week from 7 to 9:30 p.m. It’s held at a number of locations that provide the best environment for this diverse learning opportunity.

The academy is an informational program only. Even we graduates will have no police powers or authority. Oh well. Maybe we’ll get a certificate.

The announcement says that participants in the program will learn about the organizational structure of the police department, the mission, role and values of the agency, community policing concepts, criminal procedural law, criminal investigation techniques, evidence collection procedures, traffic law enforcement, drug enforcement, community relations/crime prevention programs, youth programs, and use of force issues. We’ll also engage in practical exercises including driver training, firing range activities and a patrol ride-along opportunity.

The minimum requirements to participate are to be 18 years of age or older, a resident of our county, and have no criminal record.

Of course, all this relates to the citizens police academy offered in my area, Howard County, Maryland. Some things may be different in your own area, but participating in this kind of program will help you provide accurate detail in the crime scenes you write.

NEWS NOTES: Aug. 1, 2016


Bouchercon is coming up! This year it will be held in New Orleans from Sept. 15-18. Bouchercon is held annually in honor of Anthony Boucher, mystery fiction critic, editor, and author. This “World Mystery Convention” is produced by a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization and calls itself “the world’s premier event bringing together all parts of the mystery and crime fiction community. It is commonly referred to as Bouchercon [bough’·chur·con].

I attended when it was held in Baltimore some years back and found it an exciting place to meet other mystery authors and fans. It is well worth the Continue reading “NEWS NOTES: Aug. 1, 2016”

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