copy           I’ ve told you all this before, so you know I am not a plotter. I have an idea, and I follow it, hoping that the story will make sense as it develops. But I’ve fallen into an abyss, unable to figure my way out. My story has hit a wall, and I can’t find my way through. I keep gnawing on the problem, but so far, no answers.

I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t plot—and probably not the only one who falls into an abyss. But recently I’ve found support, at least for the nonplotters.. Just in the last month, the New York Times Book Review has had comments by two writers of mystery fiction indicating they aren’t plotters either.

Chris Bohjalian, author of THE FLIGHT ATTENDENT, which has made it to the Times best seller list, says in the “Inside the List” column,“I’m in awe of writers who outline—or even those writers who know how a book is going to end when they begin . . .I never have even the slightest clue. I depend upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story.”

And in the April 29th edition of the Book Review, in the same column , Lisa Scottoline, the best-selling author who writes three books a year, says, “I plan absolutely nothing.. . .  It’s not in my nature. I write a book in an organic way, asking myself after each chapter what the characters would do next. I never know what the story is until I tell it to myself. Not only don’t I know how it ends, I don’t know how it middles!” Scottoline goes on to say, “. . . the surprise ending always comes as a surprise to me!”

So, I’m not the only one with a problem. But I’m an amateur compared to those guys. How shall I fix my problem? My murderer is apparently unbelievable, and the story has great, big plot holes. Do I need another character? Maybe that would help with the problem. Maybe I don’t want to kill one guy too early in the story. If I keep him alive, he might be the murderer.

Now that’s an idea! Maybe the murderee should be the murderer. I’ll play with that for a while. I need a reason for that, though, and right now my mind is blank. I do have a sense, however, that I killed off the first victim too soon, that I should let him live a bit longer and develop more of a story.

I remember attending a writing panel where two writers were non-plotters and one, who wrote for television, was emphatically a plotter. One of the non-plotters told us that when she got to the end of her novel, she liked the person she had made the murderer too much to cast him in that role, so she went back and added another character. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one with these problems.

Do any of you ever get yourselves into this kind of mess? Let me know. It’ll make me feel better, just like Bohjalian and Scottoline did.



I’ve read several pieces recently–parts of ‘how-to” books and blogs–that talk about how many words the writer produces every day. These vary widely from a total of 500 to 1,500 or more words a day. I read these stats in awe. I guess I’m not a writer after all. I can’t begin to match those word counts.

Sometime in early December, I got stuck on my fourth novel, the third in the Burgess Beach mystery series featuring Andi Battaglia and Greg Lamont. I didn’t like what I had written, which wrapped up the story far too soon, contained no surprises, and was a disappointment to me and to whatever readers I would have. I thought about it and even considered scrapping the whole novel and starting fresh with a new idea and a new plot. The problem was, of course, that I was 65,000 words in. That’s a lot of words to scrap.

My problem is, of course, that I don’t plot in advance but allow the story and the characters to take over and do what they want. And this time, what they wanted wasn’t good. It disappointed me, and it would certainly disappoint my readers. What were those characters thinking?

So did I write my 500 or 1,500 words every day in December? What do you think? I woke up every morning and thought. I thought about what I’d written so far. I thought about what I could do next, given that I didn’t like what I had already done. I knew I probably needed a new villain or at least a diversion from where the story had been going.

But did I feel guilty about not writing? No, I did not. I felt I was putting in profitable time thinking, planning, considering. I suppose if I had to make a living from my writing, I would feel guilty and worried. No writing, no money. I think about Dashiell Hammett and F. Scott Fitzgerald, both of whom suffered terribly from writers’ block and couldn’t write at all. Part of their writers’ block may have been caused by alcohol, but alcohol may have been a result, not the cause.

It was fortunate that my writer’s block came during the holidays. Too much to do, too many people to see, gifts to buy, tree to decorate, gifts to wrap. Everybody was busy, including my writing group, so no one pushed me to write. That’s the pleasure of being a writer without deadlines.

What would I have done if I ‘d had a deadline? I’d certainly have needed to be a better plotter and a more organized writer. Eventually, early in January, I realized where I needed to go with the story. Go back about 300 words, take a new tack and get going. And it worked!

What do you do when you get stuck?








Tomorrow I’m off to Bouchercon, my second time going to that fan conference. I attended two years ago when it was held in Long Beach, but I didn’t stay at the hotel and drove back and forth. It’s such a huge gathering—Long Beach attracted 2,000 attendees:  fans and mystery writers—that I was overwhelmed.  I attended only a few panels and kept taking refuge at the Sisters in Crime/LA table where at least I had my back to the wall and knew some people.

This time it’s in New Orleans, and I vowed to be braver. I’m not on any panels, which is disappointing, but I will talk to as many people as I can. There will be a lot of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles members there, so there will be some friendly faces.

This is the part of writing books that I find the most difficult: publicizing myself and my books. Writers generally are a shy and retiring lot, preferring to be home writing and reading than out talking to groups of people and telling them about their writing processes, the way they create, where they get their ideas—well, you get the picture.

Yet, of course, this is the way the writer—me—becomes known, by meeting people and talking to them and giving them cards and bookmarks, telling them about writing and making friends.  I don’t mean to sound as though I don’t like people. Of course I do, and I have lots of friends. It’s the self-publicizing part that I find difficult.

I often wonder——as do many people, especially publishers— what it is that creates mega best sellers, like THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. It was a first novel, I believe, and it got good reviews, but so do lots of other books, and they don’t stay on the best seller list forever. It must drive publishers nuts trying to predict what book, of the many they publish, is going to be a huge hit. Did Paula  Hawkins know she’d written a best selling novel?

And what about GONE, GIRL? Gilliam Flynn had written and published several books before that one that sold well, but not like GONE, GIRL. If anyone can predict what will sell and what won’t, they’ve got a million dollar gift. Of course they’d have to do a lot of reading!

I know my fellow Ladies of Mystery work hard at promoting their books, going to libraries and bookstores, author fairs and all kinds of other venues They are good at what they do. I am learning, but it’s a slow and somewhat painful process.  But if I don’t work at publicity, no one besides my closest friends and family will even know about my books.

When I read this over, I realize I’m sounding very negative. Probably because I’m scared about going to Bouchercon, meeting all those writers and fans and trying to make an impression. Wish me luck, guys! I hope I look like this on Sunday.stock-photo-53147238-climbing-success-happy-woman-in-mountains



copyI read a lot of mysteries, naturally, because friends write books and there are always new and exciting mysteries to dive into.  But sometimes I take a break from mysteries and read other books: non-mystery novels, biographies, and general nonfiction. I also belong to a book club, and the choices of the members are often different from the books I read on my own. Since I’ve become a writer, I’ve become more aware when I’m reading of the skill of the author in taking me into a place or time so fully that I feel as if I’m actually there.

I recently read a book by Sigrid Nunez called THE LAST OF HER KIND, which takes place mostly at the end of the sixties and into the early seventies. This was a book that plunged me back to that time. It was a time of civil unrest: the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, riots and takeovers of buildings by university students, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, among other events. There is a description of an LSD trip by the woman experiencing it that made me remember how assiduously I had avoided trying that drug. The book made me uncomfortable in the same way that I remember being uncomfortable then, as thought I had been dropped back almost fifty years and somehow entered a strange planet full of people who were entirely different from those I thought I knew.

Some books bring me such a sense of actually being in the setting among the characters that a return to the banality of life is almost painful, returning to earth from a fantasy trip and being forced to go back to work or to whatever task faces me. I was like that as a child, always lost in the world of a book, reluctant to face the monotony of long division or algebra.

James Lee Burke’s Louisiana mysteries bring alive the oppressive heat of New Orleans; Tony Hillerman’s description of the Navajo world makes it come alive; I don’t remember the settings of Agatha Christie’s books because I was always too immersed in the puzzle; but Ellis Peters’ medieval tales evoked the monastic setting; and Elizabeth George created a fascinating English world including an entire Oxford college in one of her mysteries.

Recently I visited my friend in Florida where I have set my two mysteries: A REASON TO KILL and SO MANY REASONS TO DIE. We made a trip to Vero Beach, a city north of where my friend lives and to which I had never been. It’s quite a well-to-do area, and I immediately began to set some scenes from the book I’m currently working on in that town: more expensive than Burgess Beach where Andi and Greg, my two detectives, live and work, with houses set both on the Indian River and on an island facing the Atlantic Ocean. I find myself absorbing details of new places, trying to remember my feelings when I’m there, in an attempt to recreate new settings in my writing.

Do you enjoy new settings and times in your reading or writing? I’d love to hear about books that evoked memories from you or made you want to travel there.








I often think about the books I’ve started or thought about but never really got down to writing. In TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, Lawrence Block talks about a friend of his who, on being asked where he got his ideas, said that “there was a magazine published twice a month called The Idea Book” to which he of course, as a professional writer, had a subscription.  Of course there’s no such publication, but there are lots of stories in everyone’s life that can become novels or short fiction.

I started to write a mystery novel a long time ago set in a just post-colonial African country. I didn’t get very far, but the story was clearly based on my experiences in East Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. I’d love to go back to that novel. I have lots of thoughts about what would happen, and, because it would be a murder mystery, who would be the victim and who the murderer. But when I started writing the story in the pre-computer age, it was so difficult to edit my work on a manual typewriter that I gave up.

How did writers manage before computers? I have to give them a lot of credit for perseverance. I know writers who still write by hand, but I would never have the patience. I want to correct as I go along, and having to rewrite paragraphs or put arrows directing me to another section is too frustrating.

Another idea I had, which began a novel that never got beyond the first chapter, was the result of a talk with a woman I met on an airplane. I don’t remember where we were going, but she told me that she worked during the day as an attorney and had a night life as a rock singer. It may well have been a fantasy that she concocted, but it gave me a wonderful idea for a novel. I worked on it for a while, but I never got very far. Not enough courage at the time.

The more I write, the more ideas come to me. I loved the report that fellow Ladies of Mystery Jane Gorman wrote about on her September 21st blog regarding the buried mystery train. That would make a great story. Murders reported in the local newspaper give me ideas for mystery novels. I kept a clipping for a long time about a man who was arrested years after the body of a woman he worked with was found in the trunk of her car. In a mystery story (or at least my mystery story), the hero–cop, private investigator or amateur sleuth–would have found out much earlier that he was the murderer. Fiction can be so much more organized than life.

Most recently, I read a book called PSYCHIC DAMAGE: A Memoir by Sarah Lassex. The book made me think of creating a mystery about a woman who is addicted to going to psychics and Jans Photoletting them guide her life. This led me to write PSYCHIC DAMAGE, a thriller due out in early 2016. I hope you’ll look for it.

Ideas for stories are everywhere. You just have to look around you. What do you do with your ideas? Don’t throw them away! Save them for stories.


copyMarilyn Meredith, another of the Ladies of Mystery, wrote a blog in July about whether you as a writer are a plotter or a pantser and how to know which you are. Plotters of course plan everything out before they even start to write. They may outline or write all the scenes down on 3 x 5 cards which they post on their bulletin boards. Maybe they don’t do a formal outline, but they have a pretty good idea of who their characters are, what the plot twists and turns are, and who the bad guy or guys are.

I was never able to do an outline, even when it was a school assignment. The whole process seemed beyond me. So, clearly, I have to be a pantser, someone who sits down daily at the computer and doesn’t have a clue where the story is going. Most of the time this works for me. I have a vague idea when I finish writing one day where I’m going to go the next. The scene unfolds in my head as a write, the story moves along, and the characters take over. I said, usually it works. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t, and that’s when I pull up the unsticking ideas I’ve gathered over the years.

Years ago, Stephen J. Cannell, a great mystery writer, now deceased, spoke at a meeting of the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter to which I belong. He passed on a good thought: when you’re stuck, think about, “What are the bad guys doing?” He said he used that often as a way to approach the story from a different perspective.

As the writer, this works because you are now out of the head of your protagonist, the head in which you’ve become stuck, and are thinking about the story from the point of view of the bad guys. Sometimes, often for me, I don’t know what the bad guys are doing either, but looking at the story from their point of view will give me an idea of what they’re up to and how to continue the story.

I followed this dictum in the book I’m currently editing, PSYCHIC DAMAGE, due out in the spring. I had two of the bad guys talking about the heroine who has something they wanted. I wrote a scene, and the scene got me unstuck. Later I realized I didn’t need it, but it had served as an unsticking tool.

As a pantser, I find that my subconscious often puts clues in the book which will help me get unstuck. What does this discovery, found in Chapter Two, mean in the grand scheme of the novel when I write it? Often I don’t know, but I’ve learned to have faith that I will find out further on in the book. And it is often an unsticking tool, something that clarifies where the story is going. I’ve learned not to delete those clues that I don’t understand when I write them. They may come in handy later.

I also got another unsticking suggestion from a friend, also a writer. She suggested that I try writing from the point of view of another character or characters and see what that told me about the story. And it worked. I wrote from the point of view of a man who disappeared, and he told me enough about what his plans were to get to me unstuck.

I suppose writers who outline don’t get stuck, or they get stuck in the outline process, not in the writing. But I do enjoy writing when I don’t know how things are going to turn out. If I had it all outlined, I’m afraid I’d feel as though I’d already written the book.

I remember hearing one writer say that when she got to the end of the book, she realized that no one could have committed the murder, so she had to go back and make it possible to solve. That does happen to us pantsers, but it’s all part of the fun of writing.

How about you other writers? How do you get unstuck?


copyHave you ever read a book in which the characters’ names don’t seem to fit them? Or the names don’t stay in your mind, and you have to keep looking back to find out who it was who just appeared in a scene? When I write, characters’ names are as important as their physical descriptions and their personality quirks.

Almost everyone I know who has read the great Russian novels complains that she can’t keep track of the characters because the names keep changing. You’re not likely to refer to Levin as Constantin Dmitrich in the middle of your story, but don’t start calling John Smith Johnny or Smitty if you don’t want to lose your reader.

Charles Dickens came up with some truly appropriate names for his secondary characters, names so fitting that they are identified with their characteristics: Uriah Heep for the unctuous clerk in DAVID COPPERFIELD and Fagin, who trains the young pickpockets in OLIVER TWIST. But those names, like Jay Gatsby or Jane Eyre or John Galt, are so identified with their characters that they’re out of bounds for current writers.

When I develop names for my characters, I usually have an idea of the sound of the first name I want for the main characters: a hard sound, like a J, to begin the name or a soft sound, like an S. I don’t know where that first feeling comes from, but I do know I can’t write about a character unless he or she has a name. For the femme fatale in SO MANY REASONS TO DIE, I knew I needed a fanciful first name, so I came up with Miranda, and when it became known that she had changed her identity, her original name was the prosaic Margaret.

I usually consult a well-worn book on my writing bookshelf called THE LAST WORD ON FIRST NAMES. It’s a bit dated, but it covers most male and female names of the last hundred years and how dated–or not–they are. Of course it also tells which rock or movie stars have named their children with this or that name. For ethnic first names, I consult the internet, which provides a wide range of common and not-so-common names of whatever ethnicity I’m interested in.

For last names, unless something immediately comes to mind and seems to go well with the first name I’ve chosen, I look in the phone book. If I want a regional name and can’t come up with one, I go to the library and look in their collection of phone books from other areas. In my current book, I changed a location from Minneapolis (think Scandinavian names) to upstate New York (think English-Scottish). Writers can certainly make up last names or adjust any names they steal from the phone book.

One hazard to avoid is using names that sound alike in the same novel or story for two characters, unless that’s something you intended. Don’t, for example, have a Melinda and a Melinda or a Jason and a Jack. The similarity will confuse your reader. This is something I have to watch for, since I don’t know all the characters who will be in my book when I start to write. Minor characters who appear may get names that pop into my head, and those names may sound a lot like those of other characters.

Names can certainly be unique, but not so much so that the reader is thrown out of the story by the name. On the other hand, don’t name everyone John Smith or Jack Johnson. Just don’t get carried away with unusual names.

It’s okay to choose names that are not obvious to pronounce, but don’t get too elaborate. There may be different ways to say a name, and that’s all right. Just don’t make it something that bothers the reader every time she comes across it. No Wojciechowskis, for example. Or Sojkas, for that matter. Names like that throw the reader right out of the story.

And be careful about choosing names that seem to go together beautifully only to find they or something very like them have already been used by some movie star or rock singer. Readers will laugh at a murder mystery where the victim is named Brad Pitt or Emma Stone.

How, as writers, do you choose names and have you ever regretted a name you’ve chosen? And readers, do you find that names are usually appropriate and fit the character or do you stumble over names or feel they don’t fit the character?

Short Stories v. Novels

copyThe Short Mystery Fiction Society (SMFS) has been hosting an on-line discussion about whether a writer should begin by writing short stories before tackling novels. Several of the contributors think that writing short stories is a good way to hone writing skills before tackling the longer work. Others say short stories often provide material which later turn into novels while there are some who feel that they are separate skills to master. I like to write short stories between novels, giving myself a break, developing other characters and situations, but I wouldn’t say I was an accomplished short story writer.

Short stories aren’t easy to write. They require at least as much skill as writing novels, maybe more. The idea that you can learn how to write novels by writing short stories doesn’t seem accurate to me. Generally, the best short story writers write only those. I have a tendency to add too much extraneous material in a short story, turning it into not quite a novella but something which is too long for a story and too short for anything else. The short story writer needs to stick to the point of the story, forget the extra material that crops up, and, particularly with mystery short stories, work toward an ending that will at least slightly surprise the reader. O’Henry, of course, was the master of the plot twist, as was Saki, but those are classics, and few of us write classics. But readers feel cheated if the story ends with a whimper, not at least a small bang.

Literary short stories are different in that they don’t need a surprise ending, but they do need an epiphany of some sort on the part of the protagonist, some change in him or her. Alice Munro, a favorite of mine, writes only short stories, and she is a master. Most of her stories take place in rural Canada, and I identify with her characters and the setting because of years I spent as a child in rural upstate New York. Her stories are long for short stories, encompassing a lot of their characters’ experiences, often their whole lives. But the main character always experiences some change, some new realization in the way she sees the world. Such writing is not easy to do. I think writing short stories requires an equal or greater amount of skill than writing novels. You can hone your writing skills on them, but in order to write them well, you need to master that art.

Still, writing a short story from beginning to end can be very rewarding. There’s no need to go back to it day after day, week after week, month after month, as with a novel. Short stories may have a dreaded middle, but it’s a short middle, unlike the middle of the novel. The dreaded middle of the novel occurs when the writer, full of enthusiasm, has set up the premise, developed the characters and setting, told the reader what the conflict is, and has the reader in suspense about how the conflict will be solved; but there are at least a hundred pages before the beginning of the ending. We’ve all read those: the novels that start out terrifically with great characters and an interesting plot and setting that then go limp in the middle. We wonder why we started reading the novel in the first place, wonder if we should just quit, but we can’t just jump ahead because something may happen that makes the end understandable. The shortness of the story makes that middle not nearly so dangerous. Just make it a shorter story!

I’ve had people say to me, “I don’t like short stories because it takes time to figure out who’s doing what and why and then the story’s over, and I have to start all over again.” Those readers like novels, where they can immerse themselves in a world: they meet the characters, know the setting, learn the problems and the difficulty of finding the solution. Then they can luxuriate in that world for days or even weeks. Others like short stories because they can move quickly into a new setting with new characters, determine the problem and reach the climax, all in a short time. Each story is an exploration of a new experience.

What do you, my readers, think? Do you read short stories? Do you like them or do you prefer novels, and why? Let’s talk.