by Charles Philipp Martin
I do not know you. But if you’re attempting to write a novel in 30 days, I know a couple of things about you. One is, you’re insane. The other is you love books, writing, and words. And for this I think you’re a good person, and worth a bit of my time.
But I won’t kid you. What you’re trying to do is very difficult. Especially if you want to create something good. Perhaps these few hints of mine will help.
Sure, it’s a big responsibility. But if you’re not up to it, the porta potties are filling up fast.
Charles Philipp Martin grew up in New York City's Greenwich Village. His father was an opera conductor and both his parents well-known opera translators and librettists who never uttered the word "parenting" but knew enough to steep their family in music and literature. After attending Columbia University and Manhattan School of Music, Martin took off for a six-year paid vacation in the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.
While in Hong Kong he hung up his bow and turned to writing, spending four years as a Sunday Magazine columnist for the South China Morning Post, and writing for magazines all over Southeast Asia. His weekly jazz radio show 3 O'Clock Jump was heard every Saturday on Hong Kong’s Radio 3 for some two decades.
Neon Panic, his first novel featuring Hong Kong policeman Inspector Herman Lok, was published in 2011. The second Inspector Lok novel, Rented Grave, will be coming out from Level Best Books in the summer of 2024. Martin now lives in Seattle with his wife Catherine.
Photo: Lincoln Potter
By Heather Weidner
Writing is a business. You, as a writer, need to treat your work that way. Also, writers need to understand that publishing is a business.
Book stores get hundreds of requests for signings. They have to outlay time and money for events for staffing, stocking books, and promotion. Many are choosy or reluctant to host unknown authors. Some will not host authors whose unsold books are not returnable. Find ways to sell your proposed signing (e.g. book talk on a subject that their shoppers would be interested in, providing a group of authors who can bring readers to the store, a marketing campaign for publicizing the event). Find out if they will let you provide the books on consignment.
Agents, editors, and publishers sign authors that they think they can sell their work. Sometimes, it’s not your writing. It could be that the topic/subject has been done before, and it will be hard to sell in your genre. Do your research of what is out there before you write the next bookshop or knitting mystery.
Publishers are looking several years ahead to fill their slots, and there are not a lot of openings on the dockets. It takes months/years sometimes for a book to be published traditionally. Make your manuscript the best it can be before you start querying.
Always be professional. It sounds like a no-brainer, but you want to be easy to work with. People tend to avoid the whiners, divas, and complainers.
Make sure that you are polished and that your marketing materials look professional.
Writing is a tough business. Everyone has feedback, and there are a lot of rejections. But there are things you can do to be prepared. Professionalism is key.
Through the years, Heather Weidner has been a cop’s kid, technical writer, editor, college professor, software tester, and IT manager. She writes the Delanie Fitzgerald Mysteries, The Jules Keene Glamping Mysteries, and The Mermaid Bay Christmas Shoppe Mysteries.She is a member of Sisters in Crime – Central Virginia, Sisters in Crime – Chessie, Guppies, International Thriller Writers, and James River Writers.
Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather has been a mystery fan since Scooby-Doo and Nancy Drew. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.
by Alan Orloff
Writer’s Block. Such ugly words. Funny how the mere mention of it strikes terror into the hearts of writers. I have to say, I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Get in the chair, turn on your computer, and start typing. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, do they? (At least I don’t think they do…)
Anyway, there certainly are times when the words don’t seem to flow very well. And sometimes, even when the words are appearing on your computer screen, they seem dull and lifeless.
How do you get past “stuck?”
Try these tips:
Work on a different section of your manuscript. Jump to the end, or skip to a scene where you know exactly what’s going to happen. The words might flow more freely.
Do something else. Stop banging your head against the wall and trust your subconscious to sneak up on the problem from a different angle. Watch TV, go to the movies, lace up your jogging shoes and get some exercise. If you’re looking for something a little more torturous, clean your house. After an hour of scrubbing floors, I’m ready to get back to writing.
Re-read some of your other work. Pull out some polished examples of your writing and give them another read. You did it once, you can do it again.
Read someone else’s work. Find a book by an author you admire. Read it to absorb the flow and energy of something you connect with.
Type another author’s work. If just reading a book isn't enough, try typing a few pages of someone else’s work, just to get the creative juices flowing. When you’re done, be sure to delete it all. I’m not coming to visit you in prison.
Write something in a different genre. If you are a crime writer, try writing something that’s humorous or autobiographical or features talking goldfish.
Write in a different style or voice. Switch from first person to third (or vice versa) to shake things up. Note: Never attempt to write in second person. That’s just weird.
Write in a different form. If you write prose, try poetry. If you write novels, try a short story (or a cell phone novel). Or log some serious time on Twitter.
Read a book on writing. Stephen King's On Writing or Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird are a couple of my favorites.
Mix up your routine. Try listening to music (or a different kind of music) or try writing at a different time of day than usual. Try varying your locations, too. A park, coffeehouse, or deserted alley may get those juices flowing (especially a deserted alley at night!).
Bribe your muse. Promise your muse you'll do something nice for him/her after you get a few scenes written. Lunch with a friend, a round of golf, or a box of chocolates have been known to work. (So I've heard.)
If these don’t work, I have one more suggestion. Tell yourself that you’re on a tight deadline and your draft is due tomorrow.
That’ll get you writing. (So I’ve heard.)
Alan Orloff has published ten novels and more than forty-five short stories. His work has won an Anthony, an Agatha, a Derringer, and two ITW Thriller Awards. His latest novel is SANCTUARY MOTEL, from Level Best Books. He loves cake and arugula, but not together. Never together. He lives and writes in South Florida, where the examples of hijinks are endless. www.alanorloff.com
By Marlie Parker Wasserman
How do authors select the names of their characters? Some look to lists of popular names. Some hold contests among their fans. Some try to emulate Charles Dickens by selecting names that describe their characters. Readers may assume that writers of historical fiction have an easier time because they pluck their characters’ names from the historical record. Not always.
For my first historical novel, The Murderess Must Die, I established a guiding principle that I continue to use—or I should write aim to use—as I write historical fiction. When a fact is known, I stick to it. When a fact is unknown, I invent. To figure out the known, I research for months, then I start writing. For that first novel, only well into my writing did I realize I had naming problems. Many of my characters, the real people who are part of the story, had the same names, or confusing names. If I could barely keep the characters straight, how could readers?
In finishing my third novel, I’ve come to sort my naming problems into two categories: characters in the historical record who have the same name, usually common names for the Gilded Age and the Progressive Age, and characters with names too common to research.
Let me start with the second category, which always produces chuckles. For my newest novel, Inferno on Fifth, I needed to research New York City’s Buildings Commissioner in 1899, a real person named Thomas Brady. Googling him turns up thousands of useless leads to a football player. I’ve also had to research Alfred Pope, an industrialist from Cleveland. I cannot google his full name successfully because newspapers reporters often didn’t know it. During the week that Mr. Pope figures in my novel, American newspapers reported on the serious illness of Pope Leo XIII. You can imagine the results from googling Pope.
The more common problem I face is common names. They drive me crazy. Were all men who lived around the year 1900 named William or Frank? Two policemen who witnessed the crime scene at the center of my first novel had the name William Maher. I had to give one a nickname. In my second novel, Path of Peril, set in Panama in 1906, I encountered two historical figures with similar names—Elliott Roosevelt, brother of Teddy, and R.B. Elliott, a little-known labor leader. I chose to minimize the role of the labor leader. I encountered two James—valet James Amos and secret service agent James Sloan. I opted to call the valet by his last name.
In writing my third novel, Inferno on Fifth, women’s names become the issue. Two women named Ida figure in my story—Ida McClusky, sister of a detective, and Ida McKinley, wife of a president. I chose to refer to the former as, simply, the sister. I also manipulate three Helens. I allow only Helen Gould, the daughter of Jay Gould, to keep her name. And I grapple with two Alices, a mother and daughter. I’m still pondering how to keep them straight for the reader.
Even less common names cause problems. For The Murderess Must Die, I researched details about the brother of my primary character, a young man with the seemingly distinctive name of Garrett Terhune Garretson, who fought in the Civil War. I found two men with the exact same name, living at about the same time. I spent weeks going down rabbit holes with the wrong man. With that book I also encountered a problem with nicknames. I thought Penelope, my primary character’s mother, was nicknamed Ellen, then it appeared that whether that was right or not, another Ellen was my character’s sister.
In each of my novels I erase the correct names of some of my characters for, as the phrase goes, the good of the story. I choose readability over accuracy. Sadly, and cowardly, I let my more well-known characters keep their names as I weigh how likely readers are to notice errors. In every case, I provide explanations and apologies in my author’s notes. I want to offer a call for action at the end of this little essay—please, parents, chose distinctive names for your children or we will have generations of novelists trying to sort out Rachels, Emmas, Noahs, and Olivers.
Marlie Parker Wasserman writes historical crime fiction. Her previous books are The Murderess
Must Die and Path of Peril. Her latest book, Inferno on Fifth, is inspired by the true story of the shocking fire that leveled one of Manhattan’s elegant hotels twelve years before the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. When not writing, Marlie travels throughout the world and tries to remember how to sketch. She lives with her husband in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
By Jason Monaghan
One challenge of writing a thriller set in a historic period is that we know what happened. Even if most of your readers are not history experts, they will be aware of the big picture and can quickly dive into Wikipedia to flesh out the facts. We know which US Presidents were assassinated, who won WW2 and are sure the Titanic sank. A reader can anticipate what is going to happen.
Even if we know our history, tension can be created against a historic backdrop that is fixed, for example in the Phillip Kerr books set in 1930s and 1940s Germany. Innumerable crimes and misdemeanours and cunning plots can be fitted into this ‘Golden Age’ with only passing nods to the historic timeline. Much happened that is not in the history books. Even if writing a thriller faithful to a well-known event such as Robert Harris’ Munich a great deal of the dialogue, plot and behind-the-scenes action needs to be made up.
Crucially, although modern readers know how it all turned out, the characters don’t. The writer needs to convey their hopes and fears and plans when the future is unknown. To them the end is not inevitable, and even the historic outcome need not pre-determine their fate as individuals. Characters should not be granted too much foreknowledge and so take actions that in hindsight we know are mistakes; they may invest in the stock market in 1928 because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Even if the reader is not surprised by the outcome of events, they are rewarded by how the protagonists react.
Historic thriller plots are made easier if the lead characters are minor players in the great game; a soldier not a general, a highwayman not a king. Major historical figures are given only walk-on parts, perhaps spouting lines they actually used. Only a little license is needed for our hero to be one of Columbus’ crewman or a Lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn. Take a little more license and one of our characters can play a pivotal role, such as being one of the senators who sticks a dagger into Julius Caesar.
Writing alternative history such as Phillip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a bolder step still. It opens up possibilities but requires a suspension of disbelief by the reader. The altered timeline needs to be explained and the bigger the departure from reality, the more thought the writer must put into world-building. Fantastic elements need to be minimised so that once over the initial hurdle everything about this changed world feels logical. The more recognisable elements of the real historic period that are included, the less of a jump it will be for the reader. The history is ‘wrong’, but it should feel plausible.
We are not writing history books so much of the research that underpins a thriller must be set aside, keeping only the nuggets that add richness to the story and provide the context. However, some facts can prove to be inconvenient and box the plot in if not derailing it entirely. Changing just a few of those inconvenient facts raises the reader’s doubts whether we will see history unfold as it should. Perhaps Hitler will be assassinated by our hero, or perhaps JFK will be saved. The character’s uncertainty about what could happen becomes more real if the reader also becomes uncertain. It’s a thriller, and we expect the unexpected.
Jason Monaghan is an author and archaeologist. Blackshirt Masquerade by is set in 1935 in a Britain under the rising threat of fascism. The fascist bid for power accelerates during the ‘Abdication Crisis’ of 1936 in Blackshirt Conspiracy. Both are published by the Historia Imprint of Level Best Books.
By Erica Miner
When it comes to old adages, “Write what you know” ranks right up there with, “Practice makes perfect” and, “Have no fear of perfection, you'll never reach it.”
In a recent webinar, Level Best Books author James L’Etoile discussed how our writers’ life experiences influence what we write. His background of many years working in the criminal justice system infuses his murder mysteries with compelling authenticity. I am able to relate to that concept, as my own life experiences have proved to be a goldmine of material for my fiction.
My 21 years as a violinist with New York’s Metropolitan Opera have provided a sharp-edged realism to my Julia Kogan “Opera Mystery” series. The first in the series, Aria for Murder, takes place at the Met. My protagonist, Julia Kogan, is a direct clone of myself when I first started out at the company: a gifted young violinist debuting with the Met Opera Orchestra, trying to make her way in a difficult, demanding profession that is in many ways still dominated by men.
The people Julia encounters—fellow musicians, conductors, chorus members, stagehands, stage managers and the like—populate this story as reflections of my own relationships with company members. The real-world personality traits of people who were an integral part of my daily life at this home-away-from-home that was the Met Opera formed the basis of many of the characters I created in Aria for Murder.
But I also witnessed actual situations that initially inspired me to write this series: a number of nefarious goings-on that sparked my imagination and caused me to embroider and escalate the possibilities of these circumstances into behind-the-scenes murder and intrigue at this venerable institution. Writing this story also gave me a unique opportunity to kill off the people who made my life miserable! (Not all of them…I had to save a few for the sequels, which will thrust Julia into heaps of trouble at different opera houses across the country.)
The Met Opera is a unique world: the most prestigious opera company on the planet, where superstars like Caruso, Pavarotti and Domingo have been entertaining the cream-of-the-crop of opera aficionados for centuries. Standards are the highest on the planet; so are the stakes.
These elite audiences, however, have no idea what goes on behind all the glamour and glitz. Ultimately, revealing the dark side of the opera world is my rationale for creating these operatic whodunits. Under those crystal chandeliers, behind that “Golden Curtain,” hundreds of people are working in different jobs simultaneously, and always at odds with each other: opera superstars, comprimarios (lesser solo singers), directors, conductors, orchestra, chorus, ballet, stagehands, wardrobe, make up, wigmakers and more. Egos clash, tempers flare. There’s no love lost between any of them.
Take the orchestra, for example: 100 neurotic musicians thrown together in a hole in the ground with no air and no light, 7 days a week, days, nights, weekends. You see more of these people than your own families. Sooner or later, someone’s going to want to kill somebody.
Aria for Murder.
In Julia, however, I have created a protagonist who, unlike myself, is capable of rising above her fears to plunge herself into a murder investigation. I could never be that brave. That is where the beauty of writing fiction can transform “Write what you know” into “Create a character who is the kind of person you’d like to be.”
And what could be better than that?
Former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner is an award-wining author, screenwriter, arts journalist, and lecturer. Her debut novel, Travels with my Lovers, won the Fiction Prize in the Direct from the Author Book Awards, and her screenplays have won awards in the WinFemme, Santa Fe and Writers Digest competitions. Based in the Pacific Northwest, Erica continues to balance her reviews and interviews of real-world musical artists with her fanciful plot fabrications that reveal the dark side of the fascinating world of opera. Aria for Murder, published by Level Best in Oct. 2022, is the first in her Julia Kogan Opera Mystery series. Prelude to Murder, the sequel set at the Sante Fe Opera, was released September 2023. Book three,taking place at the San Francisco Opera is due for release in 2024. https://www.ericaminer.com
By Katherine Ramsland
Most of us enjoy a sense of the familiar. It’s predictable, comforting, and often preferable, even if lacking in thrill. It allows us to relax and gather ourselves. That’s why adding consistent rituals throughout your series can deepen your readers’ connection to your characters. They experience repeated rituals as an element of series consistency.
When I planned my “Nut Cracker Investigations” for Level Best Books, I wanted to develop ways to cohere my PI team. I have three primary and several secondary members, but I wanted the primaries to participate most clearly in closure and commitment. All for one, and one for all, that type of thing.
Annie Hunter, a forensic psychologist, manages the investigation agency; Ayden Scott is her PI, and Natra Gawani her data manager and confidante. My secondary team features a digital expert, a forensic meteorologist, and an attorney. They’re in and out as needed.
One ritual I use runs in the background: Annie likes red wine, so whenever the team has an opportunity to brainstorm over wine, they pick a label that matches the situation. Stormy Weather during a tornado, for example. Readers recognize this display of character (and sometimes they buy wine for book club signings).
A more important ritual is the case debriefing. Although there are plenty of times when the team brainstorms, it’s the post-case gathering that really unites them. No one else is allowed, no matter what part they might have played. This is a solemn Nut Crackers ritual. Here, they patch holes, lick wounds, plan improvements, and show how much the work means to them. They might tease or toast each other, or even mourn together. For them, it’s the best part of the case.
I include a debrief scene in every novel because I want readers to expect it, appreciate it, and watch how Annie responds to their own lingering questions. She might even use the time to set up the next case, whetting readers’ appetites.
Like Annie’s wine, rituals pair well with our sense of anticipation and connection. Here are three psychological reasons to develop some rituals for your series:
It’s worth considering rituals that put your characters in motion or reveal their qualities. Thus, you’ll get an added benefit, and readers will likely look forward to how these rituals play out.
Katherine Ramsland has played chess with serial killers, dug up the dead, worked with profilers, and camped out in haunted crime scenes. As a professor of forensic psychology and a death investigation consultant, she seeks unique angles. The author of 71 books, she’s been a forensic consultant for CSI, Bones and The Alienist and an executive producer on Murder House Flip and A&E’s Confession of a Serial Killer. She’s become a go-to expert for the most deviant forms of criminal behavior, which provides background for her Nut Cracker Investigations. Her second novel in the serial, In the Damage Path, is now available.