I just finished reading Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger.  He’s a celebrated writer, but that’s not why I bought his book.  I bought it because I met him at Magna cum Murder and he impressed me.  When I listened to him on panels, he gave serious, thoughtful ideas and answers, but he didn’t seem to take himself too seriously.  And he writes mysteries.  I like mysteries.

Iron Lake isn’t the usual type of book I read.  The hero, Cork O’Connor, is flawed with plenty of baggage.  He was the town’s sheriff until he panicked and shot a man not once, which was necessary, but six times because he couldn’t quit pulling the trigger.  His career would have survived that, because he was good at what he did.  But he was a Democrat in a Republican area, and the crooked Republican judge wanted him out, so did the crooked Republican editor of the local newspaper.  Politics can get ugly.  For Cork, it meant he went from being a sheriff to flipping burgers.  On top of that, a year later, his wife asked him to move out of the house he’d grown up in.  Okay, enough said.  The man had had a few rough years with no fairy godmother coming to his rescue.  I usually avoid books like that.  I’m glad I read this one.

Indian lore adds a strong flavor to the story.  Cork is part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian, and Aurora, Minnesota is home to enough Anishinaabe to let them open their own casino.  The story takes place in December, and the reader never forgets that Minnesota is REALLY cold in winter.  As a matter of fact, the frozen ground and the frozen lake become almost a character in the book.  So does the Windigo–an Indian legend that calls to its chosen victim when the winds howl and the weather goes crazy.

The Indian mystiques and freezing weather wrap the entire story in their embrace to set an eerie undertone.  So does the understated writing.  Sparse, but telling dialogue.  Things left unsaid.  Blatant lies that flow like honey.  The antagonists and villains are exceptionally well done.  But every part of the story is flavored by the snow and ice and cold.  It fits the grim deaths and greed, the cold-hearted characters who drive the plot.

If cozies are usually set in small towns to add warmth and familiarity, suspense does well with hostile environments–big cities, dark alleys, brooding skies.  Or secluded small towns like Aurora, where the winds whip across the frozen lake and Windigos stalk you in the snowy thickets.

There were times that I wondered why Cork made some of the choices he did, but he was always trying to do the right thing.  And I admired him for that.  All in all, I not only enjoyed Iron Lake, but Krueger’s skillful writing often caught my attention and made me think of how I could make my own writing better.  It’s a good book to study for style.  And it’s a great book to read for setting.

Happy Writing!



Writing: Same, but Different

I’ve started to write my fifth Mill Pond romance.  I still like the town.  I still like the people.  I enjoy having characters from previous books mingle with new characters for a new story.  My worry–keeping each story fresh and unique.  Catherine Bybee manged it in her Weekday Bride series.  Seven different romances, one for each day of the week.  Seven stories that have a similar premise, but a unique take on it each time.  My writer friend, writing as Julia Donner for her Regency romances, has done it with her Friendship series. Her eighth novel goes live on June 18, and I’ve already pre-ordered it.   I love her work.  Each one has a different feel, even though they all have healthy doses of her sly humor.  As a matter of fact, I think her writing keeps getting better and better, the longer the series goes.  Something I’d like to achieve.

(If you’re interested in Regencies, here’s the link for her latest:…++julia+donner)

A long time ago, I wrote a bundle of novellas to experiment with writing romance.  That’s how I ease myself into writing something new.  I try working on shorter pieces before I commit to something longer.   I liked Emerald Hills, got good feedback on each one of them (which I lost when I combined them into a bundle–didn’t think about that:), but one reviewer mentioned that she’d have liked more variety in the stories, that they felt too similar to her.  Now, I know that a writer can’t please everyone, but I wrote these as a learning curve, so her opinion stuck with me.  If I ever wrote a romance series, I told myself to vary things up–have one with some humor, another that was a little more serious, throw in some different types of characters, and mix up the plots and themes a little.  I think–at least, I hope–that I’ve achieved that.

For my Mill Pond romances, in book 1, I tried for a heavy dose of humor.  For Brody and Harmony, in book 2, I tried to create two people who’d keep butting heads.  And in the book I’m working on now, I wanted to throw in a few serious themes, but lighten them up with Miriam–a character with more snark than I’ll ever have.

When I read a series, I look forward to returning to the same setting, the same characters.  I’m reading Patricia Briggs’s Fire Touched right now, and I’m enjoying how Mercy and Adam interact as a couple, how Warren smooths things over, and how Ben has such a potty mouth.  It’s a world I want to visit and linger in for a while.  That’s the joy of a series, returning to something familiar that I’ve missed.  But each story has to be different enough to make me want to return again for new experiences.  Everything’s about balance–keeping the old and introducing the new–a happy blend.


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Writing: Tone and Voice

My daughter came to stay the weekend with us. She’s a travelling nurse who works in Indianapolis, close enough to zip home and spend time with us. We’re celebrating my sister’s birthday tonight. She asked me to make supper for her–Delmonico steaks, potato salad, and peach cobbler. Easy enough to do. So I thought I’d be brilliant and write my blog ahead of time, then post it today…except when I hit the link, the only thing that saved was the title. Arrgh. I saved the post twice, to be sure. What can I say? Life happens. But here goes. Again.

I’ve been thinking about the difference between voice and tone lately, because I’ve been working on a few different things instead of just one. When new writers join Scribes, some of them ask about voice. What is it? How do you get it? It’s always a tricky thing for me to explain. But in my opinion, voice is the combination of all of the components that make up your writing style–word choice, the way you arrange words, if you prefer long, rambling sentences to short, punchy ones, if you use sentence fragments, your rhythm, your style–it’s a natural reflection of you. The best way to “find” your voice, is to simply write, then write more, and keep writing, until eventually, your writing will be YOU. You’ll learn all of the craft of writing along the way–grammar, verbs, etc.–but voice is what makes your writing different than anyone else’s. I don’t think it’s something you have to work at. Don’t try to copy someone else. Learn from them, but be you. And eventually, people will recognize your voice. (Les Edgerton wrote a good “how-to” book on Voice,

Tone, I think, is a different animal. Tone is something I choose when I want to flavor a story. It’s the difference between a story that’s dark or humorous. It’s a matter of word choice. It permeates the cracks and crevices between sentences. Setting contributes a lot, but you don’t have to do the obvious. Small towns and cities can be both comforting or ominous, according to what you emphasize. When a horror writer describes a house or woods, there are no blue skies and birds singing unless they’re used as a counterpoint to an innocent facade where the reader knows evil is brewing. I went to hear Shirley Jump on a panel once, and she said that when she first started writing humorous romances, she made a list of “funny” words to remind herself to go for the humor in every sentence/paragraph that she could. She even started one of her novels with her protagonist dressed up in a banana suit when she meets Mr. Hunk. (

In a series, authors often keep the tone of each book consistent. Their voice is their voice. That’s going to be the same. But every Kate Daniels book, by Ilona Andrews, smacks the reader in the face with Kate’s attitude, adds healthy doses of humor, and lots of action. Readers expect and crave that tone. Patricia Briggs’s Mercedes Thompson series has a distinct tone of its own. She uses action, too, but Mercedes isn’t as in-your-face as Kate. When I read an early novel by Patricia Briggs, though, When Demons Walk, I fell in love with the brashness of her protagonist, Sham. Briggs’s voice was still there, but the book had a fun, sassy tone.

For me, then, the protagonist is a big part of what sets the tone of the book. If we’re in her POV, the way she views life is going to creep into the story. If she’s a woman who’s had a hard life of struggles that’s worn her down, her outlook isn’t going to be innocent and sunny. Her voice–the character’s voice–might be world-weary, harsh, or brittle. Some cynicism probably creeps in, too. Or maybe she’s just given up, doesn’t care anymore. That view will tinge every aspect of what happens to her and how she reacts. We want to hear her, and that sets the story’s tone.

An author’s voice, I think, will be consistent. It’s how she writes. But tone can vary from story to story, depending on the mood you want to set and the protagonist’s POV. It’s the difference between the author’s voice and the character’s voice.

Hope you have an awesome August, and happy writing!

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on twitter: @judypost

Rewrites–Oh, the joy!

I’ve stepped away from my novel long enough to be able to look at my critique partners’ comments and plunge into rewrites. I’m no longer as fond of my words, my chapters, my “babies.” I’m ready to dig in and make my manuscript better.

When I’m in writing mode, I have to be passionate about my characters and story. I “hear” them and I’m excited about what they’re doing and why. Sometimes, they endear themselves to me a little too much. When I go back to edit, they weren’t always as witty as I thought they were, and the time they spent bonding together in the car gets a little long and dreary. If I were a reader, I’d be saying “When will we get there?” If a scene doesn’t have enough tension, if it doesn’t move the plot forward enough, I need to be objective and cut it. More especially for me–since I tend to write lean–I need to fill in more internal dialogue and description so that the reader can hear the same character inner thoughts that I’ve been listening to since I started the book. I try to remind myself, during edits, that readers turn pages because of tension and emotional impact. Plot’s great. It drives the story, but it’s not enough. Have I delivered? Did I make my characters believable and real? Would a reader care about them enough to follow them through a second book, if I’m writing a series? Will the readers miss them when the story’s over?

A fellow blogger whom I read has developed a novel approach to editing. The linear, from start to finish approach, isn’t enough for her anymore. She has some great tips on editing, ways to make the middle of your story stronger. Rewrites, for me, are about honing a novel until I’ve made it as good as I know how to. It’s when I look at the foundation of the story, as well as the fine points.

Did I start with a great hook? It can be in your face or subtle, as long as it grabs you.
Did I deliver the set-up soon enough? Anymore, lots of books state the protagonist’s big problem in the first paragraph or by the end of the first page. It tells me what this book is about.
Did I create the perfect setting? Will it flavor every nuance of the story?
Did I create protagonists the reader will care about? Are the stakes high enough? Does my main character have to struggle and change to achieve his goal?
Did I people the story with minor characters who have goals/problems of their own? Are they distinct? Memorable? (I read a post on that gave great advice on creating characters. I like it for more than just POV:
Did I add enough sub-plots to keep the story afloat? For a novel, I like to have at least two sub-plots, more if the book’s really long.
Did I add enough tension in EVERY scene to keep the pacing tight?
Were the plot points strong enough to keep the story afloat? Did I have an inciting incident, then two twists, and finally a final showdown and wrapup?

I’ve talked about all of these things on this blog before, but I’m in rewrite mode. All of the above is floating around in my head. And those are just the foundation pilings. Grammar, language, and imagery all come into play, too. That’s why rewrites take time. And that’s why they’re so wonderful. Rewrites help you tweak your tale from the basics to the “much, much better” and, if you’re lucky and persistent, topnotch.

(I’m still playing with my writing experiment on my webpage, and I’m still having fun with it:

Writing: Picking a Fellow Writer’s Brain

I invited my friend and fellow writer, Mary Lou Rigdon, to my blog this week for a Q & A. We come at writing from different angles, so I thought you might like to hear another writer’s approach. She writes Regency romances under the name Julia Donner, and her book, The Tigresse and the Raven, will be on special this week, Jan. 19-23, on Kindle for $0.99!

1. How did you start writing historical romance?
First, thanks for asking me to come on your blog! And for all your advice that I find myself using every day.

My first full length work was western set, a time period I was immersed in while working in my aunt’s museum. Like most regency enthusiasts, I loved Georgette Heyer. Then I visited England and Scotland and fell utterly in love. You can actually feel the history.

2. Who are 2 of your favorite authors?

Cruel question when there are so many. I’ll take the two that come to mind first, Steinbeck and James Lee Burke.

3. 2 favorite movies? (I know you’re a movie buff) And your favorite food? (Okay, that’s my obsession).

The movie one is easy. The Best Years of Our Lives, because it’s about our country’s, as well as Great Britain’s, “finest hour.” There are many films with better everything else, but I cherish that one as a tribute to a generation we will never again be able to equal.

The food thing? There’re so many goodies and so little time, but to narrow it down, I must at all cost avoid kettle-cooked potato chips. I could stick my entire head in the bag and never come out.

4. What elements do you think are important, specifically, for romance? (You helped me with the “steps” of romance, and I appreciate it).

Investment in the characters. Conflicts and obstacles to overcome. If a sensual story, the heightening of physical attraction while creating an emotional impact on the reader. (Visceral impact, if erotica, which IMHO is not always romance.) The willingness for characters to change and grow, and establishing the changes at the ending in a way that enhances the relationship.

5. What is your philosophy of life? (Didn’t expect that, did you?) Of writing?

Pretty much what is prevalent in what I write, support and loyalty for those we love, finding the courage to do what must be done.

In life as well in the stories I write, I like to look back and see how environments, people, incidents, challenges, etc., have created positive or negative change.

6. You can get a bit steamy. Would you let your mother (if she were still around) read what you write?

Are you kidding? Twenty years ago, maybe not. I’m a lot older and a little wiser. She read the fantasy series but went to heaven before the romances came out. I think she’d scold me for the “steamy” stuff with a grin and a twinkle in her eyes.

7. Any theme for your latest book, The Duchess and the Duelist?

The same theme as the series, friendship. I am fortunate to have friends who never judge me, always have my back, and never bother to ask me for a reason when I need to ask for help. In this new release, Evangeline has to learn to trust the friendship she’s offered.

8. Setting is important in your genre. It’s important in the books you write as M. L. Rigdon, too. How do you set yours up?

It depends on the genre. Fantasy requires lots of world building, which has to be concrete in the mind before it gets to the page.

Contemporary has a much different voice and less of everything. More “white” on the page, as they used to say, less description and a leap right into the action.

Historical is all about the research, immersing oneself into the time period, more description, and familiarity with customs of the time period, in order to take the reader to that place in time, learning the vernacular and cadence of the spoken word. The historical readership knows their history, so beware.

9. What advice would you give a fellow writer?

Write or work on writing every day. Find a writing group sincere about the craft, who loves, as Stanislavski said, “the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” Then listen to them.

10. And finally, out of all the protagonists and heroes you’ve written, do you have a favorite? (I have a crush on Asterly in your The Heiress and the Spy). Who’s yours and why?

Probably Ladnor-Sha from Prophecy Denied. The characters we writers create are often bits and pieces of ourselves, although there are writers who need to use living (or once-living) people.

The reason Ladnor’s a favorite is sadly obvious. Of all the characters I’ve created, he’s most like me, especially the bull-headed part.

Mary Lou, Thanks for being here and sharing with us!

Remember to look for her novel, The Tigresse and the Raven, on special this week on Amazon!(Jan. 19-23)
The Tigresse and the Raven (Book 1)
The Friendship Series

Mary Lou’s blog:
Mary Lou’s webpage:
The Tigresse and the Raven:
the_Tigresse_and_the_Raven_cover[1] (2)

Her newest Regency release:
The Duchess and the Duelist

Writing: Settings Can Hook Me On Series

My friend, Paula, and I are buddy-reading Julia Spencer-Fleming’s newest mystery, The Evil Days.   Fleming’s books are as much character driven as plot driven, which we both love.  For me, that’s what distinguishes a literary mystery from a straighforward mystery.  That, and the use of language.  But the other reason we love the series is Millers Kill, the location of the stories–a town in the Adirondack region of upstate New York.

In the best books, settings become integral to the storyline.  If the author picked up her characters and dropped them somewhere else, the whole tone of the story would change.  Sharyn McCrumb wrote mysteries about the Appalachia region with its folklore and traditions.  She took the same coast as Fleming, but painted it with a Southern voice and got an entirely different feel.   Martha Grimes named her novels after English pubs, and Elizabeth George nailed the tone of the English mystery and Scotland Yard.  P.I.s walk the “mean streets” of big cities–like New York, Detroit, or L.A.  When I think about V. I. Warshawski, I think about Chicago.  They’re almost synonymous to me.

Fantasy writers have always had to create a world for their characters to inhabit, and the more real the world–whether it’s dystopian or imaginary–the stronger the series.  In Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels novels, Andrews gives us a world where magic and technology clash with each other.  Sometimes, magic rules and technology goes down.  Other times, technology hums along and magic recedes.  That creates an interesting challenge for her heroine, who uses magic, but knows that sometimes, her energy will surge, and sometimes, she’d be better off with a weapon.  All urban fantasy writers take a world, much like ours, and people it with supernatural characters.  The trick is defining the rules for each supernatural and staying true to those rules.   Some writers only let vampires roam when the sun sets.  Others let them sparkle.  If they can make it believable and consistent, it doesn’t matter.

I’m always happy when a setting becomes almost a character in the stories I write.  It doesn’t always happen, but it did in the Babet/Prosper novellas.  River City is loosely based–and I do mean loosely–on a trip I made to New Orleans.  That city had an essence I haven’t experienced anywhere else.  I wanted to incorporate that feeling in my writing, especially since I wanted to have witches, voodoo, and succubi treading its nooks and crannies.  Faith Hunter cranks New Orleans up even more to give her Jane Yellowrock series its gritty feel.

Emerald Hills came alive for me in a completely different way.  In my mind, it takes place in Nashville, Indiana–with I.U. and Bloomington close by, the Brown County national park a stone’s throw away, and wineries within corking distance.  I could picture the quaint, unique tourist shops, but those can be found many places.  What makes Emerald Hills special is the magic that seeps into the bonbons, shoes, and garden gnomes that are sold.  When I write those novellas, I can almost picture Tinkerbell’s magic dust sprinkled over this shop owner or that.

Some stories are universal.  They can take place anywhere.  The characters and plots are enough to carry them.  But I always love it when a setting sticks in mind–a place so real, I want to return to see what’s happening there.  It’s something to consider when you start your next book.



Writing about Place

I got the brilliant idea (at least, it seemed like it at the time) to write four or five different series of novellas, and I wanted each one to have a slightly different flavor.  To achieve that, I used settings to distinguish one set of stories from another.

For the Babet/Prosper series, I set the stories in River City–a place of gumbo, po’boys, and magic.  Witches and Weres feel comfortable on its streets.  A succubus runs its bordello.    Voodoo mingles with juju, and a bogeyman might stop for a visit.  There’s an “anything goes” type of vibe to the place.

I wanted my gargoyle/gorgon series to have a different feel.  Gargoyles are guardians of cities and churches.  They take themselves seriously.  River City would scandalize them.  So I put them in an urban area, filled with good, solid citizens who need protected from the “others” who are up to no good.  Paranormals shift to look like mortals, to blend among us.  And no bad deed goes unpunished.

For my Loralei/Death series, I wanted a smaller, more personal setting, so Loralei lives in a cozy, stone cottage at the end of a long, winding drive.  If someone visits there, it’s because they’re desperate.  And they’re willing to pay a price for Death’s favors.

The point is, when you choose a setting for whatever story you’re working on, the setting becomes an integral part of the plot and characterization.  Why does the protagonist live there?  Why does he stay instead of leave?  What sort of flavor does the setting have?  Does it suit the tone of the story?  In my Emerald Hills novellas, the town itself becomes a minor character that drives the stories.  It has magic tucked in different tourist shops.  It calls people to it.

Cozy mysteries usually take place in small towns, whereas P.I. novels favor big cities.  There’s a reason.  Settings contribute to the pulse of a story.  Choose them carefully.  And make them real–so that we can smell the gas fumes or the cinnamon and sugar at the donut shop.  Are there wide expanses of cement and skyscrapers or striped awnings and brick streets?  And why is this particular setting important to the protagonist?  Does he love it or hate it?  Feel at home or trapped?  The setting and how the protagonist responds to it helps to create the mood of the story.