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Call Me Mr. Advice
Steven D. Malone
Recently I received a letter from a new writer asking questions about his genre and about becoming a writer in general. With certain omissions, here is the letter I received and the advice I gave him.
I am working on a book involving my family in Texas prior to the civil war and a mutual friend is giving me some pointers. He suggested that I reach out to you because he said you did a wonderful job of geographical and societal scene setting of the era in your book Sideshow at Honey Creek.
My book is going to be a biographical fiction account and he thought you might have some general pointers on the subject that helped you with your book creation. Also, what is the best way to get hold of a copy of your book via Amazon? I would like to read it to get a feel for how you dealt with the period.
Thank you in advance for your consideration.
I'm not sure what you really need from me specifically but I'll give you my best guesses.
On geography and society:
Keyword searches on google & Bing are a great tool. Everything from history and societal mores to geography and historical people.
If or when you narrow down the physical locations in your story, find towns in and around the area. The local libraries there will often have works by any local historical society giving histories of the towns and counties. Pay particular attention to any works by local genealogists. I've found loads of insights into the early settlers (pre-Alamo and pre-Civil War), the way they lived, and even the conditions they lived in. This can be a chore because you must wade through a lot of dry data (persons and relatives, etc) to get to it. Often these ancestors had letters kept by their descendants that have been scanned into the genealogies. Chambers of Commerce in these towns might have websites and often include a lot of history.
Mexicans were thick in Texas then as now. Don't overlook any translations of Mexican ranchers, townspeople, and the Catholic Church writing in that era.
Strangely enough, I got some visual information from Google Maps' satellite view of some of the more open areas. Just zoom in.
Pay close attention to your weapons. I'm sure you know there were few revolvers and no repeating rifles or holsters like is found in the movies.
On Writing in general:
There are many good references on writing good fiction. Much of it is free online. Read widely and compare notes. Many writers differ in their wisdom and their approach to writing. Select what seems right for you but remain flexible as your writing evolves.
That also goes for writing in the genre "historical fiction." Get books from the library or find a good used bookstore. These can be pricey new. Again there is a lot of good stuff free online.
I don't know where you live but look around for some writers' critique groups. We are usually a generous bunch, eager to help out with positive feedback. Once more, you can be selective in what information comes from them. If you don't live near one of these groups, there are some online. Be selective, even picky, if you're interested. There are trolls out there. (Avoid those that want money. There are a lot of scammers out there that will cheat you. Research them closely.)
Let me be honest with you. Getting my books out took a long apprenticeship. There's a big learning curve in getting to know what you need to know. I made many mistakes. I still do.
Grow a leather skin. The feedback from other writers is paramount but this feedback can chafe. Try to get used to positive criticism for it's important. Anything they may say is wrong with your work is probably right, but what they say will fix it will probably be wrong.
Get a good "copy editor", that's a reader a step above those in a critique group. Get a good proofreader. These don't necessarily have to be paid professionals but they need to be astute readers. They may even be the same person. I had pretty good luck once with a 5th grade English teacher. They will know how to correct your grammar but they'll need to know what makes a good book.
Look into good book cover designers. I didn't and I'm not particularly happy with one of mine.
Also learn about "the writer's platform" on line. You'll need one. The platform will include your website that will sort of provide a business card to your work, and your so-called "social media" presence. Put an email account on the site that is not your personal one. A good way to find readers and network with other authors is through email, and twitter and facebook, etc. That's how I interact with our friend. That's for later though. Get that book worked on for now.
It's hard to find publishing houses and agents for a first time writer. You might finally decide to self-publish. There's a learning curve there too but there's a lot of information out there as well.
My website is the quickest way to get to my books on amazon. Scroll down and click on the links to the two historical fiction books.
The website is:
The best advice for writers that I ever saw is: keep your day job. Don't expect things to go quickly and don't expect to make a lot of money. Few writers get rich at it.
I wish you the best of luck. If there is anything more I can help with, let me know. Stay in touch
What problems are you encountering as a new writer? Has your involvement as an experienced writer been like this? What was the “learning curve” for you as you evolved as a writer?
Let me know. Send me an email.
Maybe I’ll post a follow up and include your comments or wisdom. We all need help.
The Five Things I Love About Writing
Steven D Malone
Early this week I looked up from yet another sheet of paper filled with words…
“Gods, I really love this,” I said to the far wall.
Because of my last post on how much I hate writing, I took a moment to think about that utterance. All said and done, I truly love to write. I love doing it though I rarely think about that love. The saying of it does help.
Making a list of why I love writing has got to help as well. They, the capital “T” They (whoever they may be), say lists help. So here follows my list of why I love writing:
1. The act of creation. That’s the first. Scribbling out a tangible object of the ephemeral fugue of the thoughts drifting around in my head. Something I can hold on to. Something fixed in reality.
2. The magic. Creation of “story” in my head seems magical, like what comes out from the waving of a wizard’s wand. I’m lucky that way. I do not really understand it but something sparks in my imagination. The spark grows on its own. I don’t, like many I know, structure or outline these stories. I just watch as the landscapes blossom and fill, the silence is peopled, and conflicts and accords emerge. It’s actually quite amazing.
3. The birth of characters. One of the best things. One of the magic things. In every way, at the root, all the writer’s characters are the writer, him or herself. Can’t really debate that. However, from the barest germ of a character needed for a story, mine seem to fill out. To become real, living people. They do this on their own. No help from me. They are individual and separate. They think things I do not think. They choose things I do not choose. They take the story they’re in to places I did not think it would go. And, since I write mostly historical fiction and so stuck to certain constraints of history, they manage to arrive in the historical setting when and where they are needed. Go figure.
4. The stuff that never gets published. Another best thing I love though no one will ever see it. Here are the most personal but least “universal” things. Here is where my dreams get fulfilled and my rants get spent. Here is where my deepest fantasies play out. Here is where the dark things hide. The extremes. The catharsis. The treasures I will not share.
I know. I know. Conventional wisdom often says that’s what should go into a writer’s writing. Dreams and rants and fantasies and dark things should go into one’s writing. Looking at bookstore shelves clearly show that they do. However, the books that are good include dreams, rants, fantasies, and dark fears that we humans all share. The “universal” dreams and fears. The non-universal parts of just me don’t get seen. Remember all the poems you’ve read and hated. You hated them because they had nothing to share with your soul. Too specific to the writer, not the world. Best left unpublished.
Still, those deepest things did get played out.
5. The sharing. Back in the dark ages of my lost youth, I decided to “become” a writer because of all the authors that wrote all the books that entertained me. The authors that brought the smile, or got the heart thumping, or swept me away to places I’d never been. I wanted to do that. What power.
Some few people have liked my work. I hear from them on social media. Once in a while, I actually get to meet them. From them comes the warmest glow. The grandest sense of validation. It almost drowns the visceral dread of rejection for letting anyone see anything I write.
I’m sure there are more reasons I love writing. Kind of think, though, that they will be twists on what’s already listed.
Love it or hate it. Doesn’t matter. I can’t stop. Like breathing, I have to do it.
Are you a writer? What do you love about writing? About being a writer? Tell me about it. Email me. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Eight Things I Hate About Writing.
Steven D. Malone
Early this week I looked up from yet another blank sheet of paper…
“Gods, I really hate this,” I said to the far wall.
To further postpone dealing with said blank page, I took the time to think about that utterance. I often say that about my chosen art. Of course, I have often said that about anything I chose to bring bacon to the table. But, these days, the saying of it helps not.
Making a list might help. They, the capital “T” They (whoever they may be), say lists help. So here follows my list of why I hate writing:
1. I am unworthy. What in creation do I have to write about anything that is worth reading? I am no Hugo. No Conrad. No Hammett. Great themes I avoid. What do I have to say about the great themes of literature?
Actually, that’s not true. They do, after a fashion, enter into my stories. Endurance. Loyalty. Survival. Betrayal. Lust and love. Commitment. Hope. More. These may be accidents of character creation but they all end up in my stories.
The answer to “worth”, in reality, is a grand SO WHAT!
So what. Just who the heck, what the heck, am I writing for. In the end, I write for me. In reality, who, what, or why are you writing?
2. The world is so depressing. How can I write while all this crap is happening around me. It’s too depressing. The mood is ruined. The weight is too heavy to bear.
Again, the answer to the world in flames is the same as the answer to worthiness. So what.
The damned planet and all upon it has limped along a grand sight longer than I have. If we are so destined, it will flop along for eons more after I am gone. Or, it won’t. There is not a dang thing I can do to any real effect. Might as well spend the time writing. Until, by death or annihilation, my pen and I do part.
So turn off the technology, insert ink cartridge, and scribble.
3. It’s so hard! Writing is hard. Did I ever think it was not. Despite the fact that most people see writers staring into the sky, that staring is us at work. Forming inspiration into structured language. Storming through the tumbling ideas for one that clings. Drifting through a lot of nothing when there are no clinging ideas. Burning eyes, cramped hands, sore butt, aching back from hours upon hours wrestling with pages of paper and glowing screens. Editing and editing. Proofing and proofing. Rewrite upon rewrite. Waiting for the galley proofs. Waiting for the post on amazon going live. Waiting for the hard copy. Burning from critics calling the baby I birthed ugly. Dancing the exuberance on the few times someone liked it. Spying sales figures and weeping when there are none to be had.
There is no answer for that other than to endure. Grow a pair. Keep on keeping on.
4. Comma. Comma. Comma. Commas are my worst thing. You’d think I’d be better at grammar. Teachers pounded grammar into my head year, after year, after year. Reading reaches the level of vice in my soul. Book, after book, after book. Most professionally proofed. Many nearly perfect in their punctuation. Over 80, that’s 80, inadequate rewrites of one of my books.
Any of it soak in? Not near enough.
Nothing stings more than someone telling me that I might be a “writer” but they couldn’t tell because my grammar was so bad that they stopped reading.
It took me way too long to realize the necessity of an editor. To let my Scots/Irish tight fist to let go of the money to pay one. (Or, to treat an editor to a ritzy dinner. Thanks Mary Jo.)
5. The distractions. TV. Internet. The thousands of books crowding my walls and floors. The distractions are way more fun than writing. And they are so easy to reach. Much better to read about the latest archaeological dig. To hoot or cry over the latest politician’s tweet. To get lost in the new movie or book.
I shouldn’t go there. I can’t go there. Switch it off. Close it up. Stay home. Write. Dang it, write.
6. I don’t like what I’ve written. It’s crap. I’m bored.
Writing is boring. Writing is frustrating. Long past the joy of first love for the newest inspiration, the machinations, the mechanics of getting it all down on paper, just doing it is way boring. Way frustrating.
There is a huge difference from the mind’s visuals and words on the page. The map is not the ground. Words are a structured invention. The grunts and moans attempting to send thought to another person.
Well, the answer to that is to write fun. Make it fun. I’ve had fun writing. I must do that again. Fun, not necessarily funny. Game the words. Find something in the scene or the character that is fun to include. It’s a fun search. Play with it. I can see when an author has embraced his art with a sense of how fun it is to so create. You can see the works of those for whom (is whom right?) it is a chore.
If it’s fun to write then, maybe, it will be fun to read.
7. No validation. Well, damn little validation.
I rarely tell people I’m a writer anymore. Most often what I get back is: “I need to show you my poetry so you can tell me if it’s any good.” Most often it’s not. The poet forgot to spend some time studying universals. Universals are what all people share. It is the commonality that make Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats, or their like, readable. The poems are so personally enmeshed as to have little connection with the rest of us. Or, I get, “Hey, you need to write my biography. I’ve lived a very interesting life.” They haven’t. Write your own. I haven’t the time.
As with any narcissist, what I really wanted to hear is, “How can I find a copy?” or even, “What’s it about.”
Writers wait forever for a response to, or a review of their book. Hell, they wait long enough for someone to buy the thing. Ask amazon how many ebooks they’ll publish this month. Our little droplet drowns in a sea of others.
Like a poet, we drop our feather into the Grand Canyon and listen for the echo.
8. But I’m so lonely. Yep, writers write alone. Being born, dieing, and writing. We do this alone. Cloister. Nook. Cranny. Shaded hillside. Unshared park bench. Coffee shop corner. There we’ll be.
Writing is, as many know, a private and personal thing. It has to be that way. If I share it before it’s finished the pristine virginity of the work tarnishes. As helpful as they are, I remain reluctant to put my unfinished work before my critique group. It took getting used to.
This is a voluntary thing for writers. Most of them. I read that Dumas wrote standing at a podium before a bevy of enchanted female groupies. Don’t know how he did it.
If you want to earn a glare from me, come into my space with some stupid facebook joke or asking what I want for dinner. Call me with a telephone solicitation, I dare you.
There is no real answer to the loneliness. Tis the nature of the beast. Join a writers’ group. Weed through the twitter spam for a conversation on your twitter account. Buy a cup of coffee for some cute patron at the shop. Talk to a neighbor. Find a way to take a break and connect with a human being.
Those are the eight reasons that I hate writing. That I hate being a writer.
Doesn’t matter. I can’t stop. Like breathing, I have to do it.
Grocery Shopping & the Writer
By Steven D. Malone
I am the grocery shopper in my family. This duty fell on me when my wife and I were breaking several glass ceilings. Her as bread winner. Me as stay at home Dad.
I mean what I say about that. We made that transition 27 years ago. Few couples did that back then. Of course, my wife actually liked working for a living. Me? Not so much. At least not at a dress up, go to the work place, chore around for eight hours, come home to supper kind of day.
Before folks go accusing me for being a “rounder”, as happened more than once, ask a mother if child rearing with all its inclement duties, frustrations, and loneliness is that damned easy.
I once brought treats, paper plates, and cookies, which I had planned and shopped for, to my son’s school for an event. I helped set up the tables, placed and arranged my stuff, and over saw the children. I cleaned up after. On the way out the door, one of the mothers told me to be sure to thank my wife.
Thank you, wife.
The grocery shopping fell to me. Bu default. I’m the one with all that extra time, being home and all. I found the exercise much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Once some man, it would be a man, likened shopping to hunting, i.e. “women’s hunting.”
I approached it that way. Stalking the wild boxed snack. The freshest fillet. The cheapest condiment. The sale isle.
Grocery shopping became a study for me. I learned. I experimented. I hunted through all the nooks and crannies.
I armed myself with lists and coupons. I learned to read labels. Calorie counts. Sodium and sugar content. Vitamins added. Strange chemical compounds. The dreaded “sell by” dates. The color of the twisty on bread loafs.
Did you know that you could measure the freshest bread by the color of the twist tie? I didn’t.
Of course I joined the favored customer club and proudly scanned my membership card at the self-checkout register.
When I rounded the dark side of my 55th birthday, I signed up for the senior discounts. (They recently dropped that privilege and got less of my money because of it. Other stores see me enter their automatic doors, sale circular in hand, now.)
My favorite grocer gives me a price break on gas if I spend enough each month. Ten cents a gallon per $100s spent. There are months when I get as much as 50 cents off per gallon. Gods, we eat a lot.
The people, staff and fellow shoppers, always fascinate.
My favorite grocer hires challenged adults as sackers and some as stockers. A wonderful thing. I watch them grow and succeed as workers and as human beings. One, a beautiful girl, has married since I first noticed her. Another very hard worker did force me to begin using the “self-checkout” machine. He’s fast and, in his way, very efficient but speed is all for him. In all these years he’s never learned the art of taking care. My bread gets crushed. My bananas get bruised. They are all focused, determined, and eager. Good employees. Got to love them.
I’ve gotten to know the assistant at my self-checkout area. We talk weather. We gossip. We tell tales of our lives.
I see Islamic women in their beautiful scarves who avoid looking directly and appreciate that I do not look directly at them. I see young mothers and fathers bringing along their kids. The kids trying hard to be good helpers but whose busy eyes never miss their favorite cereal or brightest candy. Old women in their scooters getting in everyone’s way but trying to maintain a bit of independence. Some are accompanied by their health care workers. I see men, some older than me, also charged with bringing home the groceries even if they are not bringing home the bacon.
Not so secretly, I relish my status as an astute shopper.
That does not mean I get much respect.
The IRS still views my writing career as a hobby. Enough people buy my stuff and maybe the tax man will be less condescending. Most of the population, including the “revenuer” does not grasp the efforts made by someone whose daily work is done by what looks like stares out the window. Trust me, I see little of the view of my backyard.
My hard focused, carefully planned, safari to Piggly-Wiggly, or wherever, is considered, not a disruption of my work day, not something essential to family life, but simply an errand.
That said, it’s an acquired taste and an acquired skill. From the prospective of my advanced years, I sit satisfied and even proud of doing it. And it’s a service, eagerly done, for my family.
Go ahead, arm yourself, know your territory, keep a sharp eye. Buy some groceries today.
The Mystery of Mysteries
By Steven D. Malone
The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic.― G.K. Chesterton
Because I’m writing a series of sleuth novellas, I thought I’d take a gander at what some of those writers thought about their sleuth stories, and their art. Most interesting, as it turns out. Writing is still writing.
I write historical fiction and historical fantasy. But an accident put me onto Dashiell Hammett and from there onto Raymond Chandler. The dam burst and I was off on writing a mystery. A historical mystery but a mystery.
As with most writers, I turned to google. Inquiring minds do want to know. There’s a lot out there. Most of us are generous and eager to share the mechanics of our art. We can find good rules of thumb, formulas, and guidelines. Heck, I even found a number of mystery plot generators.
Our task as sleuth writers is to make our readers hear, feel, and above all, see. That is all and that is everything. — Joseph Conrad
I learned to try first person POV. Something I’d never done before. This lets the reader live vicariously through the narrator and be closer to him. Even makes the action keener felt. First person can allow your protagonist to be naive, especially in his or her first cases. However, naive is okay. Stupid? Never. Readers will not like dumb or inane. That probably goes for antagonists. Antagonists can overlook something that ends up with them catching themselves but the protagonist needs to end up noticing.
It’s always good to throw in some romance. These days it’s expected. Try for the unexpected twist or the unpredictable liaison. Too often a pairing has been done to death. Make it fun. Make it spicy.
Sidekicks are good. They are friends and foils. They prevent the hero from getting too full of him or herself. Or, the opposite, they can prop up the hero in difficult times. They can offer different perspectives. They can watch the hero’s back.
Throw in some action. Sleuthing is a dangerous business. Murderers do not like being hunted or caught. They are not nice people - generally. Who knows, maybe our antagonists have mitigating circumstances and it’s a sad day when they’re caught.
The best advice I found was “make it believable.” It is essential that your sleuth is involved for more than idle curiosity. Give strong reasons for the hero to be tenacious - especially when facing danger. As a murderer has motive for the crime, the sleuth must have motivation for getting to the solution.
Now for the masters:
I chose to have them comment on; being a writer, plot, tension and conflict, characterization, and style. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge and I will not attribute all of their comments for the sake of length.
That said, the authors I studied include some of the following: Raymond Chandler (RC), Jim Thompson (JT), George V. Higgins (GVH), William Bernhardt (WB), Ross MacDonald (RM), PD James (PJ), John Le Carre (JL), Patricia Cornwell (PC), Sue Grafton (SG) Joseph Conrad (JC), Arthur Conan Doyle (ACD) Catherine Louisa Pirkis (CLP) Georges Simenon (GS)
For all of you considering such stories, researching these writers will be fun and well worth your time. Get at it.
Writing doesn’t get easier. Every novel is a first novel. (JL)
We all need to look into the dark side of our nature -- that’s where the energy is, the passion. People are afraid of that because it holds pieces of us we’re busy denying. (SG)
The faster one writes the greater the output. Besides, going slow means trouble. You might be pushing your words instead of being led by them. (RC)
As a man writes his fiction, his fiction is writing him. We can never change ourselves back into what we were, any more than I can change these printed words. So we have to be careful about what we write. (RM)
Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted. And, write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell. (PJ)
If you do not seek to publish what you have written, then you are not a writer and you never will be. (JVH)
I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go. (GVH)
I suppose I shall have to compound a felony, as usual. (ACD)
My task is to make you hear, to make you feel,and, above all, to make you see. That is all, and it is everything. (JC)
There is nothing like shooting a man while he's down.(PC)
A good plot was one which made good scenes. A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. (RC)
There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot – things are not as they seem. (JT)
I see plot as a vehicle of meaning. It should be as complex as contemporary life, but balanced enough to say true things about it. The surprise with which a detective novel concludes should set up tragic vibrations which run backward through the entire structure. Which means that the structure must be single, and intended. (RM)
It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important. (ACD)
Tension & Conflict:
Competing egos, status struggles, clashes of styles and personalities — this is the stuff conflict thrives upon. (WB)
We all need to look into the dark side of our nature -- that’s where the energy is, the passion. People are afraid of that because it holds pieces of us we’re busy denying. (SG)
Murder is murder, as much a curse to the slayer as to the slain, and cannot be a matter of indifference, whoever the dead may be. (EP)
The only thing better than getting away with doing a crime was to get someone else convicted for having done it.(DF)
Now is the dramatic moment of fate, Watson, when you hear a step upon the stair which is walking into your life, and you know not whether for good or ill. (ACD)
Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another. (ACD)
Jealousy is a strange transformer of characters. (ACD)
Men drive off bridges and drink too much because of women like you. (JE)
Too much virtue has a corrupting effect. (SG)
Pretty was hardly the word. With her fierce curled lips, black eyes and clean angry bones she must have stood out in her graduating class like a chicken hawk in a flock of pullets. (RM)
“Character determines action,” she said, slowly, at last. “That is the secret of the great novelists. They put themselves behind and within their characters, and so make us feel that every act of their personages is not only natural but even — given the conditions — inevitable. (CLP)
I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood. My characters—I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional ... My characters have a profession, have characteristics; you know their age, their family situation, and everything. But I try to make each one of those characters heavy, like a statue, and to be the brother of everybody in the world. (GS)
The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing. (RC)
To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack. (RC)
The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the single most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. (RC)
Never tell your reader what your story is about. Reading is a participatory sport. People do it because they are intelligent and enjoy figuring things out for themselves. (GVH)
There are times when an old rule should be abandoned or a current rule should not be applied. (SG)
In the end…
I sat at the feet of the masters and so that I may, the gods willing, stand upon the shoulders of giants. These things are what I learned. I give them to you, both as writers and readers. Go grab a good mystery and a cup of coffee. Hunker down. Solve all your mysteries.