Saturday, May 26, 2018

Refusing to Review

            I’ve been thinking a lot this month about book reviews, a subject near and dear (or maybe not-so-dear) to writers’ hearts. And specifically, I’ve been thinking about reviews for books you don’t like.

            What do you do when you don’t like a book? I think it’s a tough question: as writers, we know the importance of the numbers of reviews we garner for each book. It doesn’t matter if a review is a one-star or a five-star. It counts. We like to support other writers with reviews and we tout the importance of reviews to anyone and everyone who will listen.

            But what do you do when you read a book and you really don’t like it? What if, according to your personal rating scale, it rates two or three stars, or worse? What do you do then?

            My own policy, with one notable exception which I’ll share below, is to leave an online review only if I feel I can give a book four or five stars. On rare occasions, I’ve given books three stars. I struggle with the intellectual honesty of this policy of not reviewing every book I read, but in the end, it’s what I feel comfortable doing.

            Here’s my thinking: I know how much work goes into writing a book. I know how much it hurts to read a review from a person who didn’t like one of my books. I don’t want to be the person who ruins another writer’s day because I didn’t like how he or she told a story.

            When I review a book, I always state what I like about it. When I don’t feel it deserves five stars, I write what I think would make it a better book. That’s what I appreciate from reviewers, so I figure other writers might appreciate it, too.

            But here’s the caveat I noted above. When a book is written by an author of the John Grisham-JK Rowling-Lee Child-Danielle Steel caliber, I don’t mind giving it two or three stars if I really didn’t like it. My reasoning is simple—they have a monumental, worldwide fan base, and one lousy review from me isn’t going to make or break their day.

            I’m curious about other writers’ review practices. Do you review everything you read? Do you review only certain books? Are there circumstances under which you will or will not give a low rating to any book?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Animal Kingdom: For Writers Who Like to Walk on the Wild Side

by Maggie King 

Characters who are so good at being so bad … that’s Animal Kingdom in a nutshell.

On May 29, Season 3 of TNT’s Animal Kingdom premieres. Will I be watching?

I never missed an episode of the first two seasons, based on the 2010 Australian film of the same title.

For the uninitiated, here’s TNT’s blurb for Animal Kingdom:
Animal Kingdom is an adrenaline-charged drama starring Ellen Barkin as the matriarch of a Southern California family whose excessive lifestyle is fueled by their criminal activities, with Scott Speedman as her second in command. Shawn Hatosy, Ben Robson, Jake Weary and Finn Cole also star.
Ellen Barkin is all bottle-blonde magnificence as the controlling and manipulative mom, hell bent on getting her way. She always does. Her sons and grandson are your classic sexy-as-all-get-out bad boys. And they don’t mind shedding their clothes on-camera. Often.
Folks, this ain’t Hallmark fare. No one is nice. It’s even hard to root for the detectives who are trying to bring the family down—they may be on the right side of the law, but just barely. But characters don’t have to be likeable, just compelling.

Writers can benefit from watching Animal Kingdom with its nuanced and layered portrayal of a dysfunctional family. The tone can be ratcheted down, or up, to suit a readership. Glimpses of humanity will surface briefly, only to be quelled. The dark tale contrasts with a sunny Southern California setting, creating a virtual underworld that emphasizes the unsavoriness of the plot and those characters who are so good at being so bad as they walk on the wild side.

A word on the violence: Season 1 of Animal Kingdom started out with a creepy, menacing tone and only a suggestion of violence. By season end, I watched someone get beaten to a bloody pulp, punch by punch, kick by kick. I hesitated to watch Season 2.

But I’ve long been intrigued by scary moms who manipulate their children, especially their sons, and get them to do their evil bidding. It’s a theme that shows up in my writing. Animal Kingdom illustrates this family dynamic to perfection.

And so I watched Season 2. Frankly, I don’t recall much violence. It certainly didn’t approach the level of Season 1.

Circling back to my original question: On May 29, will I be watching the Season 3 premiere of Animal Kingdom?

I wouldn’t miss it.

Cast of Animal Kingdom. Picture courtesy of TNT

More on Animal Kingdom from TNT.  

More on Animal Kingdom from Rolling Stone.

For writers who prefer milder TV fare as writing inspiration, here’s my post from January of this year.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Location Location Location - Fact or Fiction?

I was recently interviewed on a local radio station and one of the questions put to me was “Why did you choose the label A Cheshire Love Story for your books?”

My reason was purely a marketing ploy. Although my stories are all stand-alone, I want the flexibility of offering box sets in the future. Having been in an upmarket magazine, called Cheshire Life, I thought A Cheshire Love Story sounded…lovely. I live in Cheshire in the North West of England. It is a relatively prosperous area with some beautiful mansions, luxurious cars and private schools. Of course ordinary people live here too.

It got me thinking. Does it help the author to know the towns, roads, restaurants, landmarks, etc. that appear in their stories?

An obvious answer to that has to be “Yes.” Many authors set their stories in places they have some connection with, perhaps somewhere they grew up, or where they now live. I know of many who write about a holiday location, some even lucky enough to own a holiday home. But that doesn’t mean you are “stuck” there.

So what tools are available to us in this twenty-first century?

1. Good old local knowledge.

In a novella I’m writing, there is a scene set on the way to Manchester Airport, which isn’t far from me. I needed to get my protagonist from a hotel in a village I know, to the airport, and I needed to know how long it would take. Being able to do that journey, checking out the surrounding area at the same time, meant I could write the scene with confidence. Many readers love it if they know the area you are writing about. Likewise many will be delighted to correct you if you get it wrong.

However, beware. You can get caught out. In Keeping You I wrote about a bookshop near where I used to work. My hero had the nerve to park his car illegally in front of the shop. When I held a book reading in said shop one night, I discovered that there was no longer a road in front of it – it had been pedestrianized. Makes the offence of parking outside even worse J

Another advantage of naming actual places, hotels etc. is the connection you can make with the community. It could be the local library, a bar in a hotel (particularly nice setting for an evening discussing erotic romance) or a book group. Some people love that, and you may be able to use it in promoting your work. For example, I often use #Cheshire in Twitter posts, and can gain retweets and likes from organisations in the vicinity – even getting invited on the local radio station.

Although personal experience is of great value, it doesn’t have to be a limiting factor when it comes to setting scenes. The internet has opened up virtually the whole world. And Google Earth is an added bonus when it comes to an author’s use of location.

2. Google Earth and the Internet

All of my stories have some connection with Cheshire, but they also include additional locations, including London and Manchester, and further afield in Kenya and Australia.

Keeping You takes the reader to White Chapel in London. Even though I have been to London many times, I have never been to White Chapel. But with the help of Google Earth, I was able to locate a high-rise apartment block in a very rundown area, with a phone box on the corner and smaller houses across the road. It was the perfect setting for my hero to be holed up while he sought revenge for the killing of his best friend, and it was a far cry from the luxurious mansion he lived in near Crewe in Cheshire.

Another of my books still to be published by my publisher, Black Opal Books, involves a trip to Melbourne in Australia. I have never been to Australia, let alone Melbourne, but I did my research using the internet and Google Earth. I needed a seedy location where sex workers resided, with a nightclub, and betting premises. Internet searches gave me St. Kilda, and Google Earth helped me house a young woman who never wanted to be a nice one… I was also able to confirm there was a cycling track nearby, as my protagonist was a keen cyclist. I backed up my research with requests to a friend who did live in Australia, leaving me confident enough to write about the area. Further research involved checking local facilities for paternity testing. This was all carried out from the comfort of my own home.

3. Websites selling houses

I confess to being someone who trawls, more nosily than thoroughly, through internet sites offering all sorts of homes to buy. I need to know what type of places exist in the location I have chosen.

On one such site I found the perfect mansion, with its own swimming pool, gym, and amazing grounds, for Lawrence in Keeping You. I named it The Sway. I even used the floor plan to walk my heroine through the house when she was left there alone near the beginning of the book. I find it a great help to visualise the layout of homes in my stories. However, I never use the images on any promotional sites – you have to be vigilant about copyright etc. I purchase all my photos or use Google free “labelled for reuse” images.

So I don’t restrict myself to places I know or have visited. I broaden my horizons and “travel” with no expense spared.

3. Mix and match

Of course, your location doesn’t have to actually exist. (I’m not just talking scifi/fantasy here.)

In The Secret At Arnford Hall I decided to use a fictitious village in Cheshire, and broadly based the Hall on a castle, which was for sale in the Channel Islands. I located Arnford next to a real town called Knutsford, and mention several places that exist there. Again I have been caught out when Gabriel Black takes Grace for lunch in a restaurant in Knutsford, which has since closed down!

Why don’t you share with us the tools you use for the settings in your stories, and maybe confess to the odd faux pas? After all, we are lovers of writing romance and entitled to have our heads in the clouds every now and then J

Images of some of the homes in my books

The Sway, Keeping You 
White Chapel - Google Earth, Keeping You

 Arnford Hall, The Secret At Arnford Hall

The old farmhouse, Guiltless

Sunday, May 6, 2018

For Wannabe Authors

by Linda Thorne

Someone I know recently asked me if I’d give her some insight on how to go about writing a book. It wasn’t until yesterday when I couldn’t come up with a subject for my scheduled post on Novel Spaces that it dawned on me. This would be a good topic.

Most people who are published authors got there by happenstance. They’ve stumbled upon the notion after some event prompted them, or they saw or heard something that sparked the desire. Then there are those with the unexplained itch that began brewing inside them years earlier coming to fruition when they finally must write “the book.” My motivation came from the latter, “brewing” up to it. I can’t claim to be a career author since I have another full-time career, but I have published a debut novel and several short stories and I’m well on my way with book  two.

If asked how to write a book and publish it, I can’t really speak for others, but I can tell you how I pulled it off. Here’s the skinny:

  • I bought a book on how to write a book. I followed the directions, made index cards, detailed plot points, drew up story lines.
  • I wrote the book with the plot and subplots that had been in my head for years. It took a year. When I read what I’d written, it didn’t sound like any book I’d ever read. It was far from good.
  • So, I took a pause, to read more books in my genre, mysteries, and edited my first draft. It was better, but it still didn’t read like a published book.
  • I joined a critique group and took pieces of my book to weekly meetings where they ripped it to shreds. It helped. Warning on critique groups, you need to get savvy on what to take away and throw away from a critique meeting.
  • I’d take month long breaks from novel writing to write short
    stories. I sent my polished shorts off to contests and magazines. I learned from the reject letters and when I began to win or publish a story, I had a thermometer to tell me where I was. Writing shorts and receiving feedback, improved my writing skills.
  • I’d go to the Killer Nashville conference year after year, pen and pad in hand, and go to every session on topics I had not yet grasped.
  • I read more self-help books this time on plot, structure, and basic rewriting the novel. My 150,000-word book was now down to 110,000 and I started submitting it to publishers and agents like crazy, which stopped when I could no longer take the onslaught of rejection letters.
  • Instead, I started sending segments of my book to contests where the judges gave critiques. There were many, but some were especially helpful: The Sandy Contest, the Colorado Gold Writing Contest, and the PNWA Literary Contest. I never won, but I used every suggestion given by the judges and my manuscript was the better for it.
  • I found a different sort of contest that accepted my manuscript in its entirety. The Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Contest had a winning prize of $10,000 along with publication. The only entry requirement was not to have already published a novel. My first submission did not make the finals, so I went back to the drawing board. My book was getting smaller, now down to 95,000 words. The second year, I did not make the finals again, but my assigned judge sent me an e-mail telling me it had promise. The judge assigned to me the third year, sent my manuscript to the finals, big step, but another author’s book won. I didn’t know how close I might’ve been to beating the winning author until the fourth year when I went to the finals again. This time none of the finalists were good enough for publication, which meant I wasn’t even close to winning author the year before. That did it! I had more work to do and this time I needed to revise it for publication. I didn’t have time to wait another year to re-enter the contest.
  • I tore through my book again, taking pieces of it to my critique groups, using my self-help books, my notes from the Killer Nashville conferences, judges comments from various contests. I revised and revised and then began submitting my manuscript, now down to 85,000-words, to publishers and agents again. Bingo! Black Opal Books read my entire book and asked to publish it.

I’m not sure whether my friend will still be interested in writing a book after reading this. It might not be such a hard process for her. It was a ten-year run for me and a lot harder than I’d thought when I first started out. Was it worth all the work and frustration? Absolutely! That would take a whole other post to explain why.      

Buy Link: Amazon

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Guest author Anne Louise Bannon: The Hard Part of Historical Research

Anne Louise Bannon
One of the things I love most about writing historical fiction is the research. I love reading old newspapers, poring over old maps, trying to decode old hand-writing, trying to determine if I’m getting an accurate understanding of something.

But the toughest part of any historical research is figuring out the day to day minutae of people’s lives. That’s the stuff that seldom gets written down or kept. Even in these days of tell-all social media, we seldom post about the baloney sandwich we had for lunch, the button we sewed back on our shirt, or even bother to describe how we make a baloney sandwich or sew a button on. Why should we? We all know what baloney is. Most of us get the idea of needle and thread going through the holes of a button.

The problem is, that’s exactly the information I need to bring an era to life. When did doctors start using plaster casts? (Doctors in Europe started using them in the 1840s and ‘50s, American doctors knew about them, but didn’t like using them for a long time – no idea why).

That was one of the biggest problems I had when writing my latest novel, Death of the Zanjero, a mystery set in Los Angeles 1870. The medical stuff was reasonably easy to find (my main character, Maddie Wilcox, has medical training). The politics of the then small town? A snap – there are scads of city council minutes I could draw upon, as well as newspapers from the time on microfilm.

However, there’s a lot about daily life in Los Angeles that was not in any of those sources or many others, as well. The story involves the town’s irrigation system, which was a series of ditches, or zanjas (pronounced zahn-ha), that had been dug off the main ditch, or Zanja Madre, which brought water from the Los Angeles River. The opening of the sluice gate to Maddie’s vineyard zanja is a major scene. Could I find anything referencing how the gates opened or what they were made of? Not in the city council minutes. There were several references to monies given to the Zanjero, or Water Overseer, for materials, but zip on what those materials were. Why would they write that down? They knew what those materials were.

One of the primary crops in the area at the time was wine grapes. Yep. The California wine industry actually started here in sunny SoCal (sorry about that, Napa). So, it made sense that Maddie made her living as a winegrower and winemaker. Yeah, but how did they make the wine? I had plenty of information on crop rates, who was making and selling the wine, stuff like that. But even one of the most prominent experts in the history of wine in the city, Dr. Thomas Pinney, couldn’t tell me what the process was. No one had written it down. They knew how it worked. Why should they?

I did actually find the answers, thanks to the doggedness of a couple librarians, one from the public library and the other from the wine industry archive at California State University of Pomona. And you know where both of them found those answers? In the tourist literature of the time.

Of course! Outsiders will write about what we think of as mundane. It’s new and strange to them. The other fun thing about tourist literature is that it goes back a way long ways, even to ancient times. You won’t always find information on cooking and what went on in kitchens and how houses were cleaned. Tourist literature, like most things in our planet’s history, does tend to be written by men and with their perspective. That which was written by women was usually written by women with the means to travel, which means they weren’t paying attention to what the servants were doing.

Diaries remain an excellent source of information. But don’t forget to check the tourist literature when you’re looking for daily life details. It sometimes has what nothing else does – and that’s a lot of fun.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Book Club Snacks

            Lately it seems like I’ve been hungry all the time. I don’t know why—maybe it’s because spring is in the air, maybe it’s stress, maybe the fault lies with Pinterest and Instagram—but more often than not, my thoughts have turned to food.

photo has nothing to do with post--it's just a photo I love and it's cake...

            So this month, in honor of World Book Day (which was April 23rd), I’ve decided to write a post about book club snacks. The post therefore combines two of my loves: reading and eating. And yes, there will be recipes.

            Ideally, a book club snack serves two purposes: 1) it is tasty and invites club members to linger, and 2) it has some connection, however tenuous, to the book under discussion.

            I am lucky to have been invited to attend book club discussions on many occasions when clubs are reading and discussing one of my books. One club has had me visit twice—first to discuss House of the Hanging Jade and second to discuss The House on Candlewick Lane.

The members of this particular club really get into the food-theme pairings. For the discussion of House of the Hanging Jade, which was set on the Island of Hawaii, the members served a smorgasbord of tropical delights, two of my favorites being the fruit punch and poke. For the discussion of The House on Candlewick Lane, which is set in Scotland, the members brought Scotch Eggs, homemade toffee, and even whisky for those who wanted to partake! I took shortbread to add to the spirit of the discussion.

One group in Pennsylvania read The Ghosts of Peppernell Manor. There is a hurricane in the book, which is set outside Charleston, South Carolina, and the family in the book makes something called Hurricane Stew. The group made stew for our meeting! There were also quick breads, which was a specialty of one of the book’s characters.

Book clubs that meet to merely discuss books are great and I’ve been to plenty of those, too, but add food to the mix and you’ve got an extra layer of fun and discussion.

So below are three of my favorite snacks for book clubs. Is your book club reading a romance, or a book set in a steamy locale? Try the Jalapeno Popper Dip. Are you reading something funny? Try a snack that’s sweet and light, like the Fruit Dip. Are you reading a psychological thriller? Try the UFO Dip, which is layered, just like the story.

            Got any favorites of your own? Share them in the comments!

Jalapeno Popper Dip
(from “Every Day with Rachael Ray”)

3 slices bacon, chopped
1 c. panko
3 cans (4 oz. each) diced jalapenos, drained
2 pkgs (8 oz. each) cream cheese, room temperature
1 c. mayonnaise
1/2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1 small fresh jalapeno, seeded and chopped
1 T. grated Parmesan cheese
Tortilla chips

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large skillet cook bacon over medium heat until crispy, 6-8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon transfer the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate. Drain all but 2 T. of the bacon drippings; add the panko and stir to coat. Remove from heat.

In a bowl, mix half the bacon with the canned jalapenos, cream cheese, mayonnaise, and cheddar cheese. Transfer mixture to a 2-qt. baking dish. Sprinkle with the panko, remaining bacon, fresh jalapeno, and Parmesan cheese. 

Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 25-30 minutes. Serve with tortilla chips.

Fruit Dip

2 small boxes instant vanilla pudding
3 c. cold milk
8 oz. container whipped topping
almond extract to taste
cut-up fruit

Mix pudding and milk for about 2 minutes. Fold in whipped topping. Add almond extract to taste and mix well. Serve with cut-up fruit.


2 pkgs (8 oz. each) cream cheese, softened
1 pint sour cream
onion powder to taste
1 jar medium salsa, divided
2 c. shredded cheddar cheese, divided
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 large tomato, diced
1 large can black olives, sliced
1 green pepper, chopped.

Using an electric mixer, blend together the cream cheese and the sour cream. Spread on a large circular platter or tray (I use the reusable aluminum ones) and sprinkle with onion powder to taste.

On top of the cream cheese mixture, layer the rest of the ingredients in the order they're listed above. Use only 3/4 of the jar of salsa and 1 1/2 c. of the cheddar cheese. On top of the green pepper layer, sprinkle remaining cheese, then dot with remaining salsa. Serve with tortilla chips or crudites.

P.S. Wine is also a popular beverage at book club meetings. Need a suggestion? You're in luck! My website has some great lists of reds and whites--find it at