Sunday, June 4, 2017

Great Fiction Depends on Great Characters

We all know character development is important, but most of us are tired of the standard advice: Avoid stereotypes. Model your characters on real people with foibles. 

Maybe these three points will start you thinking about character development.

1. Spend less time describing characters’ appearances and more time showing their actions, especially if their actions put them in conflict with the norms of their worlds.

2. If you usually write novels, experiment with short stories. They force you to identify and demonstrate the key features of characters more quickly and succinctly. Also, you're more apt to rewrite a character that you haven't become attached to after a hundred pages.
3. One trick for displaying unforgettable characters is to select the narrator (point of view) of your tale carefully. Before I started writing short stories, I interviewed dozens of acquaintances about their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. In several cases, I listened to tales about the same person from siblings or spouses. I also knew several of the women described. I quickly recognized that reality depended on the eyes of the beholder.
Then I wrote vignettes with surprising plot twists about mothers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (The Good Old Days?) and modern women (Other People’s Mothers). The women in each story made choices. The narrators of the stories often didn’t understand the basis of the decisions because of incomplete information or personal biases. Accordingly, they warped the portraits of the women, and I could develop the characters to be more memorable.
How do you develop characters in your fiction?

My collections of short stories are available in paperback and Kindle format at Amazon.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Little History for Memorial Day

After more than forty years, many of the “little stories” about the Vietnam War have been lost. That’s too bad because I suspect George Santayana was right: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Thus, when a friend, who was a medic in the secret war in Laos in the early 1960s, offered me his notes, I was thrilled. As a medic, my friend treated men covered with hundreds of leeches, a baby monkey, and Hmong children with yaws and vitamin A deficiency besides lots of wounded soldiers. He also received survival training in the Philippines, served as a medic for the Hmong general Vang Pao, and was sent home after he earned his fourth Purple Heart. 

My problem is I’m not a historian. I write modern thrillers and mysteries with a woman protagonist, Sara Almquist, who is too young to have first-hand knowledge of the Vietnam era.

I decided to set the novel, titled Riddled with Clues, mainly at the VA Center in Albuquerque because my dog Bug and I are a pet therapy team there. We’ve met Vietnam era veterans in the rehab programs at this large VA center. Many homeless veterans also roam the campus and its over seventy buildings. I realized the convoluted nature of the layout of buildings would be great for a chase scene, and the veterans in rehab units could be the basis of colorful supporting characters in the book.

Are you curious how I used the notes? Sara, a scientific consultant for the State Department, gets a mysterious summons to the VA in her hometown of Albuquerque. She discovers Xave Zack (her old friend from previous novels – Ignore the Pain and Malignancy) was seriously injured while tracking drug smugglers.  He hands her a note he received before his accident. The note is signed by “Red from Udon Thani.” However, he doesn’t know anyone called Red, and the last time he was in Udon Thani was during the Vietnam War. 

Xave proceeds to tell her potentially relevant details from his wartime experiences in Laos. (The experiences are all based on my real friend’s adventures). After Sara listens to his rambling tale of all the possibilities, both are assaulted. Xave is left comatose. Sara must determine whether the attacks were related to events during the war fifty years ago or to the modern-day drug trade. As she struggles to survive, she questions who to trust: the local cops, her absent best friend, the FBI, or a homeless veteran who leaves puzzling riddles as clues. 

Sound exciting? I hope so. Wouldn't it make great reading over the Memorial Day weekend?

I also hope you’ll gather “historical” information from older friends and relatives and use the details in your writing. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

A Guest - Marilyn Meredith - Explains Her Compulsion to Write

Marilyn Meredith is the successful author of two series of mysteries. The newest book in her Rocky Bluff P.D. series is Unresolved. It's number 13. Does that make it lucky?

After the blurb, Marilyn will explain why she continues to write even though she is over eighty (I think, but she's never admitted her age to me.)

Blurb for Unresolved
Rocky Bluff P.D. is underpaid and understaffed and when two dead bodies turn up, the department is stretched to the limit. The mayor is the first body discovered, the second an older woman whose death is caused in a bizarre manner. Because no one liked the mayor, including his estranged wife and the members of the city council, the suspects are many, but each one has an alibi.

Marilyn talks
Though I’ve never been a best seller or made much money from my writing, I have never entertained the thought to quit writing.

I’ve always written—something. As a kid I wrote stories that had a great resemblance to whatever book I just read. I wrote plays for the neighborhood kids to perform. In middle school I wrote and published my own small magazine.

After I was married, I wrote and edited PTA newsletters, plays for my Camp Fire Girls to put on, a couple of books I did nothing with, the writing I had to do while going to college, and then after my kids were grown, I wrote an historical family saga based on my genealogy. After many rejections and rewrites, the book found a publisher. I wrote another, and it also found a home.

Because I mainly read mysteries, I decided to try my hand at those. And yes, I did find a publisher for that first one too. I continued writing mysteries, the Rocky Bluff P.D. series and the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series and I’m still writing both.

When blogs became popular I started one of my own. Today I have many guests on my blog and I’m a regular on two others. On  I have to write a new post once a month, on I submit a post twice a month. And no, it’s not a chore, I’m a writer and I love to write.

Doing a blog tour as I’m doing now, means coming up with a new and fresh topic for each blog that I’m visiting. To me, it means writing, something that I truly love to do.

Besides, if I didn’t write, what would I do?

Tomorrow I'm visiting and I’m giving some Dialogue Tips.

F.M. aka Marilyn Meredith

Friday, May 5, 2017

How I Chose the Title for RIDDLED WITH CLUES

The title should tell you something about the book. The Book Seller of Kabul by ├ůsne Seierstad is an informative title, which tells the reader about the setting and a major character. Most titles are more symbolic, but hint at the topic. Examples are Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, which is a memoir about his mother, and my thriller I Saw You in Beirut, which is set in the Middle East.

I struggled to name my latest thriller/mystery, Riddled with Clues. Here’s the blurb:

A hospitalized friend gives a puzzling note to Sara Almquist. He received the note signed “Red from Udon Thani” while investigating the movement of drugs into the U.S. However, he doesn’t know anyone called Red. The last time he was in Udon Thani was during the Vietnam War. After Sara listens to his rambling tales of all the possibilities, both are attacked. He is left comatose. As she struggles to survive, she questions who to trust: the local cops, her absent best friend, the FBI, or a homeless veteran, who leaves puzzling riddles as clues. 

Early in the writing process, I realized that a number of the clues in the book could be riddles. I also realized I could add tension to the book with the riddles. My heroine, Sara Almquist, and the law enforcement agents in the novel would know the riddles were important clues but they couldn’t make sense of them. 

I thought a play on words might be fun. Riddled can mean filled. Certainly, “Riddled with Clues” sounded more interesting than “Filled with Clues.” Do you agree?

Riddled with Clues is available at Amazon:

It is also available at Treasure House in Old Town Albuquerque. I'll do a book signing there on Sunday, May, 28 from noon to three. I thought it was appropriate to do a book signing during Memorial Day weekend because many of the scenes (especially chase scenes) are set at the VA Center in Albuquerque and several veterans are characters in the book.

For more info on Riddled with Clues, check out my website:

Monday, April 10, 2017


Over two-thirds of the women in the United States are mothers. Yet, much of the fiction written about them emphasizes their romances and careers. I thought the topic of mothers in fiction was a good topic for spring.
The writers of the TV series, The Brady Bunch and Leave It to Beaver, sold us a bill of goods. No mother is as perfect as perfect as Carol Brady or June Cleaver. Unfortunately, most of us wanted mothers like the ones we saw on television - pretty, funny, seldom tired or cross, and always wise enough to make fair decisions. Thank goodness, Roseanne Connor in Roseanne and Peg Bundy in Married with Children came along on TV.
However, it’s not fair to blame television programs for our unrealistic expectations of mothers and family life. Experts, like Sigmund Freud and Benjamin Spock, and authors, such as the children of several famous actresses, have stoked our tendencies to either glamorize or villainize mothers. Even Tolstoy over simplified the roles of families and mothers at the beginning of Anna Karenina. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
In practice, no family is always happy, and no mother is perfect. Perhaps that’s good. Much of the diversity we treasure in others reflects the quirks of their mothers’ personalities. Think how boring life and literary fiction would be if we all had perfect mothers.
When I started to write short stories about mothers, I interviewed dozens of acquaintances about their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. In several cases, I listened to stories about the same person from siblings or spouses. I also knew several of the women described. I quickly recognized that reality depended on the eyes of the beholder.
Then I wrote The Good Old Days? It’s a collection of stories about mothers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. My second collection of stories about more modern women is called Other People’s Mothers.
The women in these vignettes made choices. The narrators of the stories often didn’t understand the basis of the decisions because of incomplete information or personal biases. Accordingly, they warped the portraits of the mothers. 
Accordingly, these tales are about the narrator as well as the mother. Think about it: Isn't that true for all fiction?
I hope you’ll read these stories. They’re short ten to fifteen pages (great bed time reading). The stories might encourage you to:
  • think about mothers in fiction,
  • take a fresh look at your mother, and
  • gain a more realistic understanding of yourself.  Most of us are more like our mothers than we care to admit.

Other People’s Mothers or The Good Old Days? would make great Easter or Mother’s Day gifts for relative or friends.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Memories and Facts in Fiction

After I read several glowing accounts of the  “good old days,” I asked friends about their memories of their childhoods and turned their memories into The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories.

Although my vignettes are fiction, my friends’ memories created the mood of the stories. A five-year-old’s view of department stores in the 1950s (e.g. The elevator operator wore gloves. Everything was fastidiously arranged by color in the Notions Department.) in “Questions” is funnier than an adult’s comments.

Memories need to be supplemented with facts. Although I took copious notes as friends spoke of their past, key details were missing or garbled. I found these details were “hooks” to readers. For example, in the story, “Dirty Dave,” I mentioned the nested pyrex mixing bowls from the 1950s in yellow, green, red, and blue. Several readers noted I’d gotten the sizes right. The yellow bowl was the largest; the green was the next size. I was glad I’d researched the subject. (By the way, these vintage sets often sell for $100 at antique shows in New England.)

Memories can be snapshots of history. Nostalgia is fine, but honesty about the past gives fiction more depth. I hope these tales will encourage older readers to remember the past honestly and will let younger readers realize most social problems aren’t new.

Here’s the start of one tale from the collection,“How Old Is the Earth?” 

This story is based on reminiscences of a friend. He mentioned the Golden Book Encyclopedia, but couldn’t remember any particulars, as he told me about how he was abused and bullied at school. My research supplied all the details about this hot promotional item for A&P Stores in 1959 and 1960. The geological facts are also correct. However, the George in the story is fictional. My friend doesn’t look like George and has never enjoyed a Friday afternoon on the patio of the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union. He does like a beer occasionally.

I hope you enjoy this intertwining of facts and memories in fiction. Maybe, you use memories in your fiction.

How Old Is the Earth?

“You’re a scientist. How old is the earth?” My friend, an art professor, looked around the rather raucous crowd on the patio at the University of Wisconsin Student Union on a late summer afternoon. When he waved his tanned arm, I noticed thin, white scars crossed the back of his hand. “What do you think these students would say?”
“First off, I’m no geologist. I don’t know the current scientific estimate, probably several billion years.” I nodded at the students as I sipped my beer. “I doubt any of them could give you a better answer, even if they were sober.”
George pulled his hands through his longish gray hair and then stroked his much darker short beard. “Four and a half-billion years. The most painful and maybe most important fact I ever learned.”
I blinked. “Really? Somewhere in grade school, I accepted the earth had a long history, but I was never fascinated by paleontology or geology.”
“You’re not from a religious home.”
I frowned. “We went to church most Sundays.”
“I mean a home steeped in strict interpretations of the Bible.” He leaned back in his yellow, sunburst metal chair and chewed a handful of popcorn. “Did you know church leaders calculated the earth to be six thousand years old on the basis of the book of Genesis?”
I threw a couple of kernels to nearby birds. “You must really like the Discovery Channel and PBS nature specials. What got us on this line of conversation? I expected you to be reliving your years as a professor of photography this afternoon, one week before your official retirement.”
George took a long swig of his beer. “Today would have been Mum’s birthday. Made me think of the day I was most proud of her. She was your typical stay-at-home mother of the fifties. Well, except Pop was afraid other men would notice her. So, she wore her long dishwater blonde hair in braids wrapped around her head. She looked like a Norwegian immigrant just off the boat in the old daguerreotypes. Didn’t matter to us boys. We thought Mum was pretty.”
He gazed out over the lake for so long I interrupted his thoughts. “What did your mother do on this special day?”
“Be patient. I was remembering how it all began. Do you remember when A&P offered the Golden Book Encyclopedias as a sales incentive in fifty-nine and maybe sixty?”
I pushed my green starburst metal chair back. “Vaguely. I can’t remember the deal exactly. Let’s see...if you bought twenty dollars of groceries, you could purchase one of the volumes in the Golden Book Encyclopedia for an additional dollar or two. Every month, they offered another volume. I think there were…fifteen or sixteen volumes all together.”
George smiled. “Yeah, they had shiny covers in bright colors, not like the standard encyclopedias, World Book and Britannica, with their fake leather covers and gilt-edged pages. Okay, I’m ready to tell my story.”

For the rest of the story, read The Good Old Days? A Collection of Stories. Available at Amazon (paperback and Kindle):

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Mystery Writers Are Like Scientists

 Writing a mystery novel is similar to conducting a science experiment in several ways.
·      Writers and scientists both do research.

·      They both organize their observations into a whole, which writers call plots and scientists call hypotheses.

·      They both test and refine their “whole.” Writers edit their prose; scientists run additional experiments.

·      Both require a lot of hard work to gain occasional flashes of insights. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, they’re “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Why did I drag you through this discussion? I’m trying to explain why so many scientists and physicians became writers of mysteries and thrillers. Consider Michael Crichton (a physician by training), Kathy Reichs (a forensic anthropologist), Robin Cook (a physician). I’m also explaining how as a retired biology professor I came to write mystery/suspense novels with tidbits of science.

Through this discussion, I hope you learn how bits of science add realism to a mystery.

Let’s start with my thriller, I Saw You in Beirut. In this thriller, a woman’s past provides clues for the extraction of a nuclear scientist from Iran (

Did you know? In the early 1960s, scientists identified zinc deficiency in peasants in Iran. At that time, two to three percent of the villagers in some regions of Iran didn't pass the physical for the army because of stunted growth. Dr. James Halstead, Sr. who was married to President’s Roosevelt’s daughter, Anna, headed the research team at Shiraz. Surprised?

I created Doc Steinhaus, a fictional character in I Saw You in Beirut, who worked on the project in Shiraz as a grad student. He was a logical way to “show not tell” readers about science in Iran and advance the plot. Let’s face it most foreign agents don’t look or act like James Bond, but they can be a lot more nuanced.
Now how about Malignancy? In this suspense novel, a woman scientist tries to escape the clutches of a drug lord and accepts a risky assignment in Cuba (

When I visited Cuba in 2013, I learned Cuban researchers had patented a therapeutic cancer vaccine to treat non-small cell lung cancer. This drug revs up a patient’s own immune system to produce cells, which recognize substances found on the surface of tumor cells but not on the surface of normal cells, and kills the cancer cells. For those surprised about the sophistication of this work, please note the researchers had spent a lot time at Harvard despite the embargo.

I also read the editorial in Science (6/6/2014) on scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba. I thought Sara Almquist, as an epidemiologist and heroine of my previous medical thrillers Coming Flu ( and Ignore the Pain (, would be the perfect protagonist to do a little “scientific diplomacy” in Cuba.

Of course, Sara gets involved in a lot more than science in both novels; they wouldn’t be thrillers without danger. Why don’t you read them and learn a little thrilling science?