<![CDATA[Susanna Calkins, Author - Blog]]>Tue, 09 Feb 2016 13:45:53 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Writing pets into your fiction? Check out these insights from author Amy Shojai]]>Mon, 08 Feb 2016 22:27:59 GMThttp://www.susannacalkins.com/blog/writing-pets-into-your-fiction-check-out-these-insights-from-author-amy-shojaiI'm joined on my blog today by Amy Shojai,  author of the recently released Show and Tell. Because Amy is an expert on pet care and animal behavior and writes dog-viewpoint thrillers, I asked her to speak about what she had learned about writing pets into fiction.

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I love reading stories that incorporate animals in a believable fashion, but far too many authors insert pet characters for the wrong reason—or fail to execute in a believable fashion.

Reading fiction is all about a suspension of disbelief, and a large percentage of avid readers also love pets. About 65 percent of US Households have a pet—that’s a lot of potential book buyers!

The trick, of course, is making your “talking cat” or “thinking dog” so natural that readers accept this ability as fact within your story world. The really avid pet parents already have opinions and insight into how cats and dogs act, and aren’t forgiving of missed paw-steps.

PETS AS PROPS. Writers often give the hero a pet to make them more likable, or they’ll have the villain kill an animal to illustrate an unsympathetic character. Most pet-loving readers object to critter-killing simply for shock value. When pets appear in the first chapter and last, with no mention in between, pet lovers recognize this as artificial manipulation. When your hero’s call to action leaves the cat/dog alone at home for weeks, readers wonder why the house isn’t full of crappiocca and hissed-off pets when s/he returns. Please, for the love of doG (and cat), create a character’s relationship with the pet, which builds character depth and reader engagement.

TALKING PETS. How your animal characters interact with the humans depends a great deal on the genre and what readers expect. Fantasy’s shape-shifters certainly may have all kinds of critters thinking and speaking the same as the human characters, and many children’s books use anthropomorphized characters to advantage. Based on your story, genre, and reader expectations, decide whether your animals will be “humans in fur coats” or true to their species. Mysteries today are full of talking dogs and cats, and the successful series make clear that these critters have both species-appropriate “extra” skills and limitations. In my September Day series, service dog Shadow has his own viewpoint chapters. He never says a word, yet speaks volumes.

GOALS & REWARDS. When creating an animal viewpoint character, go beyond the gift of speech or tail semaphore. Just as your hero and villain require opposing story goals and motivations to fuel the plot, give your pet character reasons to care. Shadow’s story goal and motivation is quite different than his human partner September, and he’s able to offer an enriched reader experience through his enhanced senses.

Because of my background as a certified animal behavior consultant, I wanted Shadow to act and react, communicate and feel emotion in a true reflection of the canine species I know (with a bit of fiction speculation). For me, that’s not just a plot device but shows respect for these unique creatures. Shadow has his own character arc in each book. He is not the same clueless nine-month-old puppy that began the series, and has grown and developed alongside his human partner September with each new story.

One caution: when writing a series, be aware of the timeline, because pets age much more quickly than human characters. I don’t what Shadow to “age out” of the series too quickly, so the first book LOST AND FOUND happens at Thanksgiving, the second one HIDE AND SEEK follows at Christmas, and now SHOW AND TELL takes place right after Valentine’s Day.

Today, pets are considered to be members of the family, in some cases surrogate children. People read for entertainment, for the spills and thrills and tug-at-the-heart rooting for the underdog human—or pet. So adding a furry character to a book, when done well, enhances the reader experiences and gives everyone an extra emotional tug. September and Shadow have just begun their life together, and have many more adventures to come!



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Amy Shojai is a nationally known authority on pet care and behavior, a certified animal behavior consultant, a spokesperson for the pet products industry, and the author of 30+ nonfiction pet books. She also writes THRILLERS WITH BITE! which includes the dog-viewpoint thrillers LOST AND FOUND, HIDE AND SEEK, and SHOW AND TELL.

Amy can be found on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/amyshojai.cabc,  on Twitter @amyshojai, and on Pinterest @amyshojai. Check out her website at http://www.shojai.com.

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<![CDATA[The mysterious River Fleet...how it wove its way into my novel, and where it is today...]]>Wed, 27 Jan 2016 04:36:33 GMThttp://www.susannacalkins.com/blog/the-mysterious-river-fleethow-it-wove-its-way-into-my-novel-and-where-it-is-todayPicture
When I first began to conceive of A DEATH ALONG THE RIVER FLEET (to be released April 12, 2016!), an image came to me that ultimately informed the entire novel.

That image was of a young woman, barefoot and clad only in her shift, stumbling at dawn through the rubble left by the Great Fire of 1666 (and yes, I am counting down to the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire! See counter to the right!)

And, of course, I needed her to run into Lucy, so that my intrepid chambermaid-turned-printer's apprentice would have a reason to be involved in the mystery that follows.

But it took me a while to figure out exactly where this encounter could reasonably occur.

I thought at first the woman could be found on London Bridge.  And I really wanted to write something about how the impaled heads of traitors, which lined either side of the Bridge, had caught fire. After all, in Annus Mirabilis Dryden had described in macabre detail how sparks had scorched the heads:

"The ghosts of traitors from the Bridge descend,
With bold fanatic spectres to rejoice;
About the fire into a dance they bend
And sing their sabbath notes with feeble voice."

But then when I did a little more digging, I discovered that London Bridge had been damaged in the Fire, and really was not much of a thoroughfare in the months that followed the blaze. Indeed, there would have been no good reason for Lucy to be traveling in that direction, particularly so early in the morning.

So I realized that, first, I needed to think through what Lucy was doing out of Master Aubrey's house, just before dawn. Not too hard to figure out actually.  She needed to be delivering books.

But then the question became, in what direction did she need to travel to deliver those books? Most people were living to the west of where the Fire had stopped. So why would she be going into the wasteland at all?   To figure out this challenge, I began to systematically create a large scale map of Lucy's London using photocopies of reconstructed maps of the period.

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My 6' long map of Lucy's London
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Working out the River Fleet
As I marked in red the burnt out area of London, I realized that the Fire line had been stopped to the west along the River Fleet.

The River Fleet? This was not a river I knew anything about. A vague recollection that the Romans had used the river to transport goods, but I couldn't remember ever hearing about it otherwise.

I became even more curious when I saw that several bridges, including the Fleet Bridge and Holborn Bridge, crossed it. Clearly, the river was wide enough or significant enough to require actual bridges, so it couldn't just be a stream.

 Intrigued, I began to read more about this mysterious river.  From the maps I could see that the river flowed from the north, went through the Smithfield butcher markets, traversed Fleet Street, and emptied into the Thames.  There was also a region that surrounded it, awesomely called "Fleet Ditch." [Sidenote: I really wanted my book to be called "Murder at Fleet Ditch," but that title didn't even make it past my editor. A little too stark, I guess.]

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By all accounts, by the 17th century, the River Fleet was no longer a river where boats could easily travel, but had instead become a place where people would dump animal parts, excrement, and general household waste. Indeed, Walter George Bill, one of the great original historians of the Great Fire, described the River Fleet as an "uncovered sewer of outrageous filthiness."   And yet, there were still accounts of people bathing in its waters (yuck) and even drinking from it (yuck, yuck, double yuck), despite its considerable stench and grossness.

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So the River Fleet--and the original bridges that crossed it--formed a natural backdrop for my story. I could not find a picture of the 17th century Holborn Bridge, but I thought this artist's rendering of Fleet Bridge might serve as a model. 

And because the Holborn Bridge was still in place after the Fire, with the unburnt area and markets on one side, and the burnt out area on the other, it became the perfect place for Lucy to encounter this desperate woman.


PictureMy friend Greg at modern Holborn Bridge...
But of course, I was still curious...is there still a River Fleet? 

The answer is, yes, of course, but it was finally bricked over in the 1730s, after being declared a public menace.

It was still problematic though, particularly in the 19th century, when a great explosion occurred as a result of the expanding gasses in the pipes below the streets.  Raw sewage apparently spilled everywhere!!! (Don't even think I wouldn't use that awesome detail if I ever set a book in 19th century London. But I doubt it would make it to the cover!)

And if you want to know more, here is a nice overview of the history of the River Fleet in all its--ahem--glory.


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<![CDATA[Building the Future--The process of world-building for author H.A Raynes]]>Thu, 21 Jan 2016 21:05:35 GMThttp://www.susannacalkins.com/blog/building-the-future-the-process-of-world-building-for-author-ha-raynesI'm always interested in the process of world-building. While world-building is important for any story, I think that it is even more critical when writers are creating an unfamiliar world for their readers. So, for example, my books are set in 17th century England, during the time of the plague and the Great Fire of London (check out my countdown to the right!!!). While many people know about the Tudor England or the Regency period, the 1660s are a far less familiar period. So, I spend a lot of time thinking about larger cultural, social, political and gender trends that helped define my world, as well as norms, conventions and features of the period.

But I think world-building is also important for those setting their books in the future, by nature an undefined period. So I invited author H.A. Raynes onto my blog today to talk about how she went about conceiving and building the future for her debut novel, NATION OF ENEMIES.


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Nation of Enemies is set in the near future world of 2032 in the United States. People ask me why that year, in particular, and how did I go about creating that future world?
 
First, the choice to set the story in 2032. Integral to the plot is a presidential election, so that was key in determining the year. Next, and importantly, I wanted it to be near enough that we can almost feel it...imagine it. It’s in our lifetime, depending on our age. I didn’t want to get caught up in the technological advances which would put Nation of Enemies more in the sci-fi realm, which would make it a different book entirely. And so then came the research.
 
In this world I built, the United States is war-torn, like any war-torn country, wrecked by attacks, non-functioning in many ways. People have left the cities, which are easy targets, and fled either to the countryside or else attempt to emigrate to safer shores. They’re less concerned with technology and comfort and more concerned about the safety of their families. As the economy fails, government spending goes toward fighting the war and maintaining hospitals that are on the front line. A doctor is one of my protagonists and for his point of view, I researched the future of medicine. Genetics, equipment, medicine. How a hospital might function with advances in these areas. I interviewed a friend who is a doctor and used the internet at length.

Of course, there’s reality and predictions of what will be in the future. I combined those elements with my imagination. I also combined them with the politics of war when I introduced the legislation of the MedID biochip citizens are forced to wear in 2032. There is an actual biochip in use today, though it is quite simple in comparison to my MedID and how it’s been manipulated by the U.S. government. There’s freedom in creating a future world.
 
I also considered schools - what would happen if schools became even more of a target than they are today? (Though just this week, several schools in my state of Massachusetts had bomb threats.) Knowing that parents are vulnerable, I imagined terrorists using schools to, well, terrorize society on a whole new, emotional level. That forced me to bring all schools online in 2032. Kids attend class virtually, creating a safer but less social educational experience. But children suffer in this way, locked in their bedroom away from friends and situations that foster personal growth.
 
Finally, I researched the future of the internet, the language used by experts in the field, and the hackers who exist in a darker but very real realm. It was both fascinating and frightening to discover the skills of these hackers and how they challenge governments and corporations on a daily basis for their own agendas.

To “futurize” my novel, though I used terminology hackers currently use along with society’s (and government’s) fears about their power, I simply ushered them down the path. As firewalls and encryptions become more sophisticated, so do hackers. Already we are experiencing hacks into financial institutions and government agencies - I found it easy to imagine an even more widespread problem, especially when the country is distracted by war. I don’t want to spoil any plot points in Nation of Enemies, but recently there was an aspect of the Paris Attacks that included an element I used (researched and pushed farther) in terrorist communications. It sent a chill up my spine.
 
My near-future world of 2032 is not one in which I want to live. I’m a hopeful, positive person and I have great hopes for the futures of my children. Sadly, it wasn’t difficult and in fact was quite plausible to imagine the darker side of humanity emerging with the state of the world we live in today.

Let’s hope my imagination does not win out.



Doesn't this book sound great?! Here's the official blurb:

2032. Turned away by London Immigration because of his family’s inferior DNA, Dr. Cole Fitzgerald returns to work at Boston’s Mass General hospital. He purchases ballistics skins for family, a bulletproof car and a house in a Safe District. As the War at Home escalates, Cole begins an underground revolution to restore civil liberties and wipe away the inequity of biology. Along the way he’ll risk his family, his career and his life when he discovers the U.S. government may pose a greater threat than the terrorists themselves.


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H.A. Raynes was inspired to write NATION OF ENEMIES by a family member who was a Titanic survivor and another who escaped Poland in World War II. Combining lessons from the past with a healthy fear of the modern landscape, this novel was born. A longtime member of Boston’s writing community, she was a finalist in the Massachusetts Screenwriting Competition and has published a short story in the online magazine REDIVIDER. H.A. Raynes has a history of trying anything once (acting, diving out of a plane, white water rafting, and parenting). Writing and raising children seem to have stuck.

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<![CDATA[350 years ago...the Great Fire of London!]]>Fri, 08 Jan 2016 01:18:02 GMThttp://www.susannacalkins.com/blog/350-years-agothe-great-fire-of-londonPicture
I've been waiting for 2016 for a while. Since the Great Fire of London serves as the backdrop for my Lucy Campion mysteries, I decided I wanted to personally commemorate the 350th anniversary of the event here on my blog. 

And what better way than a countdown?! Check out my nifty calendar to the right!


What is interesting,  of course, is that the Fire was commonly understood to have begun on September 2, 1666 around 2 am. 


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Yet, as I have pointed out elsewhere, that was according to the Julian calendar. In France, where they used the same Gregorian calendar that we use today, the tragedy actually occurred on September 12, 1666.  So confusing!

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I'll talk about some of the other aspects of the Fire in future posts, (including 1666 as the "Devil's Year") but I thought for now, I'd offer the first-hand description from diarist Samuel Pepys. Personally I'm always struck by the calm way he describes the events, particularly in the first passage:

"Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .

So down [I went], with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it began this morning in the King's baker's house in Pudding Lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus's Church and most part of Fish Street already. So I rode down to the waterside, . . . and there saw a lamentable fire. . . . Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.

Having stayed, and in an hour's time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, . . . I [went next] to Whitehall (with a gentleman with me, who desired to go off from the Tower to see the fire in my boat); and there up to the King's closet in the Chapel, where people came about me, and I did give them an account [that]dismayed them all, and the word was carried into the King. so I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw; and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses. . .

[I hurried] to [St.] Paul's; and there walked along Watling Street, as well as I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a [handkerchief] about his neck. To the King's message he cried, like a fainting woman, 'Lord, what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.' . . . So he left me, and I him, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things.


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<![CDATA[Corruption, Racism and Injustice: Getting into the mindset of an earlier time (An interview with D.M.Pirrone)]]>Mon, 14 Dec 2015 14:17:29 GMThttp://www.susannacalkins.com/blog/corruption-racism-and-injustice-getting-into-the-mindset-of-an-earlier-time-an-interview-with-dmpirronePicture
I'm delighted to be joined today by D.M. Pirrone, author of the Hanley & Rivka mystery series (Allium Press). 

From the official blurb:
On a spring morning in 1872, former Civil War captain Ben Champion is found dead in his Chicago bedroom, a bayonet protruding from his back. His death uncovers hidden truths best left buried, that still threaten powerful men.

Defective guns sold to the Union army, an 1864 conspiracy to turn Chicago into the capital of a Northwest Confederacy, a former slave passing for white, an escaped Confederate guerrilla bent on revenge...any of these might have led to Champion's murder. Hanley and Rivka race to solve the crime before the secrets of bygone days claim more victims.


PictureD.M.Pirrone
 As writers of historical fiction, we must still relate to our readers today.  What are some of the things from “back then” in your books that have resonance here and now?
 

Corruption, in politics and law enforcement, comes immediately to mind, of course. I’m writing about Chicago in the 1870s, so that’s a no-brainer! Poor Frank Hanley, my Irish detective, is one of the few honest guys in a system that rewards those who go along to get along—he has to deal with bought politicians and corrupt fellow cops who are either just as bad as the “bad guys” or too willing to turn a blind eye. In both of the Hanley & Rivka mysteries so far (Shall We Not Revenge and For You Were Strangers), Hanley has run-ins with a particularly dirty superior officer, Captain Michael Hickey. Hickey was a real person in the Chicago Police Department, and well known for crooked dealing, but no one could ever prove anything. He kept getting kicked upstairs rather than drummed out of the force, which poses an interesting problem—I would love to have Hanley take Hickey down, but history says I can’t. At least, not exactly…

Another thing that resonates is injustice against the poor, masquerading as morality. This is a major theme of Shall We Not Revenge, which takes place just after the Great Chicago Fire. Contributions to the stricken city—money, food, clothes, blankets, even books for the library we didn’t have!—were sent from around the world, but distribution of aid was taken from the City Council and given to the Relief and Aid Society, a private organization run by prominent businessmen. These guys set up a system of what was then called “scientific charity”—meaning, a way of making sure aid went only to the so-called deserving poor, and even that, for the briefest possible time. The Aid Society sent out legions of volunteers, many of them well-off society women, to interview those who applied for aid, and decide on the basis of a single visit whether or not each person or family was morally worthy of help.

Did these people really need aid, or were they lying malingerers? Would they use the assistance given them to get back on their feet, or simply mooch off the public?

The assumption was that the poor were mostly moochers by nature, the “47 percent” of their day, who didn’t want to work or improve themselves. Giving them aid only encouraged their natural sloth—particularly the Irish, who were seen as lazy drunkards and (as Catholics, mainly) inherently unable to assimilate into Protestant America. Sound familiar? Hanley has to deal with this directly, when his mother requests aid funds to buy a new sewing machine so she can earn a living again as a seamstress. It shocked me to learn that the Relief and Aid Society kept $600,000 worth of aid, smugly confident that they’d reached all the “truly needy” cases in Chicago with only a small portion of the donations sent to the city.
 
For You Were Strangers takes on another hot-button current issue—racial and ethnic divisions, and the whole question of who “belongs” or doesn’t. Not to give too much away, but Rivka Kelmansky’s brother Aaron—who left home ten years earlier to fight in the Civil War, and wasn’t heard from after it ended—turns up on Rivka’s doorstep with a mulatto wife and stepson. He’s been on a long, strange trip, and is seeking sanctuary from danger for himself and his Christian family members among the observant Jewish community he left so long ago. Another character in the book is passing for white, and is forced by events to come to terms with that. There’s also a major character from the South, formerly wealthy and pampered, whose world turned upside down when war came, and who doesn’t succeed very well at finding a new place to belong, with ultimately tragic consequences. So it’s a rich stew of issues that mattered back then as much as they do now.


What’s the biggest challenge you've faced in writing historical fiction?
 
There’s the obvious one, how to balance all the great stuff I find in my research with the need to keep the story moving. The temptation to “info dump”—lay out a huge chunk of background information on some historical event that plays into my story line—can be enormous, especially when readers have to know about it in order for my characters’ actions to make sense. That turned out to be a major challenge in For You Were Strangers. Part of the plot revolves around the Northwest Conspiracy, an attempt by Southern sympathizers to take over Chicago in 1864 and turn it into the capital of a Northwest Confederacy. The conspiracy fizzled out, and nowadays most people don’t know about it—but it was a big deal to Chicagoans at the time.  They saw it much as we do nowadays when we hear rumors of some terrorist plot or other, whether or not anything actually happens.
 
Another challenge can be to get the mindset of an earlier time across to modern audiences, especially when that mindset includes less pleasant world views—racism, sexism, and so on. One thing Hanley struggles with in For You Were Strangers is the underlying racism so common among whites at the time…not the vicious hatred of black people that we so often think of as racism, but the more insidious assumption that blacks are naturally inferior to whites. Hanley isn’t completely free of this, and yet I want my readers to like him, so it was tough to find the right balance.

           
What’s your writing process like?
 
On a good day—meaning, I don’t have a big editing project or an audiobook to record, and I manage to avoid the temptations of Facebook and reading blogs—I generally spend my mornings writing or outlining, or both. I’ve tried writing with an outline and without one, and I find I need to plan at least a few chapters ahead, or I flail around and get lost. Usually, somewhere around the middle of a book, I’ll get a better idea than the one in my outline—my subconscious is way smarter than me—and I’ll end up tossing parts of my old outline and reworking the rest to fit the new plot events. Sometimes, when I have a better idea or I get some especially great feedback from my writers’ group, I’ll shift direction and then have to go back and tweak things in prior chapters for the new direction to make sense. That can be a pain, but it’s also an interesting challenge in figuring out what to keep and what to jettison. The great thing about outlining is, I talk it out to myself before I write anything down—which means I can work on my book and get domestic chores done at the same time, when there’s no one else around to wonder if I’ve gone a little crazy.
 

What’s the weirdest, or most unexpected, historical fact that you’ve ever come across while researching for a book?

 
One unexpected thing I came across in researching 1870s Chicago is that the Irish weren’t yet a major power in the city. I grew up thinking of the Irish as basically running things—just go down the list of prominent Chicago politicians, judges and so on, and you find Irish name after Irish name, Daley, Madigan, et cetera. But in 1872, the Irish were still underdogs—distrusted, looked down on, discriminated against. They’re just short of critical mass, when they’ll start to become a powerhouse in Chicago politics and law enforcement. So Hanley knows firsthand what discrimination feels like.
 
An oddball story I love is one I ran across in City of the Century, by Donald L. Miller. There’s a chapter where he talks about The Sands, a red-light and gambling district that used to be down by the lake shore…and of course, Chicagoans got their water principally from Lake Michigan, which wasn’t as filthy as the Chicago River. This included the saloons, and the water wasn’t filtered at all, just sucked up straight from the lake. Miller has a story about an off-duty Chicago cop who arrests a saloon owner in The Sands for watering the beer—he discovered it when he raised his glass and spotted a minnow swimming in the liquor. I’m definitely giving Hanley that moment in one of my books. I just need to find the right scene.

 
Author Bio
 
D. M. Pirrone is the nom de plume of Diane Piron-Gelman. Her historical novel Shall We Not Revenge (Book 1 of the Hanley & Rivka Mysteries, Allium Press of Chicago, 2014), was a Kirkus Prize nominee and a Notable Page-Turner in the 2014 Shelf Unbound Indie Novel competition, and earned Honorable Mention for traditional fiction in the Chicago Writers’ Association 2015 Book Awards. Book 2 in the Hanley & Rivka series, For You Were Strangers, comes out on December 15th from Allium Press. Ms. Piron-Gelman is also the author of No Less In Blood (Five Star/Cengage, 2011). A Chicago native and history buff, she is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime Chicagoland, the Chicago Writers Association, and the Society of Midland Authors. Check out her website at www.dmpirrone.net.
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<![CDATA[Horrid News of a Poisoning? THAT'S where I get my ideas--and my questions...!]]>Fri, 20 Nov 2015 00:27:05 GMThttp://www.susannacalkins.com/blog/horrid-news-of-a-poisoning-thats-where-i-get-my-ideas-and-my-questionsPicture1677 Wing / 1528:11
 "Where do you get your ideas?"

I don't know what it is about this question that drives some writers bonkers, but it's one we all get at book talks and literary events.

In response, some authors take the humorous approach ("In Aisle Twelve"), and others try to ignore the question outright ("Next!")

Some will roll their eyes and joke about banning the question before offering their response.  Personally,   I never really understood the reluctance because  I love answering this question. I find it so much fun to tell people about the murder ballads that inspired my first novel, A Murder at Rosamund's Gate.


I wonder sometimes whether the real question is not "Where did you get your ideas?" but really, "Where did you get your questions?"  Because at the heart of all my books are questions I'm trying to answer, and I suspect this is the same for many authors, perhaps particularly those who write crime fiction. 

Indeed, I get a lot of my ideas--and questions-- simply by poking around the Early English Books Online. For example, I've been thinking a lot about poisons lately--because, you know, writer--and I came across this gem. The story from 1677 pretty much writes itself!

"Horrid News from St. Martins: Or, Unheard of Murder and Poyson. Being a true relation how a girl not full Sixteen years of age murdered her own mother at one time, and a servant-maid at another time with ratsbane.  As also, how she very lately gave poyson to two gentlewomen that since met her Mother's Death kept and maintained her.  Upon which being apprehended, she has confessed the former villanies, and was on Tuesday last the 19th of this instant June, committed to Prison, where she now remain."
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What a great story, right?  A sixteen-year old serial killer poisoning the women closest to her? What's up with that? And with ratsbane?  That's not an easy way to go either... So of course I have lots of questions...

This story may not make it into one of my novels, or who knows? It could be the crux of the whole tale.  But the point is, ideas don't come fully formed, they come in bits and pieces. The important thing is what we do with those ideas--the questions we ask when we ponder different ideas. It's not just whodunnit--its all the other questions that drive the story forward.

I think, ultimately, that the idea is not a story until the writer learns to get beyond the "What happened?" and begins to ask "Why?" 

But what do you think?


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<![CDATA[Understanding Motivation: Why do some writers complete a novel...and others do not? (yet...)]]>Tue, 13 Oct 2015 03:30:47 GMThttp://www.susannacalkins.com/blog/understanding-motivation-why-do-some-writers-complete-a-noveland-others-do-not What motivates some writers to complete a novel?

This question has been on my mind for a while. Last week, I did a keynote for another university on motivating and engaging students in higher education (a facet of my day job I won’t go into here). After my talk, someone who knew I was also a novelist said to me, “You know, I used to be a really good writer. All through school, from elementary school through college, everyone thought I would be a novelist. But as an adult, every time I’ve tried to sit down and write a novel, I just can’t do it.  How did you do it?”
 
Obviously, this person wasn’t asking me how to write a novel—I’m sure she is well aware of the scores of books that explore the craft of novel writing.   But she was asking me a more fundamental question about motivation.  “I want to write a book. I have the skills to write a book. I even have a great idea. Other people have written books, some far less skilled and imaginative than me. So why can’t I actually complete something I want to do?”
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Why indeed?
 
The day after I delivered that keynote on motivation, I traveled to Raleigh where Bouchercon, the world mystery convention, was getting underway.

There, I heard variations of the same question being posed over and over to authors everywhere, in panels, in the book room, over drinks in the bar.  How did you do it? And underlying that question, the more desperate ones: Why can’t I do this? What do you know that I don’t? To be clear, I am focusing here on the questions posed to novelists about how they complete a book-length manuscript (or do it more than once), not about how they got their books published (a process which generally transcends self-motivation).
 
I began to pay more attention to how authors replied to this question. Setting the flippant replies aside (“Lots of chocolate!” “Wine!”), a lot of them said things like “Find the kind of writing style that works for you and stick to it.”  “Write a set amount of words a day!” “Just keep going!” or most succinctly, “Butt. In. Chair.” Everyone has heard this sincerely intended, tried-and-true advice a million times.  The questioner would dutifully nod, but the puzzled look would remain. How do I actually do that?  I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t actually do it. Why can’t I do what you do? [It's like trying to lose 15 pounds. We all know we're supposed to exercise daily, eat vegetables, avoid sugar, and watch our portions. Or whatever. But it's hard to do.]
 
On the flip side, when I was chatting with some of these writers, I’d ask them what they thought was keeping them from finishing their novels.  Here, there were a few variations on a set of themes. Sometimes they focused on time. I have a full time job. I’m taking care of my children, aging parent etc. I can’t find a set time every day to write. I don’t have time to do the research.
 
Or sometimes, they focused on the story itself.   I don’t know where to begin. I have writer’s block. The middle is completely confusing. I don’t know how to end my story. My critique group has confused me and I don’t know what to do.
 
Sometimes, they focused on doubt or self-worth or other emotions.  I’m just not sure if my story is any good. I don’t know if readers will like it. People are expecting something really great from me, but they’ll know I’m a fraud. I’m not really a good writer. 
 
All challenges. All difficult and stressful things. All things that can keep a person from completing a novel.  But I’m telling you with some confidence:  Every writer who has successfully completed a book-length novel has probably experienced all or most of the same constraints, challenges and boulders in the road.  But the difference is, they successfully managed to navigate the obstacles.  So the question is: How? Or maybe, Why?

[And the answer is not, I assure you, that they are somehow better or more talented than everyone else!]


Interestingly,  motivation theory can do much to explain why some people successfully complete a given task, and others do not. I’ll say right now that I don’t have a magical novel-completion formula on hand.  But I do have a set of questions and some thoughts that might help writers explore their own motivations more fully. These questions include:
  • Why do you want to write a novel? 
  • What will completing a book-length manuscript mean to you? What if anything, does it mean, for your sense of identity/sense of self? What do you lose or gain?
  • What keeps you from starting/working on/finishing a novel?
  • How do you frame your goals as a writer?
  • What kind of feedback, if any, do you accept as a writer?
  • Do you think your ability as a writer is generally set?
  • Is your sense of worth and value as a writer determined mostly by yourself or mostly by others?
 
Go ahead. Think about these questions. Write down a few thoughts. I’ll wait.

Okay. So onto some principles of motivation theory:
 
Consider why you are writing a novel in the first place: The Motivation Continuum.
We often think of motivation as a fairly simple dichotomy, that we are either extrinsically or intrinsically motivated to perform tasks.  But the reality is, motivation--as researchers Deci and Ryan have suggested--is actually on a continuum, from a more external sense of control, to a more internal sense of control. On one end of the continuum, an individual performs an activity to achieve a separate outcome.  On the other end of the continuum, the individual engages in an activity out of inherent satisfaction. So consider why you are truly writing a novel:

At the most extrinsic, you would be only writing to fulfill an outside commitment or obligation.  I guess an example here might be someone being asked to write a novel that they really don’t want to write (“My grandmother thinks I should write a novel about my grandfather and I have no interest in doing so.”)

At the next level along the continuum, someone might complete a task to avoid guilt or shame (“My parents spent a lot of money putting me through this MFA program and I have nothing to show for it.”) or out of pride (“My teachers all thought I’d be the first to write a novel.”) Those are very low-level external motivators.

At the next level, the person consciously values a certain goal or regulation, or may accept an action as personally important (“I’ve always been a good writer; I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, so that’s why I’m writing a novel.”)

Moving along the continuum, someone would have a more internal sense of control over the task, but there is still some sense of outward regulation (“I really enjoy reading mysteries and I think they will sell well, so I’m going to try my hand at this genre.”) At the far end of the spectrum would be someone completing a task out of pure enjoyment, a deep sense of satisfaction etc (“I just love telling this story; I enjoy the process of crafting this prose.”) So thinking about the nature of your motivation might be helpful here.

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However, there is something larger going on than the simple (simple!) task of completing a novel.  

What is your mindset as a writer?

Psychologist Carol Dweck has written extensively about the concept of mindset, which refers to a person’s own beliefs about his or her ability to improve and change (in general, but in this case, as a writer).  Simply put, do you believe your ability as a writer is fixed,  or can you grow and learn? Essentially, this is the difference between someone with a fixed mindset, and someone with a growth mindset.

To answer, consider the following questions:
 
  • Do you avoid challenges (fixed) or embrace challenge (growth)?
  • Do you give up easily (fixed) or do you persist despite setback (growth)?
  • Do you see effort as fruitless (or indicative that you are not a good writer) (fixed) or do you see effort as the path to mastery? (growth)?
  • Do you ignore useful negative feedback (fixed) or do you learn from criticism (growth)?
  • Do you feel threatened by the success of others (fixed)? Or do you find lessons and inspiration in the success of others (growth)?
 
Writers with a fixed mindset may achieve early on, but often do not live up to their potential. They may believe they are inherently more talented or smarter than their peers, which may initially give them confidence but that confidence slips away over time.  If they do not feel their work is perfect, they might feel shame and embarrassment when others provide feedback, and critique the source rather than reflect on the meaning underlying the feedback. They are afraid of risk, and they are often fearful of trying something new.  They close themselves off from opportunity, just because the outcome seems unknown.
 
On the other hand, writers with a growth mindset try new things, they learn from their mistakes, and they are often more creative and open to new ideas. Those with a growth mindset usually possess a far stronger sense of “grit,” a character trait possessed by high-achieving individuals. Everyone who completes a novel has grit—the same stamina required of runners completing a marathon. But fortunately, a sense of grit and perseverance can be developed, just as a growth mindset can be cultivated over time.
 
Understanding your mindset might help you better identify the skills you need to work on, and improve your sense of confidence and mastery as a writer. That confidence may help you actually focus on what you need to do, and help you find a more full sense of inherent satisfaction, and maybe even joy, in seeing your story take shape and come to fruition.

Just a few thoughts! Happy writing!


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<![CDATA[Overcoming procrastination--what we can learn from rats]]>Wed, 16 Sep 2015 12:51:28 GMThttp://www.susannacalkins.com/blog/overcoming-procrastination-what-we-can-learn-from-ratsPictureWhat's he waiting for?
A few weeks ago, I received my editor's notes for A Death Along the River Fleet. As always, the comments were insightful and thorough, but not particularly hard to address or to think through.

And yet I found myself wanting to do anything but sit down and work on them. Everything else was suddenly more immediate, more necessary--organizing a desk drawer, writing a blog post (including this one), and a vast array of other far less important things and activities.

Classic procrastination, right?

Picturehttp://www.betabunny.com/behaviorism/Images/FR.jpg
But why? Why would I procrastinate on a task that I knew I wouldn't mind doing--that I might even enjoy doing?  I mean, usually when I procrastinate, its because there's a task looming that I really don't want to do. Like, cleaning the litter box. Pulling weeds in the garden. Other tedious or annoying tasks like that.

So why was I putting off a task that I didn't really mind doing? If it's not procrastination, is it simple weariness? Or maybe fatigue? But I didn't really feel exhausted.

I mentioned this question to my husband--my alpha reader and in-house cognitive psychologist--because he can offer a psychological explanation for anything that plagues me as a writer (e.g. Me: "Why can't I remember what happens in my books?" Him: "You're not crazy, you're just experiencing proactive interference.")

So in this case,  he told me that my most recent issue was probably not truly procrastination, but rather something called a "Schedule of Reinforcement."

So the schedule of reinforcement goes something like this: Imagine that an adorable little rat with a bright twitching nose is in a box with a lever. That rat is on a fixed-ratio (FR) schedule, which just means it will receive a food pellet (reward) after every 100 lever presses. Once the rat begins to press the lever, it will work at a fast steady pace until the food reward is earned (the up slope in the figure below).

(So if I'm the rat in this scenario, I've earned my reward--I've sent my book in to my editor and received my edits.)


However, once the rat earns the reward, it stops responding for a while (the flat point A in the figure).  This is known as either the “post-reinforcement pause” or the “pre-ratio pause.”

 
Essentially, the length of the pause is proportional to the amount of work that was required to get to the reward.  The interesting part, he explains,  is that, generally, the length of the pause is not due to fatigue. 

Instead, the rat--or other organism, like a human being--seems to use that time to mentally prepare for the large amount of work to come.   He says it’s not fatigue because if you artificially get the organism to begin (e.g., place rat paws on lever so that it depresses), then the organism will go on a “ratio run” and perform the behavior until the next reward is given (even if it just completed a run and had no break).

 
So apparently, this has interesting implications for procrastination with humans.  As he explains, research on schedules of reinforcement suggest that the best way for a human to overcome procrastination is to artificially get the human to begin the project.  For instance, if a college student has to write a term paper, s/he can trick themselves by saying, “I’m only going to write the first two sentences and then I’ll stop.”  Often, once they begin, they go on a “ratio run” and write much more than intended (just like when the rat was forced to depress the lever).
 
So, the takeaway for writers (because this is apparently what happened to me): "When you have to dig back into a project (e.g., edits), it’s probably not fatigue that leads to procrastination.  That “procrastination time” is used to mentally gear up for the considerable amount of work to come.  Even so, simply starting (e.g., on the easy edits), can lead to a ratio run and solid progress."

So a scientific explanation for what we all at heart know is the secret for overcoming procrastination: Get your butt in chair and JUST START....but start with the easiest thing possible.

The rest will come.

And hey, let me know if you have any other writerly conundrums that you would like a professional psychologist to explain. He can come up with a theory for anything. Just address your query to "Dear Alpha Reader." :-)

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<![CDATA[My fourth book cover revealed! A Death Along the River Fleet]]>Fri, 21 Aug 2015 19:57:11 GMThttp://www.susannacalkins.com/blog/my-fourth-book-cover-revealed-a-death-along-the-river-fleet
I think it looks beautiful! Great movement--a fresh direction. Who is that woman anyway..? Why is she running...?

All secrets will be revealed April 2016...!!!

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<![CDATA[Question from the Reader Bag--How do English Nobles address each other?]]>Sun, 16 Aug 2015 02:12:03 GMThttp://www.susannacalkins.com/blog/question-from-the-reader-bag-how-do-english-nobles-address-each-otherI received a query from a reader yesterday that gets at the many meddlesome and troublesome questions that writers of British historical fiction inevitably face--How do nobles address each other?
"...I just wanted to know: if the oldest daughter of an earl was going to soon be marrying the oldest son of another earl, how would they address one another? The setting is 1860s London, if this helps answer my question. I have read many websites and guide-books that explain how the peerage would be addressed by various people in various situations, but I am having trouble finding information about two people, both children of earls, who are engaged to be married. Would they be more casual with one another? Or would it be inappropriate to address one another without their appropriate title? Your help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you." --Maryam.
This is indeed a tricky question. I know something about the forms of address in 17th century England, but I didn't want to assume what was common or expected in the 1660s would be the same 200 years later, in the 1860s.  So I threw this question out to the lovely and talented Sleuths in Time, who have spent a lot more time than I have thinking about this question.

So, first, the basics.  According to Tessa Arlen: "The eldest daughter of an earl would be called Lady Susan; that would be the extent of her title until she marries. If she were to marry an ordinary man she would be called Lady Susan and then his surname: Lady Susan Blogs for example. The eldest son of an earl might be given an honorary title of his father's of a lower rank this would be given to him until he inherited his father's title. For example, his father who is Roger Parker, Earl of Bainbridge might bestow the honorary title of viscount on his eldest son. So the son's name and title would then be Denis Parker, the Viscount Lord Winslow. It is also important to remember that the Earl of Bainbridge would have a family name, in this case Parker."

This seems pretty straightforward so far, right?

Tessa continues: "I can't imagine why this young couple would call one anything other than by the first names when they were alone together. And if they are English the usual terms of endearment! If they were together out in society Lady Susan would be referred to as the Vicountess Lady Winslow and her husband would be the Viscount Lord Winslow and they would be announced as Lord and Lady Winslow. When Lord Winslow's father dies and he inherits the earldom he will become the next Earl of Bainbridge - and be called Lord Bainbridge and his wife would become the Countess of Bainbridge. The order of precedence can be very confusing - even for Brits. So tell your friend to follow this pattern and she will sound like she knows what she is talking about!"

Excellent advice!

Alyssa Maxwell also commented: "
Sometimes the son and heir would be called by his courtesy title without Lord in front of it, as in Brideshead or Bridey as friends and family called him in the book." She also directed us to Jo Beverley's Guide to English Titles in the 18th and 19th centuries, a very helpful resource!

As Anna Lee Huber further notes:
"In the case of an earl, he usually does have a lesser title (viscount or baron) he can grant his eldest son as a courtesy, but it's also possible he doesn't. (Author's choice since it's fiction.) In that case he would be called Mr. Parker by his fiancé in public, Denis in private. The rules for daughters & sons of earls are slightly different. Daughters of dukes, marquesses, & earls receive the honorary Lady before their first name. Only sons of dukes & marquesses receive the honorary Lord before their first name."

And to round us out, Ashley Weaver says, "I
have always found [Laura Chinet's] site really useful for reference. She has little charts and everything!" [I will say, however, that what Laura Chinet describes for the 18th and 19th century may be different from 17th century conventions. In my research, I have seen many letters between family members that use endearments, like "My dearest Anne." So it stands to reason that if they use such intimacies in written letters, they would do the same in private conversations. There is a formalization of speech and manners that happened in the mid 18th century that was not as pervasive in earlier centuries-SC].

Ultimately, in my opinion, this comes down to an accuracy vs authenticity kind of question.  I think writers of historical fiction should try their best to be as reasonably accurate as possible, but ultimately their focus should be on telling the best story possible, without jarring the reader.

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