Category Archives: Style

Pictorials, Paper Dolls and Old Magazines

We went to Arizona to visit family over Christmas vacation. It was our first trip there ever and one of the highlights (among many) for me, was our visit to Tombstone, the town that didn’t die. I walked the streets of history that I’d only seen in books — pictorial histories, which I discovered years ago when I wasn’t writing, hadn’t been published, hadn’t a thought I ever would be published.

Pictorial histories put me in the picture. I didn’t have to have lived in that time and place to describe what I saw in those old photographs, I was writing westerns initially — five of my first nine books (I know — who would have thought) — so I relied heavily on pictorial histories (Before Barbed Wire is a good one) to describe how it was from those taken-at-the-time photographs.

I love them, don’t you?

When I veered into the Victorian era, I found troves of photographic histories on everything from harems to Sherlock Holmes’s London. I also loved the reproduction editions of the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues from the 1890s. Especially the house kits. I love floor plans.

And for clothes — I bet most of us have the Dover paper doll editions as well as their photographic histories of fashion. But at some point, it occurred to me that there might be a wealth of other kinds of paper dolls on-line : fictional characters, movie stars (from the thirties and forties), teenagers from the fifties, along with accurate depictions of the fashions of the times.

And then — old magazines. I found about a half dozen copies of Ladies Home Journal from the 1920’s in a basement we were clearing out. I pored over them for years. I added to that collection when I realized I could find more magazines from the 20s on-line — from any era, really. Is there anything more immediate than reading a woman’s magazine of the day? The articles, the advertisements, the fashions, the advice — personal and decorating … how different, how the same …

I haven’t succumbed to one of those “build your own” western towns or southern plantations. Yet. (I’m very tempted by the plantation, though.) I do have a Victorian house pop-up book that came complete with its own punch-out family. And lots of furniture. I haven’t set it up. Yet. I just like looking at it and imagining what’s happening there. You know — family secrets, secret panels, something the family album, ghosts on the staircase, eerie dreams, hovering fog, blanketing snow, a haunted attic …

Of course, a lot of this is available on-line. Call me old school. I like holding a book.

And of course, before we left Tombstone — I took loads of pictures. I don’t know if I’m ever going to write another western, but you never know: I do have a couple of ideas.. So — do I even need to say? — I bought all the pictorial histories I could find as well.
Do you love paper dolls, pictorial histories and old magazines? Do you ever use them? Do you have a secret source you’d like to tell?

My Secret, just between you and me: there are Downton Abbey paper dolls on-line.

Thea Devine is currently working on her next erotic contemporary romance — and readying those original backlist westerns for eBook release.

Word Count Vs. Word Perfect by Katy Lee

Hello all, Katy Lee here. I wish I could say I was a natural speed writer, but alas, I cannot.typer Actually, though, I’m okay with that because for me it’s more important to know I have a strong, healthy story concept that will hold its weight during the writing process and not get shelved halfway through. The story may not get written lightning fast, but it WILL get written.

Are you with me?

Great, because I’m about to bring up the concept of plotting. Now don’t runaway yet! Here me out. I used to be a pantser, thinking all I needed was inspiration, creative juices, and a hero/heroine that would tell me their story along the way. Well, that worked for the first book, but when I was presented with an opportunity to pitch to a big publisher, I knew I couldn’t let it pass me by—even if the story didn’t exist yet. (Shhh…don’t tell anyone) But it was because the story wasn’t written that I knew I didn’t have all the time in the world to get the word count on the page this time around. This time, I only had eight weeks to complete it. It was time to get serious as a professional writer.

Now this doesn’t mean writing had to become so strict that I didn’t enjoy the creative process anymore. I may plot out the skeleton form of my story with all its plot turns and dark moments, and I may write the opening and closing scenes before I begin, but I’m open to surprises along the way to keep it fun, too.

E.L. Doctorow once said plotting is like “driving a car at night, when you can’t see beyond the headlights but somehow you get through the night.” When I’m plotting, I plot ahead only as far as the “headlights” shine. Typically, about three scenes in advance. All my turning points guide me along the way, but I still have flexibility for when those delightful surprises pop up. Plus, I know I’m not leading my characters off a cliff. But wait, actually, that’s not a bad idea. I could use that. (Just kidding…sort of.)

Anyway, the point is you will stay on track, and because you know what’s coming, your excitement to get your characters to those moments—so they can become larger-than-life and shine for your readers, too—pushes you like no other motivation to type through to The End.the end

Now plotting has not made me type faster, as in words per minute, but I don’t get “slowed up” as much as I used to. I don’t have long stretches of wasted time because of not having a clue where the story is going. Now when I start a story, I feel very confident that it will be completed in a professional amount of time.

Of course, there is a downside to all of this. It might mean more book contracts each year, and editors calling when they need a special project in a pinch. But, I’ll let you make that call for yourself.

The Unlocked Secret: Make those words count. It’s good to have a daily word count, but wouldn’t it be grand if those words on the page were word perfect right from the start? Are you still with me?

The Most Interesting Writer in the World

Hello, darlings! Suze here. Today’s post is just for fun.  Let me introduce you to a friend of mine. He’s … The Most Interesting Writer in the World. Here’s a little bit about him:

Stay creative, my friends

His participles dangle, yet he is all the more attractive because of it.

He head hops — and gets away with it.

He does not submit to publishers. Publishers submit to him.

Killed a man in Reno — not to watch him die, but for incorrect use of an apostrophe.

Reviewers ask him to review their reviews.

His books stay on the shelves at Barnes and Noble until he says it’s time to remove them.

Successfully puts “i” before “e” — even after “c.”

Literary agents pay him 15% of what they earn.

Gave style tips to Strunk & White.

Nobly dumped Scarlett O’Hara so Rhett Butler could have her.

Actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

Stephen King asks him for writing advice.

Has solved The Mystery of Edwin Drood — twice.

Received a million dollar advance — for a single Facebook post.

His subjects and objects all agree: He IS the most interesting writer in the world!

Now for you. Know any Most Interesting or Chuck Norris facts? If not, what’s your favorite tv commercial?

The unlocked secret of a “smellavision.”

Blessings to all on this rainy spring day. My lilacs have begun to bloom and the sweet scent permeates the air as I sit on my front porch, a balmy mix of moist earth and new life filling my senses. The smell of lilacs instantly brings me back to my youth, when the blossoming shrub outside our kitchen door made the beginning of May a time when my mother’s spirits seemed unusually high. She loved her lilac bush and went to great lengths to make sure she took advantage of the lavender blossoms by clipping them and placing them in every room of the house. Those few weeks in May were bittersweet, passing by much too quickly.

So what do lilacs have to do with writing, you ask? Today, I’d like to talk about using your senses when writing to engage readers. We all love to describe how things look and feel, but what about sound, taste, and smell. Of all of these, I think the sense of smell is highly underrated. Perhaps because it is so difficult to describe how things smell, and do it in a unique way. We easily revert to clichéd phrases like our hero smelling “musky” or “woods-like”. Finding new ways to describe scents is challenging, but that’s what makes for a fresh voice in writing.

Smells are powerful and can bring rise to emotions we didn’t even know we had. I call them “smellavisions.” You know, the image that comes to mind when you think of chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven? We all have those “scent triggers” that can bring forth a memory, a feeling, or an image. A well-placed and vivid “scent” word or phrase can also add depth to your character by bringing their memories and emotions to the surface.

Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series will probably never forget Jamie Frasier’s violent response to the scent of lavender, a residual effect after having been tortured by the sick and villainous Black Jack Randall who apparently doused himself in lavender water, not uncommon in the eighteenth century. But Jamie’s visceral response is powerful and evokes extreme emotions even from readers. Certain scents, described vividly and accompanied by powerful verbs can bring your reader straight to the heart of your character’s experience.

Take this line from HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES.The crack of gunfire exploded in the air…once…twice…three times. I flinched with each pop, the smell of gunpowder thick in the warm mist raining down over the cemetery. What emotion does this evoke? Does it paint a clear picture and put you right into the character’sexperience? It’s the first line of the book and you already know so much about what’s happening based on this one vivid “smellavision.” Use “smell” words to create a mood, set a scene, or evoke a certain emotion from your character.

Today’s unlocked secret: As writers, we have the power to create an experience that readers will remember. But in order to do this we must use all the senses, use them wisely, and use them to their fullest effect by pairing them with vivid descriptors and powerful verbs.

Can you think of a paricular “smellavision” that stands out in your mind from a favorite book? How do you describe smells?

Bad Hair

Hey, gang! Suze here. Let’s do business first. I love business first, because it usually means somebody won something! Gail C won a copy of Laura Moore’s TROUBLE ME. (If you missed our interview with Laura last week, click here) Congratulations, Gail!

The seductive look is greatly enhanced by the hand-knit orange turtleneck!
Last weekend my family and I went out for a pancake breakfast at a local maple sugar farm (if you’re in the area, stop by! They serve wonderful breakfasts, all year — click here to learn more about Hanging Mountain Farms).  On the way home, we stopped at a country store for some fresh-baked bread. An upstairs tenant was having an indoor tag sale. As I poked through the boxes of books, I came across a real gem: BAD HAIR, by James Innes-Smith and Henrietta Webb (click here to read the reviews). One dollar and fifty cents later, I was back in the car, thumbing through the photos and laughing hysterically.

You know the head shot photos that grace every hair salon? The authors of BAD HAIR — actually, I’m not sure we can call them authors, because there’s not a single word of text accompanying any of the photos — collected the worst of the worst of those from the 1960s to the 1980s and put them together in a book. The photos are cleverly divided up into sections for men, and sections for women.  Here is my top pick for the men:

Sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to crop this pic! This Wolverine-like look won out over the proto-mullets and Barry Gibb hair-and-beard combos, because I am fascinated by the connection between hair, sideburns and mustache. I am also wondering if he looks like Hugh Jackman from the neck down …

I would dare to say that most women have a love-hate relationship with their hair. It’s too curly! It’s too straight! It’s frizzy! It’s limp! I found a gray hair! Ack! Hmmm, that’s all “hate” and no “love,” isn’t it? My fabulous stylist (Hi, Liz!) highlights and glazes my hair,  somehow managing to get some body into my very straight locks with expert cutting techniques. If my hair looks bad, it’s because I haven’t bothered to do more than run a comb through it. I don’t like to fuss, and it probably shows. Maybe I’d make a great romance heroine, though, with my “shock of unruly hair.” Comforting thought!

Here is my top pick for the women. My son and I call this one “The Jellyfish.”

Do I hear Donna Summer playing in the background?

Tell us: How important is hair to you? How much time a day do you spend on it? Do you love or hate your hair?

The Oscars — a Confession

Hi, everybody. Happy National Pig Day! (click here to learn more about this fascinating holiday) . Suze here on a fine and snowy Thursday in New England. Hope you’re all warm and comfy, wherever you are.

So — did you watch the Oscars last weekend? I’ll let you in on a little secret. I can never sit all the way through them. I always have to work the next day and, trust me, I’m not the friendliest puppy in the pet shop if I don’t get enough sleep.  So I just wait for the recaps the next day. Is that bad?

Let it happen, Cap’n!

I’m never all that interested in the winners, either. If Meryl Streep doesn’t win every year, she should, that’s a given. Who’s that French guy, the best actor? Didn’t see the The Artist, never heard of the actor. I read The Help  but still haven’t seen the movie. Christopher Plummer? Well, I’m happy for him, but I prefer to remember him as Captain von Trapp singing Edelweiss or dancing with Fraulein Maria in a moonlit garden.

What I really love are the gowns. Who was best dressed? Who was worst? I used to do quite a bit of sewing (before it got to be more expensive to make your own clothes than to buy them ready-made), and I still occasionally drag out the sewing machine if I want new curtains or throw pillows, so I know a bit about how gowns are constructed. Let me just tell you that there is a reason couture gowns are so expensive. There are hours and hours and hours of painstaking work that go into them.

I’m always amazed at how the designers make each gown unique. You’d think there would be only so many combinations out there: Start with your choice of strapless, spaghetti straps, cap sleeves, elbow-length sleeves, three-quarter sleeves, or long sleeves. Add a jewel neckline, sweetheart, or plunging vee.  Choose a peplum or no peplum (that’s the extra, longish ruffle that sits at the top of the hip — see Michelle Williams’s dress this year for that detail). Choose a fitted or full skirt, and skirt length (short, at the knee, tea length, or to the floor).

That’s pretty much it, right? Well, no. That’s only the framework. Leave out any of these items, and you don’t have a complete gown.  In fact, you’ve probably got a pretty serious wardrobe malfunction.  But once the basic choices are made, the artistry comes into play. The selection of a fabric or fabrics, the addition of embellishments such as beading or sequins, the way a gown is fitted to the individual wearer — it’s these details that make each creation unique.

Writing is a lot like that. All stories have a basic framework. But if you gave the same set of characters and circumstances to two different authors, each would come up with a completely different tale (now that I think of it, that might be fun!). That’s because each author brings her own beads and sequins and feathers to snazz up her own story.  How much fun is that? The sparklier, the better, I say.

Now, because I know you’re all just dying to know my opinions, here are a few of my Oscars fashion hits and misses. Click here to take another look.

1. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt — You’re both stunningly gorgeous, but what’s with Angie’s slutty pose?  Perhaps a few remedial lessons at a charm school would help. And Brad’s overgrown, shapeless hair borders on creepy – Get thee to a stylist immediately. Sorry, but thumbs down.

2.  Meryl Streep — Some people didn’t like the shiny bronze gown, and this made a lot of worst-dressed lists. Personally, I liked it, even though the top didn’t seem to be fitted properly.  Thumbs up.

3.  Octavia Spencer — I loved your simple gown, I loved your womanly curves, and I loved that you were so excited about your win. Thumbs up.

4.  Jennifer Lopez — You are also stunningly gorgeous, but why do you insist on such painful-looking, severe buns on the top of your beautiful head? And why do you so often choose gowns that look as though they weren’t quite finished? Or did a bodice-button pop off and roll under the limousine just before you were to go into the theater, with nary a safety pin to be found to hold the whole hot mess of a dress together? Whether or not there was nip-slip, or it really was just a shadow, this look was not daring or edgy. It was just distracting, like a twisted car wreck on the side of the road. Thumbs down.

5.  Gwyneth Paltrow — If her dress were gray, Gwyneth would look like an undernourished German prison matron. It’s both strange and severe. I might have liked it better if it had some color, or if Gwyneth had chosen a less awful hairdo. Although I dig the extra-large jeweled cuff bracelet, the overall look is a Thumbs Down.


Drum roll, please … my top pick …

6. Viola Davis— I absolutely adore this stunning green gown. I love the color, I love the style, I love the unusually funky earrings, and I love that Viola flaunted her hair in that cute, coppery style.  Way to rock your natural assets, Vi. Definitely thumbs up!

Your turn. What’s your favorite part of the Oscars? Which gown did you like best? Which did you hate?

Avoiding Apostrophe Catastrophe

G’Day, friends.  Suze here.  Today’s topic is serious and, well, I hope you can handle it.  I’m talking about … punctuation.

Please don’t cringe in horror and run away screaming.  Many writers think of grammar and punctuation as something scary, mysterious, or incomprehensible.  I’m here, at the request of our Casey Wyatt, to let you know that it’s not.  You really don’t need to be able to define gerunds, or the subjunctive, or even the pluperfect, although those words are fun to say.  If you are already pretty good at this stuff, please stick around through to the end, because there might just be a reward!

Honestly, there are not that many grammar or punctuation rules a writer needs to follow.  This isn’t eighth grade, and no diagramming of sentences on a chalkboard in front of the whole class is required.  Most books have plenty of grammar “mistakes,” but guess what?  Good writing doesn’t have to be grammatically perfect.  It’s usually better when it isn’t, so it doesn’t sound stilted and formal.  Voice doesn’t really come through if your novel reads like a dissertation.

Let’s start with the apostrophe. You know this little guy. Here he is:   (Waving madly.  Say hi!) This poor thing gets used and abused a lot. But he should really only be making an appearance in a few situations.

to take the place of letters removed in a contraction: don’t (do not), can’t (can not)  Or, if you’re writing Highland romance: Ye’ll be pressin’ that kilt, Connor McConnorhaughtlocheniantyre, before ye’ll be leavin’ my house.

to show possession:

  • If the noun showing possession is singular, use ‘s — Fiona’s snowy white arms.  Connor’s rippling abdominals.  This is true even if the singular noun ends in s — Hans’s luxurious blond hair.
  • If the noun showing possession is plural, place the apostrophe at the end — the Highland clans’ war.  The Joneses’ mailbox.

special rules regarding the words its and it’s:

  • Use it’s ONLY in place of the words it is or it has — It’s been great knowing you Connor, but I must say good-bye. 
  • Use its to show possession: The cave bear was fiercely protective of its lair.

related to the above:

  • Never, ever, ever use an apostrophe if a pronoun is already possessive: its, hers, his, theirs, ours, yours, etc. (not it’s, her’s, his’s, their’s …)

There are other rules, but these are the basics. If you have any questions, check out this site, which explains virtually every situation clearly:  You can also contact me, and I’ll do my best to answer your questions.

Yes, I've been approached to play Connor McWhat'shisname in the movie version of Suze's highland romance!

Yes, I am a big nerdette who actually sort of enjoys this stuff.  Hope this was helpful to you all.  Next step: commas.  But don’t worry.  That won’t be for a few weeks! 

Now, for those of you who stuck with me through the lecture, here’s your treat … a gratuitous hunk!  Have a great day, everyone.

Do you have any pesky punctuation questions you want answered today?  If not, tell me about one of your high school English teachers.