— R. Scott Decker, PSWA Vice President and author of Recounting the Anthrax Attacks.
Introduction – As I continue to write and refine my style, I find my mind visualizing the words as I form a sentence. I struggle not to use the same word twice on a page, to stay in the active voice, alter sentence length, and so on. My goal is that writing becomes second nature. It takes work.
I am also finding that I visualize spoken words and unconsciously critique the speaker’s use of words and phrases. My mind sees the spoken words on a page. I find myself cringing at certain phrases used in abundance and not always in the correct form. I evaluate discussions and media commentary for what would be suitable or unsuitable in written narrative. Overuse and misuse of the King’s English has become my unintended pet peeve.
I’m not alone. At the beginning of the year, two young TV announcers/anchors presented their list of overused and abused words. They put “literally” at the top of their list. Unfortunately, many celebrities, including Hollywood A-listers and popular talk show hosts, did not see the broadcast or pay attention if they did. At the top of my list for this season is “moving forward.” It’s everywhere—sports, politics, and the nightly news. Some examples:
Commentator during the fourth game of the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals – “We will continue to monitor COVID test positive results moving forward.” Redundant?
Tom Bevan, opening of the 9/29/2020 Presidential Debate – “Forward-looking vision for the future.” What?
A prolific and widely-read romance author recently penned advice for fellow writers: “I think the biggest mistake an author makes when writing a rough draft is stopping and rereading/editing their work. The key is to keep moving forward and get the whole story out.” Could forward be left out without losing the meaning? I vote, yes.
Second on my list is “transparency” and its negative, “lack of transparency.” When did this one replace the more articulate, “lying by omission,” “not being truthful,” “hiding the facts, “without explanation?” Candidate Joe Biden used “transparency” more than once during the 9/2020 Presidential Debate. Even my personal hero, Chris Wray, Director of the FBI, uses “transparency” in his public addresses.
Landing at third on my overuse list are adverbs—those ending in “-ly.” Usually (oops) they waste oxygen. What morning talk show doesn’t broadcast “literally” during every airing?
New Words and Terms – And there is the use of new words when the tried and true won’t do. For 2020 we have “impactful.” And “content” to describe information. “Break it down” for explaining things. “Deeper look” has replaced closer look and scrutiny. During a Las Vegas Springs Preserve TV ad this past summer, the narrator said, “during a rain event” to describe when it rains; and repeated it three times in one minute! And there is “price point” to describe price; “skill set” to mean skills. Is there no end?
Summing Up – Writing benefits from brevity, using less words to say more. More often than not, it lends itself to a faster paced narrative. As writers, we must embrace the use of a wide and varied vocabulary. Word’s thesaurus feature is a good start. I find reading the work of prominent authors especially useful, such as that of John McPhee. As I took breaks in my book writing to read his tome, Coming into the Country (FSG, 1991), I kept a list of words he used that were unfamiliar to me. The list grew to more than one hundred by the time I finished the book. I kept a dictionary close at hand.
Being a writer is being a lifelong learner. . .
I’m a guest this month for George’s blog, and if not for him, I would have made a huge blunder in my most recent book, EMBERS OF MURDER. I thought I understood the military. I guess I should have watched more television. I have a character in the book from NCIS. I thought it was a part of the military command. Fortunately, I happen to be talking to George about it, and he enlightened me that it’s a civilian personnel activity of the Navy. My character’s rank was changed from Lieutenant to Special Agent. Whew!
Each book brings about research. Whether it’s using Google Earth to stand on the streets of cities, I have never visited or trying to understand how various law enforcement agencies work across the world.
Like many authors, I occasionally glance outside, expecting to see an unmarked van surveilling my house to determine if I’m a criminal. Sometimes my research determines how long it takes someone to die from X poison. Did you know that most human bodies don’t burn into ashes if they die in a house fire? Well, you do now. Smoke inhalation is what kills them. I have a head filled with random knowledge ready in case the question is ever asked on Jeopardy.
I also shop online for random stuff as a part of my story. Where can I get a tank of nitrogen gas? How about a helium tank? Did you know that the mini helium tanks that you buy from party stores have twenty-one percent air in them? You can’t die inhaling the gas from a party-store purchased helium-filled balloon. Instead, you have to buy your helium tank from a welder’s supply. There you go… more random knowledge.
When I mentioned that EMBERS OF MURDER would be about an arsonist, a reader wrote to me to say that he investigated fires for an insurance company and could be a resource for any fire questions. He was very helpful and suggested I use isopropyl alcohol to start a fire rather than gasoline as it doesn’t leave a residue that can be traced.
It’s all fiction, so why bother to get technical parts of the story right? Because bad information can be a distraction. I watched an episode of “ER” in the late 1990s. They portrayed something so medically inaccurate that I never again watched the show. I missed the next decade of shows because of my outrage with that single inaccuracy. I lost faith in ER’s writers.
I feel the same way about fiction stories. Even though I’m reading fiction, there are parts of every story that need to be true or believable. A character needs to behave like they have for the past five books. Science must be true whether the story is set on earth or some imaginary planet. I have an arsonist trying to hide their work, and I can’t achieve that if I start a brushfire with gasoline and expect that the fire people can’t figure that out. Duh.
Sometimes the research is routine (What’s on the menu of a Queenstown pub-restaurant). Other times I’ll spend nearly an hour going down a rabbit hole fascinated by what I looked for. For example, I’ve never visited Israel, yet I had a part of EVERGREEN VALLEY MURDER related to the Dead Sea. Before I knew it, an hour passed as I looked at the sea with online pictures and Google Earth and read a little history of the area.
Being a writer is the best way to keep your brain engaged with the world around us!
Author of Jill Quint, MD Forensic Pathologist series (12 books), and Damian Green series (4 books)
Contact: www.AlecPeche.com or Author@AlecPeche.com
Scott Decker’s first book is a true crime memoir,
Recounting the Anthrax Attacks—Terror, the Amerithrax Task Force, and the Evolution of Forensics in the FBI (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). I attempted to write it as creative non-fiction (see, creativenonfiction.org).
“The book is fascinating and absolutely authentic—a behind-the-scenes account, never before told in such detail, of the FBI’s forensic detective work into the chilling anthrax bioterror attacks after 9/11. Decker, who ran the “dark biology” part of the FBI’s investigation, recounts how agents and scientists used cutting-edge tools of biology to narrow down the search for the perpetrator and finally focus on one suspect. I don’t think the world realizes just what the FBI accomplished or how they did it, or the pitfalls and difficulties of the investigation, but Decker tells us the story from the inside.” —Richard Preston, NY Times Bestselling Author, The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer.
Do you write in more than one genre? No, just one genre, memoir, as narrative non-fiction. I am a stickler for historical and technical accuracy.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I converted the spare bedroom at the end of our house to an office. I have a 27″ iMac that allows me to have two or three documents or Internet sites on the screen at once. I have a printer hard-wired to the Mac and a hardline phone next to it on an antique desk with an antique NYC Public Library table forming an “L” shape.
Distractions are numerous. Probably my two rescues, a beagle mix and a miniature pinscher, are the biggest. They really are high maintenance. They keep me company, sleeping on a day bed next to my desk, but if I ignore the pinscher when I am lost in the writing, he pees in my office. Then I have to stop typing and clean it up.
What are you currently working on? These days I free-lance for Security Management magazine and Knife Magazine. I am also researching for a second memoir. The working title is Papermaker—A Memoir of the Ups and Downs in an American Industry. Papermaker will discuss the dangers of working in a paper mill, one that an entire community depends on for their livelihood—the maimings and fatalities notwithstanding.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? I have to give a shout-out to the Public Safety Writers Association. I joined when my book was in the very early stages. Over a couple of years, my writing improved with the help I found attending their annual conference. They also held a writing workshop the day before the conference, and it included the opportunity to submit writing samples for critique. I submitted my first book, two chapters, which had undergone numerous revisions. The instructor had only one minor suggestion for my dialog. I entered my unpublished manuscript in their annual writing competition. It won first place in the non-fiction book category. At that point, I felt I was ready to query publishers in earnest.
Who’s currently your favorite author? I’ll list two. The first is Linda Greenlaw; she has authored three or four memoirs about fishing the Atlantic. Linda is portrayed in the Warner Bros movie, The Perfect Storm as the woman swordfish captain opposite George Clooney’s character. The second is Colson Whitehead. He has authored both fiction and non-fiction books and is an excellent writer.
How long did it take you to write your first book? I began in 2012, and Recounting was published in March 2018. During that time, I got married, my wife and I moved three times, took two family estates through probate, and put the family farm in preservation. I stayed busy.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I am an outliner. I begin with a timeline of events. I then go down the timeline and make chapter breaks at places I think will lend themselves to a cliffhanger. Following that, I write one-half to two-thirds of a page summarizing each chapter. The chapter outlines will comprise a large part of my non-fiction book proposal. A book proposal is mandatory for publishing non-fiction—all publishers require it.
A proposal is a fair amount of work in itself, but I find it makes writing the book easier. I take each chapter outline and fill in between the sentences to build a chapter.
What kind of research do you do? These days most is over the Internet. Sites like fold3.com and the National Archives (archives.gov) contain loads of information. Even the FBI has a ton of case histories available on their site, vault.fbi.gov. I read books on the same subject I want to write about; these books become part of my book proposal’s “Comparable Books” section. I request books through the Inter-Library Loan process at my local public library or buy them outright.
What is the best book you ever read? I’ll list two again, first is John Conroy’s Belfast Diary—War as a Way of Life (Beacon Press, 1989). The second is Craig K. Collins’ Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture (Lyons Press, 2014). Both are narrative non-fiction memoirs.
The second, Thunder in the Mountains, had a great effect on my writing and encouraged me to embrace writing about myself in the first-person—memoir. Collins’ book showed me how to speak to my audience in a personal way, which I think appeals to most readers.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I’ll continue to free-lance for Security Management magazine and Knife Magazine and research for a second memoir. I have partnered with an established producer who optioned my book. We are pitching networks on both a documentary series and a scripted narrative series.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Don’t give up on publishers versus self-publishing. Going with an established publisher, even a small house, has advantages. The first version of my book, or rather my non-fiction proposal, was rejected over and over by small presses. I finally sat down and rewrote it using much more first person and ending each chapter with a cliffhanger. I submitted the revised proposal to a dozen small presses and received three contract offers. I went with Rowman on the advice of a fellow author. Working with both my editor and production manager at Rowman was great.
How do our readers contact you? Your website, blog links, any links you want to be posted? Readers can contact me through my Internet site: www.rscottdecker.com. The site’s “Contact” page is forwarded to my email address, which I check several times a day. The site is low cost, and I edit it myself. The Authors Guild (authorsguild.org) hosts it.
Scott Decker with Robert Mueller
Into Madness (Born from Stone Saga – Book 1 of 3)
After a decade in hiding, captured, and imprisoned, Ravin Carolingian believes she has nothing more to lose. Instead of the execution she expected, Ravin faces a forced marriage to Brakken, the son of the man who killed her father and toppled her kingdom. Blinded by hatred, Ravin vows that marriage will never take place. Instead, she will exact revenge, no matter the cost.
Following a series of magical attacks, and as she fights the unnatural attraction she feels for Brakken, Ravin is left to question everything she thought she knew about herself. Still, as the line between ally and enemy blurs, one thing becomes clear, if she is to help the Carolingian people, Ravin must escape the evil that walks the halls of the palace she once called home.
The second book in the trilogy, Heart’s Divided, is due to be published in May of 2021, and the third, The Reckoning, later that fall.
Do you write in more than one genre? Memoir, short stories, and fantasy.
What brought you to writing? As a child, there wasn’t much I loved more than reading. Actually, there was nothing I loved more than horses. In my youth, I didn’t have a horse; I fed my passion by submersing myself in books: My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty, and any novel where the protagonist was a girl with a horse.
As an adult and a trainer of racehorses, I started writing freelance for industry publications, like Backstretch Magazine, Bloodhorse, and The Racing Form. From there, I branched out and started writing special feature articles for local newspapers, like The Contra Costa Times, Tri-Valley Herald, and Valley Times.
When I joined the Tri-Valley Branch of the California Writers Club, I was encouraged to write a memoir. My book is about the horse I owned and trained to run in all three legs of the American Triple Crown of Racing—the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.
With international recognition for Casual Lies – A Triple Crown Adventure, I tried my hand at telling stories. Short stories kept my interest until a close friend encouraged me to try the NANOWRIMO challenge. Four years later, I published my debut novel, Into Madness.
Are you traditionally published, indie published, or a hybrid author? I would have to say hybrid. Literary agents, through their query submission standards, make it difficult to hire them, emphasis on hiring them. To send a query, you must follow their detailed outline—and whatever you do, don’t deviate from their outline—and, by the way, don’t expect to get a response unless they pick you. Still, I prefer a readers’ opinion over an agent who’s looking for a reason to reject rather than enjoy.
Where do you write? And what about distractions? I sit at my kitchen table here in Central Oregon and gaze out at a bucolic scene for inspiration. Here are my distractions:
- I get to watch as the deer clear cut my garden.
- Squirrels chew off the sprinkler heads, trim the siding, and shorten the roof’s metal exhaust pipes.
- Don’t even get me started on the Robins.
- Pine needle hurricanes.
- Still, the quail and their walnut-sized babies are as cute as all get out.
Do you ever develop plots or characters around real-life experiences? Memoir aside, in my first book of short stories, For Want of a Horse, I drew on my twenty-four-year experience with training racehorses. Some of the stories were real-life incidences, though a few I embellished.
The current novel that I’m writing and have tentatively named ‘Out of the Blue’ is a middle-grade novel about training and racing dragons. So, of course, after more than one-third of my life spent at the racetrack, I change everything that has to do with hoofed animals to winged animals.
Since dragons don’t eat hay and grain, I doubt children will like the idea of leading lambs down the shedrow at feeding time. Feeding the dragons was a problem to overcome. An essential part of the story, it had to be ironed out right from the start.
How do you come up with names for your characters? That’s the easy part of the creative process, at least for me. I develop a character in my head, and then the name comes easy. I Google popular names for specific eras in history—for instance, Irish names in the 8th century. I don’t use character names that aren’t easily pronounceable. To me, those types of names tend to slow down the reader.
Do you use real settings or make them up? Unless it’s a massive city like New York, London, Beijing, I like to make up a name located in a recognizable area. Heaven forbid that a real town resident reads my book and calls me out on a lake that doesn’t exist.
In my historical fantasy, Into Madness, I loosely based the world I built in a Baltic region. The landmasses and names are all created. However, there was a Carolingian in history. I liked it, so I used it. (My sister, who I lost to cancer, was named Carol. Might have something to do with the name choice and why I liked it.)
Have you ever developed a quintessentially eccentric character? At first read, this question seemed simple, but I found myself stumped. Once I begin to interact with them within the story, my characters become very real to me, and I don’t think of them as quirky or eccentric.
What is one of your favorite books? Why? Lonesome Dove — If I had not seen the mini-series first, I would’ve put this book down in the first chapter―pigs, dust, and rattlesnakes. For me, it started so slow; it was an effort to turn the pages. When I finished the book, I grieved. I grieved because there was not another page to turn, I grieved for the loss of the friends left behind within its pages, and I grieve even now―because I wasn’t the one who wrote it.
What’s your biggest pet peeve? As an author? Literary agents. ?
Looking to the future, what do you see? Finding within myself the focus necessary to finish the three novels I have in the works. And in particular, I am excited about the dragon racing novel. The characters are so endearing, and the plot elements are so current. My characters face prejudice, racism, bullying, climate change, species extinction, fair play, and hope within the story’s overall umbrella.
Any other thoughts you care to share? I have heard many reasons why writers write—the list is long. A good story is a gift. A gift that you get to share over and over again. And each time you share it, you enjoy it once again along with the recipient.
We don’t need to ask a comedian what’s the best part of his performance. It will always be the audience’s laughter, right? As an author, I find no greater pleasure than the thought that my words, my story, brings a few minutes or a few hours of entertainment into someone’s life.
What do you find to be the best part for a writer? A review. A five-star review was recently posted on ‘Into Madness,’ in the comment section was a “ :)” and nothing more. While I like to hear my readers’ opinions, what they liked, what they wanted, still that smiley face was just as encouraging as any other review. It told me so much about how my story had affected my reader. And, just as important, that smiley face encouraged me to get to back work.
For those of you who hesitate to take the time to post a review, remember even something as simple as a smile is manna from heaven for the writer who has spent hundreds of hours alone bringing words to life.
How can our readers contact you?
USA Today bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston
Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry.
Up until fairly recently, I juggled three careers, one of which gave me the idea for my long-running Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery Series. Until retiring last year, I worked for decades as a designer and editor in the consumer crafts industry, primarily designing needlework for kit manufacturers and magazine and craft book publishers. However, I have been known to wield a nasty glue gun from time to time and have the scars to prove it! But it’s been well worth the pain, given the accompanying inspiration it’s provided. (see below)
I began my writing career in the romance genre. My first published book, Talk Gertie To Me, which was more humorous women’s fiction than romance, was published in 2006. Love, Lies and a Double Shot of Deception, a romantic suspense, came out in 2007. By then, I had decided to take my writing in a different direction with a mystery series. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun was the first book in the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries. I sold the series at the end of 2009, and the first book was released in January 2011.
But I said I juggled three careers, didn’t I? After selling my first book, the agency which represented me invited me to join them as an associate, which made me, for a time, an author, an agent, and a designer. With the changes that have occurred in publishing the last few years, coupled with the death of two of our agents and the retirement of one, the agency owner decided it was time to close shop after nearly fifty years in business. So now I’m back to one career. Truthfully, it’s the one I love most because it enables me to live 24/7 within my imagination.
The idea for the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries came about thanks to a conversation my agent had with an editor. The editor was looking for a crafting mystery series. My agent figured, with my background, I was the perfect person for the project. I hadn’t read any crafting mysteries at that point, and when I began researching them, I discovered that most featured amateur sleuths were shop owners. I wanted to come up with something different and tapped into my own industry experiences as a crafts editor, making Anastasia the crafts editor at a women’s magazine.
The idea for the first book came about from a combination of events. My husband had recently lost his job, and although he’s nothing like Anastasia’s husband (thank goodness!), it sent me into a tailspin of worry regarding money. Although I juggled three careers at the time, none of them provided me with a steady income. On top of that, I was having mother-in-law problems. Finally, when I first started contemplating the series, The Sopranos was still on HBO. I’m a Jersey girl. How could I not set a mystery in my home state and involve the Mafia in some way?
All of these elements, along with just having sustained a painful burn from my hot glue gun, came together to form the basis for both the first book and the overall series: When Anastasia Pollack’s gambling-addicted husband permanently cashes in his chips in Las Vegas, her life craps out. She’s left with two teenage sons, a mountain of debt, and her nasty, cane-wielding communist mother-in-law—not to mention a loan shark demanding fifty thousand dollars.
Given the premise for the series, I knew it had to be humorous. I’ve always been drawn to quirky characters. They make me laugh. I think we all need more laughter in our lives, especially with everything going on right now! Releasing those endorphins is the only thing sustaining many of us these days.
In crafting quirky characters, I usually take traits from various people I know, exaggerate them, and blend them together to create unique characters. Let’s face it, most people aren’t as quirky or funny in real life as they are on the printed page. The exception is Lucille, Anastasia’s mother-in-law. With a few minor differences, Lucille’s personality (along with her communist leanings) mirrors that of my now deceased mother-in-law. Hence, the mother-in-law problems I mentioned above—and the reason why some of my husband’s relatives no longer speak to me!
There are now nine full-length novels and three novellas in the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery Series, which have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist and an Amazon #1 Bestseller. The latest book is A Sew Deadly Cruise, released October 1st.
Come for the laughs, stay for the mystery!
A Sew Deadly Cruise – An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, Book 9
Life is looking up for magazine crafts editor Anastasia Pollack. Newly engaged, she and photojournalist fiancé Zack Barnes are on a winter cruise with her family, compliments of a Christmas gift from her half-brother-in-law. Son Alex’s girlfriend and her father have also joined them. Shortly after boarding the ship, Anastasia is approached by a man with an unusual interest in her engagement ring. When she tells Zack of her encounter, he suggests the man might be a jewel thief scouting for his next mark. But before Anastasia can point the man out to Zack, the would-be thief approaches him, revealing his true motivation. Long-buried secrets now threaten the well-being of everyone Anastasia holds dear. And that’s before the first dead body turns up.
Craft projects included.
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