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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Your Character Said What?

“Doctor, to muse and blabber about a treasure map in front of this particular crew demonstrates a level of ineptitude that borders on the imbecilic . . .and I mean that in a very caring way.”

In case you never saw Treasure Planet, that line was spoken by Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson)—one of my favorite characters. Yeah, I know. She’s animated. But she’s still one of my favorites. What she says in dialogue defines her character while entertaining us, and making us care.

Dialogue has many purposes in fiction such as breaking up the narrative. I don’t enjoy reading long passages of narrative. Do you? Dialogue can be used to advance the plot, develop conflict and build the tension. Story background and setting can be revealed through dialogue as well.

But what about using dialogue to develop your characters? Maybe you’ve done a character chart or have actually interviewed your character. You’ve used every technique to discover everything you can. You know his hair and eye color, the kind of food he likes, the big secret he’s hiding. But none of that will matter unless you make the reader care. You must bring your character to life. How do you do that? Not through long passages of narrative. But through dialogue.

Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Get rid of the chit chat. (I’m not referring to Susan’s previous post) Chit chat can be almost as boring as long passages of narrative. Never write dialogue like this:

How are you?
Good. How are you?
Good. Well, have a nice day.

Sure, some of us may talk like this in real life but that’s not what we want to include in fiction.

2. Develop a good ear for dialogue. You don’t want your characters to sound like you. Nor do you want them to all sound alike. Start by listening to what people around you are really saying. Jot it all down in a notebook if you want. Refer back to it later to get a good sense of how to differentiate your character’s speech.

3. Shape your characters voice with diction. Your character’s word choice and order can show us who they are. In fact, spend more time working on this element than you would on dialect or slang.

Dillon Richard, the character created by Randall Ingermanson in his thriller, Double Vision, demonstrates his special way of thinking through his speech.

A pained expression crossed Dillon’s face. “Grant, Asperger’s Syndrome is not a disease, and you will please not treat me like a cripple.”

Rachel felt her mouth drop open. “Um, what’s this all about?”

Dillon’s face tightened. “I have a form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. It is named after Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian physician who wrote a paper in 1944 describing—"

“Autism?” Rachel said. “You mean like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man?”

“High-functioning autism,” Dillon said. “I do not babble, nor do I slobber, nor do I require institutionalization. I am a contributing member of society with a special kind of brain.”

“That’s so cool!” Rachel said. “Can you count cards like in Rain Man?” She put her hand on his arm. “Dillon, now I get it! Uncle Grant told me you were one in a million, but I thought he was exaggerating.”

Dillon looked very pleased. “Every autistic is different. I cannot count cards. Very few can. But I have unusual abilities to concentrate. Like Einstein. Like Newton. Both of whom are thought to have had Asperger’s.”

Here’s another great example of defining a character by word choice and order. See if you know who it is.

“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”

Did you recognize Yoda from Star Wars?

What about this?

"Does an active galactic nucleus have superluminal jets?"

If you haven’t seen Treasure Planet you wouldn’t recognize this as the good Doctor Doppler. But I think you get my point.

I’ve only given you a few tips here to get you started. Entire volumes have been written on this subject. Two books to take you deeper are Dialogue, by Gloria Kempton, part of Writer’s Digest Books Write Great Fiction series and Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella. For fun, you can read the script for Treasure Planet.

Happy Writing!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Keeping the Pace

I am working on the editing stage of a romantic suspense book. This stage is very painful for me. I seem to have made habits of several things that slow the pace. I’m trying to “unlearn” them, or learn to keep them in stories that call for a slower pace.

One of the chief offenders is the compound sentence joined by “, and.” One editor in particular hates this construction. When I use it, I get tons of penciled notes in the edge of the manuscript: “This is killing the tension! Break up these sentences!” So I’m finding it wise to search for “, and” before I turn in a manuscript (at least for this editor) and banish them.

Another bad habit I have is acres of dialogue when it isn’t really needed. I love writing dialogue, and I like to think I’m good at it. If that’s my strong point, I should use it a lot, right?

Not necessarily.

“Cut the chitchat” is what I get penciled in for that. Or “Cut this scene from 5 pages to 1.”


But she’s right.

I write cozy mysteries. I also write historical romances. Both of these genres are much slower paced than romantic suspense. When I switch back and forth, it takes an effort to get back into gear for suspense. (Probably one reason my agent is encouraging me to write more suspense and less of the other genres, but we won’t get into that today.)

I’ve learned one thing that makes readers keep reading when they get to the end of a chapter: Leave them hanging. This works in any genre, but is necessary in suspense to keep the tension high. So at the end of the chapter, I try to leave my main characters doing one of three things:

1. Making a discovery, perhaps an awful one, like a dead body or the fact that someone is shooting at them.

2. Taking action, like bolting for cover or jumping out of an airplane.

3. Coming to a decision.

The last option is not as high powered as the other two, but can be effective. Inner conflict keeps the tension going in suspense as well as outer, physical conflict.

For instance, after thinking about all the heroine’s actions, the hero may decide that, even though he’s not sure he can trust her, he’s going to make sure she makes it out of this situation alive. Coming to that resolution can be a good place to leave him at the end of a section or chapter. The question is, how will he do it?

Or your heroine may decide that, danger or no danger, she’s going to confront the villain. The reader will want to be watching over her shoulder when she does.

Back to editing now. Watch for my Love Inspired Suspense books in January (Just Cause) and April (Witness) and tell me what you think.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Interview with Deborah M. Piccurelli

Deborah M. Piccurelli is the author of In the Midst of Deceit, her first inspirational romantic suspense novel. When not writing, she enjoys reading, spending time with family or friends and shopping for bargains. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons.

Recently, she has put aside several other manuscripts to work on books with subjects of a darker nature. Her goal to finish a current work in progress is the year’s end. After that, it’s agent hunting, and on to the next project.

What was your initial reaction in finding out you sold your first book?

I received the call from the publisher when I least expected it. I had my mom and my niece over to watch videos. When the publisher told me she wanted to publish my book, my heart started pounding out of my chest. I was speechless. After a very short conversation about whether I'd accept, I asked, "So what's next?" The pub laughed.

Tell us some of the background behind the idea for your stories and about the story itself.

I began by deciding I wanted to have one of my characters an unbeliever. I settled on that being the hero, Slade Mitchell. Next, I wanted him to be in a dire situation, and really needy, so I made him suffer head trauma from a near-fatal skydiving incident that leaves him wheelchair bound. Of course, there had to be not only suspense, but romance, too. Enter the heroine, Stasi Courtland.

Slade lives in the fast lane; Stasi is a spiritually grounded, conservative woman. But Stasi would be Slade's rock throughout his entire ordeal, offering solace and hope. Before his accident, Slade had been a top-notch financial advisor. Stasi works from home in the IT field, doing background reports for clients. I needed an occupation where she could be around to help Slade much of the time, and this was perfect.

In light of Slade's business, I came up with the embezzlement scheme, and ran with the story from there. I'm a seat of the pants writer, so I only knew the beginning, some things in the middle, and the end. These days, I'm into more of the dark stuff to build a story around.

I find in my own writing that I often grow alongside my characters, especially spiritually. Is there a character whom you relate to and who made an input on your life?

Because of Slade's physical limitations, he needed to learn to stop trying to do things in his own strength and rely on God, once he became a Christian.

What is the number one thing you’ve learned from your writing journey?

Patience. ‘Nuff said.

Any future plans for your writing that you’d like to share? Any specific dreams you’d like to accomplish in the area of writing?

I’d like to cross over to the general market. For the stuff I’ve been writing since In the Midst of Deceit has been published, I think it would be a better fit.

Because I know there are many aspiring writers out there, can you share any tidbits of wisdom on getting published, especially from someone who has just broken in?

Study the craft, and become adept at it. Many times, I thought I was ready for publication only to find out I wasn’t. You never really stop learning, and there’s always room for improvement.

Any writer’s resources you could recommend?

I love Writer’s Digest Magazine and have always looked forward to what I would learn in its pages. Writer’s Digest Book Club is another of my favorites. You can earn a free book with every four books you buy. What a great perk! The Right-Writing blog is great for lots of free information, as is Faith*in*Fiction. Also, belonging to organizations like American Christian Fiction Writers is a huge help. There are really so many more, but not enough time or space to accommodate them.

What is the process you use when writing a mystery/suspense?

I hope this doesn’t sound trite, but I have no definite process. As a “seat of the pants” writer, I have the beginning, some things in the middle, and the end. What happens in-between is up to the characters. Of course, there are times when things don’t gel, so I’ve got to go back and make that happen.

What is your system to keep the story/clues organized?

I have a very brief outline, which is more like a list of things that happen in the story. I am constantly adding things to it, or changing things.

Tell us a bit about the research you had to do for this story.

I had so much fun doing the research for it. Because the hero, Slade loves parachuting, I visited a drop zone, had them explain the mechanics of a chute, and show me how it’s packed. I watched some jumpers, too. And, no, I didn’t jump myself. I probably should have, but I’m just not that adventurous. The thought gave me palpitations, and I did have children to think about. LOL!

I also interviewed a neurologist who joked that he hoped no one happened to be listening in on our conversation and think we were planning a murder. There was also the young man I spoke with who was an IT specialist and made himself available to answer my questions, no matter how silly. We also had intense conversations regarding Christianity.

In your book, you use the villain’s point of view. Tell us other writers how you dealt with that and the challenges you found using it.

For some reason, I had no problem with it. What does that say about me? LOL! I love being in the villain’s point of view, using what I know makes him/her tick to advance the story. Villains are fun, because you can loosen up and let them do things your main characters can’t.

My main challenge is to be careful not to let him/her overshadow my main characters. But I guess for the villain, as with our hero/heroine, we should start with a profile and really get to know him. What’s happened in his life that brought him to this point? What type of personality is he? What were his parents like? His siblings, if he has any? I know this is all standard stuff, but it works.

To learn more about Deb and her writing, visit her website.

And don't forget to visit our contest page where you can leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Deborah's book!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Multiple Storylines for Suspense, Part 2

Last time I introduced the idea of intercutting between two or more storylines as a means of increasing suspense and speeding up the rate at which readers tear through your pages.

This time I'm going to talk about the one caveat to using multiple storylines: you must stay with your main storyline for a goodly number of pages (like 40-60) before cutting away to other storylines.

Here's why: when your reader comes to your book she needs awhile to get grounded in the world of your story and in the mind of your viewpoint character. Cut away to another storyline too early and it will have a disorienting effect on your reader.

She was just beginning to catch your rhythm and figure out who the main character was and what that character was like. She was just beginning to care about your protagonist and become willing to invest in him or her.

When suddenly that's yanked away from her and she's asked to take on a whole new set of characters and concerns, a new viewpoint character, and a new major character and all that goes with that. She hadn't had time to really connect with your first one and now she's expected to connect with a new one?

Except now she's gun shy and afraid to engage with this new character because this one's probably going to get yanked away, too. So she stays aloof from your story. Fool her once, shame on you; fool her twice...?

A reader who is wary of engaging with your book is a reader who is already 99% of the way to putting your book down permanently.

A Night at the Movies

Imagine if you were selected to receive a free movie at the local multi-screen cineplex. You're assigned a burly escort who leads you to a front row seat in their shiny new stadium seating auditorium. You sit through the 45 minutes of pre-movie ads and previews, and finally the feature film begins. It looks good. This is the kind of movie you like. You settle in to have a g—

Suddenly your escort yanks you out of your chair and pulls you to the theater exit. What's going on? He drags you across the hall and into the movie that's playing there. He drops you into the front row seat just as this other movie is beginning.

Flustered and a little angry, you try to go back to the first theater, but Mr. Man won't let you. With a heavy sigh you turn your attention to the screen and try to get into this new movie.

Well, at least it's a comedy. And it has one of your favorite actors in it. You begin to think you might actually enj—

Yank. Dragged out. New theater. New movie.

Would you cut that out!

And so it goes. Just as you're getting into a new story you're asked to start caring about a new one. Sometimes you circle back to ones you've been in before, but by now you've been abused too much to care. You were never allowed to become truly invested in any of the stories, so now they're all just noise. You don't care about any of them.

And yet you could have. That's the tragedy.

I hope you see the parallel. It's jarring to go from storyline to storyline. If you give your reader no anchor, no home base, she will feel jerked around like our poor moviegoer.

The trick is to give her a home base, and you do that by staying in your primary storyline with your primary protagonist for a good number of pages at the beginning of your book. I recommend at least 40 contiguous pages before cutting away to another storyline.

This allows your reader to figure out some things, to get her bearings. It tells her who your protagonist is, what his or her main concerns and characteristics and goals and fears and weaknesses are, and what kind of story this is. It introduces the main world of your story and, most likely, it begins to sketch out what the story is going to be. It plants your reader firmly into the mind of your main character.

Once she has that kind of grounding, you can cut away to other storylines to your heart's content. She can handle the change then. And cut away you should, as my previous article suggests.

I suspect novelists who cut away too early are doing so because they want to keep things interesting. They want the book to feel like it's moving along briskly—and besides, they've seen that intercutting thing being done in their favorite books and movies and they want to be sure to use it.

Good idea and good instincts. But wrong timing. Let your reader find her footing in your primary storyline before cutting away to any others.

The one exception to this rule is the prologue. I'm a big fan of prologues. Readers understand that a prologue may be from a storyline other than the primary one, so they can handle it when chapter 1 is in a new storyline.

In a prologue readers often get a tantalizing look at the devious madman who will be the book's antagonist, or they may learn what the OR-ELSE component is as they see the villain start the time-bomb to ticking (see Tip #20 on my Web page), or they may see something that happened to the protagonist years before the primary story begins.

The point is that they're okay with not knowing everything that's going on in a prologue. If they're a little disoriented in a teaser scene like this, they can take it. In fact, they like it, especially if the scene is well done and whets their appetite for what is to come.

So here's the plan: do intercut between multiple storylines but begin with the primary one and don't cut away from it for at least 40 pages (except in the case of a prologue, which is a freebie).

Founder, WhereTheMapEnds

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Multiple Storylines for Suspense, Part 1

Greetings, suspense writers!

This week I'd like to do a two-part series on intercutting between two or more storylines in your fiction. First, how and why to do it. Second, when not to do it. You can read these in their original context at my Fiction Writing Tip of the Week column. Let's begin.

The villain has your hero backed against the wall. The hero's gun has been lost over the cliff. The villain pulls out his chrono-strombulator and levels it at the hero's nose. But what's that? The sound of a thundering herd? STAMPEDE!

Now you insert the most wonderful, infuriating three "letters" in the history of fiction: ***

Ack! The triple asterisks of doom! The three sisters of fury!

And you pick up another storyline already in progress: Ginger in the race car trying to find her hankie.

"What's going on with my hero?" the reader wonders. "Will the stampede save him? Can we please get back there?"

Meanwhile, as Ginger searches for her handkerchief, she hears voices coming into the garage. It's Perry and...and Juliana? What's he doing talking to Juliana? Ginger pokes her head around the corner and sees Juliana standing very close to Perry. Suddenly she stands on her tiptoes and leans in as if for a kiss.


Bwahaha. Asterisks of Smiting!

The herd of water buffalo bursts through the stockade. The villain swerves his head toward the noise. It's enough for our hero to leap upon him and snatch the chrono-strombulator from his grip. Aha! Now the foot's on the other hand.

And so you go, switching back and forth between two (or more) storylines, keeping your reader tearing across the pages like a crazy woman.

Intercut to the Chase

Intercutting between storylines is one of the simplest and most effective ways of increasing tension in your fiction. Well-chosen start and stop points keep the story zinging along at light speed.

It's best if the events you're cutting between are more or less simultaneous. The hero/villain standoff above could conceivably have taken place at the same time as Ginger's romantic intrigue. That's better than cutting between the villain/hero standoff and, say, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Simultanaety is vital for this to work.

It's also best if you don't keep the reader hanging an impossibly long time. For instance, if you were to leave the hero/villain standoff at the point of the stampede and then cut away to a three-year romance between Ginger and Perry, and then cut back to the hero and villain just discovering what the stampede is, it wouldn't work.

Use the cutaway to leave the reader hanging and increase suspense, but don't ask her to believe that the moment has been frozen for too long. Try to match the time it takes to play out the scene you cut away to more or less with the length of pause in the original storyline. You can play with this some (like I did above), but don't push it.

Intercutting between storylines is a great way to skip over long boring sections of your story. Let's say your hero is getting on a trans-Atlantic flight. Nothing happens during the flight that affects the story. If you want to make it feel as though time is passing for the hero while he's in flight, try cutting away to a lengthy scene in another storyline.

By the time the scenes in the second storyline have come to a nice pause point, the hero's plane will have landed and you can cut back to that storyline.

For more on regulating the perceived passage of time in your story see Tip #27.

Intercutting is a great technique, and not only for suspense writers. Anyone can use it (unless, of course, you're limiting your story to only one storyline).

In the next tip I'll talk about one major caveat regarding intercutting. But until then...wait, who's there? Aagh! It's- It's...YOU.



Jeff Gerke
a.k.a. Jefferson Scott

Thursday, August 09, 2007


No, I don't mean Michael Crichton's novel, although the book had a really interesting premise and was a LOT better than the movie.

I've been working on a new proposal, and one thing has really helped me. A timeline. If you haven't tried this before, let me put in a plug for you to do just that.

Have you ever noticed the time frame of a mystery/suspense/thriller novel? Sometimes, it doesn't take so long for the story to unfold. I grabbed a few titles from my shelf and here's what I found:

Brandilyn Collins: Web of Lies Thursday, Sept. 22 through Monday, Sept. 26 (Epilogue Saturday, Oct. 22)
Lyn Cote: Dangerous Secrets March 1 through March 26 (Epilogue, May25)
Brandilyn Collins: Violet Dawn Saturday, July 22. Total time (not including flashbacks and epilogue) less than a day.

I could go on. In fact, I had at least 2 more books I could have listed: Gayle Roper's See No Evil, Hannah Alexander's Death Benefits. But if you're a Love Inspired Suspense fan, pull those from your shelf and see what you find. Or, take another book and check the timeline.

Working with a timeline can give you an excellent frame for your story. You can see what you have room for. What's really backstory, and what's vital to the present moment of story. You can also learn where your story really begins. Sometimes we start too soon, before that pivotal moment of change that kicks things into gear. You don't need a buildup to the inciting incident. A timeline can help you see all these things.

Right now as I'm working on this new proposal, I'm starting with my time line. I took a piece of printer paper. On the blank piece of paper (turned horizontally), I drew my timeline, and started labeling. The beauty of this system is you can always start over if you realize you have too many things happening in one day--or maybe that's how it should be. At any rate, a timeline makes it easier to see the big picture of the story. I'm a detail-girl. I can see the little things without trying. But sometimes the larger elements--like time passage--fly right by me.

"But that's too restrictive and confining! How can I be free to write my story?" someone might say.

Think of it this way: Your timeline is your curtain rod. It has a beginning and an end. But--what you hang on that curtain rod is entirely up to you. Silk drapes, cotton, 70's plaid... No matter what your style, a timeline can help everything hang in place.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Interview with Virginia Smith

1. Murder by Mushroom, your new book releasing this month, sounds intriguing. Tell us a bit about this story from Love Inspired Suspense.

Kitchen klutz Jackie Hoffner decides to bring something other than potato chips to the church potluck. When someone plants poisonous mushrooms in her casserole to kill a gossipy old lady, Jackie determines to find the killer and clear her name. She makes a complete pest of herself with the police, especially the handsome officer who is hoping this investigation will launch him into a detective position on the force. But when the killer strikes again, it seems Jackie is more than just a pest. She might even be a target. Murder by Mushroom is a cozy mystery – a la Agatha Christie style – set in a small Kentucky town not far from my hometown. Steeple Hill started releasing cozy mysteries along with their typical suspense stories in June, so this is only the third one!

2. How did you come up with the idea for Murder by Mushroom? Did you start with a situation, a crime, a character?

Actually, I was sitting at dinner at a conference beside Krista Stroever, a senior editor at Steeple Hill. She mentioned that she had just given a contract to someone for a cozy mystery series, and was interested in seeing more. Well, several years before, I’d considered writing a mystery set in a small church but hadn’t done much beyond thinking about the setting and a couple of characters. As I ate dinner, I wracked my brain and came up with the idea of using a potluck casserole to kill someone. And it just so happens I was eating chicken in mushroom sauce. One of my friends is a wild mushroom hunter, and a couple of weeks before had been called to the hospital ER to consult when someone had gotten hold of poisonous mushrooms. By the time dinner was over, I had the crime pretty much sketched out. I pitched it to Krista right then and received an invitation to send her a query.

3. Do you plan to write more suspense books? What’s coming up next?

Oh, yes. I just finished proofing the galleys of Bluegrass Peril, which will be out in December. It’s set in the thoroughbred industry. Here’s a teaser:

When the director of a retirement farm for thoroughbred champions is murdered, Becky Dennison teams up with the handsome manager of a neighboring horse farm to find her boss's killer. The amateur sleuths uncover a trail of clues that lead them into the intricate society of Kentucky's elite thoroughbred breeding industry. They soon find themselves surrounded by the mint julep set - jealous southern belles and intensely competitive horse breeders - in a high-stakes game of danger, money, and that famous southern pride.

That one isn’t cozy. My editor says it reads like a Christian Dick Francis novel. Hey, I can live with that!

4. You started out writing sci-fi and fantasy. Tell us a little about that interest of yours.

Oh, I just love sci-fi and fantasy! I’m a Trekker from way back, and I have paintings of fairies and dragons all over the walls of my office! C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia played a big part in my developing love for books as a child, and I never lost my love for stories in fantastic settings. For several years in my early adulthood I read sci-fi/fantasy exclusively – nothing else. So naturally when I decided I wanted to become a writer, that’s what I wrote. Not successfully, I’m afraid. But I do still hold out hopes that one day the Lord will let me play in that genre.

5. Your chick lit books have also been successful. How does a person with talent and interests in so many areas choose a genre? And do you think that writing in several genres has hurt you or helped you as a writer?

I write what I like to read, and that includes several different genres. I love mysteries and suspense and chick lit and women’s fiction and fantasy and science fiction. Sure, there are people who only like to read mysteries, or only like to read romance, or only like to read science fiction (as I once did), and that’s okay. But there are others with eclectic tastes, like mine. I don’t really worry about whether writing in different genres helps me or hurts me. I love every story I write, and I trust my books will find their way onto the bookshelves of readers who will also love them.

My books do all have something in common, though. They all have an element of humor in them. And they all have a female main character who is quirky or funny or wacky in some way. So maybe my “brand” isn’t necessarily related to a genre. Maybe my brand is all about my writing style and my characters.

6. How is the experience of writing suspense different from writing your other books? Do you have to shift into a different mental gear?

Absolutely. I approach the different genres in a totally different way. Not the actual writing, but the preparation for writing. When I write mysteries, I lay out the whole plot before I write the book. I know the crime, the perpetrator, the suspects, their alibis, and the clues I’ll drop along the way. I’m not sure I could write a mystery without knowing all those things in advance!

When I write chick lit or humorous women’s fiction (which is the genre of my upcoming series from Revell) I am a seat-of-the-pants writer for most of the book. I sit down at the computer each morning with only a vague idea of what happens next. But then when I pass the half-way mark, I tend to sketch out a scene-by-scene list from that point forward, so I don’t forget important points that I need to address later in the book.

7. How do you sustain the suspense in your books?

Murder by Mushroom really isn’t suspenseful, since it’s a cozy. But it does have a couple of pretty tense scenes. Bluegrass Peril is more suspenseful, and the one I’m working on right now (not contracted yet) is even more suspenseful. I’m still learning, but I’ve picked up a few things along the way. First, don’t let your main character get comfortable. Keep her worried, and if you’ve done a good job of characterization, your readers will stay worried, too. Second, end chapters with tension that makes the reader want to turn the page and keep reading. Third, during suspenseful scenes, keep the sentences short and almost chopped. That relays tension. And finally, kill people the reader doesn’t expect. I heard a piece of advice once that I’ve taken to heart – if your book starts losing its tension, kill off the main suspect.

8. While writing, what system do you use to keep the clues and story organized?

Spreadsheets. I’m the Queen of Excel, and my plot outline spreadsheets are a work of art. (I’m humble, too!) I have several different sheets in it. The first is a scene-by-scene outline that records the chapter, the action taking place in the scene, clues dropped (hidden or open clues), and the timeline. Viewpoint characters are denoted by color, so since Murder by Mushroom has four viewpoint characters, that spreadsheet is quite colorful! At the end of every day I record how many words I’ve written in each scene, so I keep track of how long the scenes are. And then I also have formulae set up to track total word count, daily progress, and percent complete.

Another sheet contains the first and last names of all the characters, along with a 1-sentence description of their role. When a new character comes on the scene, I do a quick alphabetic sort and make sure the name I give that character doesn’t begin with the same letter as any others. In Murder by Mushroom, though, I have two characters whose names begin with S. I did that on purpose, because I wanted to indicate to the reader that they look alike, that it would be easy to confuse them. (Oooh, and there’s an important hint for something that happens later in the book!)

9. Do you work with critique partners? If so, how do they help you?

Oh, yes, I’m a confirmed critique groupie. I have never turned in any piece of fiction that hasn’t been critiqued. I moderate CWFI’s critique group, so they read a lot for me (and I for them). And over the years I’ve developed a small group of people with whom I exchange manuscripts irregularly, whenever one of us needs something. Jill Elizabeth Nelson is one of them, and she’s an incredible critiquer. Another lady is a fantasy writer I met almost15 years ago, and she’s also extremely talented at pinpointing exactly what needs to be changed.

10. How do you weave the spiritual thread into your suspense and fantasy stories?

My contemporary books are about Christian people living in today’s world, so they have a Christian perspective. The spiritual thread seems to come naturally as I put myself into their heads and look at the world through their eyes. And actually, they tend to look at the world through my eyes, as well. The spiritual growth of my characters is always based – at least in part – on spiritual growth in my own life. So I pray, and I ask the Lord to show me how I learned that particular lesson. Then it sort of flows naturally into the story.

My fantasy isn’t any different than the rest of my stories. (And yes, I do have a couple of unpublished sf/f stories written! I have hopes!) Though the setting is fantastic, God is the ruler of my universe. I don’t think you have to spout Bible verses in order to have a spiritual message. Jesus’ parables weren’t about religious people. They were about everyday people doing everyday things – a woman sweeping the floor, a man planting a vineyard, and investor buying a piece of property. To me, the most powerful lessons are also the most subtle ones.

11. In a short book, say 60,000 words or less, how do you deepen your characters and make them come alive?

I do detailed character sketches, character interviews, personality profiles, and questionnaires on all the main characters. I know way more about my characters than my readers ever will. As the story progresses I might drop a detail that tells the reader about this character’s rich history. For instance, Jackie Hoffner in Murder by Mushroom had a really traumatic experience as a child when her parents were killed. The details of that trauma weren’t necessary for the reader to know, but it helped to shape her personality. It’s part of the reason she has trouble relating to people her own age. I can’t go into details in a short book, but I can tell them that Jackie moved in with her aunt when she was a child, and spent most of her time being a caretaker instead of enjoying time with her friends. And that’s enough. The reader then trusts that Jackie is a real person with a real history, and they believe her character.

12. Any upcoming books or events you’d like to tell us about?

I’ve got a cool event planned for August. I’m giving away a $250 iPod! To qualify, just post a positive review for Murder by Mushroom on Amazon.com, BN.com, or ChristianBook.com, and then send me the link. I’ll draw a name at the end of August. Details are on my website.

As for books - I’ve mentioned Bluegrass Peril, my next mystery that comes out in December. But I also recently received a contract for the sequel to my first book, Just As I Am. I don’t have the finalized title yet, but I think it will be called Sincerely, Mayla. That book is edgy chick lit – funny, but deals with some pretty harsh realities of today’s world. It’ll be released in March.

And I’m totally jazzed about my new series from Revell, the Sister-to-Sister Series. These books are funny and lively and touching and moving. The first book, Stuck in the Middle, will be released in February 2008, followed by Age before Beauty in February 2009, and finally Last but Not Least in 2010. Check out the “Books and Articles” page on my website to read about them. www.VirginiaSmith.org

13. What advice can you share with aspiring writers who would like to break in and get published?

Don’t give up. I wrote for almost two decades and collected almost 150 rejection letters before my first professional sale. Many times I wanted to quit, but I knew the Lord had placed the desire to write in my heart. I had to trust that He was in control. And those years were not wasted. I worked on my skill, I learned how to give and receive feedback, how to edit my own work, how to work toward a deadline, how to approach editors and agents. And I matured as a person as well as a writer. I can honestly say that I could not have written my debut novel back when I first started trying to write, and I’m thankful some of those earlier works will never see the light of day! So my advice to aspiring writers is this: keep working toward your goal. If God can do it in my life, He can do it in yours!

Thanks, Virginia for the great interview. Don't forget to visit our contest page for a chance to win a copy of Murder by Mushroom!