Monday, February 21, 2011

Who Says What and How Often?

I've written other blogs about voice, but I'm a bit obsessed by the subject this week.  For one thing, I don't have much of a voice myself right now.  Normal speaking tones feel like shouts in my throat.  I tried to sing along with the song "Yesterday" on the radio last week.  Paul McCartney could sing higher than I could.  The longest I ever had to wait for a body part to heal was 6 weeks (a broken toe).  I'm told my speaking voice will likely take 3-4 months to heal, and my singing voice could be 6 months to 2 years.  And patience isn't one of my virtues.

Besides that, I've also been thinking about the way people speak because I'm working on rewrites for FEAR ITSELF.  These particular revisions are the easiest kind--the sort where the proofreader tells me that I used certain words too often.  All I had to do was search for those words, then decide if the word could be changed in each instance.  Words repeated too often are a common problem of any first draft manuscript.  While your brain is trying to get the story down, you don't always notice that you, for instance, put the phrase "even so" three times on one page.

But this time--since I have "voice" on the brain, and since one of my online mystery groups was discussing the overuse of cuss words in some books--I began to think of too-often used words and phrases in character terms.  Not everyone in a book should curse and the ones who do shouldn't use the same words or phrases. Otherwise, it's difficult to tell characters apart.  Shortened versions of certain words, like 'em for them, or 'cause for because, or 'til for until?  Each of those might also be uttered by only one or two characters, to make the voices clearer and not overuse the words.

Unique phrases, especially, ought to be reserved for one voice.  Tony Hillerman often used "so forth" at the end of a sentence after a comma (with no "and" before it).  This never bothered me until he had more than one character say it.  I'd come to think of it as the unique speaking trait of the detective.  When another character said the phrase, I was pulled out the story.  What if Agatha Christie had given "mon ami" to both Poirot and Hastings?  It wouldn't have worked.  Yet Poirot alone can say it often and it doesn't seem odd.

Even so, mon ami, peace, so forth,

Monday, February 14, 2011

Contest Quiz # 2 - Win a Nifty Prize!

Here is Miss Maggie's next history quiz for the Never Fear Fear Itself Contest.  The 2nd book in the Possessed Mystery Series is HANG MY HEAD & CRY, which deals with newly freed black slaves in the 1870s, voting rights of the 1960s, and intolerance in all eras.  Since this is Black History Month, it ties in perfectly.

Send your answers to the quiz below, along with your full name, to  All entries who ace the quiz will be entered in a drawing to win the free signed book of their choice from the Possessed Mystery Series or DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS.  If you have all 4 books already and can't think of anyone who'd like one as a gift, tell me that on your entry.  Another prize will be selected for you.  If no one aces the quiz, the person with the best score will win the book.  Entries not selected in this drawing will be eligible for later drawings.  I'll post a third quiz in March (bone up on your colonial history), then we'll do a grand prize drawing in April, which will be for a hot-off-the-press signed copy of FEAR ITSELF.

Only entries sent to will be eligible.  Deadline for entries for the quiz below will be February 28, 2011.  Winners will be announced March 1st.


1.  The photo above is of Sojourner Truth, an escaped slave and revivalist preacher who

a.  in her "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, spoke about the plight of black women, and right for all women.
b.  helped recruit black troops for the Union cause.
c.  after the Civil War, worked among freed slaves with the National Freedman's Relief Association.
d.  All of the above.

2.  Who was the first African American elected to the U.S. Congress?

a.  Hiram Revels, of Mississippi
b.  Joseph Rainey, of South Carolina
c.  George Henry White, of North Carolina
d.  Oscar De Priest, of Illinois

3.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965

a.  gave African Americans the right to vote
b.  gave women the right to vote
c.  prohibited states from imposing their own voting registration qualifications
d.  gave Congress the authority to regulate the voting process

Good Luck!

Monday, February 7, 2011

On The Air

Before I begin, I must mention that each week until my next novel, FEAR ITSELF, comes out in April, Miss Maggie will post an early 1930s video on her Facebook page.  She has everything from Will Rogers to Mickey Mouse planned.  Click on the link to the left to get in on the fun.

This winter has been relentless in its snow and ice storms, so I've spent most of my time at home the last month.  I would have gone stir crazy weeks ago if I hadn't found a slew of old radio plays online.

Radio plays have so much to teach a writer, I could probably write 3 or 4 blogs on each aspect (and maybe I will).  Unlike TV, radio dramas have no sets, costumes, props, gestures, facial expressions, or body language.  They can't rely on simple visual action to convey plot.  Radio plays are told mainly with words, and so they have more in common with novels than other types of media.

Still, radio plays shouldn't be confused with audio books.  Radio plays, like the stage variety, employ several actors and at least one sound effects man.  If you've ever watched a radio play performed live, you know sound effects is an art unto itself, and greatly enhances the telling of the story.  But also, radio plays are often skillful adaptations of books or stage plays, or original plays themselves, made to fit into a half hour or one hour slot.  They cut all the non-essentials out and hone in on the vital parts of a story.  Some, of course, are more successful than others.  I listened to an Orson Welles adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Our Town the other day that I thought worked beautifully.  Last week, I heard a play based on the novel (not the musical) Showboat. That, it seemed to me, was too abridged.  Though worth the listen because the author, Edna Ferber, played the part of the captain's wife, and was very good indeed.

Agatha Christie wrote radio plays.  Her most famous stage play, The Mousetrap began life as a 30 minute radio play called Three Blind Mice (written in honor of the Queen Mother's Birthday), then she rewrote the plot into a short story, then into the two-act play from there.  Unfortunately, it's pretty much impossible to listen to one of her plays online.  However, a few of her books were adapted for radio.  I highly recommend The Campbell Playhouse adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which Orson Welles plays both Hercule Poirot and Dr. Shepherd.  Other mysteries under the link above include The 39 Steps, The Immortal Sherlock Holmes, and Rebecca (with a Daphne Du Maurier interview at the end).  And don't miss the infamous War of the Worlds.

You can find a great apaptation of The Thin Man on Lux Radio Theater, as well as many good comedies and dramas.  And for the hard-core mystery fan, try CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

I also must mention a modern-day radio program called Prairie Home Companion.  You can hear it Saturday nights at 6 pm by tuning your radio to NPR, but you can also find the show's archives online at  This is a variety show but writers ought to pay particular attention to the skits.  It's amazing how they can weave elaborate and incredibly funny tales into a 4 to 10 minute time slot.  Plus, their sound effects man is an artist.  The video above is one of their "Lives of the Cowboys" skits and seemed especially appropriate to this winter.  Enjoy!

Peace (and keep warm),

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Contest Results and Working in the Real World

First, I'm pleased to announce that 3 students aced Miss Maggie's Civil War quiz: Debra Eisert, Mary Chamberlain, and Helen Delano.  Since we only had 3 star pupils, I've decided they each should win a free book.  Look here for Contest 2 around the middle of February.

Working in the Real World

One of the first pieces of advice a novice writer hears from the pros is "Don't quit your day job."  So what did I do last month?  I quit my day job.

I've quit at least 4 jobs in my lifetime, yet all for non-writing-related reasons.  This last time was because the job was effecting my health.  Sometimes I've quit because I decided I can't work for people better suited to be the bad guys in my books.  If you've read By Blood Possessed or any of my short stories set in offices, you know how I feel about the bad guys of corporate America.

Still, I'm not by nature a quitter.  I've had a slew of other jobs, all temporary for one reason or another.  Altogether I've been a retail clerk, school teacher, National Park guide, receptionist, data processor, and done every ilk of accounting, filing and other administrative jobs.  Oh, and I've been a proofreader, too. My finest moment was proofreading a brochure for a sex therapy lecture given by Dr. Ruth herself.

My mother would say I still haven't settled down.  Me?  I think I'm the kind of writer who needs to glean experiences from different sources, then move on.  Though, frankly, the need to pay pills tends to make me wait until I'm laid off or the job makes me physically ill or disgusted enough to quit.

I wrote By Blood Possessed while I was unemployed.  Hang My Head and Cry was written mostly in the hiatuses between temp agency jobs.  Poison to Purge Melancholy came together in the idle months before I took my last job.  Book 4, Fear Itself, was written while employed, but at the time, I had a boss who understood that I have a vocation outside of office work.

At the moment, I'm not grieving over the loss of my job.  With all the snow this winter, and the fact that my home parking spot is off of an alley that never gets plowed, it's just as well I don't have a compelling reason leave the house.

Yet I know, eventually, I'll get out there and start looking for gainful employment again.  Not only do I have the need to pay bills, but this writer, anyway, can't write in a vacuum.  It's not simply a matter of needing to observe human nature--I can go sit in a mall food court or ride trains in and out of the city to do that.  The thing is, with each position I've had, I've been thrown in with a diverse group of individuals, from all walks of life.  Some love their jobs.  The majority, at best, only like their jobs.  All are there because they must be or lose their livelihoods, and for some, their healthcare.  All have different motives for needing to keep their jobs.  A workplace, for a writer, is an encyclopedia of human psychology.

So when I say "Don't quit your day job" to a novice writer, I'm not merely commenting on the reality of most writers not being able to make a living from published works.  I'm saying don't take yourself out of the real world.  Your writing will suffer.



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