Elaine Orr on How Characters Talk

Today, I have Elaine Orr writing about how the different ways characters talk affects how the story is told. This is her second visit here. Read her post from last May here.

Photo of Elaine Orr, who is writing about How Characters Talk
Elaine Orr

No matter what our characters say, we make decisions about such things as their tone, dialect, and pace of speech. For example, in my Jersey shore mystery series (the Jolie Gentil series) I chose not to give most of the characters the stereotypical Jersey accent. Two (an annoying real estate agent and a policeman) will say the occasional youse, to keep some area flavor.

Dialect choices are obvious ones. Vocabulary can be more of a challenge for me. Like most authors, mine is a fairly good one. But word choice should be very different for the high school-age grocery clerk and the local pastor. Words need to reflect the character’s persona. It’s fine for a surprised, older Midwesterner to say, “Lands sakes,” but a college coach would probably say, “What the hell?”

Reader expectations also have something to do with word choice. My Logland series, set in a small, rural Illinois college town, is billed as a police procedural with a cozy feel. If it were a true cozy mystery, characters couldn’t swear. (Not that they really let loose.)

Of my three mystery series, I have the most verbal fun with the characters in the Logland series. In this scene in Tip a Hat to Murder, Police Chief Elizabeth is talking to two of the Bully Pulpit Diner’s food servers about the murder of their boss, Ben. Ben recently raised prices , saying he would pay staff more and customers didn’t need to leave tips.

“So, like the TV show cops ask,” Elizabeth continued, “did Ben have any known enemies?”

They both shook their heads, and Nick spoke. “We were all trying to find new jobs.”

“Jobs with tips,” Marti said. “We got a lot of tips.”

Nick frowned, “Umm.”

Nick’s pause made Elizabeth think he might have thought better about what he wanted to say. “What, Nick?”

Nick glanced at Marti. “What about Gordon Beals?”

Elizabeth arched her eyebrows. “The insurance actuary?”

Marti nodded. “He was mad at Ben, because he added crackers to the hamburger.”


“He wasn’t supposed to have any gluten,” Marti said.

“Not even a cookie,” Nick threw in.

“Did Mr. Beals threaten Ben?”

They spoke together. “No.”

“Unless,” Marti added, “you count him saying gluten gave him bad gas and he wasn’t going to step outside anymore.”

“To fart,” Nick added. “They are pretty lethal.”

“Okay.” Elizabeth studied her note pad, not sure whether to laugh or beat her head against the table. “Other than fart threats, do you think anyone was mad enough at Ben to hurt him?”

The chief and Marti are well spoken. Nick’s irreverent attitude comes through.

Then the chief talks to a group of business owners as they get together for coffee. She starts with a question.

“See anyone holler at Ben when they left, or anything out of the ordinary?”

“His chili was extra-crappy yesterday,” Squeaky said, “but if he was gonna be killed for that it woulda happened a long time ago.”

“The man’s dead!” Nancy trilled.

“I didn’t mean no disrespect,” Squeaky said. He folded his hand across his ample belly and let them rest on his bright orange golf shirt.

Elizabeth smiled. “I know.” She pulled out her notebook. “It was always pretty bad.”

That seemed to relax them. Gene spoke from where he’d been leaning against a door jamb. “He did seem kinda stressed the last few days.”

“Why do you say that?” Elizabeth downed a sip of coffee and wished she’d added a lot of sugar.

Squeaky leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. “See, when Ben was hopped up, he talked faster. Moved around a lot.”

“Paced?” Elizabeth asked.

Nancy shook her head. “Jiggled change in his pocket. Just moved real quick. Like if he got up to get coffee here it took maybe five seconds and he’d be back at the table.”

“He was like that a lot since he stopped letting customers tip.” Gene gazed at the others, one by one. “Right?

“Pretty much,” Nancy said. “I mean, we liked it, but his waiters gave him a ration almost every day. You go there since?”

“I saw the picketers,” Elizabeth said. “Didn’t want a story about the police chief crossing a picket line. One of the guys picked up sandwiches for me a couple times.”

“Isn’t that kind of chicken for a police chief?” Gene asked.

Elizabeth grinned broadly. “I pick my battles.

You can tell the business owners are comfortable with the chief. And it’s clear that one of them (Squeaky) has a more earthy vocabulary than the others. Though he doesn’t think he’s being funny, I hope that’s what his words convey. I’m also setting him up to play a bigger role in the next book (Final Cycle), so I wanted to make him a memorable character.

In writing plays, the axiom, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” can ring true. Playgoers can get a lot from an actor’s expression, volume, or emphasis. But since our readers can only see words on paper, the time book authors spend choosing their words makes the story truly come to life.

Thanks Elaine. You can find out more about the Logland series and about Elaine at her website.

Eva Montealegre on Character Emotions

I first met Eva Montealegre a couple years ago at a reception for a writers event. We had a blast chatting and since then, we’ve crossed paths fairly often. Eva very nicely consented to do a piece on centering your character’s emotions – or finding their emotional meridian.

Eva Montealegre

You, the author, are working with a great guideline for your creative ideas. You’ve diligently choreographed all the plot twists of your story. The location you’ve chosen rings with ambience. What’s needed? 

In order to tell your story well, to do it justice you need to address the obstacles to your character’s deepest heart’s desires. Number one aspect central to your story is the heart of your character. What is their deepest yearning? What will your character do, sacrifice, or betray in order to fulfill that unmet need? Once you take the time to explore this one point it will shade and color all the other aspects of your story. It will serve as a meridian to the secrets of your story and its soul. It will enrich the theme and give the reading of your tale deeper meaning. 

Do you know what your character likes best in life? What she hates? What are her favorite foods and most cherished memories? Take the time to write out your character’s backstory. Pretend you are an actress getting ready for a big interview and you will need to answer questions about the character in order to promote your performance. I remember how excited I was when I went to see Margaret Atwood speak. She was featured in the Los Angeles Book Festival on the UCLA campus at Royce Hall. I sat in the front row, hanging on her every word. There came the time for her to answer questions. I was amazed how deeply her readers thought about the characters Atwood created and the questions they had for their beloved author. Margaret had the answers readily available. She knew her characters thoroughly. She knew why they styled their hair a certain way and why they wore a certain style of shoe. One reader stood and asked the zodiac sign of a character from the novel, ROBBERS BRIDE, not even the protagonist. The answer was Aries and I can tell you the reader felt very satisfied with that bit of information. It all made sense to her. Readers want to truly know the characters. 

How do you feel when you are writing? Are you excited to reveal the traits of your characters? Are you anticipating how the intrigue of your story will affect the reader? These emotions will show up in your writing or they won’t. I hope they do. Emotions are the trail markers of your story journey. My advice to you is, when writing, don’t just be in your head. I know, I know, everybody thinks writing is an intellectual endeavor. I want to spread the word that writing is much more than a mental exercise. Whatcha gotta do is, take a moment, root yourself in emotion. OPEN HEART CHAKRA, ACTIVATE! If you take the time to know the emotional truth of your characters, your story will reverberate in the hearts of your readers. 

You can find Eva’s book at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

Nupur Tustin and Haydn Learn About the Police

Nupur Tustin writes the historical mystery series featuring composer Joseph Hadyn. She recently attended a Citizen’s Police Academy, in which cops teach civilians what they do, to learn more about investigating crime. She went hoping to apply what she learned to her own mystery writing. It was so successful that when I asked her to write about her experiences, she used the voice of Haydn, himself.

Author Nupur Tustin
Nupur Tustin

What is it like, you ask, for an eighteenth-century composer—a man from Austria—to attend sessions on policing in the New World nearly five hundred years later? Let me gather my impressions.

[The sessions, I understand, are offered for the edification of the general public, the police officers and guards considering it their business to enlighten the citizens about their work. What a notion! Herr Lichtenegger would scoff at the very idea of having to inform the citizenry of how he, Police Commissioner of Eisenstadt, goes about his work!

But the Americans take the entire business quite seriously.]

It would be putting it mildly to say I was surprised—nay stunned—at the number of women on what the Americans refer to as the force. The police force. Our first session took place on a warm Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. Mine must have been the only carriage on the street—a wide avenue marked with thick white lines and divided in the center by a thick yellow line.

I dare say the good citizens of America were as surprised to see my carriage with the Esterházy griffin emblazoned on the sides as I was to see their enclosed, horseless carriages whizzing up and down the street on either side of the yellow center line.

The lobby was crowded with men and women in the most outlandish clothes I have ever seen. The women wore breeches cut off at mid-thigh and a type of shirt without collars or ruffles. The men were similarly dressed, however their breeches, loosely cut, fell down below the knees. It was as much as I could do not to stare.

 To their credit, however, they appeared to take no note of my own garments—a blue coat and breeches, a white linen shirt with ruffles, and the wig without which I rarely leave my house.

They nodded and smiled politely and continued on with their conversations. Their lack of curiosity was astounding to me, but I have noticed that the men and women of the New World allow people their eccentricities. I could have pranced in wearing a purple wig, bearing a lion on my leash and they would have taken no more notice of me than they did now.

There is a curious kind of freedom here, and I find I rather enjoy it. What Maria Anna would have said, I do not know. I imagine she would not have approved.

A Woman Guard!

We were ushered in by a woman—dressed in breeches that reached down to her ankles and followed the form of her shapely leg more closely than Maria Anna would have deemed seemly. Her shirt had a collar and small, white buttons down the front, and was tucked into her breeches. Strangely enough, she wore a leather strap—her belt, she called it—around her breeches, and carried a number of items on it.

I was astonished to see a gun! Had the woman truly any knowledge of its use? I can think of no woman who takes any kind of interest in hunting. And from what I have seen of the New World, there is precious little to hunt. Out of the city, on one occasion, I caught sight of a deer and on another, two scrawny rabbits.

A pair of shiny metal shackles dangled from her belt as well—to restrain criminals, she informed me, although how a mere woman, even one as tall as this one, could have managed that, I can scarce say.

Then, there were some small, black, rectangular objects—radios, I believe they were called. These are a mysterious device that allow members of the force to communicate with one another. But the woman was no more able to explain how the device worked than was anyone else in the room.

“Honestly, I don’t know how it works,” she confessed. “I couldn’t explain it you.”

“It’s technology, science,” a young lad in his twenties mumbled.

Night watchmen and guards patrol our cities and towns at night. But here in the New World, Patrol Officers—so these men and women are called—go about in their black-and-white horseless carriages at all hours of the day.

The work they are called upon to do astounded me. Maria Anna and I, if we had a dispute with a neighbor, would no more think of calling upon the Bürgermeister than we would consider running to our parents. But in the New World, a man who objects to the raucous music his neighbor infests upon the neighborhood thinks nothing of calling—using a device known as a phone—his local police station and demanding that an officer be sent.

An elderly lady whose cat has run up a tree and refuses to come down, two drivers whose carriages have collided into each other at an intersection, a man who enters a store or bank and threatens the people inside with a gun—these are all calls the Patrol Officers respond to.

“No call is too trivial,” the woman cheerfully informed us. One of her superiors later said that when asked to intervene in petty disputes, he treated the matter in the same way he would an argument between his young daughter and one of her friends. “It’s like being a parent,” he confessed with a matter-of-fact shrug.

A strange sentiment for a police officer, in my opinion. Where I come from, all we ask of our policemen and guards is that they enforce the law and arrest criminals. For all their freedoms, the people of the New World seem all too apt to relinquish their responsibilities as grown men and women and to retreat to the world of childhood.

Who but a child would need a guard to settle an argument with a fellow human?

Freedom and Innocence

Even so, the freedoms our cousins in the New World enjoy are enviable. The law is so hedged in and hemmed by constraints that one fears that crime would flourish here. Yet that has not been the case. On the contrary, it has given the innocent greater protection against injustice.

The freedoms so wisely enshrined in the Constitution authored by the Founding Fathers of this country have ensured that the police work harder to ascertain actual facts to bolster their case. Mere suspicion will not suffice.

You may recall the occasion when my Maria Anna was summarily arrested for murder on the mere word of Frau Bruck, the dead alderman’s wife. A sergeant I spoke with assured me “that would not happen here.” 

The testimony of a witness might lead to what is known as a follow-up—the officer or detective speaking with the individual the witness has accused to ascertain the veracity of the information provided. But the individual would have the right to remain silent, to refuse to answer questions.

In fact, before any kind of serious interrogation takes place, any suspect, even a known criminal, must be informed of his rights—the right to remain silent, the right not to incriminate himself, and the right to have a lawyer present to advise him on his answers.

No person may be detained without reasonable suspicion, and no one may be arrested without good cause.

You may recall that at the time Maria Anna was arrested, I discovered the barber-surgeon searching our herb garden. Here in the New World, my permission would have been sought before that could have happened.

“And what if I withheld it?” I asked.

“Then we would author a search warrant,” the sergeant explained. “But we would need to have probable cause. We’d need to have a good reason to go there, to explain which areas we wanted to search, and what we expected to find. And we’d have to convince a judge that it was a just cause.”

Yes, I was impressed. Who would not be?

“These are unusual freedoms,” the sergeant said proudly. “Unusual even in our times.”

You can find out more about Nupur and the Joseph Haydn mysteries at her website ntustin.com. And you can buy her latest Haydn novel, Prussian Counterpoint at Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Amazon.

Leslie Keller on Writing her Experiences

Today we have joining us Leslie Keller who writes the Jayne Stanford cozy series set in Cave Creek, Arizona. Jayne is a waitress and Leslie will explain how that part happened.

Photo of Leslie Keller, author of the Jayne Stanford series of cozy mysteries
Leslie Keller

I am often asked what motivates me to write. The answer to that is in part due to my best friend, Julie who I met when I worked in the restaurant business. It’s been twenty-three years but when I’m with her we never stop laughing about our adventures in serving. Even today, she continues to regale me with new restaurant stories. A few years ago, I knew I wanted to create a character partially based on her and partially out of my imagination. Thankfully, Julie has never been accused of nor involved in a murder in any way, but I occasionally still jot down some of the zanier things which happen to her in a typical night at the restaurant. In my writing I try to find a way to incorporate actual events into the story in order to make the characters relatable.

Writing a murder mystery requires a substantial amount of research. As an author, I need to determine if the method of murder is realistic, while at the same time as a cozy mystery writer, not making it too gruesome or graphic for my readers. While murder is serious topic, my goal is to take a lighter approach with a bit of humor.  In my books I intersperse Jayne’s personality with situations in which she must use all her skills to come out on top, then add a dash of romance and the help of her friends and you have a recipe for more than mystery.

Cover art for the second Jayne Stanford mystery, Cocktails at Sunset

In the upcoming book, No Reservations, Jayne gets the chance to go on a girlfriend getaway with her best friend, Bailey. Of course, there will be a dead body – maybe even two!  In this case, I again use personal experiences and try to weave them into fiction. The third book in the series diverges from the norm in that Jayne is out of her comfort zone physically as well as emotionally.  It’s important to me that Jayne doesn’t just solve mysteries but that she grows as a person despite the pandemonium in her life.

I hope my readers come to love Jayne as much as I do when I write her. Sometimes, she surprises me in what she does but I like to think that it’s her decision in which direction the story goes.

Thanks, Leslie, for sharing. Both Jayne Sanford Mysteries are available through Amazon: Menu for Murder and Cocktails at Sunset. You can find out more about Leslie on her website: LeslieKellerBooks.com.

Jodi Rath on Fur Babies and Writing a Novel

Author Jodi Rath on how raising kittens is like writing a novel
Author Jodi Rath

Author Jodi Rath argues that writing a novel is not unlike raising critters. The author of The Cast Iron Skillet Mystery Series has a point. We authors do refer to our novels as our children. Please welcome Jodi Rath

Artists typically talk about their work as their babies. I don’t have human kids, but I do have fur babies. My husband and I had eight cats inside for a good, long run of years. In the last two years, we’ve lost four of them. Since then, we adopted a one-year-old boy and on May 18th, 2019 we adopted THREE five-week-old girl kittens named Lily Rose Rath, Lulu Bean Rath, and Luna Belle Rath. The boy that is one year is Murray Kinz Rath. All of our cats have middle names and they are all spoiled.

When I wrote book one, Pineapple Upside Down Murder, I babied that book so much. I wrote, rewrote—tried different themes, revised, started over, went from third person POV to first, and had an extremely difficult labor.

Picture of kittens Lilly, Lulu and Luna, illustrating Writing a Novel
Lily, Lulu, and Luna Rath

Book two, like I’ve heard many of my human mom friends say, was not as difficult or as scary as the first. Same with the kittens we just got. When we got our first, I was terrified about how small they were and I wouldn’t let them out of a room forever for fear something bad would happen. That was only when I had one kitten and all adults. Now I have three five-week olds and they all got the run of the house on day two of moving in—they had to learn to fend for themselves. Kittens, like babies, are more resilient than we give them credit for.

The work of writing a novel

It’s the same with an artist’s work. Yes, we have to put the time in and go through the labor. Yet, I’ve learned to trust myself more in book two. Am I perfect yet? Um, no—nor will I ever be—but, I am better than I was when I wrote book one. I have more confidence and I know I will continually get better. Same I have learned to get better as a kitty mama too. Same for all you moms and dads out there—we live, we learn.

One of the most exciting things about writing Jalapeño Cheddar Cornbread Murder was already having a setting and my characters set up. It was so much fun seeing how they’ve grown and what they are learning now and what more they need to do to grow and mature. Just like me as a writer and a kitty mom and a wife and a teacher, I am always learning and growing and maturing (even though I did turn 46 in May—Ah HEM!!! Cough cough).

cover of the Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread Murder by Jodi Rath

Still, I am excited to share my newest baby with the world, and I’m already working on book 2.5, a Holiday Book for Thanksgiving called Turkey Basted to Death, which will come out November 18, 2019. I can’t wait to see how much more growth both me and my characters have developed by then—not to mention, my baby kittens will be eight months old by then and pretty much full-grown! Time flies when your having fun!

Jodi’s two books featuring restaurant owner Jolie Tucker, are set in Leavenworth, Ohio. You can find out more about Jodi on her website, www.jodirath.com.

Elaine L. Orr on When Real Life Happens in Writing

Elaine L. Orr, who writes three cozy mystery series, is a member of one of my email groups. In fact, when I went looking for this post (which I assumed was somewhere in my email back log), I found several of her responses to my questions – and they were very helpful, too. Elaine is writing today about how real life inspired her three different cozy series.

Cozy mystery author Elaine L. Orr.
Elaine l. Orr

Authors usually inhabit a world beyond writing, and what we learn from daily living can influence our books. I’m not saying our protagonists’ careers mirror ours, or that our characters resemble neighbors or college roommates. They could, but closely aligning our fictional people with real ones can limit a character.

As an example, I love Atlantic coast beaches, so writing mysteries set at the Jersey Shore (the Jolie Gentil series) seemed natural. Now I live in the Midwest, so it’s been especially fun to make a couple of quick trips to a beach to refresh my perspective. Of course, no one talks about “the beach” in New Jersey. People go to the shore.

My River’s Edge series, set along the Des Moines River in Iowa, is probably most influenced by real places. For about six years I worked for two members of Congress (one Republican, one Democrat). Much of the job entailed regularly being in many small towns in six counties so constituents could bring their concerns to Congress or get help with a government program.

the flood that helped inspire cozy mystery author Elaine L. Orr.
Flooding in Bonaparte, Iowa

Then came 2008 and massive flood damage along the Iowa and Des Moines Rivers, and I spent weeks in Van Buren County, Iowa, a picturesque locale dotted with small (river) towns. You develop a lot of empathy as you help people apply for FEMA assistance, and the word resilience takes on new meaning. (The photo shows the river’s encroachment in Bonaparte, Iowa.)

Though the town of River’s Edge is fictional, it embodies features of several communities. The views in my head are real ones, and to root the locale I sometimes refer to the county seat. Sleepy towns come alive with Fall Festivals and harvest celebrations. And parades! If you’ve never attended a July 4th or Corn Festival Parade, find one.

However, to create tension, life has to be about more than daily goings on. For example, I don’t know of any bodies found on barn floors (Demise of a Devious Neighbor) and I doubt you’ll find many murders at Farm Bureau dinners (as in Demise of a Devious Suspect).

The cover for cozy mystery Demise of a Devious Neighbor by Elaine L. Orr

Someone once asked why I’d placed the town baseball diamond along the river, because it could get flooded. Yep. Watch for that in a future book.

For each series, I want the protagonist’s career to be flexible — also interesting enough for me to learn more about it. For example, I’ve bought and sold a number of houses, so Jolie is a real estate appraiser. In an early (stand-alone) book, the sleuth was a teacher. Poor choice. She had to break her arm to be away from the classroom long enough to solve the crime

This spring I’ve done some substitute teaching. Middle school kids haven’t changed much over the last few decades. I have to be careful not to laugh at their antics sometimes.

But wait – a substitute teacher is in many locales and picks her work schedule. Perfect for an amateur sleuth. Ideas continue to percolate. I’ll need to pick a locale I want to visit.

Thank you, Elaine, she said, not entirely complaining about having to add still more books to the pile To Be Read. You can find out more about Elaine and her fiction at her site, www.elaineorr.com.

Anthology Fun with Alison McMahan

This is kind of a fun post for me since my guest is one of the authors whose short story is in the new anthology, Fatally Haunted, from the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter. I happen to be the chapter president at the moment. Fatally Haunted was officially released just yesterday and we’re really excited about it. And a big thank you to Alison McMahan, who wrote the story King Hanuman, for sharing the experiences that led her to write her story.

Cover art for the mystery anthology Fatally Haunted, short stories of revenge and obsession in Los Angeles, put out by the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters in Crime

In 2004 I made the first of several trips to Cambodia to produce a train-the-trainer film for an NGO. We filmed in a remote jungle village called Veal Thom, carved out of the jungle by landmine survivors. As Chhem Sip, a Khmer-American lawyer and social worker said to us, “they created this village with their bare hands and wooden limbs.”

Gradually we understood something even more special about Veal Thom: it was half made up of people connected to the former Lon Nol government, and half former Khmer Rouge. In other words, the two groups that had been killing each other for the previous several decades had set their enmities aside. Rather than fight each other, they work together to eradicate and survive the landmines (placed by every party involved in the war) that made them amputees.

In addition to the educational film we’d been hired to make, we made our own documentary that highlights their challenges and their struggles toward economic, emotional, and psychological recovery: Bare Hands and Wooden Limbs, narrated by Sam Waterston, now available on Amazon. https://barehandswoodenlimbs.com/

It took me years to complete the documentary, but finally Veal Thom’s example of how to heal and reconcile was out there for all the world to see.

I moved out of film production and wrote screenplays and fiction. I stayed friends with Chhem Sip, who had returned to the US to raise his family. Every time I visited him I learned a little more about the Khmer-American communities in Rhode Island, Florida, and Long Beach, CA.

I was born in Los Angeles. My maternal great-grandfather brought his family from Missouri in a covered wagon and settled in Long Beach in 1908. I’d toured the Queen Mary with my tenth grade class. Now I was learning about things that had happened in Long Beach after I’d moved away.

The Khmer-American community in Long Beach inspired me. Some built Buddhist temples and opened Cambodian restaurants and grocery stores. Some brought their guerilla savvy with them and formed gangs that competed with the already established gangs.

I wanted to write about someone who, like Chhem, who had experienced the war in Cambodia as a child, the forced labor and refugee camps as a teenager, then somehow made it to America. Someone, who, like Chhem, wants to give back but also has to work through her own war trauma. But unlike Chhem, my hero would have to do that emotional work in a Long Beach ripped apart by gang wars. A devout Buddhist who carries a gun.

That’s how Thavary Keo was born. The theme of FATALLY HAUNTED pushed me to clarify my thoughts, do more research, get a clearer picture of Thavary. My story, “King Hanuman,” is test, to see if I can pull it off, to see if readers want more before I commit to a series. I’m very grateful to the editors for the opportunity.

You can pick up your own copy of Fatally Haunted by going to our chapter’s website and clicking through to the Anthology page.