One More Amelia Peabody Mystery ?!

*Exciting News*

elizabeth peters copy

Barbara Mertz, who published mysteries and romantic suspense stories under the pen names of Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, passed away in 2013. She was one of my favorite authors and I looked forward to each new book of hers, especially the ones that featured intrepid archaeologist Amelia Peabody. Back in 2012, I posted about the news that she had another Amelia Peabody book in the works. I know I joined her fans everywhere in the wait for this book. It was not finished at the time of her passing, and most of us thought we’d never see her last work.

I hadn’t heard anything about the book until last week, when I was delighted to get an email from Ms. Mertz’ family company, which is managing her literary estate:

“I just wanted to let people know about some recent developments: The crew at mpmmanor, Barbara’s family company, is continuing to post on her books and any related news.  The best guess right now is that if the final A Peabody novel is going to appear, it won’t be before 2017.  But hopes run high that this may happen yet.  News and remembrances are posted on the blog rememberingbarbaramertz@wordpress.com, as well as on twitter, with occasional tumblr and facebook posts as well, and now a little bit on instagram.  All the contact information is on mpmmanor.wordpress.com .  The official webpage has encountered some problems and is not being updated, but hopefully this will change soon.  Hope that helps!  So happy to read this conversation!!!”

This is great news! I’ll post if I hear more. If any fans out there want to follow the company on twitter, the handle is @MPMManor.

And here’s my original post, including a listing of the Amelia Peabody books in chronological order. (the best way to read them!)

I was very happy to read that Elizabeth Peters (Barbara Mertz) is at work on another Amelia Peabody mystery. The series ranks as one of my top four mystery series, those that I read over and over. According to the information on her website, the book has a working title of THE PAINTED QUEEN, and Ms. Peters says she hopes to turn in the manuscript this spring. If we are lucky, that means fans might see the book in 2013!

The new story is set during the 1912-1913 season. I find that time period fascinating, and suspect there will be many new fans of these books, as the popularity of Downton Abbey is raising interest in existing books about those pre-World War II years and the war years as well.

If you are not familiar with the series and want to try them, they are best read in chronological order. They were not all published in order though, so don’t go by the dates of publication. The books span the time period from 1884-1923 and follow Amelia and her family on their excavations in Egypt with a few side adventures in other countries. If you have only read some of the earlier books, I’d encourage you to read the later ones, when Amelia’s son Ramses begins to play a larger role in the books. His character goes from a precocious, somewhat annoying little boy to one of the more romantic Indiana Jones-type characters in modern fiction. Ms. Peters’ portrayal of him inspired me to try to create my own intriguing hero in the Victorian-era mysteries I write.

Here’s the list of Amelia Peabody books in order of time period:

Crocodile on the Sandbank (1884-1885)

Curse of the Pharaohs (1892-1893)

The Mummy Case (1894-1895)

Lion in the Valley (1895-1896)

Deeds of the Disturber (1896)

The Last Camel Died at Noon (1897-1898)

The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog (1898-1899)

The Hippopotamus Pool (1899-1900)

Seeing a Large Cat (1903-1904)

The Ape Who Guards the Balance (1906-1907)

Guardian of the Horizon (1907-1908)

A River in the Sky (1910)

The Falcon at the Portal (1911-1912)

He Shall Thunder in the Sky (1914-1915)

Lord of the Silent  (1915-1916)

The Golden One  (1916-1917)

Children of the Storm (1919-1920)

Serpent on the Crown (1921-1922)

Tomb of the Golden Bird (1922-1923)

I hope we can soon add a new book to the list!

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Farewell Downton Abbey – Viewing Party Recipes

downtonabbeyhouse

I am very sad Downton Abbey is ending, but I have learned so much from watching it. I’ve been curious about every aspect of the time period, from fashion to the political situation of the day. I am also very interested in the food they served, because as a writer, I’ve found including details about food, tastes and dining habits is a good way to draw a reader into a story.

So for the last show, and for future viewings on DVD, I’ve posted some recipes that can be used for a Downton Abbey viewing party. I have been perusing cookbooks published during the time in which Downton Abbey is set to get an idea of the food, and to consider what I could cook that would be something the Crawleys themselves might have tasted, particularly at a late night supper (Downton Abbey viewing time where I live.) The lack of footmen and a butler at our house caused me to focus on relatively simple dishes, as my husband is not amenable to put on a tailcoat to pretend to be Mr. Carson serving dinner.

To Lord Grantham for his informal shirt: "Oh I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter…”

“Oh I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter…”

Below, I’ve posted recipes for buffet-style dishes and desserts often served in the evening during that time at balls, as well as light supper ideas, which you can pick and choose from to put together your own feast. All the recipes are reproduced as they were written in the cookbooks published between 1900 and 1920. I’ve added some further explanation in italics of terms which were unfamiliar to me. You can also take modern shortcuts to get something close to these dishes if you want to cut preparation time. I don’t have a kitchen helper, so I take all the shortcuts I can.

It was a time when cooking schools began to flourish and polytechnic programs were turning out trained chefs for restaurants and wealthy families. Still the most famous school, Le Cordon Bleu, begin in Paris in 1895, and its graduates were the most widely sought after chefs. I can imagine Sir Richard Carlisle wanting a Cordon Bleu chef for his household, but since the Crawleys relied on the traditional British cooking of Mrs. Patmore, I decided to focus on what she would likely have cooked. Mrs. Patmore wouldn’t have had any formal training; she would have started out in a lowly position in a kitchen as a young girl and learned on the job, much like Daisy tries to learn. To figure out what she would have cooked, I found several cookbooks published at the time which were used by the cooking schools in England, such as Battersea Polytechnic.

battersea

Battersea Polytechnic

Suppers at a ball, often served at midnight, often contained items no longer appealing to modern tastes, such as aspics, cold dishes in which meat or vegetables is encased in clear gelatin. Oysters, when in season, were very popular as well, sometimes cooked right at the table in a chafing dish. I wondered why oysters were so often mentioned in late night menus and found the answer in a cookbook entitled SALADS, SANDWICHES AND CHAFING DISH DAINTIES (1914) by Janet M. Hill:

In a section called “Are Midnight Suppers Hygienic?” Miss Hill writes,

“In regard to the chafing dish and its most prominent use, some one may fittingly ask, Is it hygienic to eat at midnight? Can one keep one’s health and eat late suppers? As in all things pertaining to food, no set rules can be given to meet every case; much depends upon constitutional traits, individual habits and idiosyncrasies. But if we must eat at midnight, the question may well be asked, What shall we eat? That which can be digested and assimilated with the least effort on the part of the digestive organs. And among such things we may note oysters, eggs and game when these have been properly – that is, delicately – cooked.”

So late night meals would not have included things like beef or lamb. Chicken was quite popular, as was lobster. Suppers at these events were often served buffet style, so that attendees could eat as much or as little as they wanted without waiting for the various courses of a more formal dinner to be served.

Small sandwiches were often served as part of the buffet, but they are not the sandwiches of today. Instead they were more like modern canapé size portions, cut into decorative shapes or served in small rolls.

canapes00000089147

Sandwiches a la Romaine

From MRS. A.B. MARSHALL’S LARGER COOKERY BOOK OF EXTRA RECIPES by Agnes B. Marshall:

Take half a pound of cold cooked chicken

two ounces of grated Gruyere cheese

a teaspoonful of French mustard

a saltspoonful of mixed English mustard*

three ounces of butter

a pinch of salt and coralline pepper

two large tablespoonfuls of thick cream

Pound till smooth, then rub through a wire sieve and spread on some thinly cut bread that is thinly spread with Anchovy butter (vol i) stamp out with a plain round cutter and then dish up en couronno** on a dish paper or napkin. Use for ball supper, evening parties etc.

*saltspoonful – 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon

**‘En couronne’ means to place the sandwiches around the outside of a plate, literally in a ‘crown’ shape, so that the interior of the plate can be filled with something else.

Since I don’t have Volume 1 of Mrs. Marshall’s cookbook, here’s a recipe for anchovy butter from another contemporaneous cookbook, COOKING, MENUS, AND SERVICE by Ida C. Bailey Allen:

Anchovy, Sardine, Lobster, or Salmon Butter

To a half pound of butter add a third cupful of sardines, lobster meat, anchovies or smoked salmon pounded to a paste, with two teaspoonfuls of lemon juice, a tablespoonful of water, and a little paprika.

And more sandwiches:

watercresssandwiches

Sandwiches with Watercress and Eggs

Cut some thin slices of white bread and butter, the bread being a day old. Sprinkle on the bread some crisp fresh leaves of watercress, a little salt and if liked a little finely chopped eschalot. (shallot) Have some hard boiled yolk of egg, rubbed through a wire sieve, and put a thick layer on the cress, close over it another piece of the bread and butter and press together, then cut up into small squares and dish up en couronne on a paper or folded napkin, and fill up the centre with a bunch of fresh crisp watercress that is seasoned with a little salad oil and salt, and serve for ball supper, etc.

‘En couronne’ means to place the sandwiches around the outside of a plate, literally in a ‘crown’ shape, so that the interior of the plate can be filled with something else.

Another Chicken recipe:

 

brioche chicken salad

Little Brioches a la Vienne

From MRS. A.B. MARSHALL’S LARGER COOKERY BOOK OF EXTRA RECIPES by Agnes B. Marshall:

Take, for ten to twelve persons, half a pound of Brioche paste (see vol i page 332) roll it up into balls about the size of a small chicken’s egg, using a little flour for the purpose; then put them on a lightly greased baking-tin, and brush each over with raw beaten-up whole eggs to which has been added a little cold milk, put them into a moderate oven, bake till a nice brown colour which will take from twenty five to thirty minutes, then remove the brioches from the tin and put them on a pastry rack till cold. Take a small pointed knife and carefully cut open each brioche at the side about half way, fill up the bottom side with a puree of meat as below, fill in the top side with a salad of lettuce, close up the brioches again into their original form and serve in a pile on a dish on a paper or napkin. The gilt papers, either gold or silver, are very effective in this service. Serve for ball suppers, race luncheons or shooting parties.

Puree of Meat for Little Brioches A la Vienne

Take half a pound of (cooked) white meat chicken, or pheasant, freed from bone and skin, pound till smooth with two tablespoonfuls of thick cream, a pinch of salt, one ounce of butter, two tablespoonfuls of thick Bechamel sauce (vol i); then rub through a fine sieve and use.

Since I don’t have Volume 1 of Mrs. Marshall’s cookbook, here’s a recipe for a béchamel sauce from another contemporaneous cookbook, COOKING, MENUS, AND SERVICE by Ida C. Bailey Allen:

Bechamel Sauce

3 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

3/4 cupful chicken stock

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon paprika

3/4 cupful thin cream or top milk

1 teaspoonful lemon juice

Cream the butter and flour together without browning, add the stock, stir until boiling, then add the cream or top milk and the seasonings, and again bring to boiling point. Cook over hot water (double boiler) for five minutes and stir in the lemon juice just before serving.

More casual main course dishes are given after the desserts section.

petitfoursmine

Descriptions of suppers at balls often include mention of cakes and ices. The cakes were often cooked to individual portions, either in tins similar to our muffin tins of today, or once baked, cut and frosted into small squares, like the petit fours above. Some recipes which were labeled as cakes were more like cookies. An “ice” was a broad term that included not on ices, but also ice cream, sherbet, sorbet, and other frozen or chilled desserts. Many recipes call for using uncooked egg whites. Since that could be chancy these days, I haven’t included any of these.

From THE TREASURE COOKERY BOOK by M.M. Mitchell:

queencakes

Queen Cakes

7 ozs of flour

1/2 oz of chopped citron peel***

4 ozs of castor sugar

1 tablespoonful of rose water**

4 ozs of butter

1 teaspoonful of prepared flour

2 ozs of currants

3 large eggs

Cream the butter and sugar together in a basin, add the yolks of the eggs, stirring between each, lightly stir in the powder flour, peel and flavouring. Whip the whites of eggs and stir in gently. Well grease about fifteen small tins, sprinkle a few currants on the bottoms, half fill them with the mixture, sprinkle more currants on top Bake them from fifteen to twenty minutes in a moderately hot oven.*

*Moderately hot oven – at that time was considered to be 350 to 375 degrees

**Rosewater – can sometimes be hard to find in the U.S. It is used in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, so you can find it at specialty grocery stores or organic grocery stories if it isn’t available in your regular shopping habitats.

***Citron peel – also hard to find, at least in the U.S., you can substitute a mix of lemon and orange zest

Cooking note – I assume the 1 teaspoonful of flour is for the bottoms of the tins. No other information was given.

The following recipes for ices were all taken from DESSERTS by Olive M. Hulse. Miss Hulse was an American cookbook author with several cookbooks to her name. From Victorian times, small moulds were available to make ices more decorative. Today, the easiest way to mould an ice would be to use a dixie cup. That’s what I used for the strawberry sorbet on the left below. Angel’s Snow is on the right

 

Lemon Drop Cakes

Cream a cupful of sugar and four tablespoonfuls of butter, add three well beaten eggs, three cupfuls of sifted flour, a pound of currants, half a teaspoonful of salt, two teaspoonfuls of baking powder and a cupful of milk. Flavor with lemon extract. Stir slowly until thoroughly mixed. Drop a teaspoonful at a time on a well-greased dripping pan and bake five to ten minutes in a quick oven until brown. Quick oven: 375 degrees

Strawberry Parfait

Whip a quart of cream, add a cupful of sugar, and a cupful of strawberry juice. Put into a mould and freeze three hours.

Angel’s Snow

Pare, and grate the meat of a cocoanut. Peel and cut a dozen oranges in small pieces, taking out the seeds. Put a layer of orange in the bottom of a pretty glass dish, sprinkle with sugar, then a layer of cocoanut, then a layer of orange, sugar, and so on until the dish is full, having the last layer cocoanut. Let it stand for an hour.

Orange Ice

Make a syrup by boiling four cupfuls of water and two cupfuls of sugar for twenty minutes. Add two cupfuls of orange juice, a fourth of a cupful of lemon juice, and the grated rind of two oranges. Cool and strain. Freeze.

Pineapple Delight

Boil two tablespoonfuls of rice until soft, and drain it. Dissolve a tablespoonful of gelatin in the boiling water and add the rice, and three-quarters of a cupful of sugar. Cool, and add a pnch of salt, two cupfuls of pineapple juice, and a cupful of whipped cream. Cool, and servie in dainty glasses with a cherry on the top of each.

Informal Supper Dishes

You may want something more casual for your dining pleasure. Here’s a few more main course dishes that were typically served for smaller parties or in less elaborate situations. All of them are still eaten today.

The following three recipes are all from THE TREASURE COOKERY BOOK by M.M. Mitchell:

tomatoegg

Baked Eggs and Tomatoes

4 large tomatoes

4 fresh eggs

1 oz of butter

1/2 teaspoonful of chopped parsley

Pepper, salt and nutmeg

Rounds of fried or toasted bread

Choose tomatoes of the same size and not too ripe. Dip them into boiling water and peel them. Cut a round piece out of the top of each one and scoop out the centres without making them too thin. Break an egg into each of the tomatoes, sprinkle the parsley, pepper, salt and nutmeg on the top of each, cut the butter into pieces and place on the eggs. Stand the tomatoes on a tin or dish put into a hot oven and bake for five or six minutes, until the eggs are set. Dish each tomato on a piece of toast and serve. *Note-I had to cook this about twenty minutes to get the egg to set. It may be because I used an egg at refrigerator temperature instead of room temperature. I also did not peel the tomato.

 

welshrarebit

Welsh Rarebit

1 round of toast

1 oz of butter

1/2 mustardpoonful of mixed mustard (1 mustardspoon is equivalent to 1/4 teaspoon.)

3 ozs of Cheddar cheese

Cayenne

Cut the bread rather thick, toast and butter it, and cut across into four. Shred the cheese, make the butter hot in a saucepan add cheese, mustard, and cayenne, stir it

over the fire until the cheese melts, then pour it over the pieces of toast, brown them quickly by putting them under a gas griller or using a salamander or hot shovel. Serve quickly. Note-A salamander is like a small electric broiler. Broiling them in a modern oven would work the same.

 

Curried Rice with Eggs

1/2 lb Patna rice (I assume you can use any type of rice. Patna rice is a long-grain Indian rice.)

1 1/2 ozs butter or bacon fat

Dessertspoonful of curry powder (1 dessertspoonful equals 2 teaspoons)

Water

2 large onions

Salt

Rind and Juice of 1/2 a lemon

Hard-boiled eggs

Well wash and dry the rice. Finely mince the onion. Melt the fat in the saucepan, add the onion. Fry without letting it take much colour. Put in the curry powder and rice and fry it for three minutes. Season with salt and lemon juice. Just cover the rice with cold water and cook it very slowly until the rice is quite soft and dry. Add more water if necessary, and keep the lid on the whole time. Stir with a fork not to mash the rice. More curry can be added if required hotter. Dish up in a pile and garnish with hard-boiled egg cut into sections. or fried croutons of bread.

Enjoy! And as always, pizza is great for any kind of viewing party.🙂

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It’s a Book Deal!

stationfosaannostation

I’m delighted to announce that the first book in my young adult science fiction trilogy will be published by Month9 Books in April 2017.

It’s been one of my dreams to publish science fiction stories. I love all kinds of adventure stories, but science fiction has long been one of my favorite genres. My brother got me hooked on it when I was in 5th grade. I’ve been a fan ever since. In science fiction, a writer can explore all sorts of ideas about culture and society outside the constraints of a real life setting.

I started this story back in January of 2010, sandwiching in writing time while I was also writing WOLF STORM. At that time, there was virtually no demand in the publishing world for kidlit science fiction, so I wrote it hoping someday things would turn around. Writers out there will know what I mean when I say sometimes stories just have to be written even if it seems no one is encouraging you to write them.

So here’s a description of the story:

Beware history written by either the conquerors or the conquered.

Life on the remote planet of Fosaan is supposed to be like a tropical vacation for the families of the Earth scientists assigned to the secret research facility orbiting above the planet. Sixteen-year-old Quinn Neen’s time there will be short-he is supposed to report for military training in the officer corps when he turns seventeen. But Quinn has other plans. Terrible at taking orders and following rules, Quinn knows he’s not officer material, so he hopes his exploration of the planet will pave his way into the one branch of the military where he might succeed, the reconnaissance patrol. Only problem, Earthers are forbidden to go beyond the safety zone of their settlement because of the dangerous predators, lethal terrain and the secretive indigenous Fosaanian people.  Quinn isn’t going to let that stop him, but he’s smart enough not to blunder off into the jungle on his own.

When Quinn discovers a beautiful Fosaanian girl named Mira stealing food from his family’s living unit, he decides she would be the perfect guide for his explorations.  Before he can win her over to his idea, the idyllic situation on the planet turns into a nightmare.  Nothing is what it seems, either on the planet or on the space station. When all the Earthers under eighteen become expendable, Quinn must come up with a way to save them, but that means he has to decide if he can trust Mira with his life and the lives of everyone he cares about.

*stay tuned for book 2!

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Before You Publish Your Book, Write Yourself A Bad Review

blog post review yourselfI don’t mean write a review to put up on Amazon or Goodreads. I mean sit down and really think about what other readers will not like in your story. If you read that last sentence and you’re thinking to yourself, I don’t need to do that. Everyone will love my story. I love my story. My beta readers love my story. Stop. Even if you and your beta readers think your story is ready to be out in the world, still take the time to write that bad review. Doing this will save you much grief in the long run and will make you a better writer.

Intellectually, we can accept that not everyone will like our books. We talk about it with other writers. We joke about putting our worst reviews on tee shirts and wearing them proudly. One of mine would say “Mostly harmless MacGyver-esque foolishness.” I actually love this, because yes, there was a lot of MacGyver influence in that book. Foolish is in the eye of the beholder.

So we tell ourselves we don’t care about reviews and we try to quiet the little Trumpish ego voice inside us that whispers we won’t get many negative ones because we are amazing and people should throw rose petals at us everywhere we go. Never mind that most of us writers sit around by ourselves in our pajamas so we are unlikely to be anywhere near adoring rose petal-throwing fans. Or we tell ourselves that anyone who doesn’t like our stories are just clueless or they hate everything or _________ (fill in the blank.)

When the first scathing review or even minor criticism hits, we are gobsmacked. (Love that word. It comes from “gob” which is supposedly ‎“mouth” in Irish / Scottish Gaelic.)

Back to the writing of a bad review. I’ve read many books I hated. A few I’ve really, really hated.  In analyzing why I’ve loathed certain books, I’ve begun to see why other people might hate my own. The most recent book I did not finish was a popular fantasy book, beloved by many. To me, it was so wordy and overwrought with purple description, I fought the urge to ransack my bookshelves for some Hemingway to cleanse my palate.

If you put long descriptions in your stories, certain readers will love it. Others will write reviews about how the story dragged or how they skipped over certain parts or couldn’t finish. If you write fast-paced action-packed books, again you’ll have some readers who love it. Others will say there is no character development or the book was just a lightweight read not really worth their time or it was too fast for them to follow.

So critique your own books in terms of your style, but don’t stop there. Take a long hard look at that style. Are you actually too wordy? Or are you too overly focused on stark action? Read some popular books in your genre, especially the first few chapters of those books. If you have twice as much backstory or detail as a good detail-rich example, you’ve probably got too much. For the other extreme, read the first three chapters of a popular action-packed adventure, then ask yourself what you know about the characters and their world. Compare your own and see if it measures up or if you’ve just thrown in a bunch of plot points.

Do your characters actually seem like real people or are they some idealized version of who you’d like to know or be? Are they memorable enough? Reviewers concentrate much of their focus on characters. What can be said of yours?

Most important, know your flaws. I know my biggest flaws. I am bad at physical descriptions of characters. It’s something I continually struggle to improve. I also hate writing endings so I rush them. In writing children’s fiction, I struggle with wanting to write realistic stories versus how best to portray such things to young readers. In writing adult fiction, I struggle with my own impatience to get the story done. I have others, but that would take up too much room for me to list them all!

It’s easy to convince yourself readers won’t notice your flaws. Ha! So not true. I’d rather know in advance that someone is going to discuss in great detail my character’s flaws. If I put those flaws in on purpose, I won’t care what a reviewer said. If I didn’t intend them to be there, then that means I need to do a better job in the next story. There’s always the next story.

And if anyone is interested in MacGyver-esque foolishness, check out WILDFIRE RUN.

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Ten Tips Writers can take from Star Wars

 

Star Wars Tips for Writers

Even if you don’t like Star Wars, and I know a few people who don’t, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the first Star Wars movie created millions of fans, myself included. The photo above includes only a few of the Star Wars objects we have in our home. I’ve pretended I was buying them for my son, but now I can admit I love them too. I’ve been a fan of Star Wars for a long time and have learned much about storytelling and adventure fiction writing from watching the movies over and over. (I probably don’t need to specify I mean the original trilogy only. We don’t acknowledge the later three films at our house.) When I do school visits, I bring along an R2D2 as a reminder that emotions in stories can be conveyed many ways, not just through dialogue alone. I’m not saying there aren’t flaws in the movies, but here’s what they did right, and what writers can learn to make their stories into ones thata readers love:

  1. Add in bits of humor.

Star Wars Chewbacca Chess

Humor is not the first thing a person thinks of when it comes to Star Wars, but it’s a key component to appeal of the film. I’m not talking slapstick humor, but the little bits of dialogue that round out the characters as more than just action heroes. We may not remember every accurate hit on a tie fighter, but I bet most viewers remember the chess scene between R2 and Chewbacca along with C3PO’s comment, “I suggest a new strategy. R2. Let the Wookie win.”

  1. Make your sidekicks out-of-the-ordinary.

starwarschewbaccar2d2c3po

Best friends and sidekicks are a staple in film, but often they are just there to avoid having the main character talk to themselves for the whole movie. Star Wars took the idea of a sidekick and went to the extreme, including two who speak languages the viewers can’t understand and turning the standard robot into a fretful fussbudget. (Note-It is possible to go too far in your quirky sidekicks. I’ll just say Jar Jar Binks and leave it at that.)

  1. A touch of romance never hurts.

starwarshanleia

Many adventure stories go way too far in trying to add in romance in the middle of extreme danger. It’s completely unbelievable in movies and stories when a couple takes time out to gaze into each other’s eyes while they know a bomb or something is about to destroy everything, so the tiny hints of attraction between the characters in A New Hope are just enough to add a little interest.

  1. A team is better than one lone hero.

starwarshanleialuke

Many readers and viewers want to identify with a character, so the more choices, the better. The interactions of an ensemble cast of characters can make most stories far more interesting than just one lone hero off to save humanity all by him or herself.

  1. Characters’ flaws make them real and relatable.

Starwarshanjabba

There are some books where the main characters are so annoyingly good at everything that it would be refreshing to see them trip over their own feet once in a while. Perfect characters distance themselves from readers and viewers. Star Wars avoids that trap. Princess Leia was just enough like a bossy older sister to add in a touch of humanity to a member of planetary royalty. Luke, as naïve farmbook, was not your standard cool and collected young hero, and Han, preening in his scoundrelness, was refreshing in his ability to not take himself too seriously.

  1. Make your bad guys more than just bad.

starwarsdarthvadarobiwan

It’s obvious from his first appearance that Darth Vadar is one really bad dude. Being able to strangle someone without touching them is fairly extreme on the evil abilities scale, but once we get that he is the bad guy, we’re also teased that there is a bit more to Vadar than just “evil guy wants to rule the world” trope. We don’t get Vadar’s whole back story for a long time, but in the first movie, there are hints, particularly in the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Vadar, when he says, “I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.” That’s enough to make the viewer curious as to the backstory. It doesn’t take much and that’s a good thing to remember. In writing, you don’t want to infodump the antagonist’s whole miserable life on the reader right away, but hints here and there give some depth to the character.

  1. Create a world readers want to visit.

starwarsmoseisleycantina

I’m not much for dive bars in real life, but if I was ever in Tatooine, I’d make a beeline for the Mos Eisley cantina. Even the grittiest of worlds can pull on readers. It’s not like we want to live there forever, but compelling world building in your stories will make the readers long to explore, even if just for a couple of hours. It doesn’ teven have to be fantasy or futuristic worlds. Enough interesting details can convince a reader they really want to visit your story’s fictional town in North Dakota so they can order a mouthwatering cheeseburger at the equally fictional Bea’s Diner.

  1. Get readers wondering what happens next by creating a string of mini roadblocks.

starwarsgarbage

I’ve heard that building tension in a story works best using a stair step effect, where there are a series of hurdles to overcome that increase in seriousness and difficulty. A good example of this are the scenes on the star destroyer where Han and Luke are trying to rescue Leia. Each step forward leads them into new predicaments. It’s “Now What?” for viewers as we wait to see what happens next. When the characters jump into the garbage chute, you expect them to face something bad, and it comes when the creature pulls Luke under, but only a few seconds after he survives that encounter, they face being flattened as the walls move together. It’s a definite edge-of-seat moment.

  1. Include a ticking clock.

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Even if your story doesn’t involve your heroes being blown up in an explosion, there are ways to add in a ticking clock to solve the main problem. Adding a time limit where Bad Thing X will happen in your main character doesn’t solve Major Problem A helps to keep the pages turning.

  1. Craft an ending that leaves readers wanting to follow the characters into the next part of their lives.

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This may be the most important takeaway of all. So many times I hear readers say they hated the ending of a particular book, and that leaves them not wanting to read more by that author or to reread the book. Or even if they didn’t hate it, they just don’t care enough to feel much emotion for the story when it ends. Endings don’t have to be all happiness and light and unicorns, but I know I’m disappointed if I feel like the characters just sort of wander off into mundane ordinary life when I’ve closed the cover of a book.

If you are interested in other films that can inspire your writing, check out this post AIR FORCE ONE Thumbs Up, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, Thumbs Down: https://deegarretson.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/air-force-one-thumbs-up-olympus-has-fallen-thumbs-down/ on

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Cover Reveal – BEEN THERE DONE THAT, coming 11/15 from Penguin/Grosset & Dunlap

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Lots of writing news coming this year! First up, I am very excited to have my work included in a middle grade anthology, which I think will be great for teachers, homeschoolers and parents interested in encouraging their children’s creative writing: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: Writing Stories from Real Life, edited by Teacher and Editor Extraordinaire Mike Winchell.

Here’s the description: “Where do authors get their ideas? And how do they turn those ideas into stories? This anthology looks at the process of taking real-life experiences and turning them into works of engaging fiction. The collection features award-winning and bestselling middle-grade authors who provide both original fictional short stories as well as the nonfiction accounts that inspired them. The contributing authors include Julia Alvarez, Karen Cushman, Margarita Engle, Dee Garretson, Nathan Hale, Matthew Kirby, Claire Legrand, Grace Lin, Kate Messner, Linda Sue Park, Adam Rex, Gary Schmidt, Alan Sitomer, Caroline Starr Rose, Heidi Stemple, Rita Williams-Garcia, Tracy Edward Wymer, Lisa Yee, and Jane Yolen.”

For my Iowa friends and family, my nonfiction piece features my dog Kitty, who you may remember was not the best dog in the world. In fact, she was mostly untrainable, though I loved her anyway.🙂

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For Authors: School Visits are a Good Opportunity to Embrace Your Odd

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I was shocked to read Shannon Hale’s post about her experiences during school visits, where sometimes only girls are expected to attend, because Shannon writes what are labeled “girl” books. Here’s her post if you haven’t read it: http://shannonhale.tumblr.com/post/112152808785/no-boys-allowed-school-visits-as-a-woman-writer

I don’t have that problem, because apparently I write “boy” books. I get a different sort of reaction during school visits, but more about that later. I didn’t realize there was such a thing as “boy” and “girl” books when I started writing. My first book felt like it should be written from the POV of a twelve-year-old boy, so that’s what I did. It didn’t occur to me as it would be considered an odd choice by some. I wrote my second book from a boy’s POV too. I’ve discovered that for whatever reason, I liked telling some of my stories that way.

I know I don’t look the part of an author who writes adventure stories featuring boys. I sometimes get very surprised reactions during school and Skype visits when I tell the students about myself: how much of a Lord of the Rings geek I am, how I love science fiction and adventure movies, and how sometimes I would rather be outside instead of writing. Apparently, these are boy characteristics in our society, not middle-aged suburban mom characteristics. (Yes, I am a suburban middle-aged mom, not one of the Kool Kidz, but wow, do I click with teachers and librarians, something that seems to escape some marketing considerations.)

After the surprise though, I can see some students out in the audience who light up and become more engaged in my talks. I suspect it’s those who have been feeling like they don’t fit in, for whatever reason. Schools can be hard places for odd kids. Though I loved school, there were some who considered me strange. It didn’t bother me, because I came from a family where quirkyness was normal. (My father was the perfect stereotype of an eccentric inventor.) I know many children find their oddness a burden though. They don’t realize their quirks may be their greatest strength later in life. I know I never would have become a writer without mine.

I’d encourage other authors to let kids know about your own quirks. Don’t try to fit the mold of “successful children’s author who writes _______(fill in the blank)” Show them you aren’t a stereotype. Tell them if you were an odd kid. They’ll find it interesting. Your reader don’t care if you fit a mold or not. I’ve decided that if by sharing things about myself, I can help just one kid to feel a little better about themselves, that’s a good day. My new motto is “Odd is Good.”

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