Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Writing murder and mayhem

Author Jeanne Adams talked about murder, forensics and investigative procedures that can help mystery writers. I don’t write mysteries (well, maybe a few attempts), but I do enjoy reading a good mystery.

She gave plenty of information mystery writers can use to help your novel flow. Such as, how your victim dies can affect your timeline, as far as the type of autopsy required and police investigation needed.

With a light, yet respectful tone, she talked about what happens to bodies (called remains) in different situations and how writers can use this knowledge to extend the plot timeline and make sure the details in your story are correct.

If the character died of a gunshot, what type and size of gun was used? What type of wound would it leave? Is it a type of gun that your villain or hero could handle?

Can there be delays in the regular procedures? How can someone steal a body or make a murder appear to be a natural death? Does the killer bury the body deep in a forest or have it go through the morgue? To collect life insurance or inherit property, there must be a signed death certificate giving the cause of death. Someone has to determine a cause of death before a body can be released for burial or cremation.

“Funerals are for the living, not the dead,” she said. Despite last requests, the body becomes the property of the next of kin and could be cremated within 48 hours.

Usually a coroner or medical examiner is called for a gunshot wound, even if it appears to be self-inflicted. But different states have different procedures and titles, so check them out.

Procedures are especially different in rural areas where your timeline may be extended if the body has to be taken to a distant location. She said that rural hospitals and morgues can be used to extend the time you have to have your criminal destroy evidence or help police to solve the murder.

Arguments at the funeral home may reveal the personality of different family members and friends and perhaps give readers a new suspect.  Adams discussed types and costs of caskets. I hope you know that they use caskets now, not coffins. Also, there is no longer an undertaker. Remember that if your murder occurred in recent years.
Joelle Jarvis and Jeanne Adams

I’ve often heard, the devil is in the details. Make sure those details are right. For forensics, you can contact people who work in the fields, such as forensic experts, crime scene technicians and morticians. A Public Information Officer can be helpful. Check out the National Funeral Directors’ Association and cemetery searches like Find-a-Grave. There is even a site called  

Some books she mentioned are:

When You are the Only Cop in Town, A Writer’s Guide to Smalltown Law Enforcement by Jack Berry and Debra Dixon. Adams considers it an indispensable guide to facts, procedures, and the how-to’s of small town law enforcement.  Jack Berry has over 30 years in law enforcement, the last 17 as Chief in a small town.

The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders.

The Forensic Casebook: The Science of Crime Scene Investigation by Ngaire E. Genge, and The MindHunter book series by Kylie Brant.

“There is always an investigation,” she said, as she discussed what agencies would be involved in situations, such as industrial accidents, natural disasters or terrorist attacks. It is important to know the specifics in your story are correct before you lose credibility and sales.

Adams is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and had worked in the funeral home and cemetery business for 13 years.  Besides mystery and suspense, she writes romance and fantasy. Her blog is

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Girls in the Picture novel

Take a trip back to the early days of Hollywood and the flickers (movies), when you read The Girls in the Picture.

I read the book right after a presentation by Melanie Benjamin about her most recent book. This novel is timely, published just before the Oscars and during the discussions of “me-too” and “women’s voices in Hollywood.”

The title didn’t come from the idea of movie pictures, Melanie said, but from old photos where Mary Pickford and Frances Marion were often the only women in the room (surrounded by men) during important events, such as the founding of United Artists.

Besides giving us a close-up view of the new movie industry, she tells this story through the voices of two powerful women who became friends, during that time, imagining what they were thinking and how the movies changed.

The book is fiction, just as their movies were, but often truth can be revealed through fiction. Each person seeing a movie or reading a book sees it through their eyes.

Silent movie star Mary Pickford and writer Frances Marion met during the confusion that was early Hollywood and became best friends and movers and shakers in that world.

As a writer, I could identify more with Frances and her view of this emerging new method of communication. Some thoughts from the fictional Frances Marion that I could identify with:

”How fun-how freeing- it had been to put myself in other people’s shoes! To imagine their lives, their relationships, what they might say, even if it was merely party chatter. I wasn’t acting only one role, I was acting several—all of them—all intoxicatingly different.”

“This is it, this is what I was looking for, waiting for, all those years. This flowering, this opening of hearts and eyes and minds, great vistas, all through the creation of people like me – people whose imaginations were too big for real life, so we had to build another.”

“Perhaps the simplest formula for a plot is: invent some colorful personalities, involve them in an apparently hopeless complication or predicament, then extricate them in a logical and dramatic way that brings them happiness.”

These two women were very different, but both loved this new world, Hollywood. Mary could bring the emotions alive in front of the camera and was an astute business woman, while Frances was a writer and director.

Mary and Douglas Fairbanks married, became the king and queen of Hollywood during that era. Pickfair was like the Buckingham Palace of California and they entertained royally. Frances and Fred Thompson married and the four honeymooned together.

Both women were far more than just their jobs. Besides their movies, they were instrumental in forming United Artists,   the Screen Writers Guild and the Academy Awards and other Hollywood institutions. Pickford won the second Academy Award and Marion won two Academy Writing Awards.”

I had trouble putting this book down, although I knew it was not going to be a happy story all the way to the end. Life happens to all of us and not necessarily the way we want. I hope you enjoy “The Girls in the Picture” as much as I did. Thanks to Melanie Benjamin for a wonderful story and a good presentation and compliments to Penquin Random House, Carroll Community College and Carroll County Public Library.

I’ve also enjoyed Melanie’s books, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb (which I read in 2012) and The Aviator’s Wife (2015) and look forward to reading more of her books.

You can learn more about the author and books at and on twitter@MelanieBen.

Okay. For those who have stuck with me, here is another quote from Frances Marion who volunteered and went to war (WWI).

“It was odd, I knew; I’d come to war for a lot of reasons, one of which, if I were being honest, was to gain experience; experience to write about. Because that’s what writers did; they lived, then they wrote about that living.”

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Le Guin's Sailing the Sea of Story

I just finished reading another writing book, Steering the Craft, A 21st-century guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin. Originally published in 1998, she rewrote the book “from stem to stern”, she said. This edition was published in 2015.
Le Guin writes that all storytellers work pretty much the same way, with the same box of tools. Her book is aimed at storywriters. Like Steven Pinker’s, (see my previous blog) it is not for beginners, but for serious writers wanting to improve.

“Toward the end of the last century, many of our schools all but stopped teaching grammar,” she writes. “Somehow we’re supposed to be able to write without knowing anything about the equipment we’re using.”
“How can a reader trust a writer ignorant of the medium she works in?” she asks.  Writing is “an art, a craft, a making.”

“One of the marvelous things about the novel is “its many-voicedness, its polyphony.” It’s not just impersonation or mimicry. “It’s a willingness to share control with one’s creation.”
Let your characters talk, listen and write. You are in control, she wrote. “You made them up. Let the poor fictive characters have their say - you can hit Delete any time you like.”

Story is change and narrative moves the story forward. Each chapter in this book includes a discussion of a specific topic, examples from good writers and exercises, (which she considers as practice in control).
She defines story as “a narrative of events (external or psychological) that moves through time or implies the passage of time and that involves change.” She defines plot as “a form of story that uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict…” But she stresses “the story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.”

She also gives advice about how peer groups work, whether in person or online.
I found her advice interesting, especially usually the image of steering a ship through the sea; “knowing the craft, so that when the magic boat comes by, you can step into it and guide it where it wants to go, where it ought to go.”

I use many quotes in my blogs, but feel it is important for others to have an idea of how this person writes. Whether a subject is serious and detailed or light, how it’s written makes a difference in whether I want to read their book and to let you know about it.
You can find more about Le Guin at her website

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Sense of Style

Originally, I  planned to start the year of 2018 out with a blog entitled “A New Year of Writing with a Sense of Style.” I just didn’t have time to finish reading the book mentioned below nor to get my thoughts in order. However, I decided not to keep waiting, so I will start with an introduction. 

Steven Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, admits that writing guides are his favorite literary genre. He emphasizes that this book is not a reference manual. It is primarily for people who know how to write and want to write better and write with clarity.

Those who don’t read style books still have learned from other writers. “Good writers are avid readers,” he says.” Reading good prose is a more enjoyable and “effective way to develop a writerly ear than obeying a set of commandments.”

Pinker writes that style still matters for at least three reasons:

  • First, “it ensures that writers will get their messages across…”
  • Second, “style earns trust.”
  • Third, style “adds beauty to the world.”
Personally, he likes to read style manuals for the same reason, “that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinquist and a cognitive scientist and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind.”

He praises Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, but points out that “for all their intuitive feel for style, had a tenuous grasp of grammar.” I also admire Strunk and White and you can check out my blog of September 10, 2017, and also find mentions of their book in other blogs.  

Pinker says that some classic manuals try to take all the fun out of writing. Many authors of classic manuals wrote as if the language they grew up with was immortal. They failed to cultivate an ear for ongoing change.

He writes that “style mavens throughout the centuries, have written about how young people are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it,” and gives examples from the 1900s, 1800s, 1700s, and even one from 1478.

There are so many kinds of human relationships. Speech and writing differ. Social interaction is instinctively verbal. We can monitor their faces and their posture. But people, who will later read what we have written, “are invisible and inscrutable, he says. “Readers exist only in our imagination.” We have to imagine ourselves in some sort of conversation with them.

A sense of style should be evident in all types of writing, non-fiction as well as fiction.  I love some of the examples he gives in this book, especially the obits on Maurice Sendak, Pauline Phillips (known for her column Dear Abby) and Helen Gurley Brown, written by Margalit Fox. It is hard to capture the life of a complex subject in 8oo words or less, but Fox was exceptional. She captured a person's life in a brief way that had me mourn their loss, but laugh at memories.

There is so much more I want to share, but I have to admit, I borrowed this book from the library and have to return it. It was very interesting and want to delve into his definition of style more deeply. I will purchase a copy for my home library so I can study and enjoy it at a more leisurely pace. If I find the rest of it as amazing as the first part, I will publish another blog about it.

For more information about this author, check out, sapinker@twitter and

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Sometimes the Magic Works

My fantasy and science fiction followers may be interested in this blog on Sometimes the Magic Works, Lessons from a Writing Life, by Terry Brooks, a repeat New York Times bestselling author.

The book caught my attention because of the idea of magic in the writing process, as well as research and lots of hard work. “If you don’t think there is magic in writing, you probably won’t write anything magical,” Brooks said. “Writing is life. Breathe deeply of it.”

As a child and adult, the author of Star Wars- Episode 1, The Phantom Menace, was accused of having his mind in a different world than his body. So, it is no surprise that the first chapter of this book, titled I Am Not All Here, is about writers living in two worlds.

Inspired by other writers and books, he said he discovered his voice through trial and error. Brooks gives three character traits essential for success in writing:


He stresses the importance of organization and thinking ahead about your point of view, story arc, characters and setting. Your writing will flow more easily if you organize chapter by chapter and then pull everything together.

Outlining forces you to think through your story.  It’s a working blueprint, a picture of your story. Having your blueprint also may help prevent writer’s block.

He starts with some basic ideas, then goes through a thinking or dreaming period. Brooks has lots of ideas and writing them down encourages other ideas. 

His basic formula for success is:

Read, Read, Read
Outline, Outline, Outline
            Write, Write, Write

Writers, especially fantasy and science fiction writers, create new worlds. It is important that readers aree able to identify with your world, your characters and your story.

I’ve often heard “write what you know.” But Brooks goes beyond, that recommending us to at least know enough for the story and give people the idea that you know more.

The author of Sometimes the Magic Works, has written more than 20 New York Times bestselling novels. The Shannara Chronicles began showing on MTV in January 2016 and on Spike TV in 2017. The show is based on Brooks epic fantasies.

He also has authored more light-hearted fantasy in The Landover novels, and dark, contemporary fantasy in the Word & Void series. Goodreads offers a chronological listing of the Shannara books.

He also wrote Hook, a tie-in to the Robin Williams movie Hook, based on the idea of Peter Pan grown up. He felt he should write the book because, “Who better to write a sequel to Peter Pan than me, the boy who never grew up.”

I really enjoyed reading Sometimes the Magic Works, so I am ready to read more of Brook’s books. 

If you want to find out more about him and his writing, check out He also is on Twitter and Facebook.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Poetry to reflect in the New Year

Each year, as people around the world ring out the old year and ring in the new, with parties, bonfires, fireworks and singing. We are only moving from one day to the next, for many it offers hope for a new beginning.

Each year, celebrations reach a peak with the singing of Auld Lang Syne, the most famous poem about the new year.


Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

The song that Robert Burns sent to the Scots Musical Museum in 1788 has many more verses. But these are the ones that millions sing this every year as the clock strikes midnight. Based on an ancient drinking song, “Auld Lang Syne” talks about looking back “for old time’s sake” and remembering old friendships.

I started to wonder about other poems written about the New Year’s traditions and went to the internet. Following is just a little of what I found. said about Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s, “THE YEAR,” written in 1910,This short and rhythmical poem sums up everything we experience with the passing of each year and it rolls off the tongue when recited.”

What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That’s not been said a thousand times?

The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.

We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.

We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.

We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that’s the burden of the year.

I was surprised by how many famous writers have written poetry about the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. A few are:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote “The Death Of  The Old Year” in 1842. He also wrote about the new year in “Ring Out, Wild Bells” (from "In Memoriam A.H.H.," 1849). In that poem, he pleads with the "wild bells" to "Ring out" the grief, dying, pride, spite, and many other distasteful traits. As he does this, he asks the bells to ring in the good, the peace, and the noble."

William Cullen Bryant wrote “A Song for New Year’s Eve” in 1859 and recommended that we enjoy life to the last second.

Francis Thompson wrote “New Year’s Chimes” in 1897.

“The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy was published in 1902 and his “New Year’s Eve” a few years later.

D.H. Lawrence wrote “New Year’s Eve” in 1917.

I enjoyed the following verse I found on, “Happy New Year” by Hope Galaxie.

“Making a difference starts with one step
With one foot, then the next”

You can find the whole poem and others celebrating the new year at:

I look forward to reading and writing and sharing both with you during this year, and maybe a little more poetry also.

Wishing everyone
A Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

O Christmas Tree

Christmas is the time of year when evergreen trees become special. Whether fresh cut, potted or artificial, decorated, they serve a different purpose. Besides making homes cheerier, they provide a festive atmosphere in stores and businesses.

The song, O Christmas Tree (or O Tannenbaum), written by Ernst Anschutz in 1824, praises the tree’s faithfulness for staying green and bringing us so much pleasure. It still does.

Themes, colors, shapes and purpose vary widely. I love the variety - modern, sleek trees, humorous themed trees and candlelit, historic trees. But we each seek our own design for our homes.

Birds sing on my Christmas tree, stars twinkle, friends and family members live on.

While decorating my Christmas tree I realized how much my collection of ornaments reflects my life. There are a few things from the tree my parents’ decorated when I was a kid, but they are so fragile, I don’t usually put them up any more.

I purchased many ornaments as souvenirs when my husband and I traveled.  Something small for the Christmas tree was much easier to carry home than a teapot or vase. I have a miniature stained glass of a volcano erupting in Hawaii; a streetcar from San Francisco; a miniature street scene from Charleston, SC;  a miniature beer stein from Germany;  Dutch wooden shoes from Amsterdam; Falling Water from Ohiopyle, PA; and a cowboy boot from Arizona; a ball from Southfork Ranch, Tx (Remember Dallas and Who Shot JR?)and a and ski-lift from Wisp and decorated ball of the historic train station from Garrett County, MD.

Some reflect our average life, such as books, cats, dogs, goats, peacocks, horses, cars airplanes, nativity scenes and picture ornaments. Our children are there as redheaded Cabbage Patch ornaments, Raggedy Ann and Andy, children riding horses, Big Wheels, bicycles, ballet slippers, Barbie, and a computer.

I also honor other people I care about and keep those who are gone alive on my tree. There is a fire truck for Uncle Ted and his family, a sewing machine for Aunt Mil and Aunt Mary, a cake for Aunt Dot, an airplane for Aunt Marty and Uncle Otts, a personalized stork for my niece’s children,  a soldier and patriotic items for Dad and Mom, a rose for my mother-in-law, a guitar and soccer ball for my son-in-law, footballs for my father and brothers, a book and teapot for Betty, a postman for Ron and many more for family and friends.

I still have some handmade ornaments from my children, the Prunty children and Hailey Stivers; painted oyster shells from Leanne Englar and delicate eggshells from my brother John.

I enjoy seeing themed trees in public displays and in other homes, such as all blue and silver ornaments, cartoon characters, ribbons or dolls. If I were wealthy, I would have differently decorated trees in each room. But since I am not, I love my personal tree. Like my writing, it helps keep family and friends alive.

Let me know if you have a special theme for your Christmas tree or an unusual tradition. Enjoy the season and have a wonderful New Year.