Book Review – The Lip Reader by Michael Thal

Hey everyone,

This week, I’m reviewing The Lip Reader by Michael Thal, which was published by Paper Angel Press on November 1. I first met Michael many years ago when we had both published books around the same time with a previous publisher. He was writing YA books at the time, and I thoroughly enjoyed his YA series featuring Koolura, a preteen with superpowers. Pretty cool.

His latest book, The Lip Reader, is a love story. The narrator is Zhila Shirazi, an Iranian-born Jewish woman, who immigrates to the United States after the Iranian Revolution. Zhila is deaf due to a childhood illness. Her ability to read lips is astonishing, as is her life story. This is a story of love, courage, compassion, an determination. I couldn’t put it down.

Here’s my review:

The Lip Reader by Michael Thal

The Lip Reader is a poignant portrayal of Zhila Shirazi, a woman who embodied the word “resilient”. She met life’s challenges with determination, navigating adversities with bravery, grace, and compassion. As a child in Iran, she contracted meningitis, which caused her to lose her hearing. Hearing aids at that time were expensive and out of reach, so, in order to survive, Zhila learned to read lips. This extraordinary skill carried Zhila through life, allowing her to navigate relationships, careers, immigration to the US after the Iranian Revolution, miscarriage and divorce, a cochlear implant, and a second chance at love.

Zhila was truly a person who gave more than she received and a beautiful example of compassion in action. Author Michael Thal has created a first-person account of Zhila’s life, giving the reader a humbling opportunity to walk with, and learn from, this amazing person.

Another highly recommended read.

The book: The Lip Reader by Michael Thal, 226 pages, published November 1, 2021 by Paper Angel Press. Available at all your favorite places.

Book Review – Carnival Farm by Lisa Jacob

Hey everyone,

Well it’s been months since I posted on this blog — just about seven, in fact — and in the intervening time I have learned a lot about loss, grief, and love. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions, but I’m sensing some lightness these days. Some forward motion.

I haven’t written a word in the last year, save for journaling, which has been a lifesaver. I have paid attention to my books though, and thank you to everyone who has enjoyed them over the last year.

And I’m so excited so share with you that the Shelby McDougall audio books are now available! They were narrated by the talented Jenn Broda, who gave voice to Shelby’s story with enthusiasm, delight, and care. She was the perfect narrator! You can find them Amazon, Audible, and Apple Books. Here’s the links for the Audible versions:

To celebrate this amazing milestone, my books will be on sale from November 18th to the 21st.

I won’t be participating in NaNoWriMo this year; but I haven’t given up completely on writing! Instead, I’ve decided to read and review some of the amazing books published by Paper Angel Press, staring with Carnival Farm from Lisa Jacob.

Carnival Farm

Carnival Farm is a delightful read, and is just the right length to cozy up with. The main character, Seagn Conway (such a lovely name) is a veterinarian who is unhappy in her job, “bored to tears with dogs and cats and the every-once-in-a-while rabbit.” When she happens upon a travelling carnival’s petting zoo in need of an upgrade, she jumps in to save it, deciding in an instant to change her life.  A decision from the heart, not the pocketbook. She buys the ten animals – a cow, a Shetland pony, pigs, goats, and sheep – plus the semitruck used to transport them from site to site as well as the necessities to keep and show them. Next she quits her job, and sets about learning how to care for, display, and nurse ten farm animals back to health. All while trying to keep herself financially afloat.

Seagn is a woman with a big, big heart. The animals take over her life; and it takes everything – all her savings, all her energy, and all her wits — to nurture them. Her spine and her fire carry her through. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but it’s safe to say that Seagn gives her all. She wonders, every day, if it was worth it.

I’ll let you read the book and figure out the answer to that question. Safe to say though, that this is a fun and thought-provoking read. What does it take to make a leap of faith? How many times have we all looked at something and said, “Wow, I’d do that in an instant, if only…” Here’s a story of someone who ignored the countless “if only-s” and went ahead and followed her heart.

Highly recommended.

The book: Carnival Farm by Lisa Jacobs, 217 pages, published September 20, 2021, by Paper Angel Press. Available at all your favorite places.

Feature: Nevada Barr

Hey everyone,

I’m a bit off schedule this month; my husband and I enjoyed another camping trip to the beautiful California desert and I got a bit behind. On everything! So I’m catching up with one of my favorite topics, “Authors I Admire.” This week, it’s Nevada Barr. There’s a lot to admire about Nevada Barr. For starters, there are the books: the amazing Anna Pigeon series, set in national parks across the country. There’s Ms. Barr’s mastery of the craft of writing and her ability to create a suspenseful murder mystery, where the setting is as much of a character as Anna Pigeon herself. And her own service as a park ranger, a job that involved everything from law enforcement in highly developed campgrounds to patrolling the backcountry.

Her name actually is “Nevada.” She was born in Yerington, Nevada in 1952 and her parents named her for the state of Nevada. She was raised in the small town of Susanville, California, the county seat of Lassen County, where her parents ran a regional airport. Her mom sounds like a take-charge kind of person who could wrangle just about anything from airplanes to ranch equipment. Ma. Barr studied acting in college and spent eighteen years as an actor, performing in the theater and doing voice-overs, while wandering from New York to Minneapolis to Mississippi.

After marrying a man who worked in the park service, Ms. Barr became a National Park Service Ranger at the age of 36. Her first parks job was in Isle Royale, which became the setting for two of the Anna Pigeon mystery series. She started writing seriously in 1978, and wanted to focus on female characters. Three women served as role models for strong, capable Anna Pigeon: Nevada Barr’s mom, a pilot and mechanic; her Aunt Peggy, a third-grade teacher in New York City public schools, and her grandmother, a “fighting Quaker Democrat.” (1)

Ms. Barr started her writing career in historical fiction, and then “graduated” to mysteries. The idea for the Anna Pigeon series came to her as she was hiking through the woods. “She thought about the multiple ways a person could die and about the ones she believed would be better off dead.” (1) Track of the Cat, the first Anna Pigeon mystery, was published in 1993. All of the Anna Pigeon mysteries are set in national parks and bring the job of park ranger to life, from navigating the endless bureaucracy to the constant interactions with the public and the tensions of managing the wild-human interface.

Ms. Barr won the 1994 Agatha Award for best first novel of 1993 and the 1994 and the Anthony award for best novel of 1993. She has been awarded the Mississippi Library Association’s Award for fiction. And in 2010 Nevada Barr received the Robin W. Winks Award given to people who enhance public understanding of the National Parks. She also won the 2015 Pinckley Prize for a Distinguished Body of Work for her Anna Pigeon series.

I love these books. Ms. Barr’s writing is fearless. She digs deep and draws the reader in with detail, detail, detail. She knows how to build tension and use setting to enhance that tension. She knows just when to slow things down and speed them up. She builds her character over the series, giving us more insights into Anna’s motivations, intentions, vulnerabilities, strengths, and weaknesses.

There are 19 Anna Pigeon mysteries. As an author who managed to write a three-book series, I am so impressed by the discipline and imagination and fearlessness to write a 19 book series. Here are the books, in order, with their locations.

So if you haven’t read any of these books yet, I suggest you try one. You can pick up a book at any point in the series; there’s plenty of backstory to fill in context and characters. Pick one where the location speaks to you. You won’t be disappointed! I’d also like to add a plug for the audio version: veteran narrator Barbara Rosenblatt brings this series to life with a strong, animated, silky-smooth voice.

Until next time,

Nancy

(1) Mississippi Writers & Musicians: Nevada Barr https://www.mswritersandmusicians.com/mississippi-writers/nevada-barr

The Art of the Book Blurb

Hey everyone,

The Art of the Book Blurb. What can I say? It’s probably the hardest thing to do: compress the essence of your book into 150 words or less, open with a hook, and end on a cliffhanger. A challenge, for sure.

The main purpose of a book blurb is simple. It’s supposed to introduce your characters; set the stage for the main conflict, establish the stakes, and convince readers that this book is a perfect match for their reading interests. Not quite so simple to implement, however.

I’ve read a lot of book blurbs. Some give away too much. You read the blurb and you feel like you’ve already read the book. Others promise and don’t deliver. You pick up the book based on the blurb and the story is nothing like the promise. So disappointing. And others sell the book short! The book’s been recommended by a friend, you pick it up and read the milk-toast book blurb. On that basis alone you wouldn’t go any further. But because you friend recommended it, you plow forward, delighted to discover that that the book is a gem!

My book blurbs took hours and hours of work. I came up with the tag lines quickly, almost as if I were taking dictation:

Due Date

Surrogate mother Shelby McDougall just fell for the biggest con of all — a scam that risks her life … and the lives of her unborn twins.

The Stork

Shelby McDougall’s past is behind her. Almost.

The Found Child

Private Investigator Shelby McDougall is out for revenge.

But the rest of the blurb didn’t come so easily. I wrote and rewrote, asking friends to read and reread. I wish I had kept some of those earlier revisions to see how the blurb evolved. I do remember that the earlier versions, written quickly, off the cuff, suggested plot points that never panned out, though basic characterizations and motivations remained throughout the evolution of the blurb. I also remember trying to keep the word count down, agonizing over word choices, and debating on how much to reveal. Truly an art.

I invite you to think about book blurbs the next time you pick up a book. What draws you? What puts you off? Can a book blurb make or break your decision about opening a book?

That’s it for today!

Until next time,

Nancy

PS If you get a chance, check out my publisher’s newly designed website. I love it! The site will provide a lot more flexibility on the back end and will allow direct sales. I’m thinking book bundles. Can’t wait!

Current events: CRISPR

Hey everyone,

For folks who have read my books, you’ll remember that the gene-editing technology called CRISPR is mentioned. I’ve heard CRISPR referred to in various settings a few times over the last couple of days, so I thought it was time to do a bit of reading and find out the latest news.

We know that gene-editing human embryos is a thing. In 2018, Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui used CRISPR technology to edit human embryos to make the resulting children resistant to HIV infection. He Jiankui and two of his colleagues were jailed for this research. In addition to the obvious, there’s also the problem of unintended consequences. It’s been shown that the twin girls carrying the edited genes face a higher risk of premature death.

Because of this research and outcome, an international commission from ten countries was convened by the US National Academy of Medicine, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the UK Royal Society to discuss human genome editing. The commission focused on the scientific and technical aspects of CRISPR, not on ethical considerations. Based solely on technology, the commission concluded that “…the technique is too risky to be used in embryos destined for implantation.” (1) Furthermore, the commission stressed that “…even when the technology is mature, its use should initially be permitted in only a narrow set of circumstances.” (1)

CRISPR has plenty of additional applications. I found a recent article calling CRISPR a runaway technology. Before the twin girls in China were born, “…one [US-based] biotech company used spurious public health claims to get CRISPR-modified foods onto people’s dinner plates.” (2) Googling “crispr and food” yielded a whole raft of articles on CRISPR created food in supermarkets. A Guardian article warned of what’s coming: hardier strawberries that can be picked by machine instead of by hand. Lettuce that can grow in drier climates. Wheat with less gluten. Another article calls CRISPR “The latest adventure in food enhancement…” (3), then goes on to discuss how to create a regulatory environment that supports CRISPR use in food technology.

Another group of scientists is investigating using CRISPR to eradicate pests, like mosquitoes or mice. An article a couple of years ago in Nature talks about using CRISPR to engineer “gene drives,” where a mutation spreads through a population faster than it would by natural selection. (4) The author, Megan Scudellari, talks about whether this would even work; how a trial could be set up (because once it’s released, there’s no going back); how could it be controlled; and ultimately, who gets to decide.

It’s a lot to think about.

That’s it for today. Until next time,

Nancy

(1) “‘CRISPR babies’ are still too risky, says influential panel” by Heidi Leford, Nature, September 03, 2020 (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02538-4)

(2) “Runaway Biology: A Call for Conscientious Genome Editing with CRISPR” by Søren Hough, Science for the People, Volume 23, number 3, Bio-Politics, Winter 2020 (https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/vol23-3-bio-politics/crispr-runaway-biology-conscientious-genome-editing/)

(3) “CRISPR and Our Food Supply: What’s Next in Feeding the World?” by Scott Haskell, Michigan State University (https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/crispr-and-our-food-supply-what-s-next-in-feeding-the-world)

(4) “Self-destructing mosquitoes and sterilized rodents: the promise of gene drives” by Megan Scudellari, Nature, July 9, 2019 (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02087-5)

Writing tips: Dialog

Hey everyone,

One bit of feedback I get pretty regularly from readers is that the dialog in the Shelby McDougall series works. I think this means that readers find the dialog natural, with a cadence and rhythm that mirrors the way people actually talk. Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve learned a few things about dialog:

  • Avoid expository dialog. That is dialog that explains what’s happening. Dialog that provides backstory. Dialog that reveals plot points. I found a great blog post on this: How to Write (and Not Write) Expository Dialog.
  • Be sparing with dialog tags, those pesky little words like “said,” “asked,” or “explained.” They’re easy to overuse and they can really slow down a scene. In my case, I try to keep it simple, avoiding words like “chuckled,” “exclaimed,” or “shouted.” (I know I don’t do this all the time!) A good post on this: Dialog Tags: What Are They and How To Use Them
  • Keep it natural. Use contractions. Use character names occasionally. Avoid fillers like “Well” or “Let’s see”.
  • Leave things unsaid. This is the hardest thing. What can be left out but inferred with gestures, glances, container, or movement?

Here’s an example of dialog from The Found Child, the most recent book in the series. I enjoyed writing this scene. Shelby has just arrived at her brother’s home and she’s hanging out on the front porch with her niece, Annie (12) and nephew, Max (4). Max has set up an elaborate Hot Wheels track while Annie is reading.

   “Very cool, Max,” I said. Looking at Annie, I asked, “How are you?” I reached over to give her a hug, happy I was part of their family bubble.
   “Good,” she picked up a book sitting on the porch next to her and waved it at me. “I’m already ahead in my reading list for school.”
   “Excellent,” I replied. “That’s great. What are you reading?”
   “It’s called Stars Beneath Our Feet and it’s about some kids in Harlem who like to build things. It’s good,” she added, “but I like adventure books better.”
   “That sounds interesting,” I said. “How’s school going anyway?” I asked.
   Her tone grew serious. “It’s okay,” she sighed.
   “How’s Olivia?” I asked.
   Annie scowled. “She’s fine, I guess.” I sat down next to her and put my arm around her. Max barreled past, turquoise car in one hand, yellow in the other.
   “Watch, Aunt Shelby, watch.” I smiled at him, while saying to Annie, “You want to talk about it?”

What I like in this exchange was that I was able to manage a conversation between three people of different ages. And now, several months after publication, I, of course, can see lots of ways to improve this short section.

In these three paragraphs alone, I could probably remove all the dialog tags (said, asked, sighed) with no loss to the flow of the conversation.

   “That sounds interesting,” I said. “How’s school going anyway?” I asked.
   Her tone grew serious. “It’s okay,” she sighed.
   “How’s Olivia?” I asked.

In these two paragraphs…

   Annie scowled. “She’s fine, I guess.” I sat down next to her and put my arm around her. Max barrelled past, turquoise car in one hand, yellow in the other.
   “Watch, Aunt Shelby, watch.”

…the paragraph break is in the wrong place. The break should be before “Max barrelled past…” with the dialog attributable to him (the four-year-old) in the same paragraph. Well, that’s the beauty of hindsight!

Dialog is a tricky thing and definitely takes a lot of practice. Here’s a great post on how to learn to write dialog from my writing mentor, Mary Carroll Moore: Dialog Do’s and Don’ts: Crafting Lively and Believable Back-and-Forth on the Pages of Your Book.

Until next time,

Nancy

Feature: Cornelia Read

Hey everyone,

As it’s the last week of the month, it’s feature Monday, where I spotlight an author I admire. Today, it’s Cornelia Read and her Madeline Dare series. When I was first studying mysteries and thrillers in order to learn something about the genre before attempting to write one, I looked at Edgar Award winners and nominees. A Field of Darkness, the first book in this series, published in 2006, was nominated for a host of awards: Barry Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2007), Macavity Award Nominee for Best First Mystery Novel (2007), Anthony Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2007), Edgar Award Nominee for Best First Novel (2007).

Once I started reading it, I figured out why. Ms. Read’s writing sparkles. For starters, her sentences are glorious. They’re filled with unlikely similes, unusual word choices (just enough of them to make a reader pause in admiration, but not enough to disrupt the flow of the paragraph), and a self-deprecating, sarcastic, dark humor that is the voice of Madeline Dare. I was hooked by the first sentence in the book blurb: “Madeline Dare would be the first to tell you her money is so old there’s none left.” I ended up loving the character: a quick wit, and a ruthless cynic on the face of things, but also a woman with a soft heart and deep love for her partner, Dean.

There are four books in this series. I’ve added the book blurbs so you can get an idea of what’s in store.

  • A Field of Darkness: Madeline Dare would be the first to tell you her money is so old there’s none left. A former socialite from an aristocratic family in decline, Maddie is a tough-talking, would-be journalist exiled to the rust belt of upstate New York. Her prospects for changing her dreary lifestyle seem dim–until a set of dog tags found at a decades-old murder site is linked to her family. Shocked into action, Maddie embarks on a search that takes her from the derelict smokestacks of Syracuse to the posh mansions of Long Island’s Gold Coast. But instead of the warm refuge of home, this prodigal daughter soon uncovers dark, sinister secrets that will violently challenge everything she believes in and holds dear.
  • The Crazy School: Madeline Dare has finally escaped rust-belt Syracuse, New York, for the lush Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. After her husband’s job offer falls through, Maddie signs on as a teacher at the Santangelo Academy, a boarding school for disturbed teenagers. Behind the academy’s ornate gates, she discovers a disturbing realm where students and teachers alike must submit to the founder’s bizarre therapeutic regimen. From day one, Maddie feels uneasy about smooth-talking Dr. Santangelo but when she questions his methods, she’s appalled to find that her fellow teachers would rather turn on each other than stand up for themselves, much less protect the students in their care. A chilling event confirms Maddie’s worst suspicions, then hints at an even darker secret history, one that twines through the academy’s very heart. Cut off from the outside world, Maddie must join forces with a small band of the school’s most violently rebellious students-kids whose troubled grip on reality may well prove to be her only chance of salvation.
  • Invisible Boy: The smart-mouthed but sensitive runaway socialite Madeline Dare is shocked when she discovers the skeleton of a brutalized three-year-old boy in her own weed-ridden family cemetery outside Manhattan. Determined to see that justice is served, she finds herself examining her own troubled personal history, and the sometimes hidden, sometimes all-too-public class and racial warfare that penetrates every level of society in the savage streets of New York City during the early 1990s.
  • Valley of Ashes: Madeline Dare trades New York’s gritty streets for the tree-lined avenues of Boulder, Colorado when her husband Dean lands a promising job. Madeline, now a full-time homemaker and mother to beautiful toddler twin girls, has achieved everything she thought she always wanted, but with her husband constantly on the road, she’s fighting a losing battle against the Betty Friedan riptide of suburban/maternal exhaustion, angst, and sheer loneliness. A new freelance newspaper gig helps her get her mojo back, but Boulder isn’t nearly as tranquil as it seems: there’s a serial arsonist at large in the city. As Madeline closes in on the culprit, the fires turn deadly-and the stakes tragically personal. She’ll need every ounce of strength and courage she has to keep the flames from reaching her own doorstep, threatening all she holds most dear.

Each book is a master of suspense, narrative voice, and setting. And each is a page turner. From the get-go, Ms. Read figured out suspense and the varied ways to keep a reader turning the pages. And she captures every location in her books with an amazing ability to transport the reader right to that place. Her research must have been meticulous and thorough. There are enough details to set the stage, but not enough to grind the narrative pull to a halt.

The strange thing is that Cornelia Read has fallen off the map. After Valley of Ashes was published in 2012, she just disappeared. I can’t fault her, after writing four knock-out books in just about as many years, an author deserves a rest. But, I do wish she’d publish again; she has such talent and her books are an absolute delight to read.

So I suggest that you do yourself a favor and check out this series. It will captivate you, guaranteed.

Until next time,

Nancy

Book review: Crime with the Classics series by Katherine Bolger Hyde

Hey everyone,

Today I want to let you know about the delightful series, Crime with the Classics, written by my colleague in crime, Katherine Bolger Hyde. Ms. Hyde and I are both members of Santa Cruz Women of Mystery, women in Santa Cruz who write mysteries! Imagine my delight when I discovered that we share an alma mater — Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In fact, the protagonist of this series is a literature professor at Reed.

The first book in the series, Arsenic with Austen, introduces us to Emily Cavanaugh, Reed College professor, avid knitter, and cat lover. She inherits a fortune from her great aunt; a seaside home on the Oregon coast in fictional Stony Brook, Oregon; as well as plenty of real estate. The series takes off from there, with at least one murder in each book, as well as a blossoming romance that leads to true commitment. The books in the series are clever, with a well-loved classic anchoring each one:

  • In Arsenic with Austen, Emily turns to Jane Austen’s Persuasion while searching for happiness.
  • In Bloodstains with Bronte, Emily is reading Wuthering Heights and discovers that one of the young men remodeling her home has much too close of a resemblance to Heathcliff.
  • And, in book 3, Cyanide with Christie, Emily leans on vintage Agatha Christie to solve a murder, one where she herself may have been the intended victim.
  • Book 4, Death with Dostoevsky, finds Emily back at Reed College (now called Bede), set on finishing her treatise on Dostoevsky. When one of her favorite students, a tormented, talented scholar, is accused of murder, Emily investigates.
  • Fatality with Forster, Book 5, will be out soon. I’m looking forward to it.

The covers are charming as well:

The aspect I most liked about the series is what my writing teacher calls “container.” I was so impressed with how Ms. Hyde was able to impart the tone and style of the classic used as the central theme of the book to the story at hand. It was brilliant! For example, Ms. Hyde was able to take the darkness of Dostoevsky and create the mood for Death with Dostoevsky around that. In the first chapter, the tormented young scholar Emily is trying to clear of murder charges is described as someone whose “…dark eyes in their deep sockets burned now with annoyance, but she [Emily] remembered them smoldering with a perpetual agitation…” In Arsenic with Austen, the last sentence in the first paragraph starts with “Of late…” Just a small turn of phrase that sets the container for the book. Ms. Hyde clearly knows language, container, and how to write a compelling book!

All in all, I highly recommend this series.

Until next time,

Nancy

Current events: Surrogacy

Hey everyone,

When I first started writing Due Date, way back in the dark ages of 2006, I was intrigued by the complex relationship between a surrogate mom and the intended parents. I think it’s become even more complicated since then. For example, I had no idea about the business side of things. Apparently, now, surrogacy is a multibillion-dollar industry, with international surrogacy arrangements in India alone valued at up to $2 billion in 2016. Wow. The industry is complex, with technological, legal, and ethical factors to consider in every transaction.

Covid has impacted this industry in significant ways, by creating “…unnecessary risks and challenges for surrogates, egg providers, babies born, and intended parents.” (Source: “Business Not As Usual: Surrogacy in the Time of COVID and Beyond” by Emily Galpern) The author suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated the already existing inequality in the surrogacy industry, an inequality that is particularly apparent in international surrogacy arrangements.

There are now movements in the US and globally to legislate commercial surrogacy. In New York state, for example, the Child-Parent Surrogacy Act enacted in 2020, mitigates the traditional and powerful principle that the birth mother is the legal mother. In the UK and the Netherlands, government is laying the groundwork for a system of pre-authorization of surrogacy agreements, where the intended parents would be the legal parents from birth. In France, however, commercial surrogacy is illegal, leading to thorny question of whether a child born through a surrogacy arrangement can become a French citizen. (Source: “Surrogacy: New Challenges to Law and Ethics” by Donna Dickenson)

And recently, with the ability to create an embryo from a genetic technology called mitochondrial donation, an embryo can contain genetic material from three people: a mother and father, plus a mitochondrial donor. This procedure is sometimes called “three-parent IVF” because while the main DNA comes from the father and mother, mitochondria from the donor also carry tiny pieces of DNA. This means that the resulting embryo will have DNA from three people. The technology, used to prevent genetic illnesses, is banned in the US as it is viewed as germline editing. (Source: “Three-Parent IV Might Open the Door to Human Genome Editing” by Diana Bowman, Karinne Ludlow and Walter Johnson)

Before Due Date, I had written a book about an open adoption, with themes around inequality, ethics, and the concept of motherhood. I thought it would make great fiction. And it would, just not the way I had written it! I pivoted my idea to a book of suspense, using surrogacy as the launchpad. I stand by my instinct that this topic is perfect for fiction of any genre. There’s a recent novel called The Farm, by Joanne Ramos, that’s on my reading list. It was published in 2019 and raises the questions of inequality, commercialization, commodification, and legalization well enough that is has almost 1000 reviews on Amazon with a 4-star rating. Impressive! I know there are plenty other books as well.

Well that’s it for today. I do wonder where we will be in ten or twenty years. Will we have designer babies? A new species of humanity? Will genetic disorders be eradicated? Will surrogacy be outlawed or embraced? There are so many lenses through which to view this topic.

Anyway, cheers! I hope anyone reading this is staying safe, sane, and healthy.

Until next time,

Nancy

Writing tips: Setting

Hey everyone,

For starters, happy new year! I, for one, am looking forward to 2021 with hope and optimism. 2020 felt like a very long year, in so many ways, and I am so glad it’s behind us. I’m wishing everyone reading this my sincerest wishes for a wonderful 2021.

It’s the first Monday of the month, so it’s a “Writing tips” blog post. Today, I’m talking about setting. For me, the setting is as critical as plot or character. In fact, when I was identifying storylines for The Found Child (see my post called “Writing tips: Storyline”), I pulled out the setting as one of the themes. Setting not only provides texture to a book, it also provides clues to a character’s inner and outer lives. Setting can be used to create tension. And, most importantly, it adds emotion.

Setting allows a reader to get inside a character’s head. It allows the reader to notice what the character is noticing. That external environment can reflect the character’s emotions. For example, in the first book in the Shelby McDougall series, Due Date, surrogate mom Shelby moves into an isolated cottage on the property belonging to the intended parents. I paid careful attention to the setting: the open expanse of meadow behind the cottage, the forest on the far side of the meadow, the meadow grasses, the breeze, the clouds and sky. Sunrises and sunsets. Rain and storms. I wanted to convey the vastness of her surroundings and how uncomfortable she felt living in that vastness. It kept her on edge and provided tension in the story.

Setting on a smaller scale can also provide tension and emotional impact. For example, in the various action scenes in the series, I tried to insert specific elements to allow Shelby to be in the action, inside her head, but also provide enough description to allow the reader to know what was happening externally. In The Stork, when Shelby is taken captive at gunpoint, I added texture to the scene through setting: I wrote about the trees, the birds calling, how the light was falling on the redwood canopy, the smells, and how small puffs of dust were kicked up with each step. I wanted her to notice the external world to slow down the scene and heighten her fear.

On a larger scale, I also used setting to convey atmosphere and location. I wanted to convey what makes Shelby’s area of the world unique. I found that to be easy on one level, and incredibly difficult on another. For example, the beach. What makes a beach unique? There’s the water, the waves, the shore, rocks, the sand. I had to dig, to come up with words and phrases to create a particular beach at a particular time of day in a particular place.

As I wrote these books, I discovered how easy it is to overuse setting. I’ve found that in early drafts of my books, and when I was first starting out as a writer, that I overused setting on a fairly consistent basis. Too much setting, too much detail, grinds a perfectly good scene to a dead stop. And I could only discern that overuse after letting a draft sit for a while. Sometimes, it would take several rewrites to see it. In some cases, my beta readers pointed it out.

What was most interesting to me was how setting became more intuitive as I grew as a writer. At first, I just thought of setting as location, placing the story in time and space. But as my skills improved, I was able to see setting in a different way, as a tool for emotion. When my writing coach, Mary Carroll Moore, read an early draft of Due Date, she was able to point out specific examples of how setting was well used, overused, or could be inserted for emotional impact. So helpful! To give you an idea of what I learned from her, check out her blog post called “Setting: The Best Way to Get Emotion into Your Stories”.

Until next time,

Nancy