Saturday, November 15, 2008


1. Create unforgettable characters: “You know Nancy.” All agreed she possessed an appealing quality, which people never forgot. ~ Clue in the Diary

All stories are based on interesting characters—there are no exceptions. Introduce us to your character a little at a time, using action and dialogue (showing), rather than a thumbnail sketch (telling). Create realistic characters without using stereotypical traits, and include some surprises about the character that are believable. Finally, give the characters conflict—happy characters make dull characters.

2. Use dialogue: Suddenly the young sleuth snapped her fingers. “I know what I’ll do! I’ll set a trap for that ghost!” ~ The Hidden Staircase

Dialogue makes a story come alive. It also helps move the story along, increases pace and creates drama. Listen to real conversations, for realism, then edit and tighten them to make the dialogue readable. Keep attribution simple—use action or “said,” rather than adverbs and euphemisms for “said.” Finally, read your dialogue aloud.

3. Set the scene: Many Colonial houses had secret passageways. “Do you know any entrances a thief could use?” ~The Hidden Staircase

A vivid setting gets the reader involved in the story. It also intensifies suspense and becomes a character in itself. Show the setting through the character’s eyes and include all five senses, telling details, and occasional metaphors.

4. Add mood and atmosphere: Nancy had heard music, thumps and creaking noises at night, and had seen eerie, shadows on walls. ~ The Hidden Staircase

Give a sense of foreboding through description. Mood and atmosphere give the story depth and reach deeply into the emotions of the readers. Don’t forget to include weather—and use foreshadowing to give the reader a feeling of unease.

5. Outline your plot: Ellen was alarmed. “We must do something to stop him!” “I have a little plan,” Nancy said. ~ Quest of the Missing Map

Before you begin writing, outline your plot so you know, generally, where the story is headed. You can keep it simple and just jot down the major plot points of the story—where the story takes a surprising turn and how it ratchets up the suspense. Or you can write a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, with the option of veering off if the story requires an alteration.

6. Start the clock ticking: “Hurry, girls, or we’ll miss the train to River Heights!” Nancy knew being on time was important. ~ Secret of Red Gate Farm

Begin with the inciting incident, which starts the clock ticking. Include not only the situation, but where it takes place, and who’s involved. This is where you ask the story questions: What if….? Think about your goal as start the story and where it will lead.

7. Create conflict: Nancy struggled to get away. She twisted, kicked and clawed. “Let me go!” Nancy cried. ~ Secret of the Old Clock

There is no story without conflict. The protagonist must come up against an antagonist, which can be a person, an idea, a corporation, or some kind of evil. Conflict helps reveal the protagonist’s needs, values, and fears, and causes her to confront her demons, challenge herself, and become a hero of sorts.

8. Pack it with action: “How do we get in?” “Over the top, commando style,” George urged. “Lucky we wore jeans.” ~ Clue in the Crumbling Wall

Today’s reader wants action, so give your protagonist opportunities to do something physical. Give her a choice between fight or flight, and when she fights—make her strong but still vulnerable.

9. Spark reader’s emotions: Nancy was too frightened to think logically. She beat on the door, but the panels would not give way. ~ Secret of the Old Clock

Crank up the reader’s involvement but increasing the character’s emotional risk. This way the reader will care about the story. If she can relate to the protagonist’s emotional jeopardy, she’ll be hooked on finding out what happens.

10. Raise the stakes: In a desperate attempt to break down the door Nancy threw her weight against it again and again. ~ Secret of the Old Clock

The story begins with a challenge for the protagonist. But that’s not enough. As the story moves along, something worse must happen. And just when you think it’s safe to go back into the water, things become even worse. Keep raising the stakes to keep those pages turning.

11. Make the situation hopeless: “We’re locked in!” Nancy exclaimed, and began banging on the door with her fist. ~ Nancy’s Mysterious Letter

When all seems lost and the protagonist is about to give up because she’s running out of time and is under extreme pressure, she must find the courage to go on, make another decisions, and get herself out of this devastating trouble.

12. Give the protagonist strength: “Girls don’t faint these days,” George scoffed. ~ Secret of Red Gate Farm

As the protagonist comes face to face with the antagonist, she must pull out all her reserves and use her own skills to change the situation. This heroic attempt must also create growth and change in the protagonist.

13. Don’t give up: Nancy tried to open the door. It was locked. Not easily discouraged, she tried a window; it was unlocked. ~The Hidden Staircase

No matter what, don't give up on your story. Nancy would not approve.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


This might be a good time to become Amish, what with the economy sluggish and money so tight. I got the idea when I attended a conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recently, and fell in love with the plain and simple life there. What a contrast to the not-so-simple life I seem to be living here in the Tri-Valley.

Arriving at the tiny village of Bird-in-Hand, I felt as if I’d stepped back in time—1743 to be exact. As I passed open buggies filled with Amish families and clapboard homes lit only by candlelight, I wondered what it would be like not having to worry about the price of gas and electricity any more.

Instead of trying to choose an appropriate outfit each day, wouldn’t it be great if I could just wear jeans and a t-shirt all the time? Instead of heading to the bathroom mirror for my “beautifying” regimen, wouldn’t it be great if I could face the world without a dozen makeup products? Instead of spending all my money on groceries, wouldn’t it be nice to pick up a dozen fresh eggs from the henhouse and make a salad from veggies in my garden.

I’d spend the day doing a little needlework instead of watching TV, eating freshly baked bread without getting heartburn, chatting with my neighbors over the back fence instead of using my cell phone. I might even raise a barn or two.

In Bird-in-Hand, while life is plain and simple, dining is heavy and hearty. At the Good ‘n Plenty Restaurant, the Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant, or the Bird-in-Hand Smorgasbord, you can take in a thousand calories at each meal.

For breakfast you’ll find such tummy fillers as “Baked Casserole” (no idea what’s actually baked), “Dried Beef Gravy,” and “Shoofly Pie.” For lunch, you have a choice of “Ham Balls,” “Creamed Turkey and Waffles,” or “Mac and Cheese,” with a slice of Shoofly Pie. And for dinner, try the “Pork and Sauerkraut,” “Chicken and Biscuits,” and “Bread Filling,” with Shoofly Pie for dessert. And what is Shoofly Pie? A staple in the Amish Country, it’s made from molasses, brown sugar, and shortening. Add another thousand calories.

If you can still move after a meal like that, there’s plenty to do for entertainment. Take a buggy ride, tour an Amish farm, get your clock repaired, or buy archery supplies. The shops are filled with Amish products—quilts, country furniture, Shoofly Pies, even hex signs to keep away evil.

We opted for the Amazing Corn Maize Maze to work off ten pounds of Shoofly Pie. A corn maze, if you haven’t done one, is fun for about fifteen minutes. The Amazing Maze encompasses five acres with over two and half miles of paths—most which lead nowhere, much like the Winchester Mystery House. I gave up after a good hour. My husband made it through the entire thing in two hours, finished the interactive puzzle along the way, while I ate corn on the cob and fudge. Good for him.

By the end of our trip, I was beginning to miss my busy life back home. If I changed to the simple life, that would mean I’d have to give up watching “House” and “Saturday Night Live.” I wouldn’t be able to call my kids several times a day to find out “What’s new?” I couldn’t sit and enjoy the newspaper over a hot latte and Cinnabon. (Closet thing I can find to Shoofly Pie—and not as fattening...)

As complicated as it is, I think I’ll keep this life. I’m better at raising the roof than raising a barn.

Monday, November 3, 2008


I’m feeling terribly guilty. I recently learned that Mervyns is closing its doors forever. Shortly after receiving this shock, I heard more bad news—Shoe Pavilion is also going out of business. The last straw came only a few days ago: Mother’s Cookies will no longer be providing us with after-school/work/dinner snacks.

And it’s all my fault.

All this time I’ve been taking these stores and products for granted, certain they’d be there when I needed them. Like black Gloria Vanderbilt jeans when my old ones are full of cat hair. Like discounted Skecher shoes because I don’t have a pair in that shade of tan. Or like a bag of Iced Raisin cookies that make a great breakfast when dunked in a latte.

Now, thanks to my neglect, they’re history. I’ll be lucky if I can find any of that stuff on eBay (wonder what a bag of cookies is going for these days?) This little dip in the economy is really getting on my nerves, now that I’m losing the things I love. I’ve already cut back on luxuries. We don’t eat out as much as we used to (still got plenty of leftover Halloween candy to live on). I haven’t bought any new clothes other than a Halloween costume (a black witch’s dress that can easily double as a cocktail gown). We haven’t been out to a movie, concert, or Broadway show since we joined Netflix (Guess we’ll have to wait until “Wicked” goes to video). And we’ve cut down on water, gas, electricity, and even got rid of one of our remotes (lost it.)

But when I learned one of my favorite stores—the place where I get staples, like fuzzy socks, elastic waist pants, holiday themed t-shirts, and fluffy towels—was throwing in the towel, I nearly had a panic attack. Where else would I find clothes at up to fifty percent off on everything from ladies’ underwear to men’s pajama bottoms? Where would I buy my husband’s Charlie Sheen Bowling Shirts at such a deep discount? Where could I go to find sheets that didn’t cost more than the bed and baby clothes so cute, they made me want to get pregnant?

I figured Mervyns would always be there, along with Shoe Pavilion and Mother’s Cookies. Instead I’m losing an institution—the place where I bought my kids’ school clothes, the place where I found pants that actually fit, the place where I could return my fashion mistakes—and there were many—with no questions asked.

I live in fear of the next “going out of business” announcement. Not those bogus ones that sell “Persian carpets” or “raw wood furniture.” They’re always going out of business, but never do. We’re wise to them. It’s the idea that real stores—our favorite stores—will go out of business and we’ll be left with nowhere to shop but the Persian carpet and raw wood furniture stores.

I’m going to do what I can to stop this madness—force myself to buy more Sees chocolates, drink more Starbucks lattes, consume more Lucky Store cupcakes, eat out more at Pasta Primavera, charge more clothes at Nordstrom, and generally do my best to keep the economy thriving. Because if one more store goes out of business (please—not Target!), or I lose one more of my favorite snacks (God save Nestlé’s Ice Cream Drumsticks), I’m going to open up my own going-out-of-business store—and sell all the products I still love but can’t find any more.

Like Mother's Iced Raisins cookies.