Banishing Lazy Words by Terry Shames

This week we have a guest blogger, friend and fellow mystery writer, Terry Shames!

Terry grew up in Texas, and has an abiding affection for the people she grew up with and the landscape and culture of the town that is the model for Jarrett Creek. She graduated from the University of Texas and has an MA from San Francisco State University. Terry now lives in Northern California with her husband, two terriers and a regal cat.

Terry’s first Samuel Craddock novel, A Killing at Cotton Hill, (July 2013) and was named one of the top five debut mystery novels of 2013 by MysteryPeople. The second in the series, The Last Death of Jack Harbin was named one of the top five mysteries of 2014 by the Library Association’s Library Journal. Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, the third in the Samuel Craddock series, came out in October of 2014, followed by A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge in April 2015 and The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake in January 2016.

A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she serves on the boards of Northern California chapters of both.

Welcome, Terry! shamesTerry_1

Banishing Lazy Words

When I’m editing a book, I know that when I begin to get restless I’ve probably come across a nest of lazy words–words that are shorthand, or placeholders, for what I really want to say. Here are some lazy word indicators:

These, this, those, thing, stuff, some, about, just…and the dreaded “to be” verb (was, were…)

I often find when I come across several of these words on one page it means I was reluctant to dig deeper into the emotional content in the scene. When I buckle down and confront what I’m avoiding writing, digging deep to find the emotional core of the scene, I often end up writing a lot more words than I had before.

Here’s an example of a piece I was editing for someone else. I ran across several places on one page where two characters were talking about, “This thing we have going,” and “This thing we are trying.” The “thing” the writer was talking about was a difficult relationship between people of different ethnic backgrounds. By repeating the words “this thing,” she avoided addressing in depth the painful aspects of the relationship. The words fell flat on the page. Only when she changed it to say what she really meant, “Our risky experiment,” and “The way we are thumbing our nose at tradition,” did it begin to have the depth it deserved. Instead of a romance novel, it because more like Romeo and Juliet.

In first drafts, we often use shorthand for what we know is going to be a difficult description. But as writers we have to work hard to ferret out those lazy little words and phrases and say what we really mean. Not, “Amanda’s bedroom was a mess. There was STUFF lying everywhere,” or “I walked into Bill’s office. There was STUFF lying everywhere,” but instead, “Amanda’s clothes were strewn on the floor leading to the bed,” or “Judging from Bill’s office, he was a guy who dropped whatever he was reading onto any handy surface as soon as he was done with it.” Instead of saying, “there were several things he wanted to tell her,” it’s more interesting to read, “he stored up little criticisms that he could spring on her later.”

Contrast these two paragraphs:

“They dated for a few months, during which he told several lies. Some time later, she tried to remember which lies bothered her the most. There was the time he told her he was an accountant and lost his job when the economy went bad. And another time he said he looked around for a job for a long while before he could find another one. But the worst was when he said he’d buy her some jewelry, and never did.”

The fix:

“They dated for six month. After he disappeared, she found that he had hardly opened his mouth without lying. She bought into it when he told her he was an accountant, and lost his job when the economy went bust. She even believed that he pounded the pavement looking for a job for six months before he found one. But the lie that hurt most was that he promised to buy her a diamond ring, and he never did.”

The first paragraph is full of lazy words like “a few,” “several,” “some, “tried,” most,” “there was,” etc. The second one uses livelier, mores descriptive words.

When you read authors you admire, note that they pin down real time, real place, real emotion. It makes their prose richer and keeps readers engaged. It takes hard editing work, but it’s worth it. It’s the key element that will make your prose come alive.

You can find more information about Terry Shames at www.terryshames.com 

Thank you, Terry! That’s good concrete information that all writers can use. What do you think, reader? Any questions or comments?

 

Guest Blogger Janet Christian

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Today’s guest blogger is Janet Christian, author of the Marianna Morgan PI murder mystery series (she’s working on book two at this time) and the soon to be published Virgilante paranormal mystery. She also has a dystopian science fiction novel, Born Rich, which she’s expanding into an epic, so it’s currently not for sale.

Janet served as 2003 President of the Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime in Austin, and became a published author in 2012. She also maintains an author’s blog.

Janet and her husband Eric Marsh live on a 100 acre ranch near Lockhart, TX – 30 miles south of Austin. They have four goofy dogs, an ever-changing population of cats (usually around 10), and a small herd of  spotted-wool Jacob sheep. When she isn’t writing, Janet creates pottery art pieces in her combination pottery studio and tiki bar.

Janet, welcome to AMW!

Three steps to research success

I was inspired to write this article after conversations with several writers who said they just wanted to write, and factual details weren’t that important to readers, anyway. The writers were willing to do limited online research, but had no inclination to talk to experts or visit locations. Research can certainly either be the bane or the joy of writing, regardless of genre or time period of the story. But research is always important, so why not find ways to make it work in your favor, and perhaps to even be enjoyable.

I understand that we writers tend to be a solitary bunch, but please make the effort to do thorough research beyond just surfing the web. You’ll be happy that you did. And so will your readers. Besides, at least to me, one of the joys of writing is learning all those amazing and cool facts and bits of trivia.

Here are three tips to help ensure your research is thorough, useful, and hopefully fun to acquire.

1. Surf the web

Google and other seSurfing the Webarch tools are amazingly complete storehouses of information, but searching can be tricky. If you want to know what year an event occurred, one search usually provides the answer. But if your goal is more esoteric, it can take dozens of searches, tweaking the keywords each time, before you find the information you seek.

Like most writers, I’ve attempted searches for some pretty obscure facts. And once recently my search resulted in the message “No results found.” I’m both simultaneously tickled and frightened that I “broke” Google. Maybe I need to rethink that plot twist.

While search tools are powerful, and can provide a world of search results, you should not count on it as your sole research tool. We all know the internet is chock full of not-quite-true “facts” and information. But the biggest reason is because of the amount of results one search provides. It can be overwhelming to sift out the clutter and get to the specific facts you seek. You can also find search results that directly contradict each other. (Try searching “are vaccines safe” or “is global warming real” for proof of just how contradictory results can be.)

Use a search tool as a springboard for where to go next. For my first novel, The Case of a Cold Trail and a Hot Musket, I wanted my protagonist, Private Investigator Marianna Morgan, to search for a stolen Brown Bess musket. In fact, my novel was inspired by a newspaper article about a long-lost Brown Bess being donated to the Alamo. Online searches gave me many facts about the musket, including images of its wooden stock and unusual triangular, cross-section bayonet. But there were many variations of the musket. And nothing online told me what condition it would be in after having been buried for thirty-five years. This is the point in research where it’s good to move on to step 2.

2. Contact an expert

Talk to expertsI was fortunate in the case of my Brown Bess research that my sister has a business acquaintance with Dr. Richard Bruce Winders, Historian and Curator of the Alamo. I was granted an appointment with Dr. Winders and had the privilege of holding the actual Brown Bess mentioned in the article that inspired my murder mystery. Dr. Winders also described in detail how I could safely hide one in my story.

But don’t let your lack of a direct or indirect relationship with an expert deter you. When I needed to research how the abduction of a child would have been handled in an unincorporated area near San Antonio in the days before 911 emergency service existed, I called Chief Don Davis, who was the Police Chief of Terrell Hills, Texas at the time I was writing. He was more than happy to see me. The accuracy and detail I included in my novel were a direct result of Chief Davis’s informative and helpful answers.

I’ve interviewed many other experts as well, covering topics as diverse as reptile exhibits, how many UPS drivers are assigned to a given geographic area, vintage Mustangs, and what would happen to a koi pond if a decomposing body were buried beneath the rubber liner. Some experts I met in person, others I talked to on the phone. I recommend face-to-face where possible, but phone calls are a perfectly acceptable alternative. I’ve yet to contact an expert who wasn’t happy to help, and all patiently answered my many questions. I always make sure to thank them in the back of the book and send them a signed copy once it’s published.

Whether you’re writing contemporary or historical mysteries, and regardless of whether they’re cozies or hard-boiled, there’s always an expert who can provide those gems of detail that really bring a story to life. And bringing reality and life to a story is where the third tip in research comes in.

3. On site visits

Triton, MN, September 28,2010--Rich Barto, an Small Business Administration (SBA) Construction Analyst inspects a home that was damaged when the Zumbro River overflowed its banks. FEMA, the SBA and the State of Minnesota are conducting damage assessment to determine if the state is eligible for federal assistance. Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA

In addition to my expert contacts on reptile exhibits, I visited the Animal World and Snake Farm Zoo near San Antonio. It was an hour and a half drive, but well worth it. Because of that visit, I was able to add multiple sensory experiences to the scene where Marianna visits a roadside reptile exhibit while tracking the bad guy. I believe my experiencing the assault of smells, sounds, and sights in person gave the scene in my novel a realism I could not have created any other way.

An actual on-site visit may not always be practical, but when it is, take advantage. If you’re writing a mystery that takes place in London, unless you have an extensive travel budget, you may not be able to visit. And if your story is set in 1800s London, a visit may not be all that useful, anyway. But sometimes there are other ways to accomplish a sense of “being there.” And even those alternatives can be invaluable.

Want a feel for Victorian England? Visit the largest Renaissance Faire you can find within a reasonable drive. Setting your charming cozy in a small town populated by quirky characters? Visit two or three cool small towns.

We’ve likely all read stories where it was clear the author published without doing any research. Even little mistakes can throw a reader out of a story. Did a football fan buy your mystery because it involves a murder during a Super Bowl? You can bet they’ll write a scathing review if you set the story in 1966 (the first Super Bowl was in 1967), or even if you describe the wrong concession foods. But if you’ve done your online research, talked to a football expert, and actually attended a football game (even a high school game, especially in Texas, will give you the sense of the crowd’s excitement and behavior), your story will “ring true” and that football fan will love it and look forward to buying your next book.

Isn’t at least one of our ultimate goals to have readers who love our books and can’t wait for each new release? Research can be one of the biggest keys to helping that happen.

 

Thanks Janet! You can find more of her writing at www.janetchristian.com

The Premise of a Mystery

A mystery needs a strong premise to succeed in today’s vast sea of manuscripts and newly published books. But what exactly is a premise? And how can you tell if the premise of your book is a good one?

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In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder defines the premise as the idea that promises to be an exciting or interesting story. It’s a short answer to the question, “What’s it about?” Its job is to make you want to read the book. Premise in this sense is similar to the back cover copy (blurb or description) of the book.

What’s a ginthewoodsood premise for a mystery? A child is murdered and the detective has to catch the killer. Not good enough. It’s a murder mystery, but why read this one?

Three children go into the woods. Two are murdered and the third is found covered with blood. He remembers nothing. Better. I might read it.

But that was 20 years ago. Now there’s been a similar murder in the same woods and the detective is the third child who survived the earlier crime and still has no memory of it. I will definitely sample that book.

A twenty-year-old body is found, that of a young woman. Twenty years earlier, a young man and his girlfriend planned to elope. When she failed to show up, he thought she’d jilted him. The young man is now a detective, and the body is that of his girlfriend.

faithfulplace

In the Woods and Faithful Place are excellent examples of one way to build a compelling premise for a mystery: an interesting crime plus a personal connection with the detective. The fundamental conflict of any mystery—murderer versus agent of truth and justice—is amplified by internal conflict.

Moreover, there is a built-in professional conflict for the detective, because he should recuse himself. In ITW, he keeps it a secret that he was the third child. In FP, he defies orders and investigates secretly on his own.

For Snyder, the premise is a what-if containing elements of both character and inciting incident. For John Truby (The Anatomy of Story), the premise is a short synopsis that includes the inciting incident, the main character, and the outcome.

His example, for the Godfather: “The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather.” The whole story, in a nutshell.

The two different senses of the term ‘premise’ are both widely used. In Story, Robert McKee discusses both concepts, which he calls, respectively, the inspiring idea and the controlling idea.

The story-in-a-nutshell of a mystery is the solution to the mystery. It is what I have elsewhere called the hidden drama. It’s the truth about the murder that is concealed in the enticing set-up.

A mystery needs a strong premise in both senses. The set-up states the mystery (someone has been murdered—why? By whom?) and the hidden drama, when revealed, must pack some sort of wallop to pay off the promise of a good story.

I cannot give you an example of the latter without spoiling a mystery. So that’s what I’m going to do. If you have not read Rebecca, STOP READING NOW! Read Rebecca and come back.

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson as the second Mrs. DeWinter and Mrs. Danvers, respectively, in the 1940 film diected by Alfred Hitchcock

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson as the second Mrs. DeWinter and Mrs. Danvers, respectively, in the 1940 film diected by Alfred Hitchcock

A shy, unconfident young woman marries a man whose first wife, Rebecca, has died in an accident. Rebecca was beautiful, talented, seemingly perfect in every way. How can our poor heroine ever compete with the ghost of this paragon?

Not the most powerful set-up (no mention of a crime), but the hidden drama—oh my. It turns out Rebecca was EVIL! Her husband hated her and murdered her! He got away with it—or did he? OMG!!! A witness comes forward! Breathtaking, page-turning suspense ensues. This book delivers on its premise like no other.

Cornwall

On just such a bay in Cornwall, Rebecca De Winter drowned…supposedly.

Call them hook and twist: a compelling crime to be solved and an underlying truth that is both unexpected and confounding. A really good mystery needs both.

Elizabeth Buhmann

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A woman who witnessed a murder lied on the stand. Twenty years later, the man who was convicted on her testimony has just been exonerated and released:

Lay Death at Her Door, by Elizabeth Buhmann

Neo-Noir?

I recently wrote to a friend and said, “Hey, next time you’re putting an anthology together, let me know. I’d like to contribute.”

He contacted me the next day. “Thanks for the idea! It’s all set. I’ve lined up all the writers and it’ll be Texas noir crime/mystery stories!”

What? That was fast. Noir? Images of James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart in trench coats came to mind. Now there’s nothing wrong with Cagney or Bogart. They were excellent actors who were in some great films. I’ve read some Raymond Chandler and he was very talented. He had a gift for unique metaphors that were brief and got right to the heart of the matter. I’ve never read Mickey Spillane but heard he was really good too. Lots of good writers of the genre out there.darkedinburgh_darklight

But, I’m not a fan of that type of setting. (Yes, I know. I heard your collective gasp. Please don’t throw tomatoes. Put down those pitchforks.) While there are some great stories out there, I’m not keen on men calling women “dames” and saying they have great “gams”. Not thrilled about guys punching other guys just to make a point that they’re tough. If I wanted to watch that, I’d have continued teaching high school.

I understand about noir and hard-boiled crime fiction, why it came about in America when it did. I have no problem with gritty books and movies, nor with the era. I’m a huge fan of Hitchcock, for example.

So now I’m thinking, great, what am I going to write? How am I, a kid from the ‘70s and ‘80’s, going to write about detectives swilling whiskey?

Put down my latte or I’ll give it to you right in the kisser!

I don’t think so.

I first started thinking about recent stories that were gritty. Surely there are modern (neo-noir?) stories. How gritty does it need to be? Aren’t crime/mysteries by definition dark? The only exception I can think of are cozies, but even sometimes they can be dark.

So I decided to do what I usually do several times a day. I Googled it. Apparently, according to Wikepedia, people can’t decide on the definition either. Then I fell back on my other source of information, my friends on Facebook. Since I have so many friends who are writers, this is a font of information. I received many good answers. A few of the recommendations were shows like the Longmire series and True Detective. Some of the books mentioned were The Bitch (yes, that’s the name), The Package by Cleve Sylcox, anything by Walter Moseley or Kelli Stanley, the Harry Dresden series, and an anthology called Lone Star Noir.lone star noir_

Okay, I think I’m getting there, closer to something that I could write. Dark stories, maybe like the Coen Brothers? I thought of Fargo, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, movies I really liked. Those had elements of crime and mystery. An idea popped into my head, something that I could really write. I’m sure some of the other writers for the anthology are wondering if a little housewife could possibly create something dark enough to fit in with their stories.

I think I’m up to the challenge.

So  how about you? Do you have a favorite story or movie that you consider to be noir?

Mystery/Thriller Recommendations

It’s that time of year! A time for reflection on the past year and anticipation of the new. If you’re like me, you hear a lot of people mention a good book or movie and you think to yourself, “That sounds good! I gotta remember that.” And then you don’t.

So, since I have a lot of friends on Facebook who like mysteries and thrillers, I’ve asked them to recommend at least one good book or movie they discovered this year. And of course, each of us here at AMW has a recommendation too.

Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Mandy Eve Barnett (author): mandyevebarnett.com – Lucy – it is unusual, exciting and a great twist at the end! A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.

2. Beverly Nelms (personal and book club friend) – A Most Wanted Man with Philip Seymour Hoffman from a John LeCarre book. It’s about a (most likely) innocent Muslim man being ground up in the system by the Taliban, then by us. PSH plays a German operative with a small group of “assets” who is trying to help him. Underdogs helping the underdog. The view of agents, especially ours, is devastating.

3. Laura Wilson (personal and book club friend) – I liked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, book much better than the movie, by Stieg Larsson. The main character is a girl with a troubled background who is brilliant with technology and a research savant. There is torture, murder, blackmail and deceit all over this book.

4. Billy Kring (mystery author) www.billykring.com – Suspect by Robert Crais. One of my top reads of the year, and highly recommended. LAPD cop Scott James and his female partner are ambushed, and Scott is wounded, his partner killed. He is broken, suffering, and angry, textbook PTSD. As a last chance, he is partnered with a german shepherd with her own problems. Maggie is a two-tour bomb-sniffing dog who lost her handler in an ambush. She is also suffering from PTSD, and it is her last chance, too. When they begin to investigate the case where Scott’s partner was murdered, they have to rely on each other, and what they encounter in the case could well break both of them.

5. David B. Schlosser (writer, editor) – www.dbschlosser.com – The Broken Shore by Peter Temple. This terrific Australian mystery explores the traditional aspects of a crime/cop story — good guys, bad guys, and their travails — as well as some really interesting cultural challenges in Australia.

6. Kelly Pustejovsky (personal friend) – I watched Dream House yesterday on Netflix, surprisingly good.

7. Tara Madden (personal friend) – Wilde’s The Gods of Gotham and it’s sequel. Fairly new mystery series about the very beginnings of the NYPD set in the 1840s. Very good. Really pulls you into the story. Great richly created characters.

8. Jeanne Kisacky (writer) – It’s been out a while, but Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity defied my ability to see where the plot was going. It was truly remarkable to read a book and not have any of my guesses pan out.

9. H.M. Bouwmann (author and professor) – www.hmbouwman.com – I’ll second the Code Name Verity recommendation. And I enjoyed both Robert Galbraith (Rowling) mysteries–though I loved the first more than the second. Also, just as an FYI, the opening couple of pages are not great. Then: very good.

10. Roger Cuevas (personal friend) – I love Alice LaPlant’s “Turn of Mind.” It’s narrated by a woman, a former hand surgeon with Alzheimer’s. Then one day her neighbor and long-time friend is found dead and the body’s hands have been expertly removed. Did she do it? Our narrator just can’t remember…

11. Morris Nelms (personal, book club friend, professor of fine arts, and musician) (Yea, he’s a cool guy) – The Afghan, by Forsyth. Frequencies, a sci-fi whodunit movie. Crescent City Rhapsody, a sci-fi thriller about what happens when an EMP disables everything.

12. Joseph Huerta (personal friend) – The two “Blood” books by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell that feature warfare against the forces of Armageddon, including angels and devils and a secret band of priests who were once vampires. Yes, it doesn’t really sound like a Joe-book but it was truly fascinating. The third book will be out this Spring.

13. Angie Kinsey (writer) – www.angiekinsey.com – The Martian by Andy Weir – a not too far fetched sci-fi thriller about an engineer who gets stranded on Mars. He has to figure out how to stay alive with the resources he has until he can connect with home. Entertaining and thrilling!

14. Debbie Woodard (personal friend) –  I discovered the BBC’S Sherlock this year. Fantastic production, great actors, character-driven-well-written scripts.

15. Elizabeth Buhmann (AMW member) – I’ve read a lot of good mysteries this year. I think I’ll go for Present Darkness, the latest by Malla Nunn, but my recommendation is not to start here but to start with her first, A Beautiful Place to Die. The setting for these books is South Africa in the 1950s, at the height of the Apartheid era.

16. Laura Oles (AMW member) – My favorite this year isn’t a traditional mystery but I loved it because it had a strong mystery component and very strong storytelling. It was Leaving Time by Judy Picoult.

17. Gale Albright (AMW member) – I was fascinated and awed by Tana French’s In the Woods, from the very first paragraph because her writing is lyrical and compelling. It’s set in Ireland and is her first book about the “Dublin Murder Squad.”

18. Kaye George (AMW member) – I’m JUST like that. I vow to remember the good books I’ve read, but, alas, my memory doesn’t really go back 12 months. I know that every Harlan Coben I read is my favorite. Recently I read “Iron Lake” by William Kent Krueger and it was terrific. It’s the first Cork O’Connor book. I’ve read others, but had never read this one.

19. Kathy Waller (AMW member) – Terry Shames’ A Killing at Cotton Hill. She captures small town life in a southern town while mixing humor with suspense and mystery. I couldn’t put it down. It won the 2014 Macavity Award. 

20. My favorite book that I read this past year was Jackaby by William Ritter. I loved the mix of historical fantasy and mystery. Jackaby is an investigator of unexplained phenomena and the story is told from the POV of his new assistant, Abigail Rook. It’s a bit like Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Potter. It was delightful and intriguing.

So there you have it! A whole slew of books to add to your TBR (To Be Read) list.

Whispers of Memories

I recently took a trip to Huntsville, Texas, and everything I saw at every turn stirred up old memories.

 

–          Right behind the hotel where I stayed was the apartment complex where my cousins had lived. A few blocks away was a second place they lived.

–          I passed a street of good friends of many years. They hosted a wedding shower for me.

–          I passed the fancy restaurant where my grandmother lived for a while when she was a child. I remember that when she told us, we had no idea!

–          I saw the nursing home where my other grandmother spent her last years.

 

All of this within a short drive just to get a burger! My mother’s family has been in the Huntsville area since the mid 1800’s so we have a lot of stories. A couple of my favorites:

 

–          Sam Houston was a friend of the family. He used to come and visit.

–          My great-grandfather was sheriff for a while and lived in the jail.

 

Neither of my parents grew up there, but my father moved there after my parents got divorced. He was offered a job at Sam Houston State University as a Criminal Justice professor. So I have a personal connection to the place through my mother and my father.

Besides the personal connections, there is something that draws me to the place. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMaybe it’s something about the vines growing in the pines, maybe it’s because I love history and old things, maybe it’s because of my “writer brain”, but when I pass old houses, I imagine children playing and grannies rocking while shelling peas. I love browsing through the old stores. I sometimes look at what they’re selling, though I’m more likely to be looking at the tin ceilings and wondering what the original store was.

The history of a place just calls out to me. I look at the red leather seats in the booth at a diner and remember when not everyone was welcome as a customer. I look at the young, happy families and wonder if they hear or feel the negative things that happened. Can they even imagine it? I pass the prison walls and know the prison has been there since 1849. Lots of famous and infamous people have been in those walls.

At the university I think of my great great aunts who attended when it was a Sam Houston Normal School. We’ve had a graduate from there in every generation. My grandmother went to kindergarten at Old Main, which has since burned down.

I think about my father when I sit on the bench outside the CJ building that’s dedicated to him. There’s a plaque with his name on it. He used to sit outside and smoke and talk to students. Inside the building there’s a big picture of him. DadNext to it are plaques with names of students who have received scholarships named after him.

 

Sometimes when I’m in town, I visit the cemetery. I look up my folks and browse around. Yep, some people like museums, I like cemeteries. file000511322167When you’re looking at someone’s headstone, you see when they were born and when they died. You can see if they were married or had children buried with them. So many stories untold.

 

 

It’s all a bit overwhelming for me at times. But I guess it’s no surprise that I like to write historical fiction. file0001461581320For me the place is full of mystery, history, conflicts, love, death and birth. Those piney woods have a lot of secrets.

 

Do you have a place that calls to you?