After two serious pieces, I was planning on writing a lighter, more humorous blog, this month, something more tied to my first piece which came out in February.  That seems so long ago. It’s hard to believe that I once was having a problem thinking of something to write about.

Then I reread the comments people made about “More Voices From the Past”. I immediately noticed something new. I had readers. Real readers. Readers who not only read what I wrote but took the time to comment on it! I was convinced. I needed to stop worrying about lightening the mood and write about what they wanted to know: What happened to Abram?

I’ve grown up with the story of Abram. I’ve known it by heart, ever since I was a young child. Writing about him now, I wanted to see if there was something more, some detail that I didn’t know or might have forgotten. So I decided to call my Mom. She’s now 101 and living with my sister in California. She remembers everything as if it happened yesterday.

We talked for a while and went over the major points. I had a few more questions I wanted to ask when she said, “Claire, this is so sad. I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Let’s change the subject.” Imagine, I thought, this is seventy-three years later and for my Mom it was like it had happened yesterday. Poof! Seventy-three years vanishing in a few seconds and the terrible sadness and loss is still there.

Mom remembered that my Dad had finally gotten Abram the visa to come to the U.S., probably sometime in late 1941. But Abram had insisted (and I remember Grandma and Papa saying the same thing) that he had to stop off in Switzerland for his health first. He wasn’t feeling well. He’d see a doctor and after that he’d come straight to America.

Why? Why? Why did he insist on stopping off in Switzerland first and then coming to America? I remember my parents and grandparents asking this question over and over for many years. There was never an answer.

Abram never came again to America, not in 1941 or ’42 or ever. It was a fateful decision.

Next time I’ll talk about what happened to him and how we found out.

Lights, Camera, Action: Verb!

I had one of those ah-ha!, slap-your-head-with-the-palm-of-your-hand-*duh* moments recently.

This time, that moment was about writing.

An article I read discussed ways to improve your writing. In your first draft, the most important thing is to get the words down in whatever perfect or jumbled form you can. The revision stage is where you get creative from those bare bones you have constructed. What is the one element that will instantly make your writing more compelling, creative, and interesting? That’s right: verbs.

Verbs allow us to hear and see. They are our senses. Verbs are integral to any writing, and using them is as simple as Schoolhouse Rock professes. They are action, or lack thereof, and how we manipulate them is important. One word can change the whole outlook and approach to a story. Verbs tell the story. In retrospect, it is an obvious solution, but I didn’t believe it could be that easy until I played around with verbs…and ah-ha!

Consider the sentence: He took the box to the car. The sentence gets you there but not in style.

The verb, the action, in this sentence is “took,” which is the past tense of the word “take.” Often action is seen as immediate, but the past tense is the most common tense used in writing whether that is a novel, magazine, or a news story. Past tense does not negate a reader’s experience in the present. Now change one word: the verb. This is what you get:

He dragged the box to the car.

He pushed the box to the car.

He rolled the box to the car.

He pulled the box

He hefted the box

He carried the box

He lugged the box

He hauled

He hoisted

He moved

Each verb changes the meaning of the sentence and enhances the story. “Drag” and “push” suggests that the box is heavy (is there a dead body in it?) or that the character is weak (is he sick or injured?). Suddenly, the reader has the potential to know more about the story and situation. “Hoist” and “heft” imply circumstances more than “carry” does, but each of those words suggests that the box size is important (is the box lifted by hands or a crane?) or that the character’s physical strength (is he struggling or showing off his muscles?) is integral to the story. The reader becomes more intrigued about the contents of the box and the overall situation. “Move” suggests that the box was in one location (is it hidden in a bedroom?) and has to be in a new place (why and to where?). Now the reader is enticed into the plot and the character’s circumstances.

Now the writer has the opportunity to delve deeper into the overall experience to entertain readers. Consider the sentences above that evolved from changing the word “took” to a more specific and situational verb:

He dragged the box across the gravel towards the station wagon, but it was a long driveway.


He carried the blue box in his suit pocket because it had to be a surprise, and she was already waiting in the car.


He swayed and stumbled with the box on his shoulders, hoping it would fit in the trunk of his beat-up Ford Mustang.


The box had to be moved–now!–so he whipped it up in his arms and dashed outside to the only place he could think of: Jesse’s car.


He placed the brown moving box lightly on the dolly, but he did not see the Fragile This Side Up sticker until he rolled the dolly to the car.


Flip, flop, end over end, Smithy spent ten minutes pushing the empty refrigerator box to the far end of the dump where the rusty motorcycle and broken dresser were already stacked.


All that magic occurred from one changed word. What magic can you create? Ah-ha!

Soft, Hard, Harder

When you think romance novel, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Sex, right?

Now don’t get distracted visualizing.

As the title suggests, sex scenes come in different levels. They can even lean toward a softer side, the more graphic content eliminated. Each has their place in the pages you write. So let’s look at intensity, and what you might bring to your manuscripts; which I’ve learned from reading romance, research and (brows bouncing) experience.

Most writers have a preference and style to their sex scenes, depending on their genre. When I first started reading romance novels my go to author was Nora Roberts. If you’re a fan, she has a way of making us care about characters quickly and deeply. When her stories progress and hero and heroine are intimate, Ms. Roberts blankets us in a warmth, a caress, or a look using words that elude to what’s happening as main characters wrap themselves in each other. She skips over minute details that would be too graphic. Obviously, you know there’s nudity at some point, but she presents it in a way your grandmother who gets offended by a Victoria’s Secret commercials wouldn’t have a heart attack if she read the scene. On the other hand, she sometimes ramps up the intensity depending on the characters nature.

In Lori Foster’s, Men Who Walk the Edge of Honor series, scenes are a little steamier. The alpha males are intense in physique, mannerisms, and sexuality. Foster’s novels add descriptive instances adding more depth in sex scenes, baring more skin and, more heat than a PG-13 movie. When writing a sex scene use adverbs with more grit and aggression to get up close and personal with the sexy action verbs. This allows readers imaginations to overtake them making a cold shower or a romp with a significant other sound like a good idea. Be careful though, you don’t want to overuse adverbs. If you read any of the romance novels or series I’ve mentioned, in this or previous blogs, you’ll notice that the authors I’ve referenced use adverbs as little as possible. You want to show not tell. Look at this sentence. “Jacob was wildly out of control, as he took Charlotte.” Instead, omit “wildly” and describe what’s happening. “Jake was out of control. With no thought of time or place, he ripped open Charlotte’s shirt and pressed fully against her, desperate to feel her heated skin. His fingers wove through her hair and held tight as he yanked her head back and devoured her lips like he would go mad if he didn’t have her.” I think you can see how using just the word, wildly limits your creativity.

The next stop on the sexy train is Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Most romance readers know what I’m talking about, even the common lay person. Erotic romance novels like this have been taboo a long time and for good reason. Words on the page are stronger, harsher and can be offensive to readers who aren’t used to the subject matter. Some instances delve into BDSM and D/s (Dominance and submission). The details are so specific there’s nothing left to the readers imagination or in the least are so taboo they make readers uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the draw to the genre increases. Due to the stir that Fifty Shades caused, publishing houses are creating PG-13 covers drawing in broader spectrums of readers that won’t fear reading the hard core romance novel at their local Starbucks or in a doctor’s waiting room.

If we delve a little deeper into the examples above and look at the plethora of other romance novels out there, the sex scene is character driven; not solely on the page for sex’s sake. If you write an insipid man your female lead doesn’t enjoy being with, do you make the male character strong and commanding in the bedroom or a plain old missionary style man that she compares to a wet noodle? Pair violence with sex plus your main character, a scene becomes a catalyst vital to a protagonist’s character. The reader has to understand what kind of man is infringing on your heroines well being. The HEA (happily ever after) the reader expects has been turned upside down, creating conflict that tears at your heart and leaves readers wondering if the hero will scale the highest mountain to reach his soul mate, even if that mountain is an emotional jungle that resides in the heroines mind.

Your sex scenes are about the story you’re trying build. Use sex as an integral part moving the story forward. If you want to be soft, hard, or harder, if you need to express characters intensions, pick your words carefully. Ignore limits. Don’t be afraid to write what’s taboo either. If you’ve never written a sex scene, the first time is always the most nerve wracking.

On my website, Writers Canvas on May 10, I’ll introduce you to Jacob and Charlotte, so you can see how they meet. On May 17, 24th, and 31st I’ll show you the different levels of sexual content using Jake and Charlotte as their relationship grows. In the meantime, you can see why I feel, that just because something is classified erotica doesn’t mean it’s all about the sex, in my August 4th, 2013 entry.

Happy Writing!

Read, Read, Read

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

~Stephen King

I met a young man in a critique group who had an excellent premise for his novel. I asked him if he read anything in that genre. His unflinching reply, “Oh, I don’t read books.”


Good writers read and write a lot. Inspiration can come from various sources, not just their own genre. As a memoir and fiction writer, I’ve read a number of books that have helped me improve my creative skills. Some books I’ve kept in my do-not-lend collection.

The Cry and the Covenant, the historical fiction by Morton Thompson, chronicles a doctor’s efforts in preventing women from dying of childbed fever. As a teaching physician at a hospital, he insisted that his students and colleagues wash their hands after working on a cadaver and before helping a woman deliver her baby. This was before widespread acceptance of germ theory and his colleagues resisted his efforts. Women continued to die. Thompson’s description of the ignorance of the medical staff and the doctor’s frustration was powerful.

I reread Lynn S. Hightower’s Flashpoint to study her writing style and because I enjoyed the fact that a female serial killer was quite intriguing and believable. Hightower is excellent in this genre.

Charles Pellegrino’s Dust is a terrifying tale of a worldwide biological chain of events that threatens the survival of mankind. Since reading that book, I haven’t met a dust bunny I didn’t try to kill.

Phantom by Susan Kay is a powerful prequel to The Phantom of the Opera. Each chapter is told from the point of view of the person with whom the phantom comes in contact, beginning with his mother who recoiled at the sight of her disfigured newborn. This book demonstrates strong character development.

The World’s Love Poetry, edited by Michael Rheta Martin, contains more than 500 poems – lyrical, bawdy, tragic, beautiful, and moving – from centuries ago to modern times.

The Stovepipe by Bonnie E. Virag is an emotionally moving memoir of a young girl’s struggle and survival after she and her many siblings were taken from their home and put in foster care. The book ends with “After Thoughts,” a touching recap of her family members’ whereabouts.

I’ve enjoyed rereading the adventures and viewing the awesome pictures of the travels of Kwang and Kook-Wha Koh in their book, Hopping Seven Continents, Maybe one day I can go to some of the places they’ve been.

The young man I mentioned did self-publish his book, but the story wasn’t fully developed or well-written. No surprise there. He should have read more books.

What are you reading?

Drawing Readers into the 1st Page

The 1st page, the 1st paragraph, the 1st words can determine whether the author hooks a reader to share the storytelling journey, or if the book gets returned to the shelf for another author. There is so much competition for a reader’s attention, whether on first entering a bookstore or viewing the first page of a virtual store.

B&N |Amazon |Abesbooks |Good Reads


John Jakes, a prolific writer, said that in the 1st page of a story, the author should introduce a main character, the setting, and a conflict. These are the key elements for engaging a reader towards investing time in a good story. Let’s look at the opening of one of his classic novels, North and South:

“THE LAD SHOULD TAKE my name,” Windom said after supper. “It’s long past time.”

It was a sore point with him, one he usually raised when he’d been drinking. By the small fire, the boy’s mother closed the Bible on her knees.

Bess Windom had been reading to herself as she did every evening. From watching her lips move, the boy could observe her slow progress. When Windom blurted his remark, Bess had been savoring her favorite verse in the fifth chapter of Matthew: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The boy, Joseph Moffat, sat with his back against a corner of the chimney, whittling a little boat. He was twelve, with his mother’s stocky build, broad shoulders, light brown hair, and eyes so pale blue they seemed colorless sometimes.”[i]

The opening words are infused with tension, coming from a very flawed character. His wife’s non-verbal reaction messages that the demand is not well received, and a sore topic. The pages that follow portrays an abusive family, from which Joseph Moffat dreams of escaping, yet held back with the helpless desire to protect his mother from an alcoholic step-dad. In the end, the boy gains his freedom, but at a high cost. And that’s just the prologue.

Engaging openings draw the reader into the story. You feel connected to a character and their immediate situation, such as Joseph Moffat. The initial conflict might not be THE conflict, but there’s enough tension to promise more if the reader continues to turn pages. Other times, the opening scene may be an accident in slow motion—metaphorically. The reader might not identify with the characters just yet, but the situation is something we cannot look away from, no matter how uncomfortable one might become. Ernest Hemingway masterfully creates such a scene in the first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea. Here’s just the first half of the 1st paragraph:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.”[ii]

Here’s a man so down on his luck that he’s lost credibility in his profession. Hemingway, following the same concept as John Jakes, introduces the Old Man, the title character, the setting, and THE conflict of the story in the first couple of paragraphs. Life is so hard for the old man that the boy–his former apprentice who is now learning from another–buys him a beer. With tight writing, which is a topic for a different article, Hemingway draws in the reader to view someone worse off than themselves. The old man’s stoic kindness and the boy’s devotion to him keeps us reading, and wondering, “things have got to get better, right?” Yet the rest of the story takes us deeper into experiencing the old man’s sacrifices, struggles, and loss that becomes a form of victory and vindication. But the key is the opening lines about a slow motion car wreck that we just can’t stop watching with the opening page.

Another approach is to open a story in the middle of the action. This entry has the advantage of immersing the reader into the chaos of an immediate conflict. Thrown into the deep waters of action, most often violence, the intent is to build instant momentum. Matthew Reilly is a master of this style. I credit him with establishing the genre of high octane storytelling, where there are no pauses where a character can become introspective, or an author can philosophize. The story is go, Go, GO! Conflict IS the story. One example comes from Scarecrow Returns:

“THE PLANE hurtled down the airstrip, chased by furious machine-gun fire, before it lifted off with a stomach-lurching swoop and soared out over the vast expanse of Arctic sea ice that stretched away to the north.

The plane’s pilot, a 60-year-old scientist named Dr. Vasily Ivanov, knew he wouldn’t get far. As he’d lifted off, he’d seen two Strela-1 anti-aircraft vehicles—amphibious jeep-like vehicles that were each mounted with four 9M31 surface-to-air missiles—speeding down the runway behind him, about to take up firing positions.

He had perhaps thirty seconds before they blasted him out of the sky.”[iii]

While the reader is drawn into the conflict, Reilly follows the theme of introducing a main character,[iv] providing scene context, and a conflict—death is 30 seconds away. The reader needs the three elements to anchor themselves within the chaos. We identify with his desire to escape, and wonder at his fatalistic belief—remember the slow motion car crash strategy. The conflict is intense—machine-gun fire, plane pulling Gs on take-off, and surface-to-air missiles moving into range. If this is the opening, how will the rest of the story continue to climb? Reilly meets this challenge, where other writers fail. They lead with an explosion, and then leave the reader coughing through the smoke of the rest of the story. Few will take that journey.

Good non-fiction starts with a strong opening. Authors, like Chip and Dan Heath, use their opening to illustrate the focus of the book. The focus would be similar to the plot. Here’s the opening to their major book, Switch. What do you think their focus is about?:

“One Saturday in 2000, some unsuspecting moviegoers showed up at a suburban theater in Chicago to catch a 1:05 p.m. matinee of Mel Gibson’s action flick Payback. They were handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn and were asked to stick around after the movie to answer a few questions about the concession stand. These movie fans were unwitting participants in a study of irrational eating behavior. There was something unusual about the popcorn they received.

It was wretched. In fact, it had been carefully engineered to be wretched. It had been popped five days earlier and was so stale that it squeaked when you ate it. One moviegoer later compared it to Styrofoam packing peanuts, and two others, forgetting that they’d received the popcorn for free, demanded their money back.”[v]

The Heath brothers open with a social experiment that draws in readers with a story about a scene that most of us have experienced—eating popcorn at a movie theater. They turn the experience on it’s head by offering free popcorn that’s “wretched” in various sizes. Regardless if the study participants got a medium, large, or extra large tub, of the 5 day old popcorn, they ate all of it. From there the book lays out an elaborate argument about the difficulty for people to change, and how to go about succeeding in changing mindsets. What’s important here is that the opening paragraphs suck in readers, who before they realize it, are 3-4 chapters into a book about complex ideas—and they’re invested.

Characters, scene, conflict: starting with the 1st words, all three elements are present in the first paragraph, of the first page of most books that succeed in drawing in readers. Now once you have them, the next challenge is keeping them. How that works is another tale to be told. But as readers, you already know what those might be…


[i] Jakes, John (2013-05-21). The North and South Trilogy: North and South, Love and War, and Heaven and Hell (Kindle Locations 204-211). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Hemingway, Ernest (2002-07-25). The Old Man and the Sea (p. 3). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Reilly, Matthew (2012-01-03). Scarecrow Returns (Kindle Locations 256-262). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Actually, Dr. Vasily Ivanov dies five pages later. He’s not the main character of the story. That would be Scarecrow. But Dr. Vasily is the key character of the prologue. All of the elements that John Jakes discussed are present to draw and satisfy readers.

[v] Heath, Chip; Heath, Dan (2010-02-10). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (p. 1). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.