If Walls Could Talk: Ten Reasons to Listen to The Raconteur Roundtable

M.H. Norris

Did you get a chance to listen to James, Ben, and I on the first episode of the Raconteur Roundtable yesterday?

If not, don’t worry, I’ve got a link for you right here!

And in case you haven’t, here’s 10 reasons to.

1) James keeps a running commentary on my wardrobe

And it annoys me to no end. Make sure you listen each week to hear what color pants I’m wearing. Don’t ask me why it became a thing. It just did.

2) I remind the world what the fox says

So, in my defense, James tricked me into this. You’ll hear it in the second or third episode in the next few weeks because of course that had to be the blooper of the week.

But I wasn’t paying attention to him, rather to the fact that my computer was refusing to play the Kentucky game that day (Go Cats!) and I wanted my game because I was trying to multitask and then he got it on recording.

And a little of me yelling at my computer wanting my game to play.

3) Our Ace talks to the real Ace

Easily one of the most fun things I’ve had the privilege of seeing over the last year is Nicole Petit meet Sophie Aldred. Then, when we managed to secure her on the podcast, both of us were excited.

And honestly, it’s a fantastic interview. We talk about Strangeness in Space & Doctor Who, Sophie gushes about her kids, and we learn a few fun facts that I was surprised to learn about.

But I’m not going to spoil that…

4) Ben designs a unique jingle

I don’t remember how it happened. I don’t remember what started it. All I know is Ben started making up an odd jingle with James’ last name.

And James managed to get most of it recorded. So you hear Ben carrying on, me laughing so hard I can barely breath, and at the end, James can’t help but laugh too.

It’s on the episode that released yesterday.

This also gave birth to my personal favorite part of the new show, the post-show blooper reel..

So, if you listened but didn’t go all the way to the end, you’re missing out.

5) THE RACCOONTEUR

ISN’T SHE JUST ABSOLUTELY PERFECT!!!

When we came out with the idea of The Raconteur Roundtable as a title, Ben made some little comment about how our mascot should be a raccoon.

So meet, The Raccoonteur.

I LOVE HER SO MUCH

6) The show is live and raw

Coming up, there’s an interview in which what would normally be considered a blooper is actually right smack in the middle of the show. We got talking about the Joshua Wanisko’s story and he revealed the secret behind an Easter Egg.

It made me so happy I started to laugh and then cry.

And then, within two minutes (while I was still trying to recover from the above incident) James said something that had me snorting tea out of my nose.

That was a great day in the land of professionalism for M.H. Norris.

7) Fantastic Guests (Whose Books I Saw in a Bookstore Last Tuesday)

We kicked off with John Ainsworth yesterday and he was an absolute delight to work with. But he’s just the beginning.

We’ve got Jim Beard and Rich Handley.

Jim and I have worked on a couple of projects together and I still can’t remember why I didn’t get to come on for his original TVCU episode but I do remembering being bummed. So it was great to talk with him about his newest project Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone.

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like seeing a book in a bookstore and you know the person who wrote it.

Great feeling.

We’ve got the one and only Sophie Aldred, We’re going to be talking with Andrew Cartmel down the road. Have you read his mystery “The Viynl Dectective”? The sequel comes out next month and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

8) Outtakes

The single greatest bonus feature any show can have.

It’s now become a challenge to see who can accidentally create the best outtake for the end of show one. There have been times one has happened and we’ve all been like “that’s the one.”

Other times, we have plenty of options.

Enjoy making fun of us but don’t feel bad because we’ve made fun of us too.

9) You never know what state we’re all in

Here’s your Raconteur Roundtable fun fact (well one of many since I’ve been telling some of our secrets in this post). We have yet to record an entire episode while all being in the same place.

With Sophie, for example, Nicole comes on to guest host and we were in four different states with Sophie being in another country.

Someday, we’ll record together. Though I’m not sure we will know what to do when that happens.

10) Fun discussions each episode

We’ve added a new segment to the episodes. Now you get a fun discussion segment where we discuss something for 10 minutes or so.

Next week’s discussion is fun. I gush about something and I’m sure the discussion will come up again some other time.

But week to week, we’ll cover various things that may or may not be related to the interview in the episode itself.

So you never know what you’re going to get when you tune in week to week.

We look forward to seeing you at the Roundtable.

If Walls Could Talk: Remembrance of the…M.H. Norris

M.H. Norris

On my Facebook timeline, the last week or so, I’ve had some fun “On This Day” things show up. For example, two years ago today, I was at my first Comic Con. Two years ago yesterday, I met David Tennant. Two years ago last week, I got to announce that Notches was coming soon. Two years ago later this month, it was released.

So it was three years ago right now that I was writing my first book, “Badge City: Notches.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s been that long and sometimes it doesn’t feel like quite that long.

So how did I go from the initial concept at the end of January 2014 to turning in the manuscript on May 1 of the same year?

Somedays I’m trying to remember how I pulled that off. That and that ending… I would love to know how I did that and do it again but I don’t think I’m going to get that lucky.

As I sit here and write this, I’m watching an old episode of Criminal Minds. If memory serves, this was in it’s ninth or tenth season when I was writing Notches and I watched them all while writing it. There’s some things tucked in there that James noticed that I didn’t at the time because I wrote it while watching this show.

One of my favorite things to do after watching a show (especially one that’s run at least five seasons) is to watch the pilot after having watched the show and see how far characters have come.

What goes into a story?

No seriously.

I sit here week after week covering bits and pieces and whatever musings come to mind. But sometimes I even have to be reminded myself of what makes up a story.

Characters, plots and subplots, beginnings, middles, and ends.

Facebook has been reminding me the last few weeks of first experiences for me. It’s hard to believe that years ago some of this stuff I take for granted knowing I had to learn. And isn’t that the joy of this profession we all love?

We’re always learning. Whether it’s research for the next book or something for a new character or just because we went on a rabbit trail because an idea popped into our heads and we honestly don’t know if it’s even going to make the cut or not.

Because I’ve been there and done that.

So what have I been doing this week with my writing?

I’ve started a couple of projects, begun to outline a third and got edits back from yet another. And I’ve seen all sorts of posts from myself, from friends and family, all showing me days of auld lang syne.

Though seriously past Mary Helen, if you want to let me know how you managed to write the climax of Notches, I’d love some insight.

I’ve written tons of posts gushing about how fun the beginnings of stories are. That stage where they’re just an idea and you haven’t tried to write a whole lot of it yet and there’s all sorts of “well what ifs” floating around.

But it’s also hard. That’s the first thing people see and it’s one thing to write the first scene. It’s another to write the second.

The first scene is where you write a hook. What’s going to be on the first page when people catch the summary on Amazon and judge the entire book based on it (yes, I’ve done it).

But the second and third scene (the rest of the first chapter really) is where you win over the ones who give you a chance.

Because I’ve also been the one to sit a book down before the end of the first chapter because the first page might have been good but it went downhill from there.

That’s one thing I struggle with in my writing. I feel like with every project that goes by, with every story that comes out I raise the bar on myself a little higher and then higher still.

How it feels.

That’s not to say that as writers we shouldn’t set the bar high for ourselves, but we truly are our own worst critics.

So, this week, these walls are feeling nostalgic and they’re looking at how high the bar is set for these upcoming projects.

Guess it’s time for me to swing high.

If Walls Could Talk: Random Word Syndrome – Editing

M. H. Norris

M.H. is mired in editing and excitement this week; James’ fill-in post was delayed by light food poisoning and two missed buses. Thus 18thWall Productions is proud to present, an article from the M.H. Norris archives. Back in the innocent days of 2014, M.H. had another, earlier blog on another, earlier 18thWall blog. It’s now lost to the sands of the internet–but now, from time to time, we’ll be presenting the best of her past thoughts, former emotions, and long-lost points. This week, we’ve taken a TARDIS ride back to April 4th, 2014.

Editing is as much fun as smashing your head against a table.

Those pages you thought were inspired are now covered with ink in the color of your choice (I tend to use pink or purple instead of the usual red). Now you are staring at a draft, finished (or mostly finished in my case, I still have a chapter left), you wonder, what do I do now?

“An Old Charming Book” (Image via Flickr user Wader)

The simple answer?

You keep writing.

But just saying that will leave me with a really short blog post. So let’s expand upon that.

There are several things you run into when editing through a novel.

The first, and the most fun of the things you’ll encounter, is a snapshot of sorts. You’ll get a snapshot in print of the last few months of your life. You’ll see the late nights, the sneaky writing sessions when you should have been in a lecture, that day off where you wrote for twelve hours straight. Even there at the end when you had that last push and hit the last few chapters. All of that is there, hidden in the pages.

Now for the other, difficult things.

One thing you’ll find…I like to call it the Random Word Syndrome. This usually is a word at the end of the sentence that is nowhere close to where you were going with your thought. Usually, the reason these words pop up is because you were multi-tasking when you were writing. Whether that be a conversation on Facebook or watching something on TV, these words tend to slip in.

Granted, sometimes, you can catch them when you do them and as a result, you won’t see them during the fun process that is editing. But then, there are the times where you just don’t catch them fast enough. And then you read said portions at your writing group. But hey, we all had a great laugh.

And in this field, you really have to learn to laugh at yourself.

Moving on…

Another thing you’ll find are inconsistencies. Usually, these are an accident. Usually, these remind you why TV shows have a person whose job is to make sure that inconsistencies die before they’re born. But they do happen.

Don’t let them bother you.

They happen for several reasons. One, you change something in the novel, add a plot point, or insert a detail that seems relatively minor at the time—but then you have to use it again. For example, I named someone, used the name once and later on, had to name them again and I accidentally renamed them.

Another is changing details, like the timeline, which can throw off earlier events. This usually happens when you decide to be cool and add authenticity by trying to make it fit into the actual calendar (which was rude and refused to match with what was in your head).

That can be fixed by sometimes reworking an earlier scene, which can be tricky if you have evidence involved. But that evidence can be reworked into the scene, sometimes in the same form, sometimes in a another. But rework it and hopefully it flows smoother.

One thing you’ll find, however, this one is strictly dependent on if you work the way I do. As I’ve said before, I primarily write in Scrivener. From there, I can export to Word. But, on occasion, somewhere in the transfer of the data, something messes up. The most popular one is it doesn’t like to italicize and instead underlines it.

That’s another easy fix, just a few clicks and your back in business. That said, don’t forget to fix them. If you take your time to make your manuscript look the best it can, it will show.

Editing is a fun process. It’s the necessary evil that every writer needs to face, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.

Another piece of advice that I’ll leave with you is this: find someone to help you edit. Find another set of eyes (they will see something that yours don’t). When you write something, you know what you mean—but that doesn’t mean that that is what you said. By having that other set of eyes, you’ll be able to catch those spots and clean up your novel.

Writing is a process that seems solitary, but when you really get into it, you realize just how much that isn’t the case. You have peer editing (if you go that route and I advise that you do), that extra set of eyes, and when you get a publisher, you have those sets of eyes also looking at it. Add in the people that help you research, write the books you read to do your research, write and produce the shows you watch (and the extremely insane amount of people, time, and effort that it takes to make one of those come to the small screen). Everyone comes together in your novel.

It isn’t as lonely of a world as people think.

If Walls Could La La: Don’t Make La La Land’s Email Mistake

After the surprise twist ending to the Oscars, I asked James how I could write about La La Land in this week’s column. Because after it won, and then didn’t win, Best Film, I wanted to talk about a movie that has quickly slid its way into my top 5 movies of all time.

So we came up with a couple of options, but none of them were really speaking to me. That sounds weird. But when I’m preparing this column week to week, I will reject several ideas because they just don’t feel right. Then, occasionally, I’ll use them a couple of weeks later.

Last night, I found a topic that spoke to me and let me talk a bit about La La Land. So a slight spoiler warning for the movie. Though if you haven’t seen it yet, go Google showtimes and go see it now.

Seriously…

I’ll wait…

Back.

I was scrolling through Facebook last week, when I saw an article about La La Land that made me think about it from an angle that I hadn’t considered. Not when I had watched it through the first time.

Then, the same subject was brought to my attention a second time last night. And when that happens, I often realize there’s a topic for this blog in there somewhere.

Through a large part of the movie, we see Mia writing, producing, and then later performing her one woman show, So Long, Boulder City.

To promote it, she sends an email out to everyone who is everyone in Hollywood. And we see the email in question on her screen for a second. In fact, I’m not the first to hit on this topic and someone else grabbed a screenshot of the email in question. (Despite that, James insisted on making his own, higher-definiton screenshot. Some people.)

There are several problems with this email. First off, if she insists on sending a form letter to advertise her play—instead of taking the time to personalize each response to whoever is getting it. At the very least she needs to BCC them so that everyone doesn’t see everyone else receiving it.

Yes, I know there are times where I’m getting an email along with several other people, but at least the sender BCCs it so that I’m not stuck seeing however many other people are also getting it.

Another problem is in the first line of the email. “Dear Sir/Madam.”

Seriously, she couldn’t take two seconds to customize it. Yes, it would have taken her a lot longer to send all these people an email, but by doing that she would have had a chance to have more people come to her show.

No offense, but if I see an email (or a snail mail letter) that starts with “Dear Sir/Madam,” I will delete it or throw it away.

People want to feel like you took the time to find out who they are.

Even if it’s bad news, like, “I’m sorry but your story isn’t quite what I’m looking for in this anthology,” people appreciate that you took the time to acknowledge that they are a person.

It’s beginning advice that you hear all the time when you look into contacting agents and publishers. It’s one of the first things they’ll say when people ask for advice.

Don’t submit a form letter.

So what can you do?

Every year, Writer’s Digest puts out a Writer’s Market. They do a general one and they also do some specialty editions.

Get it, and look at the options. At least page through it at your local bookstore. Some of these Writer’s Market volumes even provide tips for contacting specific markets and agents. This book does your research for you. Make sure your book is relevant to the agent or publishing house. If you’re trying to go directly to a publisher, make sure they take unsolicited submissions.

That was one of Mia’s problems. She knew all these people where the Who’s Who of Hollywood. But she didn’t know what they all looked for in their submissions. She didn’t do her research, and she paid for it.

Most if not all of those emails ended up either in their spam folders or went straight into the trash.

Because like So Long, Boulder City, your work is very much a labor of love. And it deserves its best chance at making it out into the world.

So do your homework so that you can give it its best shot.

Otherwise, you could end up like the end of La La Land. Think about it—the beginnings of that infamous ending start right in the scene where Mia does not observe the basic rules of professional email.

If Walls Could Talk: Cicero Review

One way a writer grows as a writer is to study stories in their field. In my case, that means I like to get my hands on mysteries. I’ve been reading Andrew Cartmel’s The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax, and I cannot wait for the sequel to come out in a couple of months. Lately, I’ve also read the Richard Castle novels (mainly for the meta aspect, where the novels Castle wrote in the show actually exist), and, of course, with writing a forensic anthropologist myself, I read Kathy Reichs (I’m on her second Temperance Brennan novel).

So when James told me that Big Finish Productions had a murder mystery audio, we both agreed discussing it would make for a fun column.

Let’s get the basic details out of the way before we hit play.

Cicero

  • Written by: David Llewellyn
  • Directed by: Scott Handcock
  • Starring: Samuel Barnett (Marcus Tullius Cicero), George Naylor (Quintus Tullius Cicero), Simon Ludders (Sextus Roscius), Elizabeth Morton (Caecilia Metella), Stephen Critchlow (Etrucius), Youssef Kerkour (Titus Capito). Other parts played by members of the cast.
  • Available Here

The story moves very fast, not wasting time with a lot of setup which is something I appreciate about a mystery. A wealthy landowner has been murdered in the street. His son, Sextus Roscius, is accused of the crime.  Fair enough, I’d look at the son first.

The catch is, Sextus was sixty miles away the night his father was murdered. These days that might not seem very farbut in Rome, 80 A.D., that’s quite a trek.

I love how thorough Cicero and his brother are, even as Roman men, thousands of years before forensics, profiles, or the revolution the Sherlock Holmes stories enacted on investigation. I know when I wrote my story for The Lemon Herberts, I rode the struggle bus trying to figure out how to compensate for the lack of computers in the 1970s. Even then, I still had most of what Cicero lacked.

But that problem didn’t stop the team behind this audio. Cicero follows trails further than I thought possible for that day and age.

I’m trying to be careful not to spoil but so much of this. I think you guys should take a listen to it.

The perk of this being in Ancient Rome is that the forum allows for one of my favorite mystery tropes, the infamous breakdown.

Cicero does it and he brings up this quote. It’s something we can all learn from.

“If we are to accuse a man of murder, there are three questions we must ask. First, and most importantly of all, was the accused at the scene of the crime? Second, did he have the motive to kill? And third, did he have the means?”

1) Was the accused at the scene of the crime?

This was something I struggled with when writing Badge City: Notches. The perk of The Whole Art of Detection was that the murder happened before my investigator came on the scene. It was the only one in the story so that became less of an issue. Ironically so, because the solution depends on killing someone from thousands of miles away. 

The soon to be accused in Notches, on the other hand, was in the middle of a killing spree. Yet they had to maintain appearances at the same time.

Hence why there was a multi-page timeline, detailing where the killer was at any given moment, attempting to keep me sane.

2) Did he have motive?

Motive…

Sigh.

I stand by this being the trickiest aspect.

The thing is, any number of things can cause someone to commit a grievous crime.

What fits this particular crime, and does your criminal have a motive your audience can believe?

3) Did he have means?

This also can be tricky. There are statistics about male and female killers, killers of different ages, and so on.

If someone used an advanced drug, where did they get it? If they threw someone off a roof, do they have the strength to do it?

Can they afford to have someone do it for them?

All good questions. Questions Cicero has answers to, and you need to as well.   

Another question Cicero raises, though less essential for writers in general: “Who benefited?”

These are questions you must ask when you’re solving a mystery.

Who benefited?

It’s another way to ask that important question, “Who had motive?”

Time after time, I’ve mentioned how much I hate having to come up with motive. It’s hard, and tricky, and at times frustrating. But it often makes your mystery. It’s essential, and this understanding of how essential it is serves Circero well.

Cicero reminds me a lot of a mix between The Thin Man and the Sherlock Holmes stories, but set in Ancient Rome around the forums that were their justice system.

So what did I think of Big Finish’s murder mystery?

This audio is just around an hour, and it highlights a lot of what makes a good mystery. It’s quite compressed and moves quickly.

With Cicero, Big Finish takes what could be a several hundred page murder mystery and weaves it into a tale that is just under an hour. Not only is it a solid mystery that kept my attention throughout, it also provides a fun look into Ancient Rome’s justice system.

Cicero is an example of how you don’t need bells and whistles and fluff to have a good story. It is straight to the point, and almost completely business.

And of course, we all know that since it is from Big Finish, it is a wonderfully put together audio.

If you get a chance, pick it up from Big Finish. It’s only $5 for an hour of great entertainment.

If Walls Could Talk: Ode to Annoying Editors

M.H. Norris

Without our editors

I don’t know what writers would do

As much as we won’t admit

They help us, that is true.

But sometimes they spot things

We’d wish they’d just miss

But instead they find holes

That are worse than Swiss

 

So here we writers sit

At our computers without a clue

Staring at red edits

That make us feel rather blue

 

One thing our writers know for sure

Is that our editors make us look good

They constantly remind us

To write as we should

 

But sometimes that involves

Things coming to light

Those wholes of Swiss

Needing a rewrite

 

And as they hand those back

Promising they aren’t a slight

Instead they tell us

They help to make us look bright

 

So here’s my ode to editors

James, keep your ego in check

They may all drive us crazy

But at least our stories aren’t a wreck

 

Okay, I promise I’m done with the dodgy poetry. James issued a challenge and I couldn’t help but accept it and write my little ode to editors.

*takes a bow*

I’ve often said in this column that there are few things that help a writer’s career better than having a good editor.

But they, if they’re doing their jobs correctly, drive you up the wall. Like this week where James noticed a hole (a technicality really) that requires me to spend a bit of time rewriting something.

And the worst part?

He’s right.

It needs to be fixed and as much as I’d love to tell him he’s absolutely wrong, I find myself doing some research to make the necessary change.

This column was made with the idea of me talking about what I’m doing week to week. And this week I’m glaring in the general direction of my editor.

Because he was right.

And my story will be stronger because he was right.

That doesn’t mean I’m any less annoyed.

If Walls Could Talk: A Reporter’s Most Pernicious Questions (And How they Help your Novel)

M.H. Norris

I was thinking the other day. Thinking about writing mysteries, and what it takes to put together one. I think I mentioned that I currently have two bulletin boards full of index cards with various notes for the first full-length Rosella novel.

James and I were at a local college campus, recently, brainstorming for that book when I grabbed a dry erase marker and wrote upon the beloved walls.

(Seriously, I’m fully planning to someday paint a room with that paint when I get my own place, because I find it to be so helpful.)

And on one of the walls I wrote out the questions that are well known to journalists around the globe: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

And at first both James and I stared at the what, and he laughed and said my inner journalist came out. Adding that to the list, when it might not belong as much, was just me trying to use my degree.

But then, I came up with a what and after a round of “told you so” we kept on going.

Back when I was a sophomore in college and considering changing my major, I asked Karen Kingsbury (during one of her Facebook chats) about what she would say to an aspiring author. She gave me some advice and pointed me to an article on her site.

She mentioned that writers should major in journalism. Even if you aren’t publishing books, you’re always writing.

So, I changed my major to journalism.

This past week I realized that the change also helps me as a mystery writer. It all comes back to the big questions on the magic wall: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Who

In a mystery, this is actually a two-fold question. On my bulletin board I have this split into two categories. Under the Who card on my board I mainly focus on the victims.

Who was killed?

How many?

Victimology?

Then there’s also the unsub.

Who did this?

What’s their profile?

What

It’s a case for Rosella, of course. Which means mythology and urban lore are at work in the what.

But it’s also something else~but that would be giving you spoilers. 🙂

It’s a murder, it’s a crime…You get the idea.

Where

Once again, spoilers. 🙂

But, seriously, you have a general idea of where but you have to flesh out more of the specifics. Unlike with Badge City, I’m actually using a real location so I don’t have to map it all out in my head. But you still have to take that into account. Maps, travel times, the local perspective.

When

With Badge City: Notches, I had several pages in a memo pad dedicated to when. I had one page mapping out the timeline, and then I actually drew out lines and marked out 24 hours days and what happened when.

It helps to keep your timing straight. Otherwise, you might get confused and something might happen that shouldn’t actually happen yet.

Also, the when helps your protagonist solve the crime.

When was time of death?

When was the person last seen?

Why

Another way to say my favorite word: Motive.

Why did they do it?

Why those people?

Why then and there?

The thing about mysteries is that you start out with a lot of pieces and the most common question is why.

There’s also, why is this a case for Rosella?

This is the question that is the most important to answer. Why is this case right for your protagonist

How

How did they do it?

Keep in mind, when you’re making an alibi or lack thereof, you need to be able to figure out how they did it. In some cases, it’s how they did it and managed to live their lives at the same time.

What’s the murder weapon?

What’s the cause of death?

These all feed into the how. Sometimes this answer can come from the why.

Last Thoughts

Questions that I had to keep in mind all the time as a journalism major now also play a major role in writing mysteries.

But like writing a news story, I have to find all the answers to the big questions in order to write a good mystery.

And that is truly the trick.

If Walls Could Talk: Letters from Myself

M.H. Norris

I came home from work on Monday to find an odd piece of mail. It was from my Alma Mater but two things made it stand out:

  1. It listed me as Mary Helen Norris. Normally, my Alma Mater refers to me as Mary.
  2. The address was handwritten.

My mom had sat it down because she noticed it as well. Both of us were curious. So, I opened it and took a look at the letter inside and couldn’t help but laugh.

Sometime while in college I wrote a letter to myself that was supposed to be mailed to me at the end of the semester. I guess it got lost somewhere along the way, because it was postmarked a few days ago.

The thing is, I had to have written that at least two–if not three to four–years ago. James and I have bickered about what it says, and where it is in my personal timeline.

But gosh, so much love to long ago. To the M.H. Norris who hadn’t quite become the mystery maven and sci-fi sorceress you’ve come to known and love.

And yes, I know y’all are dying to know what the letter said. But I’m not going to share it. Partially because it’s between the days long past and the ones that hadn’t come yet, and partly because it made me realize something.

Though honestly, it’s something I’ve known, I just got a reminder in the form of a letter from my younger self.

Things can change drastically in a seemingly short amount of time. The Mary Helen who wrote that letter didn’t have a book out (nor second, with both receiving awards), she wasn’t on a podcast, and she had maybe (depending on when it was written and I honestly don’t remember writing it) just been introduced to Doctor Who.

James loves to tease me about how my writing was when we first met, and how I’ve grown so much as a writer since then. Even book-to-book I feel like I do a bit of growth as I learn more about me and my writing process.

I’m tempted to write another letter to myself and leave it somewhere to open in a few years. I wonder where I’ll be then?

In the letter, I talk about a couple of projects that I have either left or sat to the side. In the letter I see that I’ve grown a bit as a person and a writer since I wrote that message.

There’s my advice for you today.

I met someone once who writes but I honestly wonder if they’ll ever make it anywhere with their craft. I know, that sound so harsh but it’s the truth.

Why do I think that?

Because they aren’t willing to learn and grow in the craft of writing. They think, because they’ve done it for a number of years, that they are a good writer, and that people will enjoy their stuff, and that I didn’t understand whenever I suggested changes or offered critiques.

And the sad thing is, they had talent and potential there.

So here’s my advice to you today, dear readers of this column. As writers, we will never stop learning. We will always be learning and growing in our craft.

You have to/ You can’t settle for anything less than your best and it can (and should) grow and change.

Every so often I find a couple of notebooks I know are hiding in my room. They contain short stories that I wrote ages ago. When I do come across them, and read them, I can’t help but shake my head and laugh at the antics of my younger self.

You wouldn’t recognize the writing style of a young M.H. Norris. Honestly, you might not even recognize my writing style from 2010.

Trust me when I say that that’s a good thing.

Before I sign off this week, let me say this one more time in case you’ve just been skimming: Do not hit a point in your writing where you think you cannot improve.

Because growing as a writer is half the fun.

If Walls Could Talk: Writing Series Characters

M.H. Norris

Curating the All the Petty Myths anthology has been a unique experience. Along with getting some fun stories that I can’t wait to share with you all, and yes I promise we’ll be sharing them soon, I got to set together a project that’s been in the works for a number of years.

I’ve also gotten to do something that, as I writer, I haven’t really tried yet.

When I started developing Midnight, I honestly didn’t think Rosella’s story would develop the way it did. I thought it would be one of those projects I did because it was an idea I’d had for years, and then I would move on to the next project.

But somewhere in the process, James and I realized that Dr. Rosella Tassoni had the potential to carry her own series. As you all know, about six months or so ago, I announced that the anthology will feature the first story in her series.

I was talking with someone. They asked me how my writing was going. I mentioned that we are putting the finishing touches on my next story, then they asked me an interesting question I’m not sure I’ve been asked before.

“Do you get involved in the story?”

As a writer, I feel to an extent you almost have to. There have been times I’m writing, and the scene takes a turn from what I was thinking, and goes its own direction because that’s what the character wants to do.

I also mentioned, that since Rosella is a series character, I have to get inside her head more than other characters. Because the more and more we get into the story, the more I need to know to carry her longer into the series. There is nothing worse for a series of fiction than a character who is flat and doesn’t grow.

In fact, as I finish Midnight, I’m beginning to draft her first full-length novel and that’s something I’m having to address. For both you, as readers, and me, as a writer, her story in the upcoming anthology was a chance for us to get to know her and who she is.

Now though, I have to take the information and the events of that story and go, “What now?”

That leads to something else I absolutely hate but see all too often in stories. A character goes through this story, and then proceeds to act as if nothing has happened and nothing has changed.

No.

Just as we as people are shaped by circumstances and events in our lives, so are our characters.

Let me give you two examples.

We’ll start with TNT’s recently-renewed The Librarians. As most of you may know, the show just finished its third season and it was announced yesterday that they are getting a fourth season. But before the show, there were three TV movies feature Flynn Carson played by Noah Wyle.

For the first season, Flynn is in less than half the episodes; in the second, he’s in a few more; this past season he’s in seven out of ten.

There’s an episode near the end of this last season where Flynn has someone point out to him just how much he’s grown and changed since that first movie. He’s done a fair bit of growing over the last few seasons thanks to his new friends and co-workers.

We meet a young Flynn Carson in The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, the first movie, who seems perfectly content to continue to be a professional student for the rest of his life (anyone else who watched the movies ever wonder just what his student loan debt looked like, what with the number of degrees he had?). The Flynn we meet has no knowledge of the real world that isn’t found in a class.

So when he gets a mysterious invitation to a job interview at the Metropolitan Library, he takes it. He becomes The Librarian and learns that there is so much more to the world than what is found in his classes.

Flynn is easily one of my favorite fictional characters, joining the ranks of the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith, and Chuck.

Now, Flynn’s hyper-intelligence has been smoothed out a little and, thanks to the new Librarians (long story), he finally has a team to work with and people who can match his wit (and keep him in his place because he need that).

The Librarians did something interesting here with Flynn’s character. They spent three TV movies establishing him as a unique hero who was often the thin line between evil spilling out into the world and the balance being maintained.

Then, in the course of the pilot, Flynn is presented with a handful of other people who can do it alongside him. He went from being one Librarian to one of many. You see a bit of a crises there. Using hints he’s dropped, especially in his limited appearances in the first season, we know he’s been The Librarian for a little over a decade and a lot has happened in that time.

If there’s one way to develop a character, it’s to turn their world upside down. That’s why the starting point the show chose worked so well for them.

That was something I faced with Rosella. In fact, her circumstances and her starting point changed several times over the course of the initial drafts of Midnight. I had to keep asking myself why am I starting here.

Why am I starting here and where am I going? How is she going to take it and how is it going to shape and grow her character?

Shawn Spencer, from Psych, is another character whose growth helped carry the show. It’s funny to watch the first season and then the last and see how much he changed. Yes, Shawn is the same person, and that’s not questioned, but he does grow up over the course of 8 seasons.

We meet a Shawn Spencer who has not owned up to responsibility. He’s had 27 jobs in the space of about 10 years and has moved all over world in that time. He gets into the whole psychic thing because he’s backed into a corner and it’s the easiest way out.

I think the Shawn Spencer who we said goodbye to in the finale laughs a little when he thinks back to those days. While he is still childish and immature, this is a Shawn who has stayed in one place for the better part of a decade, found something he actually enjoys, and has done a little growing up.

Shawn is one of my favorite examples of a character growing up because he proves the point that while a person can remain intrinsically the same, they can change quite a bit too. While Season 8 Shawn probably cringes and then laughs a bit at the antics of his Season 1 self, Season 1 Shawn would probably not believe you if you told him what he’d be like in just a few short years.

We went from a man who saw responsibility as a dirty word to one who took it on willingly.

But another thing to note about Shawn’s character is his relationship with his father. We piece together what happened throughout the course of the show. Sometime in Shawn’s senior year of high school his own father arrested him for stealing a car to impress a girl.

That caused Shawn and his father to become estranged and they would remain that way for the better part of the decade between that point and the beginning of the show. Even once the show began it would take a while for the two to cease hostilities and even longer to have something that resembles a functional relationship.

But repairing that relationship helps both characters grow and develop.

Transforming Rosella from a one-off character to a series character made me question who we would see again, and who is only going to appear in this one story; her relationships with the people around her needed solidified, or changed. That’s something I can play with as time goes on and I already have some plans regarding it.

Another fun one to take a look at is Sarah Jane Smith, especially because you she develops radically over time. Her first serial, The Time Warrior, lets us meet a 22-year-old Sarah Jane Smith whose spunk, persistence to get to the heart of a matter (because, after all, she is a journalist), and her insane amount of pure dumb luck make her a character you quickly fall in love with.

35 years later, at the beginning of The Sarah Jane Adventures, we find a vastly different but essentially the same, Sarah Jane. This older woman is someone who was forever changed by her time with the Doctor. We know from her appearance in “School Reunion” that the years weren’t always great to her—and that for quite a while she didn’t know how to handle life on her own.

But even between “School Reunion” and The Sarah Jane Adventures we see a change. It’s as if her brief time with David Tennant’s Doctor allowed her to find the girl the world fell in love with in The Time Warrior again and to go out and do what she does best once more.

For those of you who read The Whole Art of Detection you found your first look at Rosella. I found it amusing to spend some time writing a Rosella who’s a bit older than the one in Midnight. She wandered into that story a bit by accident but it was something that fit rather well and I couldn’t resist.

But there is also a reason I kept her appearances to a minimum—and, besides what was relevant to the plot, you don’t find out a whole lot about her. Some of it is because I haven’t certain decisions yet. Some of it is to surprise you.

Sarah Jane Smith is a character we see for most of her life, her story left hanging when her actress, Elisabeth Sladen, passed away, with the simple words “and the story goes on…forever.”

The BBC does a good job at growing her character through her time with The Doctor, her reappearance in the twenty-fifth Anniversary special, her Big Finish spin-off, and then on to New Who. Sarah Jane is an excellent character to study when looking at developing a character through stages of their life.

Follow me for a second.

Most book and television series only show a character over the course of a few years, but with Sarah Jane we are able to see her grow and develop over the course of decades. From the young journalist who assumes her aunt’s identity to get a story, to the older woman who is still using the title of journalists to hunt down alien activity on Earth and continue to protect it.

Sarah Jane came in the feminist movements of the 1970s, when the BBC decided they need a new third Doctor female companion who didn’t fawn over the Doctor and go “yes Doctor” or “of course Doctor,” returning to the style of companion featured in the first and second Doctors’ eras. In fact, Sarah Jane would spend most of her first serial distrusting him. Sarah Jane was, and is, a fiercely independent person.

We see this in the beginning of The Sarah Jane Adventures when she fights tooth and nail against the kids who are offering to help her.

Thinking about it, it’s kinda heartbreaking that Sarah Jane spends so much of her life alone. Sure, until 1999 she has her Aunt Lavinia but she doesn’t know about the Doctor and how it completely changed how Sarah Jane sees the world.

She had nobody and thought that the one person who would understand died soon after he dropped her off..

Sarah Jane is a character I’ll look at later on when I’m getting further and further along in a series. Because her story lasted for decades and still goes on…

So what separates a good series from a great one?

It’s the characters. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here now as I wrap up. People come for the premise and they stay for the characters. And that’s the challenge I find myself facing now. Making sure Rosella is someone people are willing to stick with for a while.

If Walls Could Talk: Research and Rabbit Trails

M.H. Norris

The internet can be a writer’s best friend, especially when it comes to research. But it can also quickly become a writer’s worst nightmare.

It’s no secret that often times I’ll wander off on a rabbit trail here as I make my way to whatever point I happen to have that day. Maybe occasionally I have a reason for wandering off on said rabbit trail…

Yeah, I do it a lot. Here in my weekly column, in discussions I have with people, and when I do research, too.

There was a time with Badge City: Notches where I hadn’t quite decided how it was going to end. Actually, if you go and look on what I submitted to Pro Se vs. how the book actually ended,  they’re a little different. The whodunit didn’t change, but I had a scene in my head that I was tempted to write.

But to write it, I had to do some significant research.

This was a two day researching session going on websites, blogs, and going over the chapter in one of my books I was reading.

Part of the reason I spent time on this scene was I felt like I needed to justify a decision I’d been thinking about. I felt like I could justify after that research.

But then, after spending two days on research I later decided to ditch that whole scene. I probably would have done it earlier than I did if it weren’t for that fact that I was being butt-stubborn.

So in the end, that ended up being something I left unsaid,  and something I considered addressing later.

Later won’t come.

But maybe sometime someone will ask me about it, or stumble across this post and ask me what that two day research session was about and what I left unsaid…

Yesterday, news broke on a slightly-related topic to my two-day research session and I ended up spending two hours looking up the case, the development in it that got me started on that rabbit trail just going over it in a sense.

So my research rabbit trail caused a rabbit trail of its own…

That’s my problem with research. I find something I find fascinating and then I end up spending way more time than I should working on that–instead of what I should be researching.

That’s why I said the internet can be a writer’s best friend or their worst enemy. The sheer amount of information out there can be overwhelming and trying to sort out what is useful to you and what isn’t is a full time job.

That, and the act of having to research a novel can be overwhelming. Which is why it sometimes takes me a while to slide into that stage of writing a book.

With Notches, I had pages upon pages of notes. Yet I was still going to Google while writing the story. I had articles printed out, statistics memorized, and a story in mind. But, sometimes, I still needed more.

Research lays the foundation for the rest of the story.

The trick is making sure you don’t let yourself get but so distracted when laying that foundation.