Using Props in Fiction: AuthorToolBox

It’s time again for my contribution to this month’s #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop where dozens of writers share their writing experiences.  You can check out their thoughts by clicking on the icon at the end of my post.  This month I discuss the use of props in my soon-to-be-released murder mystery.

At the River's Edge Vehicles

What do a 1950 Ford pickup and a ragtop Jeep have to do with writing?

Just as movies and plays use props to provide dramatic interest and depth to characters and scenes, so do novels. A prop is anything movable or portable on a stage or set, distinct from the actors, scenery, and costumes. I use a Ford pickup and a Jeep as props in my upcoming murder mystery, At the River’s Edge.

James Wolsey is a 26-year-old college graduate who returns to his hometown of Sunset Peak, North Carolina to help his single mother run the family hardware business. After mysteriously killing off the historic town’s mayor in chapter one, I introduce James. Most of what you learn about the dark-haired, former high school quarterback is from dialogue and interaction with his mom, friends, and newfound love interest, Emily Edwards.

Readers discover James had planned a career in corporate America, but couldn’t turn down his mother’s request for assistance.  He’s trying to make the best of the situation when he meets Emily, the granddaughter of a moonshiner. The spirited, green-eyed blonde is haunted by rumors of moonshine money, allegedly buried by her late grandfather in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Misguided fortune hunters are obsessed with Emily and what she might know.

It’s at this point where James is revealed as the proud owner of his grandfather’s restored, jet black, 1950 Ford pickup, and I place Emily in a red ragtop Jeep. Why bother describing the vehicles James and Emily drive?

The vehicles allow readers to form their own opinions about the characters who own them. Without putting it into words, driving a vintage pickup strengthens James’ image as a rugged fisherman and outdoorsman.  It paints him as a man’s man not swayed by fancy cars.  You learn that James is proud of the craftsmanship and hard work his late grandfather put into the pickup. It’s his most prized possession, not because of its value, but because of the family history the truck represents.

Emily may be a petite, attractive blonde, but driving an open-air Jeep portrays her as unafraid to travel across rough terrain with the wind in her face. The vehicle fits her spunky, mountain girl demeanor and warns others that she can, and will, take care of herself.

Other props are used throughout the novel to help readers paint their own pictures of the characters and the scenes.  What better way to show and not tell.

To enjoy other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join, click HERE.  Happy blog hopping!Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2

You can learn more about AT THE RIVER’S EDGE by going HERE:

At the River's Edge Vehicles


Writing Goals: They Evolve #IWSG

It’s time for my contribution to July’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group blog.  The question my fellow  writers have been asked to answer this month is: What are your ultimate writing goals, and how have they changed over time? Be sure to click on the #IWSG icon at the end of my post and check out the responses from dozens of interesting writers.


When I began writing nearly ten years ago, I’m not sure I even had a goal.  If I did, it was to remain sane.  I’d taken early retirement, was recently widowed, and I lived alone with my dog in a mountain home that I purchased less than a year earlier.  Writing filled my days, and often my nights.  Looking back, it’s clear.  My goal was sanity.

I met Claudia shortly thereafter. A practicing paralegal and a former editor, she immediately took interest in my projects, polishing my writing and providing valuable feedback and encouragement. My writing improved. I hadn’t published anything by that time, nor had I considered doing so, but that changed.  My new aspiration was to finish a novel and publish it.

I completed the first draft of Corrupt Connection in late 2011.  It’s a crime/suspense novel about a Central American drug cartel attempting to steal biocomputer technology from a U.S. corporation.  The cartel targets the male and female protagonists with the intent to develop futuristic, mind-altering, and deadly drugs.

My latest novel is much better written, but to this day, I think Corrupt Connection is one of my better stories.  Even so, I was nervous about putting the book out there for others to read.  With Claudia’s help, I self-published the novel in June 2012, and my new goal became finding readers.

I’d spent years in marketing, but I was uncomfortable telling people I was an author.  My nervous laugh would typically follow mentioning my writing to friends and family. I realized that finding readers would have to wait.   I first needed to become comfortable and confident as a writer.  My new objective became learning and applying what I learned to my writing.

I focused on writing contests, author forums, and writers groups, both online and in person.  My writing improved.  I won a few short story competitions.  I’ve become more at ease around other writers, and more confident discussing my writing.

I still sell fewer books than I’d like, but I’m comfortable with what I’m doing.  While I have a long way to go to reach the goals I’ve set, I’m proud of what I produce. I’ve self-published five novels and two short story collections, and my objectives are much loftier today.  I’m very excited about my new murder mystery, At the River’s Edge, which I plan to publish in August.

For the coming months, I’m turning my attention to marketing my new novel, as well as my earlier books.  I’ve been spending time learning about social media (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and the role it plays in successfully marketing books.  My goal is to  sell thousands of copies, not hundreds.

For the past few years, I’ve been donating profits from my two short story collections to North Carolina animal shelters.  It’s not much.  In fact, I supplement the contributions to not disclose how slow my book sales really are.  My current goal is to develop a marketing plan that works.   I’d like to sell enough books that my contributions become meaningful to homeless pets and the good people who care for and adopt them.

I still write to stay sane, but sanity is no longer my only objective.

Many thanks to Nicki Elson, Juneta Key, Tamara Narayan, and Patricia Lynne for hosting this month’s blog hop.  To follow more than 200 writers participating in this week’s IWSG blog hop, click on the icon below.  You can also follow on twitter @TheIWSG  or #IWSG.

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Time – Where Should Authors Spend It? #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

It’s time for my June contribution to the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop where dozens of authors post their thoughts on subjects of writing.  Check out the insightful posts of other writers by clicking on the toolbox icon at the bottom.  This month I discuss where I and other authors should spend their precious time.

A Self-Published Author's Time

When I was young, time stretched before me like a red carpet extending into the horizon.  I had time to plan, to experiment, to make mistakes, and there was always tomorrow.

Many decades later, the red carpet appears much shorter.  While I still anticipate tomorrow, it can never be taken for granted.   Oddly, after years of working and saving for the future, I’ve found the one thing I value most can’t be bought—time.

Knowing this, I continue to spend many hours each day, and often at night and early morning, writing novels and short stories where the odds of success are small.  Writers measure success in their own way, but most would agree book sales are a good metric. On average, self-published authors can expect to sell fewer than 250 copies of their first book.   An estimated 750,000 titles are published each year in the U.S., with a small percentage of these books reaching bestseller status.

Given my decision to continue down this narrow path of success, I often wonder where I should focus my time if my goals are to produce well-written books, maximize my sales, and still have sufficient time to enjoy my family and friends.

If I define author time as the accumulation of time required to write and sell books in a given year, I’ve found that I spend it in five main areas: writing, editing, marketing, education, and blogging.  Each of these activities can consume more time than I have to give.  So, what is the correct amount to spend in each area?

I believe an author’s focus should be on writing, and by that, I mean writing novels and short stories.  My writing time varies, but when I’m in the middle of a novel, I will write 4-6 hours a day, or 30-40 hours a week.  This gives me plenty of time to experience life and still maintain focus and continuity on my work in progress.  Writing is about 40% of my author time.

I am fortunate to be married to an experienced editor, and I outsource most of this critical activity to Claudia.  Still, I’ll take at least two passes at my manuscripts before turning them over to her, and then I’ll incorporate her corrections and modifications.  Editing manuscripts represents about 20% of my author time.  As you would expect, more than half of my time is spent writing and editing my books.

Marketing is an area where I don’t spend enough time (or money).  I engage in the following marketing activities: press releases, book signings, Facebook and Twitter ads, offering a few giveaways, advertising on my website, posting to other blogs and websites, and sending query letters.  Without an agent or publisher, all these activities fall upon me.  Marketing occupies 15% of my author time, and I plan to increase this focus with the release of my next novel, At the River’s Edge.

Under education, I include seminars, webinars, writing groups, and learning from other writers via face-to-face and online communications.  I would estimate I spend 10% of my author time in this area.  It’s an investment critical to improving my writing skills, and one I will continue to make.

This brings me to blogging. I struggle with amount of time I should spend in this area.  It can become all-consuming, taking as much time as writing novels.  I belong to two author blog hops, each requiring one post per month. I also guest post to other author blogs.

The reasons in support of blogging are: it’s a form of marketing, provides valuable interaction with other authors, and sharpens writing skills.  The main arguments against blogging are it takes time away from writing, and if done poorly or inconsistently, it distracts readers from the author’s brand.

New, aspiring writers need visibility, and a blog provides that opportunity.  It’s likely that J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Stephen King spend little time blogging. Whereas, I spend 15% of my author time posting to my blog.  As long as I stay true to my suspense-filled novels and don’t wander too far off course with my posts, I will continue to invest time blogging.

I’m not sure the above ratios of time are ideal for all writers, but for now, I will stay this course.   Let me know what you think.

To enjoy other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join, click HERE.  Happy blogging!Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2

You can check out excerpts from my work in progress, AT THE RIVER’S EDGE, by going HERE:

Headsone in Creepy Cemetery with Bridge in background

Better at a Distance #IWSG

This post was written for the monthly #IWSG blog hop (Insecure Writer’s Support Group).  The goal of the blog hop is to support other writers by sharing experiences. At the bottom, you’ll find a link to other participating writers.  This particular post may seem that it has little to do with writing, but bear with me. I eventually get there.

I tend to overanalyze things–trivial things like passing comments, offhand gestures, overused phrases, even comic strips.  As I age, I find myself doing this more frequently. It’s annoying, even to me.

Recently distracted from my work in progress, “At the River’s Edge,” I came across a vintage Charles Schulz comic on the internet. It showed Linus, sitting with his thumb in his mouth, blanket held tight.  A bubble thought above his head read, “I love mankind…It’s people I can’t stand.” The absurdity of a toddler having a complex, diametrically-opposed thought made it funny. Here’s this child observing life, coming to the conclusion mankind is great, but only at a distance.


As I continued to overthink the comic strip, it hit me that Linus and I have a lot in common. I admire many things from a distance. For example, I like documentaries about oceans. The vastness, the mystery, and the creatures beneath intrigue me. But get me on a boat, and I’m losing my lunch before the pier fades from sight.

When I was considering careers during my college years, I loved the thought of being a doctor.  This was based on little more than having a high school friend whose father was an MD.  It looked like a good gig.  Unfortunately, physics, chemistry, and poor study habits got in my way. I ended up earning degrees in education and mathematics. Coaching basketball and teaching high school math became my new goals, only to have unruly students, low pay, and long hours take the luster off that career.  Once again, I got too near.   I ended up in corporate America, working for a Fortune 500 company, transferred from city to city for 32 years.

I guess taking a close look at anything can remove its allure, but writers aren’t given the luxury of admiring their work from a distance.  For weeks and months at a time, we are up close and personal with our characters and stories.  While creativity and free-flowing thought play a large role in producing a novel, much of the work is a grind-it-out process where attention to detail is a necessity.

I enjoy both the creativity and the discipline of writing.  Unlike the ocean and my ill-planned goal of becoming a physician, I don’t mind getting close to my writing.  Although, I must admit, when the first box filled with copies of my new book arrives to my front door, I love to stand back and enjoy the moment.

*Image from

To follow more than 200 writers participating in this month’s IWSG blog hop, click on the icon below.  You can also follow on twitter @TheIWSG  or #IWSG.

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Book Giveaways: Author ToolBox

It’s time for my May contribution to the #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop where dozens of authors post their thoughts on subjects of writing.  This month I discuss the pluses and minuses of book giveaways.  Are they a good idea or a fool’s paradise?

download free

Last weekend I ran a Kindle Direct Publishing giveaway for MELTING SAND, the first book in my Miles Stevens, CIA suspense series. Hundreds of copies of the e-book were shot into cyberspace, moving it handsomely up the Amazon ranking, if only for a short period. This was my second Kindle Direct giveaway in the past eight years, each lasting two days.

I’ve provided limited copies of my books to advance reviewers, friends, and family.  I’ve also run promos on Amazon and Goodreads where I’ve offered a small number of books via a lottery system.  But pricing my e-book at $0.00 is not something I easily do, even for two days.

So, why do it?

Authors are divided on the benefits of offering free books. Researching the subject, I found as many writers are against giveaways as there are favor. Some of their opinions are based on empirical evidence; others on gut feel.  Here’s a brief summary of what I found along with my experiences:

Reasons supporting giveaways:

  • Authors need to generate interest in their work. With an estimated 600K to 1 million book titles published each year in the U.S., half being self-published, it is difficult to rise above the crowd. What better way to get your book in the hands of readers than to give them a copy? With the Kindle Direct giveaway program, it costs the author nothing, other than lost revenue, and can get hundreds, if not thousands, of copies to readers.
  • Giving away one of your books may generate sales of your other titles. My hope in giving away the first book in the Miles Stevens series was it would generate interest in the others in the series, including the recent release of GONE VIRAL. I saw evidence this occurred, but not what I’d consider a “swell in sales.”
  • You can build a following by asking recipients of your free book to agree to receive your newsletter or to follow your blog. My recent Kindle giveaway didn’t require additional action, but I’ve tried to gain email followers by offering free e-books in the past. Results were minimal.
  • Giveaways can generate book reviews. It’s true, but to get just a handful of reviews may require giving away hundreds of books.  It’s too early to assess results from last week’s Kindle giveaway, but I have received reviews from Amazon and Goodreads giveaways. A small percentage of those getting copies did review my book(s), particularly on Goodreads. (Note: Goodreads recently changed its giveaway program.  My experience was with the old program.)

Reasons against giveaways:

  • Giveaways cheapen your product. Why would anyone pay for your e-book if they know you will eventually offer it for nothing?  If an author gets a reputation for offering free books, it could make it hard to demand a sufficient price for his/her other titles.
  • Few of those receiving free books read them. We all know readers with Kindles and iPads filled with free titles that they’ve downloaded from BookBub and dozens of other sites.  They will read very few of them and write reviews on even fewer.
  • It’s hard to make a living giving away your time and your product. Authors spend months (maybe years) writing and editing each novel. At some point, writers need to demand a fair price for their work, or writing just becomes a time-consuming hobby.

My conclusion–When the time is right, I will offer Kindle giveaways of my older titles, particularly those that might stimulate sales of my new releases, but it is not a marketing program that I will use regularly.

To enjoy other great blogs in the monthly #AuthorToolboxBlogHop or to join, click HERE.  Happy blogging!Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2

You can check out excerpts of my work in progress, AT THE RIVER’S EDGE, by going HERE:

Headsone in Creepy Cemetery with Bridge in background

Don’t Post and Panic #IWSG

Today’s post is in participation with other writers, bloggers and authors belonging to #IWSG, The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, who post on the first Wednesday of each month.  Given the group’s name, it’s somewhat fitting that I’ve chosen the topic of Posting and Panicking.

stamp-114438_1920I spend a couple of hours each week writing posts to my blog, “Thoughts, Stories & Novels.”  The posts are usually about writing, but I occasionally venture into uncharted waters and write on a subject that hits me that morning.  I select topics that I think readers and writers will find interesting or amusing, maybe even a little edgy.  But I must admit the selection process isn’t well-defined.

I usually bounce my post off my editor and wife, Claudia, before I hit the publish button.  The goal is to make sure the post makes sense to someone other than me, and that I haven’t screwed up the their/they’re/there thing again.   Satisfied that it’s ready to go, I hit publish, take a quick look at the final version on my website, and then go about my business.

Frequently, later in the day or that evening, I’ll think about the post I’ve written. I may have second thoughts as to whether it needed more polishing, if it was appropriate for the audience, or if it was offensive to someone.   I’ve even sprung up in bed in the middle of the night, rehashing the article I posted the previous day.

After going back and looking at my posts, I rarely change them.   My concerns are usually unfounded, but still, I continue to have these unsettling experiences.

Before taking up writing, I had a long career in sales and marketing.  The business environment was filled with deadlines, targets, and commitments.  After surviving in that pressure-packed workplace, I’ve wondered–Why do I second-guess myself when posting to a writer’s blog?

I’m not really sure, but I think my second-guessing has to do with the vastness of the Internet and the unlimited number of people who can read what I post.  In business, I interfaced with a limited number of employees, associates, and clients, but writing exposes me to the world like nothing I’ve ever done.

I’m gradually becoming more accustomed to the exposure that comes with writing.  I’d better.  After all, what good is an under-exposed writer?

To follow more than 200 writers participating in this week’s IWSG blog hop, click on the icon below.  You can also follow on twitter @TheIWSG  or #IWSG.

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One Priceless Hour

My posts on Thoughts, Stories & Novels are usually on topics of writing, but I occasionally slip in one about life.  This is such a post.  To my writer friends and followers, consider it a short story directed at grandparents and parents of young children.


My wife Claudia and I planned weeks in advance to drive to Louisville for an important family event.

We left our home in the North Carolina mountains early Friday morning to take our dog, Milo, to her favorite doggie daycare.  The facility was an hour out of the way in Charlotte, but that didn’t seem to make much difference given the 450-mile journey ahead.

The initial leg of the trip went fine.  It was after passing through Knoxville that the trouble began.  Brake lights appeared in the distance, and we came to an abrupt halt 100 miles from the Kentucky state line. After thirty minutes, we began creeping forward a car length at a time.  Claudia took to her iPhone to investigate, and she discovered a semi-trailer truck porting sweet potatoes had caught fire four miles ahead.  More than an hour later we passed the largest pile of roasted taters you’ve ever seen in the right lane of I-75.

We’d originally planned a relaxing dinner for two at Bonefish Grill in Louisville, but we arrived two hours later than anticipated, grabbed a sandwich at Arby’s and dined in our hotel room before falling in bed, exhausted.

Our family event went well Saturday, and we hit the road at 8:00 a.m. Sunday for the return trip.  We needed to pick up Milo before the daycare closed at 5:00 p.m.   Nine hours should have been plenty of time, but severe thunderstorms persisted most of the way back.  At the height of a storm, our car was third in a line of vehicles to body roll a deer carcass, unable to swerve.  I needed to pull over several times during the trip to pry my fingers from the steering wheel and lower my blood pressure.

Finally, we picked up our beloved dog in Charlotte minutes before closing and headed north on I-77 to our home just over an hour away.  Five miles down the road, brake lights appeared–again! We’d been locked inside three lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic for half an hour when Claudia discovered the closure was anticipated to last four hours due to power lines having blown across the interstate.

Vehicles began leaving the highway on the shoulders, crossing the median and going up entrance ramps the wrong way.  The scene looked like rats fleeing a burning ship.  I resisted the illegal and unruly actions of those around me for another 30 minutes.  The next thing I remember is accelerating the wrong way up an entrance ramp with my flashers on.  Once at the top, I was greeted by surprised drivers wanting to merge onto the interstate.  I avoided their glares and turned carelessly into traffic.

Finding an alternate route north proved to be a challenge.  Lake Norman needed to be circumnavigated, and thousands of vehicles were clogging the secondary roads of the Charlotte suburbs like cholesterol in a fat man’s arteries. Determined drivers had Google maps on their iPhones in one hand and their steering wheels in the other.

The small, quaint towns of Cornelius and Davidson had been invaded by throngs of road-raged travelers seeking alternate paths to their destinations.  Traffic lights were out from the storm, and gridlock stalled progress at every intersection. Semi-trailer trucks struggled to make wide turns on narrow roads as cars and pickups refused to yield.  To say tempers flared would be an understatement.

Given that my wife and I had already been in the car more than ten hours and our dog was voicing an intense desire to get home, I can’t believe we were able to maintain our wits. Somehow we did.  We were ecstatic to reach our driveway slightly before 8 p.m.  The grand total for the weekend was 23 hours behind the wheel, including nearly 4 hours stalled in traffic.

You might ask why anyone would endure such a travel nightmare.  Well, our ten-year-old granddaughter was in a school play.  She had a lead role and performed like a star.  The play lasted one priceless hour.

We’d gladly make the trip again tomorrow.