Sunday, February 25, 2018

Interesting Characters Pay Off in Spades

Interesting people make interesting stories, and a person can be interesting for all kinds of reasons—a quirk, a belief, a mental illness. The reason doesn’t have to be complicated.

Say your plot needs a character to miss an important text message. You could have him lose his phone, or forget to turn it back on after he takes a nap, or just not take it with him when he leaves the house. Any of these would work, but…yawn. (Unless he lost his phone while running from Kevin Spacey, but we’re not writing such a story here.)

We want an interesting character who will give us an interesting reason for missing this important text.

So let’s make him supremely frugal. He’s not poor, but his favorite saying is, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” He’ll have it tattooed on his forearm as soon as tattoos quit costing so much.
Empty until further notice.

Say he lives in the boonies because housing is cheaper out there, but he doesn’t have easy access to the internet, so he uses his cell phone as a hotspot. And because he’s so frugal, he’s got one of those plans where you pay for what you use, say $10 for each gig of data. And say it’s the last day of his billing cycle, and he’s got only 15 MB left before he has to pay $10 for another gig of data that’s mostly going to go to waste because it will expire at midnight when the new billing cycle starts, and he can certainly go one day without internet.

Not the boonies.
Now, $10 is not going to break him. He just spent four times that amount on a bottle of pinot noir. And he’s got more than ten dollars’ worth of organic greens going bad in his refrigerator right now.

But he has this interesting quirk/belief/mental illness, so he turns off his phone. That way no sneaky automatic app updates or cute baby photos from his sister can push him over to another gig.

Reneck pacifier.

While he’s entertaining himself by reading one of the Donald E. Westlake’s Dortmunder capers that he checked out of the library for free, this text comes through. And missing it costs him a lot more than $10. What it costs him exactly depends on your story, but isn’t this is a much more interesting (and character-developing and word-producing) reason for missing this text than simply misplacing his phone?

Not only that, but now we’ve got some other interesting things to work with, like why did he buy a $40 bottle of wine? Is that why he saves pennies in the first place? So he can afford good wine? And why did he buy, but not eat, organic greens? Is this a chronic situation or acute? A chronic condition would mean that he gives himself the best, but his self doesn’t like the way it tastes. If acute, perhaps he had planned to make a nice salad for someone special, but it didn’t happen. And then we ask why. And then maybe we have a subplot.

It would have been delicious.

So, one interesting character can create several situations, plot twists, and subplots, and pages and pages of words.

What quirk can you give to one of your characters to make him a little more interesting?

Friday, May 16, 2014


A girl who describes herself as "a larger girl with an affinity for homemaking crafts" wrote to Miss Manners asking how she should respond to people who ask when the baby is due when they see her knitting in public. She says she has "a tendency to laugh nervously and say something to the effect of 'I'm not pregnant.'"

(Um, yep, that's the answer, stated plain. No need to laugh nervously.)

Miss Manners' response: " can merely state what it is, in fact, that you are knitting: 'Actually, this is going to be a ski mask. For skiing, not for robbing convenience stores.'"

So the conversation goes:

"When is the baby due?"

"Actually, this is going to be a ski mask. For skiing, not for robbing convenience stores."

"That's nice, dear, but I asked when the baby is due." 

(Yes, Miss Manners, as you write: "...we all have the problem of inspiring strangers to voice the first silly association that comes into their heads.")

Thanks to Miss Manners' inability to understand a question and her unhelpful answer, we have an illustration of how a conversation should happen in fiction, a place where nothing should be easy for your characters.

Stories need complications, and having a character either not answer a question or answer a question with a question is an easy way to create one.

Such fictional conversations keep dialog going and can reveal character in both the questioner, who reacts to being stonewalled, and the stonewaller, by what he says to avoid answering. If you're writing a mystery, these conversations can provide clues.

How you resolve the conversation depends on what you need your story to do. If you need the information to send your character to another location or scene, you can have the answer eventually come out during the conversation. If you need your character to work a little harder, then use the need for information to send your character either back to ask the stonewaller again or forward to ask another character (who could also stonewall, which could prompt your character to wonder why all the secrecy).

We have a couple of examples from our Miss Manners illustration. First, Miss Manners herself doesn't answer the knitter's question. That shows us that she doesn't pay attention and that she thinks she's funny (she's not) and that she probably answered the question the way she did because she wanted to get a laugh, not be helpful. We all know people like that in real life, and they're maddening, aren't they? They make for good fiction, though.

In the case of the knitter, if she is pregnant and answers the question of when the baby is due by describing what she's knitting, we could wonder why she doesn't want to answer. Is she unhappy about her pregnancy? Or in denial? Or think that her due date is none of anyone's business?

Maybe she really is knitting a ski mask to rob a convenience store, but she's nervous about it and stumbles out this answer. Or maybe her friend the robber is sitting with her, waiting for her to finish knitting the mask, and the knitter is pleading for help. And when the stranger asks a second time about the baby, the knitter answers with the exact time and date of the robbery. (In a spy novel, you could use such a conversation to pass coded information.)

Return to some of the conversations in your novel and see if you can't complicate things with a little stonewalling.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Poppy Markham In the News

Well, sort of.

Poppy doesn't like publicity, but I wouldn't mind seeing a story about how she's keeping Austin restaurants safe or solving another murder in record time. So, I have a Google alert set for "Poppy Markham," and once in a while something pops up. I was very excited to see an email this morning, only to see this headline:

Right name, wrong discipline.
Someone selling a print of Georgia O'Keeffe's Poppy in the Markham area of Ontario, Canada.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


When I first had the idea to write my restaurant-based mystery series, I subscribed to several trade publications in the interest of research. As a former waitress and bartender, I had plenty of experience in the front of the house, but not so much with the back, except to breeze through the kitchen on my way to the walk-in to gather lemons to prep, or to beg the dishwasher for a clean ramekin in which to serve salad dressing on the side. (Why-oh-why do people order it on the side and then immediately drench their salad with every drop?). Also, I’m not much of a home cook, so I didn’t even have that going for me.

Read the rest of my guest post at Kings River Life Magazine. You'll have to scroll down past the (poorly edited) review of my book, which is more of a summary and contains spoilers.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Out of the Frying Pan Released

I'm happy to announce that Out of the Frying Pan is officially released today!

In this third book in the clean, humorous Poppy Markham: Culinary Cop, Poppy is attending a fundraising dinner at Good Earth Preserves, an organic CSA farm on the outskirts of Austin. When one of the guests dies from ingesting a mysterious substance, Poppy once again inserts herself into the middle of a might-be murder while trying to juggle her family, her neighbors, and her boyfriends.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Interview with More Than a Review

More Than a Review reviewed my forthcoming third book, Out of the Frying Pan, then they interviewed me. They asked some good questions.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stick a Fork In It

Today, July 8th, is the official release day for Stick a Fork In It, the second book in my clean, humorous Poppy Markham: Culinary Cop mystery series

From the back cover copy:
As a health inspector and former chef, Poppy Markham thought she'd seen it all--until she steps into Capital Punishment. The restaurant's twisted concept--last meals of death row inmates--could be a hit only in outlandish Austin, Texas. But the macabre theme becomes all too real when co-owner Troy Sharpe is found dangling from a hangman's noose in the cinder block dining room. Discovering that Troy was a hard-drinking jerk leads Poppy to the rub: if Troy had more enemies than a jail has bars, which one sent him to the land of rigor-mortised restaurateurs?
Also, for the month of July, the first book in the series, If You Can't Stand the Heat, is available for free on Kindle.

Happy reading, y'all!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Resist the Urge

Dear Authors:

Please resist the urge to use the tired, unimaginative, fluff phrase "resist the urge." SHOW us what the character did or thought instead. And if you can't do that, then rework the scene so that resisting an urge isn't required.

For example, in Kevin Wilson's otherwise imaginative book, The Family Fang, he has one of the main characters with a drinking problem resist the urge to drink before her boyfriend picks her up for a trip. Wilson could have shown more of the character by writing something like, "She locked herself in the bathroom and painted her toenails because she couldn't drink and paint at the same time, and she really wanted to drink."

In Bill Crider's otherwise good book, The Wild Hog Murders, his main character, Sheriff Dan Rhoades, resists the urge to hum a tune from an old 1960s television drama. Okay, but Crider could have written something like, "I thought humming the tune from Bonanza would make it seem like I didn't care, so I said..."

p.s. My daily word-a-day experiment didn't last very long. I'm not good with Obligations, and posting every day is the very definition, but I'll try not to resist the urge when it comes upon me.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Circumvent and Lymphatic

The weekend's words were lymphatic and circumvent. (There's a funny scene in Arrested Development where Gob both misprounounces and misuses circumvent.)
  • The University of Java's lymphatic efforts to circumvent Travis county health codes earned the restaurant several demerits.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Gradgrind and Gam

Today, I'm working with gradgrind and gam (the verb).
  • When Poppy gams on and on about rules and regulations, restaurant owners believe her to be a gradgrind with no friends or social life.
  • After the regatta, Nina gammed it up with CiCi Chesterton and the gradgrind boat captain about the specifics of their win.
Can you make a sentence with these words? Comments it in the leave.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Scrooge and Stiction

Today's fun combo: scrooge and stiction. (I'm starting to dislike this experiment.)

  • When the hard disk drives on his ancient PC began to fail because of stiction, John Without refused to buy a new computer, prompting John With to secretly think him a scrooge.
Can you make a sentence with these two words? The in it comments leave.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Gamp and Heyday

Today, I'm working with gamp and heyday. They didn't inspire much creativity.
  • In Mitch's heyday, they used gamps to keep the rain off their gramps.
  • "That's not a gamp, that's a bumbershoot," Nina said, forgetting that in her heyday, they were called parasols. 
Can you make a better sentence with these two words? It in leave the comments.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Gambol and Fagin

The only thing I can say about the two words from yesterday--gambol and fagin--is that they both have a G.

  • While cooling her heels in jail for Evariste Bontecou's murder, Ursula accused her cellmates of trying to corrupt her, cursing them as fagins who never gamboled.
  • After her husband's death, BonBon Bontecou, the black-haired widow of the late Evariste Bontecou, gamboled back to Monte Carlo where she took up with a band of fagins who taught her how to cheat at cards.
Can you make a sentence with these two words? Comments in the leave it.

    Tuesday, January 31, 2012

    Elixir and Wellerism

    Yesterday's words: elixir (I like the way that word looks on the page) and wellerism. Instead of my usual combination sentences, I offer some wellerisms using the word elixir.

    • "Water is the elixir of life," said the pool boy as he skimmed the surface.
    • "The right spin is the elixir of life," said the golf pro as he bogeyed his tee-off.
    • "I am the elixir of life," said the chemist to the chemicals.
    • "Breakfast isn't all it's cracked up to be," said the egg as it hit the pan.

    Can you make a wellerism? Leave it in the comments.

    Monday, January 30, 2012

    Bright-line and Cook's Tour

    A.Word.A.Day is run by one person and doesn't send out words on the weekends, but Merriam-Webster has lots of money and employees, so they do. Monday's posts will consist of the weekend words from M-W. Saturday's was bright-line; Sunday's was Cook's tour.

    • Mitch Markham's attorneys and golfing buddies, Ari and Ira Gross, gave him the Cook's tour of the golf club and a bright-line of its rules.
     Can you make a sentence with these two words? Leave it in the comments.  

    Saturday, January 28, 2012

    Gascon and Arbalest

    Yesterday's words: gascon and arbalest. It's almost like A.Word.A.Day and Merriam Webster know I started this feature and are making a point. But I will not be cowed.

    • When Evariste Bontecou claimed to have once fallen 13 deer in a single morning with his arbalest, Ursula dismissed him as a gascon. Believing she accused him of being a native of Gascony, he became insulted, but calmed down after Trevor explained that a gascon was a braggart.
    Can you make a sentence with these two words? Leave it in the comments. 

      Friday, January 27, 2012

      Loath and Sybarite

      After the last couple of days' words-of-the-day, loath and sybarite feel like an argosy of words to apply to my characters.
      • Even when confronted with a $10,000 charge for several pairs of Christian Laboutin shoes, Nina was loath to admit her sybaritic affection for the trademark red-soled pumps.
      • Not a sybarite herself, Poppy is loath to take a vacation longer than a single day.
      • According to Jamie Sherwood, the new restaurant in the tony northside Paladin shopping complex, The Emperor's New Rolls, is an "homage to sybaritic sushi that anyone who enjoys craft as much as carp should be loath to miss."
      Can you make a sentence with these two words? Leave it in the comments. 

        Thursday, January 26, 2012

        Intercalate and Damascene

        I thought intercalate and damascene would be awful to use in a sentence, but not really.
        • After much practice and patience, Nina's plastic surgeon intercalated youthful days into the calendar of her life by reducing the damascene on her face.
        • Once, Evariste Bontecou tried to pass off damascene as chicken by intercalating traditional Jamaican jerk spices into the meat, assuming we "stupid Americans" wouldn't notice.
        Can you make a sentence with these two words? Leave it in the comments.

          Wednesday, January 25, 2012

          Contaminate and Paladin

          Contaminate and paladin are our two words from yesterday. More challenging than they would seem at first glance, which is why I came up with only one.

          • Poppy Markham, paladin of Austin diners, combats bacterial contamination with only a thermometer, a flashlight, and a score sheet.

          Can you make a sentence with these two words? Leave it in the comments.

            Tuesday, January 24, 2012

            Yegg and Argosy

            I love words and subscribe to two word-a-day emails. One from Merriam Webster, the other from A.Word.A.Day. Because I can't ever think of anything good to blog about, I'm starting an experiment that challenges me to use any meaning of both words in a sentence or three using my Poppy Markham: Culinary Cop characters.

            My two words from yesterday: yegg and argosy. Oy.
            • During a surprise health inspection, Poppy surprised a yegg relieving Austin's restaurants of their argosies of armagnac.
            • Ursula opened Markham's walk-in door and held back the octopus while she eyed the yegg delivering the argosy of prosciutto, veal, and tomatoes for Saturday's Italian Independence Day menu.
            • Nina once claimed that her two Chinese Hairless Cresteds, Dolce & Gabbana, stopped a yegg from breaking into her room safe on an argosy bound for Greece. (She referred to herself as the "rich cargo.") The thief was apprehended at poolside when Nina pointed out the pinprick toothmarks on his ankles.
             Can you make a sentence with these two words? Leave it in the comments.

            Saturday, December 24, 2011

            Sunday, December 18, 2011

            Where I've Been

            I haven't been everywhere, man, but I've visited 19 of our United States. According to this website, that's 38%.

            Some trips have been to visit friends. Some were made a lifetime ago when I was a marketing rep for a software development company. And some were just get-aways.

            Funny that I've never even visted the three states I often think about moving to: Oregon, Minnesota, and Maine.

            Tuesday, November 29, 2011


            Vigesimal. Sounds like something that needs a shot of penicillin to make it go away. But it's a cool new-to-me adjective that means twentieth, or based on the number twenty. It could still sound icky depending on how you use it.

            By noon, Poppy had written up her vigesimal health code violation.

            Nina scheduled her vigesimal plastic surgery.

            Ursula and Trevor celebrated their vigesimal encounter.

            Olive felt like ralphing after eating that vigesimal pork rind.

            Thursday, November 10, 2011

            I'm Not Really a Poet

            Once in a while, usually when my fiction feels lifeless, I get a hankering to read poetry. Poets treat words like pinballs in a machine, banging them around with lines and stanzas to send them ricocheting off other words and ideas.

            I don't get most poems so I don't read randomly, but I really love the poems of former US Poet Laureate, Billy Collins. I don't get all of his poems, either, but I can understand most of them and it makes me feel smart. Litany was my introduction to him on NPR and is still my favorite.

            When someone does something I admire, I want to know how he does it. Writing anything is mysterious. I know that. But still, I wanted to know how Billy does it. So I studied more of his poems and read interviews where he explains how he writes them, and did exactly what he said he does.

            The result is "A Friday Afternoon," a poem in the style of Billy Collins about writing a poem in the style of Billy Collins. You can read it along with a lot of other poems in the 2012 Texas Poetry Calendar from Dos Gatos Press.

            Tuesday, October 25, 2011

            Sunday Is Texas Author Day

            This Sunday, October 30th, from 2:00-5:00 PM, I'll be at the San Marcos Public Library for their 8th Annual Texas Author Day, a smaller, more intimate version of the Texas Book Festival. I'll be one of about 40 Texas authors, signing books and meeting readers.

            Come on out and support books, authors, reading, and Texas.

            Tuesday, October 4, 2011

            Rules and Regulations

            I love rules. Really love them. They mean that someone a) is in charge and b) has considered the likelihood of things getting out of hand and c) has put measures in place to keep things neat and orderly. I love neatness and order.

            Hop on over to Inkspot, a collaborative of Midnight Ink authors, and read the rest of my post about why I love rules and regulations.

            Wednesday, September 14, 2011

            Festering Over Festoon

            As a person who makes her living with words, you'd think I would love every single one of them, but for no rational reason, I loathe the word festoon. It's a self-consciously jaunty word that shares its first syllable with fester, which is what I do every time I see it in print.

            Hop on over to Inkspot, a collaborative of Midnight Ink authors, and read the rest of my post about this word I can't stand.

            Tuesday, August 23, 2011

            If You Weren't What You Are, What Would You Be?

            I've had lots of jobs over my several years of life.

            When I was 15, I got my first job in an upscale toy store, answering phone call after phone call about the availability of Madame Alexander dolls and taking payments for games, plush toys, and other items on lay-a-way.

            Hop on over to Inkspot, a collaborative of Midnight Ink authors, and read the rest of my post about what I would be if I weren't an author.

            Friday, July 29, 2011

            Please Ignore Common Wisdom

            Living a right life is fine for you, but awful for your characters. They need to make bad decisions. They need to do the wrong thing. They need to suffer and be insufferable. There has to be conflict, tension, mayhem. If you're not sure how to make that happen, start with common wisdom and have them do the opposite.

            Hop on over to Inkspot, a collaborative of Midnight Ink authors, and read the rest of my post on character development.