Category Archive: Research

Guest Post: How to Use Scapple

Hannah Givens is always a favorite guest blogger at WriteOnSisters, and we’re thrilled she’s back. If you haven’t already done so, follow her wonderful book blog, power packed with great ideas for reading diverse books and authors. And now, take it away Hannah…

I love sticky notes, and I’ve used them to organize my thoughts for years, but that method has some problems: notes fly off the paper, or you have to rewrite the same things several times as you move your notes around. Plus there’s the space issue. Where can you stick enough notes to outline an entire novel, and how can you back that up reliably? Scapple to the rescue!

The Scrivener writing program from Literature and Latte has achieved a certain level of recognition in the writing community, but L&L’s other program, Scapple, has flown under the radar. I can’t imagine why, because it’s equally well-designed and may be even more useful depending on how you like to work. It’s something like mind-mapping software, but with more flexibility — L&L calls it a “freeform text editor” and that seems the most accurate description. You type, and then you can copy/paste or format your text however you like, but you can also stick each piece of text anywhere on your infinitely-large page and connect them with lines or arrows any way you want.

Scapple is really fantastic, but possibly also daunting if you’re not sure how to use it. So today I’ll be sharing three ways I use the program for writing: mind-maps, character sheets, and outlines. (Disclaimer: I’m not sponsored in any way, nor is anyone at WriteOnSisters, we just happen to adore the program!)

1) Mind-mapping:

Again, Scapple isn’t exactly mind-map software, but for me that’s an advantage. I don’t have to force my mind to be mapped according to someone else’s system. I don’t have to know what I’m doing right away, decide which idea is “central,” or anything like that. I can just start and figure it out as I go along. The main way I use Scapple is actually to create character charts, and it’s a huge step up from either mind-mapping or family tree software… I need a chart that can show relationships, but not just familial ones, and also show the passage of time to some extent.

Here’s a sample:

Note how I can have a mindmap with two connected centers, plus a list on the side, and then some special charts underneath (I use the system outlined in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schechter). Some of the character relationships are romantic, some are parental, some are adversarial or professional, and a few don’t show up until halfway through the book, but I don’t need a way to track all that because I know who’s who. I just needed a way to combine “list of characters” with “immediately-visible connections.” That helps me craft a plot that makes sense, without forgetting anything obvious. Scapple is great for exploded-view lists like this.

2) Character sheets:

Many writers enjoy using standardized character sheets or questionnaires, both to keep track of their characters and to learn about their personalities. I often feel like these methods take some life out of my characters, though, so I needed a more organic way of keeping notes on personalities and character arcs.

Here’s a sample for one of my protagonists:

Note the ability to drag-and-drop images! I also love being able to mix and match “forms” that I can fill out or reimagine as needed, so I can combine plot notes with character notes. There are shortened versions of three “systems” in the sheet above, plus an unordered list of relevant information about the character and another list of relationships sorted by type. The next character sheet sits directly to the right in the same document and so on, because I like to see everything at once, but obviously you can set that up however you want!

3) Plotting and Outlining

I love all my character charts and sheets, but outlining is where Scapple really shines. It can handle complexity, and your own uncertainty about which ideas go where. Plus, I tend to change my visual outline structure depending on the project, and Scapple is totally flexible for that.

Here’s a half-done outline for an urban-fantasy project, in which I’m trying to work out several arcs in tandem:

There are four columns there, although muddled a bit: the left-hand column in the box(es) is a blank list of scenes, the guide to where my outline should be. (Again, I’m using Schechter’s system, but all this business of putting it into Scapple is my own design.) Then I have two columns tracing two characters’ arcs on each side, and the yellow notes down the center mark what the villain’s doing at the same time. The red ones are obvious questions to answer.

You can probably see at a glance that this would be incredibly difficult with sticky notes, because I’ve got several types of note and I need to keep track of how they relate to each other before I ever know which comes first in the final product — I’ve done outlines like this in Word before, but the linearity was a problem and things took much longer/were more stressful than they needed to be. (Also note the picture on the side there. I made some notes longhand, and rather than retype them, I just took a picture and slapped it in to refer back to as I go.)

Here’s a simpler project:

With this one I already know how it goes, and it’s a more linear space-travel story, so I’m basically outlining as I go along to have a clear reference for where I am in the plot. If I run into problems I can outline ahead to fix them, or I can go through and colorcode existing notes to highlight problems or check rhythm. It’s a completely different story with very different needs, but Scapple can do both without any fuss at all.

And worry not, you can back up your work in several formats. Plus, if you’re also using Scrivener you can drag notes straight into that. For me, though, I just adore being able to get my thoughts directly onto the page. I don’t have to force them to make sense, and I don’t have to remember how they relate, I can just draw them in however seems reasonable at the time. Then, unlike any kind of paper notes, I can immediately start working with what I scribbled down. Move it around, highlight it, draw lines, make a chart, anything I want.

If you’ve struggled to use pre-structured methods, been inspired by worksheets but haven’t found the exact right thing, or just desperately wanted electronic sticky notes in your life, Scapple may be for you. Either way, I hope this post gave you some organizational inspiration!


Hannah Givens is a lifelong book lover, student of literary history, and writer of numerous term papers. She blogs about genres of all kinds at Hannah Reads Books, and is currently working on her first novel. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter, talking about books and much more.

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Guest Post: General Leia — Aging on the Silver Screen

General LeiaOur guest today has been here several times before. Most recently she blogged about writing Wise Women Characters, a must-read post if you want to find some fresh ways to show women as strong, without making them fighters. She also invited us to take part in her fabulous SciFi Women Interview series early this year. She is a scholar with a broad background in gender and media. Her extensive research into the depiction of underrepresented characters in the Star Wars universe sparked a whole book: A Galaxy of Possibilities: Representation and Storytelling in Star Wars and it’s available from Amazon. Please welcome Natacha Guyot.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS featured the main trio from the original saga trilogy, including Leia Organa. While it made complete sense to include her, seeing an older female SciFi character on screen isn’t common. An older Leia Organa in the new movie was thus a strong choice, and might help attitudes change regarding women characters in films and television. Indeed, the “youth at all cost” can be damaging societally speaking, when on the contrary, people should be embracing all ages for all genders in terms of representation. The fact that backlash occurred against Leia’s older figure shows that there is still room for people to accept something as natural as women aging and still being capable of great professional and personal accomplishments.

Like in her younger days, Leia Organa held a significant position in Episode VII’s narrative and continued to be a leader figure, which was refreshing. Yet, I refuse to say that “General Leia” is better than “Princess Leia” because I believe that both titles had validity in the universe and nobility title, including “princess” shouldn’t diminish a character’s credibility nor should be considered “girly” in a bad way. Leia has inspired many people for years because she was more than a “pretty girl who could shoot a gun”. She was a leader from the start and had great strength beyond her physical resilience.

While the presence of older women isn’t widely spread, including in Star Wars, small roles, some important regardless of limited screen time, have appeared in the Star Wars movies since the very first one, A NEW HOPE, released in 1977. In it, Beru Lars raised her nephew Luke Skywalker. This maternal figure soon gets killed along with her husband, to allow Luke to begin his journey. In RETURN OF THE JEDI, political and Rebellion leader Mon Mothma partakes in a crucial briefing, along with male military counterparts.

The Prequels also included a few older women in supporting or minor roles, mostly mother and Jedi figures. The latter case is Jedi Archivist Jocasta Nu in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. Where male elder mentors are included in all trilogies so far with characters such Obi Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Luke Skywalker, women are still to occupy such positions. In that, Jocasta Nu, who briefly showed up again in the CLONE WARS series, is an exception.

In THE FORCE AWAKENS, Leia Organa has a multi-faceted representation, which shows actual care to her character from the movie’s script writers. Due to that, she ties all the previously included threads of older female characters in the saga’s films. Her portrayal encompasses both the professional aspect, respecting her as a political leader as a General in the Resistance, and the personal. In the latter case, the narrative gives her space to be a (former) romantic partner with Han Solo, where the relationship still has great depth, no matter the longtime separation. She is also a mother who struggles with what her son has become, but still has undying faith in his return to the Light Side. The same way, she is a sister who seeks to find her brother Luke and bring him back to help in the fight against evil forces.

By allying professional and personal, the story gives Leia the possibility to show how she has developed off-screen over the decades. Despite struggles of all kinds, she continues to fight for what she believes in, including when it requires her coming to the battlefield. When she first appears in the movie, after several mentions from multiple characters, it is at the end of a fight, where she came aboard one of the crafts, even at the risk of being shot down in the process.

A final point that was thankfully not ignored was her Force potential. While she isn’t presented as an actual Jedi, and any training she might have received or not is left unknown, she still remains able to sense strongly for her loved ones. THE FORCE AWAKENS picks up from when she reacted twice to her twin brother’s situation through the Force in the Original Trilogy. Indeed, a shot clearly shows her shattered when she feels Han’s death. While a very brief moment, it is significant to see Leia’s potential and skills acknowledged during such a pivotal event.

In the end, the Star Wars movies have included older women in most of them, though until THE FORCE AWAKENS none has had as much screen time as Leia Organa. There is still progress to be made, but here is to hoping that Leia’s influence will continue to bear fruits, not only in her portrayal in the upcoming movies, but also more generally speaking, so that older women may still be valued in narratives of different genres and formats.


Guest Blog PhotoAuthor’s BioGalaxy - Revised Cover
Natacha Guyot is a French researcher, author and public speaker. She holds two Master’s degrees: Film and Media Studies (Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle) and Digital Culture and Technology (King’s College London).
Her main fields of interest are Science fiction, Gender Studies, Children Media and Fan Studies. Besides her nonfiction work, she also writes Science Fiction and Fantasy stories.
Natacha’s Blog | TwitterFacebook | Goodreads | LinkedIn



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Writing Diverse Characters & Stereotypes

Map of Latin AmericaWe are nearing the end of Hispanic Heritage Month, and one of the things I put on my 2015 goals list was to support the creation of quality Latin American characters.

Today, I’m tackling three common stereotypes and misconceptions.



3 Misconceptions About Latin American People…

Real ones have dark hair, skin and eyes:
The dominant aspects of Hispanic DNA are pretty consistent, but not exclusive. Genetic roulette is a funny thing. Latin Americans can come in any physical variation, and I’ve seen this first hand with my own family. I have light eyes while everyone else in my family has ebony chips for eye color. One of my sisters has a facial profile that would mark her as a Mayan princess in training. Her nose practically starts at her hair-line, while the rest of my family have noses with a dished bridge.

Most of my relatives, including my parents and siblings are on the shorter side. However, one of my uncles was six and a half feet tall. Pictures of him bending over to hug my 4’9″ grandmother are quite amusing. Several of my family members have bone straight jet-black hair, others have light colored or wavy hair. One of my kids has textbook dark coloring. While my other kid has sandy almost blond hair, with blue eyes, and skin so fair it’s a nightmare keeping the kid slathered in enough sunscreen.

Everyone in Latin American is Catholic:
We are predominately a group with Christian sensibilities, and Roman Catholicism is the single largest religious influence. However, many people are moving away from strict Catholicism, and embracing other faiths. And there have been large Jewish communities in Latin American for hundreds of years.

My Cuban born and raised grandmother called herself a good Catholic, but her beliefs were all over the place and influenced by a form of spiritualism with African roots. This blending of per-contact myths and ceremonies with aspects of Catholicism is common all over Latin America. It’s something I find fascinating and I’ve been blogging about it over at Part-Time Monster for several months now.

Everyone in Latin American speaks Spanish and they are of Spanish ancestry:
Indigenous people, decedents of African slaves and those of non Spanish ancestry live all over Latin American. You can find people originally from almost every country in the world. And there are currently nine official languages, plus countless indigenous languages and dialects.

However, historically speaking having some Spanish ancestry was considered favorable. That’s because many countries had a caste system. Spanish born people enjoyed the top spot and were called Peninsulares. The children of two Peninsulares were a step lower on the social scale. As a person got less connected to a Spanish born ancestor their social rank plummeted. Race and class are still tricky subjects for some Latin Americans to talk about, particularly within the upper classes.

Bonus tip: We are name obsessed.
We tend to have a lot of names; it’s not unheard of for someone to have six or more names crowded onto their birth certificate. Part of that is because including both the mother’s and father’s surname is the preferred method of naming. Also reintroducing family names back into the name stream, so family lines aren’t lost, is very important. Plus we tend to give almost everyone at least one Catholic name. I gave my kids saints’ names and I’m not even remotely religious anymore. I suspect the tradition is encoded within me so deeply, I did it unconsciously.

What makes a good Latin American character is hard to pin down and no single set of characteristics is going to work. For one thing, Latin America is a huge geographic area, and each part is influenced by too many variables to count. If you want to include a character, do the research and don’t be afraid to seek help. I catch mistakes in books all time, and these are often simple issues that anyone with a basic knowledge of my culture would notice too.

Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 to October 15, you can learn more about the event and it’s history here.

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How Local Culture Inspires Worldbuilding

Today’s Guest Post is by Rose B. Fischer. We first met Rose about a year ago and were instantly impressed with her creativity and willingness to lend a hand to her fellow writers and bloggers. Her kindness is teamed with a great sense of humor, making her a delightful person to know and a fun writer to read. She has developed a unique approach to worldbuilding, and it’s so helpful that we invited her here to share it…

Map for Rose

Worldbuilding is one of my favorite aspects of genre fiction. I spent about three years building the world of Synn before I started writing my serial. There’s so much potential with a new world, so many factors to consider — from physical setting concerns like geology, climate, flora and fauna, to politics and culture. It can be overwhelming, and there’s a tendency to get carried away. I’ve read books that felt like the author was just grabbing bits and bobs of every ethnic or social group they could think of and mashing it all together rather than creating a unique, cohesive setting. While there’s nothing wrong with using elements of real world cultures, there needs to be something that grounds your setting and makes it feel like a world rather than a hodgepodge of Earth cultures. My favorite grounding technique is to adapt my own local culture and New Hampshire history and weave it into my fictional settings.

Here are four aspects of local culture that inspire worldbuilding:

Industry — Textile and paper mills built New England on the backs of its poor. There’s no pretty way to say it. Everywhere you look in New Hampshire’s cities, you see huge red brick complexes that can take up both sides of a street. When I was a kid, I thought they were fortresses or mazes. Walking around the mills is like being enclosed in a medieval castle or dystopian city-state. People came to the mills from farms and rural logging communities looking for opportunity. The mills gave them company-owned homes, accounts at a company store, and demanded grueling work days with little to no time for eating or socializing. In exchange, the workers got meager wages that were garnished to pay back their company credit accounts and exorbitant rent. But the cities exploded because the mills produced. The region prospered. Fashions changed. Storebought clothes became commonplace, and fabric to make clothing became less expensive and more varied. Water-power and river trade flourished and because of the mills.


The textile mills were dependent on Southern cotton, though. Both paper and textiles relied on coal, needed export and were hindered by taxation.

I love the mills, I love their aesthetic, but it’s important for me to remember their history in my fiction. I could go on about them for a long time, but the point is, there’s a lot you can add to a story by looking at the implications (both positive and negative) of a local industry. Industry affects architecture, clothing, politics, physical growth of the setting, and so much more. Whether you’re writing a tale that takes place on one planet or a space opera that spans twenty, places have industry, and all local or regional industries depend on other areas for support. Those things don’t have to be major plot elements, but they have a wealth of potential when layered into a story.

Regional rivalries — Trees are big business in New Hampshire and Vermont. I’ve mentioned the paper mills, but we also have a large timber industry, fall tourism driven by leaf-peepers, commercial orchards, and a huge maple sugar/syrup trade. Winter sports and activities related to snow are the other part of our tourism industry. We compete with Vermont for that too. Rivalry for tourism and export dollars can be intense even in the present, but in historical times led to some serious, bitter conflict. Rivalries around resources like this are a great source of conflict for everything from science fiction and fantasy where the scale is huge, all the way to romance where it’s more personal. The key is to weave in specifics about those resources. Try to avoid “black and white” situations where one side is clearly corrupt and the other is taken advantage of.

Folklore and Local Heroes — Our state website has an archive of books about New Hampshire folklore and legends. I’ve been familiar with most of those stories since elementary school, but many of my friends in other parts of the country have never heard of them. Either way, adapting your local folklore to a fantasy or science fiction setting is a fantastic way to add depth to your setting.


Culture and Subculture — Woodworking and artisan crafts related to wood are a big deal in NH. It’s a coastal state, so commercial fishing and lobstering are also prominent. The Abenaki Nation and Pennacook Tribe are part of the state’s history and culture. Because we’re close to Quebec, we have a big French Canadian population. There’s a large state university system, big cities with crime and population problems, hiking and climbing trails that attract adventurers, and rural areas where people live much as they did a century ago. I’ve written before about bike week in Laconia and how biker subculture plays a part in my life and my writing. This section is starting to sound like a travel brochure, but if you take the time to notice and learn about the place you live, I bet you’ll find a lot to add depth to your fiction!

On the surface, my worlds look nothing like New Hampshire, but because I understand the history and culture of my state and the surrounding region, I can extrapolate at a conceptual level to create a society with built-in problems for my characters to wrestle with. So many writers look far and wide for exotic cultures to build their worlds around, but end up with bland, boring books with “cultures” that feel like window dressing. If you live somewhere for a long time, it might look dull and uninteresting to you, yet to someone else it may be just the thing that helps your story feel alive and unique.


rosewinkpngfoxRose B. Fischer:
Rose is an avid fan of foxes, Stargate: SG-1, and Star Trek. She would rather be on the Enterprise right now. Since she can’t be a Starfleet Officer, she became a speculative fiction author whose stories feature women who defy cultural stereotypes. In her worlds gender is often fluid, sexuality exists on a spectrum, and “disability” does not define an individual. Her current project is The Foxes of Synn, a low-tech science fantasy serial.
She is a survivor of domestic violence who lives with multiple disabilities. In the early 2000s, she became homeless after leaving her abusive spouse. She later entered a transitional housing program while attending college. These experiences inspired her to begin writing non-fiction, and have had lasting impacts on her approach to fiction writing. She publishes science fiction, science fantasy, horror, and biographical essays. She blogs about the intersection of storytelling, social responsibility, art, and pop culture at

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Writing a Heist: 5 Tips for Picking the Perfect Loot

Collection_of_Amethyst_GemstonesAs I mentioned last week, I’ve amassed a huge collection of tips on writing a heist. Now, I’m throwing open the vault and letting all my research secrets out. I hope these tips can help my fellow crime writers craft the caper of their dreams.

Today it’s all about: The Loot!
The prize in a heist story is often woven through the whole plot. Never pick the loot item without careful consideration. This item will influences the crime planning. It will impact the size of the heist team. It changes what skills the characters need to finish the job. Picking the wrong item can lead to unexpected repercussions or complications for the plot. While picking the right loot helps generate excitement and expectation with the reader.

Here are my five tips for choosing the right loot for any story.

1. Make use of recognizable items:
Using real treasures creates reader recognition, and minimizes the amount of narrative the writer needs to include. A gold bar, or a briefcase full of paper money looks pretty much the same in every situation, and even if the reader hasn’t seen one in person they’ve seen enough on TV to create a clear mental image. The work of every major painter has been reproduced enough to trigger a recognition response in most readers. Hunt museum catalogs or subscribe to Christie’s auction house to have loot inspiration sent right to your inbox.

Remember, if you pick a real item, don’t pick something too well-known, like the Mona Lisa. This makes it harder for the reader to buy into your story.

2. Steal back what was illegally acquired:
War spoils, gangster stockpiles and plundered Inca gold all find their way into heist books for a reason, they don’t require much research time. Any one can dig up the basic history of a famous stolen treasure in under an hour. Plus if the reader Googles the item, they get the benefit of feeling part of a real mystery. The Monument’s Men maintains a lost art database, you might want to look there for some inspiration.

Another benefit of using a lost historical treasure is they routinely show up in the most unlikely places, basements of libraries, the walls of demolished buildings and even flea markets. This near constant reappearance of headline grabbing finds helps build creditability. After the fall of the Romanoff Dynasty about 52 Faberge eggs disappeared. Yet one showed up just last year, mistaken as a piece of scrap metal. It’s since been valued at 25 million US dollars.

3. Portability, the kryptonite of many a good heist:
Always consider the size of the loot. Bulky items need larger teams, more complicated transportation, and create specific types of story problems. Transporting a Ming vase or an old painting is not easy. You can’t just throw it into a box filled with foam peanuts. Cutting an old masterwork from the frame and rolling it up will greatly diminish the painting’s value. Just removing a painting from the climate controls of a gallery can damage it permanently. Packing a rare painting for shipment is a huge multi-step process.

Consider weight in your logistics. You can’t board planes, or cross international boarders easily with an overnight bag full of Krugerands. For one thing gold is heavy. According to the US mint, a standard 7 inch gold bar weights in at a hefty 27.5 pounds or 12.5 kilograms.

Granted you don’t need much gold to generate a major prize. A ten oz Credit Suisse bar was selling for $12,745.00 US dollars when I checked.

4. The allotment can get sticky:
Once the team finishes the job, they divide the spoils. Taking a single painting means the team must stay together while arranging for the sale of the item. Great if you want to include lots of scenes featuring group dynamics, the fighting, the scheming and the backstabbing. Bad if your heist takes place at the end of the novel and you want to wrap things up quickly. If you plan on using a large team of thieves, several smaller items, like a bag of flawless diamonds will made the split easier. Learn more about the four Cs of diamonds.

5. The drawbacks of unconventional loot:
At one time information was a heist mainstay, but not so much anymore. Information systems change in the blink of an eye. No one loads files on disks or takes photos on microfilm any more. With digital images, wireless internet and more making information highly portable, arranging a heist to recover data is tricky at best. Also chasing information doesn’t cause that much heart pounding excitement. Turn up the heat in unique ways, like by encrypting the data.

I think it’s important to figure out the nature of the loot early in the heist planning. I asked myself all sorts of questions about logistic and group size, before selecting my item.

Next Wednesday I’ll show you how to build a heist crew. This will include tips on how to make your team sympathetic, if not downright loveable, characters.


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Throwing Open the Vault: Tips for Writing a Heist

Safe CC 2.0 Anonymous Account Most writers don’t naturally possess the best skills for a life of crime. We can’t crack a safe. We don’t have a clue how to forge documents. And we wouldn’t feel comfortable holding a gun, let alone pointing it at another human. That’s why research is often our best friend.

The moment I decided to write a heist novel, I realized how little advice was available from other writers. Most of the blogs I read featured long lists of crime shows to watch and not much else. Sure, I love spending an afternoon watching the Italian Job as much as the next gal, but it’s not a research-heavy experience. I tend to favor facts, and historical data over another writer’s interpretation of a great heist.

In the last year, I’ve amassed quite a collection of treasures on writing a heist. Today is the first day I’ll throw open the vault and start letting everyone inside.

Please remain orderly, there’s a lot to see and it might take a while to show you what’s inside all my safety deposit boxes.

This looks like a good place to start: Breaking and Entering

Museums, banks, and other repositories of cash and treasures are run by smart people. They have to be, or every thief would walk in and take whatever they wanted on a daily basis. The staff of these trusted institutions, if they want to keep their jobs, are not going to talk about what security measures they have in place and which ones they don’t. So if you don’t have the inside track (say, a few years of working in a museum or a bank) or the opportunity to study camera placements, staff rotation schedules, and silent alarms activation systems, you’ll need to hit the books and learn all you can.

Read about real heists:

Successful criminals are everywhere. Reading about actual crimes will help you pin down what type of heist you want to write about. There are some brilliant criminal minds are out there, so you should learn from the best.

Some successful crimes appear remarkably simply. This week a 12 year-old girl walked out of a store with a 4.6 million dollar necklace.

By far the most famous US art theft, the Gardner Museum heist, was also a simple plan. This is well-documented crime and you can find a number of books on it. This heist Newspaperremains unsolved to this day.

Remember, many major crimes aren’t very interesting, and they never make the global news. Some crimes are concealed at the victim’s request.

To find unique crimes you may have to dig a little. Start by following agencies that look for stolen art and antiquities. You can glean a lot of information from reading their databases.

I also recommend looking for lists of crimes by type. This will help you get a feel for the different approaches criminals have used in the past. Time magazine counted down the ten smartest thefts in recent history here.,28757,1865132,00.html

Here’s another list of the best bank robberies of all time.

Looking for something more sophisticated and less vigorous? Maybe you’re interested in writing about con men vs. a cat burglar. Con men get the goods by manipulating the most vulnerable point of any institution, the staff. Setting up a con is a complicated process and it take brains. I say go to the source when looking for information on the criminal element, try the FBI’s Most Wanted List, many con artists have graced their top ten list.


Include some high tech gadgets for your characters to elude:

Once you have the breaking and entering method picked out, you need to nail down the bricks and mortar of your fictional security. Since those smart museum and bank people refuse to tell anyone what they’ve installed as a reference point, you will need to imagine what your target location might have. One option is to track down the companies who sell museums, banks and collectors all that high-end surveillance equipment or design their security plans.–the-art-of-securing-pricelessness.html

If money is no object, consider joining a professional association. Many groups offer their members access to classes and libraries overflowing with information. Industry specific publications are also a great source. You can find advice on setting up good security practices or practical guidelines for handling emergency situations. Exploiting an emergency plan might be a great diversion tactic to use in your fictional heist. There are always classes being offered to professionals in museum security. A quick search this week found this online class.

If you plan to set your fictional heist in a smaller venue–say, a manor house–you may need less in the way of research. Of course this depends on the safe you plan to include in your story and the method of cracking it your characters are using. Here is an overview of basic safe cracking methods.

Never forget to research the basic tools. Every shady character should have something on hand for gaining spur-of-the-moment unlawful entry. Good old fashioned master keys and picks are useful, but electronic key cards are the new standard.

The idea that in a few years phones will come equipped with biometric security shocks me. However, in heist fiction, biometrics are just another piece of the game.

Basing your book on real world concepts and equipment will make the plot more believable. Some suspension of disbelief is fine, but you should have a bedrock of facts. Aim to make your heist implausible, not impossible.

Come back next Wednesday when I’ll throw open the vault again and take out a new box: The Stakes!
The stakes might be a chest of jewels, a cache of gold bars, or a numbered Swiss account with more zeros than anyone could spend in three lifetimes. Sometimes, it’s not the crime a reader remembers, and a writer loses sleep over, it’s the scope of the prize.


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Guest Post: Four Magic Words by Fiona Quinn

The Write on Sisters are thrilled to have Fiona Quinn with us today! Her “Thrill Writing” blog is one several of us follow. The wealth of information she provides writers of crime fiction and mysteries often includes information other genres can use as well. The fact that she is gracious and warm to her readers is just a side-benefit. We urge you to check her out. We know you’ll agree!

“… that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” Samuel Coleridge.

Fiona headshotEveryone has their strengths. For my kid #4 it’s her ability to remember obscure details. I pay her five dollars an hour to listen to me read my stories. She somehow lays her six-foot body on the floor of my tiny office and stares at the ceiling. I keep checking to make sure she hasn’t fallen asleep. But she’s listening. At fourteen, five dollars an hour is meaningful pay. And for me, her plethora of factoids is worth every penny.

I have a novella coming out November 4th called “Mine.” It is part of Unlucky Seven – a collection of seven small town murder mysteries that includes three New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors, me, and three other talented writers. One of the throw away lines in my story was about a calico cat. Kid #4 stops me. “Uh. I bet you made that cat a boy, Mom.” She was right, it was a boy cat. “To have a boy calico cat would be a genetic anomaly. All calico cats are female unless they have XXY chromosomes. Change the colour,” she said. “Well okay, would grey be alright?” I

As a writer, why should I care about such a minor detail?

Readers and writers have a contract from the outset. Writers can write the most moving and beautiful words in the world, but without a key ingredient from the reader, our efforts will be forever two-dimensional. We need cooperation. The reader must open the pages of our book with a willing suspension of disbelief in order for the writer to take them on an adventure. The writer, on the other hand, is required to buoy this disbelief by writing correctly. I’m not talking about the Oxford comma, grammar is somewhat malleable. I’m talking about facts. Cold hard facts.

A poorly placed semi-colon will not throw off a reader; it is the sloppy use of fact that destroys fiction. A reader opens the book with the intention of suspending disbelief in order to enter a new world, meet new people, and have vicarious experiences. But if the reader knows factually that something is inaccurate it abrades that line between possible and impossible. Once eroded, the readers’ willingness to participate in belief suspension becomes a struggle.

We writers should always try to support the literary contract: If you write it, I will believe you.
And for me, this means research – detailed, accurate, meticulous research.

I mentioned my calico cat comment at a lecture the other day. As soon as I said the calico cat was a boy, fifteen heads shook “no.” You see, I’m allergic to cats. I can’t go near them, so they are not on my knowledge radar. But for those fifteen shaking heads, as soon as they read the calico was male, I’ve blown my credibility. We have to try our best not to blow it. So I do a lot of hands-on research, talking to experts about what is right and what would make them throw down my book in disgust.

To this end, I have found four magic words, “I’m writing a book.” These four words at the beginning of any question will open the doors to a wealth of information. While otherwise, someone may hesitate to give you data when asked straight out. My writer friend Jamie Mason experienced this when researching her book, Three Graves Full. She called a company who dug holes and asked how long it would take to dig a 6x3x6 foot hole… with a shovel… alone… in the dark. Apparently, the digging company was a little reluctant to answer this. She forgot to use her magic words.

Once, I used my four magic words when researching a plane crash for my book. I called an airport safety manager, who invited me to the hangar. He let me climb into all the jets, so I could pick out the one that would fit my needs. He taught me how to steal a plane. He showed me how to find the right maps in a map room. But he spent the whole two hours we were together trying to save my poor heroine. “If she would just do X she would live,” he said.“I’m sorry, she has to die. But not right away. Can you tell me about planes and lightning strikes?” “What about this? If she would just do Y, she could live.” He would try again. “I’m sorry, she has to die. What about fires in the cockpit… ?”

The best resources that I have found are professionals who are writing in retirement or who are writing in their spare time. These folks are a vast wealth of professional industry knowledge. They are in the writing game, so they can quickly get to the gem that will illuminate your plot line. You don’t have to explain why you’re trying to figure out the right dose of tranquilizer to put out a hundred and sixty-five pound male, or why you need to know the cook rate of a body in an acid bath. They understand. And making those writerly connections is such a gift.

The lovely thing about doing the research is finding out a new fact that can shift your plot, taking it in an unintended yet fascinating new direction – one that you would never have imagined on your own. Research is one of my very favorite parts of writing. And too, having it right means the reader gets to suspend their disbelief and live in your story’s imaginary world – which fulfills the literary contract from beginning to end.

Happy plotting.


logo thrill writingFiona Quinn supports writers through her writers’ resource blog ThrillWriting. Go take a look; she might just have done all the leg work for you.

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@FionaQunnBooks and @ThrillWritingFQ

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The Secret Ghosts of Nancy Drew

silhouette of a woman with a tray and frameNancy Drew had a huge influence on my growth as a young woman, and something I’d totally overlooked until recently. A number of powerful and successful women have cited her as a role model, and in the 1950s, something we sorely needed. I can show you excerpts from Home Economics text books encouraging us to prepare the perfect dinner and meet our hardworking husbands at the door with a martini, dressed in a lovely frock, high heels, and too much hairspray spritzed on our perfectly coiffed bouffant. The shock of it still sends me reeling back on my heels, since I count myself in the Gloria Steinem camp of bra-burning feminists.

So, thanks, Nancy! But that shock aside, what really caught my attention was the fact that Carolyn Keene, the oft-noted author of the Nancy Drew series, didn’t actually exist. I had no idea! At all. The original book, THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK, was written from an outline conceived by a man named Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He created the Hardy Boys series in 1926, which had been such a success that he decided on a similar series for girls, featuring an amateur girl detective as the heroine. While Stratemeyer believed that a woman’s place was in the home, he was aware that the Hardy Boys books were popular with girl readers and wished to capitalize on girls’ interest in mysteries by offering a strong female heroine. (Wikipedia)

Stratemeyer wrote plot outlines and then hired a ghostwriter- often a man, to write the books under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. The series was an immediate success and Fortune Magazine featured Stratemeyer’s Syndicate in a cover story, singling out Nancy Drew for particular attention with the following quote: “Nancy is the greatest phenomenon among all the fifty-centers. She is a best seller. How she crashed a Valhalla that had been rigidly restricted to the male of her species is a mystery even to her publishers.” I find this shocking because I can’t imagine that males are more prolific readers than females, now or then.

Subsequent titles were written by a number of different ghostwriters, all under the pen name of Carolyn Keene. Continuing down the pathway of Memory Lane, the original fee for ghostwriting a Nancy Drew book was $125, roughly equivalent to two month’s wages for a  newspaper reporter back in the day, the primary day job of most of the syndicate ghosts. The fee was lowered to $100 and then $75 during the Depression Years. Adding insult to injury, the “authors” were required to sign away the rights to ownership of the story and also royalties, and agreed to never use the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene to sell any future manuscripts.

All royalties went to the Syndicate, and all correspondence with the authors was handled through a Syndicate office. The Syndicate (starting to sound a bit sinister?) was even able to enlist the cooperation of libraries in hiding the ghostwriters’ names. When Walter Karig, who wrote volumes eight to ten of the original series, tried to claim rights with the Library of Congress in 1933 the Syndicate instructed the Library of Congress not to reveal the names of any Nancy Drew authors, and they complied. And I thought the Mafia was ruthless!

The Syndicate’s process for creating the Nancy Drew books consisted of internally creating a detailed plot outline, drafting a manuscript with a ghostwriter, then editing the manuscript. Edward Stratemeyer and his two daughters, particularly Harriet Adams, constructed most of the outlines for the original Nancy Drew series until 1979. Most of the early books were penned by a woman named Mildred Wirt Benson whereas other volumes were written by Walter Karig, Geroge Waller, Jr., Margaret Scherf, and a host of others. Harriet Adams edited most of the manuscripts until her death in 1982.

There were numerous lawsuits and countersuits filed and many of the ghostwriters, and eventually even Harriet Adams herself, fought relentlessly for rights and royalties. When Harriet Adams switched publishers, from Grosset & Dunlop to Simon and Schuster, the fight elevated to new heights as each fought over creative control. It’s enough to give you a headache.

The sad facts I’ve learned about how the Nancy Drew series was conceived and written serve to reinforce the horrid state of affairs in the publishing industry. We’ve all heard the sordid tales of how authors are robbed of royalties and manipulated by editors to write the stories the publishing house wants rather than the one the author wants to write. I was under the mistaken notion that the publishing industry had recently devolved into this terrible place. But now it seems that it’s always been this way. Maybe worse. The author is the red-headed step child* who gets abused and overlooked. It’s enough to give a writer a case of the heebee jeebees. Yes, an expression right out of the 1950s. Thanks for that, Nance!

We need to look out for our own interests, even with an agent. And some publishers do still write these sort of contracts for ghost writers. Look at the whole “I Am Number Four” scandal. The publisher preyed on recent MFA grads with huge student loans and got them to write those books for peanuts. Just make sure you know exactly what you’re agreeing to when you sign on that dotted line.

*Sorry, redheads…myself included. No ill-will intended.




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Use KDP Changes to Help Promote your Children’s Book

Public Domain Reading WebIf you haven’t already published a juvenile book with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) you don’t know they announced a big change on June 2.  In a letter to all their children’s book publishers they wrote:

“You can now set age and grade categorization refinements to help readers discover your books.”

Okay maybe this doesn’t sound news worthy to some of you, but every independent children’s book author cheered wildly. Or at least they should have if they understand anything about marketing. Before this announcement age and grade classifications (in all but a few cases) were restricted to the big named publishers. Now Indies can compete on an equal level, getting their books onto those all important children’s book recommendation lists, and it may be a game changer. This is Amazon handing out the marketing equivalent of a golden ticket. It immediately gives authors the opportunity to position their books perfectly, maximizing their chances of finding buyers.


There is a downside. Unless they already know a lot about education and child development, some authors may have no clue where their book falls in the Amazon brackets.

The categories are:

  Baby to age 2 – Board books
  Ages 3-5/Preschool – Picture books
  Ages 6-8/Kindergarten-2nd grade – Early level readers; first chapter books
  Ages 9-11/3rd-5th grade – Middle Grade chapter books
  Ages 12-14/6th-8th grade – Teen and Young Adult chapter books (mainly aimed at middle school readers)
  Ages 15-18/9th-12th grade – Teen and Young Adult chapter books (mainly aimed at high school readers)

These categories may sound like arbitrary distinctions, we all know readers who let personal preference dictate their selections more so than age or grade. However, that’s not how the book industry sees things, and most educators and librarians share that view. Educational buyers are traditionally a big portion of the children’s book buying market and are professional groups with little spare time, small budgets and high user demands. Every bit of information the author can provide these circumspect buyers will help them make good decisions. Plus once educators know and love your books they tend to be solid repeat buyers for years to come.

Understanding what type of information educators need to make informed selections is the first step toward building a lasting relationship. These sophisticated buyers must rely on a number of variables when making purchases, but one important piece of information is a standardized readability score. These are scores generated by specialized software that uses a mathematical formula to analyze written language and then awards it a number to represent the necessary skill level needed to read that book. The skill number loosely corresponds to a grade level. More specifically to the grade when the “average” student might attain that level of proficiency. This type of software is not foolproof, but it is a great place for buyers to start searching from.

One of the most common scores in traditionally published books is the Lexile system which is often printed on the back cover of popular children’s books. However, there are a number of other readability score systems. Remember, these assessment tools look at the language from the standpoint of readability, not content. Some children may read at a higher grade level, but lack the reading stamina to tackle a longer book, or the maturity for every subject.

You can find a number of readability calculators available for free over the internet or you can use the one built into MS Word. I ran this post through an index and generated this report:

          Reading Ease

A higher score indicates easier readability; scores usually range between 0 and 100.
Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease    61.3   

Grade Levels

A grade level (based on the USA education system) is equivalent to the number of years of education a person has had. Scores over 22 should generally be taken to mean graduate level text.
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level    8.7       
Gunning-Fog Score    11.3      
Coleman-Liau Index    12      
SMOG Index    8.4      
Automated Readability Index    8.9      

Average Grade Level    9.9     

Understanding the value of reader evaluation tools is important for all authors, even those who want to seek representation and a “traditional” book deal. While finishing up this post I happened to catch an agent on Twitter explaining in heated detail that a book cannot be MA and YA at the same time. And that by pitching it to her as such, the writer was proving they didn’t understand the market.

Don’t be that writer. Do your research, study the markets and use reader tools to help you get it right.
I understand many writers hate guidelines; they prefer to write their book their way. I respect that, but you have to think about the reader. There is nothing more frustrating to a child then getting a great book they can’t read comfortably. They need to find books that help them achieve a careful balance, ones that leave them with a feeling of accomplishment, not frustration. Placing your book in the right reading level category is the final step toward making a child’s reading experience with your book a magical one. And isn’t that why we all write for children in the first place?

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Brain Triggers: Use Visuals

1543,AndreasVesalius'Fabrica,BaseOfTheBrainI am not a clear surface person. I have images all over my house, pictures my kids drew cover the fridge, and photos of family and friends dot the walls. I enjoy being surrounded by these pictures, all happy reminders of good times. However, when I need to work, or I’m feeling a touch of writer’s block, these items don’t help me, they’re a distraction. What does help me is using brain triggers. If you don’t know what brain triggers are, you might want to check out one of my earlier posts. I already mentioned how you can use the power of Sounds and Smells  as a trigger. Brain triggers are a collection of tricks for helping your mind recall long forgotten memories and emotions. In this post I’ll show you how to use visual cues to tap into these emotions. Triggers can help everyone strengthen their writing. Use one tip, or use all of them and watch your writing improve.

Start with old photo boxes:

When you want to find brain triggers, you need to look for images that hold sentimental value. The best ones are the ones you haven’t looked at in a while. Select some photos of events, people, pets, anything where your emotions for that photo closely match those feelings you want to capture in your writing. This can be a negative or positive emotion. If you want to write about intense joy, find a photo from the happiest day of your life. Want to give some credibility to a teenage character? Drag out the worst school picture ever taken of you, or your yearbook where someone wrote a nasty comment. Study just one of these old photos before writing. Take as long as you need with the photo, let it flood you with those old emotions and memories. Become that kid going to school every day wondering when the school bully would strike again. Now put the trigger photo out of sight and work. Dive into those old emotions, let them take hold of you. Don’t fight your old memories, don’t rationalize them or second guess what you would do differently, just embrace them. Cry tears of joy, or yell at the boy who broke your heart with all the simmering rage of youth.

Look at familiar images in a new way:

Most writers stock pile photos to use as references. When we first found these photos they inspired us, but now months later, not so much. You need to learn to see the photos with fresh eyes to reignite that old spark of excitement. Print out color copies of your important reference photos, the celebrities, locations or outfits you’re using for your book. Working with one image at a time, try turning the image upside down and studying it. What do you notice? Something new? Take black construction paper and cut out a small hole in the center of it. Position this over your image. Block out all the other details and study that one spot. Maybe just look at the eyes of your photo. What do you see? Separated from the rest of the face, the eyes can convey something opposite of the familiar smile. Our brains are naturally hardwired to take in the big picture. It’s why you may not know your best friend’s eye color. Doing this refocusing exercise not only helps you craft detail rich prose, but it pushes your brain into a deeper functioning level as it decodes the images and its brain candy. Many people love word scrambles or find-the-hidden-images games, they dust off complacent thinking and stimulate creativity. Make your own puzzles by cutting up your reference images. How well do you recognize the mansion you set your story in when it’s reduced to a one inch square? Or if you cut two similar buildings apart, could you rematch all the pieces, or would you end up with a hybrid of the two buildings mixed together? You might be surprised.

Change your environment:

Some people love to work outside. With the sun on my face it’s much easier for me to think about my Egyptian characters. They would be fighting glare, flies, and oppressive heat, something easy to forget inside a thermostat controlled house. Being outside helps me think about how different things look in full sunlight. I start to write about shade and shadow. If you can’t physically get into the right climate, you might try to surround your desk with huge posters of sun drenched beaches or frozen fjords. Work in a airport, a train station, or a museum. Study the staff. What do they where? Do they look happy to be there? Soak up the texture of the rug, the paper on the walls and the look of the light fixtures. Maps can also help, they give us visual reminders of the distances between places. Create interior blueprints of your locations, with detailed furnishings, and post these near your desk. All these visual references help you relate spatially to your setting. They can help you rediscover the landscapes in a fresh way. Setting a book in a place you don’t call home is always challenging, so learning how to trigger some old memories and emotions is important, and really helps gives you an edge when you want to give each setting a realistic feel.   

Remember to swap your images around. Once your mind adapts to seeing the pictures they will stop producing a strong trigger. Happy writing!

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