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Worldbuilding part 4: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic #amwriting

Personal power and how we confer it is the layer of worldbuilding where writers of science and writers of magic come together.

  • WritingCraftWorldbuildingScienceVSMagicMagic and the ability to wield it confers power. Magical creatures, elves, mythical races, mythological gods and demigods – these are some of the many natural and supernatural components of fantasy.
  • Science and superior technology also confer power. Science fiction embraces current physics and theoretically possible technology, taking them into the near or distant future.

Speculative fiction is comprised of two overarching genres: science fiction and fantasy. The choice to make the technology of science or the technology of magic the primary source of power in your story determines which side of the coin lands up. The way you choose to go determines the sub-genre.

A novel set firmly in the technology of the past with no magic is not mainstream sci-fi. If it falls in late Victorian or early Edwardian times and uses the technology available in that era in advanced ways, it could be a branch of sci-fi called Steampunk.

If it takes place in an earlier era and contains magic, magical creatures, or advanced technology, it is an Alternate World fantasy (magic) or sci-fi (tech). If it has no magic or advanced technology, it could be a different genre altogether: historical fiction.

Science fiction has strict parameters established by its readers. The wise author will pay attention to those limits if they want their work to resonate with that audience.

I have said this before, but I feel the need to repeat it. Science is not magic, and it should not feel to a reader as if it were. It is logical, rooted in the realm of both factual and theoretical physics.

David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_The_AlchemistAuthors of sci-fi must do the research and understand the scientific method. This path of testing and evaluation objectively explains nature and the world around us in a reproducible way. The physics of our current technology, everything from toasters and cellphones to microwave ovens and spaceships has been created using scientific discoveries by people who understand the scientific method.  

Skepticism and peer review are fundamental parts of the process.

An important thing for authors to understand is who their readers are. Those who read and write hard science fiction are often employed in various fields of science, technology, or education in some capacity.

They know the difference between physics and fantasy.

The same goes for those who read fantasy: they are often employed in fields that require critical thinking.

Often, readers of both genres are avid gamers. Gamers learn to develop skillsets within strict parameters to advance in the game. Thus, logic and limitations define how much enjoyment they get from a gaming or reading experience.

I read a great many books in all genres. If I have one complaint, it is that many authors indulge in mushy science or magic. They make it up as they go, which is what we all do, but they don’t bother to cover their tracks.

When they get to the editing stage, they don’t go back and look for the contradictions in their magic or science, the places where a reader can no longer suspend their disbelief.

Magic is also a science and should be held to the same standard as physics. Having magic conveys power in the same way that having superior technology does.

If magic is a tool that your characters rely on, it must be believable. I write fantasy, so the science of magic is an underlying, invisible layer that is part of my worldbuilding process.

915px-An_alchemist_in_his_laboratory._Oil_painting_by_a_follower_o_Wellcome_V0017631The following is my list of places where the rules of believable magic and technology converge in genre fiction:

  1. The number of people who can use either magic or technology should be limited.
  2. The ways that characters can use magic or technology should be limited.
  3. Characters with those abilities or equipment should be limited to one or two kinds of magic/technology. Only specific mages/technicians can make use of all forms of magic/technology.
  4. There must be strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic/technology can do.
  5. The author must clearly define the conditions under which this magic/technology will work.
  6. There must be some conditions under which the magic/technology will not work.
  7. There must be limits to the damage magic/technology can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform.
  8. The wielder of this magic/technology might pay a physical/emotional price for using it.
  9. The wielder of this magic/technology should pay a physical/emotional price for abusing it.
  10. The learning curve for magic should be steep and sometimes lethal.

For the narrative to have a realistic conflict, the enemy must have access to equal or better science/magic.

Often in the case of magic, the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school.” When this is the case, the author has two systems and sets of rules to design for that story.

The same goes for technology. One group may have found a way to exploit physics that places the other group at a disadvantage. This disparity is where the tension comes into the story.

We authors must create the rules of magic or the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist. We must do it in the first stages of the writing process. If you have been creating your stylesheet, take the time to include a page defining the laws of physics/magic that pertain to your universe.

It will only require fifteen minutes to half an hour to brainstorm and create a system that satisfies the above ten requirements. This way, you will be sure the logic of your magic/technology has no hidden flaws.

When you take the time to research science technologies or create magic systems, you create a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Limits force us to be creative, to find alternative ways to resolve problems.

There can be an occasional exception to a rule within either science or magic, but it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

There must be an obvious, rational explanation for that exception.

An_Alchemist_attributed_to_Joost_van_Atteveld_Centraal_Museum_20801Science or magic is only an underpinning of the plot. They are foundational components of the backstory. 

The only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is at the moment it affects the characters and their actions. When Gandalf casts a spell, or Sulu fires his phaser, the reader knows the characters have these abilities/technologies.

The best background information comes out only when that knowledge affects the story. It emerges naturally in actions, conversations, or as visual components of the setting.

By not baldly dropping the history or science/magic on the reader in paragraph form, the knowledge becomes a normal part of the environment rather than an info dump.

The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Designing the Story (includes creating a stylesheet)

Worldbuilding Part1: Climate

Worldbuilding Part 2: Maps, Place-names, and Consistency

Worldbuilding Part 3: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic

This Post: Worldbuilding Part 4: Creating the Visual World

Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:David Teniers the Younger – The Alchemist.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:David_Teniers_the_Younger_-_The_Alchemist.jpg&oldid=528972179 (accessed July 18, 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An Alchemist attributed to Joost van Atteveld Centraal Museum 20801.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_Alchemist_attributed_to_Joost_van_Atteveld_Centraal_Museum_20801.jpg&oldid=531124885 (accessed July 18, 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:An alchemist in his laboratory. Oil painting by a follower o Wellcome V0017631.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:An_alchemist_in_his_laboratory._Oil_painting_by_a_follower_o_Wellcome_V0017631.jpg&oldid=303482875 (accessed July 18, 2021).

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Worldbuilding part two: maps, place names, and consistency #amwriting

My first novels were complete messes to edit. I didn’t have a clue about how to structure a plot and what to avoid. Surviving those editing experiences taught me many ways to smooth the path to a finished novel.

When a manuscript is first accepted, editors at all the large publishing houses begin creating a list of names, places, and created words. This document also contains a glossary and other information that pertains only to that manuscript. My editor refers to this as a stylesheet. Other editors refer to this as a “bible.”

WritingCraft_mapsSome people use a program called Scrivener, which is not too expensive, but which I found quite frustrating. Nevertheless, I understand that it works well for many people, so it may be an investment to consider.

For myself, I don’t need a fancy word-processing program. I use Microsoft Office 360 because I have used Microsoft software since 1993, and I’ve adapted to each upgrade they have made. I use Word for writing and editing and Excel to make stylesheets for each novel or tale I write. I make stylesheets for every book I edit.

If you prefer, you can use a pencil and paper and keep these lists in a ring binder. Or you can use Google Docs/Sheets or OpenOffice, both of which are free.

The stylesheet can take several forms, but it is a visual guide to print out or keep minimized until it’s needed. I copy and paste every invented word or name onto my list, doing this the first time they appear in the manuscript. If I am conscientious about this, I’ll be less likely to contradict myself later inadvertently.

Regardless of how you create your stylesheet, I suggest you include these elements:

  1. Names and invented words, all spelled the way you want them.
  2. The page or chapter where the word first appears.
  3. The meaning of each invented word.
  4. Maps, something rudimentary to show the layout of the world.
  5. Calendar.

This list is especially crucial for fantasy authors because we invent entire worlds, religions, and magic systems.

sample-of-rough-sketched-mapMaps are essential tools when you are building the world. Your map doesn’t have to be fancy. You need to know north, south, east, west, where rivers and forests are relative to towns, and locations of mountains.

You also need some idea of distances and how long it takes to travel using the common mode of transportation.

All you need is a pencil-drawn map, lines and scribbles telling you all the essential things. Use a pencil, so you can easily update it if something changes during revisions.

If you aren’t artistic and want a nice map later, this little map will enable them to provide you with a beautiful and accurate product. You will have a map that contains the information needed for readers to enjoy your book.

I also keep a calendar of events for each novel, and believe me, that calendar has saved me several times.

Map of Eynier Valley for HTB copy copy

Places written on a map tend to be ‘engraved in stone,’ so to speak. Readers will wonder where the town of Maldon is when the only village on the map at the front of the book that comes close to that name is listed as Malton.

To prevent that from happening, double-check what you have written on the map, and then do a global search for every possible variant of that name in your manuscript.

Just because you invented the world doesn’t mean you know it like the back of your hand.

That world is constantly evolving in your mind. I have been writing in the world of Neveyah since 2009, and I still contradict myself, which is why the stylesheet is so important.

Every story I write that is set in that world must have the right sights, sounds, and smells. When it comes to worldbuilding, the stylesheet is crucial.

What is the name of the world in which the story opens? The file name you give this document should contain it. My oldest stylesheet is labeled Neveyah_stylesheet.xls and has been evolving with each book in that series.

What did you name the town/village where the protagonists are living? Place names can give the reader an idea of the kind of world your town or village is set in.

I live in an area where the indigenous people were pushed aside and their land taken over and settled by a mixture of Scots, Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians. Our place names reflect all those cultures.

Forty miles west of my house is a coastal city named Aberdeen, and next to it is a city named Hoquiam, a city whose name has its origin in Native Culture.

This is how the countries of Canada and the US are from coast to coast; signs of European ancestry mingled with traditional names reflecting the tribes who were there first.

Are there forests? Mountains? Rivers? My part of the world has large tracts of forests, many wide rivers, and is mountainous, with numerous volcanos.

Each of these areas will affect how your communities live, what resources they have for building, and how long it takes to go from one place to another.

You can’t travel in a straight line over mountains or forests. Sometimes you must travel parallel to a river for a long way until you come to a place shallow enough to cross.

Stowe_River_Basin_Midwest_Neveyah_2020And we’ll just toss this out there – while you can drop a tall tree across a narrow creek, building bridges over rivers requires a certain amount of engineering. Cultures from the Stone Age on to modern times have had the skills needed to make bridges.

Archeology and history both tell us that humans, as a species, are tribal by nature. We band together for protection, shelter, better access to resources, and companionship.

We are creative, and archaeology shows us that our ancestors were capable of far more than we have traditionally believed.

Humans have always created communities where resources are plentiful, but climate changes.

History and geology tell us that what was once a good place may become a desert over time. Your maps should take all the terrain your characters must deal with into consideration.

We based our societies on our oral histories and family connections. How our ancestors lived in their chosen area and what their traditions became were shaped by the climate and the lay of the land. The resources available to them were the reasons they stayed and built communities.

Those aspects of worldbuilding will form the backdrop of your story. If you make a stylesheet, your invented world will be consistent and contain all the elements that make it feel solid to a reader.



Credits and Attributions:

Map of Mearth, © 2015 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.  

Map of the Eynier Valley for Huw the Bard, © 2015 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

Map of the Stowe River Basin, World of Neveyah, © 2021 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

Map of Neveyah, World of Neveyah, © 2021 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.


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World-building part one: climate #amwriting

Hello from a small town near beautiful Olympia, Washington. June was a strange month, climate-wise. We usually have the same climate as those of you in Wales or England.

MyWritingLife2021BOn June 27th, within the space of days, we went from temperatures well below average, low to mid-60s, and pouring rain to suffering from temperatures well above 100 degrees—108 at my house, 111 at my sister’s house 10 miles away. We use Fahrenheit in the US, but for you in the UK and Europe, we topped out at around 44 degrees Celsius. For more on the week from H**l, see this article in the Seattle Times.

Now we’re back to temperatures that are slightly above normal, getting up to the mid to upper 80s, and we feel like that’s a cool breeze.

Air conditioning isn’t as commonly built into homes here as in other parts of the US. Those of us who have the occasional A/C window unit are the lucky ones. This is because, until recent years, summers here never really began until July 5th or so, with low clouds and drizzle for much of June, and they never became unbearably warm.

When the sun did arrive, temperatures, for most of the time we have kept records, ran into the high 70s or rarely, low to mid-80s. We are said to have a generally mild climate, and while that is changing, we hope it will remain mostly temperate.

When the heatwave hit, our free-standing A/C unit saved us, but when the outside temperature reached 108, the temperature in our back hallway was still 89 degrees.

Until this year, that seemed uncomfortably warm.

Now we’re grateful for a day that doesn’t end with us prostrate.

So, let’s look at the weather as a factor in world-building.

What follows is a plan to help you lay the groundwork for the world in which your novel is set. First, what sort of world is your life set in? When you look out the window, what do you see?

I always think that if an author can inject enough reality into a fantasy or sci-fi setting, the world will feel solid when I read it.

The weather can be shown in small, subtle ways. Usually, authors use the weather as background to give a sense of place to our characters’ interactions and the events they precipitate.

The path was slippery and required scaling the cliff in some places. By the time they arrived at the clifftop, the sky had begun to clear, and the low fog was dissipating. Patches of blue peeked from behind the gray clouds, and the wind had picked up.


Haystack Rock in the Fog

Other times, weather becomes the star of the story. Tornados, hurricanes, bizarre heatwaves—these weather events can be the villain our heroes must overcome.

Once you have decided your overall climate, do some research on how the weather affects agriculture and animal husbandry.

The best way to make the fantasy world real is to visualize the scene clearly and place yourself there. Blend what you know about the natural world into it. Write out all the details that will never make it into your story, things you as the author must have set in your mind.

Now we get to the tactile parts of the setting:

How does the weather make the characters feel? Is it too warm, too wet, or is it pleasant? If your novel’s setting is a low-tech civilization, the weather will have a different kind of effect on your characters than one set in a modern society.

Parker observed the beach from his balcony. Far down at the north end of the cove, Leo and Claire walked beside the surf, with Leo’s gestures emphasizing his words. Claire was hunched against the sharp breeze in her hooded sweatshirt and agitated. It was clear her agent had told her something she didn’t want to hear.

In any era, the weather affects the speed with which your characters can travel great distances and how they dress. Bad weather always has a detrimental effect on transportation, a serious point to consider.

For example, when the heatwave was just beginning, when it was still only building, we made a trip 80 miles north to visit two of our daughters. We stayed the night in Snohomish, then stopped in Bothell to have lunch with our second oldest son. We left our last stop in Bellevue at 3 pm to head home.

sample-of-rough-sketched-mapThe journey from our youngest daughter’s house to our home 60 miles south of there took 3 ½ hours, a trip that should take an hour. Unfortunately, traffic had ground to a halt in many places. At times, we would speed along at 5 miles an hour, sometimes as fast as ten. Many drivers couldn’t handle the 94-degree heat of that day, and their short tempers combined with several stalled vehicles made for a miserable journey down I5.

But enough about the wretched climate and the effects of global warming on my life. Our next post will talk about location, and why I make simple maps for every fantasy world in which my work is set.

Credits and Attributions:

Haystack Rock in the Fog, © 2016-2021 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.

Map of Mearth, © 2015-2021 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved.



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Fundamentals of Grammar: seven basic rules of punctuation #amwriting

Mark Twain famously said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

MarkTwainEatAFrogQuotLIRF04042021Many authors  are just beginning their careers and trying to self-edit their NaNoWriMo manuscript. The problem is, they don’t know how to write a readable sentence or what constitutes a paragraph. If they are hoping to find an agent or self-publish, they have a big, ugly job ahead of them.

Most public schools in the US don’t go into depth in teaching creative writing, so the majority of students leave school with only a cursory understanding of basic mechanics.

We know good writing when we read it, but when we are just starting out, getting our thoughts onto paper so others enjoy it eludes us.

Learning to write in your native language involves work and means you must educate yourself. As Twain would say, this is a multi-frog task.

The biggest frog to swallow is gaining an understanding of basic punctuation.

Punctuation is the traffic signal that keeps the words flowing and the intersection manageable.

Trying to learn from a grammar manual can be complicated, but I learned by reading the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the rule book for American English. Most editors refer to this book when they have questions.

However, you don’t need to know everything that is in that book, because the basic rules are simple. If you know these seven laws, your writing will pass most editors’ tests.

What follows is a quick guide, a “How-To Guide for Basic Punctuation.”

Punctuation seems difficult because some advanced usages are open to interpretation. In those cases, how you habitually use them is your voice. Nevertheless, the foundational laws of comma use are not open to interpretation.

If you consistently follow these rules, your work will look professional.

First:  Let’s get two newbie mistakes out of the way:

  1. Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.

  2. Do not insert commas where you think it should pause because every reader sees the pauses differently.

Commas and the fundamental rules for their use exist for a reason. If we want the reading public to understand our work, we need to follow them.

Second: Commas join two independent but related clauses.

The independent clause is a complete standalone sentence.

  • Edward worships the ground I walk on, but his adoration tires me.

Dependent clauses are unfinished and can’t stand on their own. Join them to the sentence with a conjunction.

  • Edward worships the ground I walk on and brings me my coffee. (And is a conjunction, a joining word.)

You do not join unrelated independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuum: the Dreaded Comma Splice:

comma-spliceComma Splice:

Boris kissed the hem of my garment, the dog likes to ride shotgun.

The dog has little to do with Boris, other than the fact they both worship me. The same thought, written correctly:

Boris kissed the hem of my garment.

The dog likes to ride shotgun.

The dog riding shotgun is an independent clause and does not relate at all to Boris and his adoration of me and should be in a separate paragraph. If you want Boris and the dog in the same sentence, you must rewrite it: Boris and the dog worship me, and both like to ride shotgun.

Third: A semicolon in an untrained hand is a needle to the eye of the reader. Use them only when two standalone sentences or clauses are short and relate directly to each other.

Some people (and Microsoft Word) think they signify an extra-long pause but not a hard ending. The Chicago Manual of Style says that belief is wrong. DON’T blindly accept what Spellcheck tells you!

Semicolons join short independent clauses, which can stand alone but which relate to each other. These are short sentences that would be too choppy if left separate.

  • The door swung open at a touch. Light spilled into the room.
  • The door swung open at a touch; light spilled into the room.
  • The door swung open at a touch, and light spilled into the room.

All three of the above sentences are technically correct. The usage you habitually choose is your voice. I usually suggest avoiding semicolons except under those circumstances, as they’re the gateway to run-on sentences.

When do we use semicolons? Only when two clauses are short and are complete sentences that relate to each other.

If the independent clauses don’t relate to each other, revise that passage. Use common sense and rewrite them, so they aren’t choppy. An example of a semicolon done wrong:

Boris attempted to kiss the hem of my garment; my boot was in his face.

The first clause is one whole idea: Boris adores me. The second clause is an entirely different idea: my boot was someplace inconvenient.

Two separate standalone clauses done right, assuming the mention of my boot is essential:

Boris attempted to kiss the hem of my garment, but my boot was in his face.

I don’t dislike semicolons as some editors do, but I generally try to find alternatives to them. I think they are too easily abused because Microsoft Word and most people don’t know how to use them.

Fourth: Colons. These head lists but are more appropriate for technical writing and are rarely needed in narrative prose.

Fifth:  Oxford commas, also known as serial commas. This is the one war authors will never win or find common ground, a true civil war. When listing a string of things in a narrative, we separate them with commas to prevent confusion. I like people to understand what I mean, so I always use the Oxford Comma/Serial Comma.

If there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma. If there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used as it would be used in a list.

We sell dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds.

Why we need clarity:

I accept this Nebula award and thank my parents Ralf and Maggie Jasperson and Poseidon.

Rumors abound regarding my demigoddess-like beauty and possibly heroic background. Could Poseidon be my father? Mother refused to talk about it, so the mystery remains unsolved. However, a comma after Jasperson would eliminate confusion.

virtually golden medallion of mayhem copyI accept this Nebula award and thank my parents, Ralf and Maggie Jasperson, and Poseidon.

Sixth: We use a comma after common introductory clauses.

After dark, Boris would change into his bat form and go hunting for insects.

Seventh: Punctuating dialogue: All punctuation goes inside the quote marks.

  1. A comma follows the spoken words, separating the dialogue from the speech tag.
  2. The clause containing the dialogue is enclosed, punctuation and all, within quotes.
  3. The speech tag is the second half of the sentence, and a period ends the entire sentence.

“I agree with those statements,” said the editor.

The editor said, “I agree with those statements.”

What do these seven rules mean? Punctuation tames the chaos that our words can become. It is the universally acknowledged traffic signal, signifying a pause or a joining to the reader.

If you follow these seven simple rules, your work will be readable. If your story is stellar, it will be acceptable to acquisitions editors.


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Successful Self-Editing #amwriting

Books are machines, comprised of many essential components. If one of those elements fail, the book won’t work the way the author envisions it. So, what are these parts?

no_graceful_way_outLIRF02212021Prose, plot, transitions, pacing, theme, characterization, dialogue, and mechanics (grammar/punctuation).

As an editor, I’ve seen every kind of mistake you can imagine and written many travesties myself. This tendency to not see the flaws in our own work is why I have an editor. I need someone with a critical eye to see my work before publication.

I am in the process of revising my Accidental Novel, prepping it to send to my editor. I have a three-part method, using specific tools that come with my word-processing program.

Phase one: the initial read-through. This stage is put into action once I have completed the revisions suggested by my beta readers. At this point, the manuscript looks finished, but it has only just begun the journey.

I use Microsoft Word. On the Review Tab, I access the Read Aloud function and begin reading along with the mechanical voice. Yes, it’s annoying and doesn’t always pronounce things right, but this first tool shows me a wide variety of places that need rewriting.

ReviewTabLIRF07032021I use this function rather than reading it aloud myself, as I tend to see and read aloud what I think should be there rather than what is.

  1. I habitually key the word though when I mean through. These are two widely different words but are only one letter apart. Most miss-keyed words will leap out when you hear them read aloud.
  2. Run-on sentences stand out when you hear them read aloud.
  3. Inadvertent repetitions also stand out.
  4. Hokey phrasing doesn’t sound as good as you thought it was.
  5. You hear where you have dropped words because you were keying so fast you skipped over including an article, like “the” or “a” before a noun.

This is a long process that involves a lot of stopping and starting, taking me a week to get through the entire 90,000-word manuscript. By the end of phase one, I will have trimmed about 3,000 words.

Phase Two: The Manual Edit

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingThis phase is where I find my punctuation errors most often. I look for and correct punctuation and make notes for any other improvements that must be made. Usually, I cut entire sections, as they are riffs on ideas that have been presented before. Sometimes they are outright repetitions, which don’t leap out when viewed on the computer screen.

  1. Open your manuscript. Break it into separate chapters, and make sure each is clearly and consistently labeled. Make certain the chapter numbers are in the proper sequence and that they don’t skip a number. For a work in progress, Baron’s Hollow, I labeled my chapter files this way:
  • BH_ch_1
  • BH_ch_2
  1. Print out the first chapter. Everything looks different printed out, and you will see many things you don’t notice on the computer screen or hear when the voice reads it aloud.
  2. Turn to the last page. Cover the page with another sheet of paper, leaving only the last paragraph visible.
  3. Starting with the last paragraph on the last page, begin reading, working your way forward.
  4. With a yellow highlighter, mark each place that needs correction.
  5. Put the corrected chapter on a recipe stand next to your computer. Open your document and begin making revisions as noted on your hard copy.

This is the phase where I look for what I think of as code words. I look at words like “went.” In my personal writing habits, “went” is a code word that tells me when a scene ends and transitions to another stage. The characters or their circumstances are undergoing a change. One scene is ending, and another is beginning.

In fact, all info dumps, passive phrasing, and timid words are codes for the author, laid down in the first draft.

Clunky phrasing and info dumps are signals telling me what I intend that scene to be. In the rewrite, I must expand on those ideas and ensure the prose is active. I must cut some of the info and allow the reader to use their imagination.

I look for all of the eight forms of the verb “be” and change that passive phrasing to make it active if possible. The forms of “be” are subjunctives and are tricky words. They’re necessary in some cases, but not always and can become crutches.

Be_Eight_Forms_LIRF05122019Passive phrasing does the job with little effort on the part of the author, which is why the first drafts of my work are littered with it. Active phrasing takes more effort because it involves visualizing a scene and showing it to the reader.

For example, when I see the word “went,” I immediately know someone goes somewhere. But “went” is a telling word and is passive phrasing. I ask myself, “How do they go?” Went can always be shown as a scene. Loretta opened the door, gave Burt the finger, and strode out.

By the end of phase two, I will have trimmed about 3,000 more words from my manuscript.

Phase three is the step that only works if you have an understanding of grammar and industry practices. Currently, at this stage in our technology, understanding context is solely a human function.

You may have found that your word processing program has spellcheck and some minor editing assists. Spellcheck is notorious for both helping and hindering you.

Tools like spellcheck don’t understand context, so if a word is misused but spelled correctly, it probably won’t alert you to an obvious error.

  • There, their, they’re.
  • To, too, two.
  • Its, it’s.

In the third phase of prepping my work to send to my editor, I go over each chapter one more time, this time using Grammarly. I have also used ProWriting Aid. Each one has strengths and weaknesses.

Context is critical. I am wary of relying on Grammarly or ProWriting Aid for anything other than alerting you to possible comma and spelling malfunctions.

If you don’t know anything about punctuation, don’t feel alone. Most of us don’t when we’re first starting out, and if this is your case, your best bet is to avoid these programs.

chicago guide to grammarUse that money to invest in a book like the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation and learn how grammar works.

Good editing software is not cheap. But for my specific needs, it has been a worthwhile investment. If you do choose to invest in some, use common sense when reviewing the program’s suggestions.

This three-part process can take more than a month. When I’ve finished, I’ll have a manuscript to send my editor that won’t be full of distractions. She’ll be able to focus on finding as much of what I have missed as is humanly possible.

Hopefully, between the two of us, I’ll have a decent book to publish early in 2022.



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Random Thoughts on Writing #amwriting

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t review books I don’t like. So, without naming names, let’s talk about why some books are not on my review list.

WritingCraft_lazyWritersPassive phrasing: If you watch them in real life, people don’t “begin” to pick up that knife. They don’t “start” to walk away.

They reach for the knife. They take the knife from the drawer.

They walk away.

We’re thinking and writing the story as it falls from our heads. Because we get into storytelling mode, the dog begins to bark, and the neighbors start to complain. In real life, the dog barks, and the neighbors complain.

When you write with a passive voice, it’s easy to use too many quantifiers, such as “it was really big” or “it was incredibly awesome.” It becomes easy to “tell” the story instead of showing it: “Bob was mad.”

Then there is the opposite extreme, showing far too much.

Some authors have been told their prose is passive and are desperate to avoid that. But they have a lot of detail they want to convey, so they resort to clumsy lead-ins and awkward descriptions. This only announces that a lengthy exposition is forthcoming. 

Please, don’t use a phrase like: “She felt her eyes roll over her host’s attire” and then follow it with a paragraph describing the host in microscopic detail. That unfortunately phrased sentence is one of the less obnoxious lines from a book I was unable to finish reading several years back. It stuck with me because the paragraph that followed it was so awful.

Nothing gives me the creeps more than a 250-word description of eyeballs independently rolling up and down and all over a purple velvet suit of dubious origin. I could see what the author was trying to say, but the host’s suit was the least of the travesties in that train wreck: most people’s eyeballs do not leap from their head and roll over anything.

Instead, they could have written the entire 250-word encounter this way: Vincent wore a suit of purple velvet, threadbare, and looking as if it came from his grandfather’s closet.

It’s a struggle sometimes, but we must try to slip descriptions into the narrative in less obvious ways.

Some authors swamp the reader with minute details: “Marge’s eyebrows drew together, her lips turned down, and her cheeks popped a dimple. Hate glared from her eyes.”

Some authors ruin the taste of their work with an avalanche of prettily written descriptors: “-ly” words.

Others may want to show their characters as human, so they have them natter on about nothing: “Remember when….” If the memory doesn’t pertain to the story or explain something about a character that has been a mystery, it doesn’t advance the plot. Rather than showing them as human, it pads the word count, stalls the momentum, and the reader stops reading.

ClicheDefinitionBingLIRF06282021Use of clichés. Speaking as a reader, please don’t use the word alabaster to describe a woman’s skin. Make an effort to find a different way to describe her appearance. It’s an easy word that says smooth and pale, but it’s an overused word that has become cliché.

As a matter of reference, it’s not usually necessary to describe a character’s skin other than with broad generalizations because you want the reader to imagine them for themselves, and we all have different ideas of beauty.

Clichés and catchphrases will appear in the first drafts of our work, but they are signposts for the second draft. They tell us to spend some time finding a creative way to show a person or event.

Events that occur for no reason and take the story nowhere: I loved “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series of books written by the late Douglas Adams.

The books detail the adventures of Arthur Dent, a hapless Englishman traveling the galaxy in his pajamas. He and his friend are transported off the earth just in time to miss the destruction of the planet by the Vogons, a race of unpleasant and bureaucratic aliens, to make way for an intergalactic bypass.

Douglas Adams’ work is a little bit “out there,” but he understood that there must be a reason for the protagonist to leave his home wearing his pajamas and a robe. He used that opportunity to show the cozy, comfortable environment Arthur was about to be thrust out of.

Adams understood he first had to show Arthur in his happy home, and then his protagonist had to be quickly yanked out there and placed on that Vogon Constructor Ship.

For me as an author, the easiest part of writing is inadvertently slipping some clumsy bit of phrasing into my narrative, having an action scene go hilariously (and impossibly) wrong. I don’t usually notice the awkwardness until my editor points it out.

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingAs a reader, things will pull me out of the narrative, and I will probably stop reading at that point. Most of these issues are the result of lazy writing habits.

Research: Using real science requires research, which is time-consuming. Writing true history, writing medical dramas, and using police and military procedures involves effort. You must glean research from more sources than Wikipedia and old CSI episodes.

If you are writing historical fiction, you must read many books on your subject. Make notes as you read each, noting the book title, the author, and the page number where you found the info—you may need to know those things later. It’s work, but this is a job where you can’t skimp.

If you are writing speculative fiction, you will accumulate science or other background information in your world-building process. You will want to keep it organized, and this is where the style sheet or storyboard comes in handy.

What the style sheet/storyboard should cover:

  • All names, created or not: Aeos, Aeolyn, Beryl, Carl, Edwin, etc.
  • Real and created animal names: alligator, stinkbear, thunder-cow, waterdemon
  • Created words that are hyphenated: fire-mage, thunder-cow
  • All place names, real or created: Seattle, Chicago, Ragat, Wister, Sevya, Arlen, Neveyah
  • Any research note you have accumulated.

See my post, Designing the story for more on how to make a storyboard or style sheet.

good_stories_LIRFmemeKeep your notes/stylesheet in a clearly labeled file, and back them up on a thumb drive or file them in the cloud via Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Docs. I use and work out of a file-saving service, so my files won’t be lost no matter what happens to my computer.

Turning those notes into your story is an integral part of the writing process.

Plagiarism – this is most important: never copy lines from another person’s work and pass them off as your own. That is plagiarism, and you never want to be accused of that. If you must quote someone verbatim in your book, contact their publisher and get their legal permission to do so, and credit them by using proper footnotes. If you do not receive written consent, do not use their work.

Keep this written permission on file with any other legal papers that pertain to that book.

An excellent article on this can be found here: Cite Unseen: 3 Bits for a Better Bibliography



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Designing the story #amwriting

July is Camp NaNoWriMo month. If you are interested, join Camp NaNoWriMo to take on any writing project, novel or not, and set a word-count goal of your own. Yes, any goal, any project.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemI think of stories as if they were ponds filled with words. A pond has layers, and so do good stories. I see the three layers of a story as:

Surface: The Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. Characters live, and events happen. These are reflected in the surface of the story. We change the look of the surface layer by choosing either realism or surrealism or a blend of the two.

Realism is a common form of storytelling. It is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of story. The setting can be anywhere and told using the tropes of any genre. The reality of that world is solid and never changes.

Surrealism takes the feeling of a real world and gives it a slightly hallucinogenic twist. Everything feels real, but on the surface, it makes no sense. One must find understanding in each small increment rather than the larger chunks we are used to absorbing.

Beneath the story’s surface lies the middle: This is the area of unknown quantity filled with cause and effect: events and reactions. We see why these characters’ lives are important enough to be portrayed and why events happened. This is where emotions muddy the waters. It is a layer where inference and implication come into play.

Bottom: The Interpretive Layer. This level is not only foundational; it contains and shapes the story:

  • Themes
  • Voice/style
  • Messages
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

The words in this pond behave like the waters of a pond in nature. While close scrutiny reveals that the waters of a pond are separated into layers by temperature, salinity, microbial life, or by the sheer weight and pressure of the volume of water, the overall structure is one large, important thing: a hole filled with water.

Without water, a pond is a depression in the ground filled with possibilities only. The same is true for a novel.

If you want to write anything, it’s best to sit down and get that first draft out of you while the story is fresh in your mind. You’ll spend a year or more rewriting a novel, but if you don’t get the original ideas and entire story down while they’re fresh, you’ll lose them.

Many people say they intend to write a book. They begin, get a chapter or so into it, and lose the thread. They can’t see how to get the story from the beginning, to the crisis, to the resolution.

I draft a story plan in four acts. First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This only takes half an hour and gives me finite plot points, destinations where each section of the story will end. Once I have the four acts, I know where the turning points are and what should happen at each. The outline ensures there is an arc to both the overall story and to the characters’ growth.

A good way to discover what you are writing is to “think out loud.” Divide the story into four acts. Acts two and three are really one long extension of each other.

short-story-arcAct 1: the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.

Act 3.: Mid-point: We show their dire condition and how they deal with it.

Act 4: Resolution: Let’s end this misery in a way that feels good.

Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc. This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

PostItNotePadI have mentioned before that I use a spreadsheet program to outline my projects, but you can use a notebook or anything that works for you. You can do this by drawing columns on paper by hand or using post-it notes on a whiteboard or the wall. Some people use a dedicated writer’s program like Scrivener.

Everyone thinks differently, so there is no one perfect way to create that fits everyone.

In Excel, the storyboard for my ideas works this way:

At the Top of page one: I give the piece a working title.

If it’s an idea for a short story, I include the intended publication and closing date for submissions (not needed if it’s for a novel). I make a note of the intended word count. Having a word count limit keeps me alert for unnecessary backstory.

Page one of the workbook contains the personnel files.

Column A: Character Names. I list the important characters by name and list the critical places where the story will be set.

Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

On page two of the workbook, I create a page that outlines the projected story arc chapter by chapter.

Page three of the workbook is most important—it is the list of made-up words, names, and places. The way they appear on this list is how they should occur throughout the entire story or novel. This page ensures consistency and keeps the spellings from drifting as I plow along, laying down prose.

Update the glossary page anytime a name is added or changed, or new place or made-up word is added.

Page four will have maps and a calendar for that world. The calendar is a central piece that keeps the events happening in a logical way.

The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009.

screenshotStyleSheetLIRF06262021We never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. The plan serves to keep us on track with length and to ensure the action doesn’t stall.

If you know the length of a book or story you intend to write, you know how many words each act should be and how many scenes/chapters you need to devote to that section.

As you write each event and connect the dots, the plot will evolve and change. You begin to explore the deeper aspects of the story. Emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, secrets withheld, truths discovered—all these details that emerge as you write will shape how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions will alter the shape of the larger story.

Creating a project for Camp NaNoWriMo is a good way to get into the habit of writing new words every day. When you write every day, you develop strengths and knowledge of the craft. Give yourself the gift of half an hour of private writing time every day.

You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you try.

Credits and Attributions:

DangApricot (Erik Breedon), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, ‘File:PostItNotePad.JPG’, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, 26 August 2020, 17:42 UTC, <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:PostItNotePad.JPG&oldid=443715836> [accessed 26 June 2021]


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Fundamentals of Writing: delivering the backstory #amwriting

Every story has a past, a present, and hopefully, a future. The past is what forms what we see as the here-and-now and shapes the characters. Because they have a history, they are fully developed the moment they step onto the first page.

bloatedExpositionLIRF06202021New writers know the backstory is important. They sometimes feel it’s necessary to inform the reader by placing a wall of history at the novel’s beginning. It seems like logical thinking: “Before you can understand this, you need to know this.”

Don’t drop the history in the first five pages. Those are the pages that acquisition editors look at and decide whether or not to continue reading the submission. For those of us planning to go the indie route, those first five pages are what the prospective buyer sees in the “look inside” option when buying an eBook.

While the backstory is necessary for character and plot building, too much outright “telling” halts the momentum, freezes the real-time story in its tracks.

And most importantly, beginnings must be active. The first lines must step onto the stage in such a way that they are original, informative, and engaging.

The passages that follow must reflect and build upon the tone and cadence of the opening pages.

Walls of fictional history muck up the transitions and negate your hooks. They block the doors from one scene to the next.

So how do the professionals deliver the backstory and still sell books? First, they consider what must be accomplished in each scene and allow the backstory to inform the reader only when and if needed to advance the plot.

Look at the first scene of your manuscript. Ask yourself three questions.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. How many words do you intend to devote to it?

Dialogue is the easiest way to dole out information, and it is also a great way to fall into an info dump.

strange thoughtsDon’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue or internal monologues. We don’t want our conversations to deteriorate into bloated exposition.

We’re all familiar with the term ‘flatlined’ as a medical expression indicating the patient has died. When the story arc is imbalanced, it can flatline in two ways:

  • The action becomes random, an onslaught of meaningless events that make no sense.
  • The pauses become halts, long passages of random info dumps that have little to do with the action.

A good way to avoid a flatlined story arc is through character interaction. Your characters briefly discuss what is on their minds and bravely muck on to the next event.

Short moments of introspection offer opportunities for doling out new information essential to the story. If you go on for too long, your reader will either skip forward or close the book.

These moments open a window for the reader to see who the characters think they are. Their introspection shows how they really react and illuminates their fears and strengths.

It shows that our characters are self-aware.

Timing and pacing are essential. The moment to mention information in passing is when the character needs to know it in order to go forward. That way, you avoid the dreaded info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the needed backstory.

In the most gripping narratives I have read, character introspection is brief. Internal monologues are featured but are kept minimal, addressing only what is essential. They serve to illuminate a character’s motives at a particular moment in time.

So, conversation and introspection are where we only deliver information not previously discussed. Repetition is boring and pads the word count with fluff.

Consider the most popular genre: Romance novels. These things fly off the shelves. Why?

Because the path to love is never straightforward. It speeds up (a small reward), and then it is slowed (dangling the carrot). Then, it goes a little ahead (slightly larger reward) but is slowed (enticement) until finally, the two overcome the circumstances and things that have barred the way to their true happiness.

Romance novels average 50,000 to 70,000 words. In shorter novels, there is no room for backstory. Instead, information and backstory are meted out only as needed through conversations and internal dialogue/introspection.

All obstacles to the budding romance are followed by small rewards that keep the reader involved and make them determined to see the happy ending even more.

As a reader, I can say that a longwinded rant is not a reward.

This holds true in every book and story, no matter the genre: enticement, reward, enticement, reward. In all stories, complications create tension, and information is a reward.

The combination of those elements keeps the reader reading.

Right now, I am working on whittling info dumps out of my current manuscript. It’s difficult to see them in my own work, but one trick I have found is this: word count.

strange thoughts 2I look at each conversation and assess how many words are devoted to each character’s statement and response. Then, when I come to a passage that is inching toward a monologue, I ask what can be cut that won’t affect the flow of the story or gut the logic of the plot?

Even with all the effort I apply to it, my editor will find places to shave off the unnecessary length.

Sometimes we write brilliantly, other times not so much. Sorting the diamonds from the fluff is hard, but your readers will be glad you made the effort.


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Fundamentals of Writing: Power Words #amwriting

When we put the first words of a story on paper, the images and events we imagine as we write have the power to move us. Because we see each scene fully formed in our minds, we are under the illusion that what we have written conveys to a reader the same power that moved us. Once we’ve written “the end” it requires no further effort, right?

I don’t know about your work, but usually, at that stage my manuscript reads like a laundry list.  

usingpowerwordsLIRF06192021The trick is to understand that, while the first draft has many passages that shine, more of what we have written is only promising. The first draft contains the seeds of what we believe we have written. Like a sculptor, we must work to shave away the detritus and reveal the truth of the narrative.

One way we do this is by injecting subtly descriptive prose into our narrative. Properly deployed, power words can be subtle and serve as descriptors, yet don’t tell the reader what to feel.

Think of them like falling leaves in autumn. On their own, they weigh nothing, feel like nothing. Put those leaves in a pile, and they have weight. When we incorporate subtle descriptors into the narrative, they come together to convey a sense of depth.

These are words that convey an emotional barrage in a succinct packet.

Let’s consider a story where we want to convey a sense of danger, without saying “it was dangerous.” What we must do is find words that shade the atmosphere toward fear.

Power words can be found beginning with every letter of the alphabet. What are some “B” words that convey a hint of danger, but aren’t “telling” words?





When you incorporate any of the above “B” words into your prose, you are posting a road sign for the reader, a notice that “ahead lies danger.” Mingle them with other power words, and you have an air of danger.

As authors, it is our job to convey a picture of events.

But words sometimes fail us.

oxford_synonym_antonymThe best resource you can have in your personal library is a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms. Your word processing program may offer you some synonyms when you right click on a word. However, to develop a wide vocabulary of commonly understood words, you should try to find a book like the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms.

It’s important to keep your word choices recognizable, not too obscure. When a reader must stop and look up words too frequently, they will feel like you are talking over their head.

Even so, readers like it when you assume they are intelligent and aren’t afraid to use a variety of words. Yes, sometimes one must use technical terms, but I appreciate authors who assume the reader is new to the terminology and offer us a meaning.

Sprinkling your prose with obscure, technical, or pretentious words is not a good idea. As a reader, I find it frustrating to have to stop and look up big words too frequently.

Let’s look at the emotion of discontent. How can it affect the mood of a piece? What words can we incorporate to shape the mood of the narrative to reinforce a character’s growing dissatisfaction? A few words that most people know might be:













How we incorporate words of all varieties into our prose is up to each of us. We all sound different when we speak aloud, and the same is true for our writing voice. We can tell the story using any mode we choose but the first line of any piece must let the reader know what they are in for.

I meant to run away today.

If that were the opening line of a short story, I would continue reading. Two words, run away, hit hard in this context, feeling a little shocking as an opener. The protagonist is the narrator and is speaking directly to us, which is a bold choice. Right away, you hope you are in for something out of the ordinary.

That line shows intention, implies a situation that is unbearable, and offers us a hint of the personality of the narrator. Who are they, and what is so unbearable?

Here are lines from a different type of story, one told from a third person point of view:

The battered chair creaked as Aengus sat back. “So, what’s your plan then? Are we going to walk up to his front door and say, ‘Hello. We’re here to kill you’?”

This is a conversation, but it shows intention, environment, and personality. Battered is a power word, and so is creaked.

And here is one final scene, one told from a close third person point of view and showing yet another way to incorporate subtle power words into the prose:

Sera saw the vine-covered ruins of Barlow as an allegory of her past. A part of her past had been burned away. She’d been destroyed but was coming back to life in ways she’d never foreseen.

The power words are: ruins, burned away, destroyed. The stories we write come from deep within us. Words sometimes fail us and we lean too heavily on one word that says what we mean. This is hard for us to spot in our own work, but if you set it aside, you may notice repetitious prose.

A friend of mine uses word clouds to show her crutch words. In a word cloud, the larger the word, the more often it appears in the text. Since I am notoriously short on words, let’s see how this post looks as a word cloud.

It came out surprisingly colorful!



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Author Interview: Ellen King Rice on characters #amwriting

51v0Z1IolxSOne of the best ways to learn about the craft of writing is to talk with other authors. We all have different ways of creating our work, so hearing how another author works always gives me new ideas.

Ellen King Rice writes mysteries set in the South Puget Sound area of the Pacific Northwest. She is a wildlife biologist and is happiest when out in the woods on a fungi hunt with her camera.

Ellen has a new book out, The Slime Mold Murder, and as one the advance readers, I found it witty and the series of events are well-plotted. The characters are engaging, and their stories emerge as the plot unfolds. She has agreed to talk about her characters in this book, and how she came to know them.

CJJ: Tell us about Dylan. When did he first come into your mind as a protagonist?

EKR: Dylan was in my first book, The EvoAngel, as a precocious eleven-year-old with impulse-control challenges. He channels my own life as someone who speaks boldly and often irritates others.

CJJ: This book has number of credible characters. Which character was most difficult to write, and why?

5EKR06042021LIRFEKR: Mitchell and Mark are a gay couple, but I didn’t want to write them as caricatures. I spent a great deal of time trying out descriptions to come up with two men who are individuals in their own right but collectively a pair who would rattle the conservative county commissioner.

CJJ: Which character do you identify with on a personal level. Why?

EKR: Mari reminds me of myself at eighteen. I was keen to explore romance but terribly inept.

CJJ: Do you create an outline for structuring a character arc, or do you wing it?

EKR: Authors are often divided into the pantser or plotter groups. Some of us are plontsers – a lovely hybrid who think they have a plan but are really making it up as they go along. No kidding. I do start with a plan and then I get distracted with new ideas.

CoralRootEKR06042021LIRFjpgCJJ: Do you think your characters or events drive the plot? How are your characters shaped by the events they live through?

EKR: For me it is the events that drive the plot and the characters respond, hopefully growing as they take action.

CJJ: Are there any final words you would like to say regarding the characters and events of The Slime Mold Murder?

EKR:  The inclusion of the sclerotia in the story is meant to be inspirational. Slime molds can enter a dry phase where they do not grow. This phase can last for years, but when conditions improve, there can be a vibrant response. I so hope that we humans can move past months of a global pandemic to build a better world where more of us thrive.

Ellen, thank you for taking the time to talk about how you approach the craft of writing and creating your wonderful characters.

If you are curious about this book, The Slime Mold Murder is available at Amazon as a paperback, and will be released for the Kindle on June 24th, 2021: The Slime Mold Murder.


About Ellen King Rice:

I am a wildlife biologist who suffered a spinal cord injury many years ago. Although my days of field work are over, biology continues to intrigue me.

I am fascinated by sub-cellular level responses to ecosystem changes. I also like the predictability of animal behavior, once it is understood.

A fast-paced story filled with twists is a fun way to stimulate laughs, gasps and understanding. I work to heighten ecological awareness. I want the details and your new insights to remain in your thoughts forever.

You can find me and my books at www.ellenkingrice.com

Please join me on Instagram at:


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Credits and Attributions:

All photos copyright 2021 Ellen King Rice. All images used in this post are the work and intellectual property of Ellen King Rice. She has kindly given me permission to use them in this post.

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