Wednesday, October 29, 2014

GUEST BLOG: Frightening People, Terrifying Places, and Scary Things...

by Robert W. Walker
Author of Flesh Wars, Bloodscreams, Abaddon & more

How do we, as authors, get to the level of proficiency that readers send us comments like, “While I read your books, I have to put them out at night—on the porch”, or “I literally threw your book across the room, but crawled over later and finished it”?

That kind of compliment is music to the ears of suspense and horror authors, who are like big kids anxious to frighten our readers; we jump from the pages to shock you. But how do we manage it?

If we can frighten readers through use of our characters, our settings, and our props, then by all means we are turning our people, places, and things to good advantage and full-on use. We get there by means of the useful notion that the devil is in the details. Imagine, if you will, a child’s story—maybe Three Billy Goats Gruff or Charlotte’s Web, for that matter. In the one, we are convinced there is a troll beneath every bridge anxious to eat anything daring to cross it. Then the goat brothers sacrifice one another to the monster . . . creepy!

In the other tale, we have a spider coming to the rescue of a pig, and Charlotte and Wilbur have a full-blown relationship. The characters are fully realized—so much so that they come alive for the mesmerized reader. How can this be?

Details can sell us on any preposterous notion, as in my answer to spontaneous human combustion: creating a creature who smokes people the way we smoke cigarettes in my Flesh Wars books, or my witches in Abaddon who possess a young boy and direct him to become a serial killer. 

The reader is convinced to suspend disbelief through the careful planting of detail atop detail that uses all five senses and sometimes the sixth sense. It requires long and torturous rewrites to fully develop a scary person (antagonist or creature), a scary setting (loco-location), and frightful props (from ax, to cleaver, to Stryker saw).

Naming of names—be it people, places, or props—is also a way to get that fright factor working. Names are scarily specific—like Stryker saw—notice it gets capitalized as names should. The Lincoln Towers underground parking lot becomes even scarier as a modern-day haunted place due to the name, the specific location at Lincoln and Belmont in Chicago. (Notice more caps?) 

It is incumbent upon the modern author to find modern places to haunt, like a museum of modern art after hours, or a trailer park, or a single trailer in that park or … fill in the blank. Locations—and detailed locations at that—win the day when we wish to terrify.

In fact, it is true of any good writing that we want to be specific—all good writing is detailed to the nth degree; it is thesaurus-ing a mood, a point, a feeling, a wound, or a bleed out. We cannot get away with simply saying “it was hot” or “it was cold”—not by a long stretch—as we need to use every word possible that comes with heat (hot, searingly so), which must include sweltering, sweat, perspiration, and boiling, as well. For cold, we need to muster all the words at our command that show frigid, icy, ice-pick-shaped crystals beneath the nails painted with acrylic chartreuse, as in a fun house for my PSI Blue and Deja Blue.

So if there is a secret to scary writing, can it be that simple? Yes, it can, and yes, it is. As Stephen King puts it, “If you can’t legitimately scare the reader, go then for the gross out.” But even the gross out requires great attention to DETAIL.

About Robert Walker:

Award-winning author and graduate of Northwestern University, ROBERT W. WALKER created his highly acclaimed INSTINCT and EDGE SERIES between 1982 and 2005. Rob since then has penned his award-winning historical series featuring Inspector Alastair Ransom with CITY FOR RANSOM (2006), SHADOWS IN THE WHITE CITY (2007), and CITY OF THE ABSENT (2008), and most recently placed Ransom on board the Titanic in a hybrid historical/science fiction epic entitled Titanic 2012 – Curse of RMS Titanic. Rob’s next book, DEAD ON, is a PI revenge tale and a noir set in modern day Atlanta. More recently he has written Bismarck 2013, a historical horror title, The Edge of Instinct, the 12th Instinct Series, and a short story collection entitled Thriller Party of 8 – the one that got away. Rob’s historical suspense CHILDREN of SALEM, while a historical romance and suspense novel, exposes the violent nature of mankind via the politics of witchcraft in grim 1692 New England, a title that some say only Robert Walker could craft—romance amid the infamous witch trials. Robert currently resides in Charleston, West Virginia with his wife, children, pets, all somehow normal. For more on Rob’s published works, see,, or books. He maintains a presence on Facebook and Twitter as well.

If you want to check out the titles mentioned in this blog, here are the links:

Flesh Wars 1
PSI Blue
Deja Blue

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Constructing a Story Part 2: Builiding a Story

Charlotte Firbank-King

You have the glimmer of a story—basically the head and spine of your skeleton.

Make a list:

What genre is it?

Main protagonists—hero and heroine. How they look, their likes and dislikes, their flaws and strengths.

Main villain or villains—their looks, fetishes, etc.

Avoid back flashes as much as possible. Rather, write a prologue or weave the back flashes into the story through dialogue, but keep it BRIEF.

Don’t start the story with in-depth descriptions of the characters—make them natural through observation from a character or dialogue—again, brevity is the key word.

Every story has a problem that needs to be solved or there wouldn’t be a story.

We’ve had blogs on how to open a story—the first paragraph must capture the reader immediately—hook them.

Set the scene—give it atmosphere and ground the reader. Tell them where they are—the moon, Outer Mongolia, Bangladesh, or the Arctic. As you write, see, smell, taste and feel every single scene.

Present the problem or series of problems. Perhaps the hero finds a body. Now, we have a homicide or accident. He reports it to the heroine, who needs to solve it. This is where you need to be quite clear about “whodunnit,” but not the reader.

As you build the story, keep track of who is where and what they are doing at any given time. Make a list:

1) Joe finds body in car

2) Mary from NYPD is called to investigate

1 & 2: the problem to be solved 

3) Joe contaminates crime scene by hugging body

4) Mary furious with Joe

3 & 4: we have conflict between protagonists

Question that needs an answer:

Why did Joe hug the body?

Answer—the victim is his wife

Now Joe is a suspect

Enter Marc, the brother 

Joe accuses brother of having an affair with wife

Forensic expert discovers victim was pregnant

The baby’s DNA is not a match to Marc or Joe

This adds to the conflict and mystery.

All the while, you build atmosphere and tension—see and smell the car and surroundings where the victim is found—then the police station and the morgue. Show us Joe and Marc’s anger as they play a blame game—show us Mary’s frustration.

Make your reader fall in love with, empathize with, get frustrated by, or hate characters by fleshing out their appearance, traits, and personalities. But in small bites—DON’T do it all at once. You have the power as a writer to make readers feel what you want them to feel. Embroider on your characters as you go. Bring out their faults and strengths slowly. They must grow or deteriorate in a believable way.

Slowly, you build the story to a flowing climax. The character list will probably be added to, but watch the names. Don’t call one Joe and another Josephine. More tension as Mary gets to the truth—whatever you decide that might be. Keep the tension and atmosphere going. Watch the beginning and ends of chapters. Those were dealt with in one of our previous blogs.

Never start a story with cameos of each character’s traits, looks, likes and dislikes—that will just bore the reader—weave it into the story.

Don’t have too many unanswered questions, mysteries. Give the reader occasional clues without giving the game away. You can even lead the reader on a false trail to make the ending a shock, but that means keeping a tight rein on the plot.

Then start tying up loose ends as you work towards an ending.

Things to avoid:

Constant flash backs

A convoluted plot that becomes so confusing that you don’t even know what is going on. Keep it simple yet seemingly complex. Things have to run in a chronological order and be realistic.

Don’t create scenarios or coincidences just to make things work.

Show, don’t tell—see IFW tips.

Watch the point of view at all times and avoid head hopping—see IFW tips on POV.

Keep internal dialogue to a minimum, and don’t use too much internal or vocal dialogue as a vehicle to impart information.

Above all, the story must flow. Hook in the opening paragraph—the problem/mystery that needs an answer—build to a climax whilst resolving—then the final act where all is revealed. If the story has a sequel, then it ends on a cliff-hanger. 

In conclusion:

Research is vital. If you aren’t a forensic, gun, or knife expert—research it. Know nothing about cars or carriages? Depending on the era—research it. Even absolute fantasy needs research.

If your mystery/murder is historical, research even the manner of speech—but don’t go over the top with how they speak, especially when using the vernacular; you will just irritate the reader. Certain words weren’t in use a hundred years ago—check them first—the Merriam Webster dictionary is great for this.
Then edit, edit, edit, and edit even more.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Constructing a Story Part 1: Frankenstein

Charlotte Firbank-King

Like any journey one undertakes, planning is needed. Writing a book is no different. It’s a journey, a long one that will have you excited, frustrated and, at times, exhausted. Most writers have a story budding in their heads. If you’re like me, the stories rattling around in your brain can drive you nuts. I often just write these ideas and relegate them to a file where they may never see the light of day. Others won’t go away and I’m compelled to start. 

See your story as a body.

You are God in the story. You say which characters do what, how they look, how they act, what they love or hate, you control them all—not. Believe me, characters love to take control.

Back to the story. 

First you have a skeleton or even just a partial skeleton. Once you start writing, other ideas grow, then we add some of the organs, veins and arteries. At last we create a heart and brain, then cover it in skin. Well pleased with our efforts, we step back and decide it’s time for the first edit. However, some writers are so confident they decide it’s great as it is—well, maybe one quick edit—and then rush it off to a publisher they just know awaits their brilliant novel. 

You’re confident this is a bestseller. You pop the champagne and relax while you wait for the letter telling you that you are the world’s next great author. You’ve even spent the millions that will roll in. And what about the movie rights? Have to pick a suitable big star for the leading roll. Actually, throw in a few big names. Life is good while you think of a sequel.

Shock and horror, a rejection letter. 

Now you’re in denial. They’re nuts! Right? No problem, another publisher will recognize your brilliance. A hundred rejections later you realize they can’t all be wrong. Maybe an editor will tell you what the answer is—the publishers all tell you to get an editor. 

Not entirely flattened, you send it to some editors. They each send a quote and blow your socks off—what? The editors tell you there are plot flaws—actually the plot is horrific, non-existent—the story doesn’t flow—then you’re telling instead of showing—your characters lack soul—your story has no heart and there are too many back flashes—there’s not enough atmosphere or you aren’t grounding the reader—the grammar sucks—too many adjectives and adverbs—the list is endless. Now you definitely feel demoralized and demolished—brutalized, actually.

Read the story through the eyes of the publisher and editor—read it aloud.

Oh, my God, you have a Frankenstein! The brain is where the bowels should be, the heart is lurking in the anus—the eyes are misplaced and the mouth dominates the face. The nose is in the back of the head, and the feet are where the hands should be, in fact, a hand is missing. The bladder is gone, along with the stomach. Even you can see this thing is a horror story.

What went wrong?

You didn’t plan your body before you started creating it! Then you didn’t edit, edit, edit and edit more. The less you edit the higher the editor’s quote.

I don’t say you mustn’t just jump in and write like demon, but at least be aware that there will be problems, and your first body (draft) will need a major operation.

The first draft always sucks. Give yourself a break, a couple of weeks to lick your wounds, then dust yourself off and jump in.

Take on board every criticism you get—don’t listen too closely to family and friends unless they’re hard-core editors that love you enough to be honest. 

Next week’s blog will be on how to construct the “body.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Children's Books and the Child's Character Trait Chart

Sandy Tritt

I was recently contacted by a gentleman, a children’s book writer, who asked me what resources we had specifically for writers of children’s books. He had purchased our workbook and was happy with it, but pointed out that our character trait chart was geared toward adult characters. So, I got to work and created a new CHILD’S CHARACTER TRAIT CHART. It includes some of the same fields as our old CHARACTER TRAIT CHART, but we’ve tweaked them to make them relate to children. 

Here are the fields in the chart: 

Full Name 

Goes By

Date of Birth


Address/Particulars about Where Lives

Race/Ethnic Background/Nationality

Height Weight/Body Build



Peculiar Traits (Freckles, Limp, Etc.)



Usual Walking Style



Style of Dress

Favorite Drink

Favorite Food



Favorite Subject 


Birth Order

Lives With

Wants to Be When Grows Up

Best Friend(s) 

Worst Enemy

Most Important Possession



What is a normal day like for this character?

Greatest Fear 

Major Goals

Views Family:

Family Views Him:

Views Friends:

Friends View Him:

Feelings Toward Animals:

Who is His Hero?

If you’d like to receive a free Word or PDF copy of this chart (formatted to fit on a single sheet of paper with space for your notes), please just shoot me off an email at, and I’ll be happy to send you one. If you’d like to see all our worksheets (this one hasn’t been added yet), as well as a collection of our tips and techniques, be sure to order our workbook ( And, of course, if you’d like an experienced children’s writer to edit and critique your children’s story, send it. A standard edit and critique is only $45 for up to 1500 words. (Please do not send payment until we’ve reviewed your story. We only accept stories we believe we can improve and that we believe will be viable). Email me at

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Shakespeare Revamped--Not

Charlotte Firbank-King

Many authors from bygone days, like Shakespeare, are eschewed by writers and described as difficult to understand and boring. I took A Midsummer Night’s Dream and modernized a few lines—how boring is that version? Not to mention, clich├ęs were all that seemed to work.

I think it loses something vital and beautiful in the translation. Writers can learn a lot from the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens and even Homer.

Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame or a dowager
Long withering out a young man revenue.

Hey, sexy Hippolyta, not long before we tie the knot, babe.
Four days before the next moon rises and the nights sure drag.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a cool time with you.
But, man, this old moon is slow to disappear, and I really have the hots for you.
That moon is like an old woman pushing my buttons.
And I don’t know how long I can hold back.

Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;
Four nights will quickly dream away the time;
And then the moon, like to a silver bow
New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night
Of our solemnities.

Relax, four days and nights will go in a flash.
Then a new moon will hang out in the sky like a sliver of light.
And hey, presto, we’ll be saying our vows.

Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments;
Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth;
Turn melancholy forth to funerals;
The pale companion is not for our pomp.

Hey, Philostrate
Go get our Athenian buddies.
Tell then to snap out of it, catch a wakeup and organize a party.
I don’t want any long faces at our bash, like someone died.


I woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with reveling.

Hippolyta, my darlin’, sorry I nicked you with my blade in that street rumble;
But, hey, it won your love.
I promise our wedding will be different.
I’ll show you a real good time with all the bells and whistles.

Not the same, is it? Perhaps Shakespeare is antiquated, but there is a lot we can learn from the poetic way he crafts his syntax.