Thursday, December 29, 2011

Write What You Know: A Career U.S. Diplomat


Robbie Cutler Diplomatic Mysteries

By William S. Shepard

I was a career diplomat in the American Foreign Service. I served at our U.S. embassies in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest and Athens, and then retired as Consul General in Bordeaux, France. Since the usual advice given to beginning writers was “write about what you know,” I wrote about the Embassy world. During one of my five Washington tours, as Duty Officer for the Secretary of State, I found myself staying late one evening at the office. While I perused files and diplomatic cables, I realized I had access to a variety of interesting information and sources. That was when the idea came to me that after I retired, I would write mystery stories set in American Embassies overseas.

It was a new genre at the time, and to my knowledge I was the only writer writing what I call “diplomatic mysteries.” I began the series with my protagonist, Robbie Cutler, a thirty- something career diplomat. He served where I had served, and if necessary, I went back overseas to validate my story and for research purposes.

When I was assigned to the American Embassy in Budapest it was during the communist years, when the Hungarian Revolution was officially a nonevent, so it was impossible to do solid research. After the Berlin Wall came down, and with the assistance of both the Hungarian Embassy in Washington and the American Embassy in Budapest, I returned, did research for the book, and even lectured at the official 1956 Historical Institute. Now that would be impossible, for the Institute no longer exists. The 1956 Historical Institute was defunded, some say because its files may have contained embarrassing information about presently powerful people! History tends to wobble around still, like that Budapest park filled with old statues of the Stalinist era!

My series caught on. The President of the American Foreign Service endorsed my series with a cover blurb, “London has Sherlock Holmes, San Francisco has Sam Spade, and now Washington has its first diplomatic sleuth, Robbie Cutler. Learn about embassy life from the inside, as you enjoy Bill Shepard’s latest diplomatic mystery.”

How did I build my novel series using my work experience as a diplomat?


The themes in the series came from my own diplomatic experience. The first novel, VINTAGE MURDER, was set in Bordeaux, where Robbie Cutler was the American Consul. In MURDER ON THE DANUBE, the sequel, Robbie had reassigned as Political Officer to the American Embassy in Budapest.


The best practical writing advice I ever received was to know my main character well. I would then, gradually, find the other characters emerged from the qualities that my main character lacked. Uncle Seth, Robbie’s great uncle was a nationally prominent man, once TIME Magazine’s Man Of The Year, who also had access to Washington intelligence circles. I thought of Uncle Seth because I wanted Robbie to have access to national security information that a diplomat of his rank and experience would otherwise not have.


Bad guys? I’ve learned that they are all sorts of villains, but none are one dimensional. The ETA gunman in the first novel was motivated by a police killing of a member of his family. The traitor in the second novel was also motivated by the killing of a member of his family. It was fun to speculate about “the Napoleon of Crime,” but most people prefer a villain with reasonable and understandable motivations, something they are accustomed to.

I look forward to reader comments, as together we explore the fascinating craft of writing thrillers with international settings.


William S. Shepard is the author of the Robber Cutler diplomat mystery series: VINTAGE MURDER, MURDER ON THE DANUBE, MURDER IN DORDOGNE, and THE SLADIN AFFAIR. Career diplomat William S. Shepard served as the Consul or Political Officer at U.S. Embassies in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest and Athens. Shepard’s diplomatic career was capped by service as Consul General at the American Consulate General in Bordeaux, France. He and his wife now live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.Visit him on Facebook at or on his website

Thursday, December 22, 2011

ITW 2011 Debut Authors Pinned

Using Pinterest to both Promote and Write Your Next Novel


Before the year comes to a close I wanted to share a great visual tool I use to write my novels, Pinterest. Pinterest is a digital white board that lets you organize and share with your friends online. As an author you can use it to:

  • organize chapter settings
  • build a visual character sketch
  • catalog your book’s year in pictures
  • catalog book bloggers who love your books
  • the sky’s the limit (I also use it for my Christmas Cookie project)


Pinterest can also help you connect with your fans. I already have fans anticipating my next novel, Someone Bad and Something Blue (July 2012.)


They can subscribe to the pin board to get a glimpse of what the book could be about.

They can also see me put the third book in the series together by subscribing to all my pins.


I thought it would be fun for the Holiday Season to use Pinterest here at The Thrill Begins. The picture above is the Class of 2011 board. (We already have three followers.) Are we a not fabulous bunch?! As I put the board together I was in awe of the amazing talent we have and I wondered at the possibilities for what we could do to leverage our readership if we continued to be accountable to each other, share author goodies that will help us grow, and be a support system for each other. If we have learned nothing this year, we’ve learned that being a published author can be a lonely road if we let it. I hope you continue to participate and participate even more. This blog, The Thrill Begins, is created to help you on your writing journey. If you would like to contribute to the The Thrill Begins 2012, please contact me at

Again Happy Holidays!

And for the first two commenters, I will give you an invitation to join Pinterest with me!

deestewartMiranda Parker is the author of A Good Excuse to Be Bad (Kensington), the first in the Angel Crawford Bounty Hunter Series. Parker has been featured at NBCC and The Decatur Book Festival, the Atlanta Press Club’s Holiday Author Party, and featured in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, RT Book Reviews Magazine, and Publishers Weekly. She is also the Social Media/Marketing Person for the International Thriller Writers Debut Authors Program and a contributing editor to The Big Thrill Magazine. Her sequel, Someone Bad & Something Blue, will be released July 2012. Visit her at

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Suspense Versus Surprise


by Chris Eboch/Kris Bock


A few years ago I had the chance to ghost write a novel about a certain famous girl sleuth. Not only was that fun, but I learned something valuable from the editor. She asked me to look again at my chapter endings, and said,

“I would like to see more of a slow build-up toward the intense action. In horror movies, it’s always the ominous music and the main character slowly opening the closet door that scares us the most, not the moment right after she opens the door.”

She’s noting the difference between suspense and surprise. When something happens suddenly and unexpectedly, that’s a surprise. If you are going about your business, perfectly happy, when a car slams into yours, or something hits you in the back of the head, or a phone call reveals bad news, that’s a surprise. But up until that moment, there was no suspense.

This is an important difference to remember when writing, especially when writing thrillers. We know the importance of surprise twists, and we may be tempted to keep secrets and let them out with a bang. But true suspense comes from suspecting that something will happen and worrying about it or anticipating it.

Something Is Coming...

To build up truly dramatic moments, give the reader clues that something bad — or excitingly good — is going to happen. Here’s an early version of a chapter ending from Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs, my novel for ages 8 to 12 (written as Chris Eboch). The narrator, Jon, isn’t sure he believes his little sister Tania when she says she can see ghosts, but goes with her to look for one as their stepfather films his ghost hunter TV show.

At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

Tania turned to me. The look in her eyes made my stomach flip.

The moment isn’t bad for a cliffhanger chapter ending, but it could use some more buildup, more time for Jon to suspect something’s wrong. Here’s how the chapter ended in the published book:

At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

She didn’t back up. She swayed.

I took a quick step forward and put my arm around her so she wouldn’t fall. I looked down into her face. I’d never seen anyone so white. White as death. Or white as a ghost.

“Tania,” I hissed. I gave her a shake. She took a quick breath and dragged her eyes away from the staircase and to my face. The look in them made my stomach flip.

The revised version is longer. To get the most out of dramatic moments, you actually slow the pace by using more detail. It’s ironic, but you want to write slow moments quickly, maybe summing up a boring afternoon in a sentence or two, while writing a fast moment slowly, drawing out every detail.

Powerful ParagraphingWhispers in the DARK

You can also affect the pace of your story by your sentence and paragraph lengths. Description or introspection can usually be put in longer paragraphs, slowing the pace and lulling the reader into a false sense of security. When you come to a big action scene, though, try breaking it up into short paragraphs.

Short paragraphs actually make the story read faster, because the eye moves more quickly down the page. You can also emphasize an important sentence by starting a new paragraph or even putting that sentence into a paragraph by itself. For example, consider the following two versions of a chapter ending, adapted from my new romantic suspense novel, Whispers in the Dark (written under the name Kris Bock). The heroine, Kylie, is being chased by villains. It’s dark, and there’s a cliff nearby.

Example 1:

But he must be right behind me! I couldn’t stop, couldn’t even risk slowing down or looking back. Something sharp caught me across the shin, causing me to yelp and stumble forward as the pain burned like a hot knife. I almost went down on my knees, but I managed to thrust a foot out in front of me. Unfortunately, the foot found no place to land, so I pitched forward with a sickening lurch that left my stomach behind. And then I was hurtling through the darkness, down into the canyon.

Example 2:

But he must be right behind me! I couldn’t stop, couldn’t even risk slowing down or looking back.

Something sharp caught me across the shin. I yelped and stumbled forward as the pain burned like a hot knife. I almost went down on my knees, but I managed to thrust a foot out in front of me.

The foot found no place to land. I pitched forward with a sickening lurch that left my stomach behind.

And then I was hurtling through the darkness, down into the canyon.

These use nearly the same words. The only differences are that in the second version I broke up some long sentences into short ones, and I use four paragraphs instead of one. I think the second version captures more of the breathless panic that the narrator would be feeling. Think about that phrase “my life flashed before my eyes.” Life really does seem to slow down in the most high impact moments. Capture that on paper, and your readers will race through the scene breathlessly, wanting to find out what happens.

Learn More

Eboch credit Sonya Sones (1)Of course, not every chapter can end with dramatic physical action. My essay “Hanging by the Fingernails: Cliffhangers” in Advanced Plotting (written as Chris Eboch) also discusses how to use cliffhangers in quieter moments. I covered that on my blog as well – along with 10 other posts on cliffhangers! You can tell I love the subject. See my cliffhanger blog posts here.

Learn more about Chris and read excerpts of her work at (for children’s books written under the name Chris Eboch) or (for adult romantic suspense written under the name Kris Bock) or see her Amazon page. Kris Bock’s first romantic suspense novel, Rattled, features treasure hunting adventures in New Mexico. In Whispers in the Dark, coming out this month, a young archaeologist seeking peace after an assault stumbles into danger as mysteries unfold among ancient Southwest ruins. Can she overcome the fears from her past, learn to fight back, and open herself to a new romance?

Chris Eboch’s book Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer. Learn how to get off to a fast start, prop up a sagging middle, build to a climax, improve your pacing, and more. Advanced Plotting is available on Amazon in paperback for $9.99, or as an e-book for $4.99 on Amazon or Smashwords. You can also read excerpts from Advanced Plotting and get other writing craft advice on her blog.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Which Comes First—The Casting or The Character?


By P.I. Barrington

Casting Photo of Snow White and The Huntsman (2012)

I'm a big proponent of "casting" characters. Hell, I’m probably the concept's head cheerleader! You most likely know by now that the practice of "casting" your characters with photos of actors/athletes/models and, on occasion, just regular people you'd love to see them play on the screen is widely used by authors for cover art and character inspiration. But there's a whole other dimension to just picking a headshot of a handsome, dreamy actor who you think looks like the character in your head and in your plot.

It reminds me of the ancient conundrum of which came first the chicken or the egg but with an authorly twist (yeah, I just made that adverb up) and deciding which does depends on just how you create that character. That takes looking at and understanding your own creative process.

What comes first in your character creation: The name? The personality quirks? The character's job? Or is it the physical description? All of these items figure into your character's birth and many times the order in which they arrive can surprise you—in a good way.

Casting characters first:

The development of characters can come from the casting pictures and great detail can express itself as well. If you picture your character as blonde, blue-eyed and short, those three features present you with several possibilities at once. Is the character from a certain heritage or location in his or her world, say Scandinavian or British which then begs the questions of their family history, structure and views of society and their places in it. Is that character out of his/her element? How do they react to their current situation—do they adapt well or struggle throughout the story? How do they view themselves if they're short or petite—positive or negative—and what develops in their personality as the result of that view? Are they resentful or fearful of people taller than themselves? Do they view themselves as attractively petite like Blanche Devereaux of Golden Girls? How do they style their hair? Do they wear it with no fuss or do they make a great work of styling it? Something as simple as the way they wear their hair can expose a particular quirk in their personality—no nonsense or excessive extravagant—or keep something they're hiding secret.

The casting photo you choose can offer abilities, career choices, and everything from likes and dislikes to what sports or hobbies they enjoy depending on their physical characteristics such as body type. If you find a photo of a tall, dark woman who appears (in your casting photo of course) athletic, her abilities could include strength, agility and sports ability; or a willowy supermodel type. The same is true for men and young characters or child characters. Matching up characters with their jobs according to physical characteristics can be predictable or unpredictable too. You might have a tall willowy brunette with waist length hair who excels in computer science and avoids exercise altogether or your muscular, athletic looked red-haired male might be a banker rather than a soccer player. Sometimes mixing things up can be interesting for both you and your reader—it keeps you on your toes as a writer trying to make that character either consistent or wildly impulsive and keeps your reader guessing as to what choice the character will make in a pinch.

Emotions can be represented in casting photos too and can be the most important part of casting since it directly relates to character. I believe I need to illustrate this section with a little anecdote that happened to me when I working on my first crime thriller, Crucifying Angel. When the time came for my input sheet to assist my publisher's cover artist, I needed to find a picture of the male romantic rival of the hero. I already knew what Nick Kincaid looked like I just needed to find someone to show my cover artist. After a long search I located a headshot that I thought was perfect. I immediately sent it to her. After the cover was finished and the book out, I thought I might search for more photos of "Nick" since he was a recurring character in the Future Imperfect trilogy. I cannot express the absolute shock of finding all the other photos of the actor—they were of a grey-haired older man in at least his late sixties! I talked to my Editor and informed her of this situation. She laughed and said, "Sometimes it's the lighting, mood, and angle that makes all the difference!" And after the trilogy was finished, I accidentally found another actor who personified Nick and really was younger!

I digress. As in the anecdote, you can pin the personality of your character from one of those moody shots. A headshot usually works best for this, especially if you can find the "lighting mood and angle" that speaks to you as your character. A child's headshot that appears innocent, sweet and happy or one that looks angry (yes there are some—I have one as an avatar lol!) or spoiled can act as catalyst to create an unusual child character with a deep or shallow personality. The same goes for teenage or young adult casting photos. Your teenager can look like either a mathematical genius nerd or exuberant cheerleader but flip the coin and he/she can be full of angst, resentment, attitude, insecurity or hormones.

Most fun of all can be casting your hero/heroine! Here's where you get to dive into your favorite characteristics. You can let fly with the romance, strength, softness, anything you love giving your characters (or they tell you they like) and if you like pretty men and women, hit the actors' websites! (Remember this is only for your fantasy personal casting, you do not have any rights to use the casting shots for anything else!) I've found tall, dark, moody and powerful (& don't forget the pretty) heroines and I've found casting shots of women of every type from tall, athletic to petite and barely able to hold a weapon steady. Another example of casting first that worked perfectly is the main heroine of CA, Payce Halligan—I happened to be easing boredom by checking out avatar sites and there was a medium close-up shot of a blonde woman shooting target practice. At that time I did not know what I could possibly use her for but when I started the novel, she gave me the basis for Payce, a Las Vegas Police Department Homicide Detective.

And last, casting first can give you the most important part of your character: their conflicts! Payce Halligan had major guilt demons, the kind you wouldn't expect her to possess, and they offset the tough, strong police woman normally expected, giving her a depth that could not be imagined. This came from that one casting photo I found that I shelved until I needed it. This type of casting can work on any character in your novel, major to minor, and especially your villain! He/she can look like a mousy, uninteresting bore harboring a raging demon inside or be as beautiful as an angel but be a pretty version of The Mad Hatter!

Casting characters is one of my favorite parts of writing and publishing. It can trigger unbelievable creativity as well as help dictate your plot in the direction it should go to keep it as great as you know it is; it can also assist your writing technique in character development! I even gave it a name: my Virtual Casting Couch! Let the auditions begin!

PIBarrington photoAfter a decade long detour through the entertainment industry, P.I. Barrington has returned to her roots as a novelist writing in several genre' including futuristic crime thrillers, paranormal crime thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, and the occasional humor shorts. Among her past careers is radio air talent and journalist. Barrington lives in Los Angeles California (where else?) in a rural area where she watches semi-wild horses grazing behind her house! She has just released her dark, science fiction adventure, Isadora DayStar, available from Smashwords. P.I. Barrington can be contacted via emails: or and has a blog and website: Blog: and official website:

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bookstore Stops 101: Tips for Your Author Event


by Mark Stevens

Between the Facebook “like” buttons, the tweet avalanche, and the endless (here’s another one) blog posts, you sometimes have to wonder whether you are connecting your book with the right audience. Yes, I plunge from the high-dive into social media. I do my best. I try to balance self-promotion with genuine participation. Out here in the virtual village, I’ve met tons of cool readers and sold lots of books.

But when it comes to marketing, there’s one old-school tactic that is my bedrock.

Bookstores. Booksellers. Book people.

I visited 42 stores in 2007 when Antler Dust came out and I’m back on the trail in late 2011 with the sequel, Buried by the Roan. Success rates vary. But here’s how I think about it. You’re a writer. Wouldn’t you want your own built-in agents working for you every day? People who talk to readers all day long?

It’s not about just the event and that particular bookstore stop. It’s about developing a relationship with the store owner (or event manager) and readers, too. (And don’t forget: each event gives you a solid reason to tweet and post.)

A few tips:

  1. Query far ahead. Think months. Work with their schedule. Ask if they do events, but be willing to stand around for a few hours with your titles and your nifty cool promotional material. This is true for the chain stores, too. Each Barnes & Noble outlet has its own flair, its own interest in doing “events.”
  2. Treat each event like it was the only one you were ever going to do. Ask the bookstore owner for reporter and editor names in the community. Send advance copy books to the local media (no matter how small). The long lead time pays off here, too. Call the reporter or editor a couple weeks before the event, remind them you are on the way.
  3. Ask the bookstore if you can send a few flyers. Make the flyers. Send them. Ask the bookstore if the local library might post a flyer if you send one or two. Make them, send them.
  4. Find online community calendars (almost every town has one or two). Upload the details.
  5. Find writers who live in the town—or nearby. (Again, the bookstore owner will know.) See if you can make a connection and ask for that writer’s help in reaching friends and fans. Pull up their Twitter account and follow some of their followers. Once a connection is established, send a direct message with the details and something personal.
  6. Post the signing event on your Facebook page (two weeks out, one week out, “day of” reminder) and tweet it to smithereens. Search your Facebook friends for those who live in the area, create an FB event page, invite them. Find the bookstore’s Twitter handle and follow a bunch of their followers (readers, not the carpet cleaning companies) and then send a direct message once they follow you back. (They will.)
  7. Day of event: Ask for a spot near the front of the store. Stand; don’t sit. Be prepared to answer questions about where the bathroom is located. Engage every reader who comes within range. “Any mystery fans here today?” “Looking for something in particular?” “I’m a writer from XYZ town, let me know if you’ve got a minute and I can tell you about my new title.”
  8. Come prepared. Bring a bottle of water, breath mints (ahem). Bring copies of reviews, bookmarks, business cards. An 11&17 poster on foam core with your cover. Best of all, bring your quick speech. What is your story about in one sentence? Nail it. Rehearse it. Make it genuine. Not a sales pitch. Ask readers what they like. Engage them. Some will think, “I may not like mysteries but I have a friend…”
  9. Send a ‘thank you’ to the store after it’s over and post public ‘thanks’ on FB and Twitter and wherever else your social media heart desires.
  10. Not sure yet? Go to book signings and readings by other writers. Take notes. Keep the things you like, dump the elements you don’t.

Now, if you liked this column, back to the virtual world. Please visit my Facebook page and and you could even ‘like’ my protagonist, Colorado hunting guide Allison Coil. Hey, and thanks. Nice “meeting” you. Follow me and I'll see you in cyberspace: @writerstevens


The son of two librarians, Mark Stevens was raised in Lincoln, Massachusetts. He worked as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, covering a variety of events and issues from the economy, commercial fishing, the environment, politics, then at The Rocky Mountain News, and for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. He has produced field documentaries across the United States and Latin America. He is the author of the novels ANTLER DUST and BURIED BY THE ROAN and now works in public relations.

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