Stories Unfold in a Season, not a Vacuum

Photo credit: Shannon Richards, Unsplash

I’m not fond of novels in which the author compulsively overuses weather and seasons or begins every chapter with atmospheric descriptions of clouds, sunlight, etc. That said, characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and I like getting a sense of their natural environment, especially if it has an impact on them.

Here’s an example of how seasons matter. I live in Austin, Texas, where one of my favorite things about the Easter season is the profusion of wildflowers, which bring out legions of families plopping kids among the bluebonnets for iconic photos.  But the season also brings out a plethora of snakes on the move. This is the time of year you’re most likely to see them. They’ve just awakened from hibernation, they’re hungry, and they’re hunting for food.

I’ve just given you two facts. Do one or both matter if your novel is set in Austin in late March or early April? Maybe or maybe not. After all, most of your readers don’t live in Texas. But if you’re aware of these and other seasonal characteristics, you’re better equipped to craft a scene that will feel real to readers.

I could write more about seasons here, but the topic has been covered very well in this post, “Seasonally Adjusted Writing” on Alison Morton’s Writing Blog. Alison is the author of the Roma Nova althistory thriller series, the latest being Carina.

Here’s something else to consider. Brad Whittington, prolific author of novels such as Muffin Man and The Reluctant Saint, uses actual information about weather, and the hour the sun and moon rise and set to inform his writing. His sources are The Farmers Almanac and the U.S. Naval Observatory website. Check them out.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

A Request

I could use your help in promoting Compromise With Sin. I’ve posted a trailer on YouTube. I’d appreciate your taking a look and sharing it with friends. Thank you.


Whenever I have to choose between two evils, I always like to try the one I haven’t tried before.

–Mae West


Crooked Path to Strong Dialogue

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Too often, dialogue follows a straight, predictable path when it should veer off into the unexpected. In real life conversations, people often talk past one another. Putting this fact to work in your dialogue can enhance credibility and/or tension.

Imagine a writer creating dialogue between a therapist and a patient who’d tried to kill his own mother:


The therapist says, “Your mother was cited seventeen times for neglect and abuse. Do you hate her?”

The patient balls one hand into a fist. “My mother might not be perfect, but she’s a goddamn saint. Don’t you forget that.”

Instead of answering the therapist’s question directly, the patient reacts not to the question itself, but to what he perceives as the therapist impugning his mother’s integrity.

Another way one character responding to another rings true is when there’s apparent misunderstanding, which may or may not be deliberate. In this example, a couple has just finished setting up the crib and other furniture for the baby they’re expecting:

Eve imagines what it will be like to watch their baby sleeping on his back, his little chest rising and falling with each breath.  She takes Adam’s hand. “It seems almost too good to be true.”

He gives her hand a squeeze. “I know.  To think we got all this for under two hundred dollars.”

Here’s another example, this one from an oft-cited scene in Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist. Sarah and Macon are grieving parents whose relationship disintegrates as they drive in the rain:

There was a moment of watery blindness till the truck had dropped behind. Sarah gripped the dashboard with one hand.

“I don’t know how you can see to drive,” she said.

“Maybe you should put on your glasses.”

“Putting on my glasses would help you to see?”

“Not me; you,” Macon said. “You’re focused on the windshield instead of the road.”

Your thoughts? Examples of dialogue? Leave a comment.


A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That is why there are so few good conversations; due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.

–Truman Capote





“The Embezzler’s Curse”

In my lifetime I’ve probably written fewer than a dozen short stories, mostly for my own amusement. Thought I’d publish one here.





“The Embezzler’s Curse,” by Leanna Englert

I’m squatting here in what used to be Gospel Bob’s double-wide. He ain’t here no more—he’s got a new address at the county jail because of what he done over at the courthouse. Me and Bob used to spend a lot of time in this double-wide watching TV. Here’s where I got away from the wife and the projects she was always hounding me to do. He never had no beer, though, so when she really got to me, I’d go drink at her at The Thirsty Goat in Canyon, and afterwards, when my head exploded, Bob would say, “You sure got her good.” He just had a way about him, that Bob. But I digress. (Got that word from Wheel of Fortune.) The sheriff’s boys turned this junk heap Bob called home inside out—found some cash and Lucchese ostrich boots and a Rolex–but never found the jewels Bob bought with the money.

You see, me and Bob watched PBS is how I knowed where they was hid. Out here in the West Texas boondocks we wiggle the rabbit ears every which way, but PBS is about all we can get.

Gospel Bob was night janitor over in the Randall County courthouse—that’s where he did his embezzling. He pastored our little True Gospel Church for a dollar a year in what used to be the Washateria—it still smelled like soap so bad the wife couldn’t go there because she was allergic. It wasn’t no proper church with an organ and choir and hymnbooks. Some of us brought our own camp chairs, and the rest leaned against the walls where posters half-peeling off said: “No loitering. Washer, 50 cents. Dryer 30 minutes 25 cents.” The place felt more church-like after Bob got the accordion last year. Sheriff Gearhart’s wife played it, and the sheriff sang the hymns. They said he cried when he clamped the handcuffs on Bob, and I believe it. When I heard, I about cried myself.

I always liked Bob, partly because he allowed as how he was forty-five years old and got his sinning out of the way before he got born again. The wife didn’t like him, though, probably for the same reason. What she didn’t know is he kept me from running off, told me I’d feel some kind of miserable if I left and her weak heart gave out, said when I needed to get away to pay him a visit. That’s how we got to watching so much TV together.

He preached a lot about tithing—could make even us dirt-scratching farmers ante up come time for the offering. He walked the walk. He give most of his janitor’s pay to the church. He didn’t have a car. He hitched or rode a rusty old bicycle so small his knees bowed out. His only extravagance was Western stuff, like horseshoes and Navajo blankets he bought at flea markets and yard sales. His pride and joy was this great big wagon wheel chandelier from the old Stagecoach Inn fire. It was only burnt on one side. The chandelier, that is. The Stagecoach Inn pretty near burnt to the ground.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Ain’t no way a wagon wheel chandelier could fit in a trailer, not even a big old double-wide. You wouldn’t even be able to stand up under it. Well, Bob is handy. He knocked out the roof and raised that ceiling up so high, why it felt like the lobby of a grand hotel. OK, maybe I exaggerate.

Sometimes Bob would hitchhike to Amarillo. I swear by all that’s holy, I thought all he was doing was prowling the flea markets. I know for a fact that’s where he got the accordion. I never seen him myself when I was on the road—I’d of picked him up–but folks said he was a sight, standing on the highway with the dust devils and grasshoppers. He’d be holding a saddle or something and trying to thumb a ride.

Turns out this pious old bachelor was leading a double life with a bottle-blonde sweetheart named Rita over in Amarillo. Here’s how I found out. I seen it on the TV at The Thirsty Goat where they get the NBC channel pretty good. I was drinking a cold one and watching a Will and Grace re-run when the Amarillo news broke in, just when Jack was trying to tell his mother he was gay. I about fell off the stool when I seen Bob on the TV in handcuffs. Seems that Rita told the cops and TV everything when he dumped her. There she was, quite a looker, telling the reporter how Bob would come to Amarillo with a wad of cash, buy him and her some fine clothes, and they’d stay at the Marriott and order room service, the whole nine yards. They’d go around to pawn shops, and sometimes he’d buy precious gems, like diamonds. Never gave her any, she said. Sure, he didn’t. She said he stuffed them in his overalls pockets before he hitchhiked home.

It struck me funny when Rita said he’d whine about not being able to live like a rich man in his own town for fear of getting caught—he told her that was the embezzler’s curse.

Anyway, here I am in the double-wide. I bought it for a song when they auctioned off his stuff to pay back some of the money he embezzled. Told folks I wanted it for a workshop. Didn’t tell a soul about my PBS theory. See, Bob and me seen this documentary about this Russian czar who had a grand palace and rubles to burn. Besides showing off with paintings of naked ladies and gold faucets and priceless antiques, he had these jewels stuck atop the chandeliers where no one could see them. But he knew they was up there, and I guess that made him feel rich. I remember now Bob saying how silly that was, but he never said nothing about it being a good hiding place.

I held my breath when I first come inside that double-wide, my double-wide. I had to clear a path through all the junk so I could drag a step ladder over to the chandelier. I climbed up and sure enough, there they was—diamonds and sapphires and emeralds. Looked like Gospel Bob had routered out a groove in the wagon wheel so’s you couldn’t see the jewels unless you got way up high. I got dizzy standing on that ladder thinking about how rich I was. I climbed down, shaking like a whore in church.

Before I bought the double-wide and found the jewels, I used to lie awake nights stewing over how I could make the payments on my second-hand Ford 150. Now I thrash around nights stewing over what to do with my fortune. Sure, I could sell the jewels and buy ten brand-new pickups, Ford 350s, even, and I’d still be richer than sin. But I ain’t clever enough to make up a story anyone would buy. Everybody, including the wife, would suspicion the money was ill-gotten gain. I’d just end up sitting next to Bob in jail.

The wife’s on my back, after me to build her a cabinet for her sewing machine now that I got a workshop. Damn. That ain’t the worst of it, though. You know what chaps my butt? I can’t help Bob, even though I could have enough money to post bond and buy him one crackerjack lawyer like that Kardashian fellow who got O.J. off.  But I guess he’s dead anyway.

I sure do miss Bob.


If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.

–Beverly Cleary


Break up Dialogue With Beats

Why does dialogue, especially in long conversations, need beats? Two reasons: 1) To anchor the reader in the scene so it doesn’t read like a ping-pong volley between talking heads, and 2) To add subtext, and 3) To add tension (I never was good at numbers.)

What are beats? They’re little actions or sometimes internal thoughts accompanying dialogue.

Anchor the Reader in the Scene

A couple working in a garden:

“Your mother called last night.” She took the tulip bulb from his extended hand.

Add Subtext

A boss meeting an employee at a busy restaurant arrives fifteen minutes late:

“You did put our name in, didn’t you?”

She resisted glancing at her watch. “Yes.”

Add Tension

Action scenes in which characters talk depend heavily on beats. A patrolman stops a speeding motorist:

“Get out of the car.”

“Yes, sir.” Slamming the car into reverse, the driver backed up, stopped, and aimed the vehicle at the officer.

Internal thought can be a good way to add tension to dialogue. Here’s a teen leaving the house to go drinking with friends:

“‘Bye, Mom. I’m meeting Carol to study at Starbucks.”

“Take your key if you’ll be out late.”

“OK.” She’s such a pushover.

The tricky part about beats is to know when, where, and how often to use them. Renni Browne and Dave King cover the subject well in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.


If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.

–Somerset Maugham

A Word’s Disturbing Origin

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 4.0

I had planned a different post for today, but it got highjacked by a thought that grabbed my mind and held it hostage. So bear with me, please.

Have you ever felt like exercising on a treadmill was torture? I know I have. But that was before I learned the disturbing origin of the word treadmill and came face to face with my own ignorance of a shameful piece of our history.

In the early 19th century, the treadmill, which only vaguely resembles its namesake, was invented in England with a dual purpose: to punish convicts and grind grain. Presumably if the punishment was sufficiently brutal, it would discourage the miscreant from further criminal activity.

The treadmill spread to the colonies and America where it caught on in prisons and workhouses. There’s an unforgettable scene in Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings. It’s set in the workhouse on Magazine Street in Charleston, South Carolina, where slaves sent by their masters worked the treadmill grinding corn. To punish the slave girl, Hettie, her owner sends her there. Hettie describes the treadmill as “a spinning drum, twice as tall as a man, with steps on it. Twelve scrambling people were climbing it fast as they could go, making the wheel turn.” Read the book.

Prior to its appearance in gyms and homes, the treadmmill was a device used by doctors to perform cardio stress tests. Who named it? Could the person who coined that word have been ignorant of its pedigree? Or knew it and didn’t care?

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.

–Elmore Leonard

Writing To Admire and Emulate

It’s no secret that I’m enamored with Janet Fitch’s writing. Here’s another example from White Oleander:

Excerpt: If I were a poet, that’s what I’d write about. People who worked in the middle of the night. Men who loaded trains, emergency room nurses with their gentle hands. Nightclerks in hotels, cabdrivers on graveyard, waitresses in all-night coffee shops. They knew the world, how precious it was when a person remembered your name, the comfort of a rhetorical question, “How’s it going, how’s the kids?” They knew how long the night was. They knew the sound life made as it left. It rattled, like a slamming screen door in the wind. Night workers lived without illusions, they wiped dreams off counters, they loaded freight. They headed back to the airport for one last fare.

My Take-away:
“If I were a poet,” then comes, in essence, a poem about people who work in the middle of the night. I love the humanity of this description that avoids “shorthand” adjectives, such as “disenfranchised” or “fringe.”


Cheat your landlord, if you must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality anymore than you can fake a good meal.

–William S. Burroughs Continue reading Writing To Admire and Emulate

Links for Readers v1.2 February 2018

Today’s post is all about book clubs, specifically links to finding or starting a book club.

How To Find a Book Club

Almost anywhere you live, you can probably locate a book club. Libraries and bookstores typically host them or offer meeting space. You can also find clubs near you at Meetup, where you might even find a perfect fit, such as this Fantasy/Sci Fi club in Houston.

For various reasons, you might prefer an online book club.

Oprah famously encourages reading and participation in book clubs. (As an indie author, I’m happy to see that Oprah’s Book Club includes independently published books in its reading list.)

Here’s one that’s new to me: an international club called The Girly Book Club. They’re online as well as having chapters in 80 cities.

Incidentally, I’ve discovered that the Texas Talking Book Program, which serves people who are visually impaired or otherwise unable to read, has a phone-in book club that meets via conference call.

How To Start a Book Club

On its site “I Love Libraries” you’ll find guidelines from the American Library Association.

More tips can be found in “How To Start a Book Club That Doesn’t Suck” at Book Riot.

Sign up on Meetup , create a group and invite people to join.


One of the real perks of being an author is getting to meet with book clubs. I thoroughly enjoy the conversation that typically veers from Compromise With Sin’s Discussion Guide to participants’ own experiences. I love meeting with people in person, but I’m also available to meet via Skype, FaceTime or phone.


I find television very educating. Every time someone turns on the set, I go into another room and read a book.

–Groucho Marx

Streamline Novel’s First Revision

I’ve just finished the first draft of my new novel, Candlelight Confessions, and it’s lean and ugly. I work out the story as I go without much regard for style or details. As an admitted “pantser” (as opposed to “plotter”) I don’t outline first, so the story sometimes takes off on tangents that I’ll worry about later.

Later is now. Just as I was approaching the first revision, I got a timely tip from fellow author and Austin Novel in Progress chair Tosh McIntosh. He picked this up in a workshop presented by Holly Lisle. With apologies to both, here’s a crude approximation. Before doing the first revision, go through your draft and write a one-sentence description for every scene.  I included the date with each description so I can readily see if the order of scenes makes sense. After making the list, you’re ready to perform triage. Cut any scene that doesn’t serve the purpose of the story. Now you’re ready to make the cosmetic changes to your draft, and by ruthlessly cutting scenes you won’t be wasting time, as Tosh says, putting lipstick on a pig.

Now I know that scrutinizing each scene can seem daunting. But for me, it was a piece of cake because I’ve been composing my WIP in Scrivener and writing a very brief synopsis of each scene on a digital index card in the “Inspector.” (That’s Scrivener-speak for a place to make notes and perform some housekeeping duties.) Moreover, I can see all these index cards together on the “Corkboard” and move them around if need be. It’s most enlightening. I not only have scenes to scrap, but I see holes and disconnects in the story that need patching. And this seems to be the perfect time in the creative process to do those things.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d only type a little faster.

–Isaac Asimov

Two Words for Novelists: Donald Maass

A couple of things have me thinking about Donald Maass and his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. First, Compromise With Sin just received a “very highly recommended” tag from Midwest Book Review, which follows a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. The opinions of both reviewers are read and trusted by booksellers, librarians, and readers.

I owe much of the novel’s critical success to a team that includes beta readers, editors, and my critique group, Novel in Progress Austin. And especially to Donald Maass. Doing the exercises in his workbook enabled me to add depth to characters, heighten conflict, develop settings, and more.

So the second reason I’m thinking of him now is that I’m using the workbook as I revise my work-in-progress. At the moment, I’m working on an exercise called “Adjusting the Volume.” As with all the chapters in the workbook, he gives a rationale and cites passages from published novels to illustrate his point. I agree with him that it’s hard to exaggerate a protagonist’s larger-than-life qualities, so I’m following his advice to pick a place in the manuscript at random where the character says, thinks, or does something, and heighten it:

“Make it bigger, funnier, more shocking, more vulgar, more out of bounds, more over the top, more violent, more insightful, more wildly romantic, more active, more anything.”

With that, I’m supposed to make the change in the manuscript, then lower the volume on the same passage. Oh, then find 24 more passages, and heighten and lower the volume for each.

I find that doing this work (and it is work) really forces me to get inside my character and discover layers I didn’t know were there. I’ve addressed 12 passages so far, and I’m going to tackle a couple more as soon as I finish writing this post.

As my writing friends know, I can’t say enough about Donald Maass and the workbook. I’ve mentioned him in two previous blog posts.

Your opinion? Leave a comment.


There are only seven days in the week, and someday is not one of them.

–Rita Chand

Five-Dollar Vocables in Fiction

I have a decent vocabulary that includes a few five-dollar vocables I might casually drop if I should ever find myself at a Mensa meeting. Words like terpsichorean, which refers to dancing, and even better, boustrophedonic, which describes the plowed  furrows left by a turning ox (or tractor).


But generally in my writing I eschew such terms because as a reader, I find they pluck me out of the story and plop me back into the reality I intended to escape.

I’ll make an exception, though, for the novel my book club recently read: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman. Set in Scotland, the story is about a socially backward woman who devours books she selects at random, and even though she’s not intending to sound erudite, her speech often has a textbook quality. So when Eleanor sent me to the dictionary a number of times, I wasn’t annoyed because I understood this to be an important character trait.

Some of the words:

  • friable: easily crumbled
  • rhotic: an adverb describing dialect in which the “r” sound is hard (e.g., American Midewestern, as opposed to Scottish)
  • badinage: humorous or witty conversation
  • rebarbative: unattractive and objectionable

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

–Eleanor Roosevelt