Character Building

Vaughn Hardacker here: One of the things that will turn me off on a book is Tom Swift style characters, you know the hero who excels at everything they have ever done. You know The Great Leslie Gallant character of the Warner Brothers 1965 movie THE GREAT RACE. The movie is one of my all time favorites and it is great satire. However the characters are all shallow. Tony Curtis as Great Leslie is the protagonist and Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate Leslie’s nemesis and antagonist. Are satirical illustrations of the heroes and villains of silent films. The problem is they are one dimensional (albeit I believe intentionally so).

As writers we must never forget that people are not one or even two dimensional, they are multi-faceted.  They have hopes and fears, hates, likes and failures.  Yet, when we think



of their personalities, we tend to key on one or two dominant traits.  We describe someone we know to another person as, “He’s the pushy one.”  Or “She’s so sweet, but a bit ditsy.”  It’s what, in our minds, makes these people individuals to us.


So, too, the characters we write are multi-faceted.  When we write them as such, they all blend one into another, with no personality distinctions.  Their physical attributes are different, but you could probably swap around and notice little difference.  The most recent rejection letter says, “Your characters are cookie cutter.”  Of course, in your mind, you (as the writer) see all these “people” as distinct.

Remember the way we describe people?  Define your characters the same way.  Give your hero two or three traits.  That’s all.  Give him two good and one bad (or two bad and one good, if your character is evil).  Lesser characters get fewer traits.

I’m currently working on a novel where my protagonist is moral (good) and long-suffering in patience (good), but when he’s had enough, he’s brutal (bad).  My antagonist, by necessity is almost the opposite:  arrogant (bad) and insecure (bad), which makes him a bully.

I try to make all of my writing character driven (we sort of have to, after all virtually every plot today is derived from Shakespeare), so even though there’s a “bad guy” in my Bouchard and Houston novels one of my readers’ favorite characters is an anti-hero. Jimmy O could easily be the antagonist.  However, as interesting as many of my readers have found him, he’s a supporting character (they get only two traits, in Jimmy O’s case he can be brutal and violent while on the other hand uses that trait to help people less fortunate as he). He is as a member of one of my writing groups said: a gangster with morals.

It’s important to remember that sometimes stories change as we write them.  A minor character (Jimmy O) could suddenly become important and move into a supporting character role.  If this happens, give that character one more trait.  But only one; you don’t want to interfere with the importance of the primary characters.

Likewise, a supporting character may fall back to supporting status.  In that case, focus on just one of his chosen traits.

The most important thing to remember is what is your character’s role in the story…does his or her presence move the story forward?  If you don’t know that, then your characters will have too many traits and once again, they’ll become cookie cutter people with different roles.



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My First Bouchercon

Me and Harlan

Me and Harlan

Happy October, all! Bruce Robert Coffin here, sharing my latest travel news.

Well it’s over, my very first Bouchercon Mystery Writer’s conference. And what a conference it was! Over two thousand like minded individuals, comprised of writers, agents, publishers, and fans, all gathered together in celebration of mystery and mayhem in The Big Easy.

It was memorable for me for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that my debut novel, Among the Shadows, was released the day before the start of the conference. First novel, first Bouchercon, and first time to New Orleans. And if that wasn’t enough, I got to chat with Harlan Coban, C.J. Box, Otto Penzler, Reed Farrell Coleman, and Lee Child. That’s right you heard me, Lee Freaking Child. What where they like? They were awesome. Approachable, pleasant, and extremely down to earth. What does one talk about with authors of such magnitude? Why writing, of course. I saw Michael Connelly speaking with someone in the hallway my very first afternoon. I resisted the urge to corner him and try and have my picture taken with him. Slyly, I figured the opportunity would present itself again during the four days I was at the conference. It didn’t. I did manage to finagle a great picture of Harlan and I standing on either side of a poster of my book cover. Yup. Just me and Harlan Coben looking like badasses, endorsing my novel Among the Shadows. Well, okay, I’m endorsing it while he’s just being a good sport.

As I opined to several of my author friends, this is such a weird business. Several times during the conference I was seated at the head table beside a row of other novelists as we signed autographs for fans. Pretty cool, right? Damn right it was. People, actual readers, coming up to talk to ME and ask for an autograph. It was surreal. But the real strange part came when hours later I found myself standing in line on the other side of the table waiting for Lee’s autograph. When I realized that he was signing, I ran back to the book dealer who’d had multiple copies of various Jack Reacher Books. To my horror, I learned that he’d sold every last one. What? OMG! I scurried to the other vendors, but they were all out. Finally, I located one lone hardcover copy of Personal. “It’s already signed,” the dealer told me. Sure enough, I opened it to find Lee’s signature on the title page. “I’ll take it,” I said. It was autographed, but not personalized. As I chatted with Mr. Child, I let it slip that my first novel had just been released mere days ago. He smiled graciously and said, “congratulations.” As long as I live, I’ll never forget that moment.

There were so many cool moments. I attended the new author breakfast, where I and about fifteen fellow debutants had to stand up in front of a packed auditorium and talk for three minutes about ourselves and our books. I intentionally sat with a couple of my New England crime writing pals, figuring there was safety in numbers. I choked down some fruit and scrambled eggs, took a few swigs of coffee and waited for the gladiator games to commence. Intuitively, my buddy Brian Thiem sensed my angst, having been through this very same initiation last year. He leaned over to me and said, “are you nervous?”

“Uh, I am now,” I said.

“You’ll do fine.”

He was right. At least, I think he was. He gave me the thumbs up when I’d finished speaking. In all honesty, I don’t remember what I said, but the other members of the breakfast club gave an enthusiastic applause, as they did to each of the newbies.

Another bud of mine, Chris Holm, was up for one of the most prestigious writing awards there is, the Anthony. And not just any old Anthony, this one was for best novel, for his thriller The Killing Kind. And, in spite of the lengthy and impressive resume of the other nominees, HE WON! Congratulations, Chris! I suggested that he change his name to Anthony Holm. He liked the idea, implying that it would be okay if I called him Tony, but only when we were alone.

And what can I say about New Orleans? It was awesome. A parade every hour, or so it seemed. Hot, humid, even crazy at times, but mostly just awesome. I ate gumbo, tried beignets, had alligator sausage, shrimp, hurricanes, and more gumbo. Everyone I met was pleasant. The locals appeared to love chatting us up. They all had stories about Katrina and her aftermath. Many of them had to move away for several years after the storm. But like us hearty New Englanders, they returned, vowing to work hard and restore their former lives. Inspirational people, these.

On Sunday morning, the last day of the conference, I took part in my first Bouchercon panel, titled The Heat is On. The topic of the panel, moderated by the delightful and charming Dana Cameron, was the challenges series writers face. The panel itself consisted of moi, Quai Quartey, Susan Shea, and Mary Anna Evans. Being a Sunday morning, I figured the room would be empty as attendees packed up their belongings and headed to the airport. Boy was I wrong. We played to a packed house. The panel went so smoothly and each of us played off the other so well, the hour seemed to pass by in the span of ten minutes. And the crowd ate it up. It was a good note to finish on. Left me wanting more.

So, as I write this, 12,000 feet in the air and headed back toward Boston, I’m already dreaming about next year’s conference, which will be held in Toronto. Am I excited? What do you think?

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Weekend Update: October 22-23, 2016

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by Bruce Coffin (Monday), Vaughn Hardacker (Tuesday), Dorothy Cannell (Wednesday), John Clark (Thursday), and Kate Flora (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

Lea Wait: Excited that Dangling By a Thread, the fourth in my Mainely Needlepooint series, will ship early this week!  Every town has its eccentrics (maybe especially in Maine) and in Haven Harbor Jesse, who lives alone on an isolated island, is called The Solitary. dangling-by-a-thread-comp300But Jesse has a reason to be there … and when his world is threatened, he has the Mainely Needlepointers for friends.

And Wednesday evening, October 26, Lea, Kate Flora, and Barbara Ross will be speaking at “Death and Desserts” at the South Berwick Public Library in Maine. Talk, books to hear about and purchase … and desserts. How could an evening be any better! Hope to see you there.

Then, Saturday and Sunday, October 29 and 30, Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kate Emerson and Lea Wait will be at the REM (Revitalizing the Energy) Craft Fair at Champion’s Fitness Club, 30 Elm Plaza (exit 130 off I-95) in Waterville, Maine, along with dozens of Christmas crafters. What a place to shop for Christmas and support local artisans! Hours: Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. until 3 p.m.

Kate Flora: Recently, the wonderful Dale T. Phillips did a long and interesting interview with me on his blog. If you’re curious, you can check it out here, and perhaps learn some of my deep, dark secrets:





An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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How to Launch a Book on a Budget


Whether you’re an author with a traditional publishing company or you’ve elected to go it alone, I don’t think it’s really a surprise that budgets are tight when it comes to promotions and marketing these days. Unless you are one of the chosen few star players for a traditional imprint, many of the costs for launching your book may fall on your shoulders. And, of course, if you’re an indie working on a shoestring budget (and who among us isn’t?), then everything is pretty much on you. Since I’ve been working as an indie author for almost five years now and am preparing to launch a new series, I thought now would be a good time to share my own launch process for this latest novel.

thread-05bFirst, a little about what I’m doing. My new Flint K-9 Search and Rescue series features characters from my bestselling Erin Solomon series – so I’m essentially doing a spinoff with some of my strongest characters. The first book in the series, The Darkest Thread, is out officially on October 25.


In today’s digital-savvy world, pretty much everyone you talk to in publishing is all about the almighty mailing list. I have a mailing list of about 3,000 subscribers at this point. In my August newsletter to those subscribers, I put out a general call asking for readers who would be willing to review the new book if I provided them with an advance review copy (or ARC, as it’s known in the business). Because authors’ careers are made or broken based on the number of reviews they have on Amazon and Goodreads these days, the advance reader team is a critical component in the launch process.

I ended up with a team of 75, with which I’m very happy. I sent out personal messages to everyone who responded as their emails came in, and then sent out an official welcome on September 15 through Mailchimp. I had 75 promotional codes for my audiobooks through ACX (the Amazon company I go through to distribute my Erin Solomon audiobooks), so was able to let everyone on the mailing list choose one of the first three audiobooks in my series, as a special perk for being on the advance reader team.

On October 6, my ARC was ready to send to the advance reading team. I use BookFunnel as the easiest way to distribute free books, as readers can choose the format that works best for them depending on the ereader they use. In the email I sent on October 6, I provided a timeline for when I would like the book review up; reiterated the fact that I was not looking for solely positive reviews, but rather am looking for fair, honest reviews about the readers’ perceptions of the novel; and asked each reviewer to please include a disclaimer at the beginning of the review per Amazon guidelines, in order to make sure we weren’t violating their rules. That process got a little muddy as Amazon has just changed those guidelines, but ultimately it was determined that the best disclaimer to use at this time is: DISCLOSURE: I received an ARC of this novel at no cost to the author.


44-052414-akpWhile the advance reader team was at work, I was busy prepping everything else. I posted the book for print pre-order on Amazon, posted the details of the book on Goodreads, and got digital pre-orders up on Barnes & Noble and Kobo, as well as preparing the book for release on Amazon and Draft2Digital (which distributes my books to the iStore for me, since I don’t have a Mac). Though you can do digital pre-orders on Amazon, I unfortunately got turned around with the mechanism at my last book launch, so it’s not actually available to me for the next year. Because sometimes Amazon is punitive; let that be a lesson to you.

On October 10th, I announced a dog photo contest to be held the day of the book launch, on October 25th. Since the book is about dogs, and I love dogs, and election season is horrible and all I really want to look at are happy, smiling dog faces, this seemed a good idea. puppyI didn’t invest extra money in promoting the contest far and wide, and instead just relied on my social network on Facebook, Twitter, and through my mailing list. About fifty people submitted photos, which I think is a great turnout while still being manageable for me. I posted all of those photos in a Facebook photo album, and every ‘like’ each photo receives counts as a vote for that dog. The grand prizes for the contest are two $25 Amazon gift cards and a Kindle Paper White, but everyone who enters will win something. I’ll be taking submissions for the photo contest until 5pm EST on Friday, Oct 21st, and judging will take place during an online Facebook Launch Party I’m hosting between 2 and 9 p.m. on Tuesday, October 25th.

During the launch party, I’ll be giving out prizes, taking questions about dog training (I’m a certified trainer myself and have my trainer/mentor on standby to lend a hand with the heavy lifting when I’m uncertain about anything), sharing excerpts and extras from the novel, and drinking lots of wine. Because that’s what you do when you’re online for seven hours pimping your work.

It’s free to host an event on Facebook, and posting the album of dog photos for the contest is likewise free. You can opt to ‘boost’ the post and tailor your target audience accordingly if you’re comfortable with Facebook ads and have a budget to work with – depending on your prowess, I’ve heard this can be quite effective. That depends largely on how extensive your existing social media audience is, and just how many people you’re trying to reach. Realistically, I didn’t think I could handle much more than 50 entries in the photo contest anyway, so I’m very happy with my results.

As far as the sequence of everything else goes, I’ll be doing a ‘soft launch’ of The Darkest Thread over the weekend in order to work out any kinks and allow advance readers the opportunity to submit their reviews before the wide release on October 25th. I’m also running a cross promotion of my 5-book Erin Solomon box set (digital only), selling that set for an unprecedented (and possibly insane) $.99 from October 24th to the 30th. I have a BookBub deal to promote that on the 29th, and am doing other paid advertising with Booksends, Books Butterfly, and JustKindleBooks.


Most folks agree these days that—again, unless you’re one of the chosen few sitting in the winner’s circle with the Big 5 traditional publishers—the launch of a book is rarely going to set the world on fire. Rather, it’s a slow and steady race over time. You still want to make some impact up front, however, and the better positioning you can give your novel from the very start, the better chance that you’ll pick up momentum sooner rather than later. Personally, I just crunched the numbers and have $2,759.04 invested in this book, including the promotion for the Erin Solomon box set, cover design and editing for The Darkest Thread, SWAG for online and in-person giveaways, and print book stock.

I’m selling the book online at just $3.99 for the first week, and then will increase the price to its regular $5.99 on October 31st. That means I have to sell roughly 988 digital copies or around 310 print copies, in order to break even. Which is doable, but certainly requires some work on my part. My hope is to do that by October 31st so that anything I earn going forward puts me back in the black. Still, all of this is a scary prospect. I’ve now launched seven books, most of them with pretty good success, but I still find myself lying awake at night crunching numbers and praying to the publishing gods that things will go off without a hitch and my book will earn good reviews and equally good sales numbers.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… “But, Jen, I don’t actually have 2700+ dollars to spend on a book launch.” I hear you. So, here’s how I prioritize when I’m working with a smaller budget:

  • Book Design & Prep: The key to your success is having a great book to begin with. So, your top priorities in terms of expense if you’re an independent author are cover design and editing. If you’re a traditionally published author, those are happily two components you don’t have to fret over, so pat yourself on the back for snagging a traditional publisher who will foot those costs for you.
  • SWAG: This doesn’t need to be a huge expense. You can get bookmarks through NextDayFlyers (my personal favorites) or VistaPrint for $35 to $50, depending on how elaborate you get with the design and how many you order. Another fun bit of SWAG I’ve done in the past is to buy candy wrappers with my book cover and info on them. I get them through the Candy Wrapper Store; the cost is reasonable, and you just wrap them yourself around Hershey’s Miniatures and have a tasty customized tidbit to offer at signings and readings. chocolateIf you want higher-end SWAG you can always opt for pens, hats, mugs, T-shirts, etc., but just think about how you’re going to use that SWAG, where you’re giving it out, and be realistic about just how likely it is that giving it out will actually lead to sales.
  • Advertising and promotion: If you’re not launching with an advance reader team or some good reviews through more conventional sources like Kirkus or Booklist, my recommendation is to not spend a lot (or anything) on paid advertising when you’re first launching your book. Wait until you’ve generated some reviews and some momentum, typically at least two to three months in, before you start looking around for advertising venues. Instead of paying for advertising and promotion early on, focus on things like hosting a Facebook launch party or doing something creative like holding a photo contest or something else that’s interactive enough to draw readers in. Author Rachel Abbott just started doing writing contests with her readers, which I think is a fabulous idea. Be creative, and have fun.

So, that’s my advice on the almighty book launch. If you’re an author, what have you found that works well for you when launching a book? And if you’re a reader, do you pay attention to book launches, or are you more likely to pick up a book after it’s generated some buzz?

Jen Blood is author of the bestselling Erin Solomon Mysteries, and the newly released Flint K-9 Search and Rescue Mystery The Darkest Thread. To learn more, visit 


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Sights and Sounds of Autumn in Maine

By Brenda Buchanan

The turning of the leaves took us by surprise this year.

Yellow and red and orange

The most beautiful season

After a long summer spent watering the garden we had modest hopes.

Too dry for good color, we thought. Wait ‘til next year. (Yes, Red Sox fans, we said that about more than the foliage.)

A few days into October the show began, startling us with its vibrancy.

Red maples flank a solider at Riverbank Park on Main Street in Westbrook

Red maples flank a solider at Riverbank Park on Main Street in Westbrook

The swamp maples led the pack, but that’s true even in lesser leaf years. Then the big maple in our front yard began to glow, a reddish-yellow beacon visible from the end of the street. By last weekend all of southern Maine was alight.

Red tree, blue sky

Red tree, blue sky

To celebrate the end of a marvelous, warm summer, here are some photos from our recent travels, with some lovely poems about the season as accompaniment.

First, a Maine poet, Knox County’s own Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose iconic The Death of Autumn captures the despair that can accompany the dying season of the year:

When reeds are dead and a straw to thatch the marshes,

And feathered pampas-grass rides into the wind

Like aged warriors westward, tragic, thinned

Of half their tribe, and over the flattened rushes

Stripped of its secret, open, stark and bleak,

Blackens afar the half-forgotten creek–

The leans on me the weight of the year, and crushes

My heart. I know that Beauty must ail and die,

And will be born again–but ah, to see

Beauty stiffened, staring up at the sky!

Oh, Autumn! Autumn! – What is the Spring to me?

Marshland adjacent to the Mousam River in Kennebunk

Marshland adjacent to the Mousam River in Kennebunk

On the October 10 Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor read Wendell Berry’s poem by the same name, which evokes not only the visual but the auditory aspects of autumn:

  Now constantly there is the sound,

quieter than rain,

of the leaves falling. 

Under their loosening bright

gold, the sycamore limbs

bleach whiter.

 Now the only flowers

are beeweed and aster, spray

of their white and lavender

over the brown leaves.

 The calling of a crow sounds

Loud – landmark – now

that the life of summer falls

silent, and the nights grow.

A tree alight

A tree alight

Finally, Song For Autumn, by the marvel who is Mary Oliver, a poet whose connection with nature is second to none.

In the deep fall

don’t you imagine the leaves think how

comfortable it will be to touch

the earth instead of the

nothingness of air and the endless

freshets of wind? And don’t you think

the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,

warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come—six, a dozen—to sleep

inside their bodies? And don’t you hear

the goldenrod whispering goodbye,

the everlasting being crowned with the first

tuffets of snow? The pond

vanishes, and the white field over which

the fox runs so quickly brings out

its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its

bellows. And at evening especially,

the piled firewood shifts a little,

longing to be on its way.

The dunes at Ferry Beach in Scarborough

Fall dunes at Ferry Beach in Scarborough

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