Friday, September 21, 2018


I had always thought I lacked the brain power to write straight romantic suspense. You know, dropping all those little clues along the way to lead the reader in the right direction, but not giving the villain away until the last spine-chilling moment. That’s difficult enough when you can throw in the odd alien or two for distraction; it’s well-nigh impossible when you’re working with your everyday human serial killer. And, apparently romantic suspense contest judges agree with me. I’ve tried numerous times and failed to even place in the prestigious Daphne du Maurier RS contest run by the Kiss of Death chapter of Romance Writers of America®.
You don't need real-life experience to imagine a killer.
Now it appears it wasn’t brain power I was lacking, but, um, hands-on research. As if romance writers don’t have enough to contend with these days, headlines this week featured a self-pubbed author in Oregon who’d been arrested in the murder of her husband of 27 years. Turns out the woman, Nancy Crampton-Brophy, writes “steamy” romantic suspense novels, and had even written an essay a few years back titled, “How to Murder Your Husband.” Since the murder investigation is ongoing, the news reporters were unable to say whether the murder of Crampton-Brophy’s husband shared either motive or modus operandi with those described in the author’s article.

I have no opinion one way or the other on Crampton-Brophy’s guilt. But I would bet good money that her lawyer will certainly say at some point in the proceedings, “Surely, your Honor, you wouldn’t think my client would be so stupid as to write this article, THEN go out and actually MURDER HER HUSBAND, now would you?”

Or would she? Hmm.

The problem here, of course, is that your average “mundane” believes we write out of direct experience. Our writerly lives must be glamorous! Our sex lives are no doubt spectacular! I’m not complaining, (love you, honey!) but romance novels are fantasies. The men (and women) in them may have flaws, but when it comes to the bedroom, they are generally close to perfect, because that’s how we all like it. Otherwise, we’d be writing (and reading) some other kind of novel—women’s fiction, or literary fiction about a dysfunctional family, or something.

Those of us who write science fiction romance write about aliens and space ships and distant planets. Read my lips: WE HAVEN’T BEEN THERE. We are making it all up! 

I was at Shore Leave just this summer when a woman stopped at my table and scowled when she read the blurb on the back of my book. “Have you ever met anyone who was actually abducted by aliens?” she said.

“Well, no,” I answered.

“Well, now you have.” She didn’t look happy. “Not something I want to read about.”

I could believe that, actually. I did try to say that my books all have a happy ending, that the good guys always win against the Bad Guy Aliens. Didn’t help.

Not that I haven’t been tempted to fib from time to time. I can imagine the boost Ms. Crampton-Brophy’s books are getting on Amazon about now. If I came out with a story that the little Gray guys had visited me here in NC, I might manage to break out of the sales doldrums, too. For a while. Kind of an extreme promo tactic, though.

This is not me.
This is all to say that the old saw “write what you know” shouldn’t be taken literally. You don’t have to have been a victim of alien abduction to imagine what it must be like for those people. You don’t have to commit murder to put yourself in the mind of a killer. Research is useful to provide the details that provide texture and color to settings, emotions, backstory. But 90 percent of that is to kickstart your own imagination and ground it in reality. Your intuition “knows” as well as your sensory experience does. Trust that part of you when it’s not legal, sensible or possible to pick up the gun or board the ship to outer space. 


No doubt you've seen the destruction Hurricane Florence wrought in the eastern part of North Carolina. The deluge of rain, historic storm surge and howling winds ripped through countless communities on the coast and even miles inland, flooding and isolating dozens of communities. Folks here in Madison County, though, were spared all of that, though. The storm's track ran just east of here, through Yancey County and north through Virginia. We had a few mild rain showers and no wind. The temporary refugees who had sought to escape from the east and hunker down in AirBNBs or hotels here were at least able to relax a little. Now they wait for the flood waters to recede so they can go home. Those of us who are lucky enough to live here in the mountains are grateful. 

Cheers, Donna

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A man far ahead of his time

I suppose everyone has heroes, people they look up to with stars in their eyes. One of mine has been for a very long time Leonardo da Vinci. This extraordinary man who lived between 1452 and 1519could turn his hand to just about anything that took his fancy. He was the artist who created two of the most famous paintings in the world, the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. But he was so much more – an inventor, an investigator, carpenter, architect. Anything that interested him. If, like me, you are a Terry Pratchett fan you will have recognised Leonard of Quirm, the inventor of the 'gonne' in the book Men at Arms. Like Leonardo, Leonard also invented a submarine which features in the novel, Jingo.

Leonardo was the consummate scientist. He wanted to know how things worked, so he studied birds to see how they flew, and he was given permission to dissect human bodies at a Florence hospital. He drew studies such as the famous Vitruvian Man and a foetus in the womb, as well as anatomically accurate drawings of horses.

Like Leonard of Quirm, Leonardo's interests jumped from one thing to another and much of his work, including paintings, was unfinished. However, he had many notebooks where he would draw sketches and make notes. But the notes were often disjointed, with bits and pieces in various places. Undaunted, scholars have put together and actually built many of his machines, some of them practical, others not. During my recent trip to Milan I had the opportunity to visit an exhibition of Leonardo's machines. The Leonardo3 group has a comprehensive website, but it's not exactly intuitive. This link takes you to the machines, many of which were reproduced for the Milan exhibition.

Back on the SFR front I'm working on a plot for Puss in Space II. I've got the characters, I just have to create a nail-biting story. And this article why your story is falling apart and how to fix it by Kristen Lamb is actually a great help. She gives meaningful examples to help the reader to understand what she's saying. It's well worth a read.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Game of Thrones: The Genius of Subtlety

On a recent mini-vacation (from hell!), I happened to wander into a Barnes and Noble in Las Cruces, New Mexico--yes, Virginia, brick and mortar bookstores do still exist!--and while perusing the SFF books I found a copy of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, which is actually the first title in the hefty A Song of Fire and Ice series on which the HBO television show is based.

I hesitated about buying it. Briefly. And then I snapped it up. After all, I was in dire need of some good reading material. And Game of Thrones had to be a pretty great read. No brainer.

So while a dozen workman hammered, shouted, stomped about, swore, and rippppppped off the old surface of the roof they were repairing on the Hotel Encanto right outside my window! (I told you it was a vacation from hell) I found some relief from all the aggravating commotion between those pages.

Image property of Bantam Books/
Penguin Random House
I'd never read one of Martin's books before, in spite of the fact he's also a well known -- and local -- SciFi author, and I was immediately taken with his voice and style. His genius of vocabulary isn't the impressive words he uses, it's how he chooses the perfect words and threads those words together like a lush Winterfell tapestry. His descriptions are so smooth, so artistically crafted, so incredibly fluid that the prose melted right off the page and only the images remained.

And what images!

Sweeping, ice-crested mountains, ancient spring-warmed castles, solid, snorting black destriers, and people. Real people, cloaked in mud or finery, swearing, joking, grunting personalities set in a vivid world of history, fortune, legend and hardship, and with personal stories that inter-meshed and braided like an elaborate Celtic knot.

In other words, reader heaven.

In a workshop I once took, an instructor said that when you tell a story you should try to make your words invisible on the page. The words shouldn't be what your reader sees, only the visions they paint in the mind. I've always taken that advice to heart and I found Martin's prose the ultimate example.

Having watched the entire HBO series these books were based on became both a blessing and a curse. It's a curse because I already had sharp, visual pictures of the characters imprinted in my mind and some of the descriptions really didn't fit the portrayal I'd come to know. None of that was insurmountable, but it took some will to mentally edit familiar faces or features to match the characters as they were created.

But the blessings were manyfold. Knowing a good part of the story that lies ahead (even though I realize some of it will deviate from the books), I could see Martin's true genius at work. Such artistic, subtle foreshadowing, so many tiny clues and cues hidden in the text! My mouth literally dropped open at the underlying revelations hidden just beneath the cover of those carefully clever words, and at the exact dialogue the characters would later utter on the screen revealed in its full context in print. Wow! I thought. Did Martin have the entire cast of intricate characters and future story arc all laid out in his head as he was writing his initial chapters? It seems he must have. Or at least a functioning skeleton as fleshed out as any White Walker.

But for me, this was the greatest epiphany of all.

I was surprised to find the copyright date on Game of Thrones as 1996. 1996! Well over 20 years ago! That's about the time I started my career in military support, about the same time our house was built. And over that long course of time, Martin wrote four more volumes as hefty as Game of Thrones. Four more novels from 1996 to 2011. Just four novels in fifteen long years. That's an average of nearly four years per novel. The last, published in 2011, was A Dance With Dragons. It took him six years to write that one. He is still working on the sixth book in the series, The Winds of Winter. It's been seven years to date.

Images are property of Bantam Books/Penguin Random House

This reinforced what I've always believed. Good writing takes time. Exceptional storytelling takes longer. And this was some of the most amazing storytelling I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Even mundane passages had the power to hold me spellbound.

This slow pace in which he completes his works has long been a matter of contention between Martin and his fans, as illustrated in this online article from What, if Anything, Does George R.R. Martin Owe His Fans? Fans Sound Off.

In a poll posted with the article, there was a breakdown of those who responded:

18.10% said he should set a realistic release date and stick to it.
12.07% demanded he give updates.
25.17% said he doesn't owe his fans anything, but they're still allowed to be upset with him.
27.24% said he owed fans a great book, no matter how long it took
17.41% said he doesn't owe anyone anything.

You know what? I'm in Martin's corner on this one. I think it should always take as long to finish a novel as the author decides it needs to take. Kicking out novels in rapid succession may satisfy fans, but it probably doesn't allow for the time and attention an author may require to fully construct a great story.

Yet having that time is a reality that may only be available to two groups of writers -- the very famous, successful ones...and the persnickety indies.

I'm glad to count myself in at least one of those groups. :)

Have a great week.

Friday, September 14, 2018


Today is a beautiful, sunny day in Western North Carolina. The sky is a hazy blue, dotted with cottony white clouds sailing lazily by. There’s enough of a breeze to stir the leaves and take the edge off the heat, but not enough to lift the flag in front of the courthouse. The river level is low in downtown Marshall; the blue heron that hunts in the shallows a hundred yards downstream from the dam stands on the rocks with just enough water to cover his feet.

But in 24 hours, or maybe 36, everything in my part of the world will change. The clouds will sweep in, the barometric pressure will drop, and the rain will fall in sheets. The wind will begin to howl, bending the trees, breaking them or maybe ripping them from the ground. The forces of Mother Nature will attack the structures built by mere human creatures—houses, fences, barns, bridges, storefronts, vehicles, electric lines—and in some cases those structures will fail. Creeks will overflow; steep slopes will give way. And before Hurricane Florence, having just hit the North Carolina/South Carolina/Virginia coast as a Category 1 storm, is over, many of the residents of those states will have reason to look back at this day as The Time Before.

In the distant past, our ancestors who lived in the paths of destructive storms had no warning whatsoever that something was on its way to ruin homes, crops and lives, especially if they lived many miles from the ocean, as we do in Western North Carolina. I suppose if you live on the coast, you have rough surf to give you some indication that a storm out at sea is coming closer. But this far inland, the sun shines right up to the day before the hurricane hits, and in the days before The Weather Channel, before radio and telegraph or even good roads and a fast horse, no one could predict that disaster would strike seemingly out of nowhere. 

The most devastating flood in the area’s history occurred in 1916, when the French Broad River went over its banks after several days of sustained heavy rain. One theory is that two hurricanes came through the area, one right after the other. But weather records for the time are spotty, so no one really knows. 

The Flood of 1916 in the French Broad River Valley near Asheville NC
Of course, predictability is relative, even with all the tools we have at our disposal in this technologically delirious time. Meteorologists have only a vague idea, really, what the impact of Florence will be; where it will go; how long it will stay. We’ve already been lucky to some extent in that the storm lingered longer than expected in the Atlantic, meandering slowly over the water, dissipating in strength while it grew in size. At this writing, the hurricane has hit the coast at Wilmington NC as a Category 1 storm, when just days ago, it was feared to hit as a Category 4. Still, most coastal residents heeded warnings and evacuated. The loss of life is likely to be less than it could have been—certainly something to be thankful for.

We are taught, as writers, to set the beginning of our stories at the precise moment when everything changes for our protagonists. Sometimes it’s not so easy to identify that moment in a swirl of plot possibilities. But today, on this sunny day, waiting for the inevitable onset of the storm, so many of those moments loom large. And we can only pray for happy endings.

Cheers, Donna

About Spacefreighters Lounge

Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.