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Setting the Scene by Wendy Dingwall


Recently, I read an excerpt of Pat Conroy’s latest novel, South of Broad, set in his beloved Charleston, South Carolina, in Southern Living Magazine. If Conroy does anything well, and of course he does, it’s setting the scene.


Many authors feel it’s important to grab the reader right away by placing them in the middle of a traumatic scene on the first page. Conroy draws the reader in slowly – seductively. I think this is harder, and that the other way is sometimes the lazy way.


A talented writer doesn’t just describe places in which the characters move around, he puts the reader in the action with the character. Setting a scene is not just about identifying the location of the character or the story, though this is important, it’s about how the location impacts and relates to the story. Certain simple questions need to be answered when setting a scene. Does the scene take place inside a building or outside? Is it day or night? What’s the weather like? How does it smell? How does it feel? Is it clean, dirty, or noisy? Use all the senses in setting a scene, but only if the information is relative to the story. Show us, DON’T TELL.


Describing a scene will most likely result in the reader growing bored, and putting the book down. Following is an example of describing (telling) a scene:


Joe was crossing the street. About half way across the sky opened up, raining on him. He cursed. He ran for cover tripping on a curb. He was cold, and his mood turned from sunny to blue.


Here’s the same scene shown with relevance to the story at hand, drawing the reader in:


“Damn, I forgot my umbrella. Wouldn’t you know the sky would open up now – now when I’m so close to finding the answer to the puzzle.” Joe ran for cover tripping on the curb. He caught himself in time to keep from falling headlong through the window of the local drugstore. He shivered shaking off the chill, and wiped away the water that dripped from his thick hair into his eyes. Catching his breath he strained to see the shops across the street through the pouring rain. When he’d crossed from there a few minutes before the sun had been shining and he could see clearly. “Who am I kidding? Getting my hopes up, thinking it all might work out. That, I might actually solve this mystery?” Joe watched the rain wash away down the street into the gutters.


In the second example the reader is right there in the rain with Joe (Who among us hasn’t forgotten our umbrella?) You might have noticed how tripping on the curb could be seen as a metaphor for of an obstacle to his quest to solve the mystery. You should be present with him on a main street with shops and a drugstore, and you’ve learned he has thick hair. You can feel how the weather caused Joe’s change in mood and characterized him.


In Conroy’s South of Broad excerpt he writes in first person narrative, remembering fondly his first job as a paperboy. In the following brief segment he uses the setting to bring his narrative to life:


“I could lob a newspaper with either hand. When I turned left on Tradd Street, I looked like an ambitious acrobat hurling papers to my right and left as I made my way to Cooper River and the rising sun that began to finger the morning tides of the harbor, to dance along the spillways of palmetto fronds and water oaks until the street itself burst into the first flame of morning.”


Not only does he put the reader right there hurling papers from his bike, he does so with a creative and unique use of words.


Scene setting challenged me greatly. In writing my travel mystery Hera’s Revenge, I’ve had to evaluate each and every location visited on the tour. Because there are many suspects and even more destinations to visit, I’ve been able to develop sub stories for each person, using the locations to move their stories along, and to show the development of their characters. How characters react to their settings is just as important as the setting itself. It was not easy to accomplish all this, but thanks to my small critique group, if I miss the mark in putting them in the scene, I will hear about it.


Following are two examples of how I’ve used different settings in my story (these are not the actual scenes):


In my first example the tour group was visiting an ancient Greek stadium in Delphi. I used this scene by having the group sit on the stadium’s circular stone seats, while listening to their guide, Ari, tell the stadium’s history. This allowed tour leader/sleuth, Yvonne, to overhear snippets of dialogue which moved along individual sub plots, allowing readers to get closer to the characters.


In the second example I had the tour group spread out browsing several different ruins located on one large site. A secluded church ruin was just the right location for an inappropriate, yet budding relationship to move ahead. In the scene a young couple caught stealing a kiss behind crumbling walls meant conflict and unease for certain other characters. The description of the church ruin was woven into the action adding ambiance and believability to the entire scene.


 It has taken a lot of writing, especially rewriting, to get the hang of this, but the effort, I believe, has been well worth it.


In closing, remember cut any scene or setting that doesn’t accomplish one or more of the following: Root a story to its specific location; Set a mood; Characterize; Move the story toward its conclusion.

10 Group Critiquing Dos for the Writer

 by Maggie Bishop

1. Respect others and submit or read only the number of pages allowed. Supply enough copies for everyone so they can write line edits and comments. Line edits don’t need to be discussed. Provide a short synopsis if the pages submitted are not the opening ones.

2. Relax and don't read too fast. If you are nervous about reading, ask someone else to read the material for you.

3. Rein in your ego and don't argue. If the point is not clear to someone, it doesn't matter what you intended. The critiquer is only trying to help you improve your writing.

4. Question the critiquer only if you need clarification, but don't waste time trying to convince her.

5. Write down the criticism under her name as some comments are more valuable than others. If three or more agree, you probably need to take a hard look at the point being made.

6. Control the pace of the comments, move on to the next critiquer or ask for more comments; do what will best help you.

7. Keep an open mind and avoid being defensive about your work. The words are fresh to the listener and the critiquer is not as close to the material as you are.

8. Keep the discussion on your story to save time.

9. Develop a thick skin. Negative feedback will help you improve as a writer. Critiquers offer suggestions – you choose what to change.

10. Thank those who take the time to critique your work. It is valuable time spent away from their own writing.


10 Group Critiquing Dos for the Critiquer

 by Maggie Bishop

1. Listen carefully. If something is unclear or the person reads too fast, ask the writer to slow down or re-read the passage.

2. Arrange your ideas into a tactful, organized critique that includes the positive as well as the negative. Start and end with the positive.

3. React as a reader. Was it logical and unified or disjointed or rambling. Tell how and where if you can. Were you pulled into the story, are the characters realistic, did you feel tension, was the dialogue realistic and individualized? Mention only the important points.

4. Address basic grammar errors in writing by noting "dangling participle on the first page" instead of "You'd better learn grammar!"

5. Be calm and don't argue. State your points clearly and briefly but don't try to rewrite the story. Don't show your superiority. Your goal is to help them improve, not to crush their ego. Act as a mentor, not a competitor.

6. Be sensitive to the writer's feelings and where they are in the learning curve inherent in the craft. Use "in my opinion, that last stretch of narrative slows the pace. Maybe you could tighten it" instead of "boy, was that boring!"

7. If something offends you, remember that it is subjective. We do not set moral standards. Free expression is the right of a writer.

8. Stay on point and don't monopolize the conversation. Add only additional points or agreements/disagreements on points already made. Simply pass if you have nothing to add. Commend the writer on the good points.

9. Respect others and don't interrupt another critiquer; wait your turn. Write down the points you want to make. Critiquing others sharpens your skill in self-editing.

10. Treat the writer as you would like to be treated. Applaud their courage in facing you.

Literary Fiction vs Genre Fiction

by Christy Tillery French

There are two main types of fiction: literary and commercial (more commonly called genre or popular).

Genre fiction is plot driven and attracts a broad audience. It may fall into any category, such as mystery, romance, science fiction, etc. Bestselling genre authors would be John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly, Janet Evanovich, Danielle Steel, among others.

Literary fiction is character driven and appeals to a smaller, more intellectual audience. A work of literary fiction may fall into any of the genres. However, what sets it apart are such things as excellent writing and originality of thought and style that raise it above ordinary writing. Examples of literary fiction: Cold Mountain, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath. Popular authors of literary fiction would be John LeCarre, Barbara Kingsolver, and Toni Morrison, among others.

Mainstream fiction is a term publishers and booksellers use to describe both commercial and literary works containing a universal theme that attracts a broad audience. Usually set in the 20th or present-day 21st century, these books deal with family issues, coming of age initiations, courtroom dramas, physical and mental disabilities, social pressures, political intrigue, etc. Regardless of genre or category, most of the novels on the bestseller list are considered mainstream, including authors such as Sue Grafton, Michael Crichton, or David Guterson.

The more narrowly defined categories of popular fiction that appeal to specific audiences are classified as genre fiction.

Whatever genre you write, it's a good idea to read bestselling authors of that genre. This will give you a good indication of what is selling. Study the author's writing pace, plot, voice, characterization, and descriptive.


Mystery is one of the most popular genres. All mysteries focus on a crime committed, usually murder. One rule of thumb to remember: the dead body should show up within the first three chapters; some publishers like it within the first three pages. The action in a mystery will center on the attempts of a detective or investigator to solve the crime. The mystery is a "puzzle" and engages the brain.


Cozy - takes place usually in one location, is very gentle, and contains a bloodless crime. (Agatha Christie)

Amateur Sleuth - the amateur sleuth tries to solve the murder of someone close; the need for solution is personal.

Professional sleuth - amateur sleuth in a professional setting, where inside information is used and solving the crime returns order to a sheltered environment. (Dick Frances)

Police procedural - emphasizes a law enforcement team's efforts using factual police operations and techniques. (Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels)

Legal/Medical - lawyer or doctor is the protagonist. These stories are usually written by actual lawyers and doctors. (Robin Cook, John Grisham)

Suspense - in essence, the protagonist is the one being pursued instead of the criminal.

Romantic suspense (also under romance genre) - Romance and suspense. (Linda Howard, Mary Higgins Clark)

Historical - Mysteries set in the past.

Mixed Genre - Set in the future, combined with science fiction.

Private Eye - Speaks for itself. Usually a professional investigator with a strong code of honor. (Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone)

Noir - Noir is a mood, gritty, bleak and unforgiving; stories from the other side of the fence. The investigator is usually a flawed, weak character.

Hardboiled - could be grouped with noir, although the investigator is a hard, tough character.

Crime - the suspense comes from wondering whether the plan will work and rooting for the bad guys who are smart, organized, and daring. (The Thomas Crowne Affaire)

Caper - comic crime story with a lovable bungler.

Romance is the most popular genre in terms of sales. A romance novel should contain two basics: (1) a central love story, where the plot and most of the conflict are focused on two people falling in love and their struggles to maintain that love; (2) The "feel good" happy ending - romance readers want to see the lovers come together at last.


Contemporary romance - set in present time, usually contains elements of suspense, humor, and/or drama.

Fantasy romance - takes place on other worlds and contains elements of magic. May include mystical creatures or horror creatures such as vampires and werewolves.

Futuristic or paranormal romance - set in the far future with science fiction or fantastical elements.

Historical romance - set in the past, generally before the World Wars.

Paranormal romance - contains other-worldly elements such as ghosts, spectrals, spirits, devils, demons, or angels. The characters may possess paranormal powers.

Regency romance - set in England in the early 1800s. Generally has a stronger focus on the surrounding society and interplay between characters. This at one time was considered historical romance but has become so popular it has been given its own category.

Romantic suspense - contains mystery and intrigue with a more dramatic tone and is usually in a contemporary setting. (Also under the mystery genre)

Time-travel romance - set across two different time periods with time travel between both by one or more characters.

Western romance - Usually categorized under historical romance, these are stories of romances in the American old West.

Science Fiction was at one time all about science but has evolved into a far-reaching field containing a variety of subgenres.


Apocalyptic, holocaust, and post-apocalyptic - focuses on the end of the world or the world after the end. (On the Beach)

Cross-genre - those that defy easy distinction between science fiction and other genres; may blend science fiction with romance, mystery, suspense, etc.

Cyberpunk - depicts a high-tech, bleak, mechanistic and futuristic universe of computers, hackers, and computer/human hybrids. (The Matrix)

First contact - initial meeting between humans and aliens. (The War of the Worlds)

Hard science fiction - driven more by ideas than characterization. Science and technology are central to the plot. Authors who write in this genre must have a good grasp of the scientific principles involved. (Authors: Asimov and Heinlein)

Light/humorous science fiction - spoofs a subgenre.

Military science fiction - future combat in space or another planet against opponents such as aliens, machines, modified humans with high-tech weaponry.

Near-future science fiction - takes place in the present day or within next the few decades. Setting should be familiar to the reader with current technology or that being developed. Nanotechnology and genetics fall under this subgenre.

Science fantasy/future fantasy - popular in the 1930s and 1940s, ignores known laws or scientific theories.

Slipstream - contains a speculative element although deals with mainstream themes.

Soft/sociological science fiction - Character-driven with emphasis on how technology may affect an individual or social groups.

Space opera - involves good guys against bad guys (aliens, robots, other humans) in space or on a distant place. (Star Wars)

Time travel - characters travel to the past or future. (The Time Machine)

Women's Fiction includes a focus on relationships with at least one strong female protagonist, women triumphing over unbearable circumstances, and women united in some way. (Barbara Taylor Bradford, Anne Rivers Siddons, Judith Krantz, Anne Tyler).

Suspense/Thriller is tense and exciting with ingenious plotting, swift action, and continual suspense. Dominated by action with a constant threat and a protagonist pitted against an ominous villain. (John LeCarre, Ian Fleming, Clive Cussler, Patricia Cornwell, Tony Hillerman, Lawrence Sanders, Scott Turow, John Grisham, Tom Clancy)

The thriller is all about the chase and engages the senses, unlike the mystery, which is about figuring out the puzzle.

Western - depicts life on America's western frontier post Civil War and usually involves conflicts between cowboys and outlaws, Native Americans, Easterners, or Westerners. (Zane Grey and Louis Lamour)

Horror - the intention is to frighten the reader by exploiting fears: supernatural forces, aliens, madness, death, dismemberment, etc. (Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Anne Rice)

Young Adult - the protagonist is in the 12-16 age range and speaks to the concerns of teenagers. (J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, Golding's Lord of the Flies)

Other Genres:

Asian/Asian American
Native American

Top 10 Don’ts at Book Signings

by Maggie Bishop

10. Arrive late and show disrespect for the staff’s efforts. Show up without confirming the signing at least the day before. That way, if your signing has been overlooked, the staff has time to be prepared.

9. Limp handshake. Be proud of your writing and show it through a firm handshake.

8. Forget own supplies such as a pen, name tag and water. Demand free coffee or food as your reward for showing up.

7. Chatting on cell phone or talking with friend when a customer approaches. Don’t become that store clerk you complain about. Give the reader the respect they deserve.

6. Grab a customer by the arm and demand they "buy my book," put down other authors and books, use a guilt trip "I need the money to feed my kids," or steal another author’s customer when at a group signing. These are ways to make a reader avoid you and the store in the future.

5. Eat onions, garlic or tuna before a signing or chewing gum during a signing. You want customers to cry over your prose and not your breath.

4. Sit behind the table, do crossword puzzles or read, and ignore customers. Get over being shy and develop an outgoing persona for your moment before readers.

3. Wear revealing clothing, shorts, old shoes. Dress as you would for an interview–one level higher than the customer. You want to invite people into your space through your appearance.

2. Ignore or be rude to the help or, worse yet, blame the staff for low sales; if asked to sign stock, sign more than requested. The store needs to make money in order for you to get paid. The staff will chat about you after you leave so make sure they feel good about your visit.

1. Attitude that you are doing the store a favor, signing only because the publisher demands it, or that the reader is lucky that you appear in person. The reader is royalty, not you.

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