Before I was published, I learned a successful author has to have a brand. The term is a little difficult to pin down to A or B or A+B, but basically it’s something that stops a reader’s eye as she wades through the thousands of new books offered every month. A brand connects synapses, whether it’s the author’s name, the series name, the topic, the title, or even cover art. “Oh!” the book shopper thinks joyfully. “Here’s something I’ll like.”
Branding means a second or twelfth or thirty-first book is noticed, even awaited, by fans. Readers need a reason to pay money for a book, to sign up for a newsletter, to pre-order (and boost Amazon ratings), and to tell their friends they should give an author’s work a try.
How does one get a brand? Start with the questions of information: Who? What? Where? When? and Why? The Who? makes some brands easy. When the author is well-known, her brand is already established. We’ve all seen movie stars and politicians try their hand at publishing, and it often works. I’ve been literally pushed aside at Barnes & Noble so someone could get to the title with a famous name/face on the cover. (If I only had a nickel for every reader who ignored my table of attractively-displayed books and asked if Nathan Fillion “really” wrote the Castle books!) However talented celebrities-turned-writers might be, I want to shout, “I spent thirty years of my life studying the language and its greatest writers. Then I worked for a year alone in my garret (okay, it’s an office, but it’s upstairs) to produce this new release. Isn’t that better than some comedian who paid a ghost writer to do the hard stuff?
You’ve probably figured out by now that I had no qualifications as a Who? Telling an agent or editor I’d taught high school English for decades was no doubt yawn-inducing. I wasn’t as interesting as the guy who climbed Mt. Everest one stormy year and was one of only a few who lived to tell about it. Now that’s a brand, though I can’t say I’d go that far to get one. I don’t have an interesting accent, I never worked for the CIA, I’m way past being pin-up cute, and I refuse to wear costumes that relate to my work. (Okay, I did that a few times, but it was always in the best of taste.) So Who? Was a difficult question for me—and often still is.
What? Often this one is answered by what came before. An author who writes a book that’s well-received writes another in the same vein (your agent will tell you to get busy on it as before the ink is dry on the contract). Cover art is likely to be similar and connected to the theme, whether it’s a coffee shop mystery or another installment in the saga of a strange world. Series titles might co-ordinate, like Dean Koontz’ Odd series or my historicals, which make reference to Elizabeth Tudor’s official titles over her lifetime. That builds the brand, which readers need, since they tend to forget they read and liked an author’s work until those synapses connect. So What? is an ongoing question, answered as an author builds a repertoire and readers grow to expect certain things from her.
Where? can be helpful, since readers like certain locations. My home area, though beautiful, is of little help. I live in northern Michigan, in a community so rural I point to a spot on the palm of my hand to show where it is. Besides making travel to hubs of publishing poshness difficult, it doesn’t make a gritty setting, like L.A. or Chicago, nor a trendy one like Taos or Seattle, nor is it exotic like Bangkok or Sao Paulo.
I began my writing career with no unique background, no track record, no intriguing locale. No Who? No What? No Where?
With When? I got a little lucky. I began with Tudor era mysteries that have lots of period detail, which appeals to a large chunk of readers. The Simon & Elizabeth Mysteries sold well, and reviewers took note. Then my publisher, after a bankruptcy and a lot of upheaval, decided to eliminate the mystery genre from its lists.
I sort of had a brand. For a while.
To be honest, these days my biggest branding problem is me. I write what I find interesting, and I can’t simply keep repeating my successes. After four historicals I became fascinated with the idea of a homeless detective and invented Loser (Killing Silence), but after three books, her story was told. Despite my (new) publisher’s suggesting it continue, I went on to a fun, mildly paranormal series (The Dead Detective Agency). Again, the arc came to a satisfying conclusion in four books and I saw no need for further exploration. My most popular series of late is written under a pseudonym (The Sleuth Sisters-Maggie Pill). So far it’s been a hoot, but a new idea took over in 2017, pushing the sisters aside for a gang of oddball vigilantes (KIDNAP.org). It’s hard to have a brand when your series are so different, so varied, and so short-lived.
That brings me to the last question: Why? Why would a person want to read what I write? That’s best answered by the motto I devised to pull my widely scattered titles together: Strong Women, Great Stories. My goal is to tell tales that are fun, interesting, and filled with characters who triumph over whatever bad things happen to them. That’s my brand, and while it isn’t unique, I think many readers want that very thing. I can guarantee the next story won’t take place in N.Y.C. or Shanghai–but I have been to Chicago a few times.
Peg Herring is the author of the critically acclaimed Simon & Elizabeth Mysteries, the award-winning Dead Detective Mysteries, the intriguing Loser Mysteries, and several stand-alone novels. Maggie Pill, who writes the cozy Sleuth Sisters mysteries, is Peg’s alter ego, younger and much cooler.
If you haven’t come across her already, I’d like to introduce you to author and librarian Eleanor Kuhns and the latest in her Will Rees mystery series – The Devil’s Cold Dish. Eleanor’s writing is rich in the history of the time with melodic descriptive phrasing and characters that come alive on the page. You may want to go back and get the other books too!
Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel. A lifelong librarian, she received her Masters from Columbia University and is currently the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in Orange County New York. http://www.eleanor-kuhns.com/
The Devil’s Cold Dish
By Eleanor Kuhns
Series: Will Rees Mysteries (Book 5)
Hardcover: 336 pages
June 14, 2016, $17.49
Will Rees is back home on his farm in 1796 Maine with his teenage son, his pregnant wife, their five adopted children, and endless farm work under the blistering summer sun. But for all that, Rees is happy to have returned to Dugard, Maine, the town where he was born and raised, and where he’s always felt at home. Until now. When a man is found dead – murdered – after getting into a public dispute with Rees, Rees starts to realize someone is intentionally trying to pin the murder on him. Then, his farm is attacked, his wife is accused of witchcraft, and a second body is found that points to the Rees family. Rees can feel the town of Dugard turning against him, and he knows that he and his family won’t be safe there unless he can find the murderer and reveal the truth…before the murderer gets to him first.
Other books by Kuhns:
- A Simple Murder – 2012
- Death of a Dyer – 2013
- Cradle to Grave – 2014
- Death in Salem – 2015
First, let me tell you where you can find a real-life example of the list I’m about to share. My selection of books is wide-ranging. I read The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas when I was in high school. I read every one of the books in The Mushroom Planet series when I was in the sixth-grade. Robin Hood books were my favorite when I was even younger.
However, the book that has affected me and my writing the most is one I finished recently. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 tells the story of a man trying to change the past by stopping the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s pure science fiction (flavored only the way King can do it) and it adds a new twist to the canon of time-travel stories. (I think I’ve read every time travel story available; trust me on this.)
That’s only part of what makes this book great. Things that King shows are elements that each scene of a successful story must have. A lot of these items are obvious, yet I’ve read books by high-powered authors who don’t include some, making for confusion.
(1) Source of light. Every scene must explain the time of day and, if the scene takes place inside, show the reader where the light comes from. Are we outside in the middle of the night? Full moon? New moon? Starlight? Clouds?
(2) Participants. Every scene must also tell the reader who is there and where “there” is. One novel I read recently started a new chapter that ran for over a page before I knew the who and the where. This is frustrating and irritating to readers (who are, after all, your main audience).
(3) Senses. Every scene should deliver the six senses. Six? That’s right. Not only smell, sight, hearing, touch, and taste, but the emotional state of the character needs to be explored. Briefly and surreptitiously, of course, unless you want to have a list at the beginning of every scene. (Not advisable.)
(4) Resolution. In every scene, somebody must want something, somebody must oppose that want, and there’s a clear winner and loser. Otherwise, what you’ve written is a lecture on morality. A good exercise is to write a scene about what Jack and Jill do with that pail of water. Each needs it and there can be no compromise.
The best book I’ve found on how to set up scenes is Naked Playwriting:
There are tons of lists. One is by Kurt Vonnegut, which can be found at this site:
And, to paraphrase Vonnegut, if you’re a great writer, you can ignore any list!
Bill Hopkins is retired after beginning his legal career in 1971 and serving as a private attorney, prosecuting attorney, an administrative law judge, and a trial court judge, all in Missouri. His poems, short stories, and non-fiction have appeared in many different publications. He’s had several short plays produced.
Bill and his wife, Sharon Woods Hopkins (a mystery writer!), live in Marble Hill, Missouri.
COURTING MURDER was his first novel and his second novel RIVER MOURN won first place in the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-Me Best Book Awards in 2014. All of his novels can be viewed on his Amazon Author Page:
Visit Bill and Sharon on Facebook:
When I first decided to switch from contemporary romance to historical mystery I thought of a heroine who was an actress who becomes a Pinkerton agent. It made sense to me, since she would be good at infiltrating different situations and get right in the middle of things. The idea seemed so fresh and I still believe it is, but I was surprised when I started my research and discovered that Allan Pinkerton hired the first female detective, the incomparable Kate Warne, and that he hired several actresses through the years.
So, what makes Lilly a different from other historical mystery heroines out there? First, she’s young. Twenty-two. And she’s a walking dichotomy; not so much a rebel as just trying to figure out who she is. When I researched the theater, I learned a lot about the life of women who “tread the boards.” Raised in an industry where women were considered little more than harlots by the public they entertained, they were also some of the few women who were treated as equals to their male counterparts, and were paid accordingly. Though it was a life of travel and different places, the nomadic life of a traveling theater actor was, in many ways sheltered, since they were never in one place long enough to put down roots, or make lasting friends outside their fellow players.
Like many heroines, Lilly is headstrong. Unlike many, that determination stems from a natural curiosity, and eagerness to try the next thing, and determination not to let her shortcomings lead her to failure.
I’m a firm believer in strong backstory. We are the sum total of the events and people of our past have made us. Lilly is no different. When she hears her mother being killed by a lover, she is so traumatized she blots the memory from her mind. That isn’t the only scar left by the mother she loved so deeply. All Lilly’s life, Kate Long had a parade of men waltzing through her bedroom. Lilly doesn’t even know who her father is, but she hopes it is the man who took her under his wing when her mother was killed.
Sir Pierce Wainwright gives Lilly something few girls of her time had: an education equal to that of a noble-born son. This puts her in good standing when she interviews for the Pinkertons.
Fearing that she will turn out like her mother, Lilly has always down-played her looks and keeps herself pure until she marries. Four short months after the wedding, her husband attacks her, demeans her, and steals her life savings. It seems she does have her mother’s penchant for falling for handsome, smooth-talking men, after all. How do these old scars and new wounds affect her?
Trials Turn to Motivation
Furious that she was so easily swayed by pretty words and that she and other women are such easy prey for men, she wants to change things. Now she is determined to become a Pinkerton. She can’t help every abused woman, but she can help a few.
Too young, too innocent, unskilled, she gets the job anyway, but only by hook or crook, her intelligence, and what she knows about Allan Pinkerton, whose motto is “the ends justify the means.”
So, we have our heroine, who had a far different background than most heroines in the 1880s:
Like most young ladies of her time, she is unskilled and green as grass, BUT She is well-educated.
She is naïve and doesn’t think things through, BUT she is determined and hardheaded.
Kate’s blood does run through her veins, BUT thanks to Pierce, she has morals and values to act as a balance.
Like other women, she is dependent on men to help her achieve her goals, BUT her anger and frustration over the state of women, keep her pushing for more.
For every negative, I’ve given her a positive. Led by determination and curiosity, Lilly rushes headlong into trouble and often does stupid things. But given her personality and her unique past, she learns with every case, stumbling onto clues as much as discovering them, but always falling back on the traits that made her the woman she is.
Penny Richards has been publishing since 1983 with just over 40 books to her credit. Mostly contemporary romance, her books have won several industry awards, including a Romantic Times Lifetime Achievement Award and a RITA nomination, and have made many best seller lists. She currently writes the Lilly Long Mystery series for Kensington. Lilly is a Shakespearean actress who becomes a Pinkerton agent to help women who have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous men. The first book in the series, AN UNTIMELT FROST was awarded Best Historical Mystery of 2018 from the Texas Association of Authors. The third book, MURDER WILL SPEAK, takes Lilly to the infamous portion of Ft. Worth known as Hell’s Half Acre. MURDER WILL SPEAK is scheduled for release in April of 2018.
FB: Penny Richards, Author and Lilly Long
Excerpt from HONEY-BAKED HOMICIDE by Gayle Leeson
We were on our way back home when we saw an old pickup truck speeding in the direction of Landon’s Farm. In fact, it appeared to be Mr. Landon’s truck, but neither Ryan nor I could see well enough in the dark to determine if it was.
Ryan drove until there was a wide enough space on the shoulder of the road to pull over. Then he took out his cell phone and called the police station.
“Hi, it’s Ryan. I’m out on Route 11 just outside of Winter Garden. What appeared to be an antique Chevy truck just passed me going in the opposite direction. The vehicle is speeding, and I’d like for you to alert the officer on call—maybe contact the county dispatch as well.”
He ended the call and placed the phone back in the car’s center console.
“I’d hate for Mr. Landon to get a speeding ticket,” I said.
“We’re not sure that was Mr. Landon . . . or even if that was his truck. If it was, whoever was driving it took the expression drive it like you stole it to heart and deserves a ticket.”
“I hadn’t thought of that—that it could be his truck but not him driving. Maybe someone did steal Mr. Landon’s truck. How awful.”
Ryan picked up my hand and kissed it. “We don’t know anything for sure right now. Given what we know about Mr. Landon, I doubt that was him or his truck.”
“But we don’t know for sure. There could be something wrong. Let’s turn around and drive out to Mr. Landon’s place to see if we can help.”
“We can’t. I’m off duty, and we’ve already sent help his way. If anything’s wrong, the police will get Mr. Landon the help he needs.”
“I hope so,” I said. “I’ve got a really bad feeling about this. I can’t imagine Mr. Landon ever speeding down the road like that.”
“Would it make you feel better to call the man?”
“No. He might think I was crazy to call him at this time of night to ask him if he was speeding down the road. And like you said, it probably wasn’t him . . . or his truck.”
When I arrived at the café the next morning, I was surprised to see Stu Landon’s truck haphazardly parked at the far right corner of the lot. I took my usual spot in the parking space farthest away from the front door to the left of the building. Gathering my keys and purse and stepping out of the car, I could see Mr. Landon sitting in the driver’s seat of his truck. I gave him a smile and a wave, wishing he’d have let me know he’d planned on being here this early so I wouldn’t have kept him waiting.
He didn’t wave back, and I wondered if he was angry. Or maybe he hadn’t seen me. Then again, he could simply be preoccupied.
I unlocked the door, put my purse under the counter, and waited for Mr. Landon to bring in the honey I’d requested yesterday. When he hadn’t come inside after a couple of minutes, I went to check on him. Maybe he really hadn’t seen me arrive . . . or noticed my car in the parking lot. Unlikely, but I guess it was possible.
I walked over to Mr. Landon’s truck. No wonder he hadn’t seen me. His straw hat had slid down over his eyes. Had he been waiting on me for so long he’d fallen asleep?
I rapped my knuckles lightly on the window. “Mr. Landon?”
When he didn’t respond, I knocked a little harder. Still, no response. I was getting concerned. What if Mr. Landon had suffered a stroke or something?
I heard a car pull into the lot. I glanced over my shoulder and was glad to see Luis parking beside my Beetle. Luis was our busboy and dishwasher. He could help me get Mr. Landon out of the truck and inside the café if need be.
After knocking on the window again and still getting no response from Mr. Landon, I carefully opened the door of the truck. Mr. Landon began sliding out onto the pavement. Was that blood on his shirt?
“Luis! Can you help me?”
I heard Luis’s feet pounding the pavement as he ran to us. “What’s going on?” He gasped. “Amy, he’s bleeding.”
“I see that. And right now, he’s falling out of the truck. Could you help me get him?”
“I don’t think we should. Let’s put him back inside the truck and call for help.” He stepped between the door and Mr. Landon and gently pushed the man toward the passenger side of the truck.
Mr. Landon fell over and I could see that his throat had been cut. I was barely aware that I was screaming until I felt Luis’s hands on my shoulders.
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do for him,” he said. “Let’s get you inside.”
“No. No, we have to stay with him. We have to wait here until help comes.”
I heard Luis talking, but it wasn’t to me. He’d called 9-1-1.
“Thank you,” I said as he returned his phone to his pocket.
“You shouldn’t be looking at this.” He gently turned me away from Mr. Landon’s truck. “The man is dead.”
We walked a few feet away from the truck.
“You’re shaking,” he said. “You need to sit down.”
He needed to sit as badly as I did. Still, I wasn’t about to leave Mr. Landon until after the paramedics arrived.
“I’m fine,” I told him, knowing fully well that neither of us was fine.
I was relieved when I heard sirens approaching. Poor Mr. Landon was almost out of my incapable care.
Gayle Leeson is a pseudonym for Gayle Trent. I also write as Amanda Lee. As Gayle Trent, I write the Daphne Martin Cake Mystery series and the Myrtle Crumb Mystery series. As Amanda Lee, I write the Embroidery Mystery series.
I live in Virginia with my family, which includes her own “Angus” who is not an Irish wolfhound but a Great Pyrenees who provides plenty of inspiration for the character of Mr. O’Ruff. I’m having a blast writing this new series!
For the last few years, I’ve been working on getting rights back to most of my older published novels. In some cases, this has been relatively simple. I had an agent for a while who did a good job of getting an excellent reversion clause written into my contracts. Once the books were out of print for five years, I could demand the rights back.
I’ve self-published several of those older books as ebooks. I’m not making huge profits on them, but since they’ve been out of print for ages, anything I make at this point is gravy. And I have had a few people ask how they could get my older works.
I re-edit all of them and even rewrite some before I release them to the public again. Some of the books can go with just minimal updating, but with others, I’m faced with a dilemma.
Several of those books were written and published in the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s astonishing to read back through those books and realize how much technology has changed in such a short time.
I debated whether to release them as they were, with just the usual rewrites or to update them. They’re in a gray zone timewise – the setting isn’t long ago, so they don’t really work as historical, but they don’t sound contemporary now either.
A couple of them worked with the addition of some technology that didn’t require significant changes in the plot. But, in some cases, newer technology wrought major changes in the plot. One of my early suspense novels had a computer programmer for a heroine. Computer technology has changed so much I had to completely rewrite that story before I released Programmed for Danger.
In another of my early romantic suspense novels, my heroine had to go to a library to do research she would now be able to do much more efficiently on her laptop using Google. That was a change that wouldn’t affect the plot itself too much. But when she was being chased by the bad guys, it could have made a huge difference if she’d had a cell phone. I finessed that by having the heroine lose her purse along the way in A Question of Fire.
My most recent release, Hunter’s Quest, was in a similar position. It’s never been published, but it’s been sitting on my hard drive for almost twenty years. It was written for a specific publisher and line, but it didn’t make the final cut, so I moved on to other projects and forgot about it. I found it again last year while cleaning out older files. I re-read it and decided I still liked the story. Since I’d started publishing some of my older stories on my own I thought it worthy of releasing.
But first, it needed some rewriting and updating. Adding cell phones into the story was necessary but proved to be relatively easy. The setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina helped because there are still places there that have no service. (Verified by personal experience!) When using a phone would’ve made things too easy for my protagonists, I gave them no bars. I added in a laptop that isn’t actually needed very much.
Where I almost tripped up was in smaller things. Fortunately, I hired a sharp-eyed editor go over it. She pointed out a couple of things I read right over. Things that were normal at the time but aren’t now.
In one scene the hero consults a map for directions—a paper map. My editor noted that these days most people use GPS, either on the dashboard or a smart phone. I should know this. I haven’t consulted a paper map in years.
And then there was the car that had a bench seat in the front. Er, no. Following her instinct, the editor checked. The last sedan with a bench seat was made in 2014. Only a few SUVs and pickup trucks still have one.
And this is why I hire an editor. I should’ve picked up on those things myself, but I didn’t. And now I wonder what else we might have both missed? I hope readers will let me know if they find anything like that. I include my email address right at the front of the book for that purpose.
Blurb for Hunter’s Quest
Kristie Sandford’s vacation is interrupted when a man jumps out in front of her car. She avoids hitting him, but when she stops to see if he’s hurt, he demands she help him escape from the people chasing him. Kristie has an odd “gift” – she occasionally gets warning messages, and she gets one saying he needs her help or he’ll die. Jason Hunter is an NC SBI (North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation) agent working on his own time searching for a friend, an investigative reporter who disappeared while tracking down rumors of corruption in the bureaucracy of a small mountain town. Jason is grateful to Kristie for rescuing him, but dubious when she insists she has to continue helping him. Kristie is attracted to Jason, but the edge of danger she senses in him reminds her too much of the abusive family she escaped as soon as she could.
Still, the message said he’d die if she didn’t help him, and the messages have been right before.
- Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06X3Z8VLB
- Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hunters-quest-karen-mccullough/1125808779?ean=2940157500979
- Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/705030
- iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/hunters-quest/id1211862427?mt=11
- Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/hunter-s-quest
Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, three grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.