The Readers’ Responsibility – Valid Reviews

As readers, I would like to suggest that we have a responsibility to leave reviews, especially if we love the book. Reviews help other readers discover new authors, ones not touted by major publishers but by independent publishers and self-publishers. Getting a good book noticed as an independent (whether publisher or self-publisher) rests almost entirely on the reader’s shoulders. It isn’t hard to leave a review. In fact, most e-books end with the option. And as reviewers, we don’t have to write a treatise explaining what we liked or didn’t like; just assign a star from 1-5 on most sites.

Besides helping the book get noticed and sell, reviews help authors in three ways; 1) eat, 2) improve so that your next reading experience is better, and 3) keep a publisher publishing an author you like.

Unless a book has ten reviews on Amazon, it is at a disadvantage. So, for authors, ten reviews is a decent but frustrating goal. As a publisher and author, I ask that you take the time to give any Bodie Blue Books book a star rating, if not an actual review.

A Common Scale

The biggest challenge to comparing reviews across books is that there is no consistent, holistic scale used across readers. Simply put, each five-star review is given on a personal scale that may not be consistent book to book, much less across genres. For instance, a five-star book may be one you were driven to finish that delivered a rip-snorting solution to the mystery. Others may consider it a three because something was missing for them, even though they finished it in one reading.  

Momentary rant: Nothing is more frustrating for the author than to get a great review and a three-star score when the same review written by another reader would result in five stars. Worse, some readers seem to believe that they have the sensibilities of a New York Times book critic. Here is a hint: most don’t. What we do have is an absolute sense of what we enjoy as readers and what annoys us.

Back on topic: I spent a good deal of my business career teaching people how to evaluate student creative writing on a holistic scale. Reviewers were trained to apply a set scale consistently to rank students writing. A simple holistic score is easy to use. Further, it assesses the overall book not that one annoying swear word or mistake in the setting or time, but your overall reading experience. Below are a couple of example scales.

Example 1

5 Enjoyed it a lot, could be convinced to love it, a lively entry into the genre.
4  Enjoyed it, had elements that I loved, a solid entry in the genre.
3 Ahhh, liked it but average for the genre.
2  Expected more, below average for the genre 
1 Argh, got lost in a black hole

Examples 2 and 3

5 Loved it.I can’t wait for the next book from this author
4  Enjoyed it.I look forward to reading this author again
3 OkayI would consider reading this author again
2  Readable but . . . I would have to be convinced to read another book by this author 
1 Where is my red pencil?I have banished this author from my brain

The Point

A single holistic scale applied across online book sites would provide buyers a consistent, realistic method to compare books. Not having such a scale supports the dominance of mega-authors with big advertising budgets and faithful fans, not because the books are better, but out of habit and accessibility. This leaves writers who write as good as or better books in the weeds. Because sites, such as Amazon, rely almost entirely on reviews to determine who gets the best placement for advertisements, which books are featured, and which books pop during a genre search.

So, I beg you, when you finish reading a book, leave a review. Until we have a common scale, use your best judgment but be consistent in applying it. And remember, every review you leave helps an author EAT.

So where do I get my ideas?

One of the questions I have come to almost dread is the standard one about where I get my ideas for a story or a novel. The question is frustrating because no one really knows where an idea of any sort comes from. These things pop into our heads and we either play with them or toss them. But this morning I was trying to recall a thought about a particular memory that had been nagging at me. And that got me thinking about story ideas.

Some of my story ideas are not story ideas at all but arrive first as an experience I’ve heard about or undergone and can’t quite shake. One day, while still employed in social services, I was working quietly in my office when a conversation beyond my door caught my attention. A woman waiting to see her social worker had gotten into a conversation with the volunteer on the desk, and they were exchanging information on what happens after you’ve been convicted, served time, and are released. The man explained that the County House of Correction bus took you back to where you were originally picked up, usually right outside the courthouse. As he pointed out, you were wearing the clothes you had on when you were picked up. In his case, he was wearing shorts and was sentenced to six months. He was released when it was January and snowing. The woman said the situation was different for women. No one provided transportation for women. She got a voucher for a bus or train ticket and had to walk to the station. Two stories grew out of this overheard conversation.

I had seen the navy blue bus before, along with the man checking off names, and never really thought about it. Now I did. In “Kenny Orslow Shows Up on Time” (Mystery Weekly February 2020), a young man is convicted of buying drugs and shows up at the bus stop at the appointed time, but he’s not on the list and the officer won’t let him on. Kenny is now homeless and stranded—and desperate. I had a lot of fun with this story.

The second story grew out of the differences between how the men and women were treated. In “Francetta Repays Her Debt to Society” (AHMM October 2014) a young woman is released from prison but no one is there to meet her. While away, her boyfriend died and she has nowhere to go. She makes her way back to her hometown and arrives at her cousin’s apartment. The cousin is cool and then surprisingly friendly.

The overheard conversation took place in the early 2000s, but it stuck in my imagination for years until I figured out what to do with it. Another odd bit of information came to me more than thirty years ago. A college student drowned in a snow-covered reservoir. The chief of police attributed the accidental death to the student being from the Midwest and not recognizing that the flat expanse was not a field or pasture but a body of water. That comment stuck in my head for years until it emerged in “The Pledge” (AHMM July/August 2020).

Years and years ago I came across a poster of cartoon faces (like the smiley face) showing a range of emotions, with titles underneath—rows of little round faces each with a different expression. This had been developed as an aid for autistic children learning coping skills. This made me wonder how a person otherwise capable could manage in a world where human interaction seemed so opaque. That question lingered in the back of my mind for years (probably decades) until I finally got an idea, which appeared in “Picture This” (Saturday Evening Post, online edition Friday, April 30, 2021).

When one of these factoids, or odd bits of information, comes to me, I don’t think, Oh, there’s a story here. I just remember it because it seems so peculiar, so different from my regular life. Most of my short stories and novels grow out of this kind of tidbit. Right now I have a few of these rattling around in my brain and I’m not sure what to do with them. One involves a man probably in his sixties. He parked his pickup out front of my house and knocked on the door. He wanted to know if I would trade some of the apples in my tree for a bucket of his—he had several buckets in his truck. I agreed because, why not? While he harvested what he wanted (“Please, take more. I can’t use them all.”) he told me about all the fruit trees in Salem that were on public land and therefore whatever they produced was free for the taking. He’d been harvesting, hence the filled buckets in his pickup. I know he’ll end up in a story but I can’t say when.

Meanwhile I’ve been working on a story about an inept hustler who learns damaging information about a friend and tries to use it as leverage with a drug dealer. The idea came from an interview with one of the guards at the Stewart Gardner Museum. A reporter tracked him down in a shabby apartment in a small town and told him some people thought he was in on the robbery. His comeback? “Would I be living here if I had been?” We’ll see where that one goes.

So when someone asks me where my ideas come from, the answer is, Well, it’s complicated. Mostly from life.

Using Weather in Writing

A few years ago, after a surprisingly heavy snowfall (for my coastal area), I decided to pull on my hiking boots and stroll the 1.5 miles to my favorite park while the scenery was coated in white.

The trail was only a bit slippery and the frosting of snow made thick woods and waterfalls completely enchanting. The winds were calm, and the temperature hovered around the freezing point, hardly life-threatening. I was deep into my beloved woods when I noticed that other aspects of my walk might be more than a little hazardous.

BellinghamSnow2014 022

Branches overhead were so burdened with wet snow that every few minutes I heard a loud CRACK! Then a branch would crash to the ground, sometimes from as high as fifty feet in the air. I spent a fair amount of time hugging big trees as I waited for plummeting snow and debris to settle around me. The situation added an unexpected element of suspense to my outing. As in: I could die here today! At least one person dies every year in my state from falling limbs.

This was a good reminder of how much weather conditions can add to any story and help set the mood. I decided that the falling tree limbs would make a great addition to one of my next novels; now I’ve got to find an appropriate place to put that scene.

Weather can set the mood and intensify the feelings an author wants to provoke in readers. Although it might be a bit cliché to set your big suspense scene during a thunderstorm, flashes of lightning and claps of thunder can add a lot of tension. Delve into your memory and sort through all the weather situations you’ve experienced in your lifetime, and you’ll think of interesting weather elements to add to scenes. Because I’m a hiker, kayaker, snowshoer, and scuba diver, I’ve had a lot of run-ins with dramatic weather over the years.

Gathering storm clouds

I included a thunderstorm in my novel Endangered, but the main threat in that Utah setting is peripheral to the storm: when it’s raining on the high plateau, a flash flood could soon be roaring through the slot canyons. An earthquake opens my romantic suspense Shaken, and my heroine Elisa is pinned to the ground by a falling tree. But again, the earthquake isn’t the real threat; it’s the cool damp weather, and because she is trapped, she soon has to battle hypothermia as well as a broken leg.

Pouring rain and driving snow lessen visibility and can add suspense when a character needs to be on the move outside, or if that character is on guard against a threat coming from outdoors. If your characters are indoors, bad weather outside can make a scene feel more “cozy” and romantic.

Tornado

Tornado conditions are always anxiety-provoking: I grew up in Kansas and Oklahoma and once had the occasion to watch as the change in air pressure caused the giant plate glass panels at the front of a store to bow inward. (Fortunately some doors flew open and equalized the pressure before the windows shattered, otherwise I might not be here to write this.)

Sunshine and gentle breezes can add to a pleasant scene. Relentless baking sun and drying winds are a different story.

You see what I mean. The snow is all gone from my neighborhood now, but I want to add those cracking limbs to a future book. And maybe I’ll find a place for those dramatic bowed windows, too, although I no longer live in tornado country. There have been a lot of avalanches in the west this year, so of course my next novel features one.

woman celebrating the sun

In real life, we all deal with the weather every day. And you don’t have to be out camping in the wilderness to deal with weather-related disasters. I often think about all the people trapped in 2012 in high-rise buildings in NYC during a blackout caused by the flood after a hurricane–remember that? Personally, I can’t think of anything worse.

So when I feel the story I’m writing is lacking in some respect, I try to think about how I could use the weather to add drama.

City Mouse or Country Mouse by Karen Shughart

Are you a city mouse or a country mouse? Does the thought of rural life make you yawn? Or does the idea of living in a city send electric shocks of anxiety through you?

I grew up in Pittsburgh. I enjoyed concerts performed by the symphony orchestra and boarded a streetcar with my mother for shopping excursions and lunch at downtown department stores. Our family went to the zoo, visited museums, and in the summer enjoyed the rides and games at big, regional amusement park. A branch of the Carnegie Library was within walking distance to our home.  I remember attending a live performance of what was the forerunner to the Mr. Rogers TV show. I loved the energy of the city, the hustle and bustle, the diversity of people and activities.

One set of grandparents lived in a small, rural town in Ohio. From their front porch you could see the Ohio River, and there were meadows and fields at the end of their road. We weren’t allowed to swim in that river, but I do remember hikes and picnics in sun-kissed fields, crowded with delicate Queen’s Anne Lace, purple thistles, and sunflowers. You could hear the train whistle and wave to the conductor from their backyard. I loved those visits, too.

 My children grew up in a mid-sized town in central Pennsylvania: safe, secure and with plenty of space to roam around, but we lived within proximity to major metropolitan areas. We exposed them to museums, concerts, historic sites, and a variety of restaurants that served food unlike the types available in our town. Those experiences impressed them, and as adults they have chosen to live where gridlock traffic is juxtaposed with economic and cultural opportunities.

There’s energy in a city that you don’t find in a rural setting. Where you can walk or hail a cab or call Uber to get just about anywhere in minutes. Where GrubHub is takeout. When visiting our children, I sometimes long for that lifestyle. But then, after a few days, I yearn for the solitude of the place we call home.

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We retired and moved from central Pennsylvania to a bucolic village in the Finger Lakes region of New York on the south shore of Lake Ontario, not too far from several large cities and on the other side, Canada. It’s a big lake, with beautiful beaches and waves that look and sound like the ocean.

Quiet three seasons, in summer restaurants, shops, and museums fill with visitors, and outdoor activities abound. Cars line our street for Sunday concerts in the park, and our July 4th celebration attracts crowds from miles away. You wait in line at farm stands and for tastings at wineries. It’s exhilarating and enervating at the same time. I hold my breath, not fully exhaling until September.

So, what am I? I’d say I’m a country mouse who likes best to feast on the grains of quiet and solitude but occasionally ventures into a city to forage for more exotic fare. What about you?

Guest Blogger ~ Roxanne Dunn

Writing: nudging words into sentences, then sentences into paragraphs that sound pleasing to the ear. An excruciating process that takes massive amounts of time.

For years, my husband and I worked in Seattle and lived aboard an elegant, old, wood motor yacht. We spent our free time cruising to other harbors, eating, drinking, and playing with other boaters.

But whenever I had a few minutes alone, I wrote.

Every spring, our yacht club flocked to Tacoma to participate in the Daffodil Marine Festival. This weekend event culminated in a parade of boats decked out with thousands of daffodils, brightly colored flags, and all hands sporting white pants and navy blazers.

The Tacoma Yacht Club spring parade.

One year, while everyone else roamed up and down the dock drinking margaritas and meeting old friends, I sat in a corner of the saloon and struggled with my assignment for a creative writing class. And hoped I didn’t look too antisocial.

The day before the parade was crammed with activities, including a Jeopardy trivia game. Each club selected a token to represent their group. My husband was ours. I was still typing, putting words together, ripping them out, and starting over, so several of the women carted him off to the local thrift store to find a suitable outfit.

He came back dressed in an iridescent purple strapless dress, a hot pink feather boa, and white roller skates with huge pink pom-poms. I have to say, he looked stunning. Someone whipped out a black lipstick, carefully applied it to his lips, and he was ready.

As I recall, our club didn’t score all that well, but my husband was a big hit. He practically floated around on his roller skates, flicking his pink boa from side to side, and pirouetting with élan and grace.

Since then, I have rewritten the assignment I was working on too many times to count, but it finally became part of Murder Unrehearsed, my debut novel, which made it to press last August.

You’d think that after all that time, my characters wouldn’t be able to surprise me. But in the final draft, one of them, hottie lawman Matt McCrae, did. He insisted on getting up early, mixing a batch of dough for baguettes, and baking his special chocolate sandwich cookies while the bread dough was proofing.

So, I put on an apron, got reacquainted with my mother’s aunt’s sugar cookie recipe, and made several variations. Although the chocolate cookies filled with chocolate ganache are Matt’s favorite, the lemon version with lemon buttercream is a close second. Their delicate, buttery flavor married with the sprightly taste of fresh lemon is perfect for spring. I’m baking some now.

In the end, his love of baking didn’t make it into the book, but the recipes are posted on my website. I hope you enjoy them.

Murder Unrehearsed

When aspiring young actress Heather Shelton jumps in the car with her dog, Bear, and flees to her family’s mountain cabin to escape an untidy romance, all she wants is peace and time to study for auditions. What she gets is murder. The only witness of a savage killing – and squarely in the crosshairs of a ruthless assassin – she is injured and left for dead.

Heather knows handsome men are bad news, but hottie lawman Matt McCrae’s smile gets her every time, until he leaves her hanging out as bait to trap the killer. McCrae promises to protect her, but fails, and she faces killer alone, with only Bear to help.

Kindle:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08DHJ6TG7/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Barnes and Noble:
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/murder-unrehearsed-roxanne-dunn/1137387167?ean=2940162985846

Kobo:

https://www.kobo.com/us/en/ebook/murder-unrehearsed

https://seaportbooks.com/

https://www.thewildrosepress.com/books/murder-unrehearsed

and via my website: www.roxannedunn.com

Roxanne Dunn has studied writing in Paris and Seattle, and writes the galley column for Pacific Yachting magazine. Murder Unrehearsed is her debut novel.

She is a retired physical therapist, a foodie, a fanatic about good chocolate, and a private pilot. She lived aboard an old wood motor yacht for seventeen years, and in her dreams, is a pianist of renown, an acceptable water color artist, and a globe-trotting yogini.

Links:

www.roxannedunn.com

https://www.facebook.com/roxanne.dunn.127

https://twitter.com/roxanne_dunn