Category Archives: Writing

Character Interview: Olivia Romano, MD

  • Why did you become a doctor, and why did you choose oncology?
    I learned early on that I had a knack for making people feel better. I don’t want to say it was destiny, because I’m not sure I believe in that, but I never really seriously considered any other career field. Oncology because … reasons.
  • What is the most difficult thing you’ve ever had to face in your professional career?
    There was a colleague, Michael Shensen. He’d spent fifteen years or so in medicine as an oncologist, and was something of a mentor – no, he was my mentor, for a very long time. Dealt with pediatric oncology, which is by far the most emotionally brutal thing you can do in medicine. Anyway, he learned he had liver cancer. Stage IV. Missed all the warning signs because you’re taught as a doctor to not diagnose yourself or your family members, and he missed it. [wipes away a tear] Anyway, he put a bullet in his head the day after he got the diagnosis.
    I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been, to see your teacher end his tutelage so abruptly.
    I won’t lie, it was tough. Definitely the most difficult thing I’ve ever seen.
  • What does a typical day look like to you?
    Start too early, drink too much coffee, paperwork, more paperwork. Rounds with the med school students, more paperwork. Lunch gets squeezed in there somewhere, usually right about the time I’m working on my research. More paperwork, then rounds with the residents. Paperwork, at least one meeting with a patient per day, more usually two or three, then dinner with a side of paperwork, and eventually bed.
  • What do you want for your patients more than anything else (except healing from their cancers)?
    That their family relationships be restored. A lot of times cancer takes an emotional toll on the families and friends that is greater than the emotional toll on the patient. Often the patient resolves him or herself to their fate, but the family most often has more difficulty. Sometimes they turn ugly and vindictive, other times they turn inward and introspective – they appear cold or cruelly detached. They hurt just as much, but often they don’t know how to talk about their pain.
  • How do you relax?
    I like to read, which sounds crazy given all the paperwork I just talked about, but as long as its light and meaningless it helps me get my mind off work. And I’ve recently taken up gardening, so yeah, there’s that.
  • What do you want to do that hasn’t been done yet?
    I want to find the cure to at least one cancer that’s plagued us for a while. That doesn’t sound like much, but since they all operate in similar ways, finding the key to one might turn out to be a skeleton key that unlocks all of them. I figure I should aim for the moon and if I miss, at least I’m headed for the stars.
  • How clear is your desk, and how clear is your signature?
    Neither is clear, not at all. At. All.
  • Any last minute health tips?
    Go for a jog, or at least a walk. Don’t be afraid of salad instead of a burger. Unless its the chicken Caesar from the hospital cafeteria. Be afraid of that one. Very afraid.

Writing Tip: set a goal

You know what keeps me writing sometimes? Setting a goal that I know I can attain. If I know I need to write so many words by such and such time, I know that I have to sit down and force the muse to produce for me. Eventually, the uppity brat gives me an idea that I can run with. Like yesterday morning, for instance.

I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, which is sort of like a choose-your-own-torture NaNoWriMo project. I’ve set a goal of 25,000 words in April. They assign you to a cabin of up to 12 others, and you update word counts and have fun. But for some reason my project, a story of a small desert militia in the days of the dissolution of the Union, has met Resistance in the form of the muse not giving me ideas to work with beyond the first one (a resupply mission to a forward observation post that goes south). As a result, I’m at 7372 words when I should be at 10,833.

So what to do? The answer is easy, I have to get up and write. I have no other option if I am to meet my goal, take care of chores, file taxes, and do my normal day job and all the other things I normally do. I set the coffee pot to automatically turn on at 5:30 when my alarm goes off and I force myself out of bed.

Does it work? Sometimes. Yesterday I woke up at 5:30 and couldn’t find sleep again because an idea was rattling around about a riot that comes along as a result of … something that happens earlier in the story. I managed to crank out 808 words, which beat my previous daily average by several hundred. Of course, this doesn’t meet the necessary 1000-word average I have to meet to get back on track, but I’m closer than I was before and more importantly, I have an idea that I can run with for the next few days.

So if you’re having trouble enslaving your own muse, set a goal and use it to get your mind focused on where you want to be.

The Chief Chapter 2


Travis H. Newsome and Julia Starnes waited outside the President’s office while the Secret Service briefed the President on the morning’s events. It was not an uneventful wait, just quiet. Lily, the President’s secretary, was managing to keep the mayhem outside the Oval Office anteroom, and thus away from the President. She did, however, bend her own “no media” rule a little this morning, and allow a TV to be turned on so as to keep abreast of the situation – though muted.

Travis was switching his attention between the TV, his smartphone, and the speech notes he was reviewing for the President’s statement later this afternoon. Julia was doing the same, but her statement notes were on her phone instead of printed out. The network was running commercial-free (and to Travis’ mind, coherence-free) commentary on the assassination, bringing in every “expert” they could to contribute whatever they could to the story. So far, he had counted four ex-Special Forces operators (one of which was the obligatory sniper), two former Supreme Court clerks, and a medical examiner from somewhere in flyover country. The local one had been too busy for an interview, apparently.

The door to the Oval opened and the Secret Service detail walked out. Travis and Julia stood and waited for the President to sign some files Lily had for him, then waved for the duo to follow him back into his office.

“Okay, where do we stand with whatever else is going to hell in this town?” The Connecticut Democrat was known for his blunt manner of speaking, but only in private. In public he was still the well-mannered, grandfatherly man that, as of last week’s poll, was sitting four points above his election percentage, a good place to be with a year left before the campaign.

“We’ve come to an agreement with the House and Senate leaders that all legislative business will be postponed until Chief Justice Hatterly is buried,” Travis said. “But we had to let the Senate stay in session instead of adjourning. They don’t want you making a recess appointment.”

“Yeah, sucks that they have to be included in the process. How about the press conference later this afternoon?”

“We’re going over the remarks and will have the edits back to Andrew so you can have first draft within the hour, Mister President,” Julia said. “There are the standard parts about how he was a good man and a great justice, committed to the law, sorely missed.”

“Anything anecdotal? We’ll have to make him sound human, even if his jurisdictional framework was still stuck in the 1850s.”

“I’ve got Robin working on that,” Travis answered. “He’s calling Congressmen and asking for personal stories. I’ll owe him a drink for that assignment.”

“Just make sure it’s something good, you heartless jerk. Making a junior staff member talk to Congressmen might just turn him off from further public service. Anything else?”

“No, Mister President,” they both answered in unison.

“Okay, then put this on your back burners.” He leaned in closer, to make sure they got the sense of where he was going. “We’re not going to politicize the Chief Justice’s death, but we are going to start pushing an agenda about a month after the flags go back up the flagstaff, understand?” They both nodded. “Nothing heavy, nothing overpowering, but I want it known to the Senate Democrats, quietly, that we are not going to let this opportunity pass us by.”

“Are you talking gun control, Mr. President? Because if you are …”

“No, Julia, no specific policies yet. Just let them get a signal from the third-base coach, as it were, that we’re going to advance the White House agenda after a respectful period. We’ll come up with specific policy items in the intervening time, flesh them out, but only internally, understand?” Heads nodded again. “After next week I want you guys splitting your time between vetting potential replacements and drawing up policies that I can run on in a year.” President Richard Enson looked them both in the eye. “Now get to work, I’ve got an appointment across town I can’t miss.” He turned and walked out the side door as they replied in unison, “Yes, Mister President.”

Travis turned to Julia. “Appointment?”

“He’s going over to the Chief Justice’s house to talk with Mrs. Hatterly personally.”

Character Interview: William Cavanaugh

  • How long have you been in law enforcement?
    About ten years or so.
  • Was there anything else you ever wanted to do in life?
    No, not really. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of guy who saves the day, and police work seemed to be the natural fit for that.
  • What’s the worst thing you’ve encountered in that time?
    Definitely the Richard Morell incident. That was a seriously fucked up man, and not in a good way. I got to read the coroner’s reports on the corpses they found in his house, and he was a really bad dude. Wicked. It was …
    Well, when I saw what was in his trunk, I felt my skin crawl, but when I read the reports of what was in his house, I couldn’t finish it. I’ve never had a professional document that I couldn’t finish because I was too creeped out by it. Except for him. He was a living demon, there’s no other words for something like that. He wasn’t human anymore.
  • How do you feel about that arrest? What were you thinking at the moment?
    Well, it wasn’t really an arrest, so to speak. I mean, it was, he was certainly arrested from further action, [chuckle] but … I feel good about it. Really good. Wish I could do something for the families, but you can’t have everything.
  • That’s a case where it was clear, at least from the news reports, that he disobeyed your order to open the trunk. Should the public always obey a policeman? Are there any circumstances where they shouldn’t?
    No, not really. I mean you could come up with some pretty extreme theoreticals, but those never happen in real life. We’re out there looking out for the public good, so when we ask you for something, it isn’t really an ask, you know? There’s a reason we need to know, and it is for your own good. A lot of people try to assert a right to privacy, especially if they’re trying to hide something, but they forget that if I really want to, I’m getting in your trunk, house, whatever. You can’t stop me, and even if you wanted to suppress evidence with some sleazeball lawyer, the judge sides with the law most of the time. Best to just do what I say and get the pain over with.
  • What is your personal firearm?
    Glock 19. I like the way it feels in my hand, and I’m good at putting rounds on target. I’m a big guy, so it conceals easily on me. I’ve also got a deer rifle and an AR-15 that I use for target shooting.
  • What’s a day look like for you, typically?
    There’s a morning briefing around 5 AM or so, then out on traffic patrol for most of the morning. Sometimes it’s court appearances, but I usually break for lunch around 11 or so and get something on the downtown mall, then eat it at the station while I do some paperwork. Then it’s out again in the afternoon, and done by about four, after the reports are filed and the bureaucrats satisfied.
  • What do you want from life?
    Happiness, same as everyone else. An ordered society is a happy one, so if I can do my part to build that order, then good, I’ll feel happy about myself and what I’ve built.

Writing Tip: Exclusion

Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.

J. K. Rowling

You and I need to have a talk. Yes, you, the writer who is using this blog (and others) as an excuse to not write. “I’m writing!” you tell your spouse. You know that’s not true. You know you’re just piddling around. Quit lying to them and to yourself. Write.

Your time is precious. You have a limited allotment of it, and you don’t know when you’ll run out. You could die of an aortic dissection in the next hour and then where would your stories be? Faded to transparency like Marty McFly, invisible to the world as if they had never existed. So write.

Yes, the chores will pile up. Your spouse/significant other will resent you at times. You may resent yourself at times. But priorities must be set and agreements must be made, because when you publish your work (be it online for free or for pay or through a publisher or by yourself) they will be proud of you. You will have accomplished something that others don’t because they can’t. Not everyone can write a story, but you can. So write.

Push away he outside distractions – including the Internet. Do not leave it on because you need to do “research”. You know where that leads; to that place where you lie to yourself and others. Jennifer and I have what we call Writing Nights, where she puts our son to bed and does not distract me with things. She retreats to the bedroom to read or downstairs to watch TV, while I sequester myself in the office – not in bed – and write. The point is to exclude the world and its demands so that the writing can get done. Because it needs to be done. So write.

There are stories in there, and they need to come out. So for all values of n except pen and paper (or keyboard and screen), discard n and write.

Freebie: The Chief, Chapter 1

William looked up from his morning newsfeed at the commotion outside his window. A taxi had been hit by a delivery truck, and the ensuing jam had been further snarled by the arrival of the emergency vehicles. Firemen had blocked one of the two lanes on Upshur Street, and police were routing southbound cars around the commuter misfortune. It would not be a good start to the morning for many working on Capitol Hill.

Fortunately, William did not have to be anywhere besides his apartment for another two hours, possibly more. He rubbed his stubble as he sipped his coffee, contemplating the various networks that would have to adjust to the reset button that had been pushed outside his apartment. There was the obvious commuter network, the business network that would have to make up for missing workers, and the political network that would have to wait for God knows whatever it was the interns and staff delivered in the morning.

He tried to go back to his newsfeeds but they didn’t hold his interest anymore. His mind was fickle like that, flitting from one topic to another, revisiting each one in turn to process it a bit more and step closer to a conclusion or solution. He would often, in his daily work as an Internet investigator, appear to simply tap away at his laptop’s keyboard, making no apparent progress or discovery, but then suddenly make a series of calls and report that yes, Mister Smith had been having an affair with Miss Jones, or that Mrs. Wilkinson had been embezzling funds from her husband’s business to cover her gambling debts, or that Mister Young had indeed once been Mister McLane.

Unfortunately he hadn’t been doing any of that as of late. His last case had given her payment and received her report a week ago, and the well had been dry since. One appointment had been made for ten this morning, a woman in her mid thirties, concerned her husband of three years was having an affair. Her suspicions started when he started staying late at work, and were confirmed (at least in her mind) when she discovered a family necklace was missing. William was curious to help her, but the case was, technically speaking, dull. Affairs typically were broken because the cheater made a fool’s mistake of using his own cell phone to call the interloper, or some other such unforced error.

The phone rang, he picked it up. “Hello, William Bartlett speaking.”

“Mister Bartlett, it’s Stacy Stonebauer, your ten o’clock appointment.” She was sobbing over the phone. “I’m afraid I have to cancel, there’s been a – a development.”

“Is this a cancellation, or a reschedule?” he asked delicately, suspecting the answer before he asked.

“I’m canceling. The bastard came home,” she sobbed heavily, then regained herself and continued. “He came home with, oh jeez, um, lets just say ‘evidence’ that he had been out with someone last night.”

“I’m terribly sorry to hear that, Mrs. Stonebauer. Is there anything I can do for you in the meantime? Track down the girlfriend, perhaps? I’m sure your lawyer would like to know where to send his subpoenas.”

“Oh no, there’s no need. The ‘girlfriend’ was passed out in my husband’s car, and – ” More sobbing. There was something about how she said “girlfriend” that struck him, almost as if he could see her make the quotation mark gesture as she spoke. “And HE had obviously been doing something with my husband I thought was my specialty alone.”

“Oh. OH. Well, oh dear, then, well, um…” he grasped for words, but they eluded him. “You have my sympathies, please don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything.”

“Nope, can’t think of anything.” She terminated the call abruptly, and William looked back out the window. The firemen were sitting around, waiting for something apparently. The taxi driver was on the phone, presumably with his dispatcher, while the truck driver was yelling at him vociferously. The taxi driver wore an expression of calm boredom, almost as if he had been through it all before.

He wasn’t going to get any more interested in the newsfeeds, and the accident was much more interesting. With nothing else to do, he threw on a pair of jeans and a polo shirt, grabbed his keys, wallet, tablet, and phone, and went out the door.

Down on the sidewalk he found it easy to navigate around the congestion to get a better look. The bumper of the taxi was crushed, but that appeared to be the extent of the damage, except for the deployed airbag. The truck looked relatively unscathed. Its bumper was not visibly crushed, but the license plate frame was definitely bent. That seemed odd. William figured that a crash strong enough to crush a sedan’s bumper would be bad enough to damage a truck’s bumper. He’d have to look into that. He turned to walk down the street to grab a coffee and doughnut, and scribbled some notes onto his tablet.

He didn’t notice the first shots as they cracked out, but definitely noticed the thwack as one of them impacted the tree he was passing. He jerked his head to the side, puzzled by what he heard and saw, then jerked it forward and saw the mayhem in front of him.

A van had pulled up to the red light at the intersection in front of him, about twenty yards away. The door had slid open and men appeared, guns drawn. They had opened fire on a man as he walked down the street. His briefcase had burst open when it hit the sidewalk, the papers splattered with his blood. William stood there in shock, taking it in as the cartridge cases tinkled on the sidewalk. The murderers finished their work, slid the van door shut, and drove off when the light turned green.

William stared, mouth open, notes about the crash forgotten. Policemen from the accident rushed past him, bumping him out of the way as they rushed by. He saw one of them on the radio, reporting the incident, while the other tried to give aid to the victim.

William found himself looking down at the dead man, not sure how he got there. The policeman who had tried to help the victim looked up at him, ordering him to back away.

William didn’t hear him. He was too busy studying the dead man’s face, trying to remember where –

“I’M TALKING TO YOU, BUD. You need to step back, this is a crime scene, if you couldn’t figure that out.” The officer finally drew William’s startled attention. “I have work to do here, you aren’t part of it.”

“I saw it. I saw the whole thing. Well, most of it, anyway. I saw it.”

“You saw this?” The policeman was incredulous. “Wait here, do not move. We need to get a statement from you.” William obeyed, leaning against the bus stop bench. He had never seen a real dead body before, only the ones on TV. Like on the show last night, some low-grade crime series that had been on the decline for years, but which no one had the guts to cancel. It had been followed by the evening news, which had glossed over some decision from the courts that had come out yesterday. It had been a typical news report, so light on facts it could have blown away in the wind, so William went to the Internet to read more about the decision –

Then it hit him who the poor man was. His shock numbed him as the blood of the Chief Justice of the United States cooled in the morning sun.

Character Interview: Carley Hill

  • How do you feel about your family, now that you’re an adult?
    We don’t talk much – my parents, that is. We talk, but not often. My brother is completely estranged from them, but he and I keep in touch. I’m sort of the bridge between two land masses that isn’t crossed very much, as far as they’re concerned.
  • What do you want from life?
    Success, same as everyone? What does that look like – um, a good bank balance, nice family that is mellow and not wound up all the time, and not ending up like some of the patients I treat. I’m a nurse, so I get to see some pretty nasty stuff sometimes. Fun!
  • If you were granted three wishes, what would you ask for?
    My parents and my brother to reconcile, healing for my terminally ill patients, and, um … a million dollars, tax free. Especially that last one, it’s the most realistic.
  • What three things would you take to a Desert Island?
    A transceiver radio, a small boat, and a survival kit. I’m not into getting abandoned on small islands. Or just not go in the first place.
  • How do you fall in love? At first sight? Over a long period?
    Uh, yes? I’ve never really had … well, there’s this one … next question, please?
  • How do you decide if you can trust someone? Experience with others? With this person? First impressions? Intuition? Do you test the person somehow? Or are you just generally disposed to trust or not to trust?
    I trust when I know it will be reciprocated. Like when someone trusts me first, I’ll definitely trust them.
    And when do you trust someone first?
    Yeah. I’d definitely trust them if they trust me first.
  • Describe yourself to me.
    Almost tall, fat boobs, not quite skinny waist. Blonde eyes, blue hair.
  • What do you consider are your strengths?
    I’m daring. I do things most people might consider crazy, but I think them through first, so they aren’t actually crazy.
  • What do you consider your weaknesses?
    Whatever they are, I don’t share them with strangers.
  • What is one physical attribute you are proud of?
    My boobs. They’re fantastic, I know it, and I don’t mind saying it.
  • What one physical attribute would you change?
    I think I would like to try being a redhead.
  • What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? Why?
    I’d rather not talk about it. I may be under surveillance.
  • Describe your ideal mate.
    Someone who trusts me enough to grow with me and I with them.

Writing Tip: Set a time and stick to it

I am inherently lazy, which explains why I program for a living (at least until this writing thing takes off). Anything that can be described by a mathematical algorithm can be done by a computer, and there are few things in this world that cannot be described by an algorithm. Creative writing is one of them, so I have a difficult path ahead of me. Steven Pressfield would classify laziness as a manifestation of Resistance – the thing that, by whatever means possible, prevents you from creating. Fortunately there are ways around it.

The reason I was able to publish The Dragonslayers v1 this year was because I followed the advice of a writer at the Virginia Festival of the Book in 2011. There was a Publishing Day seminar on something or other (I forget the topic, but that’s not the point), and afterwards I asked one of the panelists what time of day he thought was the most productive. I wish I could remember his name so I could honor him properly for his wisdom. He answered astutely, saying he wrote best at night (as in two in the godforsaken morning) but that it was different for everyone and that if I was having trouble making time for writing (my Resistance at the time) try different times of day.

Like an idiot, I sat on the advice for a couple years. Finally, after several years of looking at the manuscript for DS1 and wondering if it was going to get done on its own, I realized it wouldn’t unless I followed the panelist’s advice. I set my alarm and went to bed early enough to force myself out of bed the next morning at 5:30. When the phone went off, the only thing that saved it from a sudden death were (1) it was an almost-new phone, and (2) I had set up the coffee machine to be ready at the right time. I sat down with the coffee in front of the computer and channeled my rage at being awoken into my writing. “Kill your darlings,” says the writer’s adage, and the slaughter began. The clever phrase was snipped and replaced with actual wit, ‘that’ was removed wherever it appeared, and plot chunks were deleted in their entirety. I stopped a couple hours later when I needed to get out the door for work, but was able to renew it the next morning. And the morning after that. And so on.

Like the panelist said, the time that worked for him might not work for you, as it certainly wouldn’t work for me. But experiment, try different times, and be consistent. We are creatures of habit, and repeated tasks become easier the more they are repeated. Before you know it, the manuscript (or the editing job) will be done.

Character Interview: Scott Philipson

DRAGONSLAYERS 1 SPOILERS!!! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!! Continuity geeks: this happens after the trial, but before that thing that happens. It’s non-canonical.

John Lillard*: Welcome to News in the Spotlight. I’m your host, John Lillard. Tonight’s guest joins us via telephone to talk about his recent acquittal on charges of selling drugs. Please welcome Scott Philipson.
Scott: It’s nice to be here, thanks.
Continue reading

Writing Techniques: Character Development

One of the things that came to me pretty quickly when I started writing was a technique for developing characters. I saw a quote posted by Lauralee Bliss on her Facebook page – “Plot builds character” – and realized it was quite true. Turmoil in the lives of the characters allows them to act in ways that reveal what’s in their hearts. But how do you organize it?

Act like a reporter. Ask and answer the five Ws and you’ll get ahead in your writing.

Who – Identify the character with something that makes them who they are. The first one is always their name.
What – Plot builds character, so identify a part of the plot line relevant to the character
When – it has to happen sometime in the course of the story. Identify when.
Where – There’s always a setting. Describe it.
Why – There’s always a reason for the What. Describe it here it short detail.

Then repeat. Fill the page with the character’s details, building a plot and a background and a personality all at the same time. This is also useful for breaking up Writer’s Block logjams.