Thursday, January 15, 2015

Romance and Mystery Authors on Writing: Mystery Author Joan C. Curtis on Dialogue, Characters, Settings, and 5 Tips on Editing Giveaway

Romance and Mystery Authors on Writing, series on writing tips
Hello and welcome to the Romance and Mystery Authors on Writing series.

I am excited to have multi-published, award-winning business writer, Joan C. Curtis here. She put down her scholarly pen to write a mystery. And what a mystery it is. Joan's book, The Clock Strikes Midnight, is definitely a page-turner. I'm enjoying reading the relationship between the two sisters and can't stop wondering about who killed their mother. Delicious. 

Joan is donating her e-book, What Does It Take to Write, Publish, and Sell a Novel, as a door prize for a lucky commenter. The drawing will be after 9 pm EST Sunday evening.

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Welcome, Joan. Thanks for sharing your writing tips with us. You have included many helpful points for us. 

Writing Tips by Joan C. Curtis

The best advice I ever got about writing dialogue is to eavesdrop on conversations. Not for the content, unless the content is particularly stimulating. Instead for the expressions and word choice. When writing dialogue, it’s important to distinguish your characters by their individual voices.

For example, you may have a southern “redneck” character. That character speaks very differently than your more sophisticated characters.

“I’m gonna carry my ma to the market come Saturday evening.”
“I’m taking my mother to the grocery store on Saturday afternoon.”

You also want to be sure that your younger characters speak in an age-appropriate way. Don’t have five year olds talking like adults or teens.

Years ago, writers like Mark Twain used dialect. Today, readers will not tolerate reading dialects. As writers, we must search for other ways to create realistic speakers in the regions where we write. Here’s an example from a southern writer, Mary Kay Andrews, He was sniffing like a dog on point. ‘Are you cooking collard greens?’ he asked. Notice it was unnecessary to drop the “g’s.” Readers can read without dropping “g’s.” I bet you did!

And be sure to read your dialogue out loud.

Dialogue can be the most fun to write. It’s through dialogue that characters take on lives of own. They say things we sometimes don’t expect and if we’re doing it right, in ways we don’t expect!


I’ve been credited with creating meaningful characters in The Clock Strikes Midnight. Let me share a few tips about the way to create characters readers can relate to.

First, you must allow the characters to create themselves. Once the person hits the stage in your story, give them the freedom to be who they are. Don’t force yourself onto them. That sounds strange, but if you give it a go, you’ll understand.

Next, as your character emerges, ask yourself questions like, what does this person value, what are his/her goals, how does this person add to the story, in what ways does this person help add to or exacerbate the conflict, how is this character different from the others in the story, what kinds of things does this character like to do, what are his/her work, hobbies. Many writers create bios for their characters. I do not do this until the character is fully formed in my mind through the writing of the story.

Third, make sure the dialogue and action are consistent for the character. I’ve had Beta readers say things like, “I did not expect this character to say something like that. It seemed odd and jarred me.” When I hear that critique, it is clear I got in the character’s way. Readers are great at catching these slip-ups.

Fourth, move away from the story long enough to ponder the character. I like to think about my character while walking or swimming. In those situations I can let my mind travel and my imagination run free. That’s when I’ve had the greatest insights into a character’s behavior or action.

Fifth, if a character is tapping you on the shoulder to do something, do it. In The Clock Strikes Midnight, I had decided to write from two points-of-view: Janie’s and Marlene’s. They were the two main characters in my story. Throughout the writing, their mother kept tapping me on the shoulder, wanting to have her say. I ignored her until the writing came to a complete halt. At that point I gave in and created a new section of the book strictly from the mom’s point-of-view. Readers have told me how valuable that section was to their understanding of the story.

Sixth, people say if you dream in another language, you have mastered the language. In my experience if you dream about your characters, you’ve created real people. Have you ever dreamed about them?

I’ll end with a quote about characterization from DL Doctorow. He said, “Writing is an acceptable form of schizophrenia.”


The one tip I’ll share about setting is to make it as real as possible without taking away from the story. For some books the setting is the story, example: Under the Tuscan Sun. For most books, however, setting sets the stage. I think of it as the “set” on a stage, to reverse the concept.

Some writers write their setting so well, it becomes almost another character in the story. For example, I love the “cold” mysteries—those set in Sweden, Iceland and other such cold places. There, the weather and the setting are so powerful. It sets the stage for a chilly mystery. Henning Mankell did that expertly in his Detective Wallender series. Steig Larsson also created an amazing setting in The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo series. Very cold, very ominous.

Cozy mysteries often have cozy settings, in cute little towns or villages. Those help create the theme. Murder happens even in the warmest of places.

As writers we must think about where our action occurs. It can’t just occur in a vacuum. Settings puts the reader somewhere and gives them a foundation for the action.


Somewhere I read that creativity lies in the writing and genius in the editing. For me the truth lies somewhere in between.

As a writer I cannot think about editing as I’m writing. I must create and get what I’m writing on paper or on my computer screen. I suggest this over and over to new writers. If you write and then go back and edit, you waste lots of time and disrupt your creative energy.

5 Tips on Editing:

  1)      Nothing you write for the first time is perfect. Re-write and re-write.
  2)      Do not edit until you are out of the creative mode. I usually write freely and then the next day, I read what I wrote the day before. Not to edit, but to put me back in that place to continue creating. On the third or fourth day, I’ll go back through with an eye toward some light editing, but primarily putting in things that I left out. I do not completely edit until the manuscript is finished. I’ve often described it this way. I have on my “Creative Hat” in the beginning. Later, I put on my “Editor’s Hat.” The two require different kinds of thinking.
  3)      Listen to what your readers say or what your editor says. Even though you are the author and you have the final say, often readers and editors have excellent suggestion.
  4)      Don’t be too proud to share your work with an editor.
  5)      If you are self-published, pay for solid editorial services. Your readers deserve that!
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With just three months to live, Janie Knox returns to her childhood home
to face her dark past and destroy her mother
s killer. 
Buy Links:


About Joan:
Four times business book author, Joan C. Curtis, releases her first mystery/suspense title, The Clock Strikes Midnight.
Mystery Author Joan C. Curtis
Her first-place book awards include: Best mystery manuscript in the Malice Domestic Grants competition and best proposal for nonfiction in the Harriette Austin competition.

Joan has been an avid reader for as long as she can remember.  She reads all kinds of books, including women’s fiction, mysteries, biography, and memoir.  Her passion as a reader lies closer to literary writing with a commercial bent. She writes books she would love to read.

“I write about characters who remind me of myself at times and my sister at times, but never fully so. My stories are told from a woman’s point of view. Characters drive my writing and my reading.”

Having grown up in the South with a mother from Westchester County New York, Joan has a unique take on blending the southern traditions with the eye of a northerner.  She spent most of her childhood in North Carolina and now resides in Georgia.

Connect online with Joan at the Joan C. Curtis site.


Anonymous said...

Those are all great tips, Joan, especially about the dialogue and the editing. Dialogue is such a great way to reveal character. And I'm often tempted to edit as I go along, which, as you say, is the best way to stop your creative flow!
Thanks for sharing your advice.

JoanCurtis said...

Thank you for having me today. It was fun to share my thoughts. You are a gracious host, JQ,

Suzanne de Montigny said...

I didn't drop the g's. I read it as you had it written, but then I'm Canadian. (Not that we don't drop g's, but we're not as familiar with the southern dialect.) As far as Mark Twain goes, we listened to Tom Sawyer in the summer time while traveling in Newfoundland. We all agreed that he did way too much telling, but that at the time, it was probably really good writing. I think writing
has come a long, long way since then.

J.Q. Rose said...

Helena, I too want to edit as I go along...trying to let it flow, but the teacher in me is screaming when I see an error. LOL..Thanks for stopping in.

J.Q. Rose said...

Joan, it's a pleasure hosting you. Thanks so much in participating in the series.

J.Q. Rose said...

Hi Suzanne, Writing these days is how we live Gotta have the "hook", lots of action to get people to read the book, and write intensely to keep them reading. Maybe in Twain's day they had more time to get through all the words! He's a true storyteller and I love his wit. Thanks for stopping by.

JoanCurtis said...

Hi Suzanne and Helena, Thanks for your moments and adding your thoughts. Indeed, the writers of the past had a different style. Of course readers were different as well. I can't help wondering if readers didn't change, would writing? We writers learn from reading and we learn from reading both contemporary as well as the masters. My guess is our styles are a blend of the two.

As for editing as you go, I am guilty of doing a little, but clearly the major editing has to come after the work is done. If you tend to be overly compulsive, you'll never get your book written. I have colleagues like that. She wants it so perfect, she can't get past the first page! That's an extreme. Again, there's a blend...

Suzanne de Montigny said...

Yeah, I know someone like that too. She kept sending me the first chapter over and over again for 2 years. Regarding Mark Twain. Back then there was no television. There was no gaming. People were quite happy to sit around listening to someone reading a book. But of course, today, it's gotta move. No doddling or we'll lose the readers.

JoanCurtis said...

I think they read more books aloud back in Twain's day. That would make the reading of dialogue very entertaining. Like listening to a radio show, perhaps.

When I was a kid, my mom read Toby Tyler to us. I still remember that and how much I enjoyed listening.

Audio books just aren't the same...

J.Q. Rose said...

In 8th grade our teacher read aloud to us after lunch. Yes to 12/13 year olds. Great moments there with her. I kept that tradition and read to my kids after lunch when I taught third grade. We all cried together at the end of Charlotte Web every year.

Unknown said...

Great advice, Joan! I love your tip about allowing characters to create themselves. It's such fun when my characters surprise me!

Anonymous said...

Wow, lots of great writing tips! Thank you for sharing them.

Joan, CONGRATS on your book. That's quite a cover.

Thank you for the chance to win a copy of Write, Publish, and Sell a Novel.

J.Q. Rose said...

Heather, You know I don't think anyone but a writer would understand that phenomenon of characters creating themselves and the writer being surprised at their actions. Love being a writer, don't you?? Yes, I know you do!

J.Q. Rose said...

Hi Susanne, Joan sure did share a lot of wisdom in this post. Thanks for stopping by.

Iona Brodie said...

I love the comments about giving your mind space to let the characters develop. I am somewhat comforted that all of my hours spent daydreaming in the bath (my own quiet space) are not wasted. Thanks Joan for sharing!

JoanCurtis said...

Hahaha, Iona, you made me laugh. Indeed those quite moments in the tub might be your most productive.

Happy writing everyone!

J.Q. Rose said...

Hi Iona, If I'm not singing in the shower, then I'm probably conjuring up another plot or character!! Thanks for sharing!

Lin said...

Wow I got home from PT and unkinked enough to actually sit at my computer long enough to FIND this.

I LOVE mysteries and this one sounds like one I will be seeking to plant on the new Fire my daughter got me for Christmas and my birthday...(as soon as she shows me how to use it that is.)

I've always feared writing TOO much dialog because I thought you NEEDED to get all verbose and eloquent with describing SCENERY. Luckily I outGREW that. It's nice to know writing the story enhancing YAKKING is a GOOD thing...since I really get BORED writing elaborate scenery.

Thanks JQ. You always bring such intriguing people and concepts to your blog.

J.Q. Rose said...

Hi Lin, thank you. This series has been full of great info and Joan has certainly shared some great points. Glad you outgrew the elaborate scenery description too. Those editors at MIU seem to like to cross them out anyway! Joan has written a great mystery. Keeps you wondering the whole book. Thanks for stopping in and leaving a comment.

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Thanks for the great advice, Joan. I'm saving it for future reference. Need to work on the characters' speech.
Congratulations on your novel. I enjoy mysteries. Best wishes for you.

J.Q. Rose said...

Hi Beverly, Thank you for stopping in. Glad you are a mystery lover too!

J.Q. Rose said...

Congratulations Susanne Drazic! You are the winner of Joan's e-book, Write, Publish, and Sell a Novel.

Happy Independence Day to My IWSG Friends and Readers!!! #IWSGBlogHop, #fourthofjuly

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