Saturday, 21 February 2015

Building Atmosphere! (A sample of what you get when you take my writing classes)

Building Atmosphere!

By Melodie Campbell

I was tickled when the big city library sought me out to do a workshop for aspiring writers on Building Atmosphere.

“Sure!”  I said.  “Are you paying me?”  I said.  (Although not necessarily in that order.)

They were, thankfully.  And then the anxiety set in.  (Cue the strident violins.)

Was I the best person to talk about this topic?  My novels are primarily comedies.  I usually aim for the funny bone, not the jugular.  But then I recalled: most of my published short fiction is dark noir.  And in short fiction, regardless of genres, you have to set the mood quickly.

Like many writers, I go from Comedy to Romance to Thriller to darkest Noir, happily skipping from genre to genre.  In fact, because of this ‘writing around,’ I have been called a Literary Slut. 

Literary Sluts like me (and there are many – you may be one yourself) set the mood cues quickly and dig in for the writing.  Let’s look at how we do it.

Let’s start at the Beginning: What is Fiction?

The type of mood you wish to create begins with the type (or subgenre) of story you want to tell.  So bear with me as we revisit the basics here:

In FICTION, we are telling a STORY.
A story has a beginning, a middle and an end.
Short stories, novellas and novels all have this in common:
A Protagonist <your main character>
A problem or goal
Obstacles (this forms your conflict)
A resolution to the problem or goal (meaning an ending that will satisfy the reader)

Put another way:

First comes character…
Your character WANTS something.  Real bad.
There are OBSTACLES to her getting what she wants.
Just as PLOT determines genre, genre will point you to the atmosphere you want to create in your stories.

But just what is that pesky thing called atmosphere, and why do we want it?

Atmosphere is about Emotion
In all the fiction we write, we are trying to create an emotion in the reader.  Over and over, writers mess with the emotions of readers!  That’s what we do.

Creating atmosphere is about setting the stage for your reader to feel something.
In fact, we want…
…your reader to imagine they can SEE the story happening
                        …maybe even that they are IN the story.

We want readers to feel they are right there, alongside your protagonist, experiencing the action themselves.
And wallowing in the emotion that you, as the writer, have planted.

Okay, get on with the details….

We create atmosphere through:
The Opening
Time of day
Description (using all five senses)

In each of these mini-sections, I’ll pick on a genre to illustrate the point.

1.    Your Opening sets the Mood
Never fool the reader!  The way your book opens is the sort of book they will expect to read.
If your book is a comedy, your opening should have some fun in it.
If your book is a mystery, show us that right from the start. 

Let’s look at some brilliant examples from the Masters:

Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier  (psychological suspense)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and chain upon the gate.

From the opening paragraph, we feel the mood.  Locked out!  No Entry!  You are not welcome here…

Now let’s look at Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (my fave)

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

No question here that we’re looking at something light and irreverent, maybe even satirical and silly.  (I personally think, brilliant.)  In any case, the mood is clear from the opening.

2.     Setting
For this example, let’s go to the opposite end of Douglas Adams:  Horror

In a horror story, I would want the atmosphere to be spine-tingling.  I want you, the reader, to feel apprehension, as you wait, wait, wait for something terrifying to happen.

This may run the risk of sounding cliché.  But probably, I wouldn’t set this in a crowded cocktail party.  Instead, I would look for a setting that makes one feel ‘alone’.
An abandoned building
A house at the end of a road, isolated
A dark forest
An empty parking lot

However, it could be that your character wasn’t alone to begin with.  You can do something even more powerful by having your protagonist start out with lots of people around them.  And then, they become alone.  Everything changes.  The contrast intensifies the atmosphere.

So let’s look at that other part of setting: weather.

3.     Weather

In real life, weather affects my emotion, as it does for several people.  Make that sun bright, and it’s easy for me to be cheerful.  Cloud me over in grey, and the world changes.

Sun or no sun
A bright sunny day…this signals hope.
Maybe your story starts out that way.  And then maybe the weather changes…thunderclouds start to build.
Does rain falls lightly or does Thor show his wrath by increasing the wind and releasing torrents of rain?
This effectively changes the mood of your story.
It increases the tension.
In the timetravel fantasy book Rowena and the Viking Warlord, I used thunderclouds to signal the pending battle.

Time of Day
We can see well in daylight.
At night, our vision is compromised.
This is an excellent way to create an atmosphere of unease…of fear or threat.  Just the sort of emotion you want in a suspense story.
Humans are naturally daylight creatures.  We hide in caves or houses when it is dark because predators roam at night.

One easy trick:  when you move to the scary part of your story, move it to night.  Make it moonless.  Bring in the fog.

Mix it up
Sometimes, you might want to be an evil writer person, and fool the reader.  Make something absolutely horrendous happen in bright daylight.  Sucker the reader’s natural inclination to think they and their beloved protagonist are safe, and then pull the rug out from under both.

Make them feel shock.  Because remember, that’s what we fiction writers do.  We mess with the emotions of readers.

4.     Description

Using ALL your senses is important for creating atmosphere.  We do pretty well with sight.  Don’t forget the others.

Smell – ever walk into a seedy motel room?  Give me that smell (musty, mildew, stuffy, smelling of sweat and stale liquor) and I’ll be there again in my mind.

Touch – A sticky menu tells us so much about the establishment.  Ditto a spot on the floor that acts like glue to the sole of your heroine’s shoe.  She continues to walk, and with every step, the shoe sticks to the floor…

Who hasn’t had that happen.  What did you feel?  Annoyance?  Anger?  Helplessness?  Embarrassment?  Maybe even the feeling of being trapped?

Yes, we can use ALL the senses to create atmosphere:

I am always surprised by how often writers forget to use sound to their advantage.  Humans are predators, so it is natural for us to describe a setting with photographic detail, in that we are hard-wired to notice movement against it.  But we are also instinctively alert to sounds. 
Don’t forget this valuable tool.

The irritating sound of an unbalanced fan. 
Unrelenting traffic or a commuter train roaring by an apartment window. 
These are stressful.  They also signal class strata.  Think of the brilliant movie Twelve Angry Men, and how they use the thundering sound of the El-Train (or is it L-Train) to quickly place the murder in a tenement.

The ticking of a clock.
Absolute quiet.  Then the sound of footsteps.
Classical music playing innocuously in the background.  Or is it country music? Pounding heavy metal?
Grab these cues to build mood.

Taste –
The bitter taste of cheap, over-brewed coffee. 
The sweet aroma of freshly brewed Kenyan AA.  Sweet, sour…

Example: you could signal a wonderful date going sour by your protagonist’s reaction to the food she tastes. 
          The place looks wonderful.  The food tastes unappetizing.
                 The man looks perfect…you get the picture.

Okay, they’re telling me to wrap it up.

One final example:  Writing Noir and thrillers

Many of my short stories are noir.
Emotions wanted:  uneasiness, fear, heart-in-throat

How to set atmosphere quickly, in Noir and thrillers:
 I’d stage the opening at night.
It won’t be a clear night, unless it is very, very cold.
            Probably, there will be some fog. 
            Or sweltering humidity.
Something to make your characters uncomfortable, and your reader feeling it along with them.

Example: The opening from the flash fiction story, “July is Hell”  (from Thirteen, An Anthology of Crime Stories)

I came back to the squad car with two coffees, both black.

Bill was fanning himself with yesterday’s newspaper.  “It’s frigging middle of the night, for Crissake. How can it still be so hot?”

I shrugged.  “July is hell.  Always will be.”  I passed him the cup of java.

“This job is hell,” Bill muttered, leaning back in the seat.

Everything in these opening sentences leads the reader to an atmosphere that is uncomfortable.  The characters don’t just tell you that.  The author SHOWS you.  Bill is fanning himself.  It’s night.  Even the coffee is black.  July is hell, and so is the job.  This is not going to be a happy story, and you know it, after just a few lines.

Okay, not the final example.  I also write comedy. Can’t help but end on a light note:

Example: The opening from the short story, “Cover Girl” (from World Enough and Crime Anthology)

The door opened, and a big man who was all chest and no hair strode in, barking orders.

“I’m looking for Mel Ramone.”

“You found her,” I said. I find missing persons for a living.  But I didn’t think he’d pay me for this one.

Totally different atmosphere created this time.  Hopefully, by the end of this very short opening, the reader is smiling.

And hopefully, I've left you smiling, too.

Billed as Canada’s “Queen of Comedy" by the Toronto Sun (Jan. 5, 2014), Melodie Campbell achieved a personal best when Library Digest compared her to Janet Evanovich. 
Winner of 9 awards, including the 2014 Derringer and the 2014 Arthur Ellis (Canada) for The Goddaughter’s Revenge (Orca Books), Melodie has over 200 publications, including 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories, and seven novels. She teaches Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College, and is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Guy Alert: What NOT to buy your gal for Valentine's Day

Pet Frogs and Other Gifts (reprinted with permission from the places that pay me)

My first gift from a male was a pet frog.  Jimmy was five, and the frog was his most prized possession.  Unfortunately, when the hopping box was thrust in my face, I screamed, and threw it back.  Jimmy was not impressed.

Men have given me pet frogs all my life.  Gifts they would like to receive and thus gleefully assume I would want.  And I am not alone.  Last year, one female friend of mine reported receiving a set of mag racing wheels for the family car.  Another opened a big pink box containing – I kid you not – a filing cabinet.

This year, men, it’s time to shape up!  No more socket wrenches for your lady (unless she asks for them).  So what do you buy?  Here’s what you don’t:

No kitchen appliances.  By this I mean, washers, dryers, dishwashers, toasters, can-openers, or meat-slicers.  These are gifts for a house, not a sweetheart.  The same is not true of men and tools.  Men play with tools, so that makes it okay.  But I defy anyone to play with an electric can opener.

Don’t believe me?  Ever heard a couple of men discussing the merits of a brand new motorized saw?

Ed (proudly): “Radial arm.  Craftsman Cabinetmaker’s.”
George (whistling): “Power?”
Ed (caressing):  “1.5 hp high-torque 3450 rpm direct drive induction-run.”
George (scrutinizing):  “Blade?”
Ed (triumphant):  “20-tooth carbide-tipped.”
George (drooling):  “Wow.”

Women don’t behave in this manner.  You don’t see women standing around a vacuum cleaner, remarking:

Betty:  “Just look at these stats!  120 volts, draws 8 amps with powerhead, 6.6 amps without, triple prong plug, replacement hose, and seventeen thousand attachments.”
Marge:  “Gee, I wish my George would buy me a vacuum cleaner like that for Christmas.  Mine only sucks dirt.”

No, women are much more likely to say:

Betty:  “Ed bought me a vacuum cleaner for Christmas.”
Marge:  “Ed has the soul and finesse of a long-dead lake trout.”

Which is to say, he stinks.

Melodie Campbell writes funny books, including The Goddaughter series.  You can buy them at most retailers.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

THE ULTIMATE WEAPON - Bad Guys Take Note (reprinted with permission from the places that pay me)

Recently, I’ve taken a lot of flack regarding the size and tonnage of my handbag.  Not surprisingly, most of the flack has come from the other sex – that one that can’t find the butter in the fridge and has yet to come to grips with the purpose of a dirty clothes hamper.
Personally, I adhere to the “Purse as Weapon” school of fashion, mace being illegal in this country.  Which is why I carry a large envelope shoulder bag. Very large.  Imagine the Roseanne Barr of purses.  One swing from the shoulder can knock a runaway truck back 30 paces.  In fact, I’ve been known to clear entire subway cars in rush hour.
But the most effective use of a purse I’ve ever seen is this story from back in my bank manager days…
One day, a young man with a gun tried to force his way to the front of our lineup to make his demands known to the teller.  Unfortunately, he chose to do this on the day the Old Age Pension cheques arrived in the mail, and worse, the person he chose to cut in front of was old Mrs. Pereira.  Now, Mrs. Pereira may have been only four and a half feet tall, and probably weighed only 90 pounds, but so did her purse.  And being somewhat shortsighted, she may have failed to see the gun, but she certainly did not miss the sudden appearance of a very rude long-haired youth stealing her place in the line.
Being old school, she did not call for help; instead, she commenced whapping him over the head with a particularly lethal black patent handbag with heavy brass corners, while kicking him smartly about the shins.  The hapless bank robber was last seen howling and limping from the branch, followed by a verbal stream of indignant Portuguese.
Which only goes to show that one should always walk softly and carry a big purse.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

They Call Me a Literary Slut (as seen on Sleuthsayers)

Melodie Campbell’s Land’s End Trilogy made the Amazon overall Top 50 Bestseller list this week! Here’s why she writes that series:

(“Outlander meets Sex and the City ” or Why I Write Wacky Time Travel in addition to respectable crime)

By Melodie Campbell

I am best known as a writer of comic crime capers, and in particular The Goddaughter series (Orca Books).  However, I also have a second life as an author of racy fantasy…the sort of thing that has been called “The Princess Bride with Sex.”

Why?  Why would a moderately respectable crime author swap genres and write a wacky time travel series, set in Arizona and Alternate-world Great Britain?

1.  I like Arizona.  Especially in winter.  You can fly nonstop there from Toronto.
(Whoops – delete, delete.  Of course, the real reason for using Arizona is I believe in accuracy of setting and doing research, which I take great pains to do once each year in February.) 

2.  I like Great Britain.  And I like to be accurate.  But you can’t travel to medieval Great Britain right now, at least not on WestJet. (WHY doesn’t someone invent a cheap time travel airline?)  So I can’t be accurate, which bugs me a lot.  But I can be silly, which is almost as good.  Hence, Alt-world.

3.  My cousin Tony’s family, the Clegg-Hills, used to own a Norman castle in Shropshire.  Unfortunately it burned down in 1556.  Damned careless of them.  I had to make up what it would look like from family stories, which are probably dubious at best, and vaguely criminal, on reflection.  Also, I hate being sued. Hence, Alt-world.

4.  Fessing up, here.  I actually didn’t mean to write funny time travel.  I meant to write a serious whodunit that would get the respect of the Can-Lit crowd, and the more erudite members of Crime Writers of Canada.  This ‘veering from plan’ is becoming a nuisance.  Next book, for sure, will be a serious whodunit.  Okay, maybe a whodunit.  Okay, maybe a book.

5.  Okay, I lied.  The serious whodunit turned into a wacky mob comedy series that has won a Derringer and an Arthur.  Still no respect from the Can-Lit crowd.  So I might as well go back to writing wacky time travel.

Why?  ‘Cause it’s a hell of a lot of fun being a literary slut.

Melodie's bestselling Land's End Trilogy ("OUTLANDER meets SEX AND THE CITY" Vine review) has rocked the charts this week!  If you were ever curious about her 'other life'...'nuf said.

Buylink:  On Amazon

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The #15 Book in Canada on Amazon!~ A Top 50 Book in the US!

Still the No. 1 Time Travel in Canada!
(Author is thrilled and sort of jumping up and down)

In Canada:


 In US:

 SALE continues for a few more days.

Now, back to our original post:

HOT Damn! (and I do mean Hot!)

My publisher has put the entire Land's End Trilogy, including all three Rowena Books, on sale for .99!  This sale is available World-wide on Amazon.

If you read the first book and found it fun, now is the time to purchase the rest, for ONLY .99!
If you haven't read any of the Rowena books, download this bundle now and see why Industry reviewers have called the series:

"JACK SPARROW meets Janet Evanovich's STEPHANIE PLUM"

Love the quickie descriptions of each book (good work, Imajin team!)
And as always, Ryan Thomas Doan knocked it out of the park with this cover.

Monday, 12 January 2015

There’s something about Men in Uniform…

What is it about Men in Uniform?  Alison Bruce, the author of A Bodyguard to Remember, dishes the dirt on how this series got started!  If you like Romantic Suspense with humour, you will love this book.  I did.  Read my review at the end.

There's something about Men in Uniform...

by Alison Bruce

It was NaNoWriMo time (National Novel Writing Month) and I was determined to complete my 60,000 words this time. At the same time, I wanted an escape from the mundane adventures of being a single parent of two active kids and a father who kept forgetting he couldn’t be as active any more. I started with “There was a dead man in my living room” and ran with it for 30 days, 60,000 words and three love interests – all men in uniform. Then 
I stopped, took a deep breath, and started making sense of the story so far.

First, the research…
I’m a stickler for research. Because of that, I’ve given up most of my shyness in asking strangers questions. When I met a woman at a conference and found out her husband was a retired homicide detective, I had no compunction about enlisting her help getting an interview. At the same conference, I met a woman who was a Police Academy dropout. (She couldn’t shoot to kill.) I almost missed a workshop because I got caught up talking to her about police culture.

Fortunately, I had done a fair bit of research on the various levels of law enforcement for DEADLY LEGACY. I knew, for instance, that if I wanted to involve the RCMP in Ontario, I had to have a case involving national security. Why RCMP? Because I fondly remembered being a reference for a fellow Girl Guide when she applied. (Actually, she used my mother, our guide Captain, as her reference but she was out and the officers interviewed me instead.)

My motto: take advantage of ANY research opportunity…
A few months later I might have decided to make the investigators Ontario Provincial Police officers and made the dead man a drug dealer instead of a spy. That was after being in a car accident. 

Strapped to a backboard, unsure of whether I had whiplash or a broken neck, I asked the OPP officer taking my statement if knew anyone willing to talk to me about police life. He did and I later had a great interview with Constable Bob Cloes.

My son got a kick out of having a uniformed officer visiting our house. He wasn’t quite so happy when we were out together and I introduced myself to bicycle cop. And my children will never let my live down my military encounter when I took a wrong turn on the way to Owen Sound.

It wasn’t the wrong turn. It wasn’t my getting out, asking for directions. It was the time I took and the silly grin on my face when I got back into the van. Hey, how often does a forty-something single mother get to flirt with a tall, handsome artillery sergeant?

Real emotions make a work richer…
I trained with the army and drank with Special Forces. My father was in the navy. My grandfather was in the air force. And my aunt, to whom I dedicated A Bodyguard to Remember, was in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. I’ve been listening to their stories all my life and they speak, more or less, through my stories

During NaNoWriMo, a fellow entrant chatted with me from Afghanistan, where he was stationed. There was a lot I could not ask him, but I did ask about how it felt to leave home to serve overseas and how he felt about coming home. I drew on that when writing about Merrick’s son Nate. In fact, you might say that real soldier was as much a father to Nate as Merrick was.

The cutting room floor
I have to admit, I went a little overboard representing the various branches of law enforcement and military. I had enough uniforms to start a parade. In the editorial process, those secondary characters and their plots were trimmed. The love interests were pared down to a manageable number. As my editor pointed out, they could be featured in future novels. Still, it hurt a bit to cut them. In the journey from first draft to publication, they’d become old friends.

What can I say? There’s something about men – and women - in uniform.


Book 1 Men in Uniform

By Alison Bruce

Lachesis Publishing Inc

“Classic romantic suspense spiced with warmth and humour”

 “This is a fun read and Bruce is a talented storyteller”

Prudence Hartley has the same problems of every other single mom: getting her kids to school on time; juggling a gazillion errands while trying to get a full day's work done; oh, don't forget about dinner. But everything is about to change for Pru when she finds a dead man in her house. Or a dead spy to be exact.

Suddenly Pru's problems become a tad more complicated and a lot more dangerous. When a federal agent named David Merrick shows up and whisks her and her kids into protective custody, Pru has so many questions running through her brain she doesn't know where to begin.

How is she going to keep her kids safe? What was the dead spy looking for in her house? Why are they after her now? Oh and there's one more question . . . just a pesky, minor thing. Why does Merrick have to be so damn sexy and protective?

Available at:

·        Chapters/Indigo Online

Author Bio

Alison Bruce has had many careers and writing has always been one of them. Copywriter, editor and graphic designer since 1992, Alison has also been a comic book store manager, small press publisher, webmaster and arithmetically challenged bookkeeper. She is the author of mystery, suspense and historical western romance novels.

A Book to Remember!

Review by Melodie Campbell

A Bodyguard to Remember starts with a bang.  Dead body on the floor and a protagonist who is very much alive with humour and warmth. From the beginning, I was hooked on Pru.  Her sense of humour and good moral compass are a delight. But dead bodies bring the police, and there is a mystery to be solved.  Who killed the stranger?  And why leave the body in Pru's living room?  Not only is she a suspect, but her own life could be at stake.  I won't give away the plot, but what happens next is classic romantic suspense.

Let me state how refreshing it is to have a heroine who is into her thirties and who actually has children.  Bruce handles this deftly; the children provide believable motivation for a lot of Pru's actions.  We admire her even more because of how she manages to deal with the angst of protecting her children instead of just herself.

A Bodyguard to Remember is the best type of romance book; lots happens, more than just love is at stake, and you don't know who Pru will end up with until the very end.  This is a fun read, and Alison Bruce is a talented storyteller. My kind of book.  Five stars.

Melodie Campbell is the award winning author of The Goddaughter series.