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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Guest Blog: Karen McCullough: Five Things I Learned About Writing Novels from Barbara Mertz

In honor of Halloween, I’m re-reading the books that the late Barbara Mertz who wrote as Barbara Michaels. Mertz is one of my favorite authors of all time. As Barbara Michaels she wrote Gothic and romantic suspense, frequently with paranormal elements. She also wrote mysteries as Elizabeth Peters.

I’ve enjoyed the mysteries, but it’s the paranormal stories that really work for me. My favorites of Michaels’ stories usually have some paranormal elements. Those include AMMIE, COME HOME (possibly one of the scariest ghost stories ever!), WITCH, and WAIT FOR WHAT WILL COME. A couple of other favorites are seriously spooky, with only peripheral paranormal elements: INTO THE DARKNESS and PRINCE OF DARKNESS.

When I think about which authors were most influential on my own writing, she has to be near the top of the list. So I sat down and tried to figure out what I learned from reading her works. Here are the most important ones.

1. It’s okay for your heroine to have a brain and use it. In fact, it’s a good thing. Those sweet, helpless heroines of days gone by no longer resonate. Readers like myself want to root for women who can handle things themselves, or can at least share responsibilities for solving the mystery and extricating themselves from tight situations. They don’t need a man to think or act for them, though they appreciate one who knows how to be great partner.

2. Heroes don’t have to conform to the tall, dark and handsome mold. A Michaels or Peters hero might be short, blond, and good-looking (Peter Stewart, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), tall, dark, very thin, and possessed of a large nose (David Randall, THE CAMELOT CAPER), dark, scarred and surly (Riley, INTO THE DARKNESS) or have an unconventional profession (Michael in WAIT FOR WHAT WILL COME is a professional dancer; John Smythe of the Vicki Bliss mysteries is a thief). Some of them are middle-aged and balding (Jack, in WITCH). They’re all heroic in their own ways and it isn’t always what one might expect. Most of all, though, they’re always intelligent and interesting.

3. Characters are more interesting when they have something they’re passionate about, and even better when it’s something unusual like hand-crafted jewelry, exploring ancient Egyptian ruins, or rose gardens. I like stories that take me into a piece of the world I didn’t know about.

4. Leaven the story with humor. Michaels’ characters are often snarky as well as smart and when the going gets tough they’re very likely to crack a joke before they get going and crack the case. A little snippet of dialogue from the climax of INTO THE DARKNESS:
 “I’m sorry,” he gasped. “If I could use my hands--“

[The heroine Meg answers:] “Oh, shut up, Riley. I admire a man who can say he’s sorry, but you’re carrying it too far.”

And another from the climax of PRINCE OF DARKNESS:
[They need to distract the villain who has them in a very bad situation.]

“What are you going to do?” Hilary asked.

[Peter responds:] “What can I do? Sing, dance, do card tricks. Anything to attract attention.”

5. There’s always room for another great ghost story. AMMIE, COME HOME is one of the scariest ghost stories ever, but Michaels didn’t stop there. WITCH, THE WALKER IN SHADOWS, and several other, later books use different ghostly tropes to amazing effect. In some stories the ghostly aspects are the basis for the main plot, in others they’re secondary to it, but they always play an important part. She never just throws them in for the fun of it.

Karen McCullough is a web designer by profession, and the author of a dozen published novels and novellas in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres as well. She has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy, and has 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, four grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.

Blog: http://www.kmccullough/kblog

Librarian Jess O’Rourke already has her hands full with her father’s declining and health and the under-staffed, under-funded library she runs. A new preacher in town waging war on her books is just an annoyance at first, but an attractive mysterious stranger warns her that there’s more behind the reverend’s campaign than she can guess. The new preacher is a human possessed by a demon and he’s searching for an old grimoire that’s part of an uncatalogued collection of books stored in the library’s basement.

Gabriel Sutton has been the guardian of the book for a long time, a very long time, he claims, since that has been his penance for crimes he committed as a soldier during the Civil War. He convinces Jess that she needs to find the grimoire and use it to return the demon to where he belongs.

Their time gets short when the reverend realizes she’s searching for the book and resorts to desperate measures to either retrieve or destroy it.

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Sandy said...

The blurb hooked me. Thanks for an interesting post.

jean hart stewart said...

Interesting post.... I loved the short excerpts from a writer that is new to me. Will have to look her up...

Nicole Morgan said...

Great post, Karen! My favorite thing is the first one. I love a heroine who can think for herself!!!

Thanks for visiting us today and sharing your insight. :)

Vicki Batman, sassy writer said...

You are right-a smart heroine is a must nowadays. I've read some of Micheal's books-it's been a while and I don't remember probably cause I read bunches.

Melissa Keir said...

I don't know that I've read any Barbara Michaels books. Thanks for sharing your own book. The cover is cool and I loved the blurb.

Karen McCullough said...

Thanks, everyone, for the warm welcome here! It's a pleasure to visit and talk writing.

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