Monday, July 25, 2016

Dreaded Dialogue Tags

As an editor, one of my biggest annoyances is the use of unnecessary dialogue tags. What I mean is the obsessive use of “he said” and “she said.”
A friend insists on tagging every instance of dialogue with one of these. For me, this habit is like fingernails on the blackboard. His excuse is he took a writing class years ago where the instructor insisted the word “said” is invisible. I told him I found it annoying, so obviously it wasn’t invisible. He continues to write tagging every instance with “said,” and I refuse to read his books.

So, if you don’t use these tags, how do you let the reader know who is speaking?

First, write distinctive voices for your characters. If you have two characters and each of them has a distinctive speech pattern, rhythm, and POV, it may not be necessary to tag their words at all. Your reader should be able to identify the speaker simply from the word choice and position advocated by each.

If the conversation is between a man and a woman, the words may also be quite obvious.

But in cases where the scene features several characters, it may be necessary to indicate the speaker. One of the easiest ways to accomplish identification is by using actions. People aren’t just talking heads. They move, make gestures, and interact in nonverbal ways.

It helps for the writer to determine what each character does when under stress. Do they bite their nails, twist their hair, tense their jaw or clench a fist? When quizzical, does the character raise an eyebrow or frown or do a double take? Each of these reactions will not only help identify the speaker but also give depth to the character.

Are the characters drinking coffee? They can pick up their cups, take a sip, slam the cup down, etc. These actions can show the emotions involved as well as identify the speaker. If they are walking down the street, they can stop, turn, face another character, wave at a friend, etc.

What about body language? If a character leans forward, they are interested in what the other person is saying. If they lean back, they may either be resistant or they may relax. If characters are comfortable (and young), they may pull their feet up on the chair. If they are resistant, they may fold their arms. These gestures can add a level of subconscious information to the scene.

If characters are angry, they can slam drawers or doors, stomp out, thrust out their chins, etc.

The next time you are tempted to write “he said” or “she said,” try to find a more creative and interesting way to convey the identity of the speaker. Your readers will thank you.

Do you have other ways of identifying speakers? If so, what are they?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Why Write Medical Mysteries?

Today I welcome friend and fellow author J.L.Greger. I enjoy her mysteries because I always learn something from them. She uses real cutting-edge medical discoveries as the basis of her books. I’ve asked her to tell us about her latest book, Murder…A New Way to Lose Weight. Lorna

Birth of a Medical Mystery
Have you noticed? Many Americans have schizophrenic attitudes about food. If you doubt me, flip on your TV and watch the ads. First there’s one for a restaurant with pictures of smiling people and sizzling steaks or pizzas dripping with gooey cheese. Next comes a commercial for a diet regime or exercise product. The presenter is smiling as she effortlessly performs twenty abdominal crunches with some sort of “torture” contraption. Most of us would pant after moving the device twice. After a small break for the program, the ads are back.

Funny? Sad and pathetic? Annoying, especially to me, a former professor of nutrition. Maybe, that’s why I wrote Murder…A New Way to Lose Weight.

Let me tell you a little about my new medical mystery.

Dieting is hard. So is fitting into a new job where you aren’t wanted. Linda Almquist is trying to do both as the new interim associate dean of a medical school. Linda steps into a battle among the cliques of the school when she checks out allegations that two diet doctors are recklessly endangering the lives of their obese patients. Then she discovers one of the diet doctors—dead. She and the police suspect the other diet doctor of the murder. Maybe they’re wrong. The murders might be related to something in the past―something involving her boss, the Dean. While Linda fears for her job, the police fear for her life.

Another reason for setting my mystery in a medical school reflects my professional experiences. I was an associate dean in a medical school. Several of the scenes in Murder…A Way to Lose Weight recreate actual events. Associate deans are the recipients of responsibility for all the messes, which the head dean doesn’t want to touch.

Hundreds of clever, creative people (grouped in cliques based on disciplines, intellectual differences, and perceived past slights) work in a typical university health center. Occasionally, a few become bored with medical challenges and unleash their skills on each other. Thankfully, they generally seek revenge verbally, not physically. However, the comments of the medical examiner (Omar Otega) to the investigating police (Hitchings) in Murder…A Way to Lose Weight ring true.

“Motive?” Hitchings scanned the crowd and motioned Omar back to him. “Omar, do we even have a murder? Looks like natural causes.”

“Can’t tell,” replied Omar.

“But no bullet or stab wounds? So natural causes are likely.”

“You’re in a medical school.” Omar walked closer to Hitchings and spoke more softly. “Everyone in this building probably knows how to kill someone without using a gun or knife. A complete tox screen will take weeks. And this woman was only in her thirties, pretty young to die suddenly.”

My third reason to write a medical suspense novel was I found a series of scientific articles on a hot area of research—gut bacteria. Scientists have found the microflora (bacteria) in the gut change with weight loss. Scientists hypothesize they may be able to help patients increase weight loss and keep weight off by altering their gut bacteria. The science educator in me wanted to share that information.

Murder…A Way to Lose Weight (paperback & Kindle) is available from Amazon (

J. L. Greger likes to include tidbits of science and foreign locations in her thriller novels—I Saw You in Beirut (set partially in the Middle East), Ignore the Pain (set partially in Bolivia) and Malignancy (set partially in Cuba & winner of 2015 Public Safety Writers Association annual competition). Yes, she’s traveled to all those spots. Learn more about her at her website: or blog:

Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day

Today is Independence Day. At least this is the day we celebrate our independence from Britain. John Adams insisted we should celebrate on July 2, however, because that was the day the vote on Richard Henry Lee’s motion on independence was finally approved.
With all the attention the musical Hamilton has garnered, the American public is once again focused on our founding fathers.

I took an interest in the story of the struggle to get a resolution passed after we saw the movie 1776 for the first time. We immediately bought the cast recording and were surprised to find one of our favorite songs was missing from the movie. We saw the play onstage several times—with the missing song intact.

Several years later we learned that the film had been previewed at the White House, and then-President Richard Nixon objected so strongly to the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,’ that producer, Jack L. Warner, a close friend of the president, ordered it to be removed before the picture was released. In fact, all film of the song was supposed to have been destroyed.

However, for the 2002 release of the DVD version, the studio scoured old files and located all the film cut from the original theatrical and video releases. The current DVD version is the complete play.
The writers of the original play took much of the dialogue from the writings of actual participants as well as minutes of the Continental Congress. The cast brings each of the historical figures to life. They become real people.

While not 100% accurate, this drama provides a sense of the individuals who struggled with the concept of revolution—or treason, depending on which side they were on.

After seeing this production, I have never been able to take the process or the actual men involved for granted. If you haven’t seen this film, I strongly recommend it. Viewing it has become an annual event in our house.

Perhaps, in honor of John Adams, we should have watched it on July 2nd.

Of course, the final irony is that John Adams died on July 4, 1826, the same day as his friend and adversary Thomas Jefferson. The two men, who arguably made the greatest contribution to American independence, suffered a rift in their friendship for many years. However, Adams began to write to Jefferson, and they corresponded until the end of their lives.

As Adams died, he said, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” However, he was wrong. Jefferson had passed away five hours earlier.

So today we not only celebrate our freedom from Britain, but also the extraordinary lives of two exceptional patriots.

How will you celebrate today? Do you have any family rituals for the holiday?