Reader Manipulation, a Lesson from Steven James

Loved this post from a few years back, and decided it needed to resurface . . .

Reader manipulation is a writer’s tool for the experienced author, and Steven James illustrates just how experienced he is in his recent release, The Queen.

Several bad guys are at work in this book, but one in particular is fascinating: Alexei Chekov. He’s a paid assassin who approaches his job as any professional from AAA Bug Extermination would. He’s cold. Quick. Lethal–but only if necessary. Sure, he’ll kill his target, but he’ll only incapacitate those who get in his way. Then he’ll do whatever he can to take care of them. Like the state trooper whose car he stole. He apologized for breaking the man’s wrists, worried whether he would suffer from hypothermia. Spoke soothingly to him about how he’d regain use of his hands after surgery.

He has a code: He doesn’t kill women or children. But he’s been set up, he tells hero Patrick Bowers–as he leaves Pat with the dilemma of pursuing him or saving the deputy who he’d made lame and tossed into the freezing waters of the Chippewa River. Still, he watches Pat dive into the waters, sees his struggle and failure to save the deputy, sees him pull himself to the snow-covered bank, and calls his location in to authorities who can save him before driving away in a stolen eighteen-wheeler.

He’s sympathetic: Someone killed his wife, and he believes that Valkyrie, the one who has hired him, is guilty of the murder. He wants revenge, and we’re rooting for him in a morbid, unfamiliar way. Okay, so he’s an assassin. A man’s gotta make a living, right? He’s one of the good guys–well, no, not a good guy, but not entirely bad, right? Well, yeah, he’s bad, but . . .

We struggle to figure out where to fit Alexei on scale of morality for several more pages, then James tells us this:

I told Jake about Alexei’s claim that he wasn’t responsible for killing the Pickron family. “It seemed important to him that I not associate him with the murder of Aris and Lizzie.”

“Typical assassin mentality,” he said, profiling on the spot. “They have their own unique, individualized set of moral values and convictions. Often they see violence that isn’t mission-oriented as immoral, but violence committed in the context of their professional life as simply necessary. Mental compartmentalization.”

Jake was right.

Next, James turns the tables on us:

It’s not just assassins who do that, we all do. Freud once said that rationalization makes the world go round, and whatever else he got wrong, he nailed that one.

Everyone rationalizes their own immorality–people have affairs and yet look their spouses in the eye, they cheat on their taxes and then get mad at corruption on Wall Street, they lie outright to their bosses to get ahead and still manage to feel good about themselves, to have high self-esteem.

Mental compartmentalization.


Without it we’d have to live in the daily recognition of who we really are, what we’re really capable of. And that’s something most people avoid at all costs.

He just put us on the same plane with a stone-cold killer. Where do our sympathies lie now? How do we feel about Alexei now that we discover we’re “kindred spirits” of sorts. How do we feel about ourselves?

Even if we aren’t guilty of the things James lists through Bowers’ POV, we’re guilty of something similar. Where should we put ourselves on that morality scale we’d just tried to fit Alexei on?

This is reader manipulation at its finest.

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Especially for Writers

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Enhance Your Setting Descriptions

mcallisters-ny-apartmentDon’t you love this condo? I picked this out for Patricia Talbert’s parents in Ride to the Altar. It’s in a modern building on Park Avenue. Bet you already know how I found it. I went searching through New York real estate sites. The site gave several pictures inside this home, including kitchen and bath, and gave some great description. For instance, if I hadn’t known already that the floor is set in a herringbone pattern, the site told me so.

What was so wonderful about this site is that it also provided a floor plan:park-imperial-floorplan

This helps me conceptualize the apartment even better. Which is why I need it—I’ve never been to New York, much less inside a rich New York apartment.

Although I had a hard time capturing the images, I was able to plug the address to this place into Google Maps to find it, see the building it’s housed in, and peek at the surrounding area. I know, for instance, how far this is from the Hudson River and the Lincoln Center. I even know which streets around it are one-way. I also know that there’s a Wendy’s not too far away, which is important to Talon Carlson, who isn’t all that interested in New York cuisine.

There’s a caveat to all this: It’s fun. It’s engrossing. It’ll Hoover up the daylight as surely as if God took an eraser to the sun.

For instance, while I was hunting a home for Patricia’s parents, I found one in the suburbs for Marie Lambeau Davis’s parents:


Unfortunately, that’s as large as I can make this one without distorting the image, but it’s great, isn’t it? Thanks to Google Maps, I know exactly how far it is from Marie’s family home to Patricia’s, and what is the best mode of transportation to get there. I also know that Forest Hills is an upper-middle class neighborhood in the borough of Queens. And, while I explored the neighborhood, I could even pick out Marie’s favorite restaurant.

The real estate site I found the house on had tons of pictures of the grounds and interior, but it wasn’t quite as good about giving description. That’s when I relied on other things. For instance, if I didn’t already know this was a Tudor-style home,  would help me figure it out.

What I didn’t know was what to call the style of this gorgeous staircase inside:


One of my go-to sites for things like this is the oddly named Buffalo as an Architectural Museum. It has a list of architectural terms—such as “staircase” (how handy!)—and using this, I discovered this staircase is most likely Queen Anne. The problem with this site of architectural terms and other sites like it is that you almost need to know what something is called before you can find its definition and description.

All of this took tons of time to explore. By the time I felt like I knew everything I needed to know, my work day was done.

So, how much detail do I really need? In a way, all of it.

To use it all in one place in my manuscript would be an information dump—dry and boring for the reader. But when I take snippets of my research and drop them in as needed, I provide the reader with a richer experience. Concrete descriptions help visualization. A sense of neighborhood provides a sense of familiarity. A sense of distance also lends to a sense of time.

Building a story world is important, even when your world is not in a fantasy or on some distant planet. It enhances the readers’ experience, giving them a sense of actually being in the setting. And enhancing reading experience is part of our job description.

What tricks do you have to develop your story world?


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Re-start Your Writing

writeI’ve been having a bit of trouble kicking myself into gear after the holidays. I know my plans for 2017: Finish Kayla’s Challenge, my novella for the Tiny House Collection; write and publish Ride to the Altar, the third in the Circle Bar Ranch series; start writing Southern Challenge, the first in my Challenge series for which Kayla’s Challenge is a prequel. I’d like to finish it by the end of the year. In other words, I’d like to up my game to two books and one novella per year. Maybe even a short story or two.

Knowing my goals and actually doing them are two different things. I managed to finish Kayla’s Challenge late last year, and it’s in the hands of some beta readers now, but I need Ride to the Altar by the middle of May, and I’ve barely cranked over four thousand words into it. I read what I’d written last year and hated it—both tries at it. I’d written two different openings to the novel and wasn’t crazy about either. Then, I allowed myself to slip into the What am I thinking? I can’t write! blues. I don’t know how many authors experience that particular shade of blue, but I go through it three or four times a year. Then I have to shake myself out of it and remember that this is my job, and if I really was that horrible at it, I wouldn’t have all those five-star ratings on Amazon.

So, I had to wake up my creative side and get started. Here are a few tricks to get yourself going:

  • The ever-popular word prompt.

I love prompts. Some of my favorite short stories have come from prompts. There are several story prompt sites. My favorite is Random Scenario Generator. This one is just downright fun to play with because it gives options of creating a scene prompt or a dialogue or a plot—even down to character traits. I flip around until I find something that tickles my fancy, then scribble freely until I have a short story.

  • The also-popular picture prompts.

I like to flip through my favorite photo sites under categories that are generally titled “people,” or “faces” and come up with stories for them. Here are two I found that I’ve already written stories for:

Clancy Gallagher from my award-winning "Slider."

Clancy Gallagher from my award-winning “Slider.”

Clara Mulhane, from the unpublished "Emerald Masquerade"

Clara Mulhane, from the unpublished “Emerald Masquerade”

I have several others, waiting for me to get to them. And I will. Writing short stories based on picture prompts is fun.

You may remember I did that great outlining experiment not long ago and became enthusiastic about outlining even though I’m more of an intuitive writer. I hate to admit the enthusiasm didn’t last as long as I’d hoped. Once I started writing, I did exactly what I’d preached against: writing the events in order to put a check mark on the outline. In other words, it was shallow.

But her book does help me get my brain into gear. She has great questions to prompt you to think about plot, character, and conflict. All it takes is a few minutes with this workbook, and I’m cranking again.

Most people write in journals, meaning they’re never really out of the swing, they just need to redirect it. I’ve tried to do that and never really could get into it. Or haven’t been able to ever since I discovered the moving men ripped the lock off my diary and read it when I was a kid. I’m hesitant to put much of anything personal in writing anymore. But these are my favorite ways to get back in gear.

What are yours?



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Especially for Writers





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The Newest in Christian Fiction Titles

More in-depth descriptions of these books can be found on the ACFW Fiction Finder website.

Contemporary Romance:

Romance Grows in Arcadia Valley by Valerie Comer, Mary Jane Hathaway, Elizabeth Maddrey, Danica Favorite, Lee Tobin McClain and Annalisa Daughety — Is love possible for a makeshift mom and a handsome widower? What about a bed and breakfast owner and the farmer next door? A curvy jilted bride and a mysterious, handsome chef? Then there’s the real estate consultant and the grandson of her elderly client; a high-powered lawyer and a woman farmer, and a formerly engaged couple. Can love make a difference in their lives? Exploring food, friends, and family in Arcadia Valley, each of these novellas kicks off a three-book series, intertwined with the works of the other authors. This collection is only the beginning of your adventure! (Contemporary Romance, Independently Published)

Restoring Love by Jennifer Slattery — Mitch, a contractor and house-flipper, is restoring a beautiful old house in an idyllic Midwestern neighborhood. Angela, a woman filled with regrets and recently transplanted to his area, is anything but idyllic. As Mitch struggles to keep his business afloat, and Angela works to correct the mistakes of her past, these two unlikely friends discover they have something unexpected in common–a young mom fighting to give her children a better life after her husband’s incarceration. While both Mitch and Angela are drawn to help this young mother survive, they also find themselves drawn to each other. Will a lifetime of regrets hold them back from redemption and true love? (Contemporary Romance from New Hope Publishers)

Historical Mystery:

Murder on the Moor by Julianna Deering — Drew and Madeline Farthering visit the Yorkshire moor to catch a killer and solve a mystery that involves an old feud, a new rivalry and a huge, spectral hound that may or may not be a harbinger of death. (Historical Mystery from Bethany House [Baker])

Historical Romance:

A Note Yet Unsung by Tamera Alexander — A master violinist trained in Vienna, Rebekah Carrington manages to get an audition at the newly-formed Nashville Philharmonic. But the conductor–determined to leave his mark on the world of classical music–bows to public opinion. Women are “far too fragile and frail” for the rigors of an orchestra, he says, and Rebekah’s hopes are swiftly dashed. Nathaniel Tate Whitcomb is Nashville’s new orchestra leader. And despite a reluctant muse–and a strange buzzing and recurring pain in his head–he must finish composing his symphony before the new opera hall opens. But far more pressing, he must finish it for his dying father, who inspired his love of music. Then Tate’s ailment worsens. Rebekah can help him finish his symphony. But how do you win back a woman’s trust when you’ve robbed her of her dream? (Historical Romance from Bethany House [Baker])

The American Heiress Brides Collection by Lisa Carter, Mary Eileen Davis, Susanne Dietze, Anita Mae Draper, Patty Smith Hall, Cynthia Hickey, Lisa Karon Richardson, Lynette Sowell and Kimberley Woodhouse — Meet nine young women in America between 1880 and 1911 who have been blessed by fortunes made in gold, silver, industry, ranching, and banking. But when it comes to love, each woman struggles to find true love within a society where “first comes money, second comes marriage.” What kind of man can they trust with their greatest treasure—their hearts? (Historical Romance from Barbour Publishing)

Two Suitors for Anna by Molly Jebber — In 1903 Ohio, a young Amish woman must choose between the life she has long planned for with her beloved Noah Schwartz, and a new, very different future… But Noah has a surprise for Anna: once they’re married, he wants them to travel and live in other communities. Anna, who loves her home and her job at the quilt shop, is distraught when he takes her hesitation as rejection—and leaves. Daniel Bontrager’s arrival adds to Anna’s confusion. Since taking over his late brother’s farm, the handsome roofer has offered friendship and gentle attentions. Yet the pull of first love is strong and deep, especially when Noah returns. Through each revelation, Anna must search her faith for guidance, knowing she is choosing not just a husband, but a life to nurture and to share… (Historical Romance from Kensington)

My Heart Belongs in Fort Bliss, Texas by Erica Vetsch — Journey to Fort Bliss, Texas, where a battle of emotions versus ideals is about to be waged. When a high-steppin’ eastern fashion artist, Priscilla Hutchens, swoops down on the fort to gain custody of her twin niece and nephew she is met with resistance by their uncle, post surgeon Major Elliot Ryder, who thinks he knows what is best for them. Who will win the battle? Or will a truce be called for the sake of love and family? (Historical Romance from Barbour Publishing)

Romantic Suspense:

Dead Run by Jodie Bailey — Kristin James’s morning run turns deadly when she’s attacked by a stranger who’s after something her deceased soldier brother stole overseas. Her neighbor Sergeant First Class Lucas Murphy steps in to help her and won’t let her brush the attack under the rug. He’ll do everything he can to keep Kristin alive, but he can’t tell her that he’s under orders to investigate her link to her brother’s misdeeds. Kristin has no idea what the bad guy is after and doesn’t want to believe that her brother wasn’t on the straight and narrow. But as evidence against him piles up, can they catch the criminals without becoming the next casualties? (Romantic Suspense from Love Inspired [Harlequin])

Justice Delayed by Patricia Bradley — It’s been eighteen years since TV crime reporter Andi Hollister’s sister was murdered. The confessed killer is behind bars, and the execution date is looming. But when a letter surfaces stating that the condemned killer didn’t actually do it, Detective Will Kincaide of the Memphis Cold Case Unit will stop at nothing to help Andi get to the bottom of it. After all, the person who confessed to the crime is Will’s cousin. They have less than a week to find the real killer before the wrong person is executed. But much can be accomplished in one week–including uncovering police corruption, running for your life, and falling in love. (Romantic Suspense from Revell [Baker])

Undercover Protector by Elizabeth Goddard — Undercover at a tiger sanctuary, Special Agent Grayson Wilde is convinced the owner’s involved in a wildlife trafficking ring–until someone tries to kill her. Gemma’s determined to rebuild the tiger oasis she lost when her family died, but someone wants her out of the way, and she’s starting to wonder if her parents’ and uncle’s deaths were really accidental. Grayson says he’ll do anything to protect Gemma, but she can’t shake the feeling that her alluring new volunteer might not be all that he seems. With a vicious criminal closing in, though, she has to trust Grayson…because she won’t survive without him. (Romantic Suspense from Love Inspired [Harlequin])

Buried Memories by Carol J. Post — A soldier hero suffering from PTSD and a young woman struggling to overcome a traumatic childhood fight for their lives and find healing together. (Romantic Suspense from Love Inspired [Harlequin])

Still Life by Dani Pettrey — Blacklisted in the photography business over a controversial shot, Avery Tate answered an ad for a crime scene photographer. She expected to be laughed at, but crime scene analyst Parker Mitchell hired her outright–and changed her life. But six months ago, when her feelings for Parker became too strong, she left his employ to sort out her heart. Now, for the first time, Avery is facing the world that rejected her to attend the gallery opening of a photography exhibit and support her best friend, who modeled for the show. But the only image of her friend is a chilling photo of her posing as if dead–and the photographer insists he didn’t take the shot. Worse, her friend can’t be found. She immediately calls Parker for help. As Avery, Parker, and his friends in law enforcement dig into the mystery, they find themselves face-to-face with a relentless and deadly threat. (Romantic Suspense from Bethany House [Baker])

Supernatural Thriller:

Fatal Accusation by Rachel Dylan — Attorney Olivia Murray hopes her life in Windy Ridge will get back to normal after a hard-fought trial. But she soon finds out that the forces of evil have not given up. An embezzling scandal rocks the community church to its core. The New Age groups are ready to declare victory when a high-profile prosecutor files criminal charges against the local pastor. However, Olivia is not willing to give up on the community she’s come to love. She takes on the defense pro bono knowing it could destroy her career, but it’s a case she is called to defend. The battle will be fierce, but she’s not fighting it alone. Her friend and fellow attorney Grant Baxter is by her side. Olivia must use all the tools in her arsenal to combat those who seek to destroy the believers in the community. If Olivia can’t prove the pastor’s innocence, more than her career is on the line. The entire community of Windy Ridge could fall to the forces of darkness. (Supernatural Thriller, Independently Published)

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2016 Book Faves

I noticed that I’d set my reading goal at twelve books for 2016. And that’s exactly the number I read, according to my list. Goodreads has me at ten, but I think I forgot to date and review a couple.

Here’s the run-down of titles:

Flora’s Wish, Kathleen Y’Barbo, Historical Romance

Carlotta’s Legacy, Betty Owens, 1920s Historical Romance

Shadowed by Grace, Cara Putman, WWII Historical Romance

Love, Stock, and Barrel, Crystal Barnes, Historical Western Romance

Searching for Grace Kelly, Michael Callahan, Historical Women’s Fiction (mainstream)

Side by Side, Jana Kelley, Women’s Fiction

The Lazarus File, Donn Taylor, International Mystery/Crime/Espionage

Lie Catchers, Paul Bishop, Mystery/Crime/Police Procedural (mainstream)

Waking Beauty, Sarah E. Morin, Fantasy

Mind Writer, Lisa Gefrides and Mike Lynch, Spec-Fic/Sci-Fi

StormingK.M. Weiland, Spec-Fic/Deisel Punk

The CallHarbingers, Vol 1, Bill Myers, Spec-Fic, Supernatural

Among my favorites in this list are Flora’s Wish, Searching for Grace Kelly, and Mind Writer, but the 2016 winner has to be Waking BeautyThe story still occupies my mind as I sift through the allegory and symbolism. It’s an amazing book. I hope you include it on your 2017 list!


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Happy New Year!

2017 champagne


Here’s to all the promises to ourselves we broke last year, and all the new ones we’ll break this year.

May 2017 bring you everything you wish and more!

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Waking Beauty: Totally Enchanting


His princess was dusty.

Arpien should have expected that. Anything lying undisturbed for a hundred years would gather dust. He’d crossed the ocean to find the right sword for this venture, but neglected to pack a feather duster.

Such is the opening of Waking Beauty, one of the most amazing books I’ve read all year. The fact that Brierly is dusty is the least of Arpien’s problems. He kisses her, she awakens, yet she’s not convinced she’s awake. She has dreamed of this night and day for a hundred years, so why should this episode of rescue be any different from the others?

Despite the levity of the concept, the entire tale is an ingenious allegory of the Christian life, illustrating the battles we face, the enemies—physical and spiritual—we are up against, and the true source of wisdom, strength, and victory. My mind is still processing the unfathomable depth of symbolism found in this novel.

But even a superficial reading of the story is delightful. Sarah Morin has an amazing way with words and description, and her clever humor permeates the book. I wish I’d marked everything that caught my fancy, but if I had, there would be very little left unmarked. So I can only provide an example from the pages most recently read, involving a couple of the fairies and Arpien:

He bent down and seized Arpien’s left wrist. Arpien’s hand flopped back and forth in the fairy’s unbreakable grip. “You are Arpien Trouvel, the human that belongs to this vademecum sword. I am Frendan, one of Brierly’s godparents.”

Gowsma put her hands on her hips. “Frendan, are you trying to throttle the lad?”

“I’m shaking his hand. You are not the only expert on human greeting rituals.”

Can you picture it? A young man’s hand flopping back and forth because some fairy-critter believes that’s how we humans shake hands? I swear, I laughed so hard at the image this conjured in my mind, I’m certain anyone watching thought I was insane.

I can’t do justice to this novel without practically reprinting the entire thing here, so let me just suggest that you put it high on your reading list for 2017. Doesn’t matter what your favorite genre is, you’ll love this. Guaranteed.


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Merry After-Christmas

Bulldog After ChristmasHow was your holiday? If you’re anything like me, you’re draggin’ your wagon, feeling a little bit bloated, and wishing that morning had delayed its appearance for at least three more hours.

What time we didn’t spend on the road, we spent feeding our faces—not that I’m complaining. We get to treat ourselves to things during the holidays that aren’t on our daily menus.

The best, of course, was being with family and friends. Doesn’t matter what we do, being with those we love is always the star on the tree at Christmas. We didn’t get to see everyone, but that just means we can spread more Christmas cheer during future visits.

I’m still upset that the presents I ordered for others didn’t come in. All the email pleas in the world didn’t help. Going to the different homes virtually empty-handed was nothing short of painful and shameful. We did take some things, but nothing that was intended. This is my second horrible experience of ordering Christmas presents on the internet, and I simply will not do that again. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I ordered them with plenty of time for delivery, and yes, I followed up.)

Still, we had a great time. I love to give presents, but Christmas isn’t about that. First and foremost it’s about the birth of a Savior, even though He wasn’t born in December. Second, it’s about the chance to be with those we love. For MSB and me, opportunities to be with our kids and our friends are few because of distance and time. So the fact that we weren’t laden with glittery gifts is forgiven, overshadowed by the time we got to spend with each other. Besides, even though it’s not required, we will definitely make up to everyone on the list.

So, there’s the short run-down on our Christmas vacation. I still have a week to go before I can focus on work, and I intend to enjoy it.

What about you? How’d your Christmas go? Any precious memories to store away?


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