Category Archives: Writers Toolbox



D.A. Ratliff

Photo from Pinterest. Image source unknown, credit to the orginal creator.

Location is vital in all facets of our lives. Comfort, convenience, commute, and community are essential considerations when selecting where we wish to reside. When writing, it makes sense to consider the impact of where we have our characters live.

Location can be more than the physical terrain in which we set a story, although some places can take a back seat to the plot. However, the setting is another tool in the author’s arsenal to add depth to the story. The choice of locale sets the period of the story, when and where it takes place. It affects how the characters behave, speak, and reflect on the society where they live. More importantly, when needed, the setting can become another character creating a mood and emotional tone.

A few inquiring minds have asked me what is so appealing to me about New Orleans and why I set so many of my stories either there or in Louisiana, where my upcoming novel, Crescent City Lies, is set. After all, I’m from South Carolina, a beautiful state with its own vibrant culture and uniqueness. It also has faults, as do all places, and those faults in a community can also add depth to your story.

When deciding on a setting for a story, the flavor of Louisiana draws me into its spell. Nothing like the sultry summer heat in the south, when life slows down, and the humidity rises. The spicy aromas and comforting palate of Cajun food and the smooth sounds of New Orleans jazz are alluring and set a mood that seems to touch my writer’s passion. Wicked antagonists, flawed heroes, and enticing strong women seem to belong in the bayou or the French Quarter.

In reality, I love the beach. Ribbons of sand lapped by waves, air tangy with salt, majestic pelicans soaring against a cornflower blue sky. My heart lies on the shore, rejuvenated by the sun’s heat. My soul rests in the bayou.

I am fortunate to live in an area that some people call paradise—if you consider heat, humidity, sun, and ocean paradise. I do! As the photo shows, expansive sky, lush vegetation, a body of water, and a bench to enjoy the quiet beauty sets a mood just outside my door. Not to mention, there are ducks, sea birds, and two resident alligators to add to the ambiance.

I suppose we choose where we want our stories to unfold for a myriad of reasons. Genre certainly plays a role and can dictate the amount of world-building necessary to create the foundation you need. A cozy mystery often occurs in a small town, a detective murder mystery in a city setting, but let your creativity decide what works for your story. How descriptive you should be depends on how important the location is to your storyline. For instance, a city with the ambiance of a New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco, or San Antonio becomes a character within the story, adding depth and mood by using the uniqueness of the environment to enhance the plot. The same for small towns that can provide coziness and character to the story.

My thoughts always seem to be on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the Battery in Charleston, or an Atlantic beach in Florida, all locations which spur my muse. Let those places you love inspire your muse and your stories.

Image by Oliver Weidmann from Pixabay


Deborah Ratliff: The Writer’s Voice and Other Elements of Style

As I write this, the manuscript for my first novel and I exist apart. The words I’ve written now in the capable hands of my editor. It was a conversation with him regarding my writing idiosyncrasies that provided me with a clearer insight into my writing style and the voice I choose.

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of writing to comprehend is the concept of style. Like fingerprints, one author’s style of writing is unique from another’s and can vary depending on several factors, including the intended audience. Sentence structure, word choice, and the more elusive writer’s voice constitute the elements of style.

Before I returned to writing fiction, a passion from my youth, I wrote professional articles, policy and procedure and training manuals, newsletters, and advertising copy. At times, I might work on policy in the morning, a newsletter in the afternoon. What I failed to realize was I was changing my writing style to fit my readers.

Let’s look at how the description of a thunderstorm varies from one audience to another.

A scientific journal article on the elements of a thunderstorm would present a technically correct explanation of how warm moist air rapidly updrafts into cooler layers of air forming cumulonimbus clouds. Precipitation follows, and cold air sinks creating downdrafts and winds. Electrical charges build up in the water and ice cloud particles and release as lightning, which heats the air with such intensity producing a sound wave we know as thunder.

A storyteller would write of the darkening clouds, the rising winds, a prickly feeling on the skin as the storm intensifies, the driving rain, brilliant lightning flashes, the roar of thunder. Thus, setting a mood or a backdrop for the characters to interact.

The same author can write in an impersonal, technical style or in descriptive prose. It is the choice of words, sentence structure, and the author’s voice that creates style.

Word choice:

Writing experts teach authors to eliminate unnecessary words. To be concise, to choose the best word, an action verb demonstrating a physical or mental act or a concrete noun conveying sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch to convey meaning. We limit our use of adjectives and adverbs and the overuse of certain words such as ‘as,’ ‘that,’ and ‘it.’ Polysyllabic words, alliteration, and consonance create flowing sentences, while onomatopoeia and monosyllabic words can break up the flow.

Sentence Structure:

Good writers carefully structure sentences to extract the most meaning and to facilitate flow. When constructing a sentence, vary the length of the sentence to achieve different rhythms. Also, consider the word and phrase placement within a sentence which can emphasize the sentence meaning. Removing unneeded, vague or repetitive words, and including subordinate phrases and clauses will tighten up a sentence and make it more readable.


The most subjective of the three elements of style is voice. Voice is unique to each writer and impacted by the author’s personality and one element of style, word choice.  Whether detached, passionate, objective, humorous, serious, it is yours.

This discussion of style brings me back to my conversation with my editor. I had two repetitive issues in my writing. The underuse of the word ‘that’ and my love of run-on sentences.

Somewhere, while reading what all the writing ‘experts’ suggest, I took the suggestion to eliminate the word ‘that’ where I could. Apparently, there are times when that makes a sentence clearer. My editor decided to replace those I had eliminated in my own edit. Then he read the story again and took them out, deciding the inclusion interfered with my writing style.

The run-on sentences are another issue and result from my desire to write with a smooth flow. I wrote a short story for a challenge a few years ago and received this critique, “Great story, well-done, but use an ‘and’ every now and then.” Apparently, I didn’t heed that message.

My editor offered the following advice. That the choice to construct sentences in this manner was mine. It was my style of writing and my decision to change them. It was at that moment I realized I had the final say on how my book would read.

Granted, I am at liberty to make these choices because I am self-publishing. I doubt the editor of a traditional publishing house would allow me the leeway of making these decisions for myself. The fact is I respect my editor and will likely take his advice, but his words made me realize that the style I choose to write in, my writer’s voice is mine.


Deborah Ratliff is an administrator for the Writers Unite! Blog and Facebook page. Her first novel, Crescent City Lies, a murder mystery will be published in the Fall of 2016.

Personal Blog: the coastal quill

Author Page: D.A. Ratliff

Facebook: Writers Unite!

Writing the ending of a novel….

I wrote this article for the Writers Unite! Workshop on Facebook.  The workshop was reviewing how to finish a novel and the group’s administrators all contributed an article about their experiences.

So many people begin to write but for whatever reason, cannot close the deal. I have managed to complete two novels, both in edit at the moment.  If I can push through and finish so can those who think it impossible.


The End

Funny how life brings us full circle. As a child, I was a voracious reader vowing I would write a book someday. A book like the Hardy Boys or Flash Gordon or later, about pirates or musketeers, only to discover Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie, igniting my love for detectives.

I took creative writing courses in high school and college only to tuck my desire to write away while I attended labs and lectures. No time to be creative had to study. After graduation, writing became part of my daily life, but not in the way I wanted. I wrote research papers, policy and procedure manuals, newsletters, articles, while the novel I wanted to write remained elusive.

Years passed. With a marriage behind me and employed as a human resource manager, I was laid off during the economic downturn. I spent five hours a day looking for a job but what to do with the remainder of my time? Two things happened, my favorite science fiction show ended,  and I was feeling the urge to write.  It dawned on me I could write fanfiction about the show I enjoyed and also hone my skills to prepare for writing a novel.

I wrote over eighty stories ranging from less than a thousand words to a saga of 137, 000. I entered challenges and story exchanges, and competitive last-writer-standing groups to become a better writer. Trust me, if you read some of my early work, you would see I had a love affair with commas.

The day came when believing I had the skills and knowledge I decided to begin my novel.  Not finishing it never entered my mind, I’d completed nearly a hundred stories by then. Finishing was never a problem.

Not so fast.

Writing a 70,000 – 115,000-word novel is an arduous task. I began a science fiction novel with the goal of 115k word-count, soon learning my total pantster days were over. While I don’t outline a lot, I had to regroup and maintain some order to keep characters, events, races, spaceships and weapons straight. World build? I created my worlds as I wrote them. Don’t get me wrong I’m still a pantster, but the first step in finishing a novel is planning. You don’t have to know every moment of your story. It takes the spontaneity out of the story making it static.  Knowing the ending, however, is imperative to finishing.

Finding time to write was difficult, real life has a nasty habit of interfering, but I was fortunate to have two good friends, one a linguist and one a former publication writer for the Navy, who read as I wrote. Their encouragement and suggestions propelled me to finish.  Being a writer is about being alone, both a good and bad situation. The solitude to write is necessary, but a writer cannot live in a vacuum. Seeking out input from my friends was an immense help.

My greatest issue with finishing is one I encountered again when finishing my second novel. As I reached the end of the story, it became increasing difficult to take what was in my head and put it on paper.  I’d never suffered writer’s block, and I don’t think I would classify my issue as such, but the words wouldn’t come. Frustrated, I walked away for a bit, thinking about it occasionally.  Eventually, a eureka moment occurred and how to start the scene popped into my head. Once I was past that hurdle, I was able to finish.

Despite having completed two novels, both now in the editing stage, I don’t have a magic formula for finishing. I do think that having confidence in your story, knowing your ending, being flexible in allowing the story to evolve as you write, and support from people who will be honest with you are imperative. That said, the one thing you must have is determination to finish despite all obstacles. Believe me, writing ‘The End’ is an incredible feeling.

Good luck!!!


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