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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.


From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Blog Series

Writing Dynamic Characters (WDC): An Introduction to the Series

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Time to kick things off about characters! Over the next several months, I’ll be talking about everything it takes to create realistic, dynamic, and well-developed characters. For instance, how do you transform a stereotypical character with a vague archetype into a unique and utterly compelling persona that readers can’t get enough of?

I have loads of other topics planned too, but here are a few of the main ones:

  • how to write character flaws
  • writing unlikable characters that readers can still relate to
  • writing complex villains
  • using dialogue to further develop characters

Now, while I do want to give you guys plenty of techniques to apply to your own writing, I’m not going to pretend that character development is my strong suit, because it’s not. It’s taken me many years to hone my skills and grow in this particular area, and I’m still learning. But I’m going to share tips based on my own experiences and research. I’ll also be sharing tips from trusted resources that I’ve used myself.

If you have any additional topics you’d like addressed, please let me know! I'm particularly interested in ones that haven’t yet been covered, as all posts in this series will be used in my nonfiction project. I also highly recommend K.M. Weiland’s books on writing. She has an amazing array of books geared toward writers, including a personal favorite of mine, Creating Character Arcs. She periodically puts it on sale, so if you don’t already follow her author page on Facebook, I highly recommend it.

Developing a Supernatural Edge: Building a Creepy Setting

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

I won’t lie. I’ve been waiting to do this post for ages, as it covers one of my favorite aspects of writing, particularly for the supernatural and horror genres. So I’ve saved the best for last. Today I want to share some tips with you about building a spooktacular setting for your next story. Maybe it’s filled to the brim with creepy stuff, or perhaps it only has fleeting moments of horror. But whatever the case, it’s important to know how to craft a strong element of the heebie-jeebies. Without them, tension will be lost, and you’ll risk losing authenticity and the reader’s connection to your story.


Location, location, location. Ever heard that one before? It’s true that other elements play a factor in building a creepy scene, but environment is pretty dang important. Those of you who have read some of my horror shorts know that I’m a fan of eerie buildings and traditional haunted houses, but your creepy environment certainly doesn’t—and shouldn’t—be limited to such locations. After all, ANY space can be a spooky one, given how you present it in a scene.

For instance, take a child’s playroom. There would likely be tons of toys and cute decorations adorning the space, not to mention fluffy stuffed animals and fuzzy blankets to cuddle. Probably the farthest thing from scary imaginable. But let’s transform that space for a minute. What if some of the toys were broken or floating in mid-air with no logical explanation for the force holding them up? And perhaps the wall decals have been drawn over with sinister images or have peeled from the walls, giving the sense of abandonment or intrusion. Go one step further and have the room be dimly lit, a child’s plaything ripped apart and lying on the floor, stuffing spilling from it with no child in sight, only a lone blanket crumpled next to it and left behind. That sweet, innocent playroom has now shifted into something much less inviting, likely causing the hairs on your neck to prick up. That’s what a stellar setting can do for your story. It can literally up the creep factor tenfold.


The next layer to building a creepy setting is the pace of the scene. The action will drive it, but how you execute it sets the tone. Suspenseful scenes often have quick pacing, giving them a sense of daunting doom that is waiting to break through. A great example of this can be found in Blake Crouch’s collection Fully Loaded. In one of his opening stories, a voicemail of a woman being murdered is left on the answering machine of a young couple. It’s a broken message with small bits of information relayed throughout it, but during the scene, one thing rings true: the pace is fast. Sentences are chopped short, they’re kept simple, and most importantly, there is rapid motion to the words. No flowery language, no extra clauses.

By keeping the sentences short and the action moving forward, Crouch achieves the perfect pace for an intense, suspenseful short story that riddles your body with chills. The subject matter is intense enough, but its execution is everything in that piece.

Sensory Details and Body Language

Let’s delve into sensory details for a moment. If someone tells you that a character is tapping his foot, what do you picture? If someone then tells you to picture someone tapping their foot in the waiting room of the ER with doctors rushing to and fro, machines beeping, and orders being called out from the loudspeakers, how does that imagery change? Does it change further if someone describes the intense, rapid beeping and the overwhelming chatter of “His vitals are dropping!” and nurses and doctors bustling about while that character is brushed to the side of the room, blocked out by the privacy curtains as he runs a hand through his hair and paces? Chances are, the situation has grown clearer with each added detail, and by now, there’s even a sense of emotion surrounding the scene.

Images and body language are your most powerful resources for building setting. If you can create a vivid picture for the reader by providing clear motions and enough sensory details, you’ll automatically set the tone and mood for the scene. Movies often use this approach, focusing on what camera angles work best for the current action and layering in music to add depth of sensory effects on top of things like heavy breathing, a character pacing, their hands trembling, etc. But in books, writers don’t have luxuries like music. We instead must rely on our words for establishing a clear setting and planting the correct mood in the reader’s head, so it’s important to get it right and to couple that with strong body language.

The best way to do this is to incorporate sensory details into the action. Sight is the easiest one to tackle, but I encourage writers to include things like sounds, tastes, smells, and even textural details where fitting. The combination of those is sometimes more powerful than anything sight can provide. For instance, think about the climactic moments in thrillers and horror movies. When the character is waiting in the dark, where they can’t see anything and have to rely on their other senses to detect what’s out there, what kind of effect does it have on them? And what kind of effect does it have on you as the observer? Feelings of anxiety and fear probably overwhelm you in that moment, even though you’re not directly experiencing what the character is. And just like in good movies, good books do the same.

The Human Psyche

Red herrings and intense emotions are probably my favorite tools for manipulating—I mean, crafting—a creepy scene. Cue the shifty eyes, sudden movements, random glass breaking, and off-key organ music. In all seriousness though, knowing how to control and convey emotions in writing can create amazing scenes and give tremendous depth to your story and characters. Tapping into their emotions unlocks a connection with the reader, one that floods you with primal instincts, resulting in a lasting impression. If you take that one step further and create a setting and mood so vivid that the feeling of it comes to life and resonates with the reader, then you’ve accomplished something brilliant. That means long after someone has finished reading your book, they’ll remember it and relive it in their mind. Which, if you ask me, is an awesome compliment, no matter which genre you write.

Developing a Supernatural Edge: Rocking Your Theme

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

In the previous post in this series, I talked about perspective, voice, and unexpected turns. This time, I’ll be focusing on themes, specifically how carefully tying each element in your story to your desired theme will strengthen the piece as a whole and bring unity to its core idea.

What is a theme?

A theme is the central idea or topic found overall in a piece of writing. It is what drives the surrounding content and weaves each subtopic into a uniform structure. In most stories, themes are depicted by the events that unfold rather than a direct statement from the narrator. Culture can also play into the theme, often by introducing viewpoints or circumstantial behavior that one might find in a close group of people or a community.

Finding Your Theme

A theme is not just a minor topic presented in the book. It usually manifests as a way of thinking or an attitude toward that topic, making some revelation in the process. For example, one theme we see in the Harry Potter series (a fantastic supernatural series) is this: choice and free will. Even those “fated” to a certain path can change their course because of the will we are given, and our actions have consequences.

Theme is often expressed through what characters or the reader learns throughout the story. In Rowling’s series, Harry and his friends learn more about the past and what is about to unfold. New themes are introduced, and the theme about choice remains. Harry must decide with each new piece of the puzzle what actions he will take and what effect that will have on those around him.

Most themes are difficult to state using a single line. They’re often paraphrased, showing expressing the idea by means of relating it to something we know. Idioms, such as “calling the kettle black” or “letting the cat out of the bag” are a great examples of this. There are many ways to express idioms, and in fact, most every culture has their own take on it. For example the American idiom, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” is expressed in German as, “Lieber ein Spatz in der Hand als eine Taube auf dem Dach,” which literally translates to, “A sparrow in the hand is better than the pigeon on the roof.” Similar concept, but much different wording. And just as there is more than one way to get the point of an idiom across, so is there for themes.

Theme are not always morals, nor are they always meant to teach us how to behave, though that is sometimes the case. Rather, themes are a viewpoint, a way of illustrating a particular stance on a topic. Some of the more complex and, in my opinion, interesting pieces of literature will often have more than one theme. One of my favorite examples of this is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, where he focuses on themes around the threat of time and the long-term consequences of our actions, family, social class, and tradition—all while weaving in supernatural elements to boot!

However, the thing to consider when tying in different themes to your story is to ensure that you only have one main theme. Otherwise, it might get lost in the shuffle.

Here is a list I found of common themes often found in literature that you might find helpful when getting started:

Adding Dimension to a Theme

A theme often ties into the genre of the story, but it goes deeper than that. This is where the layering technique comes in. Your characters actions’ as well as the outcomes to those actions will normally feed into your chosen theme, thus “proving” it to readers. The various elements of the story should also tie-in, to paint a clear picture of the theme without ever stating it directly. For those of you who are familiar with the old “show, don’t tell” advice, it comes into play here as well.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking, and I’ve been waiting for this argument. Do you really have to bother with a theme? Why get hung up on the literary concepts when you can just write?

The truth of the matter is, you’re probably crafting a theme without even knowing it when you’re writing. Initial ideas are usually silhouettes of a much larger and complete theme, and often times, it’s just hard to pinpoint that theme until the story is complete. I’ll admit that this was actually true for me when I first started writing The Porcleain Souls series. It took me a while to uncover each theme, and I discovered more with each scene. But if you find yourself struggling with which direction to take your story and the desired outcome you want to have, a good place to start really is by examining the theme—even if it’s only the one your story is leaning toward so far.

Themes Don’t Define an Author

There’s one last point I want to mention, because it’s one that is easy to forget when we’re lost in a good book. Authors don’t always support or agree with the themes they’ve created, and they don’t have to. The purpose of crafting a work of fiction is to tell a story. Sometimes that story will align with our own beliefs and experiences, and other times is won’t. And that’s okay. You should never have to feel guilty about what you’re writing, just because it might offend someone. Have you seen the list of banned books? I, for one, and am glad that many of the books that have made a banned list at one point or another were written. They’re some of the best books out there, because the authors of them weren’t afraid to tell the story that they wanted to write. They didn’t care who judged them or deemed their work unfit for public consumption. They wrote it anyway, and it paid off, because all the hype about the books being banned have actually spawned their popularity.

So while knowing your theme and catering to that is important, don’t forget to just breathe, relax, and write. Tell your story, because no one else can tell it for you.

Developing a Supernatural Edge: Where Have All the New Ideas Gone?

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

A huge challenge every fiction writer must face at one point or another is conjuring a unique idea to write about. It seems like everything under the sun has been written about, especially when it comes to the supernatural genre. Vampires and zombies have been plaguing the publishing and entertainment industry for several years now, and though tales about them have been floating about for hundreds of years, many readers beg for some new material, something that will set those books apart from the overused ideas that haunt modern-day writers.

So what is a writer to do? Well, Mark Twain would argue that the problem isn’t new ideas but rather the need for a new perspective.

 “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

—Mark Twain

With that in mind, I’d like to propose to you that there are three elements you’ll need to craft a bestselling idea: unique perspective, a killer voice, and twists and turns.

Developing a Unique Perspective

Of the three, perspective is perhaps the hardest to master. Not only does it take some critical thinking to procure, but it takes time. Some of the best ideas are ones that people let sit and stew for ages before landing on just the right angle to play. With my most recent series, for example, I came up with the idea for the first part years ago. But it took months and months of tweaking and revamping it before it was finally ready for its debut.

Perspectives are usually shaped by our own life experiences and viewpoints. For some of us, writing is an outlet for our fears, wishes, frustration, and anything else that we’d otherwise keep bottled up. For others, it’s a way of sharing pieces of ourselves with others. Though, for many of us, it’s usually some wild combination of the two that comes into play. But the two things that must be considered when approaching a topic are audience and purpose. Who are you writing for, and what do you want to tell them? Even in fiction, you should think about your purpose for writing, whether it’s for entertainment's sake or for relaying a specific message to the readers. Once you have figured out those two things, you’re ready to hone in on your voice.

Crafting a Killer Voice

A voice, in writing, is a fancy way of saying style. It’s your unique approach to the narrative and how you want to tell the story. Many of our favorite authors have a place in our hearts simply because we connect so deeply with their voice. Without that strong voice, neither their characters nor their stories would be all that memorable. Take one of my favorite authors and biggest influences for example: Edgar Allan Poe. I think just about every person on the planet can recite at least part of "The Raven" from memory. But what is it about his poem that makes it so quotable? Is it the characters? The subject? The storyline? While all those things do play a role, I’d argue that the key factor in it—and in most of his writing—is his wonderful and unique voice.

Poe has a way of drawing us in, even from the very first stanza:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door;
     Only this and nothing more."

—Edgar Allan Poe, "The Raven"

Each line has a musical and soothing, if not a somewhat dreary, quality to it, an echo of precisely the story unfolding within it. As the poem progresses, we see sharp intervals of “Nevermore!” interrupting that solemn mood, and the pacing picks up as well. It’s a fantastic example of how you can blend music with writing, using cadence to enhance the mood.

This unique blend of cadence and melancholy is the driving factor behind a lot of Poe’s pieces, which has established the incredibly memorable and captivating voice that most of us have come to know, one that makes it easy to distinguish his work from that of others.

Incorporating Twists and Turns

Another component writers can weave into their supernatural writing (and that of other genres) is the element of surprise, usually in the form of some unexpected twist that leaves readers on the edge of their seat. In the previous post for this series, I covered different approaches for foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is, in fact, the key element for creating such stellar twists and turns. Though this will work for many genres, I’m going to focus on horror for a moment since it, along with the thriller genre, is particularly known for surprises. There are also some striking similarities between the two. If you do a search on Amazon for horror books, for example, you’ll come up with a multitude of stories ranging in everything from paranormal events to serial killers and everything else that goes bump in the night. So how do you create a story that is unique enough to stand out from all the others…especially if there are no “new” ideas to be had?

One possibility for approaching this is to switch up the perspective, as I’ve already mentioned. Say you have a story from the viewpoint of the killer rather than the victim. Take the series Dexter, for instance, which has received high acclaim both as a book series and as a television show. Each story is told from the perspective of a serial killer while honing in on the events revolving around his victims. This approach has gone over quite well with readers and viewers alike, earning both the books and the show an outstanding amount of praise.

But there is another option, and this is a personal favorite of mine. You can take a story whose outcome is largely already known by the readers and still make it quite enjoyable. This goes along the lines of the direct foreshadowing mentioned in my previous blog post. What’s the secret to making this method a success? It’s all about the twists and turns you include. For most readers, reading thrillers and horror stories isn’t just about discovering the outcome, though that is part of the experience; the main reason they read is for the journey it takes to get there. I’d even go so far as to say that’s the primary reason that most readers read: we want to get lost in the world that’s presented to us, to experience what the characters do, whether that’s triumph, loss, terror, devastation, hope, or any mix of those things. By expertly infusing dynamic scenes that leave you hooked up until the very end, you’ll have created a roller coaster of emotions, one that readers can’t wait to ride on again and again.

So to heck with new ideas. Take some old ideas and put your own spin on it! Look at what happened with the YA genre. It had just about worn out its welcome until the last decade or so, and now an astounding amount of bestsellers fall under that category. Living proof that old ideas can make be used to create awesome new books!

What books do you recommend that incorporate old ideas? Were they successful at their endeavors? Why or why not? I'd love to hear from you! Submit an ask to me on Tumblr with your feedback, and I'll feature you in my next newsletter. :)

For those who are curious, you can check out my take on an old idea with a fresh spin in my Porcelain Souls series, the first part of which is currently available (for free) on Amazon, Smashwords, and Barnes & Noble. Part two is in the final editing stage and is scheduled to be available for preorder within the next couple of weeks.

Kendra Merrick has a knack for spotting unusual trinkets and treasures, and she isn’t afraid of using unconventional—or illegal—methods to obtain them. When she meets Adam, a fellow sleuth and collector, they embark on their biggest adventure yet: the Whitson house. The house is a marvel, and its secrets are even stranger than she imagined.  Kendra stumbles upon the find of a lifetime. But she may have signed on for more than she bargained. There’s a darkness in the house that wasn’t there before, a pair of eyes in every corner, watching, waiting. And Adam isn’t at all who he claimed to be.

Kendra Merrick has a knack for spotting unusual trinkets and treasures, and she isn’t afraid of using unconventional—or illegal—methods to obtain them. When she meets Adam, a fellow sleuth and collector, they embark on their biggest adventure yet: the Whitson house. The house is a marvel, and its secrets are even stranger than she imagined.

Kendra stumbles upon the find of a lifetime. But she may have signed on for more than she bargained. There’s a darkness in the house that wasn’t there before, a pair of eyes in every corner, watching, waiting. And Adam isn’t at all who he claimed to be.

Developing a Supernatural Edge: Foreshadowing

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

In one of my writing/editing tips on Tumblr, I mention the importance of foreshadowing in the supernatural genre. Foreshadowing warns about events soon to come, and it often builds tension. But finding a good balance can be difficult. You want to tease your readers, giving them a sneak preview without giving away too much of the information. So here are some tips for tackling foreshadowing to provide the optimal level of suspense without overdoing it.


In your initial draft, you might already have a few elements of good foreshadowing, particularly if you outlined your piece before you wrote it. But during the revision process, this is where you need to step up your game, because how well you weave in hints, backstory, and other elements can set your story apart from others in the genre, whether it be horror, crime, mystery, thriller, or even standard fiction. All genres use foreshadowing to some degree, but method I usually suggest for adding it in, especially for supernatural books, is layering.

Any of you who have viewed my bio on Twitter know that I’m an advocate of writing layers. And while it doesn’t work well for everyone, I’m one of those writers who likes to start with a solid skeleton then build from there. For me, it’s the easiest way to add multiple dimensions to the environment, characters, and even plot. I also use it when editing others’ work, because it’s a very effective way of separating each layer and enhancing them to strengthen the overall structure of the story.


Although foreshadowing elements are often at the beginning of a story or chapter, it’s beneficial to weave more in throughout. A great place to drop a few hints are during moments of casual activity, when readers might overlook the detail. This keeps the hints subtle while still being in plain view of the ongoing action. This works particularly well for supernatural stories, where you’ll likely keep the final outcome hidden from the reader until the very end. And if you want to give readers a stronger hint about an upcoming event, a good way to achieve that is to call attention to the element of foreshadowing either multiple times or in multiple ways, spread out over several pages or chapters. This makes its use intentional without being overt.

Balanced Details

One of the hardest things to achieve in foreshadowing is balancing the information given. Most of us can recall a few stories that we’ve been frustrated with, where it was easy to figure out the outcome way before it happened. And it’s even more irritating if the main character was slow on the uptake.

Knowing when and how much information to disclose is the trick to balancing elements of foreshadowing. You, as the writer, are going to know every detail of the background story and characters. However, the reader doesn’t need to. Especially for close third, first person, or other limited perspectives, the best approach is usually divulging small bits of information here and there as it relates to the ongoing action. This gives the reader an inside look without getting bogged down by huge info dumps.

The Hunger Games series has great examples of this. One instance that springs to mind is when Katniss is given the mockingjay pin. It is introduced as a reminder of her home, but it later symbolizes the districts’ revolution (and her leadership of it). It’s a prime example of an object being used to hint at future plot points.

Direct vs. Subtle

Foreshadowing elements can either be direct or subtle. Direct foreshadowing is usually placed at the beginning of a story, predicting flat-out what might happen. The story itself portrays the journey of the events leading up to that conclusion. Older literature in particular favors this method of foreshadowing, including many of the classics. Shakespeare is very well known for in fact, the most famous instance being the opening lines from Romeo and Juliet. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is another prime example of direct foreshadowing.

Modern books primarily use a subtler approach. In the Harry Potter series, for example, Rowling uses Harry’s scar as a precursor to the events that follow, making it and the events surrounding it a very prominent part of the overall plot. She then wove in other details, such as the tea leaves and Professor Trelawney’s prophecy, to further hint at the idea that he would one day die.

But there are many authors of the thriller and horror genres in particular who like to incorporate incredibly subtle foreshadowing, sometimes even reading leaders astray as a means of creating tension. (Think Jeffery Deaver and Stephen King.)

Red Herrings

When clues are planted to deter readers from the true plot, they are known as red herrings. Red herrings work well for any genre, but they are used most frequently in crime, mystery, horror, and supernatural books. As both a reader and a writer, I find red herrings to be the most enjoyable kind of foreshadowing. Twists and turns are enamoring for many readers, drawing them in and making the book an irresistible read. I adore books like that myself. But writing them is certainly a challenge.

When it comes to writing great red herrings, it all comes down to planning. You’ll often find them at the crux of subplots and even at the climax of the overall plot, giving you one last “Holy crap!” moment before everything is revealed. The best books incorporate them in a way that will convince readers that they are the undoubtedly the truth, usually driving them with circumstantial evidence until new proof comes into play.

No matter what your take is on foreshadowing, supernatural books thrive on the one thing that foreshadowing always creates: tension. Without it, you’re left with an incredibly boring mashup of ordinary events and ordinary characters. And good supernatural stories are anything but.