What Does the Perfect Book Cover Include? By Karen McCullough

August 29, 2017


Karen and grandchild

I’ve been designing book covers, both ebook and print, for clients for a while now.  My goal has always been to try to get the client to tell me what they want and then give them something as close to exactly that as possible.  I’m limited in this endeavor by a distinct lack of artistic talent.  I can’t draw anything that looks remotely like what I’m attempting.

What I do have is good design sense, thanks in some part of an art director I worked with at a magazine years ago.  Before I started doing web sites I was an editor at a couple of trade publications. Back in the late 1990s, when the web began to explode, the publisher of the series of magazines I worked for at the time asked me to create websites for each.  I knew nothing about the web but I did…

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On some days you win!

September 19, 2016

Of course those of us who write for publication want the prize–to know that others will read our words and–possibly–will find meaning in them. We may never be famous, in fact it’s unlikely most of us will be, at least outside our own area. It’s also highly unlikely we’ll make much money. But occasionally a reader will speak up on line or in person with words of appreciation and praise, and that makes all the difference. We have reached out and connected with one, two, a dozen, a hundred, maybe even a thousand readers or more.

What fun. Here’s an email from someone who lives in New Jersey, and another from South Carolina. Look! Kentucky, Texas, Arizona, Oregon. Oh, my gosh, here’s an email from Australia. Really? I have a reader there? How did that . . . ?  Oh, well, never mind . . . Australia?

When I first read about the Readers’ Map of Arkansas in a newsletter from Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I wasn’t quite sure I understood what it was. Then I learned the map was for sale at Nightbird, and saw a tiny picture of it.  Names completely covered an outline map of the state–what a terrific idea. I have long felt Arkansas produces more than its share of rightly famous authors. And, of course, no matter how favorably mystery readers familiar with my series may view my novels (even someone from Australia) Radine wouldn’t be on the map with Maya Angelou, John Grisham, Charlaine Harris, Dee Brown, Helen Gurley Brown, Eldridge Cleaver . . . more, and more, and of course the Porter and Pulitzer Prize winners. I thought of so many names I would recognize and praise. Then I forgot about the map and went on with current writing projects in my office.

Until I got another newsletter about the map from Nightbird, and my husband was curious enough to search until he found a list of authors. “You’re here,” he said.

I left my office and walked down the hall to his. Seeing is believing. (I’m sure you already knew what was coming.)

I am still stunned, but of course I bought a map. It’s stuck on the back of the closet door in my office.

I was proud enough to highlight my name.




Make Gratitude Part of Your Writing Career

April 25, 2016

For more than twenty years, Radine Trees Nehring’s magazine features, essays, newspaper articles, and radio broadcasts have shared colorful stories about the people, places, events, and natur…

Source: Make Gratitude Part of Your Writing Career

Don’t we all need a little more cozy?

February 20, 2016

Guides to mystery genres are often published–listing many categories, from puzzle-solving and satisfactory endings to horror/violence/sadism that leave you shaking and depressed.

Goodness knows there is enough in the last description in real life today. Maybe someone can explain to me why readers punish themselves by choosing fiction echoing the worst humans can inflict on each other. Is it so those readers can experience this vicariously, and hence avoid practicing it in real life? Or do these novels (plus, it is said, violent video games, movies, and TV programs) present guidelines and impetus to action for some unstable/miserable minds, who then act out their misery using weapons too easily available, as psychologists and others have suggested?

Well, that’s a deep question, but, for my own reading and writing, I choose stories in a category popularly named Cozy. These books intrigue and entertain me. They present characters I enjoy getting to know. They often give a window on human life that, subtly, increases my understanding of others, though a learning experience is not the first reason I choose them. Most of all I want to be entertained–with perhaps a few shivers, but without danger to my general equanimity.

Dictionaries define “cozy” as “snugly, warm, comfortable.”  OOOO, snugly. Love that, especially on a cold winter day in my office.

On Writing World.com, Stephen D. Rogers defines the “Cozy” as being “typified by Agatha Christie, containing bloodless crime, and a victim who won’t be missed. The solution can be determined by using emotional (Miss Marple) or logical (Poirot) reasoning.” Well, maybe, though today I think cozy goes beyond that, or at least it does in my own writing. For example, my characters can be subjected to dangerous and vile criminal activity by “bad guys,” and the criminal action can be in full view of readers. It certainly is in my latest novel, A Portrait to Die For, though I admit my sense of humor peeked through in a couple of the tense scenes. In any case, strength, as well as both logic and emotion lead to a solution in all my novels and, in many cases, redemption or a character change in some form.

An inquirer recently asked me if I wrote “Cozy Noir.” That stumped me for a while, especially since Rogers defines “Noir” as ” . . .  a mood: gritty, bleak, and unforgiving. The usual brutality is about as far from Cozy as you can get.” So, looking at it that way, I do not write anything near “Noir,” and for that matter would generally stop reading a novel that fit such a description.

I believe all of us–yes, every one of us–need more cozy in our lives. Not just in books, but in real hugs, understanding, thoughtfulness, support, stability and love. Seems to me these things, more than anything else, could begin to address the issue of violence in our real world.

I was recently shown something Barbara Vining, a writer I admire, wrote ” . . .  human affections need a tender touch–to awaken desires and aspirations that stabilize the emotions (and) satisfy the deepest longings . . . ”  To that I say, “amen.”
Radine at http://www.RadinesBooks.com

No lack of writing talent, but . . .

February 11, 2016

Fellow author Crow Johnson Evans and I met with a writers’ group in Bella Vista, Arkansas yesterday, speaking to them about how we established our writing careers, and answering questions.  Following this we had the great opportunity to hear each member of the group read examples of their own writing.

WOW, we heard some wonderful things. Most striking, I thought, was a lively article about wedding practices in Syria–the author had lived in Damascus for twenty years. This was certainly a timely topic. Other pieces (mostly non-fiction, spiced by one romance author’s chapter) were also very good.

But there was a big, publication-stopping problem, or rather, several problems.  Too many words, for the main one, sentences too long, spiced with adjectives and adverbs. Telling more than was needed to make the article or story sing.  There were other problems no editor would tolerate–improper formatting, bad punctuation, and more.  I don’t know how long each of the members has been writing, but huge talent was obvious. It was, therefore, heart breaking to see most of it buried in wordiness and writing mistakes. I wondered how each author had arrived at this point without actual knowledge of the business of writing.

What to do? I wrote to the group’s organizer/director today, and sent along a list of general interest writers’ conferences in this area, some of them free. At the meeting, Crow had already suggested various classes on line. Writing like we heard yesterday is too terrific to be hidden under problems that would deny it publication, but no one in the group commented about the problems I mention, and, as guests, Crow and I were reluctant to say much.

Sad fact–I have run into terrific talent before, but too often the writer(s) lacked the ooomph to do work needed to make it ready to submit to an agent, magazine or book editor. I have worked with (for example) a very good author who rarely read publisher’s guidelines before he submitted. In one instance he sent a (very good) story manuscript that was almost double the word count the publisher’s guidelines asked for, thinking, I suspect, his work was good enough to overcome that little problem, if he even had read the guidelines. After only a few rejections, this author gave up, stopped submitting, dropped out of our critique group, and may have stopped writing completely.

Too bad. It takes more than talent. May I suggest ooomph–or maybe “fire in the belly”, and a willingness to do the down and dirty detail work?  I guess I have this. At times I feel wildly frustrated and wish I could just WRITE.  But I sit in my desk chair and turn on the computer, not to write, but to do research and so much more.

Tell me–is my frustration noted here unrealistic? How do you feel?







Fact or Fiction?

January 18, 2016

A Fair To Die ForAs a former non-fiction author (magazines, newspapers, radio news reporter, and one book) I know that non-fiction is not necessarily 100% what the category indicates. We choose which bits of truth to report, we  quote or describe what seems important to us.  Yes, it’s truth, BUT . . . .    This is not a slam at news reporters. We all select how we see, understand, and react to any “truth” we’re told.  A notorious example of this is the variety of stories law officers can get from witnesses to a single crime.

When I was program chair for a Sisters in Crime chapter in the Ozarks, one of my programs was held in the police department of a small Ozarks. town. The officer who led our meeting arranged several “crimes” that occurred while he was telling about his department’s work.  Some of the criminal actions weren’t even noticed by audience members.  Others were seen so differently as to be judged not the same action.

Okay, now that that’s settled. What about fiction?  For the last twenty years I have been writing fiction, published in eight novels and a number of short stories. While the settings for every one of these is real down to the last doorknob or wildflower, characters and crime are always fiction.  Ummm, well, then, how much truth (other than setting) enters into the fiction you and I enjoy reading? And, what about my own stories? What about those of other authors?

I know of news reporters who, stopped from exposing real crimes they uncover because of legal issues, later expose the same crimes in “fiction.”  (Note: sometimes this type of fiction can alert law officers and public officials to true crime and cause action to stop it.  And exposing dark criminal events can be so close to the truth that they garner death threats for authors.  That alone lets us know how closely fiction and fact can be  blended.)

But what about people like me, who have led rather average, even dull, lives, and are, so to speak, pulling our stories out of pure fantasy?

Sorry, dear readers. The fantasy is not really the story. The fantasy is that nothing true is in the story.  For example: My first novel, A Valley to Die For, had a working title, Hunting Season, and was the story of two killings said to be accidental. Victims were shot by hunters mistaking them for deer. (!)  Of course I knew this happened. We lived in the rural Ozarks, heard the gunshots in the woods around us, and, if we went outside, wore orange and sang at the top of our voices, or carried a radio turned loud. Every hunting season newspapers reported at least one shooting by mistake.

So, I simply moved my understanding of deaths in hunting season into a novel. What an excellent way to get rid of a business associate threatening to expose your criminal activities.  Right?

And, so it goes. I’ve lived a long life, and in every story I write, I draw upon emotions, events, conversations, and experiences viewed and experienced during that life. Why not? This helps me write scenes where what my characters say and experience rings with truth.  Even if it’s not.

Therefore, dear reader,  total acceptance of fiction as purely creative story invention, and non-fiction as totally true, should be discarded. In these days when what we see and hear in political campaigns can be scandalous fabrication, (we do know that, don’t we?) it’s best to process ALL stories as what has been called “faction.” We should still enjoy reading whatever is called fiction, and, in non-fiction, be sure the facts we’re told can be verified before we act on them.  

Five-legged frogs, pregnant fifty-year-olds, and centenarians on longevity drugs, plus a murder or two—

January 14, 2015

Five-legged frogs, pregnant fifty-year-olds, and centenarians on longevity drugs, plus a murder or two—.

New system tricked me?

September 22, 2014

Haven’t a clue how the odd blog post caption appeared.


What I thought I wrote was:

“Where do ideas for our stories come from? –and a chance to win a free book!”

If you can figure out what happened, let me know!   🙂



September 22, 2014

Where do story ideas come from?

Out of the air?


Reports in the media?

Overheard conversations?


Maybe all of the above, but, for me, ideas begin with a location in Arkansas that I have visited, enjoyed, and seen value in. In that I am very fortunate, because my own novels allow me to re-visit wonderful places whether or not I can make an actual trip there at the time.  Right now, for example, our country home and acres in the Ozarks that we named Spring Hollow over thirty years ago is for sale, and we will be moving to a city condo when it sells. But, in my writing, I have given myself and others Spring Hollow, in both fiction and non-fiction. My non-fiction book, DEAR EARTH, is set entirely at Spring Hollow as it really is. My major characters in my mystery series (seven books “To Die For” and counting,) actually live in a place I named “Blackberry Hollow” but yes, it really IS Spring Hollow. So, I will never fully leave Spring Hollow.

All novels, of course, also feature a visit to a specific “full-of-history and interest” place in Arkansas. Such was the case for my most recent novel, A FAIR TO DIE FOR, set largely at the War Eagle Craft Fair held each October in Northwest Arkansas. (Up to 200,000 visitors during the four days of the fair.) Yes, husband and I have visited the fair many times, and purchases made there have added convenience and beauty to our home.  But a mystery set there?

Well, why not? I love creating mystery stories, so how about a craft fair setting, and, while I’m at it, why not include other features of interest located near the War Eagle Fair grounds as additional plot settings?  So, of course, I did just that.

Happily, my publisher, Oak Tree Press is sponsoring a give-away of ten free print copies of A FAIR TO DIE FOR on Goodreads between now and midnight, Sept. 30, 2014.  You can enter to win at:


I invite you to join me at special places in Arkansas,

Radine, at http://www.RadinesBooks.com

Sharing from Mystery Readers Journal

November 26, 2013

Are you familiar with the Mystery Readers Journal magazine?  It’s dedicated to all people interested in reading stories and articles related to the broad field of mystery fiction, and, in each issue, features one topic from that field.  For example — the recent issue featured “Mysteries in Transit,” and, since that fit right in with my novel, JOURNEY TO DIE FOR, I submitted an article.  The article was accepted and, with permission, is reproduced here.  For more information, go to




Whether you’re eight or eighty, isn’t there something about a train that causes a touch of excitement? These days few have opportunities to ride historic trains, but still, hear “whoooah-woo” and “choo-choo-choo,” and imagination can go crazy. (Need I explain why Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s most popular mystery novels?)

My own elaborate train adventures began when six adults (parents, grandparents, great aunt and uncle) decided the time had  come for one seven-year-0ld to experience a ride on a real train. Access to such a train was easy. Near the aunt and uncle’s home in Northwest Arkansas, the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad’s restored 1920’s passenger excursion train makes regular weekly and special-event round-trips from Springdale to Van Buren, AR during most of the year.

Tickets were purchased, and excited adults, accompanied by one rather “ho-hum” little girl, spent a Saturday riding the rails, and exploring the historic Arkansas town of Van Buren during the train’s four-hour lay-over.  Six of us had a terrific time. The seventh had her hand-held whatever.

Wild imagination takes over.

The aunt in this story, name of Radine, is a mystery author with a series of  published novels set at Arkansas tourist treats. Novel number five in the series, A River to Die For, (want to experience thrills at Buffalo National River?) was ready to achieve publication at the time. What next? Well now, how about a story featuring the excursion train?  It would be–um–ah–a–Journey to Die For.

Yes! The train staff welcomes me and my novel idea being born.  For the second time I board the A&M Train and settle into a green plush seat to observe, absorb, and take notes.


So, what if?  That’s how must novels start.

Imagine this: On-going series’ main characters are riding the train as a special anniversary treat for the woman, Carrie McCrite. Husband, Henry King, who’s gift it is, accompanies her, and Journey to Die For begins its opening scene.

Two men, looking somewhat alike, but acting as strangers, sit in front of them on the train, attracting Carrie’s attention throughout the ride, though Henry reminds her several times this is none of her business. He fears her tendency to get involved in others’ complicated lives and problems will, once more, cause trouble and spoil his anniversary gift.

“Van Buren, Arkansas,” the conductor says. “Everyone enjoy the town, and be back here in the train station by 2:00 for the return trip.”

Van Buren was founded in 1809 (as Phillips’ Landing) to sell wood to steamboats on the Arkansas River. Today, unusual details along Van Buren’s vibrantly restored Main Street entertain the reader and Carrie as she browses jewelry and antiques shops, seeing some surprising items for sale. She eventually buys a lovely blue-green pendant that matches her eyes (Henry says) and looks like an emerald–but of course can’t be for the small price asked. Meanwhile, Henry has been sitting on a sidewalk bench, people-watching. When the two of them walk down Main Street to the bank of the Arkansas River (“Looks as wide as the Mississippi at Memphis,” Carrie says), a heap of wet rags seen from a park sidewalk is, at a closer look, a dead body. Is it one of the men from the train?


Henry, a retired Kansas City Police Major, is asked by the Van Buren Police Chief to help with research into the life of the murdered man. The man’s home was in Kansas City, and Carrie and Henry have already planned a trip there to visit Henry’s daughter and her family. Henry doesn’t want to be involved in the investigation, afraid secrets from his past will be uncovered. Carrie, knowing nothing about this, is “rarin’ to go” to help the chief. She prevails.

One of Kansas City’s tourist attractions is a transportation museum and, while visiting there, Carrie and Henry discover a link to the Van Buren murder. Henry’s friends in the Kansas City Police Department get involved when Carrie is attacked. The couple is then moved from their motel to a safe house while crime research continues.

(Isn’t this fun?)

Eventually, after a fire scare at the safe house and other dangers, we move from trains to steamboats. Treasures that could have come from boats sunk during the Civil War have begun appearing in Van Buren shops. And the “emerald?” Someone sure is eager to get it back.

In the exciting (!) climax, there’s a gun battle in a shop full of china and crystal. Oh, was that fun to imagine. Well, fun for the most part since three people–the good and the evil–do get in the way of gunfire and falling shelves of glassware. But isn’t that all in a day’s work for amateur detectives who will try to solve other people’s problems?

And, for now, that’s all folks!