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For the next entry in this Authors Helping Authors series, I’d like to introduce my friend and colleague Peter Bernhardt, whose work I discovered through the Internet Writing Workshop. A Quarter Finalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Award, Peter is a talented author and one you need to know. His stories are a delight for the senses.

Unlike the snake oil salesmen residing in the corners of this business (a reference I made in Part 1 of this series, regarding the plethora of available bad advice), Peter Bernhardt is a professional who knows his way around this business and never hesitates in lending a hand to other writers.  Not a member of the ‘Let’s kick out a story this weekend and publish it on Monday’ group, Peter is the real deal — willing to put in the hours it takes to give the reader a hell of a good story.

I sat down with Peter and asked him about his experiences.

Peter, how many books have you written?

I have written two books that are published, and I am halfway through writing my third one. My first novel, The Stasi File – Opera and Espionage: A Deadly Combination an espionage thriller in which, following the age-old advice to “write what you know,” I wove together the unlikely combination of a German upbringing, a lifelong love of opera and my experiences as an attorney.

When I finished Stasi, I had a deep sense of loss. Sylvia and Rolf (the characters in the story) had been with me for several years and there was hardly a morning when I didn’t think about them during my jog through Sedona. I had already planned to write another spy novel involving the Stasi Romeos—the novel I am currently working on—but several readers encouraged me to write a sequel. The Stasi ending contained a subtle hint of a sequel to take place in Santa Fe, New Mexico. What better place to send Sylvia to perform than at the Santa Fe Opera, which is where my wife and I attend performances every summer? A magical setting, which I hope I managed to convey in Kiss of the Shaman’s Daughter [Kiss].

The sequel turned out to be more of a mystery than a thriller and did not involve espionage. Surprisingly, this German male author penned chapters of an imaginary young Pueblo Indian girl who lived over three hundred years earlier in a voice that made me feel as if I had been there.

 Stasi seems to speak more to male readers while most female readers prefer Kiss.

Spoiler alert: if you plan on reading both novels, please start with Stasi, as it contains a plot twist that will be spoiled for you if you read Kiss first.

Where do you get your story ideas? 

I start out by asking myself what I want to write about. Then I open my mind for ideas to come. Most of them come while I’m running (the trick is to write them down as soon as I return home before they vanish). I find that it takes weeks of mulling over various ideas, considering them, thinking them over, casting them aside. One day an idea gels that my gut tells me is the one. Then it’s a matter of sketching it out. Of course, it often evolves into something different than what I envisioned at the start.

Let me illustrate with the example on how I arrived at the story for my second novel, Kiss of the Shaman’s Daughter. Once I settled on the story location of Santa Fe, New Mexico, I let my imagination go to work, considering several scenarios that would create danger for Rolf and Sylvia, the Stasi protagonists. News accounts of traffickers in Native American artifacts in Utah gave me the idea of including archaeology and the illicit trade in the plot. Not knowing anything about the subject, I spent weeks researching on the Internet and reading numerous books. I had never heard of the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 and most readers I have asked haven’t either. The subject fascinated me and somehow this German without one drop of Indian blood came up with the idea of creating a young daughter of a Pueblo shaman and giving her a crucial role in the revolt. Add to that a news account in an Albuquerque paper of the lore of lost treasure of Indian artifacts and Spanish gold, and voilà.

But how do you combine two story lines over three hundred years apart?

I wanted to experiment with a novel approach that might stretch the imagination. I chewed on that for a long time until I came up with a technique I was happy with. So I wrote the contemporary chapters in past tense and the Pueblo Revolt chapters in present tense. I think it worked rather well.

How did you go about getting your first book published?

After collecting close to a hundred rejection slips, I took advantage of an offer of the YouWriteOn site sponsored by the British Arts Council of free paperback publication. Based on peer reviews, Stasi made the site’s monthly top-ten list and stayed there long enough to be included in its permanent bestseller list. After some time, I published a second edition on Create Space and Amazon Kindle.

How has your method of publication and/or writing changed over the years?

After wasting precious time in querying agents with my first novel, I will no longer pursue that avenue. The traditional publication model is flawed in my opinion. The business is populated by agents who are interested in serving existing clients with name recognition. Publishers no longer promote or develop new authors and the royalties are paltry. I want to make my books available to readers who have an interest in what I’m writing about. Feedback from readers as to how much they enjoyed my book is enough payoff for me. Don’t get me wrong, I would not scoff at sales in the thousands.

My writing has changed in that I have learned to express more with fewer words. And while it took two and a half years to write Stasi, I put Kiss to bed after a year and a half. In other words, I have learned how to get to the point faster, to economize, to be more efficient without sacrificing effectiveness.

Do you have a favorite among your titles? 

I have favorite parts but not an overall favorite as between my novels. My favorite scenes include those integrating opera seamlessly into tense action, showing a reader an aspect that he may not have known before, be it about opera, culture, or history. The most fun I’ve had was to write in the point of view of a thirteen-year old Pueblo Indian girl, who in this author’s imagination played a crucial role in the Pueblo Indian Revolt that drove the Spanish invaders from New Mexico in 1680.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle as a writer? 

My greatest struggle as a writer comes whenever I start a new chapter. Fingers poised over the keyboard, I sit there while a multitude of openings flood my mind. More times than not, I change the opening paragraph half a dozen times before I’m satisfied. Once I’m beyond that, the prose usually flows. A close second as far as writing struggles concerns discipline, which tells me I should write every day, but another voice counsels that unless I experience life, I can’t possibly write about matters that will interest others. So I give myself permission to spend my mornings running, playing tennis, or to pursue other interests. I often recharge my batteries by following my passion for opera—watching one of my videos, listening to the Metropolitan Opera Radio, attending a performance. And then there are, of course, the daily tasks demanding my attention.

Thus, I usually don’t settle down to writing until afternoons and often stay with it into the evening. The way I overcome procrastination is by setting deadlines. For example, as the facilitator of the Sedona Writers’ Group, which meets twice a month at our local library, I do not permit myself to attend a meeting without submitting at least one chapter for critique. I suppose this harkens back to my attorney days when federal judges demanded pleadings on a certain date and if you wanted an extension you had better have a darn good reason.

When did you first feel you could call yourself a writer?

At the risk of sounding arrogant, I have considered myself a writer from as early as I can remember. I grew up in Stuttgart, Germany, during the post-WWII years where the occupying American forces set up a library. You could only check out three books at a time—not nearly enough to satisfy my voracious appetite for reading. When my mother turned out the light in the bedroom I shared with an older sister and brother, I read under the covers by flashlight.

German schools had composition classes, and my essays often received the top grades there as well as at an American university I later attended as a foreign exchange student. As a judicial clerk and later, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I made it a point to hone my skills in creative writing and to steer clear of legalese.

So I’ve been a writer all my life, albeit in fields different from fiction (no wisecracks please, about legal writing being fiction). But it was not until after I began receiving positive feedback from Stasi readers that I considered myself “an author.”

If you could, what would you tell your ‘younger writing self’? 

Where to start? I have learned so much over the years. Here’s my attempt at a list of dos and don’ts:

1. Find a good writer’s critique group and participate. Avoid puff groups (members showering your work with praise at the expense of thoughtful feedback).

2. Be open to well-founded criticism, but don’t let others write your novel for you. Always remain the final arbiter what works for the novel you want to write.

3. Learn about filters, echoes, was, as . . . dependent clauses, overexplaining, adverbs (especially those explaining dialogue), dangling modifiers, passive voice, mundane dialogue, POV, tenses . . . and the list goes on.

4. Purchase a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers—the only how-to book a writer needs.

5. Use The Chicago Manual of Style, a good dictionary and thesaurus.

6. Write for yourself. Write what interests you. Write what you’re passionate about.

7. Pay no heed to naysayers spouting artificial criteria (e.g., word count limits, no prologues).

What do you feel is the biggest mistake made by upcoming authors today?

1. Inability and unwillingness to accept and benefit from legitimate critique.

2. Becoming defensive when others point out shortcomings.

3. Taking others’ opinions as gospel. Develop an inner gauge what’s right for your novel and after giving reviews full consideration, stick with what feels right to you.

4. Failure to proofread and edit your work. If you don’t care about your work, why should the reader?

5. Writing for a perceived market instead of yourself.

6. Blindly adhering to cookie-cutter criteria advocated by unimaginative gatekeepers.

7. Failure to learn about the craft of writing, including proper use of point of view and dialogue mechanics.

8. Failure to perform adequate research. On the flipside: including too much research information instead of only so much as is necessary for plot progression, character development, or atmosphere. One must find the right balance.

What do you think is the best way to reach readers?

I believe word of mouth is the best way to reach readers. Someone active in social media probably has a leg up, but so far I have not been willing to invest the considerable time necessary to blog, tweet and Facebook. Traditional advertising is probably the least effective and a waste of resources in my opinion.

What are you working on now?

An espionage thriller involving a female West German intelligence officer on the trail of a Stasi Romeo who is seducing a secretary in the West German Chancellery in an effort to get her to spy for communist East Germany. Over forty West German secretaries were convicted in real life of spying for the East for love. While I use episodes based on true events, I, of course, infuse them with fictional characters of this authors’ imagination.

Considering the amount of books published every year, why should readers buy your book?

I write for readers who are looking for something other than the same old formula: the world will come to an end if the bad guys aren’t stopped; gore and violence; sex; the f-word used prominently; plots that choose shock value over logic and credibility. I cater to readers who value a tightly woven plot that makes sense, holds together, gives insights into an unfamiliar world. I do not insult the reader’s intelligence, be it by repeating things, by talking down or condescending, or by overexplaining, which deprive readers of the opportunity to use their imagination— the greatest pleasure fiction has to offer. If you fit this reader profile, my books are for you.

Not the same old formulas? Tightly woven plots? Insights into unfamiliar worlds? Peter, I couldn’t have described your stories any better. 

Readers, writers, do yourself a favor and pick up one of Peter’s books. And for the Germans in the audience, The Stasi File is  also available in German for the Kindle  Die Stasi-Akte – Oper und Spionage: Eine tödliche Kombination

© 2013 Robin Cain, author of The Secret Miss Rabbit Kept and When Dreams Bleed

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  Chapter One

ImageMy mother was murdered.

That’s what I told nosey old Penny Parker, anyway–mostly because she always acted like she was better than me, but also because the truth was much worse. I’m sure she would’ve loved to hear how my real mother didn’t love me, how she’d thrown me away like an old bag of clothes, but I refused to give her the satisfaction. Penny would say, “She actually dumped you like garbage? Wow, glad I’m not you.”

Heck, I wished I wasn’t me, but Penny didn’t need to know that either. No one did. So to make myself feel better, I made up the story about my mother being murdered—anything sounded better than rejection—and she bought it.

Unfortunately, Penny Parker had a big mouth.

“Why on earth would you tell Mrs. Parker’s daughter that your birthmother was murdered?” my mother asked the very next morning. Although she’d waited until she’d sung me Happy Birthday and lit the candle on my birthday muffin, her question turned my wish into one for Penny Big Mouth’s murder.

“Good Lord, So-So,” she said, using the moniker I’d been given years earlier by a relative who’d curiously decided ‘Sophie’ was too difficult to say, yet hadn’t considered its possible long-term affects on my self-esteem. “Making up a story about your birthmother being murdered? That’s just wrong. Reminds me of the nonsense folks made up back in the fifties. Girls suddenly sent off to live with relatives, parents hoping no one would be the wiser when their daughter reappeared nine months later, everyone acting like nothing happened. You know my dear friend Linda? She reached adulthood before her parents even told her she’d been adopted.”

Sixteen years old and my birthday celebration reduced to a lecture and a muffin.

“Things have changed in the last twenty years, So-So. Putting babies up for adoption is an act of love. If you aren’t comfortable telling people the truth then tell them it’s none of their business, but don’t just make up stories. Especially not awful ones.”

A long silence followed, leading me to believe she might’ve finally exhausted her subject matter.

“Do you suppose she ever thinks of me?” I asked.

“Does who ever think of you, dear?” She tilted her head to view me above the eyeglasses perched upon her nose and which had come precariously close to falling into her sink of sudsy water. “And stop playing with your food. You’re making a mess all over my floor.”

“My birthmother.” I swept the remaining muffin crumbs off the table and onto the floor when she looked the other way.

“No matter how many times you ask, my answer isn’t going to change. I don’t know.”

“Come on. Isn’t it normal for me to wonder about something like this–especially on my birthday?”

“Yes, of course it is. It just seems that you’ve been asking for as long as I can remember–and not just on birthdays, either.” She tossed the towel she’d been using to dry the dishes on the counter and faced me. “I don’t want to seem heartless, but I can’t change the facts. I don’t know the answer.” She removed her glasses and held them up to the light. Once satisfied her view was unimpeded–acknowledged with an imperceptible nod of her head–she put them back on. “Enough now. Go get ready for work. Seeing as this was the only job you could get, you better not start off being late.”

Lie number two I’d told in as many days. The nursing home wasn’t the only place I could get a job. It was the only place I’d applied. Assuming the residents were unloved toss-aways like me, I figured we’d have something in common. This idea—spawned by the anniversary of my birthmother’s choice—made near perfect sense, but my mother didn’t need to know as much, seeing as she’d just busted me for one lie.

Instead, I left the lie intact and dressed for work. The required shapeless polyester uniform, paired with the white rubber-soled shoes, looked ridiculous and only added to my already-sour mood.

Happy birthday to me.

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Solving all the world’s problems is a bit of a task, wouldn’t you say?  Therefore, today, and only today, I am going to do something a bit different. Something a little sexy…something a little naughty… just to see if you’re paying attention. I mean, who has time to read all these blogs anyway and can’t they just be fun for once?

I’m posting a condensed excerpt from my last book, When Dreams Bleed. One doesn’t have to know the entire story or even the characters. This is just meant as a tease, a little ‘sexy’ to liven up your day.  Hope you enjoy –

Warning: Contains graphic material

Upstairs packing for her red-eye flight and unable to decide on which pair of black slacks to take, she hears the doorbell ring. Not expecting anyone this time of night, she tightens the belt of her silk robe and goes to see who is at the door. Peering through the tiny peephole, she fully expects to find a stranger. But much to her surprise, it’s him.

It has been awhile since he’s come to her door like this. After having parted ways on a bad note, she came to realize their attraction and desire had become too great a strain on their individual lives. With so much at stake, she’d decided – albeit reluctantly – to give their anger some time to subside. And though she had understood the logic of it, in principle, she knew she would miss him desperately. She’d forced herself to play this game – pretending to be strong, acting like it didn’t matter – but she continually felt as if someone had stolen a part of her heart.

She makes one last adjustment to her robe, takes a deep breath before unfastening the lock and opening the door to greet him.

“Well, what brings you here, stranger?” She isn’t sure what’s expected in a situation like this. It’s been awhile since he’s come knocking at her door.

“Hi,” he says, looking part-man, part-boy, and very ill at ease. “Can I come in?”

She steps aside to let him in, detecting the smell of alcohol as he brushes past her. She begins to wonder if maybe this hasn’t all gone too far.

“Have I caught you at a bad time?” he asks, gesturing to her robe. He seems uncomfortable, a little unsteady on his feet.

“No, no, not at all. I just took a shower and was packing for my flight when I heard the door. Are you okay?”

“Yes, I just needed some company. I hope that’s okay. I know we – well, I – told you I wouldn’t do this anymore.”

“You’ve always been welcome.” She lets her admission linger between them. “What are you doing out on a night like this anyway?” 

“The streets aren’t too bad yet. I thought you might like a ride to the airport.”

She ignores his suggestion. “Can I get you something to drink? I’m having a quick glass of wine.”

“No, thanks. I’m good.”

He follows her into the kitchen where she pulls a glass from an overhead cabinet. Grabbing a bottle of wine out of the fridge, she pours herself a drink. He wants to join her – take the edge off – but he knows he can’t. He sits and simply watches. She moves around the kitchen, her nakedness scarcely concealed by her short robe, but eventually sits down on the bar stool by the counter and crosses her legs. Their slenderness and length tease his senses. He imagines them wrapped around his torso.

“So, it’s nice to see you…here..again. Is something wrong?” She gestures for him to take a seat, but he doesn’t move.

“I’m fine. I just needed to see you.”

His forthrightness is a welcome change from the past, but she sees the tired look in his eyes, his slightly rumpled clothes and tussled hair, and wonders what he’s thinking. He doesn’t look well – like a man with too much on his plate. She longs to reach out and hold him, wishing he could extinguish the uncertainty she sees in his eyes. The memory of the unhappiness they have created for each other takes center stage in her thoughts, chasing all the “bitch” out of her, despite all she wants to say. The desire that remains between them is painful.

“Is there something you want to talk about?” Already sensing what he’ll say, she takes a long slow sip of wine and hopes it will bring some courage and some calm.

“No, I just wanted to see you. I’ve missed you.” His eyes shift to the floor, uncertain if his words are welcome. He can no longer make sense of the rules. Self-imposed rules, he knows, but rules nonetheless.

These words of his create a familiar charge for her, giving birth to another generation of his butterflies, which now flutter feverishly in the pit of her stomach.

“I’ve missed you, too, but you know that.” Their bond has now made it damn near impossible to do without the other.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

With the distance between them seemingly impossible to cross, he continues to stand a few feet away, with his hands uncomfortably stuffed in his pants pockets. He wants to take her in his arms, but awkwardly unsure of himself for the first time, he stands very still, watching her fidget with her wine glass.

“Haven’t we had enough of sorry?” Their promises to each other have yet to be kept.

“Yes, I’m sor…I mean, yes.”

They laugh, in clumsy acknowledgement of their mutual discomfort. He moves to take the seat next to hers while she tries to get the conversation going in another direction.

“They’re predicting this rain could break a record.” Suddenly aware of how silly she must sound discussing the weather, she knows neither of them has ever been good at small talk.

“I think it’s already starting to,” he says, unable to focus on the words. He wonders if she’s as uncomfortable as he is and walks over to sit by her, nudging his bar stool farther from hers before taking a seat. She smirks and rolls her eyes.

“You don’t have to be afraid of me. I don’t bite.”

“I know. I just didn’t want you to think…” Unsure how to finish the sentence, he stands again and slides his chair to a point halfway between them. “There, how’s that?”

“Okay, stop. This is silly. We’re both adults,”

He nods and they both fall silent for a time.

“Is it really alright that I’m here?” He isn’t convinced that showing up unannounced at her front door this time of night, after all this time of their playing other roles, is, in fact, something she wants.

“Yes, of course.”

Her eyes reveal what her words will not. He sees the fire that once burned between them and knows it’s still very much alive. No longer giving a damn about the consequences, he can’t do without her for a moment longer. Reaching out to take a hold of her waist, he won’t let her pull away this time. The silk of her robe feels as wonderful as he imagined. He pulls her close, trying to imprint the sweet aroma of her hair into his senses.

“Damn, I’ve missed you.”

Both of them fully understand the questions that linger between them, just as they know there are no answers. Yet they willingly and silently agree to go forward. Their desire has waited too long. She takes his hand and slowly slides it underneath the hem of her robe. She closes her eyes and leans into his touch, doing so without reservation or regret. 

He hears the sharp intake of his own breath.

His hands trace a slow deliberate path up her thighs and they find her skin to be as soft as the silk she wears. She moves to stand, allowing her robe to part, her tanned and tones body now exposed. She reaches up for his face and leans in to softly kiss him.

His arms climb inside her open robe and wrap themselves around her nakedness. As his tongue begins to explore her mouth, his hands seek the firm roundness of her backside. When he pulls her tighter, he hears her quiet seductive moan.

Sweet Jesus.

Her robe acquiesces and slides off her shoulders, falling on the floor, creating a small black pool that surrounds her bare feet. She now stands completely naked and still before him, but she doesn’t shy away as she sees him stare at her hardening rosy-pink nipples. A slow covetous expression spreads across his face and she smiles.

Now unable and unwilling to stop the appetite of her own desires, she reaches out and slowly unfastens his belt buckle. He stands very still and allows her to take charge. The painful strain of his throbbing cock against the ever-tightening fabric of his pants will not allow him to even conceive of a valid reason to stop her now.

She sinks to her knees and guides him into the warmth of her mouth. She grazes the tight skin of his buttocks with her fingernails and hears him groan. With very deliberate calculated strokes, she caresses the tensed muscles of his powerful thighs. She looks up at him, gently cradling him with her hands and mouth, and gazing into his lust-filled eyes, she slowly teases him with the tip of her tongue. She loves the power she now possesses.

His heart pounds and his body aches as a rush begins to build up deep within him. He lowers himself onto his knees and lays her down to float in the silky black pool of her discarded robe beside him. His eager, hungry flesh seeks the wet warmth of sustenance she now offers between her quivering thighs. It is then that they wordlessly yield to the urgency of their illicit desires.

Some things are just too hard to do without.

2010, When Dreams Bleed

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