building blocks

by Toni

I’m in that falling-in-love stage with my new book–where the sense of discovery is exhilarating, and I’m sort of gobsmacked at a new character who really came to life, all with one move. I tried to dress him very nicely. I wanted to give him an expensive suit, shoes so fine, they’d cost most people’s monthly salary. Instead, he ended up wearing wrinkled khakis and a stained and horrifically ugly plaid shirt. He chose this on purpose, and his sardonic voice is crystal clear. Particularly since he’s setting out to purposefully annoy the hell out of my heroine.

He’s got his own phrasing, and I’m not entirely sure where he came from. I didn’t set out to consciously create him the way he showed up, but he’s so much more fun this way. Bobbie Faye almost immediately refers to him as a walking pile of laundry, and I hope you just imagined a very disheveled man, hair standing on end.

But maybe it was his own phrasing that did it, that made him suddenly breathe and move for me. With his first bit of dialog, I realized who he was. And I love that aspect of reading others’ work–seeing a particularly adept way of building an image with a colorful, evocative phrase.

"…eyeing real estate in the neighborhood of My, These Kids Today…"

— Heather, on Go Fug Yourself

I love to eavesdrop and read blogs and jot notes from family and friends and my God, the notes I have from so many favorite books. They all inspire. (Okay, I have so many from books, it’s insane.) It’s sometimes a really stunning description, or sometimes it’s one phrase or a sentence or two that encapsulates the character, like:

"Oh-My-God o’clock…"

Suzanne Brockmann


"And some days, you just get your blues on."

— clerk at copy center


"My foot [hurt so much, it] started developing its own gravitational pull."

Suburban Bliss


"I was praying he’d shoot me so I wouldn’t have to burn to death. Instead, he looked at me and said, ‘None of this would have happened if you’d just agreed to have kids’."

J. D. Rhoades, Safe and Sound


"Just because I’m yelling louder doesn’t mean I know what I’m talking about… wait…"

— clearly confused man arguing with his date at the Circle K

Now, I could go through every book by every writer on this site and quite a few others from our list of links on here and post examples, but I’m going to ask you all to contribute. If you’re a writer, please post at least one of your own phrases / sentences that is evocative, and then post an example from any other writer (or two! mentors! favorites!). It doesn’t have to be dialog — it can be a description, metaphor — whatever worked for you. For all the readers out there, please grab one of your favorites and give us some examples. I know you’ll inspire us!


By the way, a whole bunch of mystery/suspense/caper/romance writers are all going to be at Mystery Lovers Bookshop for a fantastic signing event this week — on Thursday, April 17th. It’s going to rock, this event, and I hope if you’re in the area, you’ll come by and say hello.

10 thoughts on “building blocks

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    “Bad girl from bad family does bad things with bad people. Feels really… bad. Will try ANYTHING to feel good.”

    – Lisa from THE HARROWING, on herself.

    “Dr. Lecter has six fingers on his left hand. It is the rarest form of polydacty.”

    – Thomas Harris, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS

    “I didn’t know he was gonna come in here trailing his ego behind him.” – An event planner on a not-to-be named author – word to the wise!

    But I say it’s no fair having to compete against you Southerners with your Southernisms.

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    Thanks for the shout out, Toni…

    ” Let’s face it, he broke me because I was begging to be broke, his hand so hard on my shoulder, my shoulder so hard on the sofa, I couldn’t steer the Impala for a week without gasping for air.”-Megan Abbot, QUEENPIN


    “The girl heaved a heavy sigh and turned to the console that controlled the gas pumps. She punched the keys to turn on the pumps as if she was imagining poking Sanders in the eyes.”

  3. Catherine

    “The tripper staggered out of the Palace nightclub into the bright hideousness of dawn.


    Ten years of raving and the new day still came as a shock to him.”

    Leigh Redhead, PEEPSHOW

  4. Louise Ure

    Great topic and great examples, Toni. I’m down at the racetrack today, with no recourse to quotes other than my brain, and that’s not helping much.

    I’ll check back in when I get back to town!

  5. Shane Gericke

    This is a great topic, Toni! Thanks for letting us post our own lil’ ol’ favorite sentences. Here’s mine:

    Sanders shivered, suddenly chilled. He wondered why. The execution chamber’s furnace was pumping heat like the devil opened a hole in the earth.

    From CUT TO THE BONE, by Shane Gericke

    For all of you going to the Romantic Times festival in Pittsburgh this week, be sure to stop and visit Toni, me, and a bunch of other swell writers. We’re the Mystery Chix and Private Dix–I’m the sole Dix of the 13-person ensemble–and you can find more about us at


  6. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, everyone for the suggestions. It was such a gorgeous day here, I’m betting most of the ‘rati group were hanging outside, having fun. I know I did the same for most of the day.

    Here’s hoping you all have a terrific week.

  7. Tom

    Late to the gate, but such a fine idea . . .

    The hallway reeked of tobacco and marijuana, of musicianly sweat. Summer Of Love it may have been, but no one seemed happy that summer day.

    Every few minutes a round-faced smiling man came to the door. He let out one defeated-looking or angry-looking or confused-looking bassist, and took in another.


    Okay, Scarlett Johansen has run off somewhere with my llama.

    Author Uncertain

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Sorry, coming late to this one. Two of my favourite phrases come from a friend’s granny:

    “They’re all daubed with the same stick.”


    “It’s the thin end of the iceberg …”


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