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The Horror Skeleton

Last week, we explored horror subgenres. This week, we dissect the story skeleton.

No story makes your skin crawl more than the horror story. It takes suspense to a higher, usually more explicit, level and generally contains more graphic material than the Thriller.

The overall story problem in this genre is a mortal threat to an individual or group. There can be a mystery at the heart of it, but it is separate from the mystery genre.

The reader expects to be not only thrilled and anxious, but horrified and you need to start from page one. You can start slow and build on the horror, but true fans won’t appreciate a slow, horror-free build-up to a final horrible truth.

The point of the Horror story is to make the readers squirm, scream, and confront their fears either individually or as a group. The fears can be everyday things such as fear of being alone, the dead, the unknown, or the dark. The horror genre magnifies our fears so we can examine them safely.

There must a sense of being trapped in a room, a house, a town, or on a planet you can’t escape and therefore must turn and face the threat. 
It’s scariest if the reader doesn’t know where the threat is hiding or where it will strike next. Tension rises when the reader thinks, “There’s something in the dark, I can’t see it, how can I protect myself from it?” Horror threats prey on our elemental fear of being alone and defenseless.

Horror sometimes follows the “who will die next” plot, knocking off secondary or tertiary characters. I am turned off by mindless body count plots, but they are certainly utilized.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that tension deflates after the "bang." I would add tension deflates after the "Boo." A good horror story throttles between "gotcha" moments, keeping a firm foot on the plot gas pedal.

The reader asks: What brought the danger near and how will they get away from it?


External Conflict scenes follow the effects of the evil on the entire cast or story world. The intent of these scenes is to scare the pants off of your readers. You have to confine them and torture them. Tension is created when the threat is something suspected but just out of sight. The menace has to be believable and constitute a mortal threat to one, some, or all. Panic rises. Suspicion shifts. Reality blurs.

In these scenes, the protagonist and/or victims are chased down a dark corridor, find the journal with the ghost’s picture, or search the library for who used to own the creepy house. They get locked in the cellar by the demon as the house goes up in flames.

In the final external scenes, the threat is removed, unless it is banished to return in the sequel.


Antagonist Conflict scenes depend on what kind of antagonist you have chosen. There can be a person or an entity that embodies the horror.  Antagonists include the abnormal and paranormal: ghosts, zombies, vampires, serial murderers, killer sharks, giant spiders, viruses, vampires, werewolves, or clowns. The antagonist must be nearly impossible to beat and to fail means death.


A dire threat like a virus is better if there is someone who wants the virus to run its course. I am reminded of a film that I saw called The Happening. Even though it was directed by one of my favorites, M. Night Shyamalan, the antagonist was a breeze that killed people and wasn’t really menacing enough. There were no clear stakes in the game either. The horror was caused by spores from trees carried on the wind. The deaths were random. Random targets aren't as effective as intentional targets the audience cares about.

In these scenes, the evil and the protagonist face off with each other. The protagonist comes into contact with the ghost and asks the ghost why it is haunting the house. The evil entity attempts to kill but misses the hero.

The object of horror’s motivation is rarely examined. You see the vampire creeping toward the sleeping girl because you know vampires suck blood. The sea monster slithers down a city street from the manhole and eats people, because that is what monsters do. The serial killer kills because he must. We rarely follow the swamp monster as he goes about his swampy day. That’s not to say you can’t. If the antagonist is a person or represented by a person, you can follow their POV in these scenes and explore their agenda.

If you don't follow the antagonist's POV, these scenes show near misses with the antagonist or the results of his machinations between external conflict scenes. These are complications caused by the antagonist.


Interpersonal Conflict scenes are where the protagonist consults a priest about banishing the demon. The hero finds someone to let him into the witch’s castle. He learns from the librarian that all ghosts have unfinished business. His buddy tells him he is crazy for believing in ghosts in the first place. People encourage him to stay and fight and some beg him to flee. Some people act for him, others against him. If secondary characters have subplots, they fit here.

This is usually where they learn the monster’s Achilles' heel.

Internal Conflict scenes are where the protagonist debates his belief in ghosts or wrestles with his depression over the death of his mother. The scientist wonders if he should finally ask his co-researcher out for a date. He struggles with whatever force is driving him to kill the monster or prove that aliens are out there. 

These scenes are sometimes missing in the horror story, unless it is psychological horror. Personal stakes and character change enrich any story.


Next week, we will take a look at Literary subgenres.

Check out the newly released addition to the Story Building Blocks series: Horror Build A Plot Workbook available in print and e-book.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Horror Subgenres

There are several subgenres of horror from suspenseful to gruesome.

1. Alien Horror takes Science Fiction to a darker place. The source of the horror is either on another planet or something brought to Earth from outer space.

2. Creepy Kids Horror features children who turn out to be evil or possessed by demons or Satan.

3. Erotic Horror features explicit content: sadomasochism, torture, the dark side of sexuality and the sex trade.

4. Extreme Horror contains explicit violence and is often a “who dies first plot” with no real rhyme or reason other than to kill the victims off in horrendous fashion.

5. Holocaust Horror contains mass deaths, either in the past or future. They can be due to human slaughter, a rogue virus, monsters, zombies, etc. They are often dystopian or post-apocalyptic settings.

6. Humorous Horror combines the horror structure with the comedy structure. It is scary and/or gruesome, but also funny.

7. Mind Control Horror plays on our fear of not being in control of our own minds. The mind can be taken over via sorcery or via technology. Victims are forced to act against their will and nature and are horrifying aware of it – unlike a mindless zombie.

8. Noir Horror
 uses a gritty, urban setting with cynical protagonists who must fight the horror facing himself or everyone.

9. Paranormal Horror
 features a mortal protagonist who must fight off immortal or supernatural threats. These include exorcist tales, possession, ghosts or demons.

10. Psychological Horror keeps the verbal camera in tight focus on the protagonist. He and the audience are kept in the dark. They aren’t certain what they are fighting until the end. This subgenre can also follow the evil or insane protagonist such as a serial killer, where the protagonist actually turns out to be the antagonist.

11. Rampant Technology Horror examines our fears that man has gone too far in their technology or achievements. It can feature monster toasters or robots that kill. It can be the ghost in the machine or the machine that steals your soul.

13. Satanic Bargain Horror features a protagonist who strikes a deal with the devil, like Dorian Gray. They end up paying a horrible price for their decision.

Next week, we will take a look at the Horror story skeleton. C
heck out the newly released addition to the Story Building Blocks series: Horror Build A Plot Workbook available in print and e-book.


For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Historical Story Skeleton

Previously, we examined Historical fiction subgenres. This week, we will dissect the building blocks that make up the historical novel.

The overall story problem in this genre explores an event from the past

The reader asks. "What was it like and how did it change things?"

For the purposes of Story Building Blocks, it can involve historical characters in a historical situation, historical characters in fictional situations, or fictional characters in historical situations.


There can be elements of Romance, Mystery, Thriller, Science Fiction, or Fantasy, but the overall story problem focuses on the historical situation with emphasis on a point in history. It can shed new light, debunk old theories, or twist history in an unusual way.

The art of the Historical novel lies in the details.  Creating a 3-D story world enriches the plot. Your story world must be true to the time, place, and people involved. You must research the customs, culture, and knowledge of the period to make it believable.
There will be fact-checking nitpickers out there ready to tear your authenticity apart.

Thankfully, there are myriad resources for research and access has never been easier. Helpful authors have provided guides to different historical periods, including costuming, weapons, manners, and morals. There are online databases to mine, maps to view, and even CGI recreations of places. If your local library lacks references, there are online resources to make up for it.

Good historical stories follow a traditional story arc of a main character that wants something and fights to get it: freedom, government, law and order, peace, war, revolution, social change, influence, or power.


In Historical stories, the protagonist can be a historical person or a fictional character in a historical setting.

The antagonist in the Historical saga offers stiff opposition. He or she can be a Confederate general, Nazi spy, Roman Emperor, or rival Queen. It can be a congressman or a sailor or a corrupt plantation owner.

External Conflict scenes reveal the historical situation in which the actual or fictional characters are involved. These are the battlefield scenes, the meetings of great minds to debate passing a bill. It could be a war, a political coup, a great debate, a ball or dance, an afternoon tea, an election, a business transaction, a slave auction, a lecture, a plantation house fire, or a meeting of Suffragettes. These are the battle scenes, the senate speeches, or the ship leaves for the New World. They include the inciting event and series of encounters that lead up to and include the final decisive event.

Antagonist Conflict scenes follow the opposing forces, the Union leader versus the Confederate leader, the assassin planning to shoot the president, or the congressman accepting bribes. They involve either the protagonist facing off against the antagonist on opposite sides of the argument or battlefield or the antagonist plotting and scheming on his own if you follow his point of view. The antagonist is often explored in this type of story, allowing you an opportunity to argue the opposite thematic point.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes can enrich the central theme with arguments both for and against the issue being explored: slavery, north versus south, England versus Scotland, Aborigines versus settlers, women’s suffrage, or worker’s rights. You can illustrate the shades of gray, how an outcome is good for some but bad for others. The friends and foes take sides, work to achieve their own goals, and shape the outcome by their aid or interference.

Internal Conflict scenes follow the protagonist as he debates the morality of his decisions. He is motivated by love, hate, fear, or revenge. Other people can be present, but this is his personal dilemma, the backstory of how he came to be involved, or the emotional price he will pay for upsetting the status quo. This is the war of allegiance to family, lovers, friends, or political groups. He could be dealing with the death of a loved one, a miscarriage of justice, or conflicting ties that make participating in the larger battle difficult.

For help with building the Historical novel, check out the Historical Build A Plot Workbook and the Build A World Workbook.

Next week, we will take a look at Horror Story subgenres.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Historical Subgenres Part 2

Last week's post on Historical Subgenres created some discussion about other favorite categories of Historical fiction.

"I suppose genres in historical fiction would be things like historical romance (no more, please, the world is sinking under the weight of the existing books); historical crime (e.g. Ellis Peters), historical mystery etc. And, of course, literary historical fiction - Hilary Mantel etc. [...] historical revisionism is often popular, starting with Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, although not strictly a historical novel." ~ Caroline Miley, The Competition

"Late Stuart period." ~ Carole Penfield


"[...] Tudors, the Stuarts, the English Civil War and Restoration, the colonisation of North America." ~ Alison Morton

"Where is the Renaissance? Tudor era England? Elizabethan England? English Civil War? What about the near and far East?" ~ Emily Cotton

"Roman Britain history between A.D. 43 and c.A.D. 400." ~ Nancy Jardine

"USA 19th century, Settlement, Native American, Civil War, etc." ~ Janet Oakley

"Australian colonial History! convict battles, Rum rebellion, vinegar Hill and later the Eureka Stockade! All Fascinating Historical accounts! Sheila Hunter wrote 3 novels around this era - minus the battles! #sheilahunter." ~ Sara Powter

"GEORGIAN: 1714 (with the accession of George 1) to the death of William IV and accession of Queen Victoria 1837 (also known as the LONG eighteenth century). REGENCY: 1811-1820, when George the Third's son, the Prince of Wales was regent. I would LOVE to see Amazon give the Georgian era its own category! :)" ~ Lucinda Brant

"How about Renaissance Italy or France? The Medici and Borgias in Italy? The Sun King (Louis XIV) in France? The French Revolution? :-) " ~ Cathie Dunn 

"Historical paranormal....like what if the princes in the tower were bitten by werewolves or vampires! What if Richard the Lionheart was vampire? :) What if Darnely were a dangerous werewolf and had to be killed and Elizabeth knew about it which is why she waited so long to have Mary killed?" ~ Helen R. Robare 

"That's what you would call The Golem and the Jinni, a recent bestseller." ~ Emily Cotton 

There are so many fascinating eras to write about. Each of the European monarchs could be explored, not only those from England, but Spain, The Hapsburgs, the Russian Tzars, etc. Asian, Indian, African, and Australian time periods languish in the mists as far as American publishing is concerned. Though History is not as lucrative as Romance or Mystery, there are fans waiting for stories that haven't been told.

For help with building the Historical novel, check out the Historical Build A Plot Workbook and the Build A World Workbook.

Next week, we will look at the building blocks for the Historical story skeleton.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Historical Fiction Subgenres



 This week, let's take a look at the Historical fiction skeleton by examining a few subgenres.

Historical fiction is most often categorized by the era explored.

1. Early Human/Prehistoric History focuses on the time before written history. They can explore cavemen or proto European and African hunter-gatherer tribes.


2. Alternate History explores what would have happened if a historical event had turned out differently. What if the South had won instead of the North?

2. Ancient Greece History is set from 900 BC to 146 BC before the Romans invaded Greece. Ancient Greece brought us Plato and the birth of theater, philosophy, medicine, democracy, science, and reason. It brought us Mt. Olympus, Zeus, and the pantheon of Titans and Gods.

3. Ancient Rome History is set between 1,000 BC and the fall of the empire in 476. AD. Ancient Romans conquered a great deal of the known world including most of Europe, Russia, and parts of Africa, until it declined and crumbled into the sands of time. They created their versions of the Greek Gods. In the 300s AD, the emperor Constantine went from feeding Christians to the lions to adopting the religion, leading to the creation of the Pope and the Vatican.

3. Dark Ages/Early Middle Age History is set during 500 AD to 1000 AD. The decline of the Roman Empire was followed by a time of cultural and economic deterioration. Populations declined in urban centers, trade decreased, and barbarians invaded. The Byzantine  Empire thrived and in the 700s the Islamic caliphates conquered parts of the Roman Empire. In the 800s, Charlemagne declared himself Emperor and created the Carolingian Empire. The Vikings settled in the British Isles and France. Norse Christian kingdoms developed in Scandinavia. Except for the Mongol invasions, major barbarian incursions ceased.

4. High Middle Age History is set in 1000 AD to 1200 AD. Populations rapidly increased bringing social and political reform. Europe largely returned to a feudal agriculture system. The high middle ages featured the Crusades, new codes of chivalry, Arthurian courtly love, and advances in mathematics, poetry, and philosophy. The vast forests and marshes of Europe were cleared and cultivated. Northern Europe was greatly affected by the Viking expansion. The Christians took the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors and the Normans colonized southern Italy. Gothic cathedrals were built. 

5. The Late Middle Ages were ravaged by the Black Death, wars, and economic stagnation.

6. Early American History includes the colonization of America by the Europeans up to the War of Independence with Britain.

7. Regency/Georgian History is set in Europe from 1795 to 1837 during the reign of King George III and his son, King George IV. Their reigns spawned a new excessive culture of literature, fashion, architecture, manners and dress. It covered the Napoleonic wars and the French Revolution.

8. Victorian History is set in Europe from 1837 until 1901 during the reign of Queen Victoria and was marked by a long period of peace, except for the brief Crimean wars, advances in technology and industrialization. It also was a time of buttoned-up morality. The difficulties in Ireland occurred during the mid to late 1900s with the Easter Rising of 1916 that preceded the demise of British Empire.

9. Edwardian History is set in Europe during 1901 to 1912. Britain was ruled by King Edward and the Titanic was built and sank. Fashion and art underwent significant changes along with morality. The King loved to travel and brought back influences from all over the globe. Politics shifted, common laborers and women became political forces. It was also the
time of the Belle Époque era of continental Europe and the Gilded Age of the United States.

10. World War I History is set during 1914 to 1918, and a war which involved all of the world’s great powers in Europe and the US. By the war’s end, the Germans and Russians were defeated and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires ceased to exist. The map of central Europe was redrawn and the League of Nations was formed.

11. Roaring Twenties History is set after the end of war until the stock market crash in 1930 and focus on the abrupt change in fashion and morals. Industrialization accelerated and hair and hems were cut short. People embraced the "live like you’re dying" philosophy. It was the time of prohibition and suffragettes in the US.

12. Depression Era History is set in 1930 to 1939 following the sobering stock market crash. There was a severe worldwide economic depression. The Great Depression had devastating effects in virtually every country, rich and poor.

13. World War II History is set during 1939 to 1945. The war involved most of the world's nations divided up into the Allies and the Axis. It included the Holocaust, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. It spawned the development and use of nuclear weapons and technology. 

14. Contemporary History is a broad category that includes stories set after the second World War. They include distinct decades that had their own fads, mores, and fashions: The 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and now certain moments in the 2000s. The eras feature the baby boomers, the post baby boomers, and generations X and Y.

15. Christian History features Christian themes and explores historical events from a Christian perspective. They can explore the creations and battles for autonomy of the myriad offshoots and variations of the one god theologies. The protagonists often struggle to lead spiritual lives in a secular world.

16. Historical Adventure/Thriller is a fast-paced and action-oriented hybrid of historical explorations, adopting elements of Thriller.

17. Literary History uses slow, literary pacing to explore a moment in time or the events that changed history and can be epic-length and multigenerational.

18. Nautical History takes place at sea, featuring captains and crew, smugglers and pirates, galleons and submarines.

Amazon's Historical subcategories.

Next week, we will look at the building blocks for the Historical story skeleton.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

The Gothic Skeleton

I grew up reading Gothic novels by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Daphne du Maurier, Henry James, Elizabeth Gaskill, Diane Setterfield, Anne Radcliff, Shirley Jackson, and many others. If you know of more contemporary authors writing Gothic novels, please recommend them in the comments. I am always looking for more.

I recently watched an excellent Gothic film: Voice from the Stone. A nurse is summoned to an Italian mansion to help a grieving child.

In the Gothic story, the overall story problem is a deep, dark secret threatening to break free.

The reader asks: Will they realize the danger in time and will they escape?

The protagonist unravels a mystery or reveals a hideous secret and often realizes the man of her dreams is not who she thought he was. The Gothic structure is set apart from the Mystery and Thriller by setting and specific structure, so I give it its own category. 

Atmosphere is critical in setting the creepy tone of the story. It is usually features a castle, manor house, or plantation where the remoteness of the location adds to the claustrophobia. The era can be Victorian or Elizabethan England, turn of the century American south, or any time and place when secrets could easily remain buried if not for the unwitting protagonist. 

It doesn’t work well if the protagonist can easily walk outside and be among civilization. Large, populated cities don’t fit the bill as well. Remote islands and the middle of deserts do. These stories tended to examine the role of women and the restrictions placed on their behavior and freedoms.

In Gothic stories, the protagonist is the woman or man who uncovers the secret or unravels the mystery of the creepy mansion. Sometimes the love interest frees the woman from her psychological or physical restraints.

In a Gothic story, t
he antagonist is usually a powerful, alpha-male character. Sometimes there are antagonistic forces rather than an actual “bad guy.” It can be the situation, the insane wife, the servants, or the dark brooding castle owner. However, the dark brooding castle owner often ends up being the love interest, poor misunderstood thing that he/she is. It is whoever or whatever element presents the greatest threat to the hapless protagonist’s success.

External Conflict scenes slowly reveal the secret and the danger. The unwitting protagonist realizes what she has gotten herself into and works to get out.  The governess walks down the dark hallway with a candle to investigate a noise. The hero guides her away from a window where his crazy wife is peering out. She has a near miss with a runaway carriage. These are the house parties, the afternoon teas, the double-entendre conversations. A doctor is summoned. A footman is strangled.

Antagonist Conflict scenes follow the antagonist or reveal more subtle antagonistic forces. The antagonist is not necessarily the lord of the manor; he often turns out to be the love interest. It could be the crazy wife locked upstairs. It could be the Countess who is determined to marry the man herself. These are the scenes where the opposing characters face off, whoever they might be. It could be the overprotective nurse or housekeeper. The antagonist could be the governess bent on destroying the peace of the household because the lord of the manor fired her mother.

These scenes can follow the protagonist or the antagonist depending on the POV. But the Gothic story typically follows the protagonist, keeping the reader equally in the dark. The antagonist’s POV is rarely explored in these stories. We never learn what the crazy woman in the attic thinks, unless she tells the protagonist. Instead, these are scenes where the governess is in the room with the bad guy or girl, matching wits, or defending against an attack from the crazy woman in the attic. 

These scenes are often subtle where the protagonist feels something is wrong but can’t quite confirm it. The antagonism is subtle but present. We get a sense of the threat rather than a blatant view.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes show the protagonist interacting with the staff and noble neighbors. These scenes can involve either protagonist or antagonist or even follow the nurse into the room with the crazy wife, but the story normally follows the protagonist to keep the reader in step with the protagonist. People hint that something is very, very wrong, but does she want to see it? Others attempt to convince her things are perfectly normal. Some give her important clues. Some point her in the wrong direction. Others lead her deeper into the heart of the mystery. Some weave webs and traps that keep her imprisoned and threaten her sanity or her life.

Internal Conflict scenes involve the main character wrestling with her desire to stay or run, confront or hide. She struggles with her past wound or the dilemma that drove her to the creepy manor house in the first place. She confronts her fears, her desire for freedom or her desire for connection. She remembers the loved one who died and whom she is avenging.

Next week, we explore Historical subgenres.

If you are plotting a Gothic novel, check out the newly released addition to the Story Building Blocks series: Gothic Build A World Workbook available in print and e-book.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

The Fantasy Skeleton

Last week, we explored Fantasy subgenres. This week, we take a look at the building blocks that make up the story skeleton.

In Fantasy, the overall story problem pits good against paranormal evil.


The reader asks: Will the hero obtain or learn to use the power to defeat the evil that has disrupted his world?

This is often the realm of sword and sorcery based in the middle ages or an earth-like place where magic exists. The protagonist must obtain or discover the special power or talisman to solve the problem in time. Mythical creatures roam freely: fairies, gnomes, imps, dragons, elves, witches, wizards, vampires, werewolves, and unicorns. 

Like Science Fiction, these story worlds have specific rules which must be well-defined and consistent. 

These stories can be comic, dark, light, or verging on horror. They can be altered versions of our world or entirely new worlds. 

The protagonist is the hero of the tale, the chosen one, the one who vanquishes the paranormal threat.

The antagonist is the figure representing paranormal evil: the menacing dark Lord, the head vampire or werewolf, the wicked witch, the evil fairy queen, or the enraged dragon.


External Conflict scenes are where the protagonist wizard learns the evil witch’s plan, searches for the child of the prophecy, performs protection spells, and leads the charge to the witch’s castle to turn her into sand. The forces of good and evil attack and evade until the final collision decides the fate of the world. In these scenes, the hero confronts the wicked witch with knowledge of the prophecy. The wicked witch tries to turn him into a toad.

Antagonist Conflict scenes focus on the entity or person representing the evil power. If following the antagonist POV, these scenes serve to reveal his plans and his personal dilemma. 
Depending on the POV, these scenes involve the witch searching for the magic child. These scenes can follow the witch and her minions as they wreak havoc. We explore the reasons the antagonist is who he is and why he does what he does. 

Interpersonal Conflict scenes show how the hero and antagonist are helped and hindered by those around them. The hero is put in a trance by the fairies to keep him from finding the magic chalice. He meets someone willing to show him where the prophecy child is hidden. He is driven toward and away from his goal by the friends and foes. These scenes can also follow the friends as foes as they meddle with the antagonist and each other, depending on the POV.

Internal Conflict scenes show the wizard fearing his power is waning or his gifts are not enough. He might wrestle with his guilt over not saving another wizard from the wicked witch. The faerie queen wrestles with what is best for her versus what is best for her people. The time traveler wants to return home. This is the thing that is driving the hero on his quest.


Check out the new addition to the Story Building Blocks series: The Fantasy Build A Plot Workbook. Since world-building is a critical part of the Fantasy consider using the Build A World Workbook to bring your story world to life.

Next week, we will take a look at the Gothic story skeleton.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.