Deciding What to Write

By Linda O. Johnston

 If you’re a writer, how do you decide what to write?

 Often, it’s the kind of story you love to read:  romance, mystery, paranormal, historical fiction, whatever. That makes sense.

 Or maybe something you believe others will want to read, so it’ll sell well. But that’s not something totally predicable. So I go with what I enjoy.

 With me, my preferences have changed over the years. Oh, I’ve always enjoyed romances, romantic suspense and mysteries. I’m not as much into historical stories as I used to be.  Same regarding paranormal stories.

 But you could probably tell what my favorite stuff was at any time of my life in the past many years by seeing what I’ve written!

 My first published fiction was a short story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and I won the Robert L. Fish Award for first published short story! Yes, it was a mystery of sorts, a humorous one: “Different Drummers.”

 My first published novels consisted of time travel romance, and most revolved around places or things I particularly liked. For example, one of them, Point in Time, took place in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. Another took place in Alaska, in the Klondike, and I’ve always loved visiting there: The Ballad of Jack O’Dair. And of course there’s Once a Cavalier, featuring my babies, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

 I wrote other paranormal romances too, including Stranger on the Mountain, and the Alpha Force miniseries I created for Harlequin Nocturne, about a military unit of shapeshifters.

 I loved paranormal romance! But notice that’s in the past tense. So is my focus on paranormal stories. I still read some, but I’m not writing any now.

 I’d always enjoyed mysteries and romantic suspense. I still do—and that’s in the present tense!

 That’s why I write them both: romantic suspense for Harlequin Romantic Suspense—and formerly for Harlequin Intrigue—and mysteries, over time, for multiple publishers including Berkley and Midnight Ink, and—upcoming!—Crooked Lane. Most of the mysteries, and as many romantic suspense as possible, include animals, especially dogs. I love to write about dogs. Why? Because I love dogs!.

 So that’s how I decide what to write: again, what I love to read. But also what I most enjoy writing about.

 How do other authors decide? Based on conversations with fellow writers, I gather they, too, mostly figure out something they enjoy, then pounce on it and pour out a story they love.

 It’d be hard, after all, to write a story if you didn’t like its subject or genre.

 Those writers who are reading this blog, I’d love to hear in comments where your ideas originate and how you decide to write about them. And how you enjoy writing about them!

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A Life of Unfinished things…

 

 

By Rosemary Lord

Many of us get very reflective around this time of year, as we look forward to spending Thanksgiving with friends and loved ones.  I love this American tradition. As a transplanted, naturalized American, over the years, I have spent this annual celebration in so many different places, with many different people. I’ve listened to memories of childhood Thanksgivings, of different family traditions across the nation, handed downfrom great grandparents to sons and daughters and then to their offspring, in due course.

Frankly, I envy these traditions. And I just love the importance of all the special family dishes that are served. The recipes handed down through the generations have their ownstories. And the simple custom, at so many tables, of each person sharing what they are thankful for. It’s a wonderful time when everything else stops for a while, and people from different generations, different religions and all walks of life get together to simply say “Thank you.”

 After such a strange couple of years, I think many of us realize we have a lot to be thankful for. Maybe for things that we previously had taken for granted. Such as walking out in public bare-faced and exchanging smiles with strangers… an impulsive stop by your favorite family-run café – that is still in business. Or simply – hugs with friends.

As writers, we are more easily able to notice these little things that have come to mean so much. And as writers, we are especially fortunate that, whatever external restrictions the dastardly Covid plague inflicted on so many people, for us scribes, we could just keep on writing.

However, so often we get our story ideas from a chance remark in a casual conversation overheard – or eavesdropping (‘ear-wigging’ is the more colorful informal English term.) I would often make up my own version of the end of some snippet I’d heard and that would sometimes turn into a whole story.  

But during these cloistered times, we’ve missed out on overhearing strangers’ conversations.

The Covid situation affected people differently. All around us, some were having meltdowns, dramas, or ‘wobblies’ – as in “She/he’s having a wobblie” – a charming current English phrase. Others found a strength and a fortitude they hadn’t realized they possessed. They found a new purpose, as they stepped into the fray to help the home-bound, the elderly living alone, or the children without an open school to attend. They volunteered wherever they were needed. Many new friendships were created. Everyday heroes emerged, as people found innovative and creative ways to handle the situations we all found ourselves thrust into – and along the way, found ways to improve other people’s lives.

For writers, fascinating tales appeared for our writing brain to feed on. People stories.

These interminable lock-downs have given many people the chance to write that novel they always felt they had in them – but never had the time to pursue. For the uninitiated, they had their first crack at completing that novel. For us old-timers, it was the opportunity to maybe write outside our normal field. (Did I tell you I have a quarter of a noir, dark and creepy contemporary novel done? Who knew I could write that?) And for writers at every level, the burgeoning self-publishing market has been a boon and a blessing.

I have discovered so many new writers from all over the world – especially when I can get the bargain price of a used book, I don’t feel so guilty if I don’t like it. Plus, I have a whole slew of new books to read on my Kindle.

I must confess that my own, personal reading, at the end of a long day wrestling with Woman’s Club administrative ‘stuff’ is more and more escapist. Often tales of a newly widowed or newly divorced woman who decides to start a new life on the other side of the world and open a bakery or her own winery.  I’m re-reading my Rosamunde Pilcher favorites and re-discovering what a good, simple, nuanced writer she was. Her books are inspiring – usually about starting again, uncovering deep family secrets that lead to wonderful, happy endings. I like a happy ending. Especially these days. 

I think I have a life of unfinished things….  That’s what it seems like to me at the moment. Some painting and fixing things around my apartment. Some sewing bits and pieces. But mostly unfinished novels and stories, which is a good thing, because I have started some new writing projects and my busy mind keeps thinking of more. Not so good because I haven’t had time to complete them. And the characters in my stories are still whispering, nay yelling, in my head to share them with the world…

But I’m thankful for every moment when I am able to write – and plan that “next year it will be different. Promise!” Hmm, I think I’ve said that a time or two before. But I really, really mean it this time!

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Another Look At Descriptions

by Miko Johnston

In my contributions to this blog, I’ve written about descriptions several times. Describing, or as Jackie likes to say, illustrating in our writing has always presented a challenge to me. Part of it is how much? and is this necessary? There’s also how well…? – am I using fresh word pairings and metaphors that impress, not impede? Will readers not only ‘see’ it, but believe it?

All writing needs description to bring the story to life, but contemporary fiction usually depends on what we see around us. Science fiction, fantasy and, to a lesser extent, alt-reality requires more description as the reader can’t assume anything in a newly created world. So does the procedures of a character with an unusual or highly technical occupation, or day to day life in historical fiction to avoid anachronisms.

Writing historical fiction, as I do, requires a great deal of research, not only of history but images that represent the time. Clothing, hairstyles, machinery and tools, art and architecture infuse the story with the flavor of authenticity. In managing the word count, one picture can truly be worth a thousand words – if you find the right words.

I faced an insurmountable challenge in my latest novel. I wanted a character to wear a dress I’d seen illustrated in a period catalogue, a flamboyant style from the early 1920s. Today I’d describe it as having a side hooped (pannier) skirt with rolls of fabric resembling vertical soda can stackers hanging from each hip. However, that would not be time-appropriate for the era I write in and I couldn’t come up with a better way to depict the dress. It forced me to change her garment into something equally ridiculous but more describable, something Little Bo Peep might have worn.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve had trouble describing something in a way that a reader could visualize it. I envy writers who have that knack. I recently read a piece by Eric Asimov, who writes the Wine column for the New York Times, describing the ideal corkscrew, sometimes referred to as a waiter’s friend. He writes:

“It’s essentially a knifelike handle with a spiral worm for inserting into the cork, a double-hinged fulcrum for resistance and a small, folding blade for cutting the foil that protects the cork.”

Brilliantly descriptive and clear. You can not only see it, but see how it’s used.

Another challenge is trying to describe a situation that many have gone through; for example, pregnancy and labor. If you’ve given birth, you would probably rely on your personal recollections. If not, you’d research what others have endured, like I did. Either way, some readers will tell you that’s not what they experienced. In my first literary pregnancy, I was so concerned about the birth that I left that scene ‘off the page’; my character leaves town a month before her due date and returns with babe in arms.

Now several of my characters have gone through pregnancy and childbirth. I’ve gotten more controversial feedback on that subject than any other, and always from mothers. Certain suggestions, such as those little moments you could never envision unless you were ‘there’, helped. Other comments were less beneficial, for although there is much commonality in the experience, little of it is universal. “That’s not how it was for me,” they’d say, and I’d tell them “Okay, but that’s how it was for my character.”

*          *          *

As I’ve recently finished my fourth novel in a series, I’ve reviewed the manuscript multiple times and also reread sections of the earlier books. In doing so I learned something about my method of describing. The more important an element is, the more I’ll usually describe it. For instance, in my second book, my character meets a family that will play a prominent role in the rest of the series. It’s my young protagonist’s first impression of them, so I devote at least a full paragraph to the description of each person, I’ve augmented the descriptions as time passed to show how they’ve changed with age. Minor characters, such as the housekeeper, merit a phrase, enough to picture the woman when she returns later in the story. Thanks to Gayle’s tutelage, I’ve learned a title – waiter, shopkeeper – often suffices for ‘walk-on’ characters, though I might include a glimpse to set the scene, such as the wizened mother-in-law of a black marketeer, opulent earrings hanging from her lobes like chandeliers.

The character’s perspective also plays a role. My heroine, Lala, is introduced as a child, “almost eight”, who grew up poor. Her thoughts and observations had to be filtered by her age and experience, which is why it took me weeks to come up with a way for her to ‘describe’ a terrazzo floor (…like flat pebbles floating in a sea of cream). As she matured, so did her perceptions and understanding of human nature. Whatever captures her interest, or she feels passionate about, will inspire a more detailed description.

I approach themes in the same way. In my most recent novel, I chose to represent the political and social turmoil of post-WWI Europe with an image I found in my research. Lala, now married with child, observes it while stuck in traffic:

She perused the art work, most of it propaganda celebrating the recent wave of Communist Party member assassinations in Germany. One placard illustrated a macabre street scene in Hungary, judging by the uniforms worn by a line of soldiers hanging from gallows. Wives and children wept at the dead men’s feet while, standing in the middle of the road, a Bolshevik in uniform observed the carnage with a haughty air of satisfaction. The caption read, Erzet Harcoltunk? – ‘This is what we fought for?’…The artist had placed the smug-looking Bolshevik in the foreground, hands on hips, an unkempt uniform wrapped around his fat middle. Skinny legs stuffed into unpolished boots. Thin arms as well, implying physical weakness…Then she noticed the slight alteration of the Bolshevik’s cap, a subtle nod to a trait he shared with many of the political assassination victims.

The gold star affixed above the brim did not have five points, but six.

Rather than rely on the headlines of the day, I chose to let the reader “see” what she’s describing and understand the meaning behind the images.

This method works for me. What techniques do you rely on to get the right balance of description and imagery in your writing?

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of the historical fiction saga A PETAL IN THE WIND, as well as a contributor to anthologies, including LAst Exit to Murder. She has recently completed the fourth book in her series. Miko lives in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Writing Short Stuff

by Jackie Houchin

How short can you write a story?  If you are doing NaNoWriMo this month, your goal is 50,000 words, about a 175-page book.  How about only 10,000 words, or 5,000? 2,000?

In Writer’s Digest, the September/October issue, author Ran Walker wrote a very interesting article titled “10 Reasons to Write a 100-Word Story.”  Say, what? 100 words? Yes! In his article he describes the benefits of writing “the smallest stories.” I hope to borrow from his wonderful piece, and write a story…right here…right now…in only 100 words (including the title)!

Here, briefly, are the reasons Ran Walker gives for trying your hand at a 100-word story.

  1. “The initial drafts of your stories don’t take nearly as long to write.”

Okay, here goes:  It was a dark and stormy night… No, no, no! 

Okay, again:  Last night Wesley dreamed he saw a floating lantern coming towards his bed. It seemed to beckon him to follow. In pajamas, sans slippers or robe, he wafted clumsily out the open window pursuing the light. “How could this be?” he thought, “I’m not Peter Pan!”  Wesley looked at his dog far below, barking soundlessly, and threw her a biscuit from his pocket. (No, no no, on that last part. No doggie biscuit.) 

Again: …barking soundlessly. A white owl flew by and winked at Wesley. 

Good grief!  I’m at 64 words without a villain, climax, denouement, or the title!! This is harder than I thought. I’d better get to the suspense and the ending!

A note drifted from the beak of the owl and Wesley caught it. He bent forward to read it by the lantern light. ‘Don’t forget to feed the dog. I’m working tonight. Love, Mom.’ “Oh, no!” thought Wesley. “Poor Maddie!”  Suddenly the lantern disappeared and Wesley began falling, falling. Something caught his foot, but he landed with an “Ooof!” On his bedroom floor, foot tangled in a nappy blanket, Wesley felt the happy wet tongue of Maddie on his cheek. “Finally,” she woofed.

This can’t be!  It’s at 148 words!  And what should the title be?  Lantern Flight? Owl’s note? Falling?  Ooof?  I definitely need to do some editing, but that’s Ran Walker’s 7th point.

   2. You are not tied to the traditional “Hero’s Journey” or Freytag Plot Arc.

Hmm, I didn’t have series of obstacles or a narrative arc, but I did have “rising” action, climax, and “falling” action. And a little denouement lick.

   3. You can let your inner poet come out.

Not only pretty words and/or rhyme, I must make every. word. count.  I’ll consider that when I go back to edit out “my darlings’.

   4. You can experiment with different genres without worrying about how it will affect your brand.

Well, my Wesley story is a kids’ story, so that matches my “cough, cough” brand.  It’s a bit of a fantasy genre however.

   5. The focus on a specific word count forces you to think about your story differently.

Boy, is that ever right.  Let’s see if I can chuck a few words right now.  100 is a stern taskmaster.  “Sans slippers or robe” has to go.  “He saw” can go as well. And “it seemed to” also.  Hey, this is fun. That’s NINE WORDS excised.

   6. You can focus more on movement within a single scene.

I think I have movement – floating, wafted, pursuing, flew by, drifted, falling, falling…..   whoa, I’m getting dizzy!

   7. It’s an excellent way to learn how to edit.

Walker says, “If each word was a dollar word, would you be getting maximum value for your $100?  Why write ten words when five will do?” 

   8. It forces you to refocus your story and choose only what is important.

He adds, “And keeps you from going off in tangents.” 

   9. It allows you to really pay attention to grammar and punctuation.

   10. It’s something you can do for fun, even if your intention is to write longer works.

Walker says, “The added incentive is that if you like the ‘rush’ you get from finishing a story, you will receive that feeling much faster with a 100-word story. At a time when people are wrestling to carve out time to read and to write, it is nice to know there is a writing form that lends itself to being consumed in minutes (versus weeks) and to being written in a single setting. Why not try one today?”

Okay, here is my edited version: (I had to cut out 49 words, then rearrange and substitute what was left.)

“REMINDER”

Last night Wesley dreamed a lantern beckoned to him out his open window. Clad only in pajamas, he floated after it.

He saw his dog far below, barking soundlessly. An owl flew by and dropped a note from its beak. Wesley caught it and angled it toward the light.

“Don’t forget to feed the dog. I’m working late tonight. Love, Mom.”

 “Oh, poor Maddie!”

The lantern disappeared. Wesley began falling. Something caught at his foot and he landed softly. On his bedroom floor, tangled in a blanket, Wesley felt Maddie’s warm, wet tongue on his cheek. 

“Finally!” she woofed.

 

Well, what do you think? Does it work?  

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I also got a few tips from author, Maggie King (MaggieKing.com) about writing regular length short stories. Her “Cupcakes and Emeralds” is featured in the new mystery anthology DEATH BY CUPCAKE, published by Elm Books

She answered my questions, “There has to be a cupcake in the story, so first I come up with a story idea. I love revenge tales, but who is seeking revenge against whom, and why? Once I figure that out, I can decide on plot, characters, red herrings, and setting. I must decide if cupcakes will be part of the plot, or a mere prop. The “body” is found in a church – my unexpected aspect – but is the church another red herring?  At the end I like to circle back to the beginning. “

Thanks Maggie, if anyone wants to check out her story and the other seven in the anthology, the link on Amazon is Death by Cupcake. 

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Ran Walker (RanWalker.com) is the award-winning author of 23 books. He teaches creative writing at Hampton University and lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter.

His latest book, KEEP IT 100, a collection of one hundred 100-word stories is now available everywhere.  The link on Amazon: KEEP IT 100

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Quote by crime novelist Jo Nesbo,

“When you write a novel, it’s like steering a supertanker. You have to plan; you have to have a route; you can’t just go left and right.

I started writing lyrics and the challenge was to write a story in three verses and a refrain. For me, a short story is like writing songs. You can sit down and write and you can quickly tell whether it’s working or not. And if it works, it may already be finished. That’s a real good feeling, to go to bed at night having written a story.

Also, you don’t have to explain a short story. When you write a novel, you have to think, “What is this really about?”  A short story can just have a feeling and that’s OK.”

Are YOU ready to write ONE HUNDRED words?

Characters and the “W”s

GroupOfPeople

For me this year “On the writing road” has been a character exploring and development kind of journey. (How) our characters can be the readers eyes when it comes to exploring and—

  • Visualizing my tales location/scenery, (where)
  • Getting to know the story inhabitant’s personalities—particularly the protagonist and villain, (who)
  • Sensually feeling the environment—(how) their five senses are encountering everything around them so the reader can feel the heat, see the colored sky, (what)
  • And, most importantly, engaging a reader to like, and want to know more about our protagonist and main characters—i.e. want to read the darn book.

Part of my interest in these character rest stops is a past tendency to lean on narrative explanation to develop many aspects of my tale. Now working on my characters doing more of the work!

Today, I’m pondering further down the “What” path, as in what’s next in terms of actual plot development. Not writing the next scene or plot development because I think it’s a good idea—but “what” my protagonist thinks would be a good idea.

Here’s an example of what I’m trying to say. The current Rhodes novel I’m working on, of course, takes place in Shiné. And at several locations. And in the beginning, early one morning Leiv needs to visit four spots to get the basic setting, background events, and murder situation in the reader’s mind. I’ve spent several months changing my mind, back and forth, flitting around on who, and in what order the first scenes should go. Duh! I asked Leiv “What” did his senses tell him was the next scene, based on his mental processes.

This approach may be already quite obvious to other writers—let Leiv tell the story. But I like writing in third person, so there hasn’t been the “I” POV in my tales from the start of my writing journey. So my excuse is, that starting as an outside narrator blinded me as to my protagonist actually leading plot scene exposition.

So, continuing as the third person story teller in my latest, I moved from an outside scene, to an inside scene, to outside again. However Leiv’s mind plot evolution started outside, where he remembered an inside bookstore scene, then another inside office scene, then another inside junkyard scene…

I’m exaggerating the distinction I’m making to make the point—my recent writing-improvement path is still characters—and on all levels and perspectives. There are elements in my tales that my protagonist doesn’t know about, and for those, scenes, the reader is stuck with me, the narrator.

Indeed, my characters have captured me…but I’m not sending out an SOS yet. (smile)

Bottom line for the writing nugget in this post, I think–is no matter your POV(but especially in third person), it is for your characters to bring your reader in (because we like or are interested in them), where we can then see the world through their eyes, and then they can lead us forward through story happenings based on what they see, feel, and need to know. Seems pretty obvious now that I’ve laid it out in writing…

Happy writing trails

A Revelation and a Lesson in Reality

Moving from California to Connecticut, coast-to-coast, during the first months of the COVID pandemic resulted in flying out of an airport almost devoid of staff and passengers. I sailed through Security with only two other people in line. In fact, the airport was a ghost town, as was LaGuardia when I reached New York. No coffee shops or stores were open, but, warned ahead of time, I’d brought my own travel cup and, of course, my kindle loaded with eBooks.

It had been 23 years since I had lived in CT and discovered that I knew not a soul any longer except for my son and daughter. I searched the Obituaries pages for news of long-lost friends and called up a newspaper I used to work for but no one had heard of my fellow reporters from so long ago.

Needing to get back into the writing community I joined the New York chapters of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and renewed my Authors Guild membership, but there were no actual meetings scheduled except for Zoom. Like most writers I thrive on in-person contact where we have an opportunity to pick up characteristics of other humans, locales, and other, often small, details we put to use in our books.

I cast around for any group related to writing that met in person and this month, lo and behold, I was told of a women’s book club that was actually meeting at a coffee shop. There was also a memoir group at someone’s home. I’d been to several book clubs in California as their speaker when one of my books was the subject of discussion but what would it be like sitting on the other side of the table? I’d been treated with great respect, gentleness, and politeness each time with questions that were easy to answer and expected the same for this author and his work.

Instead, it was a revelation and a lesson in reality.

The book under discussion was a pretty hefty novel by a renowned author.  I was struck the most by everyone’s intensity, enthusiasm, and deep knowledge of each character and their supposed intent; the proposed meaning of every scene, and talk about the author’s hidden message on almost every page even if there were none. It was fascinating to hear that three members said they were in disagreement with the author because one character didn’t really mean what he said and other members backed her up. Another lady said a character should not have done what she did and offered an alternative to what the author wrote, and yet another lady said two of the characters should never have had the argument they did if only they had done so-and-so.

Wow!

Suggesting rewriting parts of an important classic to suit varying ideas about where the plot and its people should have gone gave me an introspective that I knew was impossible to achieve. There are a couple of classics wherein the author addresses the reader as “dear reader,” in his/her books but I doubt it is a plea for understanding the book’s intent. Authors cannot please everyone, and occasionally cannot please themselves when they re-read a book they wrote years earlier, perhaps, and see one or two parts they’d like to edit.

I enjoyed the back and forth between the ladies who were diplomatic in their critiques despite opposing opinions. One tended to hog the limelight by going on and on until the group leader gently cut her off. I was surprised that 4 or 5 of the 14 in the group remained mute the entire time but the others made up for their silence with well-articulated points of view, albeit wishing the author had written some scenes a bit differently.

As the newcomer I mostly listened and didn’t reveal I was an author.  Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered but I was there to discuss someone else’s work.  Only at the end did I disagree with the general conclusion that the main character had redeemed herself by her ringing endorsement of a couple in love rather than try to split them apart as she had earlier in a book-long fit of jealousy. One member asked if the author wished readers to come to like his previously nasty main character at the end by having her do a complete turn-about of herself.

My take was that she was self-serving by pretending to have changed in order to receive everyone’s good wishes instead of their usual disparaging remarks when she dissed them ad nauseum. She was congratulated and basked in their comments, but to me she was still living up to her me-me-me attitude. My statement was then discussed and agreed to by a slim majority of members, while others said they hadn’t thought of it that way but, yes, it made sense.

Perhaps had the author been at this meeting he would have been flabbergasted at the suggestions for changes, as sensible as they were, and probably even a little daunted at the thought but, all in all, I liked the fact that these book clubbers genuinely loved books and discussing them in depth was important to their lives. I am glad I joined and plan to attend every month.

Should I take a lesson from the discussion? Yes, very much so except I am still writing what I want to write. If a reader finds problems in a book that is fictional the author can be excused. What have been your book club experiences?

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Jill Amadio is a ghostwriter and cozy mystery writer. This is her new novel.

A leggy wildflower of a girl, teenage Sofia runs away from rural Oregon to big city Portland where she meets and marries a charismatic Saudi Arabian later known as 9/11 hijacker #13. While a slumbering America embraces feng sui and pizza she is present when terrorist sleeper cells are organized in her home, maps of landmark buildings, airports, and bridges are studied, and teams of recruits take flying lessons.

IN TERROR’S DEADLY CLASP, a novel, is based on her true story, providing a rare, chilling glimpse under the radar of the terrorists’ daily lives as they enjoy strip clubs, fast food, and freedom from their religious rules. After warning the FBI of the Arabs’ photo sessions, driving several men into America illegally from Mexico, and other suspicious activities, she goes undercover for U.S. intelligence agencies with deadly consequences.

What I Learned from the Other Side…

This is a teaser post. The real article will be here tomorrow, Thursday October 20th.

Jackie Houchin (me) is switching slots with fellow blogger, Jill Amadio, who will be here tomorrow. (I’ll see you with my own post about writing ‘uber-short stories’ on November 3rd.)

Meanwhile, get your comments and questions ready for  Jill on Thursday, when she will tell you what it’s like to be on the “other side” of the Book Club table.

A Moving Experience

 

             by Gayle Bartos-Pool

AnotherRoadSign

As some of you who follow The Writers in Residence blog know, I have recently moved from California to Ohio. Coordinating the five thousand things one must do to leave one state, drive across country with a dog whose only experience in a car was going to the vet, and then re-situating in an entirely new place was…

 

That’s the subject of this blog. Not the fear the house wouldn’t sell at a decent price or the fact I bought another house strictly from photos and a video my niece took for me. No. That worked out. Or coordinating the movers to arrive on a certain date in Ohio and hoping the lady whose house I bought wouldn’t decide at the last minute that she needed to stay in her house for a few more weeks while her new abode was being refurbished. No, that all worked out, too. And getting a special crew to crate my dollhouses so they would have a 50-50 chance of surviving the trip happened. It was nail-biting time, for sure, but other than a lot of the miniatures I had glued down in the many miniature scenes I had built had come loose and are slowly being re-glued, the move across the country basically worked.

 

There were two large framed prints that had the glass broken. All my mom’s oil paintings and my paintings made the trip just fine. A martini glass and a margarita glass broke diminishing the service for four down to three, but I only drink one at a time anyway, so I guess I’ll manage.

 

Broken ComputersNot finding all the wires and cords and plugs for the computers for a month had me surviving using only my Kindle, but at least I could read my e-mail. I still haven’t gotten the landline set up. Or the printer. But it’s only been a month since I got here. And I still had several thousand things to do on this end.

New House 1

I bought the house with the master bedroom furniture and sun-room furniture included. The problem was that the lady who owned the place tossed her mattress. Because of the COVID thing, I guess. I bought a new mattress. The salesman said it would take two weeks before it would be delivered. We are now ending week three and still no mattress. My dog Candy won’t sleep upstairs where the two beds I brought from Sunny Cal are sitting with mattresses, so we are camping out on the sofa in the sun-room. I would tell you how that is going, but I don’t use that language in polite society. Needless to say, I have a large pain somewhere.

 

Oh, I also had to buy living room and dining room furniture. What I left in California wasn’t worth shipping out here. The charming salesman from whom I purchased the items said it would take two months for the stuff to be made. That wasn’t a typo. They have to custom make the furniture now. So Candy and I sit on the uncomfortable sofa or the equally uncomfortable chairs in the sun-room when I need a break. They look great. Maybe other backs and derrieres find them just fine, but… Sorry, I digress.

 

Anyway, I spent the first month and will no doubt spend the next month unpacking. I had a lot of stuff in that little house back in California. This new house is bigger, but not the same. Not as many nooks and crannies for the ton of collectibles I had collected. But I will survive. Some of my “collectibles” might find new homes, but I’m not giving up… yet.

 

I could go on… and on… and on. But my point is, have you ever seen the movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House with Cary Grant? Or how about The Money Pit with Tom Hanks? Each little adventure had its stars looking forward to a new, wonderful home, then reality hit, usually right between the eyes. Things go wrong. Lots of things go wrong. In fact, everything goes wrong. But they were movies. Yeah, right. Reality sucks.

 

But, hey. I’m a writer. I could use this challenge, or should I say “adventure” as the start of a new book. Make it funny, but I’m not laughing at the moment. I’m contemplating what might go wrong next. I have already replaced the stopper in the master bathroom. I tried a twist tie and then a clamp, but finally my brother went to the hardware store and bought a stopper and installed it. He’s an aeronautical engineer. It was easy for him. But my clamp worked for a while. So maybe the book shouldn’t be funny. But I refuse to write a downer book because everybody goes through this kind of thing many times during their lives. It’s reality. Let me repeat myself: Reality Sucks. 

 

So what kind of book would I write? How about someone moving into this new neighborhood where the houses are all pristine. Think “Stepford Houses.” Perfect lawns. Perfect streets. The people… Ah, yes, the people. (In truth, the folks here have been wonderful. They brought me wine, flowers, muffins, fruit, and friendship.) But what if the people in this new story are a little different? Maybe a tad too quiet. They keep to themselves. Then the hero of the story finds out this is a “witness protection” community and a bunch of the people looking for these folks find out where they are?

 

Robo ManOkay, that’s an idea. But what if the people are overly friendly, almost too outgoing, and they want to know everything about this new neighbor who came from this distant state? What if they keep asking questions? Odd questions. Almost like they are learning about life here for the first time? What if the entire community is made up of space aliens and they want to learn everything they can about us humans before they take over the planet?

 

Autumn tree in OhioAnd then there is the idea that came to me when I saw the first tree in the strip of woodlands near my house that had gone totally autumnal with orange and yellow leaves. There it was stuck down under all the taller, green trees around it. It reminded me of a kid wearing her mom’s fancy dress just for fun. But what if my main character happens to pick up a branch that had fallen off that little beauty and realizes the branch is plastic? Then my protagonist pulls a leaf off one of other trees and it’s made of fabric or plastic? My character runs to her house and as she yanks open the front door it comes off its hinges because it was only stuck there with a tiny metal hinge held on with glue. The curtains at the windows are little pieces of lace from an old handkerchief. Some of the furniture inside is made of plastic and several other pieces are overturned revealing a Made in China label. She’s living in a miniature world full of doll furniture that has gotten all shook up from its long drive from California to Ohio.

pict0025

Ah, the possibilities are endless. Just like trying to unpack all this stuff, but it’s home now.  So am I.

The Secret Books of Poison

by Alan Bradley

 

In my library are three slightly repellent books. One is the colour of poisoned custard, and the other two are a poisonous purple.

They look as if they’ve been through a lot. And they have.

These fat volumes, of about 500 pages each, were compiled in a time of disaster, and at the time, I didn’t know what I was doing or why. All I knew was that it needed to be done.

But first, a word of explanation. I am often asked, as are most writers, “Where did your main character come from? How did you go about creating him/her?” The simple answer is “I didn’t”, but the truth lies hidden in the thousand and more pages of these three uneasy books.

We had, at the time, a comfortable home on the edge of a forest – just like in the fairy tales. Until one night, lightning struck, and our forest was ablaze. Although we managed to get out safely with our pets, just ahead of the flames, more than 200 of our neighbours’ homes were reduced to ashes. When we were finally allowed to return, several weeks later, we found ourselves living in a blasted landscape: skeleton trees in a dead landscape of soot and ashes.

Time changed, and everything became different, including ourselves. What were we to do?

Sometime during those long hours and days and weeks that followed, I began compiling a compendium of poisons. The psychologists ought to have a field-day with that! Without knowing why, I had begun collecting and collating everything I could find on poisons and their history, all nicely filed alphabetically and indexed all the way from ‘A is for Arsenic’ to ‘Z is for Zarutin.’

The files grew from a folder, to many, and then to a book, then two, then three.

They contained detailed descriptions of the life and crimes of famous and not-so-famous poisoners, the history of specific poisoners from antiquity until just yesterday, the chemistry of poisons and their medical aspect. Ancient newspaper accounts told many a grim story, all so sadly the same: love gone wrong, ambition gone mad, and cleverness come a cropper.

There were heart-breaking tales of poor children who, in searching for something to eat, had – but enough! You get the idea.

Then, as the world around us restored itself, I put these books away, not knowing if I would ever look at them again. Whatever angel had caused me to compile this stuff had not bothered to leave an explanatory note. When the time came, I would know why.

Several years passed. Five, in fact. And there came a day when I decided that it was time to sit down and write that ‘Golden Age’ mystery novel I had been mulling since my younger days. It was a book that I much looked forward to, a tale that would draw on my years of experience in television broadcasting. Something fresh – something startling.

But it was not to be. I got no farther than the second chapter when, in a scene involving a visit to a crumbling country house in England, an eleven-year-old girl materialised suddenly on the page and would not, in spite of my every effort, be budged. She would not be written out and she would not be ignored. After a time, I realised that she had taken over my book completely. It was her book now, and my role was to sit down, shut up, and write what she told me to write.

And it came as no real surprise that her whole being revolved around a passion for poisons. Her knowledge of the subject was, you might say, voluminous.

Since then, she has more or less dictated ten novels, and has gathered readers around the globe in forty-some countries and forty-some languages. She has been on the New York Times bestseller list.

And that, dear reader, is the origin of Flavia de Luce, as best as I can manage to explain it.

And these three noxious volumes are the only proof I have that all of this is true.

See for yourself!

#

 

My website is www.flaviadeluce.com  My facebook page is AlanBradleyauthor. My gmail is flaviadeluce@gmail.com
 
Happy to hear from readers.
 
Photo by Jeff Bassett
 
I grew up in a small town in Southern Ontario, and being always fascinated by the magic of light and colored glass, naturally went into television broadcasting, both private and public. After twenty-five years as Director of Television Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, I took early retirement to write a mystery that never got written. I did manage to write other things, though.
 
Now that I’m retired from retirement, having lived for a while in Malta, my wife and I now live in the Isle of Man, in the shadow of an old castle, where we keep an eye on the sea at our door, which was once frequented by Saint Patrick and the Vikings.
 
 
 
Alan Bradley has written TEN Flavia deLuce books, plus a short story, The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse. His newest novel is The Golden Tresses of the Dead. All the books are available in audiobook form (which I love). 
He also wrote a wonderful ebook memoir, The Shoebox Bible. 
 
          
 
 
 

 

Space to Write

Guest Post by Hannah Dennison

Thank you so much for inviting me to Writers in Residence today. As it happened, just last week, I was a writer in residence … if you can call hunkering down in my friend’s converted coal shed in the wilds of Wensleydale, a “residence.” It’s a six-hour journey by train but worth it.

My friends have a small farm and I have an open invitation to stay whenever I’m on deadline. I have known this wonderful couple, since we were all just 21. They are fiercely private otherwise I would announce their names in big bold font.

The day starts with eggs from their own chickens for breakfast, followed by four hours of solid writing, a break for lunch, a nap, a walk on the Fell, tea with homemade cake. After another hour or two of writing, the sun is over the proverbial yard arm and it’s time for a gin and tonic.

From the original coal chute window, I have an uninterrupted view of red squirrels (it’s a red squirrel sanctuary), sheep, (this is the home of Wallace and Gromit after all), and, when I’m lucky, I can enjoy watching the hares who really do box.

But, if it sounds like I need peace and quiet to be able to write, that’s not strictly true. One of my favorite books is “Becoming a Writer” by the formidable Dorothy Brande. She urges all writers to train themselves to be able to write at a specific time and anywhere, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes. I can write in a departure lounge, a train station, definitely on a plane, in fact, more or less anywhere.

I was listening to a panel of authors discussing the pros and cons of listening to music when they write. I can’t but I can write to the sound of a coffee shop! I subscribe to an app called Freedom. Not only can you block distracting websites on your Internet for set periods of time—in my case it’s the dreaded Daily Mail—it also has a white noise “coffee shop” feature with the low hum of voices and the occasional hiss and burble from the espresso machine! You can also choose the location of your coffee shop such as Stockholm, Berlin, New York or San Francisco. Believe it or not, they all sound very different.  Another author admitted that she writes to the sound of a World War Two Flying Fortress just cruising along (no bombs dropping) from Mynoise.net.

Although it’s great to have the ability to write anywhere, I truly believe in having a dedicated space only for writing—even if it is the size of a cupboard. My space is the tiny guest bedroom. I pushed the narrow single bed against the wall and made it into a day bed. If I have visitors (which is rare), then I take sleep there with two huge dogs and give up my bedroom.

Speaking of dedicated spaces, just before the pandemic I taught a writing retreat on a small island called Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. Among the participants was a wonderful Methodist minister who shared how he always approached his writing with a ritual. He liked to put something on the back of his chair—usually a scarf. It was a way of indicating to the creative muse that he was entering his space with intention. I adopted that idea too and, unless I’m in the departure lounge where I’d most certainly be given “looks,” do this 99% of the time.

Since I mentioned Tresco, I wanted to share my latest release, Danger at the Cove (An Island Sisters Mystery), the second book in my new series. I mention it because I was inspired by the beautiful setting of this remote resort, twenty-eight miles off the southwest Cornish coast. I was also intrigued by the idea that there is no police presence, no cars, no streetlamps and no hospital. I have it on good authority that seasonal workers are usually running away from something or hiding from someone. I couldn’t think of a better location to set a mystery. The series is about two sisters who find themselves chatelaines of a crumbling Art Deco hotel on a fictional island in the Isles of Scilly and naturally, murder and mayhem ensure.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on writing to music or white noise and if you do have a dedicated writing space, what can you see from your window?

Thank you so much for hosting me today.

BIO

British born, Hannah originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. She has been an obituary reporter, antique dealer, private jet flight attendant and Hollywood story analyst. Hannah has served on numerous judging committees for Mystery Writers of America and teaches mystery writing workshops for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program now on Zoom. After twenty-five years living on the West Coast, Hannah returned to the UK where she shares her life with two high-spirited Hungarian Vizslas.

Hannah writes the Island Sisters Mysteries (Minotaur), the Honeychurch Hall Mysteries (Constable) and the Vicky Hill Mysteries (Constable)

Social Media Links

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