How Much of YOU is in Your Writing?

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

 

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Okay, let’s get down to the basics… If you happen to be writing a memoir, use as much of yourself as you want. But if you’re writing fiction you might want to rethink how much of YOU you put in your story.

I don’t mean your sense of humor or sarcasm or even little bits of happiness or sadness that has been part of your life, but you can take your PLOT or your CHARACTERS on the wrong path if you aren’t careful. Not that you aren’t the most interesting person in the world… but maybe, just maybe, your beliefs, passions, or politics might be the things that take your great story off the tracks. And remember, in ten years things may change, trends, ideas, even your beliefs. When that happens your story will look dated. But some things never change.

Let me explain.

I have been a huge fan of E. Phillips Oppenheim, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Anna Katharine Green. They wrote a hundred years ago. That’s 1918! Their stories are still readable. Sometimes you’d swear they were written last week. It’s the STORY that withstands the test of time. Stick with it. Don’t head down a road that half your audience might not want to go down with you.

I have watched some of my writer friends on Facebook mention that they will use the recent unpleasantness (AKA: the pandemic, the corona virus, the China virus, the Wuhan virus… whatever you call it) in their work.

Okay. It’s your call.

Writer Lady 2People used World War II, the Vietnam War, the Depression, -insert disaster here-, in their work. The memorable stories didn’t dwell on the event itself per se. They used it as a backdrop and then showed how their characters’ personalities dealt with the event.

Not that your characters might not do what you would do, but sometimes the story “sounds” like preaching instead of a fascinating character study or a unique story.

I once wrote a scene featuring one of my main characters when she recalled losing one of her beloved dogs. I wrote a rather long sub-story featuring everything I felt at the time of that loss. Funny thing was my character was driving home while thinking of this event. During an edit I came to that scene and realized that particular detour took my character off in another direction – a dead end. It had nothing to do with the main story and it didn’t necessarily enhance her character even though it might have been touching. It showed how hard it was losing that wonderful dog, but it really didn’t fit the spy novel I was writing. I cut it.

I do use people I know as characters, at least a slice here and there. Often I change their name. I do that mostly because I don’t want to embarrass them or anger them – lawsuits, you know. But I never make fools of them… period. And I never use someone I don’t like in a book. Why waste the ink?

I have used all our pets as minor characters in different stories. My wonderful husband, Richard, is definitely the basis of Fred Caulfield in my Gin Caulfield mysteries. I enjoyed using his strong personality so much, he will become a partner in her detective firm in upcoming books. But that is the extent of the similarity. I want Fred to be his own person.

Pencil 2As for myself showing up in the books I write, a little of me is here, a little is there, but I actually like to have my characters be themselves. I might like them because we are compatible, but not identical twins. And I definitely don’t want us to be Siamese twins joined forever, never having a life of our own. That wouldn’t be fair to my characters, after all, they are like one’s own children in a way. You might want to instill some values in them, but you really have to let them be themselves. Think of your friends, you like them because you have something in common, but if you try to change them, I bet you won’t have them as friends anymore.

So I let my characters be themselves, and as almost every writer I know has said: These people take on a personality of their own. If you as a writer just sit back and let them talk, you might just find they have a terrific voice. So shut up and let them do the talking for a while. We’ll get who you are by the story you tell. Trust me. Write on!

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How I Use Nonfiction and Fiction for Research and Inspiration

By Guest Author,  Sara Rosett

Some writers can sit down at their computer with no idea of what they will write about and launch into the first draft of their book. They find the blank screen and the infinite possibilities exciting and inspiring. I’m not one of those writers. I must have an idea of where the story is going before I begin writing. Otherwise, the blank screen paralyzes me. Before I begin a book, I spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the story. I’ve discovered that both nonfiction and fiction inspire different aspects of the story for me.

Nonfiction

I like to dig into nonfiction as I brainstorm my historical mystery plots. Here are a few of the resources I’ve found most helpful:

Newspaper Archives—My historical series is set in early 1920s England, so the online British Newspaper Archive has been an invaluable resource. I scoured the Positions Available section, what we’d call the Help Wanted section today, which gave me an insight into the jobs were available, the qualifications required, and the salaries that were paid. The British Newspaper Archive has magazines in addition to newspapers, and those are wonderful for getting a feel for what people read in their leisure time. One delightful surprise came as I flipped through an issue of the Sketch. I came across the first publication of Agatha Christie’s short story, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb with Poirot and Hastings.

Magazine and newspaper advertisements are also helpful for researching clothing and fashion as well as helping me keep in mind the attitudes of the time. Ads for fur coats and smoking tobacco seem a bit jarring to me as a modern reader, but browsing the ads helps me keep in mind the typical mindset of someone who lived in the early 1920s.

Nonfiction books—Once I have a general idea of the direction of the story, I search out nonfiction books related to the theme of the novel. I’ve read all sorts of books—everything from books on the English country house to code breaking during World War I. I find nonfiction is an excellent source for clues and red herrings. Nonfiction books have even inspired a complete plot. The second book in my historical series is about an author who keeps her gender secret from everyone—including her publisher. A real-life author who did the same thing inspired that story idea.

While researching the Egyptomania that gripped the world after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, I ran across a story of a British nobleman who had been connected to the excavation and committed suicide. That incident became the jumping off point for the third book in my series, The Egyptian Antiquities Murder.

Memoirs—One of the most valuable resources I’ve found for getting inside the heads of my historical characters are memoirs and biographies. The Bright Young People of the 1920s were a prolific and literary bunch. It’s easy to find information about them, and reading about their midnight scavenger hunts and paper chases across London as well as their extravagant themed parties meant that I had plenty of ideas for a book set in London among the high society set when it came time to write An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. In addition to story ideas, I also cull clues in red herrings from memoirs. I note down the things that people hid from their families or feared would become public knowledge.

Video clips—I didn’t realize how much video is available from the early 1920s. YouTube and stock image sites have quite a bit from that time. I’ve watched videos of people strolling in Trafalgar Square, dancing in nightclubs, as well as an informational video from the 1920s on how the brakes work on an early motorcar, which was critical when plotting how a certain murder was committed.

Vintage clothing auction sites—My readers want to imagine the characters wearing flapper dresses and elegant evening gowns. I need to know about the fabric, cut, and embellishments of the dresses. With multiple images of individual clothing items, auction listings of vintage clothes are a good source of detailed information about the materials and construction of the clothes of the era. Another great source for clothing details and inspiration is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute with its extensive online collection.

Fiction

I was a fan of Golden Age mysteries, but I’d always read them for pleasure, not research. When I decided to write a historical mystery, I began reading and rereading my old favorites as well as seeking out new authors from the era. I read the books in a different way and found that they gave me a first-hand view of day-to-day life in the time. I used my fiction-reading to glean small details that gave my stories the feel of the time.

Dialogue—Writing dialogue is one of my favorite parts of writing a High Society Lady Detective series. Much of the verbiage is inspired by my reading of Golden age fiction. Terms like old bean, old thing, topping, and that’s not cricket are common in Golden Age mysteries. The posh set was fond of their adjectives and adverbs, so I use those types of words in conversation in my historical books in a way that I wouldn’t do in a contemporary novel. Everything was ghastly, frightful or screamingly. I sprinkle those terms throughout conversation to give it a feel of the 1920s.

Culture—As I read Golden Age fiction, I made mental notes of how the characters’ lifestyles: the size of their houses, whether or not they had telephones, what they ate for meals, as well as what types of cars they drove—even if they had a car. Another thing I noticed was the formality of conversation and address. People rarely used their first names when they spoke to each other unless they were well acquainted. I fold all those details into my stories.

I’ve learned to allow some time to delve into research before I begin a book. I gather these all these details and ideas, then let them brew in my mind for a while. By the time I sit down to actually begin writing, I have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to go and some of the clues and red herrings I’ll use. If I take the time to absorb ideas from both nonfiction and fiction that blank screen isn’t as intimating and my writing goes much faster.

 

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Sara Rosett Author Photo 2016 Headshot 1500 copyUSA Today bestselling author Sara Rosett writes lighthearted mysteries for readers who enjoy atmospheric settings, fun characters, and puzzling whodunits. She loves reading Golden Age mysteries, watching Jane Austen adaptions, and travel. Publishers Weekly called Sara’s books “enchanting,” “well-executed,” and “sparkling.”

She is the author of the High Society Lady Detective historical mystery series as well as three contemporary cozy series: the Murder on Location series, the On the Run series, and the Ellie Avery series. Sara also teaches an online course, How to Outline A Cozy Mystery, and is the author of How to Write a Series. Sara’s latest release is An Old Money Murder in Mayfair. Find out more at SaraRosett.com.

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This article was posted for Sara Rosett by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

Getting together

By Linda O. Johnston

 I’ve mentioned here before that I used to attend a lot of writers’ meetings and conferences, including monthly lunches with my wonderful Writers in Residence friends. 

Well, we still get together monthly for a “lunch” – one that’s online on Facebook. It’s definitely enjoyable.  And that’s kind of how all my get-togethers with writer friends are going these days.

 I miss seeing them in person! 

Yes, writing is a solitary existence.  We generally sit in front of our computers and let whatever’s on our mind spill out onto the keyboard so we can read it on our screen.  And edit it.  And add to it.  

And it’s not like we can no longer run ideas by our writer friends.  Thank heavens for the internet and text messages and, yes, phones. 

Still, it’s different these days. 

But hey, thanks to my wonderful husband, who added a camera and microphone to my new computer, I can now attend Zoom meetings and be seen and heard. Not that I always want the others in a meeting to be able to see all my expressions, and I have to use a false background to prevent the windows in my actual home background from letting light in to blind anyone who looks at my frame.  But I can always pick up one of my dogs and let whoever I’m talking with see them, too! And I’ve also been interviewed on Zoom for an upcoming YouTube program, where I’ll be talking about cozy mysteries. 

I’ve always recognized that people are versatile–and these days we have to be especially versatile. And wise, hopefully. I don’t appreciate people who get together in large groups now, particularly without facemasks and not staying a decent distance apart. That can be dangerous not only for them, but for others, too.

 But I appreciate how resourcefully we’ve come up with ways to communicate with others, including other writers.  I look forward to when we can do it safely in person again.  Meanwhile, a virtual hi to all of you out there. Stay safe!

This article is posted for Linda O. Johnston by Jackie Houchin.

PERFICK!

By ROSEMARY LORD

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I’m trying not to be – perfect.

Or ‘perfick’ – as H.E. Bates had Pop saying in The Darling Buds of May. For Pop, each day and everything around him was – ‘perfick.’

And that’s what I have always aimed for.

I’m very much a ‘Pollyanna,’ and always seek the best in every circumstance and find positive outcomes for the most dire situation. When someone tells me ‘No, you can’t do that. It’s not possible…” My reaction is always: “I’ll find a way!”

I have also been my harshest critic. Until a friend recently said, “Rosemary, you don’t have to be perfect. You are too hard on yourself. And you expect everyone around you to have those same high standards. They don’t. So don’t beat yourself up about it.”

Hmm. Food for thought.

Life has been a challenge for everyone in the last few months.

At first, I found the lock-down a sort of blessing. An opportunity for us all to take a collective breath and count our many blessings, reassess our lives, and think about what is really important for each of us. Find what it is we really want to do with our lives.

heartofhwd-wch-sketch-6_orig   It certainly gave me time to sort out a lot of Woman’s Club files, paperwork and organization. That makes it easier for me to delegate and hand over the reigns, so I can focus full-time on my writing once more.

And, working on the WCH from home, I was able to squeeze in writing time. I found more and more new writing ideas and goals and decided it was time to put my own life first. To make writing my full time work again. Sooner, rather than later. That’s the plan – and I’m getting closer!

As the Brazilian author of The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho, said, “There are moments when troubles enter our lives and we can do nothing to avoid them. But they are there for a reason. Only when we have overcome them, will we understand why they were there.” Paulo’s parents committed him to a Mental Institution when he was seventeen, after he told them he wanted to become a writer! “Not to punish me, but to save me from that life,” he later said. They failed. Today he is a highly successful author.

Mercy! Makes us appreciate our own parents, doesn’t it? Thank you, Mum and Dad, for being you!

file3171299616544         But after weeks of world-wide shut-downs and no travel permitted, I also saw how small some of our lives had become. Often out of fear. When we do something out of fear – we cease to think rationally, boldly. Our courage leaves us. Some never get it back, especially as we get older.

We did as we were told and stayed home, closed down businesses, gave up jobs we liked, cancelled vacations and celebrations. We stopped going to the gym, too. And having our hair cut. (Well, that’s my excuse for my temporary extra pounds and my ‘mop’ of hair!)

 

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But all was not lost, as many people became very resourceful and creative. They shone through this adversity. They found new ways to keep small businesses going, create sideline businesses, found new ways to communicate, and celebrate. Not worrying about being perfect, they just got the job done. People offered help to their neighbors and strangers, and acknowledged gratitude to those who continued daily schedules in the community as ‘essential workers.’ So, the Covid shut-downs had also brought out the best in some people.

But life had been put on hold.

Meanwhile, I have spent long hours at my computer, at home, on Woman’s Club matters. I’ve accomplished much in working through these months, including resolving a complicated, year-long IRS Audit. But I wished I could be speedier with that very work. I wished I could work faster and do shorter days. I wished I were more technology-minded and that I could work more quickly in these areas. I wished I could do more for the club with online events. But I don’t know how – and felt a failure in those areas. I chastised myself for not doing better.

Remember school reports? “Rosemary could do better. She could try harder.”

So that stuck with me. I could never do well enough for me. And that’s where my friend pointed out my frustrating perfectionism. I had created my own fear – of having to do everything to perfection. Are there any other perfectionists out there? It’s a disease, I tell you!

So, I have taken a deep breath and let go of some of it. Or I’m trying to… They say old habits die hard. And it’s really tough, sometimes!

Lady Typing 2   In my former writer-life I spent many solitary hours writing. I was oblivious of the world around me. I forgot to eat. Not good when you had a husband hoping for dinner, after returning from a long day’s work! But Rick was very patient and sometimes cooked for us, and a plate of food would appear in front of me, on top of my typed pages. “You haven’t eaten in hours. You’ve GOT to eat…” he would grin and return to listening to his music through headphones, so as not to disturb me. But I loved what I was doing. He knew that, so he was happy.

And I’d lost that joy since he’s been gone.

So, after losing Rick, I took on the responsibility of saving the Woman’s Club, as a way of  escaping or forgetting, I guess. But it was such a different challenge. So much administrative work I’d never dealt with before. But I made myself learn. How hard could it be. Ugh! But I felt I must do a perfect job – in order to succeed.

I changed, I later realized. I rather lost my sense of humor. I was NOT amused by the battle I had to fight. The corruption. The thievery! I gritted my teeth and battled on through horrendous episodes. I had taken on a responsibility and I was not going to give up.

But I lost my writing along the way. And that wasn’t all. I’d lost spending time with good friends; friendships neglected. Life was whizzing by neglected and unlived.

These months working alone again at home I realized that, yes, I was a perfectionist where the WCH was concerned. Although no-one else seemed to notice. After my friend pointed this out, I realized I was being too tough on myself. I wasn’t having any fun – and I’d lost my sparkle. A girl has to have some sparkle. And I don’t know where I’d left mine.

So, I began to turn my attention to life around me again. Little by little. Now, new people have appeared to take some of the responsibility of the Club from my shoulders. And if they are not doing it as perfectly as I would like, that’s okay. It’s good enough. Gets the job done. They’re champing at the bit to get back out there. Back to work. Organize fun, interesting events. Escape from the Zoom Room. They are energized, brimming with ideas. And they think it’s fun!! What a relief.

06694-rosemaryatburbanklibraryjpg So I am becoming a happy writer, once more. I’ll be even happier once we’re allowed to travel, too. Even if I’m not going anywhere, at least I like to know that I could if I wanted to. I’m a dreamer, too.

So, my less-than-perfect writing schedule is coming along. With my less-than-perfect editing in my less-than-perfect office space – also known as a messy desk. And my definitely less-than-perfect filing system works just fine.

I’m remembering to eat, most of the time. Sometimes it’s a late-night dark- chocolate bar. And so my girlish figure is less-than- perfect. But that’s okay too. I still occasionally mutter, “I promise to do better.” But now that makes me giggle, instead.

I LOVE what I’m writing, and can’t wait to sit in front of my computer and create – or grab my pad and scribble notes.

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Mark Twain once said “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow-lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Sounds wonderful to me…

Just perfick!