Here’s a Novel Idea: Read a Book

By Gayle Bartos-Pool

The first person whoever wrote a book didn’t have libraries and bookstores full of previously penned tomes to read and enjoy and from which to get inspiration to perhaps write their own story. They had a story to tell and wrote it. We, centuries later, don’t have any excuses. We not only have books, but plays, movies, and television shows overflowing with plots, characters, scenery, and dialogue to stir our imagination. Not that writers can’t get ideas from life around them, but sometimes actually reading something from another writer lets us know it can be done. Even a lousy book can inspire a would-be writer to say: “Hey. I can do better than that.” And they do just that every day. But first we have to pick up a book.

You might have friends or family members who recommend a particular favorite. You can always go to a bookstore, if there are any left, and ask the bookseller to point out a few books in a particular genre. Long ago I worked at a Waldonbooks in the Glendale Galleria in California. People were always asking where a particular section was. Mysteries, romance, kid’s books, self-help, religion. At times I would point out a favorite of mine. The store would set out best-selling books on tables in the front of the store complete with advertising paraphernalia from the publisher. We didn’t have to do that with the romance novels. They sold like hotcakes and we would sell down to the wall by month’s end. Unfortunately, the book chain decided they didn’t want to carry lots of books in all kinds of genres, only the top selling books. Obviously they didn’t know avid readers liked to pick out a ton of books of their choosing, old titles, newer ones, or try something different. Oh well. Management must have been more interested in their bottom line than their customers. I love capitalism, but I also love books.

But what can a writer or would-be writer do to get inspiration? They need to ask the one person who will have the most influence on their work what they prefer reading? And who is this veritable font of information? Themselves. Writers usually write what they like to read. But they need to read other writers in their chosen genre to see what’s out there. This means the good, the bad, and the: “Oh, God! That’s the best thing I ever read.” kind of book.

Now I might have loved mystery books and mystery shows on TV, but the first book I wrote, though it took a while to get published, was a disaster novel, CAVERNS. Then I spent ten years writing a spy trilogy, but that wasn’t finding a publisher, either. Then my wonderful husband, Richard, said these immortal words: “You used to be a private detective. Why don’t you write a mystery novel?” Ah!

But what did I know about writing a mystery? My spy novels were based on History and a bit about my dad’s life in the Air Force. I added a ton of facts and made up the rest. But a mystery. I needed to know more about the genre since mystery writing wasn’t like a stand-alone novel where the writer defined the parameters. What did I do? First, I joined Sisters-in-Crime in Los Angeles and Mystery Writers of America so I could hear what other mystery writers did. Those two groups had many famous speakers at their meetings who talked about their writing. I read their books and the books of some of the members of both groups. I was learning.

Since a writer needs a place in which to set a story, a few came up. First, I got called to jury duty. Then Richard got called. He went to downtown Los Angeles the same day the O.J. Simpson jurors were called. He came home and told me about the media circus down there with news cameras, helicopters, and microphones. My first Gin Caulfield book was called Media Justice about a high-profile case, the media’s influence, and Gin gets called to jury duty.

Next, Richard and I got free tickets to the Santa Anita Race Track. That became the opening of the second mystery in the Gin Caulfield Mystery Series, Hedge Bet. But then something else happened. I read another book.

This book was Eighteen by Jan Burke. Jan was a member of Sisters-in-Crime and I picked up her book of short stories. I loved the book and the idea of writing a short story. So I wrote one about an ex-mobster turned private detective. Then I wrote another one about the same guy. Then Sisters-in-Crime announced their latest anthology and asked for submissions. The theme of the anthology was landmarks in Los Angeles. I had to write another story, but it just so happened Richard invited me downtown for lunch one day and we went to the Bonaventure Hotel. That landmark ended up being the one I used in my story and the story got in the anthology. I thanked Jan for her inspiration.

Now I had three stories with the same character. The reviews for my story in the anthology were good, so I wanted to write more with him as the lead. So I wrote a couple more, but can you do a book of short stories all about the same guy?

Then I met another writer. I had read a lot of his books as a teenager and read even more after I met him. His name: Ray Bradbury. Jackie Houchin, a fellow Writers-in-Residence member and good friend, and I went to the opening of his play Fahrenheit 451 since Jackie reviewed plays for a local newspaper as well as an on-line paper. She got to bring a guest, me, but I thought I should review the play, too, since we got in free. On Opening Night Mr. Bradbury mentioned the time he had a batch of short stories he wanted to have published so he asked his publisher what he should do with them. The publisher told Ray to link the stories together which he did and The Martian Chronicles was published. So I had my answer from a writer who got the job done. I linked the Johnny Casino short stories together like a TV series.

I have three books in the Johnny Casino Casebook Series out there now thanks to inspiration from my husband, a book by Jan Burke, some advice from one of the best writers in history, Ray Bradbury, a chance to review Ray’s play because of a friend, and the fact I liked mysteries and wanted to write them.

Ninety present of the books I read are mysteries. I have learned a lot from each one: What to do and what not to do. And also what I can do better. But reading sure made a difference in my writing. If you are a writer: Read On!

Words, Words, Words

by Jill Amadio

Capture (1)For the past several months I have often wondered when I would succumb to the inevitable and find that one morning I have woken up woke.

If so, what would it mean? When would the barrage of new phrases and words all find their way into my mysteries?  That alone is a mystery, one of wonderment as I ponder the problem. The main issue, I assume, is finding the correct context for such slang as “snowflakes” when I am writing about my main character, Tosca Trevant, as she sunbathes in Newport Beach, California. Turns out that calling someone a snowflake is an insult. The connotation is beyond me but I can just imagine her whispering furiously in denial as I write.

Perhaps I should send her “catfishing” after having a “glow-up” as part of the plot. Translated, catfishing appears to mean using a fake ID, and glow-up refers to using make-up in order to make oneself more attractive, although it can also refer to using cocaine. I should confess here that the British phrase, “nighthawking” has been around forever in the UK and widely used in books and film. It was recently used in the TV detective series, “Midsummer Murders,” and means poaching, trespassing to hunt rabbits and wild life illegally at night.

What about “gaslighting?” To my mind the expression would necessitate sending Tosca back in time to that glorious era when gas lit our street lights, lamps, and stoves. Ah, but I was able to understood it quite easily when I remembered how the dastardly Charles Boyer would alternately lower and then raise the gas to make Ingrid Berman think she was going crazy.

The word “doxed,” however, had me baffled until I Googled it and found it means luring someone into a relationship, usually with malicious intent, and using an online dating service. Now, doesn’t the word “lure” conjure up a far more sinister image than dox? I also think that anything beginning with “dox” sounds like something Shakespeare would write, or thundered aloud by King Henry VIII, and is akin to “pox.”

According to my trusty Roget’s Thesaurus, under the reference for “doxology,” there are many meanings, almost all relating to religion and one to “malicious intent.” This term has a far more ominous foreboding to it than dox. Even using it in context in conversation would, I think, raise eyebrows.Office clutter 1

Which brings me to “shadow banning,” and its offshoot, “stealth banning.” The first version is weird but the second phrase is much more clear. But both well and truly stumped me, even when I took them separately. How was I to use the phrase in a book unless, perhaps, I was writing a ghost story? Would the plot require me to ban shadows? I once wrote a magazine series about a ghost-hunting couple who went on to have a TV show, but I know for a fact they were seeking what they believed were real ghosts, not shadows. This week, defining the phrase resulted in my learning that shadow banning means blocking someone from using their social media page without their knowledge.

How about “cancel culture?” Seems as if all these new words have negative meanings. I suppose that cancel culture means boycotting someone’s ideas and beliefs, or their culture and replacing it with something more acceptable – although I ask who is making those decisions?

Reviewing all of these slang words, most of which have not yet been added to my computer’s Spelling program, I wonder how long before they will be replaced with others, and how can writers keep up? I scoured a few of the latest mysteries recently released and could find none of the above, just old-fashioned, familiar words that can be understood by readers, as they have been for centuries.

Will we be left behind if we don’t keep up with the new language? Will publishers need to pull our mysteries and re-edit to replace the offending words we have lovingly crafted and insert instead the current phraseology? Or should we wait awhile for the truly latest? Only on television have I heard any of the above weirdo words used, mostly by news broadcasters with woke as their favorite. One last note, some of the slang has now been translated into other languages, including Urdu.

What is your favorite gripe, if any, about our new English language? Are you planning to use it in your mysteries and thrillers? Perhaps we should include a glossary at the beginning or back of the book. Or not. Either way, I am off to get a glow up, do a little catfishing, and dox my landlord.

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Research: How Much is Enough?

 

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

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Shakespeare didn’t have access to the Internet to look up Who’s Who? Back when he wrote about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, or the hundreds of other historical characters who populate his plays. There were a few books available that would give him some background information and the schools in the Stratford area where he grew up had a curriculum that taught a lot about the Greeks, Romans, and what History was known at the time. What else would they be teaching? Nuclear fission? Some “scholars” (I use quotation marks because I question their credentials.) have tried to say The Bard didn’t actually write all his work because he wasn’t “formally educated” and how dare a mere peasant do such a good job? Well, it looks like he did and did it beautifully.

 

My point is, writers need to research their work just like Shakespeare must have done at least enough to capture an era or a practice or an historical character who might appear in their story. And then there are locations that the writer might never have actually visited like Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars or police procedures like Along Came a Spider by James Patterson unless they were a cop or knew a cop themselves or knew how to break into a house unless they were a burglar or knew one or… You get my drift.

 

So what does a writer today do? Research. There is a ton of it already done out there whether you go to the library or use the Internet or talk to people who do some of this stuff for a living or who have experienced something about which you are writing. Dick Francis gave his characters great jobs before the mystery interfered with their daily lives. Everything from jockeys to photographers to wine merchants. By the time the mystery was solved the reader knew some interesting things about all kinds of occupations. And it was always just enough. He never weighed down his prose with a seminar on “existential basket weaving.” Of course there is Joseph Wambaugh who served fourteen years with the Los Angeles Police Department and who then went on to write over a dozen terrific novels about the police.

 

Let me give you a “for instance” of learning something from a great source. When I was first writing the Johnny Casino books I wanted him to have a rather dubious background. I wanted his father to be in the Mob back in New Jersey. Johnny would grow up in that atmosphere. He would actually work for the Mob until he realized this wasn’t who he was (In more ways than one as it turned out.) He wanted something else out of life.

 

This was all well and good. Johnny would change his name, eventually move to California, and become a private detective after nearly screwing up there, but then he realized: that other life wasn’t him. But I had a problem… or two. I didn’t know if that character arc was feasible. Once in the Mob, always in the Mob. Isn’t that the case? “The only way outta da Mob is in a pine box.” (I made up that quote, but you get my point.) Then I went to a gun store to, well, buy a gun, and I met the owner: Chris Biller. If this wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what was.

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Chris had been an L.A. cop for many years. When he retired he opened Greta’s Guns in Simi Valley, California. Chris had been a good cop. He didn’t much care for those guys in the ranks who got chummy with celebrities and who forgot they were still wearing the badge. He had some good stories. But he had one more story that made all the difference in his life (and Johnny’s and mine as well.) His father had been in the Greek Mafia. Chris grew up much like my Johnny Casino character, not that Chris was a hood, but he knew he wasn’t Mafia material. He wanted a different life and he got one. Just seeing the type of man Chris was let me know Johnny would be that type of a guy, too. See what a little research and chance meetings can do.

Something else Chris mentioned was a book I should read about the Mafia called Five Families by Selwyn Raab (copyright 2005). I read the chapters up until the point Johnny would no longer be in the Mob and it gave me great insights into that life. The book and Mr. Biller created a background for both Johnny and his father.

 

Research, no matter if it’s through books, TV shows, movies, personal contact or even jobs the writer might have had to enhance their stories, makes “the read” feel real. After all, we are creating a world within our pages. As for me, I used my dad’s time in the Air Force and the spy planes he dealt with to play a part in my spy trilogy. Then there was my stint as a private detective that helped with my three detective series. But most of all, it was the many, many people I spoke to about the jobs they did and the things they know that enhanced my stories. After all… we can’t know everything. And Research broadens our horizons and helps us create those new worlds.

 

The other problem writers have when researching their subject matter is knowing when to stop writing about what you learned. Too much is just that – Too Much. Don’t bore your reader with so many details you distract from the story. As I tell the students in my writing classes, always ask yourself: Does it advance the story? Does it enhance the story? Is it redundant?  Write on!

 

Writing a Page Turner

By Gayle Bartos-Pool

            Not all mysteries require vast amounts of page-turning events to keep the story moving along. If the main characters are interesting, intriguing, fun, clever… you know what I mean, the reader will keep reading to the end. There should be some drama and a little danger for the hero or heroine to overcome, but it can be parceled out gently. Cozy mysteries work in that manner and have done very well for the past hundred years.

            Private detective stories and police procedural might have a few more cliff-hangers at the end of every chapter, but they usually deal with more technical aspects of tracking down the bad guy rather than discussing the situation over a cup of tea in a cozy novel. Those gals in the cozies always get their man or woman, so their way works, too. But professionals do have access to information not available to Miss Marple in the Agatha Christie novels or Jessica Fletcher in all those Murder She Wrote TV shows. I’ve seen them all many, many times and loved every one.

            We all know the Three-Act Structure of writing. Act One introduces the main characters and a problem. Act Two has the hero assembling his resources and trying to understand what’s really going on while the bad guy is setting more traps for our hero. Act Three has that do-or-die moment when the hero asks himself if he can handle the job, then he calls up all his resources and goes to battle the villain in the last chapter.

            But how do writers construct those “page-turner” events at the end of every chapter? Here are some of those moments in my stand-alone novel Closer. I recently reread the book and was surprised how many of these little hints were strategically placed throughout the story, some even within the chapter and not necessarily at the end of one. And something else I noticed, sometimes my main character would have a thought she posed on the page. Sometimes it was another character thinking to themselves about things that were happening. Those are good ways to let the reader know what those characters are reacting to or plotting, after all, they are moving the story along with those thoughts. They let the reader know there are things that have to be discovered.

            But several times the third-person teller of the story (the author) throws in a thought or two himself. These are shared between the reader and the writer. It’s up to the characters in the book to not only ask the questions himself, but discover the answers in order to solve the puzzle. Closer has numerous hints, thoughts, and questions posed by the characters as well as the writer. Here are a few from the beginning of the book:

As she turned off the car’s engine, Shelby noticed her tank was nearly empty. She thought she had nearly a full tank. As one of the two lieutenants with the Santa Isabel Police Department and one of the two officers who had to be on call for anything that happened in town because the higher-ups always managed to find an excuse not to show up, she always kept a full tank just in case something important did happen.

She was surprised she hadn’t noticed the low gas gauge when she drove home the evening before. But then, she hadn’t noticed the sedan sitting on the street opposite the police station either. It was an unremarkable vehicle, gray and nondescript, invisible in weather like this. Since the weather made the roads slippery, she spent more time trying not to hydroplane into parked cars along the street rather than notice somebody watching her.

Or how about this part?

Harry wasn’t good at small talk. The cop in him had to either ask questions or formulate an hypothesis. He came right to the point after several miles down that dark country road.

“Maybe the shooter was aiming at me.”

“What makes you think that?” she asked.

“I’m up here from Los Angeles. I knew the poor woman who got shot. Maybe the killer wanted to get rid of anybody who might recognize him.”

Shelby studied Harry’s face. His eyes never left the road. He was taking this pretty well, considering the ramifications. And here she had thought the shooter might have been after her since this was her turf. Now they could share the worry, if that made it easier. But two dead people wasn’t good no matter what, and she didn’t want any more additions to the body count.

“I’ll put out some feelers back in L.A.,” added Harry, “to see if anybody was interested in the fact I was sent up here to investigate the commander’s wife’s death.”

“Do you think somebody down in LA would want Mrs. Wright dead?” Shelby tossed that one out as another hypothesis.

He turned and looked at her this time. Something about her question made him think of other possibilities. She could tell there was something on his mind, but he wasn’t ready to share that bit of information. Instead, he answered her with, “I’ll think about that one. Let me change the subject for a while. Let our brains relax. You worked in Los Angeles. What was it like for you?”

Now it was her turn to avoid the subject. She gazed out the window and then spoke. “I guess I’m better in a small town. Too much happens in the big, bad city that you don’t see coming.”

“Tell me about it.” His voice was calming. He sounded truly interested in her response, but she wasn’t quite ready to open up.

“Nothing to tell,” she said back to him. Her words clipped. Then she added in a friendlier tone, “Didn’t get along with a few of my fellow officers in L.A., so I asked for a transfer. Best thing all around.”

Harry gave her another look. “If you ever want to talk about it, I’m a good listener.”

She breathed a small sigh. She dodged that bullet. Maybe some other time the two would open up. Not today. “How about you tell me why you decided to transfer to LAPD.” She turned slightly in her seat and watched him drive. “L.A.’s bigger and hairier and the publicity can be brutal.”

“You got that right,” he admitted. “As for me, the drug busts up in the Foothills had started to clean out that cesspool. I worked on a few of those babies. A couple of my cases took me out of the country when I was after a drug dealer wanted by several countries. All I could do was gather evidence and hand it over to the local constabulary and then hope we had extradition privileges with that country.”

“We’ve had the same problem up here with major art thefts. If the fugitive heads to some countries in Africa, we’re screwed unless we can hogtie them, stuff them in a trunk, and spirit them out of the country.”

“Would you do that?” He took another glance in her direction.

She thought about her answer for a second. “Maybe. It depends on what painting he stole and from whom.” She said that with a slight chuckle in her voice. “But don’t quote me. How about you?”

“I always wonder what someone would do if the circumstances were right.”

“It would take mighty big circumstances for me to go too far out of bounds.”

“What if someone you cared about did something totally wrong? Would you lie for them?”

“Sometimes you don’t really know people.” She turned away from him and gazed out into the dark. “They can disappoint you,” she said this mostly to her reflection in the window as she watched the black trees crowd that section of highway.

Harry didn’t look over at her this time. The road was not lighted and the curves were too sharp to take his eyes away, but he did hear her. Now he had more to think about.

He dropped her off at the station. He said he had a lot of phone calls to make and that he would get together with her for dinner the next evening. She waved as he drove away. Her thoughts were on the case as well as on the guy from L.A. There was something about him that grabbed her attention.

A few paragraphs more and we have this…

She opened her car door and saw her sunglasses hanging over the steering wheel.

“Rats,” she said out loud. She needed gas. That’s when she remembered it was odd that she had run out of “petrol.” She never ran out of gas.

She grabbed the flashlight from the shelf under the dashboard and aimed it under her car. No sign of a leak. This older model vehicle didn’t have all the new fangled bells and whistles that opened and locked the doors with an electronic device. Even a third-rate carjacker could get into her car with little effort, but everybody in town knew who owned the boxy beauty, so stealing it wouldn’t get them very far. And if anybody wanted to siphon gas, all they had to do was undo the gas cap.

She thought about who in town might pull a stunt like that as she drove to the nearest gas station and filled up. She also thought she’d find a mechanic who could put a lock on the gas cap.

She thought that would be her only concern except for that body on the pier and poor Earl Riley, but that wasn’t the half of it.

More questions for Shelby to get answers to. But they are trying to solve a murder, so the young officer working with Shelby is out with Harry Davenport’s young officer sidekick, Frances Lynton, and getting some information and some questions, too.

“How long have you worked with Davenport?” Not that he wanted to know, but maybe she would finally run out of “Harry the Magnificent” stories.

“Ever since he came back to L.A. He actually asked for me as a partner.” Her eyes widened like a kid on Christmas morning. “He interviewed almost everybody in the division, but he liked me best. I’d do anything for him.”

“My boss is like that, too, but sometimes she goes places I don’t want to go.”

“I know what you mean. Harry was checking on your boss—”

“He what?”

Afraid she said too much, Frances went into damage control mode. She reached over and took Marcus’s hand and then gave him a smile that aroused his libido. “He wanted to make sure you guys put the best person on the case. The death of his boss’s wife meant a lot to Harry. He had to make sure Shelby was up to the job. The fact he spends so much time with her, says he trusts her.”

And remember, you can always begin a chapter with a page-turner…

CHAPTER 7

_________________________

The next day was a game changer on more than one level. It was around eight o’clock in the morning when the team met in the larger conference room where they had set up a whiteboard for notes and a long table with the evidence from the crime scene laid out. Other than the flashlight, the old map, the passports, and those now wilted flowers and fern, there wasn’t any new tangible, solid evidence. But there are different kinds of evidence.

Or what about when our police detective is checking on a vehicle that was driven by the now dead wife of the high-ranking police officer in Los Angeles and Shelby wonders if the car rental place rented a particular vehicle that nearly ran her off the road a few days earlier.

“Did you rent a big gray Volvo a few days ago? Maybe one that came back with a ding on the front bumper?”

“Yeah. I worked on the repair job the day it happened. Only needed a little tapping with a rubber mallet to straighten her out. I can do those in my sleep.”

“You probably clean them up pretty thoroughly when they’re returned, right?”

“You bet. I get that job, too. Why?”

“Fingerprints. Can you tell me who rented it?”

He gave her a questioning look and then said, “Sure.”

Back inside the office, Kirby looked up the vehicle and found the information.

“Frances Lynton. If I remember right, I think she’s a cop,” said the young man.

Frances Lynton is Harry’s sidekick…

            Here is Shelby’s thought on the matter.

The drive back to the station gave her time to think. From what Marcus had told her, Shelby knew Frances had a thing about her boss, but trying to run them off the road because she might be jealous was a bit extreme. Or was there something else driving that woman?

So now we have tension from another cause… Jealousy, perhaps? Some new truths are going to be revealed from Harry, Shelby, and Frances. But there are more players in this story and their connection to the dead body found at the dock in this small town is revealed one layer at a time.

I use the word “layer” because it’s the old “peel the onion” method of writing a page-turner one layer or revelation at a time. Set up a question or drop a hint early on and then answer it or expose a truth later to make sure your reader stays happy. Just remember to answer those questions somewhere before the end of the story. You never want to disappoint your readers. You want them to come back for more. Write On!

A Very Merry Christmas

from the Writers-in-Residence Blog

All of us writers here on the WinR blog wish you a Very Merry Christmas. Enjoy this holiday, savor the moments, love your family and friends, and consider writing about not only this holiday, but the other ones you have celebrated. The memories are priceless and fleeting if you don’t write them down. And remember: We all have a story or two in each of us.

These pictures might get you in the mood to capture your precious moments.

Words on the Page

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

We here at The Writers-in-Residence are writers. Whether it’s a novel, short story, news article, play, movie script, or even a How-To book on writing, words are our life and love and sometimes our nemesis because it can be hard to get those words on the page when life gets in the way. But we have all had our work published and know how hard it is to get that done. Whether it’s more than fifty books in print like our Linda O. Johnston or a few books like some of us or newspaper articles like Jackie Houchin, we have gotten those words out.

I have taught writing classes and have spoken to numerous people in my daily life who wanted to write, but they didn’t know exactly how to go about it. I’m very sure they actually knew how to write. We all learned to do just that in the first grade, at least we learned how to get a few words down on that wide-lined paper way back in the Dark Ages before computers. I would ask these folks who wanted to be writers what had they written so far and over half said nothing. Not a chapter, an opening paragraph, an outline or even a concept. Nothing. They have a long way to go, but perhaps they are more interested in the “idea” of writing rather than have an idea of what to write.

I remember speaking with a nurse in a hospital lunchroom when Richard was ill. I had mentioned that I was a writer and she said she wanted to write. I told her that everybody had a story or two in them whether it was a fiction tale or the story of one’s own life. She started telling me some of her family’s stories. They were fascinating. This gal had a story in her that should be written even if only her family reads it, but the way she told those few tidbits, lots of people would enjoy reading about her life. I wished her well.

But talking doesn’t get those words on paper. Whether writing it in longhand like Ray Bradbury did with every single book he ever wrote including The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 which he wrote with a pen, he got those stories written down. Don’t get mesmerized by the “idea” of writing, or the “fame” (that’s only if you sell a million copies the first week your book is in print), or the “money” you’ll make (authors usually get a small percentage of the cover price after the publisher and the distributor and the bookstore get their cut; sorry, that’s the reality unless you have sold that previous million copies). Don’t let that stop you from writing. Write.

Do you have a story you want to tell? After these past two years being basically isolated due to the flu that has kept most of us living in solitary confinement, you just might have something you were tossing around in your head or maybe even you got a chapter or two written or an outline dashed off so you wouldn’t forget the story line. I can tell you from personal experience, if you don’t write it down, you will definitely forget it. Dear Bonnie Schroeder, a fellow scribe, gave me a notepad that hangs up in the shower along with a pencil that allows one to write down that elusive idea that pops into your head while the hot water is calming you and you are free to let those creative juices flow. Write.

You can always run an idea past a friend to see how it sounds. If you belong to a writers’ group, you might toss the idea out during a meeting and see what the group thinks. They might have some suggestions to help you focus your story. If they shred your idea like a head of cabbage, perhaps join another group. I’m serious about this. Some groups aren’t there to help. But then again, you might get a good story out of the fact the group was all wrong because of the hidden agendas of the other members of said group. Hey, ideas are everywhere. Write.

Nevertheless, if you actually have an idea for a story, write that outline. Who are the characters in the story? Don’t have a cast of thousands. Readers won’t be able to follow Who’s on First. Next, where does the story take place? Location, location, location. They do that all the time in the movies. Where do you want your small cast of characters to be situated? You’ll get to describe the place. Don’t make it a travelogue, but make it interesting. Visual. Maybe even astonishing. The moon, a sinking ship, a haunted house. A jail cell. Write.

When your characters speak do they have something to say? Again, I’m serious. Make whatever they say part of the story. If their dialogue doesn’t add anything to the story, cut it. And make a character or two colorful in his or her speech. It adds to the flavor. Write.

Then of course you have to have a plot. Why are those interesting characters in that interesting place saying those interesting things? That is your story. You have had this idea running around in your head; what is it? You will realize (hopefully) that the story you are telling has a point to make. You might think that the story is the point. Ask Aristotle about that. Since he’s busy, let me say this: After someone reads your story and has gotten to know your characters and has visualized that intriguing setting and has listened to the witty dialogue your characters are saying while the story progresses, when the reader gets to the end of your story they need to be able to say, “Ah! That was a story about Man against Nature or Woman against Society or Man Struggling against Himself.” That’s the point of the story, not the plot.

Say you want to tell a story about Man against Himself. Now you have a goal to come up with a story that centers on that Theme. The man keeps setting up roadblocks to stop himself from doing something he really wants to do. You must construct that plot. You will define those roadblocks and his excuses to not do what he needs to do to fulfill himself, to reach his goal. You create the characters that both help and hinder him. You design a setting that either lulls him into complacency or he thinks is above his lot in life. And you write the dialogue that has him expressing his dreams and desires along with those who tell him can or can’t achieve his goal. And Voilà, you have that story. And you might actually realize that the stubborn character you are creating is really you and then get more of those words on the page.

We are finishing up one hell of a year, actually two. Soon a New Year will open up those dreams you have buried because you keep telling yourself you’ll write that story later. It is later. Write it. What do you want to say? Get those words on the page. Write it.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Write on!

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.

Short & Sweet

By Gayle Bartos-Pool

This might not be my usual type of post on our Writers-in-Residence blog, but stuff has been happening in my life as it has been with everyone at the moment, but I still wanted to encourage you writers out there to keep up your writing.

As for me, since my life has changed over the last several years, I have a few new directions to travel. First, let me mention the fact that I lost my beloved husband Richard about a year and a half ago. It wasn’t something I talked about or posted because Richard and I were never ones who wanted to open up all over the Internet.

During this Covid thing and being basically alone here in California, I needed family around, so I decided to move to Ohio where my brother and his oldest daughter and her three kids live. So I bought a house after looking at photos and a video my terrific niece took. It’s a cute house with room for my miniatures and vast Santa collection and all the other holiday decorations I have accumulated over these many years. And the house is near my family.

So at the end of August the movers come. My brother is flying out here so he and I and my dog Candy will drive to Ohio.

But during all this change I thought it was time to start writing what I call My Scrapbook Life story. For over 60 years I have been making scrapbooks of my life. From my family’s travels when my dad was in the Air Force and we were stationed on the island of Okinawa, to the three years we were living in France and I got to attend a terrific boarding school, to college and then my short stint as a private detective, to my move to California and the various jobs I had here, to meeting and marrying Richard at one of those jobs, to our 34 years together and the dogs and cats we had, to Richard’s illness and his strength during that time, to losing him and finally me moving to a different life.

The scrapbooks are full of pictures and memories of this life that I am having, so I thought I would share it with people. But writing this saga isn’t just to show what an interesting life I am living, but to let people know that everybody is living an incredible life.

During the past five years it has become apparent to me that all the people I was meeting were incredible from a lady I met in a hospital cafeteria who was fascinated by the fact that I was a writer. But while we were talking she mentioned things from her wonderful life. I told her that her life was so interesting that she might want to write about it for her family and friends. She had things to share with those folks as well as other people.

Then there is Art, the young man who regularly serviced our air conditioner and heating system. He told me about his late father and brother who added all the beautiful touches to the leather saddles of famous movie stars like John Wayne. Two of their saddles are sitting in the Gene Autry Museum. Art also does leather work and wants to move someday to Tennessee or someplace where he can continue doing that beautiful craft.

And my neighbor, Shawn, has written a book, though not yet published, about his fascinating journey from Iran to America when his dad got him out of the turbulent country to avoid being drafted into the Iranian army. So at 17 he was smuggled out of the country, sent to Turkey and then Sweden and finally after several years he came to America, got a college education through hard work and now has a terrific family and living that American Dream everybody has heard about. We found him an editor and I bet that book will be published. I got to read a first and second draft and it is marvelous.

What I am saying in this blog is that everyone has a story of their own life. Each is incredible, different, and worth telling. Your story might be read only by family members and friends, but if the stories are anything like the ones these folks have told me, they are worth the telling. Who knows whose hearts and minds they will touch.

Start writing about where you came from, who your parents, grandparents and relatives are. How they influenced your life. We all learn both the good and the bad. That’s how we grow. Tell the world who you are after you uncover the real you under all the life you have lived. You might be surprised by the person you are.

I can guarantee you, we all have a story worth telling.  Write On!

Building a Character Arc

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

Part 2

Here’s Part Two of the Character Arc Blog I started a few weeks ago. We discussed the main points of not only the Character Arc, but also the Three-Act Structure that works right alongside it. Here are some other points that you might want to consider.

Here’s the harsh reality that I warned you about in Part 1: If you write a book and the story is sold to the movies, your ending might be changed. It’s happened many times. Just cash the check and hope people read your book and see what you wanted to happen in the original version. The Lord of the Rings, Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park, and I Am Legend all had their ending changed. There are many more examples out there. Some were better endings, some worse than the original, for some it didn’t matter (except maybe to the author, but they still cashed the check and moved on. What else could they do? That’s Hollywood.)

Nevertheless, write your story as if it will be carved in stone.

So let’s continue. Whatever happens to your main character(s) during that final Act and phase is going to threaten/effect not only the protagonist, but many of the characters who populate your story. But it’s the protagonist we will be watching to see how he/she handles the crisis. In a mystery it’s usually the villain of the piece who tosses in a few monkey wrenches or hand grenades. This is the time when the hero needs to see what skills they might have within themselves to overcome the obstacles.

Here’s a breakdown of Scarlet O’Hara’s arc in Gone with the Wind.

Scarlet is basically Orphaned because of the Civil War.

As the Wanderer, she nearly loses Tara; she does lose her mother; gains and loses a husband.

She starts replanting and harvesting cotton, dispatches a thief; meets Rhett Butler; learns she can’t have Ashley, she marries Rhett, but loses her daughter during a very busy Warrior phase.

Scarlet learns even more during the Martyr phase. She discovers she has to stand on her own two feet while rebuilding her life. As for getting Rhett back, she’ll think about that tomorrow.

What is so helpful about knowing these Character Arc phases is the fact you can start forming your story around each one. They give you the basic outline along with the Three-Act Structure. It’s a game plan.

You probably have a rough idea who your main character is. Now you can give him or her a kick in the pants to get them out there in the world. You get to paint that new world they find themselves in. Is it bleak? Does it start out rosy and then all hell breaks loose? Is there a misunderstanding that thrusts the character(s) into chaos? There needs to be some major change to their life to get them on the road to solving this problem. The reader has to see this little Orphan out there all alone. That’s how you grab their attention when they first open your book. Make your main character likeable and the reader will want to see how they solve the dilemma they are in. I have actually read a few big-time authors whose characters were so unlikable that I didn’t care if they succeeded or not. A few of these books I put down just a few chapters into it, never to be picked up again. That is not your goal as a writer.

Once your Orphan is out there in the wilderness, (this usually means in an unknown environment or one radically changed by circumstances like a crime or poverty or holocaust), it’s time for your character to take a look at this new landscape. The writer can use the next phase to paint a picture of where the Wanderer is wandering. Readers do like to see new places, so paint a good picture. You also need to show how your character(s) react to this new place. Their reaction will say something about who they are. They should be wary at first. This place is all new. They are learning what the boundaries are. What their limitations are. One character might crumble, another will rise to the challenge.

As your main character starts to grow, they meet people who aid or even try to block their progress. This Warrior Phase lets you introduce new characters or expand the personality of characters already introduced. You don’t want to drop all the characters into the first part of the book. Even if you might have mentioned them, you can reveal new things about their character in this phase. It’s the middle of the story. The Second Act. Even minor characters can have a bit of a Character Arc as the story unfolds.

By the time you get to Act III and the Martyr Phase, your main character(s) need to hit a wall. This is true for a mystery or regular fiction or any fiction. Some problem needs to confront your hero so the reader can watch them overcome it or have a meaningful exit from this world because they did the right thing to solve the dilemma. This is also the time the writer discovers that special trait in their hero that sets them apart. They have learned things during their journey and now they can use those lessons to solve the problem facing them.

Do yourself a favor and watch old movies or read a classic novel and see how this method was used. I mention using older examples because I know they work. When you watch newer movies or read more contemporary books, see if they follow the same game plan. If not, ask yourself if their method worked as well or if there is need for improvement. The old method worked for centuries.

There aren’t many steps in this format. Four Character Arc Phases within Three Acts. Keep them in mind when you’re crafting your story. Write On!

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