Hey, our blog is still here, and I couldn’t be more delighted. I was pondering what to write about now, and came up with what I hope is a fun topic: my thoughts about the most fun thing about writing.
Do I know yet? No! But I’ve gotten a lot of ideas. And I’ve been writing for a long time.
My thoughts? First, even if I set a story somewhere real, near me, the fun thing about it is figuring out what can be different, and what my protagonist can learn about it—and tell me! For one thing, since most of what I write are mysteries and romantic suspense, people can get hurt or even killed in those environments I find fairly safe in real life. So where’s a good place to murder someone where the mystery can be resolved well and quickly enough in a story? A real place? A fictional place?
Even more important is those characters, especially my protagonists. They’re not me, but they contain some of my characteristics. The character closest to me was in my first mystery series, the Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter Mysteries. Kendra was a lawyer who lived in the Hollywood Hills with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Lexie. At the time I was writing about her, I was a practicing lawyer, and one of my Cavaliers was named Lexie. And yes, I live in the Hollywood Hills.
Other protagonists aren’t quite as close, but still had characteristics I like and admire. The spinoff series from Kendra was the Pet Rescue Mysteries, which of course contained dogs and other animals—and I was volunteering a lot at local rescue organizations when I wrote it. In my Barkery & Biscuits Mysteries, my protagonist owned a bakery for dog treats—and was owned by a dog named Biscuit. In my Superstition Mysteries, my protagonist owned a dog named Pluckie. And currently, in my Alaska Untamed Mysteries under my first pseudonym, Lark O. Jensen, the protagonist, a naturalist, introduces tourists to all sorts of wonderful Alaskan wildlife, including seals and bears and wolves—and yes, she brings her own dog Sasha along on her tour boats.
And in the Harlequin Romantic Suspense stories in the various series I create, yes, dogs are involved. All my stories do contain suspense, whether they’re mysteries or not, and even those I’m asked to write when I can’t always include dogs. And they contain at least a touch of romance, often more.
So… setting is fun. Characters are fun. Killing people vicariously, and not for real, of course, can be fun. And creating romances can be fun.
Plus, various animals are fun. Dogs are fun.
Hey, for me, maybe the most fun thing about writing involves one of the most fun things in my life: dogs.
So what’s the most fun thing about writing for you?
A common piece of advice given to school children and new authors alike is “Write what you know”. But many established authors dismiss the principle. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, told The New York Times, “One of the dumbest things you were ever taught was to write what you know. Because what you know is usually dull.”
So where does an aspiring writer begin? Unlike most authors, I had no lifelong desire to write a book and only considered it as a potential career two years ago. We moved back to the UK from Kenya so my husband could begin training for his next military posting in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I realised that as I didn’t speak Bosnian, and the country had a high unemployment rate, I was unlikely to find a job.
Further, as a family we would be moving around the UK, and potentially the world, for at least the next eight years. I needed to keep myself busy and engaged, but not with a physical business like the farm shop I had set up in Kenya. My new venture needed to be portable and flexible to work around the demands of my family.
I first considered writing as a method to convey the incredible experience I’d had living in Kenya, in Eastern Africa. I’m not sure if moving to Kenya or returning to the UK was more of a culture shock. In Kenya I’d become used to a way of life lived at a slower pace, with no judgement of what people wore or what car they drove, and far less emphasis on the material side of life.
In Africa, the first priority is to survive and so each day, and certainly every birthday, is celebrated. After that come friendships and community and, of course, enjoying the glorious sunshine, fantastic scenery and amazing wildlife that Kenya is famous for.
P.D. James wrote in her “10 Tips for writing novels” for the BBC, “You absolutely should write about what you know. There are all sorts of small things that you store up and use, nothing is lost as a writer. You have to learn to stand outside yourself. All experience, whether it is painful or whether is is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.”
My Kenya Kanga Mystery Series is set in Nanyuki, a small market town three hours north of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. It is dominated by the often snow-capped Mount Kenya which, at over 17,000 ft, is the second highest mountain in Africa. This is where I lived for six years, and it’s the perfect setting for a cozy mystery series.
In my books I’ve used actual locations, such as Dormans, a town centre coffee shop and a hub of gossip, and the relaxed garden location of Cape Chestnut restaurant. Other places, such as the Mount Kenya Resort and Spa, are recognisable as being based on real settings which I’ve altered to suit my stories.
Small towns in cozy mystery series can develop the “Cabot Cove” syndrome; if Cabot Cove existed in real life it would top a number of categories of the FBI’s national crime statistics.
To avoid this phenomenon, I themed the second and subsequent books around actual events. These include an important elephant focused wildlife summit, a 4×4 off-road charity event in the Maasai Mara and, in the book I am releasing in May, a marathon in a UNESCO World Heritage wildlife reserve.
A sense of place is important to me and my writing. Has a certain smell or the call of a bird transported you back to a memorable location? I try to convey the smells, sounds and sights of the individual settings and it does help that I’ve visited most of them. And if I haven’t, as P.D. James said, I can use snippets of other places that I have stored up to successfully create them.
The characters are another aspect of my books which I’ve developed as I’ve expanded my writing craft. Mama Rose is based on an incredible friend of mine, now in her 80s, who is a community vet, a staunch catholic and a member of various committees. The help and assistance she has given, and continues to provide, those less fortunate than herself can not be fully conveyed in my books. But is it important to recognise, and remember, that there are still people who put others before themselves and work for what is morally right and just in life.
The other characters have developed from meeting people and observing situations in Kenya: the interaction of customers and stall holders at the local vegetable market, street sellers trying to persuade tourists and visitors to buy their wares, and the ability of a charismatic priest to captivate his audience in a town centre park.
A snippet I have woven into one of my books occurred when I took my young children to mitumba; a large jumble sale of donated thrift clothes, and other items, from first world countries which are shipped to Kenya and sold in makeshift markets.
Two raggedly dressed, and shoeless, children tentatively approached our car holding out their hands in a begging gesture. I remembered two squares of jam sandwich which my boys hadn’t eaten. I handed the pieces to the children expecting them to stuff them into their mouths, but instead they just stood and waited. Slowly they were joined by a group of similarly attired children, and those who had the sandwiches carefully divided them up until every child had a small morsel to eat.
This was an incredibly humbling experience. So perhaps it is not necessarily “write what you know” but “write what you feel”. After all, as writers we strive to elicit an emotional response in our readers’ minds.
Finally, Dan Brown said, “You should write something that you need to go and learn about.” As writers we do need to expand our knowledge, and understanding, and researching is one of my favourite area in the writing process. I have learnt so much more about Kenya than I knew, or understood, when I lived there.
Rhino Charge, my third book, has many Kenyan Indian characters. It evolves around events at a 4×4 vehicle off-road event which is popular amongst the Kenyan Indian community. Whilst I had Indian friends, I wasn’t aware of how, or why, their ancestors had settled in Kenya. Researching this aspect of the Kenyan culture was fascinating. I learnt that Indians came to Kenya with the British and supported the creation of the East African Protectorate, which became Kenya, as clerks, accountants and police officers.
Two and a half thousand Indian labourers died during the construction of the Mombasa to Uganda railway line, including those killed by the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo. The rupee was the first currency used in the colony which was ruled using an extension of Indian law. On the 22nd July 2017, President Kenyatta officially recognised the Indian community as the 44th tribe of Kenya. Researching and learning this extended my knowledge and increased the depth of Rhino Charge.
Not all authors are luckily enough to live in extraordinary locations such as Kenya, or Bosnia and Herzegovina, but small towns still have their own customs and query characters.
I’m currently planning my next series which will be set in areas of the UK I have lived in and visited. The theme is antiques, of which I have no knowledge. I enjoyed, and was fascinated by, auctions which I attended on my return to the UK, to buy furniture for our house. And I observed some fantastic people for the basis of my characters. I’ll research collectibles, antiques and related crimes to build interesting stories with “can’t put down” plots.
When I can finally move freely around Sarajevo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, I will begin researching for a future series. I’ve already discovered that everyone here has a story to tell from the devastating war and various sieges, including the longest in modern history in Sarajevo. As I search for potential locations, characters and stories my attention will be more focused as I learn to observe and record even the smallest incidents. Who knows what snippets will make into future books.
As a Brit I put up with a lot of ribbing in America. Some friends take me to task for pronunciation. Well, I can’t help it if I have a very slight West Country accent as I am from Cornwall. To my amusement my accent is occasionally mistaken for Australian.
As a writer from over there, though, the ribbing can give me indigestion or at the very least depression for hours. The main problem is spelling. I am warned by colleagues that editors at U.S. publishing houses come down hard if you keep inserting a “u” into words like behaviour, colour, and honour, or substitute a ”z’ for an “s”. Other minefields include using “ae” rather than “e,” as in “aeon” and “eon”. Maybe it’s a matter simplicity. Americans pare as many ells from words as possible while Brits love double ells, such as “levelling” versus “leveling”.
My books are published here but habits die hard and I usually claim that Brits use the correct spellings. They only got chopped when unnecessary (to whom?) letters are summarily killed off. Flautists are called flutists, kerb is curb, and gaol is jail. Obviously what it comes down to is pronunciation, though. Americans spell words economically as they are spoken which is commendable although it escapes me why tyre is spelled tire. I think it has to do with the Boston Tea Party and wanting to be set apart from that awful king.
It’s a huge temptation to some authors who have leapt across the pond to use British spelling, perhaps as a sly signal to agents and publishers they are querying that the writer is a Brit – a sort of literary snobbism one occasionally encounters. In my first mystery I have my lead character admonish the British consul’s wife for this attitude which I did, in fact, actually encounter in Newport Beach.
Then there’s the grammar. Collective nouns in particular give me pause. Is a group, say, a government, singular or plural? Americans say it’s the former; Brits insist on the latter. I have a page from the Associated Press Stylebook permanently stuck to my printer to remind me which to use.
Figuring out past particles is always fun. For instance, Brits say “pleaded” Yanks say “pled”. Oh, and the very, very worst word I hate to see changed is “hanged”. To my mind it should refer only to someone at the loop end of a rope, giving the action a far heftier meaning than the briefer word “hung”, as used here. People are not paintings.
What else? “Have” and “take” always flummox me. Am I going to take a bath? Or, am I going to have a bath? I read somewhere that this is an example of a delexical verb, which I’m not even going to touch.
While writing my mystery my beta readers caught another mistake. I wrote, “He drove her to hospital.” Wrong. I was told there should be a “the” in front of “hospital”. I’m sure there’s some kind of diabolical rule about this but I think it is fine to give an in-house editor something to mark up to justify his/her salary. As for tenses, the past participle in the U.S. for “got” is “gotten,” an ugly word that makes me shudder enough to want to write a thriller entitled “The Dangling Participle and the Dark, Dark Pluperfect”.
While writing the first in my crime series, whose amateur sleuth is a disgraced Cornish woman exiled by the palace for discovering a scandal (not sexual!), I had to learn the police rankings and figure out who was a sheriff and who was a police officer. Having worked with a reporter at the good old British rag, the Sunday Dispatch, I decided to have my sleuth simplify her confusion (and mine) by using British titles. When caught speeding she addresses a California Highway Patrol (CHiP) officer as Chief Superintendent, and calls the Chief of Police, Constable. I was very pleased to learn that sheriffs and policemen can be lumped into a group collectively referred to as “cops”.
When I mention a British pastime, such as nighthawking, no one has a clue as to its meaning. I was going to give the nasty habit to a character in my next book but I decided the explanation could be tedious unless you’re one yourself.
Even the four seasons can be a challenge. Seeking representation for my new book I scoured the agent lists and was rejected by 55 of them. I knew small presses can be approached directly and I found one with whose name I fell totally in love: Mainly Murder Press in Connecticut. However, the website declared, NO SUBMISSIONS UNTIL LATE SPRING!
Ha. I immediately sent in my query along with a note: “Dear MMP, I live in Southern California and although it is only January according to the calendar, and snowing where you are, it is already late spring here. You should see the roses!”
I received an email back within three hours, asking me to send chapters. Which I did. Obviously the publisher was not off in Tahiti but still on the snowy East Coast.” MMP published only 12-14 books a year and has now closed its doors but who can resist the name? So my advice is to go ahead and break the rules. Lay it on thick. Change the climate. Worked for me.
Jill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep” and the second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead.” The books are set in Newport, California. http://www.jillamadio.com
This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)
I love to write. I love to write novels that contain romance. I love to write novels that contain mystery or suspense.
Any surprise, then, that I write in multiple genres?
I’ve mentioned some of that before while blogging here. At the moment, as with many people who do many things, my career seems to be changing a bit, yet staying the same.
I’m currently writing romantic suspense novels for Harlequin Romantic Suspense. I have a couple stories I’ve turned in that are my own plotting, and I’m currently working on another of HRS’s many, multiple stories about members of the Colton family, who always seem to be finding wonderful relationships and also dealing with a lot of crimes.
My kind of story, and I follow their bible and have my characters interact with the protagonists of other Colton stories in the various mini-series that are part of the Colton series. When I write stories that are all my own I fit a lot of dogs into them, and occasionally have been able to slip one in to a Colton story.
I’ve also written a lot of cozy mysteries over time. My most recent cozy publisher went out of business, so I don’t have any currently in progress–although I believe, and hope, that a publisher that’s new to me is going to buy one of my ideas.
So–yes. I write in different genres, and often read in different genres to keep my ideas flowing. Generalities–I guess I can say I love fiction, I love suspense and mystery, I love animals… and, as I said, I love to write. Even these days, when there’s a lot going on in the world nearby and elsewhere. My writing has slowed as a result, but it goes forward.
It’s always fascinating to me to see that some writers stick to their primary genres as long as they write. Others are like me and have more than one favorite genre that they also go back and forth among–or sometimes combine them, as I do. Of course my cozies contain a romantic interest, and all my romances also contain suspense or mystery.
So how about you?
What are your favorite genres?
If you’re a writer, which genre(s) do you prefer to write in?
Or read in?
What’s your general purpose for reading?
Linda O. Johnston, a former lawyer who is now a full-time writer, has written two mystery series for Midnight Ink involving dogs: the Barkery and Biscuits Mysteries, and the Superstition Mysteries. She has also written the Pet Rescue Mystery Series, a spinoff from her Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime. Currently writes for Harlequin Romantic Suspense as well as the Alpha Force paranormal romance miniseries about shapeshifters for Harlequin Nocturne.
This article was posted for Linda O. Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)
When we write “stabbed in the back” we may not necessarily be referring to murder. How about “I stubbed my nose yesterday, enjoyed a drop in the teacup, and beat around the flowers while protesters were a penny a dozen.”
Of course, the correct common usage idioms are “stubbed my toe, a drop in the bucket, beat around the bush, and a dime a dozen.” The last two are alliterative, yes, but why, I wonder, are toes the only part of our anatomy ever stubbed? And why drops only drip into a bucket instead of any other container? My favorite, though, is “a short/long week – or year, or hour.” What do they actually mean? Six days instead of seven? 11 months instead of 12? Sure, it’s easy to explain that an hour can drag on seemingly forever and a short week can mean time flies by, so why don’t we write that?
Happily, most writers are imaginative enough to come up with their own original phrases rather than rely on the over-used, and yet “stubbed my toe” is so perfect you can almost feel the pain.
I have a book, “The Describer’s Dictionary” that contains oodles of such hackneyed idioms but they do inspire me to create my own if possible. The book is tremendously helpful when trying to find a way to describe, for example, low-elevation clouds. One description offered is “a cloud mass like a formless gray horizontal sheet.” Would you honestly use that? However, I have found the book invaluable for character physiques, architecture, locales, settings, and surfaces and textures. There is an entire chapter on Necks. Granted, it’s only half a page but it encourages the mind to explore other possibilities.
Chandler’s description of a building in ‘The Long Goodbye” was “The entrance had double stone pillars on each side but the cream of the joint…”Can’t mistake his signature style.
How about Edith Wharton’s “…its front [of the house was] so veiled in the showering gold-green foliage…” in her novel, “Hudson River Bracketed.”
In Wallace Stegner’s “All the Little Things” he writes about an old house with its sides and roof “weathered silvery as an old rock…” and “…the way three big live oaks twisted like seaweed above the roof…”
What’s your pet peeve when it comes to using idioms?
Jill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. She is the ghostwriter of 14 memoirs, and wrote the Rudy Valle biography, “My Vagabond Lover,” with his wife, Ellie. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep.” The second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead,” was released this year. The books are based in Newport http://www.jillamadio.com
This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)
On a recent short-term mission trip to Malawi for my church, I had the opportunity to teach Writing classes to two groups of home schooled MKs (Missionary Kids). These were children from American, Canadian and South African families. There were nine in the 3rd-4th grade group and seven in the 5th grade and up group.
After reviewing the stories and talking to the other home school teachers, we all agreed that the kids needed help in character development. The action was amazing; the worlds they created were vivid, but the heroes, helpers, and villains were flat and hard to imagine.
This would be my topic then. I prepared workbooks for each of the classes. We did some work in them in class, but there were “homework” assignments for them to do at home as well.
Before I arrived I asked that the kids (both classes) bring the first several paragraphs of a story they had written to class. In class, I had them each read their paragraphs aloud. There were Captain Jack, Commander of a Starship, twin girls named Peace and Harmony, and a 20-year old girl named Ella who wanted to become a princess (and a dozen others).
I asked the listening students how they “pictured” each of these characters. There was either confused silence or vague and differing descriptions. I then asked the authors to describe how their characters looked in their own mind’s eye. They came up with a lot of colorful descriptions that were not in their stories. Suddenly they “got the picture,” and from there I showed them ways and examples of taking the images of their characters from their minds and putting them on paper for their readers.
For the younger class, I had them draw in their workbooks a circle for a face, then slowly add features (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair) and write a description of each as they went. Next they drew bodies with any kinds of clothes and shoes (or not) they wished. I had them write why these “characters” were smiling, wearing… glasses, a soccer jersey, a swim suit, a long dress, a tutu, and had on sandals or swim fins. They began to see how to show what their story characters looked like by writing descriptions, and in the process developed more interesting information about them. (I could see “light” dawning in their eyes!)
We talked about what a boy’s face and posture would look like if he were angry, sad, or excited, and how to describe that in words. Then I had volunteers come to the front and walk like someone angry, sad, sick, old, or excited. The class called out descriptions of the body movements (facial features, arms swinging, shoulders slumped, stumbling, skipping, marching etc.) that portrayed the emotion. Suddenly they began to see how they could “show” these actions in their stories instead of simply “telling” the reader that the character was sad or happy.
We talked briefly about similes (and metaphors for the older group). Wow, did they come up with some doozers! At this point I had to remind them not to overload the story with these, but to sprinkle in descriptions as the story progressed in action or conversations.
Next, we had fun with thirty-six Character Trait cards (ten seen at left) that I purchased from Amazon. I had them each choose a positive trait and a negative trait and to explain their choices. I asked them to describe the animals in the picture illustrating the trait. We talked about how they could write about the kind of person (animal) their character was by using these traits (such as, mischievous, responsible, persistent, mean, honest, loyal, etc.)
As an exercise I had them use these two opposite traits and write a short paragraph in their workbooks, describing how that character trait would look in actions. “Harmony was dishonest because she….. or Timothy was peculiar because he….”
For another exercise, I had them draw a large “T” diagram on one page, labeling the left side “What a character looks like” and the right side” How a character behaves.” They made a few comparisons from their own story characters. At home, they would make more of these diagrams and fill them in for other characters, or ones from books they liked.
For the older class (all boys, and most writing sci-fi or fantasy) we delved a bit deeper into making their characters memorable by using various ways to describe physical as well as personality traits. They practiced describing a character in an action scene (showing fear or bravery without actually using those words) and played around with using an occasional quirk, flaw, or unconscious mannerism to reveal hidden traits.
We talked about body language and how personal beliefs and moral standards could affect their characters actions and words in certain situations. These t’weens and teens also enjoyed acting out emotions and physical limitations while the rest of the class called out descriptions. It’s a great exercise in noticing small things and putting them into words. Their favorite was imagining a large magnet across the room, and a piece of iron stuck on various parts of their body (forehead, stomach, etc). They were to show being pulled by that force and trying to resist. (Some were hilarious!)
These boys also wanted to read from their stories, using some of the descriptions they’d learned inserted here and there.
I think they got it! By George, they got it!
(I can’t wait to read the complete exciting, imaginative tales!)
At the end of the two-hour sessions, I sent both groups home with assignments to sharpen their skills. Hopefully they will follow through and I will have a new pack of stories to post on my blog, with characters you can clearly imagine, love, or love to hate.
I love these kids, and I really had fun…. as you can see!
Post Script: I used several limericks in the classes, to illustrate teaching points, add humor, and keep the class attentive. One of the kids in the older group took one of these limericks, combined it with a vocabulary assignment from his home school writing class and came up with a HILARIOUS story – The Virtuous Walking Fish. Check it out too, and leave a comment for Jacob K.
How many blogs besides this one do YOU read regularly (daily, weekly, monthly)? Yes, you can confess. We don’t mind. Reading them will help you become a better writer.
Of course there are thousands to choose from. Just Google a topic and you’ll see. Bloggers will give you tips on everything, from where to get ideas to how to publish and market your final product, be it a book, short story, poem or article.
Some writer magazines and blogs publish lists of the Top 50 or 100 from the previous year. Here’s a link to the Top 50 Blogs in 2018
I have THREE blogs that I read daily and usually take notes on. Okay, sometimes I only peruse them, if the topic is not relative to my needs right then.
Every day, Mia posts links to articles on a wide variety of subjects. Each article will offer other links to follow on related subjects in an Alice In Wonderland type trail that is positively addicting! And time consuming. Watch out!
Her daily Writing Prompts will tickle your imagination and sometimes get a story going.
There are usually cute (or smarmy) writing cartoons to make you chuckle.
Finally, there is a list of “famous” authors whose birthday is that day. Each gives his/her advice on some aspect of the writing life.
Writers Write also hosts the “12 Short Stories Writing Challenge” each year beginning in January. Using a monthly prompt that they supply, you write, finish and polish a 1500 word (exactly) story to submit. You comment on 4 other stories and receive feedback on your own piece. One a month for 12 months. Whew!
Writers Write also offers a variety of online classes which you need to pay for.
Each day Edie, or one of 10 or so guest writers, presents short articles that inspire, encourage, inform, and teach you all facets of the art of writing and publishing. It is a Christian site, but usually only one in seven posts talks about the author’s beliefs in her writing process.
Here are some topics on recent posts: (You can click on these to go to the blog.)
Edie also uses a technique for readers to easily sharing her posts on Twitter. She types the title of the post or another phrase that describes the topic, and gives it a hyperlink. Readers can click on this and it takes them to their Twitter account. The title and ping-back to the blog posts are already there. They click on “Tweet” and voila’, they have effortless shared your message!
She calls them TWEETABLES.
I tried it in a blog post I wrote on The Writers In Residence about a year ago. It takes a little effort the first time you do it, but it’s a great tool!
What is StoryStorm? It’s an amazing, month-long, story idea brainstorming event. It’s designed for children’s books mostly, but can be useful for any genre. The weird and whimsical, and sometimes serious topics by a new author each day, are really wonderful!
The Challenge is to create 30 story ideas, one or more each day in 31 days. Maybe it will be a clever title idea, or a lovable character, or a skeleton of a plot. If you follow through, you’ll have a list of at least 30 new, fantastic ideas to flesh out at the beginning of February.
And…. if you read it each day and post a brief comment, you are eligible for a bunch of prizes and free services.
From the topic “Double Story Lines” …. I came up with “I know an old woman who lived in a shoe…store. She had so many shoes she couldn’t fit in any…more.
Enter Old Mother Hubbard who went to the display case to buy some soft slippers for her poor aching “dogs.” But she found nary a moccasin or “mule”.
Enter a Fairy God Mother who felt sorry for the old ladies and turned every shoe into a slipper.
Ms Hubbard bought all 365. The Old Woman sold her shoe store and moved to Tahiti, where NO ONE wears ANY kind of shoes at all!”
From the topic “Stop, Look, Listen” …. I came up with a tale of a musician who paid for an extra seat on an airplane to carry his very valuable and fragile guitar in its case. But his seatmates complained – I can’t see over the top of it, it’s on my armrest, etc., and caused a near riot. Crew and pilot intervened so the plane could go up on schedule. Ends with the man strumming and all the cabin requesting songs and singing along.
StoryStorm is a really fun Challenge, one of many throughout the year on a colorful, kid-friendly, idea-stuffed blog.
And then there are blogs that are more like OUR blog – The Writers In Residence – where multiple member writers and the occasion guest, wax eloquent on some aspect of their writing life.
I hope this post has whet your appetite for reading OTHER blogs besides ours. If you already indulge in this “sweet” pastime, will you share some of your favorites with our readers? Or… if you write one of your own, please share a link to it. Our readers might like to “read you” too!
PS: I’m adding a few “OTHER” blogs that I remembered after posting.
Penny Sansevieri’s Author Marketing Experts– https://www.amarketingexpert.com/book-promotion-blog/ – Wonderful articles about promoting/marketing your book. You can also sign up for a free weekly “5 Minute Book Marketing Tip” via email or more extensive and personal, direct coaching on selling your book (for a fee).
Years ago I bought a novel written by a well-known author because it took place in Seattle, a city where I’d lived, went to school, and worked for many years. A few chapters in, I was dismayed that the descriptions of setting were so generic that the story could have taken place anywhere. It was almost as if that the author had never set foot in the city.
Setting matters. The place of your novel includes the broader vistas into which you set the story, such as the culture and customs of the people who live there, history, land, floral and fauna, and even the shape of the clouds. It’s also where each scene takes place, be it the backseat of a Mini Cooper, an English garden, a Federal prison cell, or a home kitchen.
We were given five senses for a reason. Detail specificity enriches your writing. Don’t just say the kitchen was messy; describe the smell of spaghetti sauce oozing down the wall, the feel of that sticky green substance puddled on the floor next to the baby highchair, and the tick tock of the antique grandfather clock in an otherwise silent room. Descriptions should not just be an inventory of the space. Each one must illuminate an element of plot, theme, or character and, in the case of this kitchen, raise a myriad of dramatic questions about what happened there and to whom.
Description as fine sauce. Descriptions need not be long and rambling, but a writer must persuade the reader that the story is real. Even people who’ve never been to a location should feel as though they’re experiencing it firsthand. This also applies to imaginary settings. To prevent long passages of boring prose, take Elmore Leonard’s advice, ”Don’t write the parts people skip.” Instead, distill the essence of a place into a fine sauce. Below is an example of reporter Jeffrey Fleishman’s brilliant and evocative description of Port Said, Egypt, from the Los Angeles Times:
“This shipping city of factory men, with its whispers of colonial-era architecture, was once a crossroads for intellectuals, spies and wanderers who conspired in cafes while the Suez Canal was dug and Egypt’s storied cotton was exported around the globe. Rising on a slender cusp in the Mediterranean Sea, the town exuded cosmopolitan allure amid the slap of fishing nets and the creak of trawlers.”
Don’t trust your memory—verify. Get the specifics right. Nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than getting hung up on inaccurate details. If you can’t visit the location, read travel blogs, talk to friends with knowledge of the area, consult Google Maps, online photos, and YouTube videos.
People like to “travel” when they read. Effective use of description creates atmosphere and mood, and stimulates emotions. Anyone who is familiar with the cold, bleak settings in Scandinavian crime novels or films knows how integral “place” is to every part of those stories. So, give your readers a compelling setting and then wish them a bon voyage.
Patricia Smiley is the author of four novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. Her new Pacific Homicide series profiles LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and is based on her fifteen years as a volunteer and a Specialist Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.
The third in that series, The Second Goodbye, is set for release on December 8, 2018.
Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences in the U.S. and Canada and also served as vice president for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles.
Jackie Houchin is a Christian writer, book reviewer, and retired photojournalist. She writes articles and reviews on a variety of topics, and occasionally edits manuscripts. She also dabbles in short fiction. “I’m a wife (52 years in Feb/2016), a mom, and a grandma (of adults, sigh!). I enjoy creating Bible craft projects for kids; growing fruits, flowers, and veggies; and traveling to other countries. I also adore cats and kittens and mysteries.” Follow Jackie on Morning Meditations and Here’s How it Happened
What comes to your mind when you think of free writing?
Do you think of finding a word, idea, scene or photo, and putting your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and… writing whatever comes to mind? (I did that once about salt from a photo of a vintage restaurant saltshaker, giving the condiment a personality. It turned out pretty cool, I thought!)
Or does free writing mean penning something “on spec” which is a fancy way of saying that no money is involved. Or, if you are a newbie writer, maybe you volunteer your services for articles, blog posts, interviews, fillers, etc., for experience and to accumulate “clips.”
“Free Writing” – that mind-over-matter, staring-into-space writing that begins with a prompt – is often used by writers and novelists who experience writer’s block, as a way to prime the pump. However it happens, once you get your creative juices or muses moving, your other WIP seems to suddenly take on new life. (And no, my muse’s name is not Willie!)
This kind of free writing invigorates your thought process, sparks ideas that catch fire and burn down forests of paper!! (Sorry, I got a little carried away.)
You don’t have to be “stuck” to make use of free writing. Some writers write from a prompt daily in a journal designated for that purpose. Not only does it kick start their writing, but they archive a huge number of ideas in the process to use later. (See a list of websites at the end that feature prompts for writers.)
Don’t write right
Another method of free writing (I love this one and have recommended it often, but no one ever tries it… or at least has told me they’ve tried it) is to use a left/right brain strategy. (You have to use a pen or pencil for this one.)
Choose a photo, or even an advertisement from a magazine with at least two people in it, and some background. With your dominant hand, write a brief account of what is happening in the scene (other than the obvious ad line). Include background, clothes, colors, expressions, relationship possibilities, etc.
NEXT, switch hands and write about the same scene with your non-dominant hand. I was told that your brain will notice different details and story possibilities from the “other” hand’s POV. I didn’t believe it, but I tried it. I was amazed! I did it again using a painting of a village scene this time and the same thing happened!
Try it. Do. Then email me (or comment below) the results.
Money Ain’t Everything
The other type of free writing that most wordsmiths don’t like to consider, is writing FOR FREE; not charging a fee, gratis, a lot of work for no pay. Some do it for the experience and to get a name and byline which they can later barter. They think of it as a rite of passage, paying their dues, a necessary evil. (Hey, I love clichés.)
But I bet you’ve done free writing and didn’t even realize it. How about that guest blog? (Okay, you pumped your book.) What about being so wowed by a book you just read, you ran to Amazon or Goodreads and posted a glorious review?
Unless your own blog has a commercial aspect, every post there is virtually free.
How about volunteering to critique or edit a friend’s manuscript? (I edit papers by seminary students in Africa and it is very gratifying.) Or mentoring a newbie writer? (I’m doing that for a friend who’s attempting her first memoir.) How about writing a note of encouragement to an author who’s just lost her editor or publisher, or gotten a stinky review?
These kind of projects are definitely in the “feel good” category but they are still writing. They are lucrative in a non-monetary way, and sometimes the payoff is astounding.
The Bottom Line
Writers write… however and whenever, for whomever, and for whatever pay. They write. WE write.
So WRITE FREE and see what happens.
Websites with writing prompts: scene setups, situations, words, and photos:
I admit I’ve run into this scenario. I used bolero instead of bolo for a tie description. I didn’t catch it. The editor didn’t catch it. Three proofreaders didn’t catch it. But one reader caught it and left a nasty note on Amazon reviews. He said I was “just sloppy”. I immediately changed it and uploaded the revision, but I couldn’t thank the guy who had caught my mistake because he didn’t leave contact information. So, it does happens.
However, I would like put up an argument that, if readers love the books, they aren’t going to stop reading if they catch an inconsistency, and as my example, I’ll use Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolf/Archie Goodwin novels.
In the course of reading every novel, novella and short he ever wrote, I’ve discovered many contradictions. Archie Goodwin smokes in one novel and says that he doesn’t smoke in another. He also says that he’s never seen Inspector Cramer actually light his cigar, yet in earlier stories, Cramer puffs away. The list goes on.
It gives me a giggle to be so immersed in his world that I catch these things. It seems as if Mr. Stout was so involved in the world of his current story that what came before (or might come after) didn’t hit his radar. I don’t consider them sloppy mistakes. They just feel like one more eccentricity of the characters coming down through the author.
One of the reasons that these changing details don’t bother me is that they don’t affect the core of the characters. Archie still complains about Wolf, while at the same time admiring him. He easily falls for females, makes smart-mouthed comments, and loves being the right-hand man of the smartest detective around. Wolf is still an Immovable Object (Archie’s words, not mine), and he continues to take delight in cuisine and no delight women. (Though he claims to be neutral in the latter.)
I’ve put a disclaimer in the beginning of my Frankie Chandler, pet psychic, novels. Breeds are not always capitalized, and grammar aficionados would be quick to jump on how I capitalize all breeds. I do it intentionally out of love and respect for my furry characters. I wouldn’t recommend that writers ignore the details, but if the world they create and the characters who inhabit that world are intriguing enough, I think that readers will let the occasional slip-up slide.
If your memory is a sieve (it will happen eventually to most of us), you can always keep those details in order by using a chart, or a style sheet. In fact, I recommend that you do. Track locations, names, dates, and anything else that you’ll need to refer to at a later date. If you have the skill of Rex Stout, discrepancies can be charming. For the rest of us, well, we might be considered “just sloppy”!