Deciding What to Write

By Linda O. Johnston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A Life of Unfinished things…

 

 

By Rosemary Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Characters and the “W”s

GroupOfPeople

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing trails

What I Learned from the Other Side…

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

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

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

A Moving Experience

 

             by Gayle Bartos-Pool

AnotherRoadSign

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

New House 1

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

pict0025

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

The Secret Books of Poison

by Alan Bradley

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See for yourself!

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

 

Space to Write

Guest Post by Hannah Dennison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you so much for hosting me today.

BIO

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

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

Social Media Links

https://www.hannahdennison.com

https://twitter.com/HannahLDennison

http://instagram.com/hannahdennisonbooks

https://www.facebook.com/HannahDennisonBooks/

IT’S A SMALL WORLD – OR IS IT…?

 

By Rosemary Lord

Did you notice how small our world became during the Covid-19 lock-down?

For those of us in California it’s been over eighteen months of confinement, and it’s not over yet. We were prohibited from travelling, other than for emergency/essential needs. We were discouraged from meeting anyone, other than those we lived with. For those of us who live alone – too bad!  In case we caught or spread the Dreaded Disease. 

Our in-person Writers’ Conferences were cancelled. First the Left Coast Crime Conference in San Diego was cancelled March 2020, just after I’d checked in!

Even last month’s ‘Blood on the Bayou’ Bouchercon Writers’ Conference in New Orleans, was cancelled at the last minute.

Our hardworking conference organizers must have wept as years of planning were wiped away. But you can’t keep writers down for long. We always find a way… They came up with various creative online offerings.

There was no travelling to meet other writers or to research places for our stories. We stayed home, becoming ‘shut-ins,’ locked in our own little castles – be it one room or a whole rambling house. We were still ‘confined to barracks.’ We didn’t drive – there was nowhere to go. People had everything delivered. (Cardboard box-makers must be making a fortune!)

Lives the world over changed. We became resourceful. We helped relatives, friends and neighbors. We re-evaluated our world. But the fear the Media shared, became pervasive. It was – and still is – difficult to escape.

But, as writers, we had our own escape – into our  private, isolated writing world. Some writers flourished, with no distractions, completing novels, articles, scripts – all sorts. Other writers struggled, unable to concentrate. I wrote some, but not as much as I wanted.

I read a lot more. Most of us did. Unable to get the creative juices flowing and seeking diversion, I found something quick and easy, re-reading  “Eats, shoots and leaves” – which I’ve written about before. It’s Lynn Truss’s witty book on sloppy punctuation. It still made me laugh. Just what I needed. Lynn Truss bemoaned the fate of proper punctuation, claiming that it was an endangered species, due to low standards on the internet, email communication and “txt msgs”  She explained, “Eats shoots and leaves” is a joke about pandas. They eat (bamboo) shoots and leaves – and not, by the simple addition of an errant comma, a comment about a violent criminal act. (Although pandas can give a very nasty bite.)

Then there’s Michael Caine’s interpretation of a line in a script that read,  “What’s that in the road ahead?” By adding a simple dash, Caine had his fellow actors in fits of laughter when he announced: “What’s that in the road – a head?”

Or the Australian take on bad punctuation, taught in schools as a way of making students remember the grammatical rules: “Let’s eat Grandpa,” sends Aussie kids into helpless giggles with such a picture. But it’s not a cannibalistic suggestion, merely the absence of a comma in a sentence that should read:  “Let’s eat, Grandpa.”  That’s why Eats, Shoots and Leaves became so popular, reminding us of school lessons that seem to have vanished in today’s hurried world.

So, my lock-down reading provided some laughs, and I learned a lot of new things. (Just don’t get me started on Social Media for Dummies, or U-Tube attempts to teach me ‘techie’ things with my computer or Social Media. Urgghh!)

But at least I discovered a terrific search engine: DuckDuckGo – where you don’t get followed by advertisements and constantly besieged by sales pitches for something you were looking up. 

My reading veered from my usual research about Old Hollywood, to total escapism. Mysteries in far off places: Peter Mayle’s The Marseille Caper, Victoria Hislop’s The Island and Rosanna Ley’s The Saffron Trail – to name just three. Clearly a theme here: my yearning to travel again!

Unless you’re half of a writing partnership – we write alone. Although, when I’m immersed in my writing, I’m enjoying a world with all sorts of characters – so I don’t feel alone. Our writing community is filled with a smart, imaginative assortment of writers. But this long, lock-down was different.  And as much as we did Zoom Meetings, phone-calls and Webinars, we missed that personal interaction, spontaneity, the regular Coffee Shop meetings sharing our latest pages and new ideas. We missed meeting friends – especially the hugs. Waving at the end of a Zoom meeting is not the same.

So now, as we venture out again, we are cautious. Driving any distance, after eighteen months of only running local errands, was most disconcerting. The intrepid journey on not just one, but three, freeways, took me back to learning to drive when I was seventeen – in a clunky old Morris that would not go much faster than thirty miles an hour. I was right back there on that quiet English road, holding my breath until I reached my destination. I found going to a shopping center almost overwhelming. Where did all these people come from? I’d got used to the quiet isolation of my apartment building. But I wasn’t alone. We had stopped interacting with each other. Stopped those lovely unexpected meetings of friends and acquaintances we bumped into on the street. We’d not been out on the street for eighteen months.

 But I discovered that friends and family were going through the same thing. The enforced isolation was more difficult than many of us realized. Not wanting to make light of kidnap victim’s suffering – but many people appear to be suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome.

We’d learned to keep ourselves ‘safe.’  Our world had become so small. Walking out again into the big, brash, noisy world was scary. It was tempting to run back inside and close the door. But, adventurers at heart, we writers have stepped back into the fray. Into that great big, bright, scary world again, that’s just waiting for our participation and our imagination. Hey, World, we’re back!

 

……..end……..

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Betwixt and Between

AnotherRoadSignRecently, I was given a nudge down my “how to improve” writing road journey, while thinking about my most recent book club selection discussion. I’m sure I’ve previously mentioned how much I like—and have learned from my local monthly book club. Indeed, without the diversity of selections members put on our list, there are so many books and authors I would have regretfully never read. So first off, let me say again, I love book club!

For example, our August book selection was Catalyst, written by the highly acclaimed and award winning Science Fiction/Fantasy author Anne McCaffrey, this offering written with Elizabeth Ann Scarborough[i]. Great writers, but in a genre which is not my forte—which I’ve proclaimed on several past occasions. Thank goodness for members who ignore me and push us all outside our reading cocoons. Indeed, I’ve self-indulgently proclaimed on more than one occasion about the genre, “Not what I like. Not real.” 

On my way home from our meeting, I had one of those “good-grief” moments that astound me at my own silly thinking and categorizing. I write fiction. Duh, questioningmannot Real! Mystery fiction writers ask readers to accept people, places, events, etc.—all that often aren’t real—though sometimes based on real events and situated in real places.

From there, I headed down the “how real should our fiction be?” path. Sounds silly, but what I mean is the importance of having the right “reality balance” to our commercial fiction—mysteries in particular. I’ve talked before about closing books without reading because the characters don’t grab me, or I dislike them, which sorry to say, I seem to be doing more of. But, does the reality-balance also have something to do with my lack of story engagement?

Some thoughts:

    • For sure, for me in particular, I want readers to be able to visualize a non-existent-unreal town of Shiné as a real place. Store fronts, roads, places of business, even a castle. If they actually visualize an unreal alien world they can’t go to, will they want to mentally be there, or visit again? Indeed, I want them to escape from the reality of their habitat to a neat identifiable place they’d like to visit, but different from where they are—at least for a couple hours. But not as far as a different planet or world?
    • Are the characters real? Certainly not. But real enough for a reader to visualize a real person they can piece together, and at the same time find the character different or eccentric enough to find interesting? Normal enough to be real, but not too normal as to be alien, or worse, unlikable. Another balancing act.
    • Scenery? Can they see a real place in their mind’s eye? In my writing case, the Mojave Desert does exist. But Shiné? No. But can a reader imagine a place “like” this possibly existing in the real world?
    • And here’s a hard one. Are the events real? Especially with some of the mystery writing conceits in use. Of course not, ask any policeman(and I’ve asked several–thank you my PSWA friends and San Bernardino County Sheriffs). Indeed, we’ve got the reality in our own lives of actual bad guys and victims. The balance here is of not trivializing real crime and horror, but at the same time offering escapism with characters being killed and justice of some kind happening. Hmm…
    • And here’s another tricky one, is it a realistic story? Again, of course not. The goal is larger than life adventures, with larger than life characters, with larger than life attributes—and minimal flaws. Not reality for sure.
    • Is the conclusion realistic? And on this one, not a dilemma or quandary for me at all. No. It’s what I want to happen. Reality doesn’t matter. That being said, sometimes an author has hit the mark on all the previous points, and I’ve gotten to the end and said, bah humbug!(smile)

Agatha Christie, I think, was a genius when it comes to snatching a reader into sometimes outlandish unreal situations, with larger than life characters when it comes to abilities, and posit some implausible situations and happenings—but leaving me thinking these people, places, and events actually happened. Easily suspending my disbelief while reading. Her non-reality was/still is[ii] for me very real.

Still pondering, but thinking “real” fiction writing of any kind, is a balancing act for sure. My take away from these meanderings? For me—more carefulness when it comes to reality-balancing, when developing all my characters, places, situations, and conclusions. And maybe read more Scifi(smile).

balancingAct

 

Happy Writing and Reading Trails!


[i] More about Catalyst and Anne McCaffrey here on Amazon https://www.amazon.com/Catalyst-Tale-Barque-Cats-Book-ebook/dp/B002XHNOMO/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=catalyst+anne&qid=1629596367&sr=8-1

[ii] I re-watch Poirot mysteries on DVDs all the time (with David Suchet).