A Life of Unfinished things…

 

 

By Rosemary Lord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another Look At Descriptions

by Miko Johnston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Revelation and a Lesson in Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Aren’t You Writing?

By Miko Johnston

It’s a valid question. Maybe a few of you can’t think of an idea, but I’m willing to bet that you’re in the minority. In most cases we have an overabundance of ideas and at least one work in progress, if not more. Why are we having so much trouble writing? In a word:

PROCRASTINATION

Okay, we can admit it. We do procrastinate. Why? There are many reasons why, and they’re tied to different types of procrastination.

A dear friend and fine writer often wore a sweatshirt that said, EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT SHINY OBJECTS. This describes procrastinators who get sidetracked by other projects. Often they take on more than they can handle, or they get diverted by the next big thing. The only cure is to acknowledge writing is important enough to do. Focus on what’s in front of you for a set amount of time and literally time yourself.

Do you suffer from perfectionism syndrome? If you have a deadline and still can’t make progress, this may be why. If we can’t get it right, we don’t want to commit to working on our projects. I have a suggestion: GET OVER IT. You can argue about whether there’s crying in baseball, but there is no perfection in writing. Commit to doing the best that you can, then review it and make it better.

Sometimes I open a work-in-progress document and stare at the last bit I wrote, wondering where to go next. Then I close it because I can’t think of anything. Does this happen to you?

Try creating a separate ‘work’ sheet, copy the last paragraphs you’ve written onto it and then…just write. Don’t concern yourself with anything other than getting words down on the page. This technique opens the door to creativity; once your mind is free to explore ideas without judgement, the ideas will flow. Write until you come to a natural concluding point, then read back what you’ve written. I guarantee that most times you’ll find something useful for some part of the story, and sometimes you’ll get what you need. If the block occurs at a point where the story is still open-ended, your ideas may give you some direction to move forward, or warn you, “don’t go there”. If you’re trying to connect your scene with an approaching plot point, try the bridge technique I explained in an earlier post .

Easier said than done, you say? True. But I’m guessing that none of you became writers because you expected to become rich, famous, younger and more beautiful. You did it because you had a passion to write, or a story to tell, or characters whom you’ve created who deserve to live. The world is not an easy place right now; has it ever been? We need your stories out there, whether to entertain or to educate, distract us from our problems or understand them better. Or all of the above. So please sit down, take out your computer, or notebook, or whatever you use to write, and WRITE!.

And why not begin by commenting on this post – do you procrastinate, and if so, how do you get past it?

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

A Novel Based on a Terrifying 9/11 True Story

by Jill Amadio

The big “What if…” offers writers a limitless world of characters, plots, settings, and time frames, a chance to change history, to bend it a little. What if Henry VIII died at birth? What if General William Sherman never undertook his famous March to the Sea? Shakespeare would have been deprived of many of the plots for his plays and Scarlett O’Hara would have had no reason to be created.

The good news is, much of our past provides those who write historical fiction with stepping off points for their novels, with real characters who resound throughout the ages but can be given sham qualities they never possessed in real life.

Yet, how much twisting of the truth do these books require to suit the author’s fictional story? Is it a dilemma, a difficult choice, or a decision to blithely rewrite history? As for those writing non-fiction, do the same criteria apply?

The case of James Frey comes to mind as I mention it in my new novel that is – surprise! – based on a true story. Frey’s memoir, “a Million Little Pieces,” was revealed as fake although he was reported to have asked his publisher to release the book as a novel. However, Random House decided sales would be greater as a true story. To his credit Frey admitted he fabricated and exaggerated parts of the book.

Which brings me to a personal point regarding fiction, non-fiction, and writing the truth. A few months after September 11, 2001 I was approached by a young woman who said she had been married to one of the hijackers. She wished to tell her story.  As a ghostwriter I published several memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies under my clients’ names.

Long story short, I wrote the book for her. Then I printed it out and slipped it into a drawer. I didn’t look at it either in hard copy or digital form but kept the document on my laptop and on a thumb drive during all the years since.

The pandemic, forcing writers into greater isolation than usual, and for more than a year, has changed our way of life, and in my case, shredded any writerly income I was making as a hired hand. During those 13 months I thought about books I’d written and set aside, and decided to take a second look at the 9/11 story.

For several reasons I decided to turn the true story into as a novel. Luckily, I had retained all the documents including the marriage certificate, divorce decree, photos of her with the Said Arabian she married at 17 years old, and cassette recordings of her and her family. I also had written a 40-paqge non-fiction book proposal which resulted in my being signed up by a top New York literary agent. It was 13 months after the 9/11 attacks. However, the upshot was that no publisher would touch it.  The agent suggested they were afraid of reprisals because the book provides a rare, under-the-radar- glimpse into the terrorists’ personal lives in America, their loves of strip clubs and pizza, for instance, and the kinds of activities that should have served as red flags to law enforcement agencies.

Turning the non-fiction story into fiction was easy. I had all the background I needed both on tape, with photos,  and in documents. With Frey’s experience in mind I was careful to stick to the truth to back everything up but as the book was fiction, who would worry about its origin? The subtitle clearly states that the book is based on a true story.

Over the past two weeks I have received glowing reviews, all 5-star to date, and my dear neighbor, a retired CEO of a large company who writes a newsletter, said he’d be happy to give it some space. He added as an afterthought that would have to write the word “true” in quotes. He did not believe any of it happened, that it was too far-fetched. At first I remonstrated, then told him I really didn’t care if he believed it or not. I knew the truth.

Which brings me back to the point of this post: authors taking actual history, or history as reported, and subverting it to their own ends to make a book more interesting as some of our greatest writers have done. Is there a lesson here? Will youngsters believe the fiction or the real truth?

 

 

 

 

 

FUN WITH WRITING (AGAIN)

by Miko Johnston

It’s summertime, so let’s have some fun. Inspired by Jackie’s piece on Spine Stories, I decided to update my “Fun With Writing” post from five years ago –  here goes:

One Picture Is Worth….

Many groups and websites offer pictures for writing prompts; this is different. If you’ve seen any of the greeting card lines that use old photographs and insert funny comments, then you know what this is about. Select a picture from your photo album or a magazine and write a line or two about it. It can be funny, like one of my favorite birthday cards, which shows a pregnant woman with two pre-school children. The caption: All I wanted was a back rub. It can be poignant, a reminder of how things were vs how they are now.  See if you can come up with a clever interpretation of the photo.  You don’t have to write a thousand words.

Rapid Writing

This is an exercise that my local Whidbey Writers Group has done in the past. One person (usually the host) comes up with a concept and the group has ten minutes to write something. Previous ideas include rewriting a scene from an iconic book, describing an event from the past, and having everyone volunteer a word, then write a short piece incorporating all the words.

Crossover Appeal

If you’re in a writers group or have friends who are authors, try writing a scene featuring a character from another writer’s novel. Compose it in first person so the name isn’t revealed, avoid using any characters’ names or obvious settings. Then see if anyone can guess who you’ve written about. You can also have one of your characters interact with one of theirs.

If you write mysteries, you probably love at least one mystery series. Write a scene where your character meets that detective or P.I. Select a character from the same era as yours if possible, otherwise consider time-traveling the classic character to the present; think of how many modern-day iterations of Sherlock Holmes have been done.

“Honku”

Based on a witty book of haiku – “the zen antidote to road rage” – a  subject rife with possibilities. It you want to attempt poetry, try writing dedicated to driving. If cars aren’t your thing, pick any topic that lends itself to commentary and use the 5-7-5 syllable format to ‘haiku’ your idea. For example, my take on social media:

Why do you delight

 in photographing your meal?

I’d rather eat it

“Spelling Bee”

Last year I discovered this word-making game on the New York Times website’s puzzle section. I got myself and hubby hooked; we played it daily. It helped keep us sane during the pandemic lockdown as well as stimulated our brains. You don’t need a subscription to access the letters, only to play online. Or, play the DIY version:

24/7

Come up with as many seven letter words that don’t repeat letters or include S or X – a challenge in itself. When you have a list, pick a word at random; whatever day of the week it is, use that for your center number. Then make as many words out of the letters that include your center letter. Letters can be used more than once and four letter word minimum. No proper nouns, hyphenates, contractions or foreign words unless they’re in general usage, like pita or latte. Play alone or challenge a friend. Return the word to the pile and use it again on another day, when the center letter would change.

For example: Take the word MIRACLE.  Today is Wednesday, the fourth day on the calendar. My 24/7 challenge would be to make words that include the letter A. Had I picked MIRACLE on a Friday, I’d have to include L in each word.

DYI “Mad Libs”

Take a page from a book, edit out a series of key words and play “Mad Libs”. If you’re not familiar with the classic game, you create a list of nouns, adjectives and verbs and insert them into a story. Try it with a classic novel, a current best-seller, something awful, or if you’re brave, your own work.

“The Dating Game” for words

The clever pairing of an adjective and noun can replace a thousand words, a great way to create the sense of languid prose with brevity. It’s how I came up the phrase, overpriced abscess, to illustrate a McMansion enclave set in a wilderness area in my first published short story.

An interesting two-word combination works in any type of writing, and when it succeeds, it’s like a love match. As an exercise, see how many ‘matches’ you can make. Then save them; they could be incorporated in one of your WIPs.

We at The Writers In Residence always say “writing is writing”, and sometimes mixing it up can encourage creativity. Try an exercise for fun or to stimulate the creative brain.

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers in Residence, is the author of three novels in the A Petal In The Wind saga, as well as a contributor to anthologies including LAst Exit to Murder. She has recently completed the fourth novel in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one) with her rocket scientist husband. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Photo by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash

Creating “Spine” Stories

If you are like me, you’ve never heard of a Spine Story (or Poem) before.  I hadn’t until I read Erica’s wonderful children’s blog “What Do We Do All Day?” about a Summer Literacy BINGO game.

In the game, some of the squares were titled; learn a new song, finish a crossword puzzle, read a book outside, listen to an audiobook, and write a comic strip. As the the kids do each thing, they cross off the square. Five in a row means a BINGO win.

The square that caught my eye  was, create a spine poem.

I’d never heard of a spine poem before so I clicked on a link to her page that explained them. Of course, if you’ve viewed the photos in this post, you will already know what one is. I call them stories instead of poems. A real challenge would be to do a Haiku poem in Spines.

I’ve yet to create one myself, but by the end of this post, I promise to put one together to share. Meanwhile, here are a few in Erica’s post.

(In case you can’t read the above Spines, they say “How to Write Poetry” “Brainstorm” “Where do You Get Your Ideas?” “All the world.”)

At the end of her blog on Spine Poems, she added a link to 100 Scope Notes which had a slew more of these poems/stories, titled “2013 Book Spine Poem Gallery”. There are other years of galleries available too. Lots of laughs and some really good Aligned Spines.

Okay, here are a few I tried. (haha) It was actually more fun than I thought. Once I’d done two, I saw many more possibilities!

Now it’s your turn.

Gather some of the books on your shelves or TBR stacks and try to create a few stories or poems?  I’d love to see a photo, or just write the titles in your comment below. Hey, you are very talented storysmiths. Let’s see what story you can tell… from your bookcase? Create a cool, scary, funny, mysterious, clever, or romantic “aligned spines” story.

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Erica’s Literacy Bingo page: https://www.whatdowedoallday.com/reading-bingo-for-kids/

Erica’s Spine Poetry page:  https://www.whatdowedoallday.com/spine-poetry-activity-for-kids/

100 Scope Notes Book Spine Galleries:  https://100scopenotes.com/2013/04/02/2013-book-spine-poem-gallery/

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