Friday, May 14, 2021

Bouncing Back and Forth

Frankie here. It's end of semester and in between reading my students' papers, I am working on a couple of book projects. I missed Charlotte's post last Friday about the "cold, hard reality" of being a writer - that most of us need to have another means of support. 

Charlotte mentioned that I am a criminal justice professor. In the comments about her post, Tanya asked how I work on fiction and nonfiction simultaneously. I thought I would respond to her question today. 

Here's what I do:

1.  Look for connections. 

2.  Do double-duty research.

3. Keep notes and reminders.

4. Have separate writing spaces.

5. Divide the day into blocks.  

Because I'm a criminal justice professor whose academic areas are crime history, and crime and mass media/popular culture, my nonfiction writing has a built-in connection to my crime fiction. I always look for overlap. Am I doing research on a real-life crime or about a movie or TV show that might be useful for a short story or novel? For example, Old Murders, the third novel (soon to be reissured) featuring my crime historian Lizzie Stuart, was inspired by two sources. The first was the dissertation I had read about the real-life case of a young African American woman who was executed after killing the white widow for whom her family sharecropped. In my novel, the lawyer who defended her was inspired by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  But Lizzie encountered this other fictional lawyer decades later, when he was in his decline, and the details of what happened in the murder case were more complicated. 

To do double-duty research, I made a trip to the Library of Virginia in Richmond. I was there to go through the papers about the real-life case that were archived there. I wanted to be able to write about the case and to include it in my classroom lectures. At the same time, since I was walking through what Lizzie was going to do in the book, I made a second set of notes about what she saw and her process (as both crime historian and sleuth). Since I was changing the facts of the case for my mystery, I also needed to make notes about that for my "Author's Note" to the reader about what was true and what I had made up.

In Old Murders, Lizzie has a young graduate assistant named Keisha (who is now a continuing character). Keisha is eager to tackle the injustices of the case. She has gotten Lizzie to make the trip from Gallagher to Richmond to go through the papers about the case. Lizzie is trying her best not to get involved in whatever is going on with the old lawyer and the now adult son of the woman who was killed. After going through the archived records, she sets some boundaries for what they will do:

    "All right," I said, hoping I wouldn't regret it. "But an academic paper, Keisha. An article, not a documentary. We leave Sloane Campbell [the son] out of this other than his role doing the trial. We do not climb fences to get onto his property. We do not try to interview him or Jebediah Gant [the lawyer] or any of the other still-living participants. Understand me?"

Of course, the boundaries don't hold. But Lizzie is saying what a real-life faculty member might say to an over-eager grad student. She is not plunging in recklessly. 

So, this is the process that I follow for drawing on my academic research for inspiration. Sometimes I move from the research for a novel to research for nonfiction. For example, I have been plodding along on my historical thriller set in 1939. I needed to know more about what J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, was doing that year. That led me to several books that took me deeper into his life and career than I had gone before. In one book I found a marvelous description of how he dressed. That quote is going into the manuscript of my nonfiction book about dress, appearance, and impression management in American crime and justice. 

I always do research with a notebook close at hand to jot down anything that catches my eye. Or, that I happen to hear on NPR or while listening to music. A Kenny Rogers song inspired my first short story in an anthology. I have referenced that same song when telling my students about murder ballads.

As for the writing itself -- to avoid bouncing around to the point of losing focus, I try to create separate physical and mental spaces for my nonfiction and fiction. It was easier before the pandemic, when I could work at home in the morning than make the physical transition to my office on campus in the afternoon. Simply changing clothes -- from at-home casual to workday skirt and jacket -- began the transition that was completed by the time I had driven the short distance to campus. For the past year, that transition has required more mental gymnastics -- such as moving from my laptop on the dining room table to my desktop in my home office. I am really looking forward to getting back to my bookshelves and boxes in my campus office. 

I admit that my ability to bounce back and forth between fiction and nonfiction has a lot to do with my day job. I have flexibility about how I order my day and what I work on. But I am not terribly disciplined. What is most important for me is that I let my imagination have free play. I was able to do that -- to look for connections -- even when I had a dull job in the housewares section of a department store after I graduated from college. While I dusted china and tried to look busy until a customer walked in, I plotted more than one fictional murder. 

I also broke more than my share of plates, cuts, and other fragile objects. I'm still having trouble with that. A couple of weeks ago, I spilled half a mug of tea on my laptop keyboard while I was thinking about a connection that had occurred to me. Good idea, dead laptop. 


Thursday, May 13, 2021

Life Adjustments

 Charlotte's entry on Tuesday hit a nerve with me (Donis). My writing career has always been about as mid-list as one could get, but I was lucky to have a publisher who stuck with me through thick and thin because she liked my style and believed in my books. But I have a new publisher now to whom I seem to be an afterthought. Will I soon be an orphan author? I don't know. Trying to introduce a new series during a pandemic, when you cannot travel, go to conferences, do any in-person promoting, is not a good career move.

On top of everything, as I've mentioned before, I've been having attacks of vertigo for the past couple of months. They come out of nowhere and make me sick as a dog for the whole day. I had hoped it was positional vertigo, which is fixable with a simple exercise (Thanks, Charlotte). But I went to an audiologist who specializes in balance and vertigo problems, and after a long battery of tests, he suggested I have something called Meniere's disease, which is an inner ear problem that is not well understood and for which there is no good treatment. Of course!

It also affects my focus. Aside from being horribly unpleasant, I find I can't sit in front of the computer for very long without putting myself in danger of an attack. I have to limit my screen time, which is difficult if you're trying to write and are on a roll. I'll be checking with an eye doctor shortly.

So ... because one has to do something, I've been seeing an acupuncturist. It seems to help. 

Funny how things happen that force you to make changes in your life whether you want to or not. Perhaps if my publisher drops me, I'll find a new path - a new publisher, a new direction my writing, a whole new direction in my life. If I have to adjust to my new spinning reality, perhaps I'll go back to writing by hand, or find some dictation software like Dragon. Or learn to type efficiently with my eyes closed.

Or maybe I'll take up gardening or animal fostering.


  By the way, I'm still promoting my latest novel online as best I can, so if you're looking for a fun read set in Hollywood during the very Roaring Twenties, Dear Reader, pick up a copy of Valentino Will Die and immerse yourself in the glamorous world of the silent movies. It's available in paper, ebook, or audiobook.

And now I have to stop before my eyes start crossing. We authors thank you for your support. 


Monday, May 10, 2021

Memories given a Help!ing hand.

Howdy, Type M folks, Douglas Skelton at the keyboard.

I want to talk about triggers today. Not the ones that crime writers usually talk about - you know, the ones that makes things go bang. 

Yesterday (Saturday) I was watching '8 Days a Week', Ron Howard's brilliant documentary on The Beatles, and as soon as the song 'Help!' began I was instantly transported back to when I was very young on the streets of Springburn in the north of Glasgow. There is a bond between the words melody and memory, for the former lingers on the latter for a lifetime. 

A few years ago I went back to those streets and this is what I wrote:

The man was talking to someone I couldn’t see. Or maybe he was talking to someone only he could see.
All I knew was that when I reached him, there was no one at the top of the steps.
He carried a plastic supermarket bag and he looked about my age. He was wearing a dark jacket and his shoulders were stopped but his hair was still dark and full. As I neared, he turned, nodded to me and walked away.
I wondered if he’d lived here all his life. I wondered where he’d been, where he was going.
I wondered if, at one time, I knew him.
I was back in Springburn, where I spent part of my childhood. We moved around a bit – I usually say that we moved whenever the rent was due. From Glasgow to Manchester to Ashton–Under–Lyne back to Glasgow to Cumbernauld to East Kilbride (the latter two new towns built to tackle what was called the overspill from Glasgow).
But this was where I was born, in the very street I saw the man talking to someone who might not even have been there.



Valleyfield Street. There used to be tenements on both sides but now only one. There was a little shop here then, Dale’s Dairy. I remember I used to think about a popular radio show called ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’ whenever I saw the sign.
I’d had a lunch meeting just down the road (boy, that sounds grand) and had a few hours to kill before meeting a couple of close pals for dinner. At the lunch I’d talked about Springburn, about being born there, living there.
My memories, though, are fragmented. Snapshots, really. Shadows of time that flicker in my mind and then are gone. Some may be false. Memories can be tricky.
My grandmother – my Nana – lived in Adamswell Street, up the flight of steps from Valleyfield Street. It was a much longer street back then. Part of it has been bulldozed to make way for a wider road taking traffic to and from the M8. All the tenements have gone, although the street remains.



Snapshot
The café at the corner sells drinks for a penny. Irn Bru in little glasses, just like the cowboys used in the films. We sashay in, order a drink, slap our money down and stand at the counter like it was a bar. And, if we’re flush, there are Penny Dainties and Blackjacks and lucky bags.


I remember coalmen in leather jackets with no sleeves carting huge bags up the stairs of the tenements to the flats, big, burly men covered in coaldust, and they lifted the heavy loads with such ease I thought they must be supermen.
I remember, or think I do, men with little ladders lighting lamps but that can’t be, because we’re only talking the mid-1960s and that didn’t still happen, surely?
I remember the rag and bone man on his cart, calling out RAAAGS, RAAAGS. And his horse, which I hope was cared for properly but we didn’t think about it back then.
I remember bits and pieces, and many came back to me like flashbacks that day.


Snapshot
I’m running through a dark passageway. We call it ‘The Dunny’ and it runs from the back courts of Adamswell Street to Valleyfield Street. I’ve been dared to go through and honour dictates that I do it. It’s pitch black and seems to go on forever. There’s a smell of damp. And there’s water dripping somewhere, I’m splashing through it. But there’s something else here, I know it, something breathing in the shadows. Something watching. Something waiting for my step to falter so it can pounce. But I keep moving, faster now, feeling the fear build with my beating heart and when I finally burst back into the daylight that fear escapes in a giggle. I’ve made it. I’m safe. And my honour is intact.


I was asked during the lunch about street gangs in Springburn. I’m sure they existed but I was too young to be aware of them. Our gang was made up of the kids from Adamswell Street and there was a brief rivalry with kids from a neighbouring street.
I recall us facing them down one day. There was about six of us and maybe a dozen of them, strung out across the street. They had sticks and leather belts as weapons. We had a few cheeky comments and not much else. There was at least one coward among us that day, and he ran off and hid up a close. I couldn’t help myself. I’m no fighter. The street battle didn’t amount to much in the end. A lot of shouting. A lot of running. No one was hurt. I’m not even sure any blows were actually struck in anger. So much for my juvenile delinquency.
The other side did capture two of our guys, though, and I redeemed myself by sneaking over the old disused wash house roofs to free them. They’d been tied to an old metal washing pole and I’d watched their captors running round them and whooping like the Native Americans we’d seen on the telly. We didn’t call them Native Americans, though, for these were less than politically correct times. Being PC back then meant getting into blue serge and keeping your thermos and sandwiches in the blue police box on Adamswell Street.


Snapshot
An old car. Rusting. Abandoned. Unlocked. We can climb in and pretend we’re driving, hands running up and down the steering wheel in exaggerated fashion.


My old primary school is still there – Hyde Park. It’s now a business centre, but you can still see the two entrances, one for Girls, one for Boys. It was my first experience of school and I was there twice – before we moved to Manchester and after we came back.



Snapshot
I’m fighting with a boy outside the gates. I don’t know why. We’re rolling around the ground and landing weak punches. There’s very little pain but real tears. Especially from me because I’m losing. My honour is not so intact now.


We used to walk down the hill to Valleyfield Street and the dinner school, a collection of low pre–fab buildings (or that’s the way I remember them). We used to sing a hymn every day before food was served. All Creatures That On Earth Do Dwell. I now can’t hear that without smelling boiled cabbage.
There are houses on that bit of ground now but as I stood looking at them I remembered the dark day I ended up with a severe gash on my leg. We’d snuck into the dinner school grounds, the mean, fierce, scary old man who watched the place must’ve been away, and we were playing at the far end, up against what is now Flemington House. There was a steep concrete ramp from the grass to the fence at Adamswell Street and we used to take a runny up to try to reach the top. There were metal railings at the side of the building, big, rusting old spiked things, and somehow – I still don’t remember how, although I was probably climbing them – I managed to slide down one and gouge a large flap of flesh from my leg. There was pain and there was blood and there was crying and there was more blood, so much blood.


Snapshot
I’m being carried out of the grounds. There’s a crowd of people at the gate. My sister, Katrina, is there. An ambulanceman is there. They take off my shoe and it’s filled with blood. I remember nothing else.


I still bear the scar of that encounter.
What I don’t remember are the names of my friends and that makes me sad. I know some of them lived across from my Nana but that’s all.
So maybe that guy, the one with the companion who may not have been there at all, maybe he has lived around there all his life and maybe we once knew each other. And if that was the case, what’s he been doing all these years? What has he seen, what has he done, what’s happened to him that he talks to the air?
Did he see ghosts?


Snapshot
I’m walking back from a youth group, passing the great cavernous sheds where they used to build the locomotives. Springburn was famous all over the world for its locomotives. They’re empty now, the din of the machines and the riveters and the voices of the men who worked them has stilled. But now and again I find a way to peek into the empty sheds and faintly, behind the steady and incessant drip of the water from the holes in the roof, I fancy I still hear hammering and tapping and shunting.


The past. It’s not what it used to be. But it never dies.
They can bulldoze the buildings and they can build factories on parkland and they can turn the schools into business centres. They can flatten the old washhouses and the bin shelters we called middens. They can take away entire streets and create new ones. They can do all that but the old places – the way they were – live on as memories.
We grow out of childhood but it also never dies. It nestles within us, living, breathing, the way we were shaping what we are. Good, bad, happy, sad, loved, neglected. It’s all in there.
And that day parts of it came back to me. Snapshots, certainly, but vivid and real.  Chronologically I didn’t live in Springburn for very long but wherever I am, I will forever take a piece of it with me.



Friday, May 07, 2021

Cold Hard Truth

 A strange thing happened during when Americans were shut in during the Covid crisis. They started reading books again. This should be terrific news for writers, but according to a recent article, they mostly read authors they already liked. They read old familiar books. The cold hard truth is that these readers were wary of newcomers. 

A friend emailed me recently who was worried about a young man she knew who was not doing too well. He had never held a "real" job. He wants to become a writer and she wanted to know what I thought of his ability.

In fact, I think he is quite talented. That said, it's very, very hard to assess the merit of a work in a genre you don't regularly read. But talent is not the problem here. The problem is reality.

Only a very few writers make really big bucks. They are very talented and have something quite special going for them. Never mind that this one or that one is not your own personal cup of tea. When they first started out, each person on the best seller list time after time brought something new to the marketplace. These are the born naturals. The cream of the crop. They cannot stop. Case in point is J.K. Rawlings. The lady doesn't need the money but she keeps on anyway. She can't help herself.

And then we move on to another wealthy tier of writers. They are really good, usually genre specific, but things can get a little weird down the line. Books are outlined and someone else does the actually writing. Names are licensed. Writing becomes harder. Trips beckon. Time with family. A cocktail at sunset. They make a terrific living. Have a sweet life.

But the cold hard truth is that most writers need a day job. Seldom does one's writing alone provide enough to support a family, generate income for research trips, or enable one to attend the endless round of conferences that compete for time and bucks.

So what kind of day job? How many hours a day? I find it puzzling that some of the people with the most demanding jobs produce phenomenal books year after year. As to the type of job? When I taught a course in writing at Fort Hays State University one spring, I found myself worrying about the students' stories, instead of my own writing. It was like trying to water two fields from the same well. Yet, Joyce Carol Oates--who is incredibly gifted--has taught writing at Columbia for decades. Our own Frankie Bailey is a professor in the department of justice.

Some writers find that working in a trade or doing something involved with physical labor is just the right contrast. That makes sense to me.

I like bookkeeping and accounting. It's comforting to do non-creative work that is exacting and precise. It's black and white. Right or wrong. Writing is a very messy occupation, but it's so exhilarating! I would rather be a writer than anything else, nevertheless sometimes I think how nice a regular paycheck would be. Sometimes I hate the fog that is a part of creativity.

So my question for the young man would be "How do you intend to support yourself?" The cold hard truth is that if you plan to become a writer you must figure something out.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Writing or Typing?

I read an interesting quote once by a poet that went something like this: I write 23 hours a day, I type for one. It indicated that the poet spends a lot of time in her head. Similarly, Truman Capote once said of Jack Kerouac’s work, That’s not writing, that’s typing.

Typing vs. Writing is a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. No, no one said to me what Capote said of Kerouac; not yet, anyway. But I do know myself: when I get in trouble on the page, I’m overwriting. 





I once believed overwriting came from over-thinking. I don’t believe that anymore. I believe overwriting comes from not thinking enough. I’ve turned to journaling –– thinking through my plot in my notepad. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, nor should it have taken me this long to figure out. In my classroom, students must free-write in a notebook, never on a computer, because we know they digest the material better when writing longhand. Why it took me until age 51 to take my own advice is a conversation for another day (or post).

But now I’m much more likely to slow down or even stop writing and return to my journal. I’m not working from an outline. The journal is where I think things through, where I make realizations, where I solve the puzzle I’ve created. In short, it’s where I trouble-shoot. It saves me from writing scenes (or as many as I usually write) that will never see the light of day in a final draft. It’s also a place where I can make plot decisions. This is key for me. In the journal, I’m making deductions and figuring out why and how things have happened to date. For a “pantser” (someone who writes best by the seat of his pants), the journal provides a safety net.

It takes me away from the keyboard and, if I’m being honest, slows me down. But both of those are good things. We’ve all spent too much time in front of our computer screens these past 18 months; and slowing down to speed the novel up, is a trade I’m willing to make.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

My Own Little Happy Dance

 

You know that happy dance that Snoopy does? That’s what’s going on in my head right now. 


 Last week I finished the book I’ve been working on for about two years now, the sixth book in my Aurora Anderson Mystery series, Final Brushstroke. Now it’s with a Beta reader who will tell me if I’ve jumped the shark or not. I think it’s pretty good, but I always feel there’s room for improvement in my writing. This book took way longer than it should have, but I persevered, working on it in some capacity most days, either writing or researching things like love locks, lock sporting groups, bank robberies and stun guns. Yep, they’re all in my book somewhere.

While I’m waiting for comments, I’m celebrating by taking a little time off and doing things I’ve been meaning to do for a while now: cleaning, painting projects, watching Icelandic crime dramas and doing other stuff around the house. I think it’s important to pause and acknowledge a writing victory.

Things are looking up here in Los Angeles County, virus-wise, as well. We went from overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes to having way, way fewer cases of COVID-19. More things are opening up, as well, including Disneyland. I don’t intend to go anytime soon. I’m just glad it opened back up. Not that everything has been peachy-keen in my world, but there’s been enough positive stuff, I’m optimistic.

My challenge right now is what to do with this book. The publisher who published the previous five books in my series passed on this one. I’m reluctant to look for another one because this is the last one I want to write in this series, at least for a while. I have other ideas I want to work on. I’m considering self-publishing this one, but I have yet to grasp the magnitude of that task. I’ll figure it out. Right now, though, I’m just enjoying the victory.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

You can’t stop making up stories, can you?

by Rick Blechta

I had really limited time over the past week to do much writing because we put in a new front lawn and I did a lot of yard work in the back. Hey, it’s that time of year!

However, I was also guilty of using some of that scarce time to do more model railroading than I should have.

I previously wrote about building “Miss Lucy’s House” and lately I was working on her big brother’s tribute building, “Jackson’s Village Pizza.”

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve added two HO scale figures. That’s Miss Lucy watering a pot of flowers on her front porch and Jackson getting some much-needed fresh air after turning out a busy evening’s batch of pies, fresh and hot.

Here’s where the storytelling comes in.

Miss Lucy is a successful young musician. What you’re not seeing yet is her 1953 baby blue Porsche Spyder. (She did have two #1 hits in the past year after all, so she splurged a bit.) It arrived yesterday afternoon. I’ve yet to construct her yard, with a driveway for the car, and no doubt a garage. There will also be a garden in the backyard and I have a lovely apple tree to go in the front yard.

A pretty, young girl would have a boyfriend being in her mid-twenties, wouldn’t she?

So I bought her two possible beaus. One is an army officer who has just returned home since he’s carrying a suitcase. Lucy hasn’t spotted him yet. I guess — assuming he makes the cut — I’ll have to buy the taxi cab that just dropped him off. He’s stopped midway up the sidewalk gazing fondly at his girlfriend.

Bachelor #2, as my wife feels, looks like a bit of a bad boy. He probably combs his hair a lot and he has a definite slouch. Maybe he’s a want-to-be boyfriend. He’ll have to toe the line because Lucy is a girl who knows her mind. I think she’ll be able to handle him — if she even gives him the time of day.

I haven’t even gotten to Jackson’s back story, but you no doubt see where this is going. I’m unable to do anything without adding the human factor. I can’t even resist giving my model buildings a story.

My granddaughter isn’t even five years old yet and her grampa has imagined her 20 years in the future with a career, her own life, and a complete back story.

After uttering the words in the title of this blog post, my wife told me she thinks it’s cute…

Monday, May 03, 2021

My Seven Rules to Raise the Heat in a Novel

 I'm halfway through teaching my first-ever Advanced Creative Writing course.  Most of the students are returnees from my earlier classes and it’s a treat to see them all again.  They’re all outstanding writers.  

Tonight, I'm presenting my list of seven rules to raise the heat in a novel. 

A good book is like a well-prepared meal.  A lot of key ingredients go into it—relatable characters, a believable plot, a satisfying story arc, evil villains, and the occasional plot twist.

But like when you’re cookin’, ya’ gotta bring the heat.

Storytelling is characters under stress. But, keep in mind, there should be an ebb and flow of tension.  Non-stop stress will wear a reader out.  Too little and you become boring.

Here are my seven rules of building tension in your novel.

1)There should be internal conflict within your characters.  And that’s not only just for your protagonist and his friends, but for your villains as well.  Internal conflict can take many forms—alcohol or drug abuse, fear, PTSD, a fear of spiders—really almost any phobia will do. 

Want to amp it up a little?  Add a physical hurdle for your protagonist.  Jeffery Deaver turned his hero, Lincoln Rhyme, into a quadriplegic. If that’s not taking it to the extreme, I don’t know what is.

2) There has to be believable and engaging characters with competing goals. The simplest example of this is the bad guy wants to kill the good guy and the good guy wants to keep breathing.  

Sometimes the competing goals aren’t so clear cut.  In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s goal is to catch a serial killer.  To do so, she needs the help of Hannibal Lecter.  At first it seems Hannibal’s goal is to simply use Clarice as a distraction from the boredom of his jail cell.  Then his goal appeared to be just how far into Clarice’s head he could crawl, like a spider digging deeper and deeper into her psyche. Ultimately, his real goal was to escape prison.  

3) Create secondary sources of tension.  We see these in our personal lives all the damned time.  

Think of some of the daily sources of secondary tension you might experience.  Your boss has a bad day and takes it out on you.  You’re late for a job interview and you get a flat tire. You see charges on your credit card statement that you didn’t make.

In and of itself, relatively minor annoyances.  But add it up and mix it into your story, and it ramps up the stress.

4) The main story conflict must be crucial to your character. In the film Fatal Attraction, Dan Gallagher is married to Beth but has an affair with a female magazine editor by the name of Alex.  Dan, thinking the affair was a one-off, is ready to forget about the fling.  Alex, crazy as a bedbug on meth, isn’t ready to forget anything and obsessively stalks Dan.  

The conflict here heats up when Dan thinks his marriage is in danger.  Then it grows when he realizes that his life could be in danger.  It escalates yet again, when he comes to grips that both his wife and daughter’s lives are in danger.  

Oh, FYI, if there’s a boiling pot on your stove and your pet bunny is missing, don’t look in the pot.

5) Let the tension ebb and flow.  The best thriller writers are the ones who take you on that rollercoaster ride but slow it down from time to time to let the reader catch his breath. And just when you’ve let your guard down…

6) Bam, you raise the stakes and keep raising them. In Andy Weir’s The Martian, his protagonist is left for dead on Mars after his team blasts off during a dust storm to head back to earth.  Using malfunctioning equipment, his cunning, and knowledge of science, the hero manages to eke out an existence, thinking he can last the four years until the rescue rocket can retrieve him.

But Weir suddenly raises the stakes, throwing fearsome obstacles into his hero’s path, one after the other, until it appears all hope is exhausted.  Read the book, see the movie, it’s a nail biter right up until the end. 

7) Make it a race against time. You’ve laid out the conflict, you’ve thrown in secondary conflicts, you’ve raised the stakes, now you give the protagonist a deadline.  And if the conflict isn’t resolved by then there’s deadly consequences. 

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, we visit a house full of people on a remote island and one of them is a killer.  One by one, they’re being murdered.  The ferry that will take them off the island doesn’t arrive until tomorrow.  Can they survive the night?  There’s nothing that will raise tension like a ticking clock.

Writing a book requires many ingredients—engaging characters, a thoughtful plot, artful descriptions.  But in the end, ya’ gotta’ bring the heat. 

Friday, April 30, 2021

Technology Trauma

 My post today is really late because I've spent most of the day dealing with technology. I raced home (driving within the speed limit, of course) to join a Zoom meeting after dropping my puppy off at doggie daycare. I had said I might be a few minutes late. I was actually over half an hour late. That's because it took me that long to get into my email and access the meeting invitation. My computer would take me to the brink -- allow me to click on my campus email. But, then, that dreaded little blue circle that spins around and around went on for long minutes while I wondered if I should try using my cell phone to join the meeting. That was when I realized I didn't have Zoom installed on my phone and would have to do that.

I've had a few bad weeks with technology. Earlier this week, my computer guy gave me some bad news. Yes, spilling half a mug of hot lemon water into the keyboard of my laptop computer was not good. But my laptop might have survived if I had immediately turned it off and unplugged it. Instead, I turned the keyboard upside down and shook it. Then I tried to turn it back on. 

Okay, in retrospect, I admit that I should have realized the water was inside the computer and most of it wouldn't drip back out if I shook it. But I was desperate. 

My computer guy took the laptop apart and set the parts out to dry. That took days. Then he gave me the news. I had the option of replacing what the water had damaged or getting a new laptop. Given what fixing the damage would cost, I opted for a new laptop. But deliveries are uncertain these days. So now I have another week to10 days before my computer guy will have the new machine. He promises that he will set it up on the day he receives it. What was on my hard drive can be saved. 

Still, between drowned laptop and freezing desktop, I am feeling traumatized. I have a mug on my desk, but it pushed far to the side. I reach for it and hold it with great care. 

The worst part of all this is that I'm having a hard time getting any writing done. I work in my office when I have class work to do. I like my desktop with the big monitor that allows me to see what I doing as I set up assignments and prepare Power Point slides. But I prefer to do my Zoom meetings from my laptop while setting at my dining room table. I also prefer to brainstorm and make notes using my laptop. 

I'm feeling cut adrift because I have a process. That process involves doing my fiction writing on my laptop -- except for the occasional moves to the desktop to print out pages. 

Waiting over a week, maybe longer for my new laptop feels like a long and unproductive time. I'm trying to use the lag time for outlining and research. 

But I am feeling deflated because I knew what I wanted to write. I am hoping I can maintain my momentum. It is disconcerting to realize how closely my productivity is tied to the instrument that I use. 

I think I need to break bad and try writing with a pen and paper. 


 


Thursday, April 29, 2021

Suspended Animation

As we near the end of pandemic isolation, I feel my life is in suspended animation. Like many others, I am having trouble organizing my thoughts. My writing is ... well, it just is. It doesn't seem to take off these days, and I can't say more about it than that. I venture forth from my house more since my vaccinations, timidly, blinking dazedly in the light. I don't know what to do for myself. I can't quite get that old mojo back.

And yet there is a peacefulness to the situation. In fact, there is something of a feeling of gestation about it.  My writing mind is quiet, but something is going on in there, just below the surface. I hope when I am able to return to a normal life, I will be refreshed and full of wonderful, bright new ideas. That’s how I’m looking at it, anyway.

There is a certain freedom in helplessness. When all possibility of a decision is taken from you, there is nothing to do but go with the flow.  One evening, many years ago, I was crammed under a dining room table, along with my mother, brother, and sister, waiting for a tornado to hit our house.  Having grown up in Oklahoma, I have been through more killer storms than I care to remember, and yet I never got used to them.  I was always terrified out of my mind when the sirens went off.

Once when I was in my twenties and living in my own apartment, the sky turned green and my front window bowed in, and I swear to God that the next thing I knew I was standing in my mother’s house five miles away.  I must have gotten into my car like and idiot and driven over there through the wind and hail, but I never exactly knew how it happened.  I was apparently so panicky that all I could think was that I wanted my mommy.


But I digress.

Let us return to the huddle under the dining room table, which occurred a few years later. The tornado wound right through the back yard.  The electricity went off, the house began to rattle and bounce, and it became perfectly obvious that there was no escape.  And suddenly all my terror and panic went completely away, because there was nothing we could do to get out of this.  

Miraculously, the house was not hit. But to this day I remember that feeling of peaceful resignation, and wonder if that is what it’s like at the moment of death.

Of course, I used the experience to write a novel. Never let a good feeling of existential angst go to waste.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Letting it fly

 I am at about page 75 of my next Amanda Doucette novel, and I'm at the point where everything is burgeoning. The story is expanding, subplots are developing, the complications that are at the heart of every good story are piling on. In the life of a pantser writer, it's a fun time of no-holds-barred creativity. Let 'er rip, as they say, and worry about if and how all these ideas fit together later on. 

In normal times, this is the stage when I would be travelling around the locations, taking notes and photos, and talking to people to try to get the feel for the setting and the culture. These trips spark sidetracks, unexpected characters, and deeper subplots. In fact my flight to Vancouver island was already booked for May, and the car rented. But unfortunately these are not normal times and I had to pull the plug on the trip. I hope to be able to go in September, by which time the book will probably be about half finished. Not nearly as good for stumbling upon fortuitous ideas that enrich, maybe even alter, the story.


So I am creating the story entirely within my own head, with the pale help of maps, books, and the internet, and I will have to adjust it after the fact. Some of the most enjoyable aspects of flying by the seat of your pants are the characters you create (or meet) along the way. I typically start the novel with a very small cast of characters, and as the story evolves, I add characters as needed. Sometimes they are just meant to be walk-ons, but I find myself needing them more and more often, until suddenly they become an integral part of the plot. I usually try to make even my walk-ons interesting, so that the brief scenes that they are in can sparkle, but once I realize I am bringing them back for a few more encores, I start giving them a real identity. That's so much fun. Who are they? What was their past? What do they do with their time? What do they think of Amanda? Etc.

For example, upon arrival in Tofino, where much of the book is set, Amanda grabs lunch at a coffee shop, and we meet the middle-aged, ex-hippie owner. But as Amanda has reason to go back to the coffee shop several times in the first 75 pages, I realize this character might play a more major part in the story. She is the keeper of the region's history, and its secrets. Another character who is evolving from a bit-player to a major one is the owner of the water taxi Amanda uses to get out to the islands. Who knows, I may even make him a suspect!

Kaylee, an ongoing character (actually my dog Eva)

Some writers know all the characters who are going to be in their stories and write extensive character sketches of the important ones before they start to write. Since I don't know where the story is going and what characters I'm going to need, I get to know them only as I meet them in scenes. This has the advantage that I can mold them into what I need for the story. Does the character need an edgier side? Easy to develop that as I go along. In the case of the water taxi owner, what would be his motive and how can I hint at that?

It does mean that characters change, sometimes beyond recognition, but that's a worry for rewrites. For now, I am having fun playing with all the possibilities. Letting the story fly.


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The protector of the apostrophe

By Rick Blechta 

I didn’t know such a thing existed, but apparently there was once a thing as the Apostrophe Protection Society. Had I known, I would have signed on immediately!

The reason I now know of this August organization is that it’s founder, John Richards, died last week at the age of 97.

A long-time newspaper editor and copy editor in Britain, he founded his group in 2001 and was quite surprised when people began joining. Originally, the membership of the APS was only John and his son. Seems as if there were a lot of grammarians fed up with the way those poor little apostrophes are constantly being abused and he was amazed so many people from all over the English-speaking world wanted to join up.

Something really gets steam coming from my ears is their incorrect inclusion in dates — as in “the 1980’s” — or in advertising copy for housing developments — “prices in the low 600,000’s.” I once vowed to my wife that I would never agree to purchasing a home in one of these because if they can’t even get their apostrophe usage together, what other construction shortcomings would be happen. Yeah, I was being flip, but really, is ever writer of realtor copy that ignorant?

So John Richards, like many of us who care about language I imagine, fought the good fight, and for that I’m grateful. He only shuttered the APS when he turned 96 and was “cutting back.” Sadly his announcement of the closure included, “the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

I’d like to think not, and I vow to carry on. I may even become militant enough to go around in the dead of night and “fix” signs wherever I see apostrophes being abused.

In closing, I’ll leave the final words to John, concerning the importance of apostrophes. The following is from his obituary in The Washington Post.

“Just take the sign outside a block of flats,” he once told Slate magazine. “Residents’ refuse to be placed in bins. Remove the apostrophe and you see a very different notice.”

In the end, he said he didn’t mind if people saw him as a scold.

“I think that grammar is a valued part of our civilization,” Mr. Richards told The Washington Post. “I don’t like any attempt to diminish it.”

Monday, April 26, 2021

Moving on

If there's one thing in life that is a constant, it is that it changes. Put simply, stuff happens.

It might be little things - trying a new toothpaste, a different diet, rearranging the furniture.

It might be larger events - new job, new relationship, new house.

Or loss of the above.

In the past five or six years I have experienced huge change. 

I was made redundant from my job as editor of a weekly newspaper here in Scotland. It didn't hit me too hard, although I did notice the lack of a regular wage. I had been doing the job for about 18 years and, frankly, I was a burn-out. I was done and I knew it so the offer of leaving it behind was accepted without bitterness or rancour.

Frankly, I think my employers were glad to get rid of me because I was a dinosaur and very much a nay-sayer. No matter what cunning plan they came up with, I would sit at meetings and shake my head. I did not fit in, if I ever did.

Two years ago my wife died. I found her one morning in the dining room. She had been unwell for some time, her personality had changed until she was not the person I used to know. Things had not been easy for a number of years for a variety of reasons and I had struggled to cope.

This is the first time I believe I have written about it and I don't even know why I'm doing it now, so forgive me if I don't go into too much detail.

The day after Margaret died my dog also passed away. Katy, too, had been ailing and I think the events of the previous day had proved too much for her.

Life had changed but it had to go on. I still had bills to pay. I still had Mickey, now an only dog, and Tom, who had always been an only cat. When you have pets - or children - you cannot languish under the duvet of grief. You have to keep moving.

So I did. Eventually, I got back to writing. Author friends insisted I go with them on a tour of independent bookshops which included an overnight stay on the wonderful isle of Bute. They said it would be good for me and they were right. 

And Mickey came too!


Fooling around on St Andrew's Beach with Caro Ramsay and Michael J. Malone. 

And Mickey.

And now, and I may have mentioned this once or twice, I have moved house. I had become aware that my time in the old place, in the hills of Ayrshire in south west Scotland, was at an end. I had never been completely happy in that house - I had merely settled, as if on a bench on a long walk, knowing I still had to move on - and when one of those author friends offered to rent me this new house in the greater Glasgow area I decided it was time to move back closer to civilisation. Life is getting back to some kind of normal and the old place was too far away from everywhere. Even popping out for milk was an excursion.

And so, here I am.

Stuff happens.

Life changes.

Walking around the empty rooms of the old house on that final day was a strange experience, however. The removal of the furniture and the pictures from walls had transformed it from a home into simply a space.

And yet, there was something there.

Memories that hung like dust in the sunlight. Echoes of the past that reverberated from bare walls like the notes of a dimly remembered song. I may have only settled there but it had still been where the last few years of my life had played out, good and bad, happy and sad.

It was time to leave them where they lay and move on.

But now the three of us, the three amigos, are beginning our new adventure, in a new, but old, house in a new, but old, part of Scotland. I'm from Glasgow but not this part (which isn't really Glasgow at all but is part of the conurbation) so it's all fresh to me.

And the boys?

As I said before, they have settled in well. (I was asked for proof, so here you go)











As you can see, they have made themselves at home and there are many places within an easy drive to take Mickey for longer walks. Tom is being kept in for now but when I do let him out I think he will be supervised. They are fed and warm and loved. And that last one, I believe - I hope - is reciprocated.

I've also made myself at home. The books are on the shelves, the art is on the walls. The dust is already beginning to settle.

Okay, house.

I'm ready for new memories now.



Saturday, April 24, 2021

Are We There Yet?



We're now into year two of the Coof. Last summer my touring schedule was abruptly cut short by a cascade of cancellations. I had already booked my tickets for Seattle's Emerald City Con and for New Orleans to visit the World War Two Museum. Lighthouse Writers did a quick hocus-pocus to turn their annual LitFest into what by now is a common experience, the online conference. A big part of LitFest is the socializing and drinking and that became something you did in the privacy of your own home.

Lighthouse predicted a gloomy forecast from the expected loss of revenue. Amazingly, pretty much every class had a wait list. What came into play was that people had a lot of time on their hands, with the reduced socializing because of the lockdowns people were eager to rub virtual shoulders on the computer screen, many writers are introverts and the remote classes allowed them to remain in their comfort zones, and because the classes were offered on the World Wide Web, people could attend from anywhere. In my classes I had students from the Bahamas, Greece, and Cyprus. 

It's a given that online classes and meetings are here to stay. But for months now I've been ready to step out and have some fun. I have older relatives I need to visit but I have to temper that wish against the risk of spreading the virus. The convention schedule is still tentative with folks being undecided between in-person vs. online. When will life go back to normal? This pandemic has been a very long road.