A Writer Was Born

When my three kids were little I stayed home with them, often with other daycare kids in the house. I always had the videocamera — the huge behemoth that rested on your shoulder — locked and loaded.

I also had index cards and pens placed strategically around the house. On them, I wrote the funny things the kids said and did. At the end of the day, the index cards would get shoved into the appropriate diaper bags of my daycare charges or thrown into my kids’ “Memory Boxes.”

Some mothers lovingly craft scrapbooks for their children. I lovingly crafted piles of index cards.

*index cards

(We still talk about “brave and smooth and good” apples at my house.)

I eventually typed them all up. Surely there’s a book just waiting to be written. Here are just two samples that won’t embarrass my daughter.

12-5-90 — Jessie [age 3] made the astute observation that you can’t hum with your mouth open.

12-12-90 — Jessie said something was “a propersation.”  When Wes asked her what that was, she said, “It’s Batman or grass or tea or soup.”

That was my first inkling I was raising a writer.

When did you know what kind of kid you were raising?

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How Many Words is This Photo Worth?

I’ve had a series of stories rattling around in my brain where I’d take an Old Masters painting and tell the story behind it. You know, like Mona Lisa is smiling because she just fed poison to the crooked chariot salesman who convinced her she needed to buy the extended warranty.

Back when I used to write for kids, I’d do school visits where we’d do this same exercise, but with photos I pulled from magazines. I’d cut off the caption and it would turn into a writing prompt for them.

I think it’s a great exercise for the imagination and the pen. A photo, as they say, is worth a thousand words.

I stumbled on this gem of me from around ninth grade, I think. I moved a few times as a kid, so I can’t quite place that bedroom to date the photo definitively.

**high school Becky

There’s a lot going on here. If you want to play “writing prompt,” you can stop reading now and formulate a few sentences about this “Old Master.” Then continue reading and I’ll point out some of the highlights.

Okay …

you’re thinking …

you’re thinking …

you’re thinking …

you’re thinking …

And now you’ve decided what you want to say about this photograph extraordinaire.

There are some things I know to be fact.

In the center of my floor is the entire reason I’m there. You’ll see my radio. The microphone of the cassette recorder is pointing directly at the speaker. I know this means it’s Saturday morning between 9am and noon when Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 counted down. I would sit, finger hovering above the “record” button until I heard the dulcet tones of any of these songs. When one of my favorites came on, I’d press that button with all my might, sit back, and keep my fingers crossed nobody would interrupt for three minutes or so. If I was really lucky, Casey would go right into the next song so I wouldn’t miss the first three seconds of it. Maybe he’d even add a sweet or intriguing bit of information about the artist. It was the dawn of music piracy.

I don’t know what I’m reading in the photo, but I know I spent an ungodly amount of time sitting on that very beanbag chair in that very corner. (I can see my purple copy of “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” on my desk. If I had more time, I bet I could recreate that run of books on my desk. A million dollars says they’re all still in my house at this very moment.)

I know it’s not summer. The hot rollers in front of the mirror show where I sat every morning before school to curl my locks and tresses. An hour of effort for about eight minutes of curl. On a good day. When I didn’t have gym class.

The phone wasn’t mine, didn’t live in my room. But it had a cord that was approximately seventeen miles long. I could encircle the house with it twice and still be able to carry it into a closet for privacy.

But some of these tidbits are lost to the ages and better left to the imagination. Just like Mona Lisa’s smile.

Like, what’s with the plaster cobra? I remember it being very heavy, but beyond that, the provenance and history eludes me.

What was I reading?

Why was it so cool to split your pant leg at the ankle?

What was the purpose of the scissors on the corner of the desk? Had it been used already or was it waiting for action? And what kind of action? (Also, I’m fairly certain that pair is forty years older and now resides in my junk drawer. Don’t judge me.)

Who took that photo? And why? Did they think I’d look back on it, lo, these many years later and consider it an historical document?

What say you? Any writing prompts jump out at you? Any stories you want to tell about what you’re seeing? What do you think happened to my black plaster cobra?

 

Cozy Dust

In December I was hurrying to put together a proposal for another cozy series. I wanted to send it to my agent so she could get it out to editors while I was doing copyedits for FOUL PLAY ON WORDS, which I was expecting to receive any day. I didn’t want to get stuck in copyedit hell for a month, and have this shiny new proposal just sitting here with nobody to admire and fawn over it.

I rushed and rushed and got it emailed off. Whew. The proposal package contained a 6-page synopsis of the book, the first 50 pages of the story, and a page or so about how I envisioned the next few books in the series.

The next day I got an email from my agent. She didn’t much like what I sent. She told me in broad strokes where she thought the proposal was lacking. I was crushed and confused. We’d been talking about this for a long time. I thought we were on the same page!

Freaking out to a couple of writer pals, I told them what had happened and asked their advice. They, of course, hadn’t read the proposal, but I ran down all the pertinents. They were confused too, but helped me formulate my thoughts.

I replied to my agent, discussing each of her concerns in turn, pointing out that I did indeed do what I was tasked with. I ended by asking her for specifics about where she saw that I had fallen short of my goal, which she quickly and generously gave me.

That lightbulb flashed over my head and I understood what I had forgotten.

The cozy dust! I forgot to sprinkle the pages with cozy dust!

My agent was absolutely right. I had an interesting premise with funny, solid writing, but I did not do justice to the cozy mystery genre. My setting wasn’t somewhere marvelous that readers would want to inhabit. It was generic and dull. Some of my characters were quirky, but not one of the main characters. He was just, yanno, a cop, nothing special about him. And the crime didn’t have that eccentric, cozy spin on it.

I was in such a hurry to get words on the page that I forgot who my readers were and what they expected from me.

So, I set it aside, took a few weeks to finish my copyedits on FOUL PLAY ON WORDS, and sent them off.

Then I started over with the outline and beats for my new book.

Lesson learned. You can rest assured I’ll never again write without a full bottle of cozy dust next to me.

Have you ever dropped an important ball while you were in a hurry? Please tell me I’m not the only one! 

Good Jobs For Amateur Sleuths

I recently pitched a new cozy series to my agent so I had to make some decisions about my main character’s occupation.

In BANANA BAMBOOZLE and MARSHMALLOW MAYHEM, Cassidy Dunne and Dan Diehl owned a newspaper. (I call these the Dunne Diehl Mysteries and it never fails to make me laugh. I am truly my best audience.)

In my Mystery Writer’s Mysteries, Charlemagne Russo is a mid-list mystery author with all the hilarity and angst that entails. (And in a fit of blatant self-promotion, I feel compelled to tell you that book #2 FOUL PLAY ON WORDS comes out in April 2019 and is up for pre-orders even as you read this. Go ahead and clickety-click. I’ll wait.)

And in the one I’m in the process of pitching (and writing), I decided that Quinn Carr creates crossword puzzles and works in a diner.

I thought you might be interested in some of my discarded ideas for my character’s job.

  • Air conditioner repair — people would be so agonizingly hot and uncomfortable they’d confess to anything
  • Flooring installer — they’ve always got those kneepads handy for searching for clues in awkward places
  • Acupuncturist — needles, so many terrifying needles
  • Parking lot attendant — plenty of time for cogitation and analysis
  • CEO of a Fortune 500 company — interns could do all the investigative work, freeing up the sleuth for several romance subplots
  • Cartographer — ability to locate anything in the world
  • Reality TV camera operator — apparently, at some point they become invisible and people really let their hair (and guard) down
  • Gastroenterologist — who better to determine if someone is full of crap?
  • Hydrologist — could probably always get out of hot water
  • Make-up artist — an expert in all things made up
  • Radiologist — could see right through people

Feel free to use any — or all — of them in your next book. You’re welcome!

Any other good jobs for amateur sleuths?

The Genesis

As you read this, I am winding down a ridiculously long and what-were-we-thinking month-long vacation in Eastern Europe. Assuming all went according to plan (and just typing that gives me sweaty palms), we will have spent time in Transylvania, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.

Transylvania and the Netherlands were tacked on to the beginning and end of a Danube River cruise.

I’ll tell you all about it later, but for now, I want to tell you how it began, the genesis of this trip.

In 2016, when my agent and I were strategizing my career path for the next five or so years, she told me she wanted me to have two books released every year, which sounded good to me.

I already had a contract for three books from Midnight Ink in my Mystery Writer’s series — FICTION CAN BE MURDER, April 2018; FOUL PLAY ON WORDS, April 2019; and METAPHOR FOR MURDER, April 2020.

 

 

We wanted to slip in a cozy series that came out October-ish in between the Mystery Writer’s Mysteries. So I started brainstorming and sketching out ideas. We agreed on one idea that we both liked, so I got busy with a series outline.

Unfortunately, before that got too far, I was diagnosed with a tumor in my spinal column. It was benign and all is (mostly) back to normal, but the surgery and recovery really screwed up my plans, as you can imagine.

But, in the course of this new cozy series arc, I sent the main character’s parents off on a Danube cruise. As I googled and read and pored over maps, I had an epiphany.

 

liz

 

So, when I was moving better and everything seemed back to normal for me physically, or at least as back to normal as it was going to get, we met with our travel agent.

Now, there WILL be a story set on a Danube cruise, but maybe not the story I envisioned originally. I’m not completely sure that my agent was all in when I described this particular story as a “cozy thriller.”

That’s not really a thing, apparently.

So, we’ll see.

My plan as we’re gliding past the sights, sounds, and smells of autumn on the Danube, is to finish fleshing out this series as well as beginning to flesh out a standalone darker mystery that’s been gnawing at me for years. Again, we’ll see what really happens.

Regardless, I’ve gotta start writing something new as soon as we get home. Both of these ideas have lived too long in my head.

I don’t plan on doing much reading on this trip (except in airports and on planes), however. As my husband said, “You read fiction to get transported to another place and time. We will have already done that.”

I’ll check in here as soon as I get some sleep, have more coffee, reacquaint myself with Nala, get some sleep, have some coffee, and mourn the loss of having every single one of my whims catered to. Maybe not quite in that order.

In the meantime, where would you like to transport yourself to read a book? Do you like all kinds of settings to read about? What about writing, authors … do you have someplace you’ve always dreamed about using as a setting in a story? Do you have an itch to write somewhere waaay out of your routine?

Also, do you know about Christine Gentes’ Map Your Mystery blog and Facebook page? It’s a very cool list of where cozy mysteries are set. And I see one set in Bulgaria! Gotta read that one for sure!

Soooo …. all DID NOT go according to plan! I decided to leave this post intact instead of trying to scramble to rewrite it. But four days before we were supposed to leave on our cruise, they cancelled it because there wasn’t enough water in the Danube River! I had accepted that we might need to portage around low spots here and there, but not the entire river. It was a shocking email to get, after planning this trip for so long. We were actually very fortunate though. What if they’d cancelled it after we were already on our way? What if they took the option of turning it into a bus tour? As it is, by cancelling, we got choices of several remedies. We decided to rebook for a similar Danube cruise in May. They covered the cancellation fees we incurred AND gave us $1,000 worth of travel vouchers good for the rebooking. We weren’t out any money and now we feel like our May trip surely must be pre-disastered! So don’t cry for me, Argentina.

Since we had dog and house sitters, and we’d arranged to be away from work, we decided it would be too sad not to go somewhere, so we quick made plans to go to Oregon. We stayed a few days in Portland with our daughter and son-in-law, then went to the southern coast and stayed in a lighthouse bed-and-breakfast where they specialize in a seven-course breakfast. After a few days of indulging in that, we headed to the northern coast and stayed at a resort steps from the beach where we had a huge jacuzzi in our room. We were able to leave our balcony door open and hear the crashing surf all night long. So. Much. Decadence. (And they comped us one night! AND the gal who booked our reservation asked about my BeckyClarkBooks website. When I told her I wrote cozy mysteries, she told me how much she liked cozies. About 30 minutes later, she sent me an email through my site telling me how excited she was to read my books. So I brought her a signed copy. That was fun.)

It wasn’t what I’d planned to do, but I got some brainstorming in on a standalone I’m noodling over, I got some new experiences into my bucket, I ate all the clam chowder, and, of course, I got some much-needed R&R. I just got back a couple of days ago and feel energized and ready to tackle all my new projects.

But the question still stands, readers … where would you like to transport yourself to read a book? Do you like all kinds of settings to read about? What about writing, authors … do you have someplace you’ve always dreamed about using as a setting in a story? Do you have an itch to write somewhere waaay out of your routine?

Despite all indications to the contrary…

I’ve learned some things over the years.

1. Parents and children both get smarter as they age.

2. The more dollars you exchange for euros on your vacation, the less likely you are to need them.

3. Writing a book and typing a book are entirely different beasts.

And 4, I’ve learned I’m getting old. I’m not complaining exactly, but I can’t keep calling myself middle-aged unless I really am planning to live to be 114. I like the age I am, and I certainly can’t complain. I agree with Ellen Degeneres.

Ellen meme

Or maybe aging is like a roller coaster. It’s so much effort climbing, with lots of scary groaning and creaking. But then you get to the top and see that fantastic view of your productive kids living in their own houses, and you can’t help but grin and squeal as you race down the other side.

It’s thrilling.

But whether we’re climbing up one side or racing down the other, writers — and other sedentary types — can keep aging at bay by eating right and exercising. But it’s difficult when you spend so much time at a computer.

Despite all indications to the contrary, being a writer is physically very challenging.

We look nice and comfy, don’t we, staring out the window (we’re plotting … really!) with our feet on our desk. Or lounging on the patio under a dappled sky with a pooch curled at our feet. Or in a wingback pulled close to the fireplace.

But those legs crossed on our desk cut off circulation. And that patio chair forces our neck in a weird position. And there is simply not enough light next to that wingback.

And there are so many other challenges. We type for excruciating stretches at a time. We sit or stand at our desks for long periods. We get in The Zone and forget to eat. We get fantastic ideas that make us pop up out of a sound sleep and stay awake the rest of the night to capture them.

And the thing I did recently … sat from about 5:30 in the morning until about 4:30 in the afternoon reading my manuscript straight through.

That’s part of my process. After I get my first draft written, revised, and polished — before anyone else sees it — I sit with it and read it in as few sessions as I can. I can find all kinds of continuity and logic problems when it’s all right in my face like that.

But that’s tough on the ‘ol bod. Your keister falls asleep. Your right pointer finger gets stiff from hitting that down arrow as you read. Your eyes get blurry. Your neck kinks.

I try to force myself to stop every couple of hours and stretch or at least move around, but NOT to graze on cookies or chips or cheese or ice cream.

In the Denver Post on Saturday was an article about Feldenkrais, an alternative therapy for pain and mobility issues. I’d never heard of it but it’s basically a brain workout that can relieve years of discomfort through slow and subtle movements that retrain how you move, whether it’s walking or sitting or typing. The author of the article (which I can’t share) describes her hip and neck pain and then the treatment, performed flat on her back making tiny eye movements. It makes no sense, but after the session, despite no hip or neck stretches, her hip and neck had more mobility. The theory is that eye movement is vital in “coordinating the body’s musculature, particularly in how the neck muscles contract — one of Feldenkrais’ many counterintuitive approaches to learning to move differently.”

Here’s a different first person account of using this therapy.

I won’t pretend to understand it, but I thought it was a fascinating and unusual way for folks to heal and care for themselves.

Another thing I’ve learned over the years is to keep an open mind, and that I’m all about the fascinating and unusual!

So, what fun things do you do to remain healthy and mobile? What do you do during your breaks from desk and computer? What healthy foods do you keep around to nosh on? Which are your favorite guilty pleasure foods to indulge in when you don’t want to take time for an actual meal?

Hey, Baby … Come Here Often?

I’m not a photographer, but I can picture us together.

Are you religious? Because you’re the answer to all my prayers.

Do you know what my shirt is made of? Boyfriend material.

Even if there wasn’t gravity on earth, I’d still fall for you.

Are you a parking ticket? ‘Cause you’ve got fine written all over you.

 

Not gonna lie. Back in the day, these pick-up lines would probably have worked on me.

Yes, they’re cheesy, but they immediately tell me something about my future paramour.

He or she is funny. And funny is the golden ticket for me.

Opening lines in books do the same thing.

A good opening sets the stage for everything that happens next. It gives you a glimpse of the character you’ll be traveling with on this 300-page journey. It gives you a hint of where and when you are. It lets you know whether you’re going to laugh, or be terrified, or skeeved out … or all of the above.

A REALLY good opening does it all in the first sentence.

As you can imagine, that’s quite difficult.

So let’s take a trip to my local literary bar and do some speed dating.

Here are your potential suitors. They’re on their best behavior, wearing their spiffiest clothes and smelling marvelous. Let’s hear what they have to say to woo you.

opening lines

 

THE HIGHWAYMAN – Craig Johnson

There is a canyon in the heart of Wyoming carved by a river called Wind and a narrow, opposing, two-lane highway that follows its every curve like a lover.

THE BLACK WIDOW – Wendy Corsi Staub

“Some things,” Carmen used to say, “just don’t feel right until the sun goes down.”

HOLLYWOOD HOMICIDE – Kellye Garrett

He stared at my resumé like it was an SAT question.

THE SEMESTER OF OUR DISCONTENT – Cynthia Kuhn

When summoned by the department chair, one shows up on time.

BLOOD ON THE TRACKS – Barbara Nickless

His life wasn’t worth spit in a hard rain.

TREBLE AT THE JAM FEST – Leslie Budewitz

Blame it on the rhubarb.

DESIGNER DIRTY LAUNDRY – Diane Vallere

When you wear fishnet stockings to the grocery store, people tend to stare.

CLASS REUNIONS ARE MURDER – Libby Klein

I was being bullied by stationery.

HUNTING HOUR – Margaret Mizushima

“Whom do you trust, Maddie?”

FICTION CAN BE MURDER – Becky Clark

Melinda Walter settled her lean Pilates body — the maintaining of which took all her free time and could fund North Korea’s military for a year — into the soft leather driver’s seat of her sleek red 1959 classic Corvette.

BANANA BAMBOOZLE – Becky Clark and Ted Hardwick

Using only one hand, Cassidy Dunne silently unwrapped a fun-size Snickers hidden in her sundress pocket.

These are just a few individuals loitering against the wall near my neighborhood office.

Would you enjoy spending more time with them? Grab them and steal away to a quiet corner where you can be alone? Take them to bed? (You vixen, you.)

Which made your heart go pitty-pat? Is your heart already taken by another? Are you willing to share?

Do you feel jilted by this metaphor yet?