We Are the Phoenix

On this 9-11 anniversary, a day of remembrance, I am always reminded of the phoenix.  On that day, the world held its collective breath, and the solid ground beneath our feet shifted.  We all have our stories to tell of that day, of where we were.  

I was at my writing desk, totally absorbed in my characters’ world, when the phone rang.  It was my daughter, calling from university.  

“Mom, where’s Dad?” she said, worry in her voice.  She’d grown up accustomed to his busy travel schedule for work.  

“He’s in D.C.,” I said, “at a meeting near the Pentagon.  Why?”  

Well, that was a tense day.  

Later, when my fingers stopped shaking long enough to call his cell phone, I got the ominous, recorded message that all lines were unavailable.  (Who records those messages??)  

He ended up driving his rental car all the way home to Colorado–in just 2 days.  

In the aftermath of those tragic and chaotic days, no one knew what to expect next.  For us writers, we didn’t know if the book business–or any other type of business–would rise again.  

It did.    

Writers can take a lesson from this reminder, because we have our own share of attempted knock-downs.  

Ideally, we keep queries and short stories in the marketplace at all times.  My own goal is to keep a dozen short stories out, trying to find a home, and a novel query pending.  This means I receive rejections almost daily.  One time I got five rejections in one day!  Talk about a knock-down…

Personally, I’ve lost an editor three times, a publisher twice, and an agent once.  Luckily, I’ve never lost the rights to my works, but I know many writers who have.  Some writers even have to re-invent themselves in order to write again.  

The bottom line is that we never give up.  In spite of adversity, we don’t let those punches keep us down for long.  We are the phoenix, and we always rise again!  

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How My Characters Came to Be

Last spring I wrote a couple of blog posts about the various ways that writers develop characters.  I was describing the process in general terms.  Then last week, 3 no 7 asked some great questions, specifically about our characters.  Here’s my attempt to answer a bit more fully.  

3 no 7 asked:  How do you, as an author, determine the personality, mannerisms, and eventual fate of your characters?

My early books came out of the mish-mash of my reading experience, writing teachers,  critique partners, and life experiences.  Knowing what my favorite genres expected, I chose characters to fill required roles, and then I modeled them after real people I knew.  I filled out endless charts about the details of their lives.  I gave each of them personality tests to see how they would behave on the way to the end, which I’d already figured out, based upon my reader expectations.   

3 no 7 asked:  Do you control the characters or do they control you?

In those early books, I was pretty much in control, since I decided everything about my characters.  However, there was one character who threatened to take over the book, even though the book wasn’t about her.  She nagged me relentlessly to keep her secret (I didn’t).   

My next book was a turning point.  I had no control of my characters.  I thought I knew who the protagonist was, because I’d based her on my mother, who’d lost her struggle with Alzheimer’s.  I knew how my book had to end, but my heart wanted to feel at peace, and so as the story unfolded, other characters jumped in, maybe to support me.  When they started to act, it changed things.  They surprised me with unexpected twists, which impacted my protagonist, who no longer resembled my mother.  The book basically wrote itself, and I just buckled in for the ride at my keyboard.  

3 no 7 asked:  Do characters take on personalities different from their original personas?

Ever since that turning point, they mostly do.  My characters usually end up quite different from my original concept of them.  

When I started my Nell Letterly mysteries, I had a completely different character in mind (she had a different name, too).  I thought the instructor at a karate studio should be a hotshot twenty-something with lots of physical skill.  Trying to write that story felt as if my keyboard broke.  My subconscious worked hard on that problem and eventually came up with the suggestion to make the character someone I could more easily identify with:  a middle-aged suburban mom with more limited athletic skills.  When I put that idea together with a news story that had caught my interest about a missing professor, Nell came to life and told me her story.   

Usually, I don’t have the story until I have the character in place.  Except for my expat mysteries.  

3 no 7 asked:  Do you start with a defining event and work forward and back or do events evolve as you write?

My two expat mysteries started with a real event, and then I worked backwards from that.  In Dancing for the General, the event was the coup of 1960 in Turkey.  My story is fiction, and it’s not about the coup itself.  Instead, it’s about characters three years earlier, living in an environment that was building toward that event.  The situation required certain types of characters, and I chose them from the cast of people I’d known there.  

This was the first time I wrote out extensive bios of my characters.  I had to know why and how they’d gotten to Turkey, and I had to know how they would react to the situation there.  I couldn’t write the story without this information, so I had to have better control of these characters.  

My second expat mystery is coming out next month, so I’ll save those answers for later.  

Whew!  That’s a long answer, and it’s not done yet.  How about the rest of you?  Can you elaborate more on 3 no 7’s questions?  

 

Our Inner Child

I’ve been wanting to visit Meow Wolf these last three years, ever since a writer friend returned from there, and his brain was on fire.  

https://meowwolf.com

It’s an interactive art installation, but really, words fail to describe this place.  My friend said plenty about it, but I didn’t get it.  Last week I finally got my chance to see what it was all about when I took a road trip to Santa Fe.  

A robot greets you as you arrive.  

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You line up for your timed entrance, and inside you see what appears to be a Victorian house.  You are encouraged to touch everything, to open every door and study everything.  The house is full of secret doors and passageways that lead you through seventy something rooms of wild imagination.  As another friend very succinctly described this place, “It’s weird”:

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It’s like falling through the rabbit hole and wandering lost through Alice’s wonderland.  It fires the imagination, reminding us what it was like before reality squelched (or tried to squelch) that uninhibited imagination we typically experienced as a child.  How else would a “rational” adult think that a dinosaur’s ribs could become a xylophone?  Or that a washing machine could be…well, something more exotic?  (I don’t want to give anything away!)  

This experience reminded me of a journey into the imagination of our inner child.  Going to those places is how writers come up with their stories.  Writers are entertainers, and a writer’s mind works something like Meow Wolf.  Our minds spin with “what if” as we jump from one idea to another, trying out different ways to show a central premise and different routes to get there.  Too often, a little voice nags at us, saying “You can’t do that!”  

Oh, but we can.  That’s why I think it’s so important to connect with our inner child.  

Writers have to fire up imagination in order to take readers on an enjoyable ride that will stimulate their imagination, too.  

How do you connect with your inner child?  

Escapes

Reading mysteries is one way to escape the real world.  We want to escape…

  • the humdrum daily routine, or
  • information overload from hyper-connectivity, or 
  • the chaos and tragedy of daily news, or…  

Whatever we’re escaping, we want our mystery stories to restore order at the end.  A sense of order satisfactorily completes the escape.  

But there are other ways to escape, too.  

Hubby and I escape a couple times per year to our narrowboat in England, where we pretend we know how to operate her.  (Luckily, we are surrounded by those who really do know and can bail us out when we need help.) 

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We just returned from our annual escape, and this time we had some fun, new adventures.  One night during our cruise on the canal, we stayed at the charming Black Jack’s Mill, a B&B that used to be a working mill at one of the locks on the canal.  I asked the proprietress how the mill got its name (my story brain was already spinning a story about pirates on the canal).  It’s not known for sure, but it seems there was a stubborn mule in its history.  You can see their photo gallery on their website:  

https://www.blackjacksmill.com

While we were there, it was my birthday, and my family gave me an adventure in an escape room game.  There were 4 of us playing the murder mystery game of JM’s Office at:  https://hinthunt.co.uk

I won’t give anything away, for those who might plan to go (I recommend it!)  Although we were locked in a room with a ticking clock, having to solve the mystery in order to “escape,” we did have a technician observing us the entire time–I’m sure we stumbling Yanks gave him a barrel of laughs!  Occasionally, he gave us hints of where to look for the clues.  Alas, we were a clue short when the clock ran out, but all the same, we did come out, laughing the rest of the day about our adventure.  

I love to escape through experiencing new stories.  How about you?  How do you like to escape?  

Reading Pleasures

My couples book club met last week, and everyone revealed their secret reading.  We were to choose a book we’d missed reading years before, and we were to keep the choice secret from our spouse.  

It turned out that only Hubby and I could keep the secret!  Book choices ranged widely from the classical to the popular.  Our friends agreed with many of the comments from Mysteristas, that they’d always read whatever they wanted whenever they wanted.  

But upon deeper searching, they found that there actually was a book or two that they’d missed over the years.   

The main reasons for missing a book:  

  1. No time for extra reading with the likes of graduate school, new careers, growing families, etc.
  2. The book didn’t appeal to us then–we thought it just wasn’t our type, even if it was something we “should” have read.

Take-away points:  

  • What we thought we wanted to read all those years ago, turned out not to be so interesting today.  Maybe we were right to have skipped the book back then!  
  • Conversely, the books we skipped because they didn’t appeal to us before, we enjoyed today.   
  • Tastes change.   (Who’d’ve guessed?!?)

I’d had a hard time choosing just one book, so I chose two:  

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.  When I was in college, Steinbeck was my favorite author, and I was rapidly reading everything he’d written.  When I realized I would soon run out of his books and have to face the rest of my life without a new Steinbeck, I deliberately saved this book for later.  While I did enjoy reading it now, it wasn’t like before.  It’s probably not my favorite of his work, but maybe it would’ve been if I’d read it back then.  Or maybe I’ve found too many other favorite authors since then?  

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.  Since this is the first detective novel, I’d always wanted to read it, but put it off because it looked so daunting.  It wasn’t the easiest read, given the language and styles of 19th century, but it was really interesting to see the eccentricities of the detective and his almost supra reasoning ability–characteristics that later detectives would also assume.  

 Overall, this was a fun assignment, and now I’m encouraged to read more from my list of missed books (although without the secret!)  

Secret Reading, Guilty Pleasure

Have you ever hidden a book you were reading inside another book, or maybe inside a brown paper wrapper?  How about reading with a flashlight under the covers after your light was supposed to be turned out?  

I bet you have.  I know, I have.  In fact, I’m doing it again, now.  

Hubby and I belong to a couples book club, and for our next meeting, we are each reading something of our own choice.  Each of us chooses a book we’ve always wanted to read, but missed reading it years ago, for whatever reason.  We are to keep our books secret, including from spouses, until the big reveal at our next book club meeting.  Fun, right?  

A couple people in book club are having trouble thinking of such a book, something they’d missed that they’d always wanted to read.  I can’t imagine!  I must have hundreds of possible titles.  

For me, the hardest part of this assignment is how to choose my book.  I can’t choose from the TBR mountain, because those books are too recent, even the ones that go back several years.  I’m not even considering my boxes in the storage unit, because those aren’t my special books.  Instead, I’ve focused on the keepers on my bookshelves, and I’ve come up with a list of 26.  They are the books I regret the most, having missed.  

How to choose just one?  I wasted about a week, just thinking about that.  2 titles jumped out at me, and I kept going back and forth between them.  Finally, I decided what the heck, I’d read them both.  

And that’s what I’m doing.  But…

Have you ever tried deliberately to keep the book you’re reading hidden from your spouse?  It’s not easy.  Especially when I get lost in the stories.  

“What are you doing?” he says, poking his head into my office (translation:  dinner in 15 minutes, where are you?)

“Nothing,” I say, shoving my book under a stack of papers.  

I keep my 2 books hidden away in my desk, and I have to wait until he’s otherwise occupied before I can pull them out.  It’s like when I was a kid with the guilty pleasure of reading a book I wasn’t supposed to read.  

It’s been delightful fun, and I can’t wait to share our secret books!  Next time, I’ll tell what I’m reading, but it’s a secret now.  In the meanwhile… 

What would you have chosen for your secret book?  Is there a book you’ve always wanted to read but missed?  

A Garden Full of Stories

One of my writing teachers always looked forward to spring and summer because she couldn’t wait to work in her garden.  That’s where she would plot her books and figure out whodunnit.  

I gotta admit, I enjoy my garden more with a glass of wine than a trowel.  

But the work has to be done.  And finally the snow is beginning to melt here in Colorado.    How is it that weeds are the first thing that pop out after the snow?  It’s time to re-acquaint myself with my garden.  If my mentor weeded and plotted, then I can too, right?  Maybe I can figure out how to transition into the second act of my Work In Progress while I weed.  

But that’s not how it works for me.  

Instead of inspiring me with solutions or new stories, my plants remind me of the stories they keep.   For instance:  

  • The rose bed is the final resting place of our beloved pet ferret, the one that Nell’s ferret is modeled after.   
  • There’s another volunteer sunflower, which is a leftover from the year of my daughter’s wedding.  That’s when I planted a forest of sunflowers to match the gay and festive air.  
  • Will the madonna lily bloom this year?  It was my dad’s favorite flower and I rescued a clump of them from his garden after he passed.
  • Gosh, the irises are beautiful this year!  They were a gift from a painter friend of mine.  Maybe we can plein air again soon…
  • How has the little blue spruce, another volunteer, managed to survive another winter after the sewer repair team stomped on it that year of the flood…?  

And so on.  

With all of the stories already in my garden, how can I figure out that transition my WIP needs?  I’m confident that the back of my mind is working on the problem, even while I’m distracted by the plants’ stories.  Hopefully in the next day or two, the solution will magically sprout, and then it will flow through my fingertips at the keyboard.  Maybe weeding really does help me plot.  

Do you plot while you garden, or do your plants remind you of their stories?