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!)  

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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?  

Confessions of an ex-multi-tasker

I used to be a multi-tasker.  I remember being able to:  

  • watch television, do homework, and carry on a phone conversation all at once
  • track 3 different conversations at parties
  • write 2 or 3 different projects at once (and keep them all straight)

I can’t do that anymore.  Heck, I can’t even knit while watching television without either dropping a stitch or dropping the action of the show.  I suspect multitasking is a function of a younger brain.  

I haven’t given up trying, though.  Now I’m reading 3 different books (1 for the exercise bike, 1 for book club, and 1 of my choice), and I can’t keep the characters and plots straight.  It’s eery when I’m reading along in one book and I ask myself, “but what about Martha?” and then realize she’s in another book.  Oops.  

So, what’s a writer to do about multitasking?  There are plots and subplots and different viewpoint characters to track.  We have to keep them straight, weaving them in and out of the story in all the right places.  We can’t drop a single one of them, like my dropped stitches.  

Here’s what I’ve done to help keep some of this straight:  

  1. Write a 1-2 sentence summary of each chapter or section.  Being a pantser, this summary comes after the chapter has magically appeared.  
  2. Use a different font (in the growing outline) for each viewpoint character.  This makes it easy to scan through and see where that character is in the story, and who to juggle next.  
  3. Different colored index cards track the different subplots as they grow.  I lay them out on my table and intersperse them where they appear in the book.  I can easily see where one subplot has been neglected too long.  This is an especially handy tool for the revision process, after a complete draft is written.  

Right now I’m facing a huge challenge with my Work-in-Progress.  Doesn’t it always seem like the current book is the hardest book you’ve ever written?  My WIP has (so far) 3 different viewpoint characters, 2 time-lines, and 3 settings.  So I’m looking for more ideas of how to multi-task this mess!  

What tips do you have for keeping track of different plots and characters?  

Superstitions, Quirks, and Rituals, oh my!

Recently, I accompanied Hubby on a business trip to Atlanta and was reminded once again of his travel superstitions.  He travels a lot for his job, and never goes anyplace without his St. Christopher’s medal.  He observes a few other quirks, too, but I couldn’t call him out on them, because the truth is that I’m just as guilty.  

In Turkey, where I spent most of my childhood, there’s a belief that Evil Eyes–or the color blue–protect you from evil.  The idea is essentially that the charm (it looks like an eyeball) stares down evil, eye to eye, thereby deflecting evil away from the person wearing the charm.  Children are especially vulnerable to evil, so they often wear Evil Eyes in the form of jewelry.  Blue beads are also very common in children’s jewelry.   

At least, that’s how it used to be.  Perhaps today, people are not as superstitious.  

But I keep my Evil Eye hanging above my writing desk.  

Just in case.  

And so far, it’s working!  It feels safe there, at my desk.  My desk is where I retreat from the real world into my world of make-believe.  I can control my world any way that I want to.  

Well, that is, until a character hijacks my book.  

Okay, so maybe all that I really control is the ritual surrounding writing.  Some writers that I know start their writing session by lighting a candle.  I do keep a candle on my desk for that purpose, but I never think to light it.

I guess that ritual is not for me. 

For me, it’s a particular coffee mug.  I have to write each morning with my coffee in this mug, and no other.  I’ve used other mugs, of course, but when I do, the daily words just don’t flow as well.  I can’t explain why this particular mug is magically right–but only for writing. I have other mugs that I actually “like” even more.  I don’t even remember where my writing mug came from.  Heaven help me if my special mug ever breaks!  

Do you have a superstition or quirk that you can’t explain but feels right for your writing or reading?  

Writing Surprises

One of the most fun things about writing is the way surprises happen.  Each time it’s different.  

Sometimes the surprise is the whole book itself!  The last book I wrote turned out to be entirely different from the one I meant to write.  When I was unlocking the back story to my character, she teased me so much with her history that I had to write that story instead.  The book I’d planned to write just evaporated, although I might still write it (if she lets me!)  

I’m in better control of my karate mom character in my Nell Letterly books.  Although the characters still surprise me, they haven’t yet hijacked an entire book.  

When I was working with the idea for book #1, Murder in the Dojo, I saw a woman walk out of the grocery store.  I didn’t know her, but I recognized her as my protagonist, probably in her body language.  I almost ran after the poor woman so that I could interview her.  Nell was born at that moment, and she turned out to be completely different from the way I’d originally envisioned her.  

Endings surprise me, too.  Although I’m mostly a pantser writer, I always have a general idea of the ending.  I don’t necessarily know the identity of whodunnit, but I have to know the gist of how the crime is solved.  The fun usually comes in finding my writer way to that destination, but in book #3, Murder for a Cash Crop, I got stalled in the middle.  When I assessed what the reader had learned so far, I was surprised to discover that I was already in the ending.  That was such a nice surprise!  

Surprises can also happen anytime later in the series.  In the second Nell book, Murder with Altitude, one of my critique partners kept asking why the detective was behaving the way he did.  I had a superficial answer, but it wasn’t complete.  Two books later, in #4, Murder by Moose, the detective surprised me with his entire story.  It was a big enough surprise that it’s led me off-track for book #5.  I am still working on that and hope to be surprised any day now.  

Surprises keep me interested.  I can’t wait to get back to my desk and find out what’s next!  

What kind of surprises, writing or otherwise, have you experienced? 

Getting to Know Characters–Part 2

When characters waltz into your story and you start with zero information about them, it’s hard to use the tools I mentioned last week in Part 1.  How on earth could we possibly know what their favorite TV shows were while in high school??  

As Kait said, “it’s blood, sweat, and tears!”  We’re lucky when characters come fully formed, but that doesn’t always happen.  Usually we start with minimal information, as most everyone commented last week.  The more we struggle, learning about the characters, the more they build, leading us to new insights about them.  

It’s such fun when they surprise us!  A recent protagonist surprised me when I wrote out her back story and she demanded I write that book instead of the book I’d intended.  

But mysteries benefit from a little control.  Mysteries come with a familiar cast of characters.  I start with this cast and arbitrarily assign to each one information in three basic categories.  All this goes into my series bible:  

  1.  What is the purpose of this character in this story?  He/she could be:  
  • protagonist sleuth (what type of sleuth–professional or amateur?)
  • supporting cast (includes roles such as sidekick, mentor, romantic interest, antagonist)
  • victim
  • suspect (includes innocents and the villain–although, I don’t always know whodunnit)

2.  Thumbnail sketch.  This will likely change and grow as I get to know the character, but it starts with: 

  • occupation
  • main character traits
  • greatest strength (to get character out of trouble) & weakness (i.e., flaw)

3.   Aside from the sleuth, what is this character’s connection to the crime?  

  • if a victim, then why did he become a victim? 
  • if a witness to the crime, then what exactly did he see?
  • if a suspect, then what is his alleged motive for the crime?
  • if an informant, then what does he choose to tell?  (Or not tell.  And why doesn’t he?)

Such questions are just the beginning.  Once the basic information is in place, it gets easier to use the tools to find out more detailed information.  When we do our jobs thoroughly enough, then the characters come alive and start talking to us.  Hopefully (or not) we could even meet them in the grocery store one day!