Falling: Is That Where You Find Your Ideas?

Falling is the first thing that fired my imagination and showed me how to find ideas.

I was lucky enough to be born on a small farm—not a working farm but what my family called a “gentleman’s farm.”  For me, it was an idyllic, 12-acre playground of sheer heaven.   My sister and I had climbing trees and sledding hills and blackberry bushes and a creek for wading.  Bossie the Cow terrorized us, patrolling her pasture from our encroachments when we went hunting for litters of kittens in miscellaneous sheds.  We had our very own forest of Christmas trees, and the fields next to the forest hid the original corn maze.

But one of the best parts of life on that farm was raking autumn leaves into gigantic piles near the road.  Those leaf piles were taller than me at age 5.  The game started whenever we heard a car coming.  My sister and I had to race each other to the leaf pile and fall into it, smothering ourselves with earthy smells of dried leaves.  We had to hide ourselves completely, falling into the leaves, before the car appeared.  Otherwise, the bank robbers who were probably driving by would surely catch us spying on them, and capture us into their world of crime, or…  Well, who knew?

And thus began my career of spinning tales.  My first ideas came from my own imagination, firing in those leaf piles.  We all hear this question over and over:  where do you get your ideas?  Here are five of my favorite sources for ideas:

1.  Imagination.  Some hidden recess of the brain generates the weird stuff, either through a flash of apparently unprompted inspiration, or a Technicolor dream.  Don’t ask, just grab it and run with it.

2.  Overheard snippets of conversation.  For example, last night at dinner in my favorite local restaurant, I overheard one man tell his dinner partner (another man):  “you’re either married, or you’re not married.”  Well, yes…but, hmmm. What made him say that?  There’s a story here.

3.  Local newspaper.  Useful for 3 reasons:  advertisements, lining the bird cage, and triggers for stories.  For instance, in today’s paper there’s a story about an office building that had to be evacuated for a gas leak.  Uh-huh.  A deliberate leak?  Why?

4.  Therapy.  When something or someone bugs you, in the form of lack of consideration, or political or religious fanaticism, or whatever, no problem.  Just put them in a mystery novel and do mean things to them.

5.  The What-If Game.  My personal favorite!  So…  What if I made my detective an amateur artist, and he decided to go plein aire painting along the creek, and then what if he discovered a body there, half-submerged, and what if…  And so on and so on.  Pretty soon, there’s a story.

Tomes have been written on this subject of finding ideas, but these are just a few of my favorite sources.  What are some of yours?

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Losing 101 for Characters

My hubby is a baseball freak.  As baseball season winds down once again, to disappear for a dreaded, empty, borrrring 5 months or so of No Baseball, I started thinking about the fans.  Why do they continue to love their favorite teams, even when their teams lose? Year after year of losing, the fans keep cheering.  They keep coming back for more because they love them.  Everyone loves the losers.

I think it’s the same as in mystery writing.

Readers love to read about characters who lose.  Why is this?  “Losing” is subjective and comes in many different forms, but I’ve come up with a list of 5 reasons:

1.  Losing makes characters more sympathetic.  Take, for example, the character of Walt Longmire, a Wyoming sheriff who loses his self-respect when he battles with his demons, including alcoholism.  He’s become one of our beloved fictional characters. Another favorite character is Dave Robicheaux, who struggles with his own damaged past while staying best friends with the even more damaged Cletus Purcel, which makes Robicheaux highly sympathetic.

2.  Losing builds suspense.  Writer-talk calls this “the black moment,” when all seems lost for our protagonist, facing the antagonist in the climax scene.  When done well, readers love it.  They are on the edge of their chairs and won’t put the book down here!

3.  Losing builds motivation.  Did I mention that many literary sleuths have damaged pasts?  When the odds are stacked against the protagonist, he or she will struggle even harder, more determined than ever to win.  They have something to prove.  They not only want to win, they MUST win.  This helps readers to believe in their reasons to solve the mystery.

4.  Losing builds character.  Jim Rockford, a pardoned convict, is always in trouble, often with the law.  But he always sticks to his principles, and this makes him a strong character.  And there’s Inspector Cramer who always loses out to Nero Wolfe in catching murderers.  Cramer helps elevate Nero Wolfe into a super character.

5.  Losing brings justice in the end.  Amateur sleuth and dry cleaner Mandy Dyer befriends Betty the Bag Lady, who helps Mandy solve the mystery, save the day, and bring justice.  Every good mystery brings justice.

Who are some characters you love to see lose?

Losing Tasks: One Way to Gain Time

When I meet new people and they find out I’m a writer, often times I hear them say, “I would write a book, too, if only I had the time.”

Have you ever heard this?  Or said it to a writer?

Is this true?  Does this mean that writers actually have more time than non-writers?  Maybe that’s how writers get those books written, year after year.

Not.  Writers also have family and pets and friendships that need nurturing, hobbies and interests and day jobs and countless obligations.  How do writers find time to write?

Finding time means losing something else.

I like to prioritize my tasks and assign them to 3 main categories:

1.  Got-to-do:  

  • Eat, sleep, nurture the family (i.e., physical, biological and emotional needs that do not include housework)
  • Write
  • Read (even if it’s only to the children)

2.  Ought-to-do:  

  • Tell kids to clean mold from refrigerator
  • Send hubby to grocery with list
  • Pay bills on time

3.  Want-to-do:  

  • Volunteer in my child’s classroom
  • Shop for new shoes
  • Happy hour with BFF
  • Take quizzes on FB
  • Build debt at the movies
  • Join a dinner club
  • Sign up for a ballet class

Certain points in list #3 might qualify as an emotional need in list #1.  Everyone arranges their lists differently, what goes into them and when and how often they are done.  But for a writer, here are some main take-away points:

  1. Writing always goes in the got-to-do list.
  2. Books are written one page at a time.
  3. Prioritizing tasks keeps the want-to-do list in line.
  4. Delegate as many tasks as possible.

As long as writing is a priority, then writers will likely lose some of those items from their want-to-do list.  Who needs an extra pair of shoes, anyway?

Collecting—Erasers and Revision

My family says I’m a packrat.  If you saw my bulging shelves, drawers, and closets, you might agree.  But really, all that stuff is necessary:  all the books, the fabric and yarn, the family keepsakes, the trophies of milestones.  And yes, even my eraser collection.

I started collecting erasers back in junior high, when I lived in Brazil.  In those days, in that place, we didn’t shop self-service in a giant office supply store.  Instead, there was a narrow, street-front shop, no wider than a glass counter and a space for the customer to stand.  You told the clerk what you wanted, and the clerk pulled out the item from behind the glass counter.

All I needed was one eraser, but they came in different sizes and shapes and colors and textures.  The clerk pulled them all out for me and waited for my decision as I inspected each one.  I was enchanted.  Who knew if I would need to erase pen or pencil?  Maybe the green would erase cleaner than the brick-colored one.  Or the white one?  What if the nubby, gummy one worked the best of all?  How could I only take one home with me?

Well, I didn’t.  I took a whole pencil box full of erasers home with me that day because I couldn’t decide which was the right one.

It’s like that in writing.  Decisions can be hard, especially in revision.  How do you know which characters, which subplots, which scenes are necessary, and which aren’t?  How do you –erase– cut out your darlings?

My first draft of Murder in the Dojo was almost 100,000 words long.  It’s an amateur sleuth mystery, and that kind of traditional mystery typically runs much shorter.  But I was getting to know my sleuth as I wrote that draft, and I threw everything in, including the kitchen sink.  My first rewrite only ended up growing longer.

Despairing, I figuratively got out my eraser collection.  But I loved all of my secondary characters and all of my subplots and some of those clever scenes.  How could I possibly part with any of them?  I came up with 5 easy steps to help me with those hard decisions about revision:

  1. Identify the central mystery:  whodunnit, whydunnit, and howdunnit.
  2. Who are the 5 most important possible suspects, and how are they connected to the central mystery?
  3. How does my sleuth become entangled in the central mystery?  (i.e., motivation)
  4. What mistakes does the villain make that reveal him/her to my sleuth?  (i.e., plot:  what are the clues that the sleuth tracks throughout the story?)
  5. How is justice served?

Once I identified those 5 areas, it became a lot easier to see that everything else just had to go.  I eventually got my book down to 60,000 words.  (And no, the trimmed scenes didn’t make it into the second book.)

Murder with Altitude, the second in the series, is coming out next month!

Collecting: The Dreaded Rejection

I collect rejection slips.  We all get them.  But do any of us love ‘em?  The way I look at them is that each slip means I’m one slip closer to an acceptance.

I started collecting mine in a file folder (back in the dark ages before internet and electronic submissions).  I thought there would be a magic number (somewhere around 30, but for sure by 50) after which all the rest of my submissions would magically turn into acceptances.  I wanted to watch my file folder grow fat as I grew closer to my first sale.  I thought that the faster I filled my file folder, the faster I would get there.

I was wrong about the number.  I filled three fat file folders with rejection slips before my first sale.  And I was wrong about the magic.  My first sale didn’t stop more rejection slips from coming.  What it did stop was my obsessive need to collect them.

Here are some of the classics:

The first rejection:  (Backstory:  In college I bravely sent off to a slick magazine the very first story I had ever written—you can imagine how awful it was—and I received back a formal business letter from New York, typed on a typewriter—no corrected errors—as credited by the editor’s secretary.)  “Thank you for letting us read ‘Descent from Hell’.  Although your manuscript has much to recommend it, this type of material is, unfortunately, not right for us.  Regretfully, we are returning it to you.”

The funniest rejection:  A letter addressed to someone else, whose name was scratched out and my name handwritten above.  The handwritten P.S. to this letter added, “we use no reprints.”

The nicest rejection:  “I rather like your style of writing and suggest you try us again.”

The most irrelevant rejection:  “Not even the names of the characters are believable.”  (The names used were Chelsea and Jade, okay maybe not so common.)

The most hurtful rejection:  I can’t find this slip in my file, but I recall it well, as it pointed out my inability to write, and suggested I should give up writing.  So here’s what the second most hurtful rejection says:  “Alas, we cannot understand anything that is goiing (sic) on in the story.”

The most useful rejection:  “This story made the top 10…However, I could only accept 7, and yours just missed out.  Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a story (like yours), except it simply had too much competition.  Please keep trying!”

Now I have a slim but growing file folder of acceptances, and I can look back and laugh at my obsessive collection.  But I sure didn’t laugh at the time!

Writing on the Road—Risking Fireworks!

As this posts, I am returning home from 3 weeks on the road. It’s been a lovely trip, visiting my family who lives abroad, but that’s a big chunk of time out of the writing schedule.

Luckily, writers have flexible schedules and can work most anywhere, most any time, as long as the hours get logged. Publishers have their own schedule, which doesn’t always coincide with a writer’s schedule. I am contracted to deliver my next book soon, and if I don’t deliver the book, I risk fireworks with my publisher. On the other hand, if I spend too much time locking myself away from the family to write, I risk fireworks with them. What’s a writer to do??

Here’s what I’ve found that works for me while on the road:

1. Write every day. This is key for me. It doesn’t matter how little I write. It can be only a paragraph. But if I miss a day without any thought toward my WIP, then I break my continuity. This either gets me stuck or I end up going backwards, rather than forwards.
2. Stealing time. I usually rise an hour or so before the rest of the family, and that’s when I steal my time to write, so as not to interfere with any family activities. If jet lag keeps me awake in the middle of the night, I write then, too.
3. Overstimulation. In a new setting, with so much to see and do, it’s super easy to get distracted from the WIP. I may not remember what I’m supposed to write next, so I give myself permission to write any scene I want. Forget about transitions, just write it now and piece it into the draft later.
4. Ignore Critical Voice. Sure, the writing is bad. Really bad. But I just keep writing it anyway. I can throw it away later, but chances are, once I’m farther into the story, I’ll discover that what I thought was bad isn’t so bad after all.
5. Chill. If all else fails, I don’t beat myself up. I give in, and maybe just write in my journal, some sensory stuff that I can use later in some other project. Or I will do some plotting work, or studying by reading a good book, or research, or just plain old think time.

When a writer goes on the road, it’s not always vacation time. It’s a big challenge to keep on going. How do you handle traveling and writing? I’d love to learn some more tips!

Fireworks: From an Outsider’s Point of View

I grew up overseas as a government brat, and all these years later, I still get teary-eyed over fireworks and the good ole’ stars and stripes. Fireworks go together with our flag, like peanut butter goes with jelly. What’s more American than that?

And patriotic fireworks have exactly what to do with writing? Well, bear with me…

Today, my family is international. My British granddaughter was born last year on July 5th, and with a little fudging of the time difference and the vastness of our borders, we like to think of her as an Independence baby. Y’know, fireworks. Fortunately, our British in-laws retain their wonderful sense of humor and patience with us. We can’t help ourselves. We are American, and we will never fully understand things British.

But we’re also writers, and we have to get inside the head of our viewpoint character. What if we want to write a story that’s set in another culture? Research is essential, but it’s so easy to miss the tiny details that we may not even realize we’re getting anything wrong.

For instance, I was surprised to learn that in Germany it’s considered bad taste to use the number 88! (Because the 8th letter of the alphabet is the letter H, suggesting the salute to some infamous name.)

It’s a problem, not even knowing what I may be getting wrong! I like to get around this problem by using the outsider: a character who doesn’t belong to the setting I’m writing about. Here are some reasons why I think this is important:

1. Attitudes and perspective—the customs and beliefs we’ve been raised with help to form the way we think and the way we look at the world. This goes all the way back to nursery songs and childhood games.
2. Fashions and mannerisms—every place has its own trends, its own idea of what’s cool and what’s not.
3. Gestures and body language—sometimes these look the same or similar, but they vary in meaning from place to place, ranging from the obscene to a compliment.

Outsiders are useful characters to use because:

1. Outsiders notice details of their surroundings that insiders are so accustomed to that they don’t notice.
2. Outsiders are useful for explaining things a non-native reader needs to understand. Like a sidekick.
3. Outsiders are vulnerable to danger. Yikes! Conflict!

What kinds of characters can you use for the outsider in your story?

1. An expat—the obvious choice. Do you really want to go with the obvious? And why did this character give up his/her country?
2. A student abroad—how old? An older character might work abroad.
3. A family connection—by marriage? Investigating a family secret?

Outsiders show up over and over in my writing, regardless of which pen name I write under. Probably I use them because of my past, neither belonging to my native country nor to my host country. Do you like stories that use outsiders, too?