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?

Choosing the Right Project–what’s right for YOU?

As part of my Writing Life, I often ponder the following question:  how do I know which project to write about?  I am usually bombarded with snippets of ideas or “what if’s” or unusual situations that could blossom into a wonderful range of possible projects.  It’s not always easy for me to recognize from that mess of tidbits what is the right idea.  How do I know if an idea is worthy of the amount of time I’m going to spend writing about it?  


When I ask these questions of more established writers, I usually get some variation of the following advice:


  1. Go with the idea that you are most passionate about.  This is the idea that won’t leave you alone.  You find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about it, getting up to jot down a few notes.  
  2. Put away all your ideas, walk away from them for a week or two, and then pull them out again.  Often times, your ideas will weed themselves out when you puzzle over why you ever thought it was a good idea in the first place.  
  3. Throw away the first three ideas, because they’re the obvious ones, and go with the fourth idea.  


That’s what I did when I chose to write about Nell Letterly, my martial artist amateur sleuth.  My fourth idea turned into Nell, a menopausal single mom of a teenager.  


Years ago, one of my critique partners–Dolores Johnson, author of the Mandy Dyer dry cleaner’s series–kept suggesting that I write about a martial artist amateur sleuth.  Dolores had been a journalist specializing in the dry cleaning trade, and she turned her insider information into her wonderful, humorous series.  At the time, I was training in the martial arts while writing adventure science fiction.  Dolores advised–as many writers do–to write what you know about.  Well, I have never journeyed on a spaceship (although I would dearly love to!) but I did rack up many hours in the dojo.  


I decided to give it a try.  I wanted my sleuth to be an instructor.  Most of the instructors I knew were young hotshots, late teens, early twenties, with energy to burn.  So I started writing about a young twenty-something woman martial artist.  After a chapter or two, I ran out of what to write about her.  I just couldn’t get into that character’s head.  She was nothing like me, and I couldn’t understand where she was coming from.  When I came up with a middle-aged mom who was more like me–dedicated and hard working, but not exactly gifted athletically–her character leapt off the page.  


Now, Nell won’t let me alone.  She makes me write about her.  I think she’s become a more original character because she also has something of me in her.  You can’t go wrong with a project that chooses you!  


5 Easy Steps to Improving Craft

One very important aspect of The Writing Life that we’ve been talking about this month (IMHO) is getting better at what we do.  I like to budget special time for “Improving Craft” into my daily writing schedule.  So I have come up with 5 easy steps to grow as a writer:

  1.  Read.  Not a problem!  Writers love to read, and that’s probably what made most of us want to become writers in the first place.  Some of the authors I admire include Dolores Johnson, Kris Nelscott, Phyllis A. Whitney, and oh gosh, oodles more.  I only list these few select ones because of points 2, 3, and 4 below.
  2. Analyze what you read.  Here comes the “work”–but it’s fun!  We get to re-read our favorite authors and try to figure out how they’ve made us love their work. For instance, what I love about Johnson’s dry-cleaner series is the wonderful way she presents humor.  What I love about Nelscott’s Smokey Dalton series is the way she uses historical elements.  What I love about the Whitney books is the way she builds atmosphere.  I find examples of what I love and then ask:  how do they DO that??  How can I do it too?
  3. Learn from Admired Writers’ advice!  This includes workshops, classes, mentoring, and yes, more reading.  Not all advice is right for everyone, so take care in choosing a trusted source.  Since I admire Nelscott’s work, I applied to one of the rare mystery workshops she offers–and was lucky enough to be accepted!  I also admire Johnson’s work, and I participated in a critique group with her for several years before she passed away.  (See points 1 & 2.)
  4. Study how-to books.  It’s not always possible to work one-on-one with an Admired Writer, but thankfully there’s a plethora of craft books to study.  Everyone will have a unique list of resources that have impacted them profoundly–often, it’s a matter of timing, or maybe of methods.  Here’s my list, and the reasons why these examples helped me:
  • Writing Popular Fiction, by Dean R. Koontz (because he’s a long-term bestseller at writing popular fiction, and the basic concepts haven’t changed)
  •  Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by Albert Zuckerman (because he was a top agent for bestseller Ken Follett and knew what elements sold books at the time this book came out–publishing has changed, but not the elements of good storytelling)
  •  The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick (because my writing time was–and still is–very limited, and I needed to know how to construct a mystery piecemeal and still get it done)
  •  Writing Mysteries:  A Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America, edited by Sue Grafton.  This was my first introduction to how to write a mystery, and it opened my eyes to the wide range of topics, and Bonus!  It includes an article by Phyllis A. Whitney, one of my favorite storytellers (See points 1 and 2.)

5.  Listen to reader feedback.  Join a mystery book club (you get to read, find new authors, and, well, see points 1 and 2).  Mystery readers are happy to tell you in no uncertain terms what they like and dislike about stories and characters and settings.  Sometimes you will also learn about procedure from experts at club meetings and some of their pet peeves to be sure to avoid.

It all boils down to point #1, reading.  Improving our craft can be a lot of fun, and I’m always looking for new methods and new authors to learn from.  After all, if we don’t get better, we have nothing to write that anyone wants to read!

Writing Mysteries Is Like…

Lately, as I’ve wrestled with my Nell Letterly mystery series, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the special challenges of writing a mystery.  Here are a few ideas I’ve come up with:


Writing mysteries is like…


…writing an extra-long short story, where every word matters.  Extraneous details become smoking guns or red herrings or clues, and all need to be tied up and accounted for in the end.  Short stories done well require great craft, and the same is true for mysteries.


…working a cross-word puzzle.  Means, motivation, and method all have to match up with suspects and clues and then fit together in the exact spot, in the right order.  Anything out of order, and it all falls apart.


…writing a math formula and then solving it creatively.  You have to write the same, using logical pieces that add up to a whole, and yet you have to be different.


…playing bridge, where you have to count your clues (er, cards) and figure out who’s holding what and in what order your cast of characters will play them.  Will you take control of the game, or will you be left vulnerable?


…working a jigsaw puzzle without the picture to guide you.  You hope that the bits of images that you place around a blank board will ultimately fit together into a sensible, overall vision.


…training to become half a dozen professionals, all rolled into one:  psychoanalysis, forensics, logic, criminology, ballistics, medical treatment, as well as language skills and whatever other special topic your theme covers.


This is just the beginning.  I’m sure there are many others!

Getting Stuck: It’s not Pretty

Did you notice we don’t have a specific topic this month?  Give me an assignment, and I’ll find something to say about it.  Ask me a question, and I’ll find an answer, even if it’s “I dunno.”  Unless pressed, I’m usually the quiet one in the corner, switching into writer lurk mode with my notebook and nothing to say.


So this got me thinking … what happens when you really have nothing to say?  Some call it writer’s block.  Others call it slamming into a brick wall.


Whatever you call it, something happens to derail that great start you made.  You were quivering with anticipation during the idea stage.  Maybe you wrote notebooks full of character sketches and plot diagrams and bubble charts and pyramids and so on and so on.  Or maybe you started with an image in a single sentence, and then magic happened, and before you knew it your character poofed to life and took you on a madcap tour of your book, and then all of a sudden…


Everything dies.  The process comes to a screeching halt, and you are staring at the dreaded blank screen, waiting for elusive words to flow once again from your keyboard.


It’s happened to me, usually at the worst possible time, like say, when I’m under deadline.  Maybe it’s happened to you, too.


Here are seven of my favorite tricks I’ve had to use to get unstuck:


  1.  First off, I don’t think of these snags as “writers block” or “brick walls.”  Those terms are way too crushing for me.  They make getting stuck sound even worse than it already is.  Sometimes just a positive attitude will get my momentum going forward again.
  2. Try something different.  If you’re a pantser, try plotting.  If you’re a plotter, try pantsing.  If you’re a morning writer, try writing at night, or vice versa.  If you’re a weekend long-distance writer, try lunchtime sprints.
  3. Try alternating projects.  Switch off your cozy mystery with a suspense, or your novel with a short story.  Go back and forth between projects to keep each one fresh.
  4. Allow yourself to write bad.  Think:  “it doesn’t have to be good; it has to be done.”
  5. Set an egg timer for 30 minutes.  How many pages did you get done?  Knowing that timer is ticking is great motivation for putting words down!
  6. If you keep revisiting chapter one, tweaking it one more time, maybe just admiring its brilliance, then recognize that procrastination is another term for being stuck.  Take a deep breath and stop it.  Just stop it.  Time to move on.
  7. When the story is moving along and you suddenly find you’ve written yourself into a corner, with a feeling of “so what?” you might try looking at your last few scenes.  Maybe your character took a wrong turn a few scenes back.  Double check his/her actions in the because-result chain.  Because “x” happens, he/she does “y.”   The character might need a gentle nudge, and then you’re off again!


Whatever you try, however you make it work, getting unstuck is all about focus.  If it’s happened to you, what are some of your favorite tips to get unstuck?

Spying on the Home Front

Wow, there are a lot of different kinds of spies! Spies in the movies, spies snooping in our neighborhoods, glamour-ized spies, traitor-ized spies, spies everywhere.


But what about spies here on the home front?


We don’t hear much about those stories, but there were actually a couple of real occasions during WWII when German soldiers landed on U.S. soil. One such spy was George John Dasch (you can google him and read more!) when he was recruited by the Nazis to land a team of spies on U.S. soil. The spies were given minimal training to set bombs, and they intended to sabotage factories, bridges, and some of the locks on the Ohio River. In June 1942 they landed in New York and Florida, having been set ashore by German submarines, but only 2 months later their plans fell apart when Dasch turned informant after seeing too many flaws in their preparations. He got 30 years in prison, one of his accomplices got life, and the others got the electric chair.


WWII was a time when ordinary citizens dared to commit outrageous acts of bravery, often beyond their training. It was a time when everyday folks became spies for a cause they put above their own personal safety. And many of them succeeded! Could we, in our comfy lives today, ever match such acts of derring-do? I wonder.


My interest in these tales began when I was a child, listening to the stories of my great-uncle. He used to be postmaster of a very small town in the hills of southern Ohio around the time of WWII. My uncle had a great sense of humor, and he loved pulling my leg. I never knew if he was teasing or telling the truth when he confessed about spying from the post office, tracking German spies who allegedly passed through town. In those days, on the home front in the early days of WWII, nobody knew what might happen. I suspect my uncle exaggerated his tales, but it doesn’t really matter if they were true or not. They were stories, and I loved hearing them.


They got me thinking and wondering. What might’ve happened on the home front in those early days after the U.S. entered WWII? Dasch’s story became a jumping off point for one of the subplots in a novel of mine under another pen name (The Jigsaw Window, by Cameron Kennedy). When I write, I like to throw in my own speculations, blend them all together, and end up with a story.


My story only speculates about an invasion plan, but I have to wonder: did my long-deceased uncle really have a hand in bringing down Dasch and his team of spies? Probably not, but it makes a nice story and turns my uncle into a hometown hero. My favorite kind of spy.


What do you think?