Letters to the Editor

Years ago a local woman regularly contributed to our newspaper’s11-15 writing letters page. Her pieces were well written and thought out. She wasn’t political or addicted to any organization or movement. She looked around, listened, made decisions and shared her viewpoint. If she missed a week, other writers wondered what happened to her. Definitely an institution, and the readership mourned her death. Sometimes a new scribe turned up, but it isn’t the same. For one, now the paper won’t publish any one person more than once a month. There must be other reasons. Perhaps they have other avenues of expression. Perhaps some are now bloggers with followers.

Sometimes I write to my newspaper. Once it was about a way out-dated front-page piece on medical procedures. (Something about it made me look up the original report cited. I learned it was compiled seven years before from queries compiled in the previous ten years and included the comment that it was deemed unreliable.) Some years ago it was more apt to involve absent coverage of our local school district activities (where my children were involved, naturally).

Not often, but occasionally, I’ll comment on something political. If I do, I’ll sign my name differently than I sign anything to do with my writing. That’s because, with the internet picking up everything, I once discovered my comment over a local issue right there, with my name, for everyone with a computer to see.

Okay, that’s good, right? Get your name out, can’t be bad. Except, the way I see it, our country is almost evenly divided, and very partisan. In fact, I see the same division within my friends and family. We all know which is which. We might even discuss our differences amicably. But that never happens in print. Don’t know why. Maybe it’s the newspaper with their unfunny cartoons lampooning both sides. It drives a wedge through a country that calls itself United. And, viewing all that angst, people take sides. They could easily say, “If she thinks that, I’m certainly not going to buy her books.” And who wants to alienate half of their possible readership?

So, do you write letters to the editor? Actually, I still do. Not often, I have other writing that calls me.

Camp NaNo

Camp-Participant-2015-Web-Banner big

I’m busy at Camp NaNo. Picture me sitting around the campfire with my tent buddies, snarfing down S’Mores. Okay, not really. That short story is waiting, as well as editing the new mystery. I’ll let you know how I’m doing next week. (Just started yesterday.)

Camp-s-mores-2Those S’Mores are looking good! Maybe just one.

Yum.

Okay, maybe two.

Oh, heck. Can’t leave just one!

The Writing Road

I meant to write about the road not taken today, to fret about missed opportunities in the past. I wondered, what would have happened had I taken another road? Some years ago I went, with a group of women, to visit our state house. We were greeted by our new state representative, a neighbor. When my friend informed him I’d just had a children’s story accepted by a major magazine, he asked me if I’d like to work for him, corresponding with voters. Although I knew he’d hired another neighbor whose specialty was designing lovely bouquets to help him with public relations, I reminded him it was a children’s magazine, hardly fare for adults. Some years later, after I started writing mysteries, I’d think, what if I had taken him up. Just think, I then could have written mysteries about the ins and outs of political life, and point to my experience. Perhaps that would have interested agents and publishers. And, I might have closed this post with advice for the young—jump at every opportunity.

But, I don’t want to talk about that today. Instead, I like the road I’ve actually taken. Today I realized it was only six years ago when, after a few hundred agent rejections, despite a few nibbles along the way, after writing and rewriting several books, I almost decided to start a blog and give way my oldest, most rewritten manuscript chapter by chapter. But first, in June, 2009, I decided to give small publishers a try. Finally, I succeeded with the third publisher I contacted. And they worked fast. By August they asked to buy it. By October 1, it was edited, copy-edited, cover designed with my input, and published. A few days later, I turned 80. But, with that acceptance, I felt validated.

The book was lovely. My friends bought it and loved it. However, it didn’t make much of a splash. I’m grateful to that small publisher for actually giving me the belief that my writing was of value. But when my two-year contract ran out, I didn’t renew it, but took back my rights. With the new ease of self-publishing, I could do just as well on my own. I had another mystery ready to publish. Since then I’ve also published a YA mystery and a non-fiction narrative of my father’s adventures as a young man. I’ve had short mysteries published as well. And, I have a sequel of that first mystery just about ready to meet its public.

So, perhaps I missed an opportunity years ago. No matter. I don’t live in the past. I can remember the past, think fondly of what has transpired, see my children and their children succeed, enjoy life with my husband. I also look forward to the future and what will transpire.

My path took me down another road. I like this road just fine. How about you and your writing path? Are you happy with the road you’ve taken?

Snoop, Student, Writer

I’ve had friends ask, after reading one of my books, “Where do you get your ideas?” My husband asks, “How do you think all that up?” I’m quite sure every writer gets the same questions. And, like me, the answer might be something like, “I’m not exactly sure,” or possibly, “Or, here and there.”

writing SnoopyThe true answer is complicated. It’s a bit like the way I follow a recipe when I’m cooking. Love the picture that goes with it. Beautiful. The ingredients? Oh, sure. Except, I don’t have all of them. In fact, even if I do have an item, I really prefer another. I’ll trade off Worstershire sauce for soy sauce every time. Let’s see, unsalted butter? Heck, I have salted. No problem. Broccoli is just as green as green beans. Recipe calls for veal, but I happen to have pork. Oops, that item is one husband doesn’t like—I’ll skip that. I think I’ll serve the dish with noodles instead of rice.

You get the idea, right?

Now, how about the title of this piece. Yes, it also explains at least one writer’s system (mine). Maybe snoop is a bit extreme. Let’s say, I discover something that appeals to me. For instance, my YA Cherish, began with a road sign. “Sandy Bottom Road.” That book definitely used my recipe-following system. I’d discarded the manuscript years before, but I started with that and substituted. A skeleton became a ghost. The girls switched boyfriends. I changed names, dipped into a variety of viewpoints. I added real history to alter the story. And, I definitely updated my teens into twenty-first century kids. Those last two required the student mode with information and assistance from the internet and advice from teens.

Okay, maybe that’s not illustrating the snoop-student mode of a writer. Snoop: Scan newspapers for something new I can incorporate into a mystery. How about the item about a seven-year-old girl who takes fantastic photographs? Check. Now, here’s an item about Workampers, or people who live in their RV campers but travel around taking short term jobs to support themselves. They stop to work for a season at theme parks or a few weeks at local celebrations. Check. How about those books I’ve gathered during our sailing years at small Chesapeake Bay towns—books about local history, many mentioning the War of 1812? Check. Okay, now for the study. Read and compare those local histories. Check it out on the internet. Study reenactments, historic figures’ lives, maps for placement of my fictional town. That’s the template for my upcoming mystery, Forgotten Body, now awaiting one final run-through, formatting, and cover.

But I do have a still better example of the student mode for an author. I’m now working on a short story that may turn into a novella. I’m planning to make it permafree to interest people in my mysteries. It’s gotta be good for that. And, I’m struggling. But, I’ve found help by reading the writing blogs, newsletters, books, and magazines I’ll never abandon. That’s because, invariably, a phrase or sentence will spark an idea. Most recently it was part of a sentence in R.A. McCormick’s article in the Sisters in Crime Guppy chapter newsletter, First Draft. Quote, “surprise as the story goes in a direction that readers don’t expect.” It’s not new information to me, but those words reminded me—“Hey, that’s what I need!” The other manuscript help was a guest appearance by another Guppy, Kaye George, on B.K. Stevens’ blog, The First Two Pages. Yep, after reading Kaye’s clear show and tell of the way she added each element, I knew what I had to do. Ramp up my beginning as well as surprise the reader.

So, next time someone asks me where I get my ideas, what will I answer? “You see, there’s a talking bird—not a parrot, I’ll have to look that up, and one of those mini-houses I’ve read about that is cramped with one person, but I’m putting two in there. And there’s this guy who faked his death and will come back to upset the lady who thought she was a widow about the time she’s getting serious about someone else.” Will that be my answer?

More likely, I’ll reply, “Oh, here and there.”

As a reader, I’d probably love to hear more. But, as a writer, do I want to rattle on and bore my reader even before the book is out? Hope. How about you?

Thoughts on the Writing Process

One Pennsylvania Dutch expression I’ve heard is: “Too soon old, too late smart.” A more common expression is: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I guess I could accept both those sentiments, but as the 85-year-old self-described Grandma Moses of Mystery, I tend to ignore them. Why else would I read writing magazines, listen to videos, and interact with other writers to learn more of my trade? Or, am I relearning things I thought I already knew?

I’ve been attempting to write a short story, a prequel to my first mystery. writer at workEvery day I started over, changing what I had written, deciding it was all wrong. Then I read a blog post from a well-published author I follow. She was having trouble writing her newest book. She decided the problem was that she didn’t know where it was going, what should come next. She had to take time out until she knew what her characters would do. A few days later I read a magazine Q and A with an author. His words—writing was a struggle all the way. But he also said that if he were told what a scene should be, he could write it easily. The idea was the hard part.

Okay, got it. Yeah, that idea. And I realize, when I’m writing a full-length mystery, I keep a separate file to talk about my story. I ask myself, would Jo do that? If she did, what would her sister say? What would Mel do? I’ll ramble on down one path, then back up. “Nope,” I tell myself, “that’s not right. But maybe, if she said…” And I’m off on a new string.

So, why not do the same thing with a short story?

Hey, did this old dog learn a new trick? Umm, maybe. Maybe just a relearned trick. But that won’t stop me from looking for something new for my tool kit. After all, I only started this blog a couple of years ago, at 83. And I’m still trying to improve it every chance I get. I try, as well, to improve my stories as I write new ones. I will go along with the, “Too soon old,” part of that saying. But, “too late smart?” Nope, that will never happen.

I think writers are a timeless bunch. We write about others of any age, no matter our own age. Women write about men, men write about women. We send our characters to far lands, or into their own minds. If we didn’t continue to learn and innovate, we’d have one story to tell, then be done. I’m willing to bet, each writer has learned something completely new within the last year, and written about it. Do you agree? Or, do you disagree?

A Writing Room

A room dedicated to writing—that’s an ideal for any author. Or not. Some authors prefer toting a laptop or pencil and paper to the local coffee shop, or outdoors where there’s a lovely view and pleasant weather.

Years ago, when I was a twenty-something and living in Seattle, I did not aspire to be a writer. I thought I’d be a singer. My brother had a beautiful voice, my sister played the piano. I had illusions of a family trio—for a few months. I took singing lessons. Since I lived at a boarding house with a landlady who said, “No practicing at MY piano,” I rented a practice room several days a week. All around me, others behind other doors practiced voice, clarinet, bassoon, or piano. But, for an hour, I had my own room.

When I started writing, with teenagers in the house, I heard about writers who rented office space, set it up with typewriter (before most people used anything resembling computers), and escaped into another world. I set up my typewriter in the basement. After a while, I, too, had a computer.

Fast forward a lot of years, and my husband and I are living in retirement. Our children have children, and even a grandchild. I have my writing space in the retirement home basement. I don’t need to escape from a hectic household. But a couple of days ago, I read about a local free-lance writer who has his own small office space in a local building, a restored tobacco warehouse divided into individual offices.

Gee, should I consider that?

Nah. I look out my window, and think—drive through weather like that, every day? Then I look at my desk, piled high with articles I must save, my desktop computer, my printer, my rolling chair, the full bookcases surrounding me. Move all that? You think? Of course, if I had Kait Carson’s very neat office, maybe… Nope. Why change perfection?

I’ve always wondered—does taking your work to a new place, one without a dishwasher to empty, a dirty clothes hamper full to overflowing, and dust on every shelf—make for more time spent writing?  Or, does taking oneself away from daily life also take away the inspiration? Somehow, I think that answer changes by individual, and perhaps, even by the moment. What do you think? Have you ever tried moving your work to a new space?

Too much to do!

It’s a common problem, at least for me. I make plans, schedule things – sure I’ll have no problem handling it all. Then what happens? I realize I have way more than I want to do.

Exercise. It’s very good for one, and absolutely essential for a writer who spends so much time in front of her computer. Therefore, two mornings a week I exercise with a class. Great fun, actually. Of course, even though it’s only a 45-minute class, it takes me the rest of the morning to actually feel like working. Yep, morning gone.

Two mornings gone out of a week? No problem. I can handle that two-week class on optimizing Goodreads for authors. Also, I can learn how to post to my mystery critique group all over again since we started using Google groups instead of Yahoo groups. (And, that course? Also on a new venue – more to learn.)

Oh, yeah, there’s a few other things. I’m counting down the time until my new YA is published. Working with the artist on the cover design now. And, hopefully those edits I’m doing on the sequel to Yesterday’s Body will be final edits.

Then there’s the article and the blog post I agreed to do. A month or two ago I spaced them out, too busy in August and September. Yep, due this month. Working on it, really I am.

Is there more? Uh-huh. Oldest grandson getting married. Then the following week youngest daughter and family having their annual, all-day fall party.

I’m sure there’s a book among those I’ve read that would absolutely fit this post. But, will I take an afternoon lulling through the shelves, picking the perfect read to recommend? Nope, sorry, not today. I’m over-scheduled as it is. I’ll have more time next week – make that next month.