On writing


Anyone looking at the blog will see a big gap this year in published blog posts. Things went off course for me when, in January, I volunteered to do the homeowners association newsletter. I’d written newsletters before, I knew how to tweak my antique Microsoft Publisher program and make pretty PDFs to upload rather than print, and I could set my own schedule. How hard could it be?

What I learned (again) is that me splitting my writing focus isn’t something I do very well. Although both projects involve writing (i.e., typing), real estate legal stuff for a newsletter is a different critter than mystery-writing legal stuff for a story. I was jumping back and forth between subjects, which wasn’t good for either of them.

Now add in the presidential campaign. I’m not actively involved in campaigning, but oh, my goodness, where did the time go?

Now that the election is winding down (one hopes), I’m slowly righting my fictional writing ship that had foundered and I’m getting back on course. The short story I was working on is nearing completion (just a short story?!?) so that’s one more brick in that story wall. Me not being a natural born killer made sorting out the story’s howdunnit challenging. I thought that all my years of reading mysteries and watching detective programs had given me a good grounding in fictional crime. Sadly, writing mysteries is more difficult than reading and watching them.

While I’ve been nudging my fictional ship back on course, I’ve also assembled a nice little play-acting company of amenable, uncomplaining plastic actresses and actors courtesy of the talented and persnickety engineers at Playmobil. The detail of the accessories that come with the little actresses and actors is a great aid to memory and imagination.

And now, having taken a step in getting up after I’ve fallen down, on to completing the story.

 

The general setup for the stories:

The apartment building is to the left, with an office area in front of it. The office and its garages (which doubles as offices when needed) are in the center. The Border is behind them. Above it all is the castle on the hill, which also looks down on the church across from the office. The church bell takes getting used to for the story characters.

The apartment building is to the left, with an office area in front of it. The office and its garages (which doubles as offices when needed) are in the center. The Border is behind them. Above it all is the castle on the hill, which also looks down on the church across from the office. The church bell takes getting used to for the story characters.

 

Where the characters live

Although my stories rarely involve the family members of the characters, having someplace for the characters to live when they aren't in a scene adds depth to my thinking.

Although my stories rarely involve the family members of the characters, having someplace for the characters to live when they aren’t in a scene adds depth to my thinking.

 

 

Cold War Germany

The red and white barriers are reminiscent of the barriers that were on the actual border before the German Reunification. Off to the left is the train station -- track numbers, schedules, and a map -- which usually wasn't so close to the border, but my table top has limited real estate.

The red and white barriers are reminiscent of the barriers that were on the actual border before the German Reunification.
Off to the left is the train station — track numbers, schedules, and a map — which usually wasn’t so close to the border, but my table top has limited real estate.

 

 

Items my actresses and actors could use for mischief

Possible weapons

Possible weapons

 

Story scenes:

The picnic scene

The office is having a picnic for the U.S. Bicentennial. Naturally, because conflict is what drives fiction, a fight breaks out at the picnic.

The office is having a picnic for the U.S. Bicentennial. Naturally, because conflict is what drives fiction, a fight breaks out at the picnic.

 

The office scene

A colleague of my brown-haired main character tells her how he overheard what the red-head said. The colleague has his name taped on his back as the other characters do. That way, they don't get mixed up with each other.

A colleague of my brown-haired main character tells her how he overheard what the red-head said.
The colleague has his name taped on his back as the other characters do. That way, they don’t get mixed up with each other.

 

Finding the body

My main character (the brown haired character at the back) and her colleagues are surprised to find the missing man outside their office, lying in a stairwell near the road (the white stripes are a pedestrian crossing). The back wall of the "office" is open (it's a child's play set), so I had to put in a paper wall to ever so slightly increase the realism.

My main character (the brown haired character at the back) and her colleagues are surprised to find the missing man outside their office, lying in a stairwell near the road (the white stripes are a pedestrian crossing).
The back wall of the “office” is open (it’s a child’s play set), so I had to put in a paper wall to ever so slightly increase the realism.

 

Interlude after the body was found

The main character had errands to run. The other office members were left to talk to the police after the military police gave her permission to leave.

The main character had errands to run. The other office members were left to talk to the police after the military police gave her permission to leave.

 

No, I’m not giving away the ending.

When I’m writing a story, sometimes I get stuck. I’ll forget where my characters are in relation to each other. I’ll forget the exact sequence of events. I’ll forget where the characters are standing. I’ll forget how many people are even in a room.

When I have these lapses, I’m almost cheerful because that’s when I can legitimately play with some toys I (said I) bought for the grandkids — Playmobil playsets.

The two men on the (invisible) motorcycle are about to throw a Molotov cocktail at the car. My heroine, the woman on the balcony, will roust a colleague and they'll be finding fire extinguishers to put out the fire before the car can go up in flames.

The two men on the (invisible) motorcycle are about to throw a Molotov cocktail at the car. My heroine, the woman on the balcony, will roust a colleague and they’ll be finding fire extinguishers to put out the fire before the car can go up in flames.

 

I first found Playmobil toys in 1976 after we moved to Germany for the second time.  My husband and I gave our son two sets of them for Christmas.  In the years since then, the company has expanded their range of playsets so that people like me can now use them in ways the designers probably didn’t imagine. At the moment, I have a motorcycle policeman on order. In future, my characters won’t be riding invisible motorcycles.

I’m happy to say that when my little characters aren’t busy getting up to no good in my imaginary worlds, they’re happily inhabiting the more innocent stories of little children.

The latest Miss Marple in the PBS series Masterpiece Mystery is Endless Night, a bit of an oddity because Miss Marple isn’t a character in the book.<-  [highlight to see spoiler]   Continued spoilers, and a good review, are at the blog, The Agatha Christie Reader.

I’m happy that the stories continue to be made for new audiences as well as for those of us who apparently can’t get enough of Mrs. Christie’s books (the blue volumes in the near-top left and right shelves).

In addition to being happy to see the remake of the story, I liked seeing Tamzin Outhwaite’s name in websites about the episode. I last saw her in Redcap.

I was also tickled to see Janet Henfrey in the cast.  I so enjoyed her as Mrs. Bale in As Time Goes By with Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer.  Her attention to the shipping forecasts reminded me of my dad talking about the persistence of “gale-force winds” in the Scottish isles, an apparent feature of the radio weather reports in England in the early 1950s.

It makes it hard for younger people in the acting profession to get work when so many of their older colleagues continue to work well in the craft, but I do enjoy seeing familiar faces in familiar stories.  Aspiring novelists may also have a tough time breaking into the ranks of well-known stories and characters because of the devotion of readers to their favorite writers.  I know that if I’m reading another one of the Christie books, I’m not reading the stories of newer authors.  I try to balance it by reading contemporary authors during the day when it’s easier to concentrate and saving Mrs. Christie for my soothing nighttime reads.

One of my pet peeves is stories, whether written or performed, that have incorrect military information.  Some of the wrong information is simple, such as my current peeve, and some of it is illogical made-up-stuff.

Tonight’s irritation is with an episode of “Unforgettable.”  In the story, a Veterans Administration doctor has been asked by Unforgettable’s main character about a veteran who is a person of interest in a murder (the Crazed Veteran is always a popular character if you need a military person in your story).   The veteran in question would be fluent in Pashto, a language in Afghanistan.  The doctor replied to the detective that it would take several tours in Afghanistan for a soldier to become fluent in Pashto, and then says that she does have a client in counseling who fits the description — a corporal.

Insert rant about ‘if you plan on writing about something, learn the basic information about it.’

In the Army, a corporal is an E4, a junior enlisted rank.  If this person were a corporal he wouldn’t have had enough time in service to easily become fluent in Pashto, unless he’d been demoted multiple times.  Pashto is a language that the Foreign Service Institute rates as a level 2 or 3 language, levels that take between 34 – 48 weeks of full-time study for basic proficiency. Unless a person were being trained as a linguist, it is unlikely that the Army would invest the time for the training.

Which brings us to another point.  The photo of the uniformed ‘person of interest’ shows a relatively long-haired white-bread man (for today’s military) in an Army uniform, wearing infantry brass backed by a light blue disc.  An infantryman in Afghanistan is not surprising, however, an infantryman wouldn’t have linguistic training.  If an infantryman had acquired fluency in Pashto — either from multiple tours in Afghanistan or from language training — he would have been in the Army long enough to be more than a corporal.  Still, for story-purposes, a Pashto-spouting bad guy is more menacing than your average veteran.

Then there’s the fiction that he’s a corporal.  In today’s Army, very few military occupational specialties (MOSes — ie, ‘jobs’) use the rank of corporal.  An E4 in the infantry would be a specialist unless he were filling a leadership position.

Specialist is a designation retained from when the Army had ranks from Specialist Fourth Class up to Specialist Seventh Class alongside the NCO ranks of the same pay grades.  In today’s Army, and of the specialist ranks, only the E4-Specialist rank remains.  I’d say this story character wouldn’t be a corporal because, as I said before, if he’d been in the Army long enough to be fluent in Pashto, he was probably demoted more than once and wouldn’t be leader material.

Now if this service member were a Marine, then the corporal rank is appropriate — although, as a Pashto-speaking-E4, he still would be suffering from the time-in-service problem concerning the language fluency.

The holes in this one story point are large enough to drive a truck through.

Writers — and producers and directors — if you’re going to use the Crazed Veteran character in your stories, at least do the poor guy the honor of getting his backstory straight.

I am developing an abiding hatred for invisible toggle keys on the keyboard. The program you’re using may tell you to “press X to use the keyboard shortcut to do Y” but it doesn’t tell you the “shortcut” of the key that turns that toggle key on and off.

I was happily using “insert” to create a new text box, all according to the drop-down box’s recommendation for the keyboard shortcut. An hour after I started work, all of a sudden the insert key will only make a zero (since the insert key is also the zero key in the number pad). I don’t remember striking the num lock button, but yeah, pushing it fixed the problem. Still, it was an interruption, an irritant and and an imposition.

I am so tired of the pile of learning curves between programs, between gizmos, and between iterations of gizmos. It’s like an hourly ‘learning of toilets’ on a European road trip: “how do you flush THIS one?!?!”

Okay, rant over, blood pressure returning to normal, time to get back to work.

(I’m enjoying alone time with the last of my tea from my room-service breakfast so I can finish a highly-useful course by Kris Neri that started before I left home and ends this coming week. I’m going to buy the CDs of the Bouchercon panels I’m missing — many thanks to the Bouchercon team posting pictures on Facebook to remind me.)

I found a new open source program I’m enjoying — FreeMind.  It makes thinking fun, and you don’t hit the edge of the paper.

The image is a 25% screenshot of an unfinished bubble map (this one’s of a bad guy).  For me, the various events that drive him on his way are easier to keep track of on this map than with an outline, a notebook, or index cards on a corkboard.  It goes so quickly that I almost feel lazy using it until I remember that I’ve put more up here than I’ve managed in other brainstorming styles.

The program is easy enough to learn so that you don’t feel as if you’re undertaking a steep learning curve in addition to thinking up whatever it is you want to map.  Thank you to the developers, debuggers and distributors.

In the midst of a momentary reflection as to whether I wrote much when I was a kid, in addition to ruining my eyes by reading all the time, it just came to me what all this social networking is: passing notes in class.  I did a lot of that, so I guess I did write.

We’re all supposed to be “on task” and paying attention to the teacher (boss, work, kids, whatever) but what we’re doing is passing around electronic notes.  Can you imagine us voluntarily writing as much in school as we do on blogs or at Google+ and Facebook?

I don’t know if the teachers would be thrilled about what we were writing, but one or two might be pleased to see us scribbling away.

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