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.

Whether I’m writing or not, I love research.  Or maybe I’m entranced because it’s just as Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”  In any case, I’m off on a ‘characteristically’ new adventure — learning about spirits.  No, I’m not delving into the modern trend in spirits with vampires and such, but rather indulging the traditional writerly spirits — booze.

By way of background, since I’m not known for my taste in alcohol, I set off on this adventure because I was browsing a sale email from The Teaching Company (I am known for my taste in Teaching Company courses).  I was looking at the history, science, religion and museum courses when The Everyday Guide to Spirits and Cocktails (pictured above), caught my eye. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “that’s different.”

I read the description, but wasn’t sure I wanted to make it a permanent part of my collection as the last cocktail I drank was in 1975 — a Tequila Sunrise which, I found out in this course, is just a tequila screwdriver with grenadine.  I also learned that Tequila is a place, and that the heart of the agave plant from which the liquor is distilled is called a piña (which has nothing to do with a piña colada).  My research is already paying off.

I bought two courses I wanted more than this one, budgets being what they are, but the idea of learning what many adults already know wouldn’t leave me alone.  I was pleased when I checked the library’s website to find that the course was there.  I put it on hold, and it arrived quickly.  I took about a week or so to get around to watching it, but once I started I found the episodes engaging and watched them all, yesterday and today.

The one downside to making the course “interactive” was tasting the spirits. I tried whiskey yesterday and even though I only tasted the liquid still clinging to a spoon I dipped into each spirit, it seemed that the flavor stayed in my mouth for hours after.  I was surprised at the pervasiveness of both the smell and taste especially since the whiskey I had was Canadian and not one of the peaty brands.

Despite the clinginess of the flavor, I wanted to continue my education.  My husband and I went to a liquor store and bought a selection of the tiny bottles of liquor such as airlines use.  I’m not sure if the clerk believed me when I said I was buying all those little bottles for research.

Not all the recommended liquors were available in sample-sized bottles — to get potato vodka I’d have had to buy a 3-pack of fifths — but there were more than I expected.  I was lucky in that I do like cooking with some liquors (Calvados in apple crisp lends a sophisticated depth to the homey dish, and Wild Turkey gives pumpkin pie new flavor notes) so I already had a selection to taste — the taller bottles in the photo are my cooking liquors.

As for the character research, I now have in mind a sophisticated gentleman as a supporting character.  I’m looking forward to finding out whether his coworkers appreciate his cocktail gatherings and dinner parties. He is probably also knowledgeable about wine. Luckily, that course is still on sale.

I’m doing ‘housekeeping’ on some stories — writing down characters’ names in order to keep their activities straight, charting story arc developments, stuff like that.  I’m skimming each short story so that I can note the characters mentioned in it and, in one story, I obviously hit a speed bump in getting the main character from point A to point B.

The background is that Barb, the main character, has been looking at apartments all day and the places on the list given to her by the clerk at the military housing referral office have either been rented or were unacceptable.  It’s the end of the day, she’s tired, and she skipped looking at the last apartment because the bad guys in the story unexpectedly caught her eye.  She stopped to see what they were up to (just a bit of shady business that she can’t handle on her own, but that she reported) and she’s now hotfooting it back to the apartment.  The silly part, something added just to keep writing, is between the strings of periods I put in so I wouldn’t accidentally send the story out with that part in it.

          While she was contemplating whether or not to go in at this relatively late hour, a man and a woman came through the building’s front door, the man with a short un-German haircut, and the woman wearing blue jeans and sneakers.  Americans.  They were holding hands and their faces wore happy-couple expressions.

          As they walked down the sidewalk, Barb stopped them

          “Excuse me.  Before I make a fool of myself, did you just rent an apartment?”

………

            The man said, “Why yes, we just rented that absolutely smashing flat from the most charming little fairytale grandmother you could ever hope to meet.”

            “Drat and blast,” exclaimed Barb.  “This is the third apartment I’ve been done out of. I swear, I’m never going to get out of that damned office and I’ll have Novak around my neck like a bloated albatross from now until Gabriel sounds his horn.  I’m doomed!”

         “Fret not, fair maiden,” spoke the man as he doffed his baseball cap and bowed deeply before her.  “I know it seems as if you’ll never find your heart’s desire, but persist!  Soldier on!  You will triumph!”

            The man took his companion’s arm and they marched off, as if Sousa himself had written the fanfare for their departure.”

            Seized by their happiness, Barb herself straightened her shoulders, squared her jaw and strode to her magic steed, the invincible Duck.  She engaged its motor and they flew down the strasse, to return to their lair in the heart of the Rhoen.

……………

          Rush hour traffic is much the same the world around, slow.  Barb reached the office to see only one vehicle in the office parking area – Novak’s motorcycle.  Did he volunteer to stay in or was he just holding down the fort until the duty agent ate supper?  Barb thanked goodness she wasn’t on call tonight.

End of short, silly excerpt.

Finding that bit of silliness made me laugh, and I now remember typing it.  It was probably the most easily written part of the entire story.  I wish the actual story elements flowed as easily as did that bit of keep-the-typing-going filler.

In almost any type of how-to article or book, readers will find lists of what to do and what to avoid.  If you want to succeed at whatever the expert is advising you about, do this and don’t do that.

  • runners must wear the correct shoes
  • painters need the right brushes
  • cooks should use thick, solid pans
  • gardeners ought to test their soil

Writing instruction comes with similar guidance.

In a new article from Writer’s Digest, ten writers examine ten well-known rules. I was pleased to see I own books from three of the experts, James Scott Bell, Natalie Goldberg and Donald Maass.

The rules they analyze, and give both pro and con opinions about, are:

  1. Write What You Know.
  2. Hook Your Readers on Page 1.
  3. Show, Don’t Tell.
  4. Write “Shitty First Drafts.” (Really, do you have a choice?)
  5. Write EVERY DAY.
  6. Kill Your Darlings.
  7. Develop a Thick Skin.
  8. Silence Your Inner Critic.
  9. Read What you Like to Write.
  10. If You Want to Get Rich, Do Something Else.

My own short viewpoints on the rules are:

  1. Write about what captures your attention.
  2. Make page 1 as interesting as possible.
  3. Show for depth, and tell for speed.
  4. Don’t allow foolish errors in your first draft; you may overlook them in revision.
  5. Increase your word count every day you’re able.
  6. Write your best, but don’t make one section gorgeous at the expense of other parts.
  7. Use your sensitivity to improve your writing, but remember it’s only writing.
  8. Make an appointment with your inner critic.  Later, let her do her best to improve the piece.
  9. Read.
  10. I already didn’t amass riches doing “something else,” so you’ll have to look elsewhere for advice about #10.

Without guidelines, projects wouldn’t be well-built.  Houses aren’t constructed without blueprints for the builders.  Appliances aren’t assembled without schematics for the machinists. Creatures don’t grow without DNA to guide the cells.  That said, there’s always room for evolution and innovation, so use the “rules” as guidelines, then experiment and evolve.

Click on over to the article to read what the Real Experts say.

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