On writing

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.

As I go through the mystery-list, I see more entries I’d have liked to have responded to in real time, such as this recommendation from my friend MaryG:

Hat tip to K.d. McCrite:


As for the ‘writing,’ (I’m supposing that’s what you’d call it, although Researcher Who Won’t Stop is more like it), I discovered I put my people in the wrong place by about five kilometers (for me, the 5K make a difference).  Since I first settled on the location, I thought I’d got the borderline-in-question correct, but in looking at Google maps, I see I was off.    If I wasn’t writing slowly enough already (1/4 of  the first story and 2 short stories), finding out the people were on the wrong side of the ‘tracks’ was like a tree in the road — I could get around it, but it would take work.  Luckily, the Google map exercise reminded me of Google Earth, and I’m pretty sure my people are now in an appropriate place.

So, now to be like a brick, and stay on task, not get discouraged*, not be perfect but be OK with it, and stop wasting time.

* In Duchess of Death, I learned that Agatha Christie wrote a play in 6 weeks.

Marja McGraw guest-writes at the blog, Buried Under Books.  Maria’s topic is setting in novels, and how popular authors use this to their advantage.

  • Listen To Your Reader

    Interestingly, I’d just been on a panel at a conference where we discussed settings. The general consensus of the authors on the panel was that setting is paramount to the story in most cases. Readers want to feel like they’re the fly on the wall while they read, and that’s difficult to do if the setting isn’t described in the story.

Read more at the blog

In my writing, the situations of the characters I’ve come up with are all dependent on place.  The characters’ situations aren’t generic troubles that could happen anywhere, but are woven into the scenes of the crimes.  For me, setting is almost a character itself.

With luck (practice and patience), someday you’ll be able to see what I feel.

I finished the ‘nonfiction project’ (see previous entry), the month-plus typing work that reignited the weird feelings in my wrists that the doctor informed me is not carpal tunnel syndrome.  OK, it’s not a carpal tunnel problem, she’s the doctor and I’m not, but I’d like to know what I can do to minimize the problem, given my compulsion to type.

Buzzy wrists, aside, and with that real-life typing task finished, I’m looking forward to re-immersing myself in my fictional world.  It’s a journey for me to leave one world, enter another, and then go back.  Making these shifts isn’t immediate and I feel as if I’m moving from one country to another, sorting and packing the paraphernalia of the world I’m leaving, then reacquainting myself with the people, language, and culture of the world I’m reentering.  Making a blog entry here is one of the steps in making the change.

I’m stashing the link here so that I’ll know where to find it later.  It’s easier for me to click a category link and scroll through my online notetaking than it is for me to read through lists of “favorites” in my bookmarks.  Those link titles seem to run together.

  • Word count by genre, Jacqui Murray’s WordDreams…
    — cozy mysteries = 65k to 90k
    — mysteries, thrillers and crime fiction = A newer category of light paranormal mysteries and hobby mysteries clock in at about 75k to 90k. Historical mysteries and noir can be a bit shorter, at 80k to 100k. Most other mystery/thriller/crime fiction falls right around the 90k to 100k mark.

Those numbers are the ones that interest me most, but even if your number-concern is the same, click over to the link.  Jacqui Murray has information about other genres, as well as word counts of well-known and influential works.

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