Monday, September 30, 2013

Fabulous Fall!

I think fall is my favorite season... there's something about crisp mornings, warm days, and cool nights that seems to give me a burst of energy.  It seems odd that the time of year when everything is winding down is when I get my second wind.

First off, baking kicks into high gear.  This is understandable, since the summer time is way too hot here in New Mexico to have the oven running all day.  But in the fall, the kitchen doesn't heat up so much, and you have the added bonuses of the house smelling wonderful and the residual heat keeping you warm at night so you can postpone turning on the heaters or firing up the woodstove!

And just when it seems like I am busier than ever, baking cookies and breads to go in the freezer for the holidays, that's when my creative energy also kicks into overdrive.  Suddenly, I have more ideas for stories than I could have imagined even a few weeks ago!  This is when I start carrying a pocket notepad (for those of you who have read "End of the Road", now you know where Sheriff Rick Sutton got the habit of carrying a notepad!) for those sudden bursts of dialogue or story line that seem to pop into my head at the oddest times (like in the middle of decorating a cake!)

Look familiar?
I really don't know what it is about this time of year that inspires creativity.  Perhaps it's the riot of color that suddenly appears in the trees.  One day all you see is green, the next day there's red, gold, burgundy, orange, yellow all mixed in with the green and the sky takes on a shade of blue that is almost impossible to describe.  I always feel like a child who's been given a brand-new box of crayons (yeah, the 64-count with the built-in sharpener, of course!) and the whole world is a blank page, ready to be filled with words, pictures, scents, sounds, and flavors... most of which find their way into my stories.
The sight of changing leaves and the smell of wood fires and the sound of elk bugling and the taste of pumpkin bread fresh from the oven.... these are all things that combine to bring a story to life.  When I experience the kaleidoscope of elements that signal the changing of the seasons, my characters experience it, too.  And by extension, I hope my readers do as well!
So let me pull on a cozy sweater, cut a slice of that pumpkin bread, and brew a cup of pinon coffee and let me sit at the keyboard.  The year may be coming to a close, but stories are just getting started!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Where Do Your Story Ideas Come From?

To a writer, this is the equivalent of a child asking where babies come from.

Meaning we hate to be asked this in front of other people.

Unlike the question about where babies come from, we don't always know the answer to the question "Where do you get your story ideas?"  And no one will believe you if you tell them that the "Story Idea Stork" brought them to you. 

The fact is that there is no single answer to this question.  For some writers, finding story ideas is much like Columbus looking for the passage to India--it's out there somewhere, we just have to find it.  And, much like Columbus, we sometimes find something totally different and not at all what we were looking for... but it works.

Other writers are like prospectors.  There is story gold to be found, so we dig.  And dig.  And dig even deeper.  And if we're fortunate, we hit the Mother Lode of story ideas.  Or we might find a nugget or two.  Either way, we're left with a big pile of dirt and rocks and a huge hole.  And that nugget.

Then there are writers for whom story ideas are handed to them by well-meaning folks, much like potluck leftovers no one liked are given to a college student living alone and presumed to be starving to death--in other words, they'll take anything.  This usually happens to a writer who has had their first book or story published and people they barely know who not-so-secretly fantasize about having written a book are eager to share their ideas in hopes that the newly published writer is so desperate for ideas that they'll take it (thereby giving them credit in the book's acknowledgements... and thus being the only way they'll ever see their name in print.)

There are ideas everywhere and sometimes they buzz around our heads like gnats and sometimes they hide like our car keys when we're running late, but they're there.  Many times we have the same idea other writers have had, but rather than discard it because it's not original (there really aren't a whole lot of original ideas left anymore), we look at it and process it a different way and it becomes a completely different story. 

I've found that the best answer to the question "Where do you get your story ideas?" is quite the simply the easiest and most honest one: "They're everywhere!"

Proof that there are plenty ideas just waiting to be found!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Write What You Know, Not Everything You Know

I think it's the one of the most common pieces of advice given to writers--write what you know.

For some, this advice might bring their writing to a screeching halt.  They fear that their lack of knowledge of firearms, history, wine-making, cars, or whatever it is they want to include in their story will be glaringly evident and thus they lose the trust of their readers.  And while this is a concern that is justified, there is one even worse....

The writer who is so enamored of their knowledge that they have to share it. ALL of it.  Every detail. Whether it is relevant to the story or not.

I write murder mysteries and I claim no personal knowledge or experience in committing crimes (that's my story and I'm sticking to it!) nor investigating them.  However, since my characters include police officers, I have to have some passing knowledge of police procedures and weapons.  This includes firearms.  Now I have to confess, I know nothing of guns and have never handled one... until yesterday.

Yep, I finally did it!  A friend took us (Paul and me) out to his shooting range and let us handle some guns from his collection (including one owned by Capt. Joe Foss, a Marine who served in Guadalcanal during World War II and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor... had a few chills while holding THAT piece of history!)  He insisted that it was imperative for me to know something about what I was writing about... when a law enforcement officer or the bad guy drew a gun, I had to know exactly what that felt like. 

And now I know... and thanks to my friend's seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of firearms and their history, I also know more about guns that I'll ever need in the course of my writing career.

Does that mean that knowledge is wasted?  Not at all!  Of course, I was raised by a dad who insisted that it never hurts to learn something you don't need to know.  But now I can write with confidence that if a person who never handled a firearm suddenly grabs a .45 and fires it, they're not going to act like it's no more difficult than firing a water pistol... trust me, those .45s can KICK!

So while I will use the knowledge I gained to make my fiction more real, I will spare my readers the fascinating, albeit irrelevant, tidbits of history and trivia that I picked up in the course of an afternoon spent on a gun range... a place that, 25 years ago, I assure you I would have never dreamed of being, doing something I never dreamed of doing.  But that's the beauty of "write what you know"... it opens up a lot of possibilities to keep learning!

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Real Job

I took last weekend off from the blog for no reason other than the fact that I had an extremely full week of having fun.  That kind of admission would probably get me fired from any other job, but not from what my friend, Mike Orenduff, would call the REAL job.

I was interviewed by the Alamogordo Daily News on Saturday by a young journalist who confessed to being an aspiring novelist herself.  Naturally, I got the question all published novelists get asked:  What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?  And it's the answer all published novelists give: Write.

I don't know if she was disappointed by my response or not.  Perhaps she thought it's what we published novelists are supposed to tell young writers and that we keep the "real" secret of writing to ourselves.  Apparently, telling young writers that the secret to getting published is to keep writing sounds too much like work.

Well, the truth is this:  Writing IS work!

It doesn't matter if your writing is absolutely brilliant and awe-inspiring or if it's boring and clichéd.  Trust me, it's hard work to just get your words down on paper.  It's actually easier to take your boring and clichéd first draft and edit it to awe-inspiring brilliance.  It really is.  You have something to work with.  Staring at a blank page or screen is probably the most exciting and most terrifying thing a writer has to face.  The blank page has so much potential, but as Linus of the "Peanuts" comic strip once said, "There is no bigger burden than a great potential."  Carrying that blank page around can become quite a chore... a chore that you don't know how to do.  But put a few words down and suddenly, you have a focus of sorts.  You can see, even dimly, the direction you're supposed to take... or at the very least, a path.  Whether it leads to where you want to go, or it leads to another path that is actually the one you want to take, matters little.  You might be at a crossroads with no sign to give you direction, but you've made a decision, committed to a path and now you're on your way... even if you're not sure just where it is you're going.

The blank page is the crossroad and the first word you put down is the first step in any direction.  And once you get going, you must keep going.  Every day.  One word, one page at a time.  All roads lead somewhere but sitting in place gets you nowhere... except run over by the other writers/travelers who are following the road to its conclusion.

Nothing is more encouraging to a writer than to actually finish.  Whether it's a novel, short story, article, whatever, finishing it is what gives you the assurance that you CAN do the job, even if it requires a lot of editing, or even if it goes no where but to the circular file.  Finishing writing a manuscript was the biggest step I ever took on the road to becoming a published author.  I really have no idea where that manuscript is now and I probably wouldn't look at it if I did.  But I know I finished it and I knew I could do it again--only better the next time.  And the next.

But the hard truth is this: Writers write.  Every day.  It's what makes them a writer.  It's a lot like being a mother; you can't miss a day of caring for your children just because it's hard and you're not sure you're doing it right or if you have another job. It must be done, so you do it. 

For a writer, writing is the REAL job.