Monday, April 25, 2016

A Day in the Life of a Writer (This One!)

Many people have a distorted and romantic image of writers... we sit around all day, staring out the window, dreaming up the latest plot twist, then burn the midnight oil in a frenzy of getting it all down on paper. Then we spend a few days working with either a kind, gentle-hearted editor who painstakingly leads us through line edits to make our prose shine like a diamond as we sip tea and nibble on scones... or else we spend weeks chained to our desks while an editor mercilessly whips us through changes in our storyline, characters, and details, thus driving us to the bottle. And I don't mean water.


Sorry to burst many a bubble, but many authors, myself included, have a very simple and quite boring life, complete with bills, laundry, dishes, and *gasp* a job! I don't mean THE job, meaning the writing. I mean a "wear a uniform and punch a clock" type of job.

Here's my typical day:

Up at 4 a.m. because I have to drive 30-minutes to work every day and I clock in at 7 a.m. and I need to have time to pack lunches, make breakfast, and look presentable before I venture out of the house. This requires copious amounts of coffee and a good attitude. Most days I just manage the coffee.

Once I arrive at work, I slip on my dark blue Walmart vest and hair net and step behind the bakery counter. I wish I could claim the next 8 hours pass in a euphoric state of creative expression as I whip out decorated cakes for special orders and to fill the showcase. Like Willy Wonka, life is a never-ending series of creating beautiful and delectable desserts.

Not even close.

Between checking in and putting up freight (in the freezer), stocking pre-made cakes, and (every cake decorator's favorite pastime) dealing with customers--some wonderful, many less so--in addition to the ever-exciting cleanup duty, there is little time for actually enjoying the creative process. It's a lot like writing.

I clock out at 4 p.m. and go to pick up my husband and return home--another 30-minute drive. Depending on the day of the week, we might have to get groceries (what can be more fun than walking around Walmart after an 8-hour shift with many other zombie-like people in the same frame of mind?), or stop to pick up bottled water (20 gallons a week for cooking and drinking... our well water is not the best tasting), or stop and pick up the mail at our rural post office. Then home to cook dinner, take care of household chores like laundry, dishes, and bills. On rare days (maybe once or twice a week) we sit down as a family after dinner to watch TV or a movie. The guys (husband and son) are more likely to veg in front of the TV for a couple of hours, but I usually get my "NCIS" fix and then head into my office to get some writing time in. If I'm lucky, I might get an hour, but I do have to get some sleep to start the cycle again the next day.

There are some variations. On Saturdays, I work an earlier shift, 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., because I either have to report to my part-time job at Noisy Water Winery (almost too much fun to be called a job!) or there are family obligations out-of-town, or--on really rare occasions--there are book-related events to attend. Sundays are my usual day off, which we start off with Mass at our local parish, then followed by family breakfast and then a day of catching up on chores, just relaxing, or *gasp* getting some writing time in.

In short, "the writing life", as it is often imagined, is far more fictional than anything I can come up with. One thing is clear, however: with so many responsibilities and duties demanding my attention, how am I able to write a mystery series as well?

Because I love it. That's all.

When two worlds collide, in a good way....

Monday, April 18, 2016

Just Keep Writing, Just Keep Writing....

I posted an original blog post about my biggest fan on the OTP blog yesterday (, so today I'm offering a "rerun" of a Back Deck Blog post from March of 2015.

It happens to almost every writer at some time or another. Despite the great ideas pinging around in your head, the impatience to get to the next scene, the excitement of getting another story down on paper, you hit a speed bump and you have no idea where to go next with your words.

If you look on the map, that's where I am right about now.

I'm in the early pages of my fourth book in my Black Horse Campground series and I know where the story is going; I know what's going to happen; I have the scenes all worked out in my head and even know what the dialogue is going to sound like... later on in the book. But I'm not so sure what's supposed to happen between where I am at the moment and where all the above is supposed to take place. And I admit, I'm stalled.

What to do? Well, as tempting as it may be to convince myself that shelving the project and starting a new one is the best thing to do, it's not going to make this road block go away. Neither is immersing myself in a non-stop "NCIS" marathon and eating copious amounts of Blue Bell Italian Cream Cake ice cream (I'll save that for when "NCIS" is cancelled.) So I am compelled to take the advice of one of the most endearing Disney characters in recent years (though if you knew her in real life, you'd probably run in the other direction when you saw her coming):

Substitute "writing" for "swimming"

I've found that what works best for me when I encounter a "block" is to write through it. Of course, the reality is that perhaps 90-100% of what I write during this time may be discarded once I find my true path and sometimes it's a struggle to sit down an do it every day... but the record has shown that, for me, the best thing to do is keep trudging ahead. Eventually, I see a path and then it leads me to the place I need to be. Then I can look back and see where I went wrong and go back and clearly mark the path so others (my readers) can follow where I've gone (I do, however, keep track of my meanderings; after all, they might not have been the path for THIS book, but they might mark the one for the next!)

While I might be the last person to boldly go forward past the sign that says "Road Closed", I've learned that when writing, it's always best to proceed, perhaps not with caution, but with a sense of adventure. You never know what you'll find around the next bend.

Monday, April 11, 2016

There's One in Every Family....

I've often said that characters in a work of fiction come to feel like family to the reader. This is even more true for an author who lives and breathes in these characters for months or years at a time. And for those of you with short memories, yes, I do write murder mysteries, but let's leave that aside for the moment.

In every family--indeed, any group of people like friends, co-workers, classmates--you have certain types that seem to have a place in the group. You can call them archetypes, or stock characters, but I call them, "that one in every family". I'm not necessarily talking about the main characters, commonly referred to as "the hero", "the heroine", "the villain", or "the sidekick", but more the secondary characters that add a lot of color and depth to the story. While I'm going to focus on my own Black Horse Campground series, look around the book you're currently reading (or the Thanksgiving table later this year) and see if you agree:

The Best Friend--I'm starting with this one because one of MY real-life best friends confessed that she couldn't stand my main character, Corrie's, best friend, Shelli:  

You know I really hate women like Shelli they remember everything and are always reminding you of all the stupid things you have done in your past!! lol they talk to much too.

And yet, they have always been there, haven't they? And their reminders of what happened in the past usually serve to remind our hero/ine that they made it through before and they can do it again! Besides, who else is the hero/ine going to talk to about the stuff they're not supposed to be talking about to the other characters?

The Busybody--In the old TV series, "Bewitched", Gladys Kravitz was the nosy lady across the street who was always peeking through her curtains to see what the neighbors were up to. In a murder mystery, what better character type to witness something they shouldn't and stir up trouble by gossiping about what they saw? And, if necessary, they make a convenient murder victim! Not to worry, BHC fans, I'm not planning to do away with Rosemary Westlake or Dana Myers... yet.

The Thorn in the Side--Not really an enemy, not really a villain, just a character that shows up, usually at the most inopportune time, to give the hero/ine a low-grade migraine just when they need to be on top of their game. It can be that kid from grade school that always made fun of you (think Nellie Olsen in the "Little House" book and TV series) or the ex that can't seem to let the past stay in the past (Meghan, Sheriff Rick Sutton's ex in my series). Again, they might make convenient murder victims (as has been suggested to me numerous times as a way to resolve the Rick-Corrie-J.D. triangle) but complications help build a better story.

The "Femme Fatale"--Okay, this one I play for laughs, mostly, in my Black Horse Campground series--Dee Dee Simpson is more Naomi from "Mama's Family" than she is Alexis Carrington of "Dynasty". She makes the men blush and the women roll their eyes, but she's really got a heart of gold and wants to help however she can. Some might call her "trashy" because she "wears her clothes too tight and her hair is dyed", to quote the song by Confederate Railroad, but Dee Dee doesn't see herself that way and her opinion is the only one that matters to her!

The Wise One--There's always one character every other one seems to be able to go to for advice or to find a sympathetic ear. In the TV series "NCIS", it could be "Ducky" Mallard or Mike Franks. In the Black Horse Campground series, it's Corrie's long-time friend and surrogate aunt, Jackie Page, who always has good advice, or Myra Kaydahzinne's grandmother, in "No Vacancy", who conveys important information and gives the main character encouragement in dark times.

There are many, many others that I could enumerate, but these are the ones who seem to appear in almost every storyline, whether a book, movie, or television show... and, of course, in real life.

Family... ya gotta love 'em!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Growing Pains and Character Development

When I first started thinking about becoming a mystery writer, I discovered that there are two different types of mysteries... those that are plot-driven and those that are character-driven. In the plot-driven mystery, it's the puzzle, the "whodunit", that drives the story. The characters, while engaging, are merely along to solve the puzzle. Agatha Christie mysteries are the archetype of a plot-driven story: Poirot and Miss Marple don't change much from one book to the next, no matter what kind of mystery they investigate or what happens to them.

I prefer character-driven mysteries. In a character-driven mystery, the story and mystery grow out of the characters and their lives. And the way the story unwinds and the mystery is investigated and solved depends a lot on the characters and how they deal with any kind of event in their lives.

I'm a huge fan of mystery series, which is one of the reasons why I decided to write one. Another reason is that I love to watch characters grow and develop. Whenever I finish a "stand-alone" book, I always find myself wondering what happened to the characters after the events in the book ended. DID they live happily ever after? How did they deal with other changes in their lives? Were there other adventures we would like to hear about?

The first book in a series is like the pilot of a long-running TV show. About the only show I watch regularly is "NCIS". After eleven years on the air with basically the same cast members and characters, one would think that I would have gotten bored. What keeps me engaged with any characters in a series, whether on TV or in books? Watching them grow and develop as time goes on.

I've never met a parent who ever claimed that watching their child or their children grow was boring. Nail-biting, sleepless-night-inducing, tears-of-joy-producing, and never a dull moment for sure! If an author writes his or her characters correctly, it should be the same as watching a child grow.

A character starts out with the basics--name, appearance, profession, and personality, maybe a little backstory to keep him or her from being completely faceless. As time goes on, the readers--and the author!--learn more about the character and this can lead to new plot lines and new growth which leads to... you get the idea.

It's rare that a real-life person remains static and unchanging. People are affected by events in their lives and the other people they come in contact with. And they change. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but there is always a change of some kind, even if it's just in their perceptions, if not in their outward appearance and actions. The same is true for characters. In order to keep readers engaged, I think it's important for the author to keep their characters as real as possible. This means allowing them to change and grow. Some authors fear that changing their characters will result in readers losing interest in the series. As in any kind of relationship, there is always that type of risk with any kind of change. But one piece of advice I received early in my writing career was this: the only characters that should not change are dead ones.

In my Black Horse Campground series, there are several changes that occur in the lives of my three main characters, Corrie, Rick, and J.D. They all react to change differently and it affects them all in different ways. It is my hope that readers will enjoy watching them grow and change as life marches on, as it does with all of us.