My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Writing in Strange Places

Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within was one of the first books I read about being a writer. I still have a copy on my desk, and it still influences my writing life. She wrote about writing in cafes, flotation tanks, and laundromats. I thought, if she could do that, I could write absolutely anywhere.

I’m not talking about writing in the requisite doctor’s offices, malls, and airports. Sooner or later, all writers write in those places. I’m talking about writing in places that were exotic, strange, or just plain idiotic.

Such as in a six-foot survival trench, carved in Yukon snow, in January, at minus thirty-five degrees.

Such as in abandoned tunnels running catacomb-like underneath a university campus.

Such as in the parking lot of a police station, fifteen minutes after a beat cop had been killed two blocks away. The killer was still in the neighborhood, and policemen, dressed in bullet-proof vests and carrying high-powered weapons, were pouring out the door.

Such as wandering through any open corridor I could find in a legislature building—the jurisdiction shall remain nameless—taking photographs and making notes in my journal about potential ways to enter or leave the building undetected. Just in case this blog is being monitored, this was in the 1980s, and I later destroyed every one of those photographs and notes.

The author, embarking on a non-writing flight.

The author, embarking on a non-writing flightThe author, embarking on a non-writing flight.

I admit that I did not write while flying in the open cockpit of a Stearman Kadet, but that was only because the pilot wouldn’t let me take anything with me on the flight. Even my button-down pockets had to be emptied.

Over time, I’ve changed and my writing changed. I still write a lot in cafes, sometimes in a journal and sometimes at a laptop. Where I’ve changed the most is not thinking of grabbing a pen right off when I find myself in an unusual situation. Now I’m more interested in taking mental notes, which I write down later.

It’s sad that the world has changed in so many ways. Having the audacity to write in truly strange places has either become either life-threatening, or is guaranteed to lead to long interviews with people who have absolutely no sense of the absurd. All that’s left when we find ourselves in a surrealistic situation is to observe carefully, take mental notes, and write it out once we’re back in a safe situation.

It just isn’t the same, somehow.

There are only two rules for keeping a journal: 1. Write everything. 2. Erase nothing. Writing begets writing. Keep the hand moving. ~Natalie Goldberg, writer and teacher

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: The Big Picture

We started a couple of weeks ago with the theme statement: a big umbrella intended to cover what the novel was about. This doesn’t mean that we have to plot or know our entire book, but we should have an idea about what large issue(s) the book addresses.

This week we’re staying with the big picture. Writing a novel is akin to going on a long journey. We need to know when we’re going, where we’re going, if anything (good or bad) is happening there, and what’s the weather like. A good map is always helpful.

 Where is this book in time?

  • What are the approximate dates during which our story takes place?
  • If we’re dealing with a concentrated time period, especially one tied to real dates, what are sunrises and sunsets for that time period? What was the weather like?

A novel can cover any length of time. It might be a multi-generational saga that follows four generations of a family through most of the twentieth century, or it might be a few hours at a lake cottage, when our protagonist decides on a major life change.

Whiskeyjack, the work in progress I’m using as examples for this blog series, takes place between Labor Day and Christmas 1977. Why 1977? Three reasons.

  • I need to link something in a character’s background to an event that happened thirty-five years earlier in World War II.
  • The late seventies were the cusp of a major change in the Canadian north. Electronic technology, like mobile phones, had the barest toehold in the north. It was not only possible, but likely, that remote communities relied on land lines and/or short-wave radio for communication. Both could be knocked out by weather conditions. I wanted to create the greatest sense of isolation and need for self-reliance possible.
  • I’d worked in the near north five years later, which was close enough that I could extrapolate backwards from my experiences to what the characters would experience.

 Why does weather matter?

Readers know. Readers remember. Some of them get highly ticked off if they know that the author hasn’t gotten it right. If you ever run into either woman who collectively write under the name of P. J. Parrish,  ask her about loons. These authors have a wonderful story about why it’s important to do research, proof-read carefully, and, if the worst happens, turn it into a funny story.

Knowing what the real conditions were is to give the author a choice. Anyone who wants to set a mystery in Calgary, Alberta in June, 2005 needs to know that there were torrential rains that month and that all the rivers in southern Alberta—including the Bow and the Elbow, which both flow through Calgary—were out of their banks. People were being evacuated, homes were flooded and a young woman taking a short cut home after working an evening shift attempted to cross a pedestrian bridges over the Bow River and was never seen again. Now, the author may not want to use any of this, and if she doesn’t, self-preservation dictates to at least mention it in the introduction, as in “Anyone in Calgary in June, 2005 will know that the city was in the middle of a flood that month. However, for the purposes of this book . . .” and so on.

We might get lucky. We might discover that that there is a solar, lunar, weather, or topographical anomaly we can use to our advantage. In another book, I wanted two of my characters to walk through a moon garden. That’s not a garden on the moon, but a garden of white flowers and plants, all of which reflect light and look beautiful spooky, especially under a full moon. Guess what? By happenstance, the date where this chapter fell turned out to be a full moon.

 Where to find weather data

For the United States, try the National Climatic Data Centre. It’s a bit of a complicated site, and they charge for some information, but it is the grandmother of all U.S. data.

For Canada, try Environment Canada Historical Data.

For a good general world-wide reference try

The U. S. Naval Oceanography Portal is helpful for both inside and outside the U.S. The data is in two parts, one for places in the United States, and one for places outside the United States. By entering the date desired, the name of a city, its longitude and latitude, and its time zone, you will get a list times related to the sun and moon on a given day. I don’t know how far back they go, but I’ve used dates in the 1970s with no problem at all.

 Where are we in space?

  • Where are the locations the story takes place?
  • Have we been there?
  • What kinds of maps can we get?

Some novels are about saving the universe, the galaxy, or the world. Others are about the banks of one creek, on one farm. What matters most is that we know the geography.

Obviously, it helps if we’ve been to the places we’re writing about, but sometimes that just isn’t practical. If the out-of-doors is important in our book—check out Julia Spenser-Fleming’s books  as examples of where topography becomes vital—try the U.S. The National Map. They have an on-line store for customers in the U. S. and will take mail, phone or fax orders from people living outside the U.S. Topo maps are wonderful things. They show you physical features, how much the altitude is changing and how fast, and, in sufficient high enough scale, will show you individual buildings. That deserted cabin at the head of the cove might be just the place for your heroine to be held captive.

We of course have all of the on-line maps now at out fingertips. Just so we keep in mind that they may not be perfectly accurate.

 How much will real life events intrude?

  • What real life events were happening in the world or in our location when the book takes place?
  • Will the characters ignore these events, mentioned them briefly, or do they form an essential part of the story?
  • What research, if any, needs to be done to get the details right as they relate to real life events?

Can we imagine anyone writing a story set in New York City on September 11, 2001, and not including the Twin Towers or in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963 and not including the Kennedy Assassination? Okay, maybe we could get away with both of these if the book took place early in the morning, before the events happened.

For Whiskeyjack, I’ve chosen to ignore outside events because I’m writing about a small town, in a very isolated part of Alberta, and part of the book’s theme is isolation. But I did at least check Wikkipedia for a summary of events during the last four months of 1977. Maybe I’ll mention Queen Elizabeth II opening the Canadian Parliament in the middle of October. It’s the kind of thing my characters would have heard on the radio.

For all of these details, if the Internet fail us, don’t forget that honored standby, research librarians. They are still out there and they’re wonderful at finding obscure facts. Many libraries charge a fee for this, but it’s tax deductible as as research expense.

I invite you join me here on Thursday for Writing in Strange Places.

Next Tuesday on Write the Novel, we’ll take a look at The Dreaded Back Story.

Writer's life

Level Thinking: The Joy of Writing

I learned to cook from my mother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, the 1946 edition, with the blue and white lattice cover.

Rombauer wrote the book to have a conversation about cooking, and to slay the drudgery of food preparation. In a time before fast foods, mixes, and a deli in every grocery store, she had a dream that women would find joy in preparing wholesome foods such as homemade butterscotch pudding, creamette dishes, or ham sandwich spread, or that they would confidently experiment with elaborate company food: chicken à la king, shrimp wiggle, oysters in grapefruit, and pastry snails.

Joy is a gorgeous word. It’s a toe-tapping, bottom-wiggling, dancing around the kitchen, waving a cooking spoon kind of word. Though having made homemade butterscotch pudding, I warn you not get too carried away with all that tapping, wiggling, and spoon waving, or you’ll end up with a scorched mess and golden brown splatters all over the walls.

There’s joy inherent in writing, too. There has to be. Even if, as Paul Bishop said, “Writers are the only people who can spend all day in their pajamas playing with imaginary friends,” without the occasional transcendent joyous moment we would all, one day, run shrieking from our word processors and require heavy sedation or at least large helpings of macaroni and industrial-strength cheese sauce.

There’s the sheer pleasure of character building, a God-like activity if there ever was one. You create a person out of a blank page and a few facts like birth date, hair color, and the line she will not cross. Except, even as you’re typing in that uncrossable line, you’re chuckling to yourself. From this moment forward, you are committed to drag your character—by whatever means you can find—to that line. When you get there, you will shove her over with all your strength, and rub your hands joyfully as you watch the fall out. She’s going to hate you for this. Fortunately, maybe the readers will love you.

Do you have a clue how hard it is to share the joy of a perfectly-crafted sentence? I mean, who really cares that you cooked up a sublime subject-verb-object combination and garnished it with the most perfect adjective and gerund? Can you explain to your significant other how good dialog feels like breakers rolling back and forth over a beach? Each succeeding line builds toward a climax that might just mimic sexual release. Well, okay, more like a bowl of homemade butterscotch pudding release.

Then there is that glorious moment you realize that the main plot and a sub-plot have just ricocheted off one another and are now careening in totally unexpected directions. So what if this blows holes in your carefully outlined last third of the book? There’s energy happening here that you never knew this book would have, so hang on tight and ride it out.

Joy keeps us going. We live in hope of those wonderful, bright moments when wordsmithing and plot crafting come together and we feel like dancing around and wiggling our bottoms, with or without spoon in hand.

Anyone remember creamettes? It was James T. Williams’ brand name for the first quick-cooking elbow macaroni, which he invented in 1912. Shrimp wiggle? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my mother’s cook book, but I think this was shrimp cooked in a white sauce, with green peas added. As for oysters in grapefruit, we just aren’t going to go there.

Tips, Writing

Write a Novel: Permissions and Copyright

Last week I mentioned two rules for writing:

Rule #1: what the publisher says goes.

Rule #2: most of us write a book without knowing who our publisher will be.

Here’s the next one:

Rule #3: when it comes to permissions and copyrights, there is a walloping big difference between what we, as writers, can do and what we should do.

Part of what we can do means what are we legally allowed to do? Can we use material created by another person? This may be as simple as using a brand name for a familiar product; setting our mystery in a real life business; quoting from written material, including songs and poems; using a clip from multi-media material; or using an image for a book cover.

Navigating the legal quagmire around copyrights is like seeing the universe with Dr. Who. It’s a four dimensional experience because both space (geography) and time are important factors. What’s legal in one place may be illegal in another. What was legal when we start writing a book may, several years later when we publish the book, be illegal.

The time to meet legal standards is after we’ve sold the book. We do not do ourselves a favor by relying on family, friends, or other writers for copyright advice. When we sell our book, what our publisher requires will be the final word. Assume, in the end, we will have to rewrite, track down permissions, or both. Won’t the publisher do those things for us? In many cases, no. Proving permission to use is devolving to the writer.

As artists we must work to express our inner imperatives and not just filling the form provided by the marketplace. Integrity comes from the root word integer, meaning whole, unfragmented by doubt or discomfort. A positive list [about our personal and professional values] goes a long way toward establishing a beachhead of integrity. ~Julia Cameron, Walking in This World

I fell in love with the phrase establishing a beachhead of integrity. A writing career means establishing a series of beachheads. It’s what each of us does when she makes the decision to turn pro. It’s what we do when we move to a new publisher, or establish ourselves in a new genre, or commit to a new way of publishing. It’s what we do when we decide how much of the real world, how much other people created we intend to use in our books.

My personal beachhead starts with if someone else wrote, drew, photographed, made, performed or in any other way had a hand in creating something, I have a responsibility to honor that creativity.

I believe all of these statements are false:

  • They got paid for it, so it’s out there to be used.
  • They won’t care if I use this.
  • If I include it in my work, it’s free publicity for them.
  • They probably won’t catch me.
  • It’s easier to apologize than to ask for permission.

10 take home tips for permissions and copyright

  1. Know what our beachhead of integrity is. Write it down. If we’re going to copy free-for-all, at least we need to be honest to ourselves. If we’re going to respect creativity, we need to know that about ourselves as well.
  2. Use the Style Sheet I wrote about last week to track all of the things we might be asked to provide a permission for in the future. This includes brand names, real places, businesses, events, quotes, song lyrics, in short, anything anyone else had a hand in creating.
  3. Check character names on the Internet to make sure we haven’t stumbled on the name of a well-known person.
  4. Write around whenever possible. Writing around means to convey information without using real life references.
    I stopped for a quick hamburger before my interview.
    A bubble-gum songs from my childhood was on the radio.
  5. When writing around, the most important thing is not the brand name. It’s our character’s emotional reaction to what’s happening.
    I stopped for a quick hamburger before my interview. Sad to say, I’d never outgrown comfort food.
    A bubble-gum song from my childhood was on the radio. I still hated it. I switched it off and faced facts. I was about to interview a woman who terrified me.
  6. As writers, we sometimes include friends’ or contest winners’ names for characters. Get that person’s written permission before doing this.
  7. Always make up a place, business, event, etc. if bad things happen there. It’s a good idea to make something up, even if only good things happen there.
  8. If we make up a place, business or event, check the Internet to make sure that company or event doesn’t really exist. This is especially important if we have inadvertently created a name that is very similar to a real one. For example having an event called Playthings-For-Preschoolers is probably too close to the charity event Toys-For-Tots.
  9. If the time comes when we have to obtain permission for song lyrics, contact a musical theatre company. They have to track down hundreds of music permissions and may know how to do this better than we do.
  10. Always assume a copyright exists. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it is copyright-free. Copyrights can be inherited by family members, foundations, and organizations A university owns the copyright to a particular edition of Shakespeare’s plays. If we used that edition as a reference, we’d need permission from the university. Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, owns the rights to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, even though Barrie died seventy-seven years ago. If we used a line from Peter Pan, we’d need permission from the hospital.

Hope to see you again on Thursday for Level Thinking, this week’s musing on the writing life.

Next Tuesday on Write a Novel: The Global View

My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: The Wobbles

Walt Wingfield, the Toronto stock broker turned farmer, is the hero of a series of plays by Dan Needles. He has problems with everything rural. The neighbors. The weather. The horses. The poultry, especially the poultry. When he phones the vet about a set of mysterious symptoms his ducks are exhibiting, the vet replies knowingly, “Looks like you’ve got yourself a case of the wobbles, Mr. Wingfield.”

Writers get the wobbles, too. There we are, clicking along, dialog flowing, sense of place established, texture developing, stakes rising nicely, and then, bamm . . . . In one cold, terrifying instant we stand on the edge of a frightening precipice, called The Book. Whatever possessed us to think we could write a book? A book is over 300 pages; 90,000 words; 550,000 individual key strokes, and that’s just for the first draft.

Never mind that we may have already written and published books. Never mind that we have more ideas waiting in the wings than we’ll use in this lifetime. Never mind that characters are our friends. Never mind that we have a deadline. Our writing muse has the wobbles and that’s that.

Wobbles aren’t the same thing as writer’s block. There’s nothing wrong with our creativity. We know the next thing our characters have to do. We know that with our rear ends planted firmly in chairs and fingers on the keyboard long enough, we can write that next thing. The problem is, we no longer want to be writers.

The problem is that we’ve suddenly decided that we don’t want to spend hours every day creating make-believe worlds and stressing our characters to the breaking point. We don’t want to fret over contracts, or become dyspeptic about reviews, or mull over marketing plans, or make the dozens of decisions a writer makes every week. Plain-and-simple, we’re fed up with being writers. The good news is, this is a temporary condition.

It’s important to treat the wobbles quickly. That’s why Walt has the vet on his speed dial. When our muses have the wobbles, comfort food is good. Sois instrumental music full of swelling arpeggios and grand climaxes; music like Wolfgang Korngold, Spanish flamenco, or Elliot Goldenthal’s sound track from the movie, Michael Collins. Or just walk, head out with no destination in mind and keep going until we’ve walked the wobbles away.

Colors and textures are a great help, too. Writers need to build an inspiration bulletin board, journal, slide show. or scrapbook where there are no words, only colors, shapes, relationships. It’s a great place to visit when we have the wobbles, and stimulating those non-language parts of our brain often helps to enable us to make friends with words again.

If you have a chance to see any of the Wingfield Farms plays, by all means do so. Ron Beattie, who plays Walt and all of the other characters, is superb. A writer can learn a lot about timing by watching him. Audio or video recordings are also available. I recommend the video versions because this is such a visual performance. Oh, and I wouldn’t bond too closely with the ducks, if I were you.

Tips, Writing

Write a Novel: The Big Four – Dedicate, Acknowledge, Style, and Glossary

The Big Four has a special meaning in Calgary. In 1912, meat packer Patrick Burns; ranchers George Lane and A. E. Cross; and brewery owner Archibald J. McLean founded what came to be called The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, The Calgary Stampede.

I have my own Big Four. Every book I write gets a dedication, acknowledgement page, and style sheet. Some of them get a glossary.

Dedication: Who inspired this book?
Most writers love doing this. It’s our chance to honor special people. Dedications aren’t hard. Some writers prefer the full-frontal approach: For Melissa Jones and Catherine Jones-Lockey, the best sisters a girl could have. Others prefer to be more cryptic: For MJ and CJL. You know why. Either way works.

Acknowledgment: Who contributed to this book?
The hard part here is making sure we don’t miss anyone. Keep in mind it may be a year or more from our initial research to the book going out into the world. Since most of my help comes through e-mails, I set up a folder for each book in my mail program. One of the sub-folders is Research.

When I exchange e-mails with people who are helping me with research, I move my sent message and their replies into this folder. If some of the research isn’t done on e-mail, I send myself an e-mail message, something like, “John Jones sent me photos I can definitely use for the house. His name goes in the acknowledgements.” Those e-mails go in the folder, too.

I set up one of these for each new work in progress.

I set up one of these for each new work in progress.

This folder serves two purposes. Every few months, I send the people in there a progress report. “Hi, John. You gave me photos of an old house. Just to let you know I’m deep into the book’s first draft. Your photos are so helpful in designing my protagonist house.” It’s a way to keep the buzz building while we write.

Months later, when the book is ready to go, I have a list of all the names to go into my acknowledgements. If I can, I also send anyone mentioned in the acknowledgements a signed copy of the book.

Style sheet : a guide to correctness
Editors and typesetters can’t read our mind. We must give them a guide that includes correct spelling of character and place names, abbreviations, special terms, correct spellings of foreign words, places where special font is used for a reason, and copyright information.

Rule #1: what the publisher says goes. Many publishers have a style sheet that covers how they want a manuscript to look. We might be allowed to argue for a special spelling for a special reason, but that’s it. The publisher says do it this way, we do it.

Rule #2: most of us write a book without knowing who our publisher will be. We stew over the right way to write. Books are often not helpful, especially if they were written as guidelines for non-fiction writers and/or journalists. Friends and other writers, bless them, have good intentions, but they may be stuck with grammar rules that were in vogue when they were in school, or they may have developed personal preferences, with the emphasis on personal.

Three ways to manage grammar

  • Find one or more reliable, on-line, current grammar references. In our style sheet, write the name of the reference(s) that we used in for this book.
  • If there are rules we’re not sure about, make a choice, write in our style sheet what that choice is, and be consistent in using it. “Final commas in a series. I think this is the Harvard comma. I choose to use the final comma.” At least this way, we know what choices we made.
  • Once we’ve sold the book, do a publisher’s format rewrite.

What belongs in our Style Sheet file?

All names used, characters or people mentioned, including any special use of names or nicknames. Minor characters may be mentioned just by first name.

  • Andrew Morrise
  • Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • Ash Morgan (also Ash Alexander, depending on if she is introducing herself using her maiden or married name)
  • Aunt Heddie
  • Dave

If there are non-English names, be very specific, about name order and spelling. (I did not use Vietnamese markings in person names.)

  • When Pat Teague refers to the baby, the name is spelled Ahn and then To Duc Ahn; when Pepper speaks of the baby it’s spelled Anne Duc To.(page 47)
  • Lam Trong Tri (he refers to himself as Mr. Lam)

Place Names

  • Asheville, North Carolina
  • Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Fairview

Vietnamese Place Names (I did not use Vietnamese markings in place names.)

  • Ban Me Thuot
  • Cu Chi
  • Da Nang
  • Viet Nam

Real businesses and organizations

  • Air America
  • Brevard College
  • Frontier Nursing Service
  • Grove Park Inn
  • Madison County Jail

Businesses and organizations created for this book

  • American-Vietnamese Businessmen’s Association
  • Ocmulgee Hotel

Because the book I’m using as an example had both civilian and military characters, I chose to have separate categories for each.

Civilian spellings and abbreviations

  • APGAR (all capitals, no periods) (page 97)
  • Baby Lift (both words capitalized)
  • NIMBY (all capitals, no periods) (page 236)

Military spellings and abbreviations

  • AK-47 (page 136)
  • APO (no periods) (page 68)
  • Camp Zama, Japan
  • Green Berets should be capitalized: Berets should be capitalized when referring to members or former members of Special Forces; berets should not be capitalized when referring to the head covering.

Vietnamese Words (spelling and punctuation checked by Vietnamese speaker; I used Vietnamese punctuations for Vietnamese words. I work on a Macintosh and found the instructions for inserting Vietnamese punctuation at

  • Cám ơn (thank you)
  • Đại tá (Colonel)
  • Một, Hai, Ba (one, two, three)

Places where special font is used for a reason

  • The information Pepper reads from the check (page 68) should be done in a font to represent a formal bank font. I used Bank Gothic, but any font that achieves a similar look may be used.

Copyright Information

  • The poem on page 157 is © Janet P. March. Copy of e-mail from the author giving me permission to quote it is included in this package.

Sound complicated? Here’s the easy way to do it. Set up a file called Style Sheet. If you use a writing program, such as Scrivener, you can put this file into the program. Some people like to update that file as they start a writing session; others like to do it at the end. My personal preference is to do it at the end.

The last thing I do before I shut down is to go through what I’ve written and identify any names, instructions, etc. that belong in the Style Sheet. I copy-and-paste all of them into a list at the end of what I’ve just written, and then copy-and-paste or cut-and-paste (your choice) into the Style Sheet. At this point, I don’t to do anything like organize them alphabetically or put them into categories. This is raw data collection time.

When the writing isn’t going well, or I’m bored, I pop into the Style Sheet file and do a little rearranging.

When I finish the first draft, I make the Style Sheet neat and tidy and print a copy, which I keep near the computer as I write subsequent drafts. I can add additional information in longhand and update the sheet from time-to-time. I’ve tried starting the Style Sheet at the end of a draft, and collect as I go, is so, so much easier.

The optional Glossary: What special vocabulary needs to be shared with the reader?
Most fiction books don’t need a glossary. Readers are either able to figure out the occasional unfamiliar word from context, or they look it up.

A glossary is a good idea if

  • there are a lot of foreign words or the book takes place in a different culture
  • our characters have unique occupations or interests with specialized vocabulary
  • we’ve created our own language for an alternative history or fantasy world

Much of a glossary can be generated from the Style Sheet. We’d already be putting most of these words in there anyway because they would be either special spellings or special instructions. Once the book is finished, we duplicate the Style Sheet file and edit it so that it becomes a Glossary, which is placed at the back of the book.

Take home message

Start these files when we start a book. Our hair will be a lot less gray by the book’s end if we do. If we’re already deep in a book, start now. It’s never too soon.

2014 February 12

Update: here’s a link to an article about copy editor Susan Bradanini Betz. Her favorite tool? A style sheet.

Drop by January 16 for a Level Thinking musing.

January 21st’s Writing the Novel blog will be about the tricky question of Permissions. What can and can’t/should and shouldn’t we use that was produced by other people?

Art, I made this

2014 Cartography Blog Hop

I come from a family  of map enthusiasts. My uncle collected antique river maps of New Orleans. My father loved old survey maps. I fell in love with maps when I opened my Girl Scout handbook to the page that taught me how to read one.  There is a good reason that one character in my mystery series fell in love with another character when he taught her compass and map reading.

Naturally, I  am a big fan of Jill K. Berry and her book Personal Geographies, which is about using maps as part of journaling and self-exploration. So I was thrilled when she called for people to participate in her Mapping 2014 Artfully Challenge. The idea was to draw a map that represents our hopes, aspirations, fears, plans, etc. for 2014. Monday to Friday of this week, 2014 January 13 to 17, is the blog  hop for people to see all of those artful maps.

Here’s mine

How I see the coming year

How I see the coming year

The week I started working on my map, I was playing  with Norse imagery and the The Vaksala Runestone, from Uppsala Sweden. This stone has a lot of intersecting circles on it. Intersecting circles and a Viking theme became the basis for my map. In the lower right corner is my ship, ready to set sail, but whose way is blocked by a big, pointy stone called Fear. My ship has to find a way around that, and even when she does, I’m not sure there aren’t other big, pointy rocks hidden under the water. There are some safe landing places: trust, patience, and practice, and one big unknown move, because it’s likely that my husband and I will make a big move, our first  in  sixteen years.

The five big destination isalnds are the things I hope guide me this year:

  • Passion because that’s what life is all about.
  • Movement or rather  stillness in movement, a Zen principal I’m trying to follow.
  • Moment, symbolized by the labrynth, which means being aware of and enjoying all moments.
  • Gratitude for all the things I have at this time in my life.
  • And finally, love.

Finally, because I’m a big Harry Potter fan, I’ve put a tiny golden snitch in the middle of the top because if I’m skillful enough to catch one, my team  wins.

For the people who like art details, the map was drawn on Aqvarelle Arches 140 pound cold pressed watercolor paper, with Micron pigma pens. It  has a Golden quinacridone gold under wash and was colored with Derwent Inktense water soluble pencils.

To see links where other map makers are posting this week, go to Jill’s Personal Geographies Blog.

Tips, Writing

Level Thinking: Neutral Tools

Today’s blog is a companion piece to the first in a series ofWriting a Novel blogs, which I posted on January 7th. Beginning a big, new project, like writing a novel, is a good time to look at our available tools.

I love good tools. Here are the tool rules at our house

  • Buy neutral tools.
  • Buy the best tools you can afford.
  • Learn to use tools properly.
  • Take care of tools.

A neutral tool is one that has many uses. Probably the most neutral for writers are a pen and a blank notebook. We can do any number of things with those two tools — brainstorm ideas, make notes, draw sketches and maps, plot a family tree, outline, write multiple drafts, edit, and so on. Can we write a novel with only a pen and blank notebook? Sure we can. I’ve done it.

Would I want to do it again? Not really, though I do have a fondness for returning to pen and ink to write the first draft of romantic scenes, violent scenes, and climaxes because in those kinds of scenes it helps me to think about each word before I write it.

A few years ago, if someone had told me that she had a non-writing software system — colored index cards, a 3-ring binder, or a jury-rigging Excel or Powerpoint program that worked for her, I would have said, fine, use, there’s no need to change. Today I’d suggest that she think about why that system works for her as a stepping stone to converting to a writing software program.

We think of writing software as a very specialized tool, but in fact, it is one of the most neutral tools writers can use. Think of writing programs as Swiss Army knives for the writer. I’ve written seven books using various software programs, and I’m a better writer for it.

Having said that, I also admit I have had hair-tearing days dealing with a variety of eccentricities. All writing software programs are eccentric in some way. The trick is to learn the eccentricities and develop clever end-runs around them.

As a Mac user, I tend to stick to programs created for the Mac. One big reason is that programs not created specifically for MacIntosh computers, may be striped down software, with infrequent updates. They quickly become more trouble than they are worth.

Here’s how I test drive writing software
I search for writing software, and ask friends what they use. After I’ve collected the names of three or four programs, I start by going to each software producer’s web site. How easy it is to navigate around the site? Is it a sales only site, or do they offer additional features, such as a newsletter, tip sheet, or tutorial?

I pay particular attention to Technical Support and Contact Us links. If I run into problems later, what kind of technical help is available? A list of Frequently Asked Questions or a forum where users help one another is not good technical support. I need to be able to contact a real, live person; I need to know upfront if there a charge for contacting to that other human being.

Next step is to download demos. If there’s no demo available, I’m out of there. Trying before buying is essential for writing software.

I spend a minimum of 10 to 30 hours per program before deciding which one to buy. The more time I spend with a demo, the more likely that the program I select will meet my needs.

Here’s the process I use to evaluate a demonstration copy.

I create a new character from scratch

  • Did the terms in the program match the terms I use or will I have to learn a new vocabulary?
  • Was the set-up for the character profile easy to use?
  • Did the process feel like filing out my income tax or did the character come alive for me as I filled in information?
  • Can I cross-check characters, such as looking at several character descriptions at once to see if too many of my characters are ending up with black hair and green eyes?
  • Do I like the printed format? If not, can I change it?

I plug in a character I’ve already created

  • Does the program import character information already recorded in other software or did I have to copy-and-paste or, horrors, have to retype it?
  • Did I learn anything new about my character by seeing the character profile in this new format?

I create a scene from scratch

  • How does the program record demographics—date, day, time, weather, moon phase, location—or whatever picky details I use to establish my framework for a scene?
  • How does the program track why this scene is important? Among the huge list of ways available to track a scene—goals, motivations, disasters, tension level, plot arc, hero’s journey, density, on and on—which ones does this program use? Are they the same ones I use and, if not, can I reconfigure the system to fit what I need?
  • How easy is it to number and/or name this scene, so I can find it again?
  • Can I link it other scenes in some way; for example, is there a way to find all the scenes in which Jarod appears or all the scenes related to the sub-plot of Marcie’s aunt?
  • Is there a way to track the tension or the story arc of the entire story?
  • How much time would I spend defining the parameters of the scene, versus writing the scene itself?

I spend time determining how easy it is to understand the program’s organization

  • How easy is it to make backups? How much space does each backup take?
  • Is there a spell-checker? A thesaurus?
  • Are there some kind of files such as family trees, maps, diagrams, photographs, audio and video recordings that this program can’t handle. In other words will I be keeping a lot or a little information somewhere else? In the heat of writing, leaving my writing program to look at a photo or check a map is a real drag.
  • Can I write scenes or chapters in the writing software program or do I need a separate word processing program? How smooth is information transfer between the writing software and my word processing program?
  • Can I change fonts? Use underline, bold, and italics? Use different colors to highlight material?
  • What’s the printing format like? Can I print single- and double-sided? Can I print part of a section or must I print the entire section each time? How graphic-intensive is the printing and how much ink will I use on photos, borders, etc.?

The final and most important questions are

  • Does the program do no harm to my writing?
  • Do I have a fun using it?

Do you use a writing software program?

What’s the most helpful thing it enables you to do?

What so-called helpful feature drives you absolutely batty?

Tips, Writing

Writing the Novel: The Theme Statement

Here we are, me included, standing on the precipice of starting a new novel. Before this adventure is over, I’ll write at least 300,000 words, and hope that between 90,000 and 95,000 will keepers. Looking at those numbers are enough to turn anyone off. How in the world does an average human being contemplate a task that big?

One small small step at a time, and that’s what this blog is all about. Each Tuesday for approximately a year, I’ll blog about one step in novel writing. I’ve used these same steps to write eight novels (five published, one looking for a publisher) and several novellas. Because I’m a mystery writer, my focus will be primarily on mysteries, but there’s good information here for writers in many different genres.

I hope the blogs turn into dialogs. I’d love to hear more about what you’re writing; what’s working for you; and what isn’t. I’d especially appreciate it if you’d send beginning writers to have a look at this blog, since working with new writers is one of my favorite things.

As writers, we have a standard list of why we read/write/enjoy mysteries. Justice is done. Crime does not pay. Murder will out. The world is put back into alignment through the actions and sacrifice of the hero/heroine. The bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the wrong that can be righted. These ideas are embedded in our culture, and I write from a European/North America cultural background. Writers from other backgrounds will turn out very different stories; justice may not always be done.

The majority of us also write personally-necessary stories. Each of us has a particular mix of stories and characters that won’t let us alone. They intrude during the day when we’re standing at the photocopier or doing dishes. They invade our dreams. They keep coming back until, in desperate self-defence, we have to put their stories on paper.

Image courtesy of Aduldey/

Image courtesy of Aduldey/

To shelter us, protect us, as we write this novel, we need an umbrella. That’s what a theme statement is. Theme emerges from issues. The protagonist confronts the theme; the antagonist is the theme’s touch point. Themes reflect a sense of both what we, as people, have in common and how we differ. At the beginning of the story, we may not know what our theme is, but it helps if we have at least a starter kit of an idea. Themes are big issues like justice, second chances, or self-forgiveness. They are not political or polemic; that is, we as writers aren’t trying to sway someone’s political or personal beliefs. Yes, some writers do this intentionally, but we’re talking about what sells; and that doesn’t. Great themes sell fiction; a too-obvious political agenda creates boring and polemic fiction.

Characteristics of theme statements
One or two sentences.
As broad an issue as possible. These are big, umbrella-like concerns, the kinds of things that heroes believe, because we’re all writing about heroes and heroines, aren’t we.
Should contain a conflict.

The book I’m about to start has the working title, Whiskeyjack. If you’re not familiar with these pesky birds, a whiskeyjack, also known as a Canada jay or gray jay, is a camp robber. They’ll not only steal food from a picnic table, but will dive and grab anything in your hand, as a friend of mine found out when she paused in a conversation with a sandwich held in the air.

Here’s my theme statement:
Whiskeyjack is about being careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

Is anyone willing to share the theme statement for their work in progress?

Theme Quote
I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author and aviator (1906-2001)

One final word. Some weeks what I blog about on Thursdays will related to the Tuesday writing a novel blog; some weeks it will be completely unrealated. This is one of those weeks where there is a connection. Come back on Thursday for “Neutral Tools: Assembling the Writers’ Tool Kit.” Nothing like a set of new tools to start a new project.

The novel-writing blog next week will be “Style Sheets and Glossaries.”

Big thanks to Lisa at WordPress for helping me sort out how to add comments. I’d turned off two check marks that I shouldn’t have turned off. This is such a learning curve.

My point of view, Writing

Level Thinking

I’ve had better holiday seasons. Lets skip over details by saying whatever annoyance that could happen did. No one died; no one had to go to the emergency room. We had no visits from the local constabulary or the haz-mat truck, but I am still so far behind right now.

I really dug myself into a hole by not getting done the things done that I’d planned for the week between Christmas and New Years.

The neat thing that happened is I had a wonderful insight, namely, that sentence I just wrote above is absolutely wrong.

For decades I’ve lived with the image of digging myself into holes. I think it has to do with the language. I dug myself into a hole. The longer I wait for the car to be repaired, the deeper the hole became. The more tedious the time passage from getting sick to feeling human again, the wider the hole became. Eventually, I was this little figure stuck at the bottom of an impressive hole.

I tried some new language. Every time another set-back happened, I said to myself, “It’s still a level playing field.”

Yes, I know the reality of the world all to well. Many things in life are not level. We’re all penalized for our age, gender, height, weight, education, skill level, color of skin or eyes or toenails, social graces, position in the pecking order, etc. Will we ever achieve a level playing field? Of course not, but that’s the great thing about being a creative person. If I say my mind is a level playing field, I can make it that way.

My level playing field is a wide-open meadow, with prairie skies above it as far as I can see. I can run as far as I want on that field. So when this morning finally arrived and the holidays were OVER FOR ANOTHER YEAR, I wasn’t struggling to crawl out of that deep hole. I was heading out across that meadow to see what I can find.

Here’s  how this site is going to work so far. I’ll be publishing  twice a week. Thursday’s blog, of which this is the first one, I’m actually going to call Level Thinking. It will be musings on being a writer of a certain age, an artist, and a person with many and varied interests.

The Tuesday entries will be called From Theme Statement to Archiving. I have a whole lot of writing bits that I’ve collected over the years, that I’d like to share and discuss with you. To give the material a hint of a framework, I’m starting next week, Tuesday, January 7th, with The Theme Statement. Does your novel  have one? Does it need one? How do you write one?

Eventually there will be some side bars here with books, artwork, links and other fun things. Probably be some guests dropping by from time to time.