Posts Tagged ‘writing life’

Why Novelists Need Research

November 12, 2018

I still use my Encyclopaedia Britannica for quick research. Although I write science fiction, I want my human characters to be grounded in reality. Even my alien worlds and characters benefit from references to what we know (or think we know). Then an on-going project showed me just how valuable research is for novelists.

My husband and I are writing biographies of our families. Since just about everyone was a tinkerer or maker, he thought including a section on tools would be useful. Last week he started cataloging all the cameras we had inherited, and he decided to research each model. He wanted to know when it was produced (to narrow down when our family member might have bought it), how popular it was, what special features it had, anything that would help him understand why the camera was prized enough to make its way to us.

While doing this research, he remembered a narrow, pocket-size camera his father once owned. He discovered that it was marketed as a compact, convenient camera for families to use, but it was picked up by both the U.S. and Soviet spy community because it was easy to conceal and the optics were superb.

When I heard this story, I thought of building a story on the undiscovered spy in an otherwise normal family. Yes, the story has been told before, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use the plot, and now I have a tool – Ian’s camera – to use as a prompt.

That is the fun of research. You never know where it could lead you, what story it could inspire, or where that story could take you.

Me and my camera, a long time ago

Luck and wisdom!

Normal Life for Me and My Characters

November 5, 2018

I vacuumed for the first time since hurting my ankle. While not exactly an earth-shattering event, it was a milestone for me. Cleaning isn’t my favorite activity, but once I didn’t have the strength or stability to push around the vacuum cleaner I became obsessed with recovering enough to do so, to get back to a normal life.

That got me thinking about character development, and what my characters might latch onto when they feel out of their element. I can imagine my plucky, unconventional heroine looking forward to doing her laundry when she returns to Earth from her interstellar explorations. Her sidekick and potential boyfriend might think running an errand for his mother would mean he is really home. These scenes may never appear in the novel, but that’s okay. If I know that the character feels untethered because part of her past is no longer relevant (even a chore she always hated), it will help me understand how she might react in the scene. Building a character, like keeping house, is all about what happens when no one is looking.

Luck and wisdom!

Coincidence in Fact and Fiction

October 29, 2018

I went to see the doctor about my ankle (which is progressing as well as can be expected), and the universe handed me one of those coincidences that begs to be part of a story. The doctor I saw in the minor injury clinic was the same doctor who saw me seven years ago for a bad sprain of my other ankle. At that point, the clinic had only been open a month; now, the clinic will be consolidated with a another facility – in about a month.

Real life is full of these coincidences. Most of the time, they just make amusing stories. Fictional life is also full of coincidence, but requires the coincidence to have profound meaning. As soon as I left the clinic, I started wondering how I could turn these two chance appointments into something else. A thriller might cast the doctor as a sleeper spy, with the first meeting introducing the spy’s contact (the patient), and the second setting the story in motion. I write sci fi, so maybe I could have the doctor insert a device in the patient in the first meeting, and require the second meeting because the device is malfunctioning. What would your genre do with this coincidence?

My foot, SLOWLY healing

Luck and wisdom!

Autumn Prompt

October 22, 2018

My ankle is recovering, but I still like to keep it elevated as much as possible, which makes sitting at the computer or sewing machine a bit dicey. I am keeping up – sorta, kinda, maybe – with my novel and my quilting, but haven’t achieved any ground-breaking results. That’s why, for today’s writing blog, I present a prompt. This is a picture of my region’s autumn color. California really does have a fall leaf season, which usually lasts at least a couple of days between the last triple-digit heat wave and the onset of cold rain and sleet.

You can see a palm and pine through the branches of the tree in the foreground. I took this picture as inspiration for a quilt, but it can work a little harder as a prompt for a short story. Give it your best shot, and if it turns out to be poetry or very short fiction, feel free to post it in the comments section.

Luck and wisdom!

Our Story-Saturated World

October 15, 2018

We see stories every day. Movies, television, sometimes even advertising informs our potential readers. When there are so many stories floating in the air, how can we make our work stand out?

The short answer is write your best; the long answer is more complicated. Perhaps we start by losing our fear of the story that’s been told before. I’ve critiqued dozens of short stories and several novels. All of them had been told before. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the story in front of me.

When Ann Anastasio and I started on our first novel, Death By Chenille, we knew we would be following a familiar plot – unsuspecting heroines save the world from space aliens because they are the only ones who know about the invasion. Rather than worry about it, we reveled in it. We both love a good monster movie, and 1950s sci fi movies, so why not use the formula?

The essence of a good story is that it grabs the reader and propels her into another reality. She may recognize the thwarted love story, the unfair accusation plot point, even the journey of the villain-as-wounded-everyman. If the story is compelling (or even a little goofy), the reader will continue turning pages.

Luck and wisdom!

The Time of Gratitude

October 8, 2018

It’s week 3 of The Great Ankle Recovery. I’m still hobbling, still not driving, and holiday season is approaching. While Thanksgiving starts the holiday season for most people, many writers I know consider November 1 to be the kick-off date. That is the beginning of NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write at least 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ve never done it, but I’ve seen friends though the Time of Gratitude – and if you’ve completed NaNoWriMo you know what I mean. No matter how grudgingly, your friends and family had to give you the gift of time to write or you never would have achieved your goal. The same will be true in December, the King Kong of holiday months. If you get a chance to write, be grateful.

Were I a good motivational consultant, I would set out my list of “Seven simple things you can do to make time to write” or “Five sure-fire ways to get your family off your back” or even “Three words to ditch all your responsibilities so you can sit at the computer.” Good luck with that. There are no simple ways to create writing time, no sure-fire ways to get people to leave you alone, and no magic words to ditch responsibilities without massive consequences. If you can manage to edit a chapter between gift-buying and eggnog-slurping, be grateful.

My extended holiday wish for you, no matter what you celebrate, is confidence in your craft. Yes, your schedule will be disrupted this month. Yes, you may forget a few details about your plot or characters. Yes, those deadlines will be staring you in the face sooner than you would like. You are a writer. You will persevere. You will get back to work as soon and as often as you can. And when you do, be grateful.

Luck and wisdom!

The Nature of Language

October 1, 2018

I talk with my hands. Okay, as I’ve never mastered American Sign Language and don’t use my personal, private hand signals with any consistency it is more accurate to say I flail with my hands. No amount of magical thinking will ever give meaning to my movements.

These are not words

That begs the question of the nature of language, and how I can use it to add more depth to my characters. If I create a multi-lingual character, will he combine languages when he is stressed? If I create an extraterrestrial who speaks with colored light, will she spell words in the air when she learns English? My aliens in The Chenille Ultimatum use poetry for their prophetic messages – what would a species that speaks with dance use for prophecy, or stand-up comedy? Although my finger waves and wrist curls only make sense to me, in my writing they can speak with grace and eloquence.

Luck and wisdom!

Never Walk and Think At The Same Time

September 24, 2018

The mantra for hiking in treacherous territory is, “If you’re looking, don’t walk. If you’re walking, don’t look.” I never knew it applied to going down the stairs in my own house. Apparently it does. I was thinking of the next bit of cleaning I had to do, and missed the bottom step on the landing. My ankle took a beating, but at least nothing broke.

My ankle in an air cast

I resurrected another saved object – the air cast in the picture is one I used 30 years ago when I broke my ankle practicing a small leap for ballet class. That was embarrassing for so many reasons, not the least because I was taking my first ballet lessons as an adult. My mom never enrolled me as a child. She was afraid it would damage my feet. She was right. One of these days, I’m going to create a story around my dickey ankles and the many times they’ve rolled, collapsed, buckled, and otherwise betrayed me.

What you can make from dowels and stuff

Another story I have to write is about the magic rooms where we keep our collection of odd but useful stuff. As I tried to take a step after the fall on the stairs, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to put any weight on it at all that day. I casually mentioned to my husband that a cane would help. The light went on in his eyes, and within the hour he had made me the cane pictured above from scrap wood and a leftover furniture cup that he had in his workshop. I’m proud of being a pack rat, and someday will find a way to incorporate it in a story.

Luck and wisdom!

World-Building Through Cheese

September 17, 2018

Cheesehenge

The local paper ran an article about cheese not being the source of all evil for anyone worrying about cardiovascular issues. My inner cheese-hound yipped and yapped and chased its tail, because I adore cheese but there is a history of heart disease on both sides of the family. While rescuing my recipes for cheeseballs, cheese sauces, fondues, savory pastries, souffles, and quiches from the dusty corners of the cookbook shelf, I thought of how I’ve used food in my sci fi stories. Ann Anastasio and I have featured food in each book of the Chenille series. We’ve also made a subplot out of Earth foods that are similar to products on our imaginary planet, Schtatik. Reading the article about cheese reminded me of all the nutrition advice I’ve followed only to be told later that the studies were wrong, which illustrated a hole in my world-building. When I think of what my aliens might eat, I’ve always envisioned their diets as an ideal, or bound by ritual. I don’t think I’ve ever given my aliens a chance to cheat on their diets, or indulge in comfort food, or visit the junk food aisle in their groceries. I’ve never even considered what their groceries would look like. Ever. From now on, however, I’m going to spend a little time imagining what my aliens think they should eat as well as what they do eat, and why it matters. World-building through cheese – yeah, that’s a thing now.

Random Notes On Writing and Life

September 10, 2018

 

Sometimes finishing the book helps. I started reading The Art of Character by David Corbett, then got slowed down in the middle. The exercises are wonderful, but not exactly what I needed at the time. Continuing to read brought me to this passage: “As you launch your characters through the gauntlet of want and conflict, you will see this in your own life, suffer the scars, feel the tension of consequence like a wind humming through you. You will find yourself in your words, if you work honestly and deeply.” This is what I was getting at in last Monday’s blog, just not as eloquently.

Save stuff. I have saved this puzzle holder for years, even when it was obvious we would not be putting together another jigsaw puzzle ever. Guess what makes a perfect holder for antique maps that my husband inherited from his grandfather? Guess who feels incredibly vindicated?

Buy the good chocolate, then eat it. There really isn’t much more to add.