Posts Tagged ‘writing life’

A Turning Point That Wasn’t

October 16, 2019

Last year at a memoir-writing workshop I wrote an outline of turning points in my life. This past week I was reminded of a career path I didn’t take and how grateful I am for that. When I graduated from college, I considered applying to the State Department. My father – a long-time civil servant – sorta kinda maybe talked me out of it. I found a different job, didn’t like it, moved to another city, married, moved across country, and discovered quilting. The brilliant career I dreamed of never materialized, but I’ve made art, contributed to my community, and even co-authored a series of sci fi novels (shameless self-promotion, you can buy the latest one here). Not too shabby, all things considered.

Whenever I wonder about the life I might have had, I remember 1979 and the hostage crisis in Tehran. Bruce Laingen (pictured above) was stationed there, the highest-ranking diplomat among the 52 U.S. Embassy workers held in Iran for 444 days. He was also a graduate of my alma mater, Saint Olaf College. In my imagination, I could see myself getting sent to Iran for my first posting, maybe even meeting Laingen at an embassy function and mentioning that I too was an Ole grad. Then the revolution would come, and I would be running for my life. That’s when I breathe a prayer of thankfulness for my (relatively) calm and peaceful existence.

Laingen died recently at age 96. He grew up on a Minnesota farm, interrupted his education to serve his country in World War II, then returned to complete his degree before continuing his service in government. The Iranian hostage crisis brought him to the world’s attention, and he responded with dignity, calm, and presence. He earned every bit of respect due him. I am very grateful to Laingen for showing America at its best.

Luck and wisdom!

Just Be

October 7, 2019

I volunteered to work a two-day fundraiser. I left my phone in my purse, didn’t bring a book, and brought a notepad that really was meant for short notes related to the event. “Self,” I said, “just be there. Your other obligations can wait.”

Turns out I gave myself good advice. The other volunteers also decided to focus on the event, so when we did have a lull we actually talked to each other. Given that we were all writers, a few ideas that could lead to short stories popped up (which I dutifully wrote down in the ledger notebook – I know better than to trust I’ll remember good ideas!). That was an extra gift. The real benefit was in being present, paying attention, and slowing down. Give yourself that gift this week if you can, and if not now later in the month. You’re worth the time.

Luck and wisdom!

The Red Toothbrush

September 30, 2019

I try to use color to subtly inform the reader. When I describe what my characters are wearing, I want the reader to instinctively appreciate their moods, backgrounds, and self-images by the colors the characters put on their bodies. Then I bought a red toothbrush and realized I am missing a splendid opportunity.

If you look at my fabric stash, you’ll see lots of pinks, purples, blues, yellows, and greens. If you look in my closet, you’ll see lots of purples, blues, and greens. If you look at my dishes and pottery, you’ll see lots of blues. One could be forgiven for thinking I am a spring and floral kind of gal, with a calm, soft personality.

That’s not how I see myself.

While I love all colors (yes, even orange), if I have a chance to buy a red accessory I’m all over it. I have red purses and tote bags, red shoes, a red wallet, red pens (both red in ink and red in case), and a red pouch to hold cough drops in my red purse. I even have a red hat.

Having realized that I could expand my descriptions, now I have to decide which of my characters will have a revelation while brushing his or her teeth, and what color that toothbrush will be.

Luck and wisdom!

Spelling, The Writer’s Obstacle Course

September 23, 2019

My toys

Spelling usually isn’t an issue for me, but lately I’ve been seeing more of those little red squiggly lines under words in my text documents. At first I blamed spellcheck. For reasons I still can’t understand, it was set to British spelling for a long time. Once I switched that over, I noticed I was having trouble with which compound words could be hyphenated, which should be, and which could go either way. This may be a problem I throw money at by hiring a top-notch proofreader (or at least as top-notch as I can afford).

This has started to take a toll on my confidence. For instance, I was thinking of the word kaleidoscope, and decided to type it on the screen. Sure enough, my first attempt failed (I used two e’s instead of two o’s). I’m not quite to the point that I’ll be giving myself spelling tests, but I may be spending a little more time with the dictionary.

The reward for getting a kaleidoscope (and spelling it properly)

Luck and wisdom!

Where The Stories Are

September 16, 2019

I’m reading The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean. The book is about the creation of the atomic bomb, and the efforts by each side in World War II to stop the other from getting there first. I’ve read some of that history from the Allied side, but not so much from the Nazi side. Kean is an engaging writer, and gives the reader a wonderful grounding in the people involved in the events. He starts his book with a character I first read about in a short story by Rick Wilber in Asimov’s Science Fiction. Moe Berg was a baseball player, polyglot, and spy. Wilber used him in several alternate history short stories (he now has a book, The Moe Berg Episodes).

I vaguely remembered that Berg was a real person whose history inspired Wilber, which I can understand now that I’ve read Kean’s book. It reinforces the advice I’ve read (and give!) that stories are everywhere. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, life will bring you treasures if you take the time to look. Little known characters from history can make fabulous protagonists; snatches of overheard conversation can give you the opening line to a new short story; the kerfuffle in the supermarket check-out line can be the springboard for the plot of a 3-volume novel. Keep your eyes and ears open, because the stories are out there, waiting for you.

Luck and wisdom!

Pain and Plot

September 9, 2019

I come from a family that is blessed with unusual health. My mother has never had a backache or a headache, rarely catches cold, and manages what few aches or pains she might experience with a brisk walk and a wry joke. I’m not quite that lucky, but still the gods have been kind to me. The downside of my good fortune is I can be completely oblivious to how pain can debilitate a person, how chronic illness can upend a schedule, how managing medication can consume one’s time. I mention this because what a character doesn’t experience can become a plot point. What if your character insists on driving 400 miles straight through, never realizing that at the end of the trip his shy companion with the bad back will be bedridden for days? What if your character who routinely shrugs off colds neglects to ask if the cancer patient she is interviewing can tolerate another medical stress? Don’t forget the opportunity for character development if your heretofore healthy protagonist suddenly develops shingles.

Luck and wisdom!


September 2, 2019

I understand there’s a statue to Benedict Arnold in London, where he’s considered a patriot instead of a traitor. That got me thinking about perception, and that got me thinking about words. I’m amazed (sometimes delighted) to see how they change over the years. Watch any older sci fi movie and notice how fantastic means bizarre, outlandish, unbelievable. Read news reports from any time of social upheaval and observe which notions that are now mainstream were considered radical then. All of which leads me to my shelf of dictionaries, thesauruses, and other word collections. Usually I grab at them in desperation, then forget them until the next time the words won’t come (or worse yet, the wrong words come in abundance). This is not the respect these treasures deserve. Today is Labor Day, so let us spare a kind thought for the hard-working words we love so much.

Luck and wisdom!

Character Development and Catastrophic Failure

August 26, 2019

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs, all about dictators, got me thinking about catastrophic failure and character development. Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent when the USSR fell, and the existential shock shaped his career. Although he could not save his country then, he has spent the last decades trying to reverse that loss. I started thinking about how – if – I could create a character who by force of will forms the world she wants, and what that world might look like.

Most of the examples history provides don’t turn out well for humanity. Writing science fiction allows me to explore characters who do incredible things. Studying history shows me that the incredible really isn’t so hard to accomplish if you are willing to shed enough of other people’s blood.

Perhaps I won’t take the challenge to write about someone determined to remake the world. The headlines are scary enough, and I’m not convinced the reading public needs another dystopian novel.

Luck and wisdom!

Overcoming Avoidance – Part One, Writing

August 12, 2019

I need a patron saint for procrastinators. My gargoyle of “get going, girl!” hasn’t been doing the job. Oh, I’m getting some things done (note that this blog is posted), but I’m not getting enough done. Perhaps I can’t really call my problem procrastination. If I had an idea where my characters were taking me I’d be writing those scenes, and if I had decided where I wanted to take them I’d have finished the book. There’s a great scene in an episode of Babylon Five where Zathrus says, “Cannot say. Knowing, would say. Do not know, so cannot say.” That pretty much sums up my writing these days. I’m open to suggestions for overcoming avoidance. In the meantime, I will meditate on journeys and hope my characters speak up about the ones they want to take.

Luck and wisdom!

A Sense of Place

August 5, 2019

I write fiction, therefore I must create a sense of place for my readers. This is harder than it sounds, especially since my own sense of place is tenuous at best. I moved around a lot in my youth, and came to accept “home” as wherever I happened to be at the moment. Usually I leave most of the setting to the reader’s imagination. The few descriptions I include are more for my benefit, to keep clear in my own mind where my characters are. Then I picked up St. Petersburg by Solomon Volkov, and recognized the depth of my failing. From the very first page, Volkov throws the reader into the heart of the city – then the kidney, then the spleen, then that weird little place in the elbow that kicks up a ruckus whenever the weather changes. Volkov cites diarists and novelists to show how the city molded perception.

I realized that I had been ignoring the effect of my location on my own perception, and my writing. Yes, St. Petersburg is in a harsh environment and I live in lovely California; yes, St. Petersburg has seen war and revolution while my own town has been an oasis of safety; yes, St. Petersburg has been peopled with oversize egos and extraordinary will while I am surrounded by – well, let’s not go there. The point is, where your characters live influences who they are. I don’t have to describe every river in the valley if I understand how living near water has shaped the worldview of my protagonist, or living between two highways has molded my villain. I still may not ground my stories in a specific place as well as my readers might like, but my goal from now on will be to create an understanding of what being here as opposed to there means to my characters.

Luck and wisdom!