Tag Archives: on writing

Chasing Dreams

Breakwater and fishing boat near the harbour o...
Breakwater and fishing boat near the harbour of Boscastle, Cornwall, UK (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d always wanted to write a novel. Who doesn’t, right? I’d written a few children’s stories done some illustrating for friends, done some professional illustrating and artwork. Okay. But I wanted to write something like a novel. And my favorite pass-time reading is murder mysteries.

The first time I determined to write a novel, I began to write. I hand wrote, filling a lot of composition spirals, did my research, hand-wrote more or less a plot. But I didn’t like it. It wasn’t good enough.

The morning after a bad dream I wrote it down. The story, I wrote in a logical beginning, middle and end which real dreams rarely have, turned into six neat pages. There was conflict. It was fairly interesting. I took it to my critique group at Houston Writer’s Guild and Tony told me “there’s way too much you’re not telling us. This needs to be a novel.”

Great, I thought, how do I start? I thought about it for a few days. The first chapter has to have an eye-opening, cut-to-the-quick scene. Do I open with the murder? Do I open with the victim confronting the killer? Do I open after the deed has been done? AND most importantly was this really a murder?  I wasn’t sure. It was bad but was it murder bad?

In early versions I opened with the deed done. In later versions this morphed into the killer confronting the victim. Then later, the victim’s point of view was included. And still later, the victim became not a dead girl but a kidnapped girl.

But the kidnapper was still a killer. His inaction was not weakness. One victim at a time, please.

Now the setting was a matter that needed serious thought. The terrain or setting is extremely important in any story. In this one there had to be a beach, a lot of fields, a storm of great magnitude, a cave, an ancient house with secret passages. Hmmm. Where could that be?

I’ve always. ALWAYS been a fan of British Murder Mysteries. I think because in the place of guts, gratuitous sex, and unnecessary language there is the best hook of all – suspense. Alfred Hitchcock hook ’em with shadows suspense. PLUS I happen to adhere to the school of “write what you LOVE” not “write what you know.” Because if you love something truly, you will know it through the research you will do to write it.

So naturally the setting had to be in Britain – but where? Should I choose my own ancestral home of Scotland? I’ve grandparents from both Glasgow or Edinburgh? Or can I manipulate my Texas-born heroine to consider the warmer climes of Cornwall?

The answer came after I viewed the mood-setting “Coming Home”, “Wuthering Heights (the newer one), and of course the best of all – “Rebecca” (the old one). Creepy stuff. Love it.

It took me a year to write the entire story, taking the chapters one at a time to critique group and writing and re-writing everything a ga-zillion times. I researched Cornwall and established friendships with an inspector with the London Metropolitan Police, a nurse in Devon, and the owners of the best little Bed and Breakfast in Cornwall (more on that later, if you want more info on that- ask). With lots of questions and making myself a real nuisance with queries about titles, and names, and the way things are pronounced. This was before all the flood of books on the subject which are now on the market.

It is amazing that a country so close to ours in culture and language is soooooo different! There are as many colloquial sayings, different accents and different cultures within England as we have here in America. It is an endless fascination for me.

In all this I researched the material I needed through the internet. A wondrous thing. This was before September 11, 2001 and the open government policies on police procedures and the available brochures from the Home Office were beneficial.

But I didn’t have a FEEl for the place still. I knew that in order for my novel to have any kind of honesty about it I needed to go to England. I needed to taste and smell the place. Something, thankfully the internet can’t provide yet. So I set my plans in motion.

My family didn’t have any desire to travel clear across the “great pond” to stare at grass in Cornwall. My neighbor Elizabeth was more than thrilled to accompany me.

Meanwhile, I invited the Met Inspector to lunch via email to pay him back for all the putting up with repeated questions and endless emails. He had also agreed to read the clumsy tome itself which was an added bonus for me.

Elizabeth and I set out for England. A grand adventure for both of us. She would see relatives she hadn’t seen in years and I would see … what? The place my forefather’s left. The place that had always been in my blood. Why I read and watched anything and everything English.  That was where I was going. I was going home.

The plane touched down and I looked out on a gray morning like all the gray English mornings in London I had ever read about. The drizzle inching down the plane windows and the cold hitting me as I disembarked. So unlike Houston. I was thrilled. My heart sang. Here it was … England, at last!

It was a week of amazement and wonder. The first thing Elizabeth and I did was visit her cousin whom she called “Auntie”. Auntie offered us kippers and eggs. I had never had kippers and eggs. I can truly say now that I won’t ever again have kippers and eggs. I happen to love smoked herring which is what kippers are. But our canned smoked herring is a far cry from the vacuum packaged smoked herring I had that morning. I got it down and it stayed, but I didn’t feel like eating the rest of that day.

My kind, generous, wonderful hosts at “The Old Rectory” Bed and Breakfast just outside Boscastle, Cornwall drove me everywhere. They wouldn’t ask but I offered money for their gas. I don’t think I gave them enough, I just have that sinking feeling, because petrol (gas) there is so much more there than it is here. It’s the VAT. Drat the VAT!

Back in London it was time to meet and take the inspector out to lunch. I didn’t realize it but he was nervous because before lunch he wanted to meet at a Starbucks. And he brought a colleague.  After all, it was an email friendship. I could have been anyone or anything!! We met. I passed because we had a great time. After a full lunch at “The American Cafe” he took me to meet his family and his wife served “high tea” which is usually served at about four but they were so nice to give me tea and finger sandwiches and desserts at ten at night.Thank you, Anne for serving high tea out-of-place.

That’s one thing I wasn’t used to. Here in America we tend to go to bed early. Maybe it is the old Ben Franklin early-to-bed-early-to-rise thing but in England they eat later and hit the hay later. So I think I got back to the London Bed and Breakfast around twelve. Elizabeth had been worried. We didn’t have cell phones back then. I apologize again, Elizabeth. It was thoughtless.

The next day it was time to go and I cried and I sobbed and I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay forever. I don’t know. Maybe because Elizabeth and I were so well-treated. We felt like stars at every turn. Maybe it was the Foot and Mouth that had kept all the other tourist away so that E and I were just about the only foreigners in Cornwall that week … I don’t know. It was a wonderful trip where words can’t quite convey how great it was.

I met a good friend Jamie on the train between London and Cornwall. (Hi Jamie, told you I’d include you here.) I met Sharon and found a soul-mate. I met lots of wonderful people who brought alive that England which I had stored up as a dream.

I got the book researched. Smells and tastes included.

It was a good place to go. There aren’t so many murders, really. That’s the point isn’t it? The quiet, peaceful village and then the piercing scream? Ha! It’s fiction. England is everything it was ever chalked up to be in all the books. I recommend it.

Years passed while I DIDN’T work on the novel because I wanted to write a children’s fantasy novel that had me intrigued. Then my father passed away and I couldn’t write or think of anything but trying to work out the logistics of getting my invalid mother to a safe environment. They lived out in the countryside.

When I went to rewrite the novel, it took a different course. It isn’t so much mystery as suspense now. So let’s see what happens soon with this.

Cheers.

About Language

Madeleine L'Engle
Madeleine L’Engle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Madeleine L’Engle wrote in Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art, that “We cannot Name or be Named without language. If our vocabulary dwindles to a few shopworn words, we are setting ourselves up for takeover by a dictator. When language becomes exhausted, our freedom dwindles – we cannot think; we do not recognize danger; injustice strikes us as no more than ‘the way things are’.”

My stints as long-term English high school substitute would last a semester at a time. I had been doing this since my own children began high school. When my youngest child graduated, and I was contemplating my return the following fall, and the other English department teachers were begging me please, I realized I couldn’t. I had to say enough was enough.

I had a hundred and fifty-six students. The majority were great. But my last class of the day got to me. Too many times the police would come for one or two and take them out in handcuffs, because they had been reported abusing drugs on campus or worse. I called them my “Welcome Back Kotter” class and they didn’t know what I was talking about. (Look it up!)

What struck me the most, I think, was their lack of language. These students grew up in affluent neighborhoods, had all they needed, never went hungry but when anger got the best of them they couldn’t come up with better adjectives than the over-used oldies everyone knows. These unacceptable words punctuated their every other sentence. It’s all they had for adjectives.

I even gave them lists of alternatives.

I handed my students tools on how to memorize grammar rules or spelling rules in order to get by with a wider range of vocabulary, but so many still couldn’t define the difference between an adverb or an adjective. I have to admit I didn’t like grammar in school either. So my attempts at making it fun fell short. Very few showed serious interest, which is normal for high-school kids. School being the waste of space between getting up and partying.

That was six years ago. Recently I saw one of the boys who was one of those removed from school. He delivered my pizza. He didn’t recognize me, and I didn’t set him straight. He was probably too high in class to be able to remember what I looked like.

I see signs in shops all over town with incorrect spelling and incorrect usage of apostrophes.

Men haircuts

We have best wing and shrimps

The English language is a morphing language. It changes. It grows. It is alive. Since educating the care-less teens is like pushing a barrow of bricks uphill. My hope is that we can better educate the adults who make signs to strive to be better. Because at least they are trying. I fully support Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson in the quest to change America’s typos. (The Great Typo Hunt) Good for them. While not quite walking on water, they are making waves.

One Question in The Beginning

English: Herman Melville in 1860.
English: Herman Melville in 1860. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The number one question the writer of fiction asks when beginning a new work is “What if?” It’s a good question. But what about the other questions your English teacher taught you? What about Who? When? Where? Why?

Of course those questions are the nexus to the main question asked when beginning a work of fiction, but I think asking “What if?” is the beginning. For example: What if the captain of a ship decided that the cause of all his troubles lay in one single fish (albeit a mammal in this case.) I think that was what Herman Melville must have wondered as he began Moby Dick. The who came next, “Call me Ismael”, the where was a given, the why is what the novel explores, but the when isn’t important. Why? Because the book addresses the universality of the human condition and the when becomes “now, any time, whenever”.

Another example: What if the writer asked what if there was woman who wasn’t too happy in her marriage to a missionary and they had several children and were roughing it in Africa when a civil war broke out? That might be how the author of Poisonwood Bible began or it might be the same question I would have if I were going to write about my grandparents who were missionaries in Africa.

Every person has a novel inside. Because every person has asked at one time or another the What if question about something. Just the other day I was reading a local story about the man executed for burning his children to death in a house fire. The investigation into that incident was revisited after the execution and is presently ongoing with his guilt called into question instead of his innocence. Not just his guilt but everything else about the fire is being re-investigated. My thought was “What if he was innocent? What if he confessed to protect someone else? What if the fire wasn’t even arson?” There’s a non-fiction novel in those questions.

Whenever I confess to someone that I’m a writer, I often get this response. “I have a great idea for a novel. When can we get together? You can write it for me.” I somehow get out of this by saying that I’ve got too many ideas for my own novels to get them all written in a lifetime. But,” I add, “I do know a ghostwriter who would love to write your novel. That’s how she makes a good living.” I don’t use those words but in a kinder, gentler way the meaning is there. Interest is lost and the subject is changed.

We begin at the beginning with the initial important question when writing fiction but I end this with the caveat that there are so many elements to writing nothing can be boiled down to this or that one thing.

Button

So, you know now who to call if YOU loose a bu...
So, you know now who to call if YOU loose a button 😉 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

It’s hard to stop and post something but I’m committed to writing something new every day. It isn’t hard to write something new, it’s hard to stop and sit down. My life is complicated. I don’t know anyone whose life is not complicated.

 

Having a place to park and post is fascinating, though. Throughout my day I’m tempted to jot notes about what I’m going to post, but I don’t because I think it would sound self-conscious, self-absorbed. My blog is about the writing life, not me, so I don’t think I’ll walk around making a note every time I have a sudden “light-bulb” moment. I’m certain everyone has those moments, and am equally certain mine aren’t so brilliant as all that.

 

I think it is important though to encourage other writers to “park it” and write. I’ve heard some conference speakers use the button analogy. They hold up a large button and say, “this is what I have at my computer. I means butt on chair.” Cute. But go for it, anyway. Just ten words a day amounts to a lot after a while. It doesn’t matter what words. Any words. Stupid words, ridiculous words. Who’s looking? After some time you could go back and look over your “words” and maybe combine, delete, refine. Pretty soon you’d have a nice bit of writing under your “belt”.  You could even write a book.

 

Button.

 

About Writing

English: Stephen King's House in Bangor, Maine
English: Stephen King’s House in Bangor, Maine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Actually, I should post something about what my blog is all about.

I write. Today my blog is about success with writing. Did I say success? What exactly is that? What success have I had? I’ve had a short story published. I’ve had poetry published. I’ve had newsletter articles, a small story published in a children’s magazine, my artwork published in small and large-scale venues.

However, I measure my success with whether or not my novels have been published or not and they have not been. So I do not consider myself a true success. And even if I have one published, will I be a success if the others are not? Every day I fight the voices real and imagined that harp at me. Why don’t you give up? Don’t worry about it, just stop writing. Give up. Give up. Give up.

No, it isn’t for me to give up. True writers must never give up. Look to those who have gone before, the success stories of writers. Were they successful when trying to publish their manuscripts at first? No. Sometimes it took many years and reams of rejections.

Jack London’s first story was rejected over 500 times.

Stephen King’s novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times, so he threw it in the trash.

27 publishers turned down Dr. Seuss’s first book.

Charles Schultz was turned down for a job by Walt Disney. Schultz later created Peanuts which is still syndicated and in most major newspapers in the USA are using repeats. Because he doesn’t draw them anymore. He’s dead.

So this I say to you who write. True writers must repeat daily that it isn’t the most talented of writers who have novels published. It is the most persistent.