Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Learn Something!

One of my favorite movies of all time is Camelot. My sister and I must have seen that movie 20 times in theaters back before VCRs made multiple viewings possible. Once we even stayed through all the showings and ended up walking at least 5 miles home because bus service had stopped at 10pm. It was a long movie!
Anyway, one of my favorite lines from that movie (and there were plenty - we can still recite the first few scenes) was when little Arthur asks Merlin what the best remedy is for feeling sad. My favorite line is Merlin’s answer:  “Learn something.”

I’ve always believed in that. It is one reason I love to research. Learning about the past or new worlds is great fun. But there is more than just ordinary research. To me learning also means going some place I’ve never been, seeing something I didn’t know was there. My father was a great believer in going down strange roads just to see what was at the end. We ended up at a lot of dead ends, but we also got to see some great places we wouldn’t have found if we hadn’t gone there.
As a writer I love to follow those unknown paths or roads just to see what you may discover along the way. My older brother recently moved to New Mexico and he spends every Sunday morning driving the roads around Santa Fe and then sending us pictures of what he discovers. He finds lots of new little towns and meets lots of new people.

When I take those strange roads, I always look at it as a way to research a book. I like to absorb the atmosphere and look for how I might write a scene set in that location. Sometimes it can get me into trouble.
Once when I was young and driving around in January I took a road off I-70 into the mountains just east of Fraser, Co. If you know that part of the country it is no place to be when you’re all alone in a Mustang, unfamiliar with the area, in the dead of winter. Add to that being on a strange winding road that goes from pavement to snow packed to gravel. When I got to the bottom of a particularly long hill, I decided I’d learned enough and tried to turn around on the snow packed road, I slid downhill and got stuck in a ditch.

Needless to say I had to walk out to the freeway, but it gave me plenty of time to think of a story. Unfortunately that story never sold, but I still use that technique. Show me a new place and I’m probably going to follow those strange roads and find something new and learn something new.

When I lived in Seattle, one of the first things I did was to take different ferries to the peninsula, to the San Juan Islands and over to British Columbia. As a result, I fell in love with the San Juan Islands and I've now set two stories there, including my gothic suspense novel that comes out next week, Shadows from the Past.



I am forever telling my family and my friends how much I enjoy travelling adventures like that, and I'm certain that soon I'll be driving down some unknown road and finding a new story!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Using the Writer's Eye... and Everything Else

Not long ago I ran across email from a writer who suggested using "the writer's eye" to view the world as one way to improve writing skills. The suggestion got me to thinking and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn't enough to simply use your eyes as a writer. A better way to phrase that idea would be to view the world through all of a writer's senses.

During my 35 years as a journalist, I always stood back and viewed a situation as facts, figures and how an event might impact people. As a fiction writer, I have learned to step into that world and see things from a much more personal angle. And yet, my training as a journalist has made the fiction writer in me much stronger because it has honed my ability to absorb and dissect what I’m seeing, hearing and sensing.
I look at the journalist’s role in me as being that of a tape recorder--taking things in and recording them as they occur. Then later, the writer might play them back, but in a much more rich and embellished way. Then I get to call in my emotions and look at how scenery, an event, even a conversation affects me personally and emotionally.

But I now also record everything at the exact moment. That means looking at everything around me, feeling the energy of the moment almost every day and taking in as much as possible, recording it as a journalist, but then playing it back as a writer, using all my senses at my own leisure. As such, I am making time to pause for a few minutes at various moments during normal days to reflect on the world around me.
I find myself watching the distinctive gray of a winter day, but I don't simply see the murky gray dawn, I make myself feel it—record it through my senses for use later in a book or short story—the chilliness that nips at the nose as I step outside on a frosty morning, the hint of rose tinged clouds that I see on the eastern horizon. I let myself absorb the cold, feel it in my fingertips, let the wind bite my cheeks. It might be just an ordinary day, but if I can take the time, just a few minutes to record everything about that moment in time, I can use it later from memory, just when I need it. What are my emotions? Do I feel more alive because of the biting chill, or do I want to just go back inside and hunker down in front of a fire place?

I find myself doing the same thing in a busy coffee shop—mentally recording everything around me using as many of my senses as possible to be used later: the hum of conversation, the scent of coffee and cinnamon; the strong taste of the coffee, the cold blast of winter every time the outer door opens, the sting on my hand when I spill my hot coffee. I watch the people around me in case I need to describe a gesture later or think about how to put life into an otherwise dull scene by describing the antics of a two year old rushing from one end of the coffee shop to another, making a number of people nearly spill their lattes before her mother grasps her hand and locks her into a stroller. There’s the student in the corner in a knit hat and bulky sweater, tapping frantically at a keyboard, while taking sips from their tall cup of coffee. I catch snatches of the conversation of a business man on his cell phone, setting up his day with someone already at work.
At a business meeting that is growing boring, I don’t simply tune out and think about what I should be doing. Instead, I begin thinking about how I would characterize the carefully dressed woman with the out-of-date hairdo in the third row, or looking out through the windows and thinking about how to visually express the scene outside. I even think about how to correctly describe the droning tone of the speaker. I listen for the cadence of the speaker’s voice, or the screechy voice of that character behind me when she asks a question.  

These are small examples of a normal day, but that’s part of the point. If you can apply your senses to wherever you are, even for a few moments, and if you either write up the scene later or recall as much as you can as an exercise, it’s going to sharpen your skills as a writer.

Absorbing the world around you on a regular basis can enliven your writing. I like to think of it as soaking up the ambience of wherever I am, and I’ve always made a practice of doing that any time I visit a new place or find myself in an unusual location or situation. But now I am working on doing it as part of my daily routine. 
If you’ve worked at sharpening your senses on a regular basis, then when you visit that mansion you want to use in your historical, or when you are personally caught in the middle of a scene you want to use later in book, you’re senses will be sharp and ready to react and you’ll be ready later when you put it all down in your book or short story.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Writing Race

Finishing a book is a great accomplishment and to me there is nothing quite like getting to that final page and then that final paragraph and those last few words. And then it’s done! Time for a big sigh of relief. But I always find myself feeling something else as well. Not just the sense of accomplishment, but a feeling of sublime exhaustion, like finishing a long, tough endurance race.
Writing a book can be like a race in many ways, a long distance race. You start out with a great sense of purpose, excitement, a drive to get ahead and to get off on the right foot. You’re excited, full of energy and driving forward at all costs. You have ideas, you have the thrill of that starting gun, that first blank page in front you and you’re off!
Since this is not a sprint, you eventually have to settle into a rhythm in your running or you’ll use all that energy and fall behind. The same is true for your writing. You need to fall into a rhythm, constantly driving forward with purpose. You can’t afford to slow down too much and your writing should be that way too. Every chapter should be your best, just as you would run a race, pacing yourself, but keeping every step, every page fresh.

And then you get to the middle, when your final goal is not in sight and you want to slow down, just get some air into your tired lungs and your legs are threatening to turn to lead. Sometimes your writing can feel that way too, like there is no end coming and you’re wandering around with no place to go. The story is growing stale, and you have no idea which way you are going. Will it ever end? But you keep on trudging along and you keep on writing until you make that final turn.
Now the end marker is in sight and you’re ready for that final push. You find you have enough stamina to get some unknown power into your tired body and thrust yourself forward. The climax of your story is looming and it gives you that final burst of energy to write with renewed passion until the words are flowing quickly and you find new strength you didn’t know you had and you’re sprinting toward the final goal.

And then it’s done. The final paragraph, the final sentence is writen, the finish line is crossed. You did it! You finished the book! You completed your race. You collapse in exhaustion and with the knowledge that you pulled through
That race is finished.

As you might have guessed I finished a book this week. It was actually a long hard edit, but it’s a great feeling, because I know that book is now written, edited, off to my agent. And I can relax.
Well, not too much. I have a sequel to work on....

How do you feel when you finish a book? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts.