I’ve been inspired to write mysteries every time I visit Galena, Illinois. It’s not just the mid-19th century rebuilding of an early-19th century town that fascinates me. It’s also the roads I take to get there — the rolling hills and steep gullies always make the drive new to me. I love getting to Stockton and seeing the land dip and open on the west side of town. And then arriving in Elizabeth, with another surprise vista and a curve that — for a brief moment — reminds me of the hazards early settlers faced. And in that, I include the earliest settlers, the nomadic early Americans who followed buffalo, built burial mounds and peopled the region long before my European ancestors even knew the place existed.
I have also been inspired by the vast, flat black soil around the Illinois town where I grew up. Fields that grew corn, peas, asparagus and pumpkins surrounded my home town, a kind of cocoon holding us all together. And those miles of even landscape led me to believe — naively, I know now — that people were also level, the same, with the same opportunities and resources.
The land makes a difference.
For another perspective, take a look at this old post from Writing Rural.
Can it really be that I haven’t posted anything since November?
I had a goal to post things once a week, and then twice a month, and now we’re into a whole new year.
But I’m a couple of days into a Guppy class on revising a novel and I suspect I’ll be diving under again this month. So I wanted to share a few things before I disappear.
First, I want to mention that I’m a little nervous about my first real foray into revision. For several years, I’ve cranked out a rough first draft of a novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. But my workload and other obligations kept me from doing anything to improve those novels.
Oh, I have actually changed a few words, here and there. I’ve certainly let the novels sit in my mind and stew. I’ve made some notes about what I want to change. I even printed one of them out and started going over it. But it is literally sitting on a shelf in a storage cabinet right now.
Until now, though, I’ve never really devoted myself to going through and systematically rewriting what I finished in any given November. That’s what I hope to do with the help of the class this month.
The first homework assignment was to do a complete read-through of the story we want to revise. I stopped writing it last October, knowing I had some problems to fix. But I moved on to a new first draft. I planned to go back to the October draft in December, but I wasn’t sure how to start. Then a friend told me about the Guppy class and I decided to sign-up and wait for it.
Turns out letting this one sit for three-months was about right. I saw it with pretty fresh eyes when I started reading it last weekend. Fresh enough eyes that a scene I added late in the first draft felt so awkward and forced that I have completely changed my mind about who one of the characters in the scene really is.
I’ve also had it in my head that I needed to write an alternate ending. It’s been popping into my head off and on these last few months. Turns out, I actually wrote it last fall. Well, I wrote a new climax for the book, not a full new ending. I managed to add most of the ending yesterday, after I finished the class homework on POV. (And that — another story — led the instructor to suggest I needed to add more interior dialogue. Not a gap I had seen.)
I debated for a bit about whether to write anything new until we got further into the class. Then I figured since the new ending is technically still in the first draft, I owed it to my self to get it down. After all, you can’t rewrite what you haven’t already written.
The only other thing I’ve done so far is eliminate a character by combining her with another. At this point, it was just making a global name change. But if my plans for this bunch of characters work out, she’ll show up in the next book.
I’ve been able to write every day, and for long stretches on many of them. I passed 51,000 words yesterday. I am so excited. This story has been writing itself. It’s not done yet, but now I feel like I can sit back and relax for the rest of the month. I should be able to get the actual full draft finished by then.
I’ve joined a couple of new groups dedicated to National Novel Writing Month. And I’m learning that NaNo may be most useful to people who don’t already have a good, regular writing practice. Up until recently, I’ve written when it fit into the rest of my schedule. I considered NaNo a gift to myself, a time when I could steal a couple of hours on many days, and really bank words on weekends.
I guess NaNo plus “semi-retirement” make a good combination for me.
Last Monday I kicked off NaNoWriMo with a big day and I’ve been riding the wave of a couple of thousand banked words since then. With an extra hour on my clock today, I hope to move a little further ahead.
I’ve been learning some things about my main character and her friends in the past week. It’s the first draft of the second novel in a series I have planned. I just finished the first draft of the first book at the end of October, so I’m not dreaming up new characters — well, some are new; victims and suspects, mostly — or a new environment for them to live in.
Restraining myself from going back to make changes in the first novel has been one of my biggest battles. I did allow myself to make minor changes — the name of one character is different now, so I let myself do a global replace a couple of days ago. But otherwise, I’ve been making notes.
So far, I haven’t had to bring in the ninjas — a suggestions from some of my long-time NaNo friends about what to do when you get stuck. I know I have to raise the stakes for the main characters as the book goes along, but I don’t think ninjas really fit into my plot.
I’ve also got a rough idea of where I’m going. As I turn more and more into a “plantser,” I find a tendency to figure out what I need and make a Scrivener notecard for it, then go back to what I was doing. I still start out knowing very little. I like to keep things surprising — even to me.
Instead, I’ve been focusing on deepening my understanding of my characters’ back stories. I have a feeling I’ll be doing a bit of that today. I tend to put that in files that aren’t part of the novel, so I don’t usually include that in my word count. It’s legit, but they won’t be part of the final draft anyway, so why put them there now? We’ll see where I am come Nov. 30.
I hope you’re having a good NaNo! And remember, use all the words.
For the last several years, Halloween has been the day before National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) to me.
I am pretty excited about finishing the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on this year. It was an outgrowth of my 2020 NaNo project, and I didn’t spend a lot of regular time on it until September. Since then, I’ve had pretty regular writing sessions on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays. For November (NaNo month), I plan to put in some time every day of the month.
But I did want to pass on a few of the gems from the presenters at Write On Door County’s first mystery writing conference. The ideas weren’t new to me, but the reminders were just what I needed. Maybe you need them, too.
Everyone has a a different writing process
The first panel with the authors who led opening day workshops made that pretty clear. All were published authors, some of many novels, some of few. Some were plotters and some were pantsers. A couple admitted to being plantsers — those who start out with a vague idea, but make plans as they get into the story.
For the first few years I’ve done NaNo, I’ve been firmly in the panster camp, but I’m leaning toward plantser. I finished the first draft of my work in progress because I started figuring out which scenes I still needed to make the novel work. I didn’t write them from start to finish, but I made notes and wrote them whenever I got a fair idea of where each scene needed to go. I did write the first scene first and the last scene last, but that was about it.
Let the reader do some work
Years ago when I took a playwriting course in college, I learned a lesson from the professor. I wrote the last scene of my play with a happy ending — more or less. When he read the first draft, he told me, “You need to give the actors something to do. Why don’t you kill somebody?”
I realized then that acting is as crucial to a successful play as scriptwriting is. (And costuming, stage designing, directing and all the rest….) So, too, is leaving something for the reader to imagine. It’s possible to spell out too much in a story. Pete Hautman wasn’t asking us to be vague, but to leave a little to the reader’s imagination, too. It helps them get involved in — and keep reading — the story. The writer, he told us, must trust the reader to connect the dots.
Downtime counts, too
“Ruminating is also writing.” So said John DeDakis.
While nothing will ever get written without sitting in a chair pounding on a keyboard or writing in a notebook, storytelling begins in ideas, daydreams, imagination. It will take work for most of us to put those ideas into a form that will intrigue a reader. But never discount the time when you find yourself gazing out a window, mindlessly watching leaves fall from a tree or clouds scud across the sky.
We all need to give our creative minds a chance to run free so we can have words to put on pages (or screens).
There was much more packed into two short days, but right now I need to ruminate before I start this year’s NaNo novel.
I’ve been writing so much, I haven’t written anything here in far too long. I started a couple of posts, then got busy and didn’t finish them. So this is just a touching-base, saying-hello short post to say I’m still here.
I just got back from a great little mystery writers’ conference sponsored by Write on Door County! And I’d like to put some of what I learned in use before I talk a lot about the conference.
But it was an opportunity to enjoy the last of season — for my first time — in the little finger of Wisconsin that is Door County. And to make some new friends in various stages of their writing journeys.
Who knew a keyboard could make so much difference?
I ordered a new wireless keyboard to use with my laptop. I’m trying to adjust to a work-at-home in retirement schedule and, even though I’ve been using my laptop almost daily since the first COVID lockdown, I only acted on the impulse to add a keyboard last week.
I’ve had the laptop for a few years and, frankly, I’ve never loved the flat keyboard. Oh, I guess I got used to it, but I like this one better. I can look straight at my screen, which is a plus.
But that’s just one small change I’ve made lately. A friend of mine, Sharon Michalove, has been sharing links for online write-ins. And the latest has been to a group called The Creative Academy for Writers. I’m not sure how old the group is, but the founders seem properly to bill themselves as “your friendly, neighbourhood accountability, craft and strategic author mentors.” And yes, they’re from the “neighbourhood” up north. I think they’re all from Vancouver, B.C., but I’m sure they’re all Canadian. The academy is a full of folks who are equally friendly, full of enthusiasm and ready to share tips as they learn them.
So far, my biggest involvement is taking part in their writing sprints. I’m in one as I write this post. They have a “writing room” that’s open 24/7 and several scheduled group sprints every day of the week. (And I’ve already talked about how much I like writing with groups.)
I joined a weekly motivation and accountability group. I’ve only been to one session so far, but I love the format. They start with a “win” from the previous week and end with a goal for the next week. We celebrate every win with jazz hands, as people politely mute their microphones during the meeting. In between wins and goals, members can bring up questions or problems they may be having with their work-in-progress (that’s WIP to some), and the host and others offer suggestions and encouragement.
I also signed up for a discussion for cozy mystery writers, but that’s not until next weekend. I’m looking forward to it.
So, what’s the bottom line from all these changes? I have a specific daily word goal in order to finish my first draft by Oct. 31. I’ve written a couple more scenes in the novel, and figured out a few more that I need. And as soon as I finish this, I’ll be back working on another one.
I just spent a stormy Tuesday evening writing with a half-dozen friends. I am always productive when I write with others. I also do pretty well when I write alone, but when I’m with others I’m less inclined to let myself get distracted from the work.
And, based on our conversation after we wrote, I realized I hadn’t articulated my goal in extending the invitation for others to meet me at a library. I know others aren’t as starved for writing time as I am. I’m working to change that, and joining groups that write is one way to do it.
For the last several years, my first writers’ group has hosted a writing day once or twice a year. We have a space we can use that’s big enough for our group members plus 10 or 12 additional writers. We’ve never needed more space than that. And it was perfect for social distancing the last few times we hosted the day.
We gather about 8:30 a.m. and pack up about 4:30 p.m., with an hour at lunch to socialize. That’s a pretty long day for writing, and twice a year seems like enough for something like that.
And since COVID, the magic of online meeting software has opened up a world of write-ins through two groups I belong to — Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. They, of course, offer far more than some group write-ins.
I’m not sure why I like write-ins so well. The only thing I can attribute it to is the years I’ve spent writing in newsrooms. I used to have trouble writing in those wide open spaces, but once I learned what background noise I could ignore and what I needed to heed, I found buckling down at deadline was easy.
I can imagine that there is something to having all those people involved in the same effort that put us all on a writing “wave length.” And I like that wave length.
As for critique groups, those have a different aim, and I haven’t done as well in them. I think part of my problem has been not having enough time to devote to reading others’ work — on top of the paucity of my own writing time. But I realized immediately that reading is a crucial part of critique groups. I dropped out of them.
Now that I’m moving to full time fiction writing, I think I might be ready to become a better member of a critique group. All I need to do is figure out a critique group formula that works for me … and a handful of other writers, too.
In the meantime, I’m taking full advantage of my writing groups. And I love the folks who are willing to write together.
Since the shutdown started last year, one of the best things in my life has been online chatting.
I’ve been a fan of the magic of the internet since I went back to school in the early 1980s. I was working for a publisher who was an early adopter of computers and those schreechy dial-up modems. I was able to take one of our “trash 80s” — a Texas Instruments keyboard with a minuscule memory — to campus with me. Between classes, I’d find a table in the student center near enough to an outlet that I could plug it into, and work through stacks of articles that I needed to edit.
I much prefer the tablet I’m writing on now to that “trash 80,” but the principle of portable computing power has always appealed to me.
And now that I can connect to online chats, it’s even better.
Since last March, I have “zoomed” to conferences and conversations with people all over the world. The first one was with folks in Italy, one of the earliest and worst-hit by the coronavirus. Just last night, I had a chat with siblings from my Sisters in Crime Chicagoland chapter.
Chicagoland stretches at least half-way across the stateline with Wisconsin (that would be me), and at least as far south as Champaign (hi, Robert). And neither of us would have made it to our 6:30 p.m. chapter meeting if it had been one of the pre-COVID-19, in person meetings at a book store, or library, or coffee shop in the city. Even one of the women who lives in Chicago might not have made it because of mobility problems.
I understand that some people crave face-to-face meetings. But I can only hope that the wonderful flexibility of online gatherings doesn’t go away just because in-person is becoming possible again.
I’ve been “attending” More than Malice, an online conference that’s taking the place of the in-person Malice Domestic conference this year. I’ve wanted to go to Malice almost since it’s inception. I found one of the early anthologies a year or two after it started, and it piqued my interest.
This year, thanks to the pandemic, the organizers opted to develop the online alternative. Since it’s held in Bethesda, Maryland, I signed up as soon as registration opened. And it has been everything I hoped for.
I loved the opening chat Wednesday night featuring Louise Penny. I’ve loved her Inspector Gamache series since I discovered it years ago. And the Thursday opening session was a panel of academics who have done research about cozy mysteries. Given my background in sociological research, I found that fascinating. I’d love to read the anthology — Reading the Cozy Mystery — they’re all part of. Here’s hoping the library will buy a copy.
The first two nights they held author speed-dating sessions. I’ve never been to one, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Each night they had nearly 50 authors and gave each of them one minute — 60 seconds — to tell everyone about her (mostly hers) or his latest book. It was a hoot — right down to the technical glitches. Anything can happen when you’re live.
Today already, I’ve listened to some of my favorite authors on panels. The first featured Chicago author Lori Rader-Day, as well as British author Sophie Hannah, Scot-American author Catriona McPherson, and a young British Ph.D. scholar JC Bernthal. What do they have in common? Agatha Christie.
Lori’s soon-to-be-released book is Death at Greenway, a fictionalized account of the time evacuated Londoners were housed at Christie’s vacation home. Sophie was selected by Christie’s heirs to pick up the pen for Poirot. She recently released her fourth Poirot novel, The Killings at Kingfisher Hall. I haven’t read it yet, but I expect it will be as good as the first ones. I’ve been lucky enough to meet both of these authors: Lori at the final Love is Murder conference in Chicago, and Sophie at the second Murder and Mayhem in Chicago conference, which Lori and Dana Kaye organize.
I have seen Catriona at so many Sisters in Crime events since everything went online that I almost feel I already know here. (I’ll need to remember to introduce myself properly if I ever do get to meet her in person.) She talked about how reading Christie influenced her own writing. Her latest is The Gingerbread House, in case you’d like to experience the results of that influence.
And JC (Jamie) talked about starting to read Agatha Christie with his mother when he was 8 years old. He puts many of us to shame with that early start. I have to admit, I didn’t really start reading Christie until I was already hooked on her stories from the PBS Mystery show. Since then, I’ve read quite a few, but clearly not with intensity of Jamie.
I have been having great fun, though, and feeling alternately inspired and incapable. Fingers crossed, by the end of the conference, I’ll have more chalked up on the inspiration side.