Starting your story. Is it magic?

TRACEE: As writers we have stories floating around in our heads all the time. Sometimes I feel like everything I see during the day spurs a little “and then what if?” moment where I spin the action, dialogue, character into something darker. I’m sure that some of those thoughts do make it into a story as an expression, or phrase or setting. Perhaps even as the seed for a character. However, it is a far cry from fleeting interest to formation of a plot that will become a project that occupies my mind for at least a year.  Those of us who write a series are looking for plot – we know the broader sense of our story (continuing characters, setting and some on-going themes). If you aren’t writing a series – or if you are, and think to break away – then all ideas are on the table. Action, mystery, romance, historical, literary, comic books. You name it, and it is possible.  How do you know that ‘this is it!’ This is the storyline that you will commit to. SUSAN: There are few better feelings than that shiver of excitement you feel when you know you’ve hit on something good. (Then I ask Paula and she tells me if I’m right.) A lot of times it just comes down to knowing I have enough to say about the plot to spin it out. If it’s interesting, but I don’t have that much to say, then I write it as a story. I wish it was scientific, but it’s more like falling in love. PAULA: When I know who the characters are–and what challenges they face. When I can “see” them in action in my mind…then I have the beginnings of a plot. CATE: I think my stories choose me like the wands in Harry Potter. An idea just takes hold and magic happens…;-) ROBIN: Ideas are constantly percolating. When characters becomes as real to me as my friends and family, or situations start to seem less like a “what if” and more like a memory, that’s when I know I’ll give the ideas life. I mean, heck, at that point, they’re writing themselves. All I have to do is pick up a pen or fire up my laptop. Like Cate said, it’s like magic. TRACEE: So… to the ‘magic happens’ among you. Is there still room to start an idea and then say, no, it didn’t work out? Or once you have it in mind, it’s a “GO!”??  I have several (but not tons) of ideas that became starts but then I decided no or the fates tempted me away. ROBIN: I leave room for experiments and surprises. Ideas that started life in one way have evolved into something else, like a subplot. If it’s not working, I don’t force it, though. Sometimes when I make cuts, whether they be characters or scenes, I save them in a separate “cuts” file. Only the characters/scenes that haunted me to begin with. The cuts that are pure crap get left behind as unallocated space on my hard drive, ready to be overwritten. In other words, deleted. 🙂 MICHELE: I know it when my fingers hit the keyboard and seem to have a life of their own. It’s like the story is in me and has to be told. The characters just won’t shut up until I’m done.  ALEXIA: Ooh, good question. I start with a subject that fascinates me, something I want to learn more about in real life, a something I’d be “into” even if I wasn’t writing a novel. Then I try to combine my characters and a murder (or three) with my chosen topic. If I can figure out how to combine, for instance, rose gardens and growing roses (hint, hint) with Gethsemane and the gang and a credible crime, that’s my story. Sometimes I’ll find a topic that grabs me but I can’t figure out how to work a dead body into it so it goes into the “maybe someday” pile. TRACEE: Now I’m going to be hesitant to follow Alexia into her rose garden or any flower garden for that matter. ALLISON: For me, I need something concrete intersecting with something theoretical. With this first book, I became obsessed with an enormous house that had been empty for years because of the housing bubble in Utah. The house plays almost no role in the story now, but it was the jumping off point for thinking about greed, secrets, and people who do very wrong things for what they believe are very right reasons. Like Alexia, I enjoy research. I’m an eternal student and love reading primary source material. My Mormon history is a great place to find strange and disconcerting ideas for murders.   I have started projects that seem to peter out around 20,000 words. Those are stories where I have the physical component–people and places–but haven’t found the right theme. I keep them; believing one morning I’ll wake up with just the right reason for murder.   TRACEE: Thanks everyone! I’ve decided that if I turn burglar or hacker I’d want to peek inside the dark reaches of computers and read the lost idea and chapters waiting patiently to be reinvigorated. Bet there’s some good stuff among the detritus! Wonder how other writers decide the time is right to start the story? 

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National Novel Writing Month

  NaNoWriMo is a big deal. If you are a writer you’ve heard of it and likely participated – or at least swore that you would this year. Essentially NaNoWriMo is one great big on-line writing prompt. The challenge is to write a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and 11:59 pm on November 30. According to the organizers: “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.” Taken at face value this is a great thing! Daily emails and an online forum to keep the writer motivated. Published authors use it to kick start their next project, dreamers use the schedule to dive in. The sheer speed of the daily word count makes you forget to worry and just get words on the page. (For anyone who is writing their first novel the blank page is not your friend. Every word past the first one gets easier. Finally you are lost in the story and the end is near.) Take the concept a step further and the value to elevating discourse about creativity is immeasurable. NaNoWriMo is much more than one month a year. The Young Writers Program takes the notion of creativity into K-12 classrooms around the world. Camp NaNoWriMo is a virtual writing retreat for fiction and non-fiction alike. The Come Write In program is a free resource to libraries and others who are promoting reading and writing in their communities. Writing leads to reading and vice versa. And both writing and reading lead to greater success in all aspects of life – listening and speaking skills improve, analytical skills strengthen, focus and concentration increase, and stress is reduced as the mind focuses. So whether you are a writer or a reader or both let’s give a shout out to everyone who participated in NaNoWriMo this year!  For more on NaNoWriMo visit their website at NaNoWriMo.org and get ready for 2018.  

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Reflections on holidays past

 My favorite Christmas memories are about being with my family. My parents always created a magical time of year, complete with sparkly tree, days of cooking favorite sweet and spicy treats, and, of course, gifts on Christmas Day. There was usually some project that took more time than anticipated and probably drove my mother crazy as we commandeered space she needed to do the real preparations for guests. Two projects that I remember in particular were making pine cone wreaths – incredibly messy – and creating all sorts of gingerbread projects, including the one pictured here.    When I was a child, my mother’s cousins hosted a party on Christmas eve that to my young eyes was the height of sophistication. Technically I viewed the main event from the children’s party in their ‘rec room’. I have such clear memories that there must have been a lot of peeking and dashes into the main party to ask my parents a question of great importance. Looking back, I think that this was a heroic feat on their part the night before Christmas day – when they also served an amazing dinner for many guests! I lived in a small town and have fond memories of the Christmas parade (as a high school student in band I also remember it being very cold some years) and of special church services and caroling. My husband grew up in Europe and his memories have a greater sense of ‘the town’. Christmas markets filed the streets of Vienna, Austria and Lausanne, Gruyere, and Fribourg in Switzerland, the places where he spent most of his youth. Handcrafted ornaments and other decorations were displayed in abundance alongside mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.  In Fribourg, the festival of Saint Nicolas was – and still is – a huge event. Held the first weekend in December, Saint Nicolas, the patron saint of the town, is mounted on a donkey and leads a cortege through the streets to the gallery of the cathedral. From his position high above the crowd he then makes his remarks. Thousands of people gather for the event, a true community celebration for all ages. To this day my husband’s friends who still live in Fribourg reunite for a fondue after the parade, and when we are there it is a true highlight of the season. I should confess that as I write this I am thinking…. hmmm maybe there is a short story in this.: Death at Saint Nicolas. The mere idea may get me banned from the festival…. What are your fondest holiday traditions? Any story ideas in them? 

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Oh Christmas Tree?

 A photo of FLOTUS’s White House Christmas decorations—a phalanx of up-lit, bare-branched white trees lining a black-tiled corridor illuminated only by a few pendant lamps and the lights on an equally dark Christmas tree at the corridor’s far end—generated lots of reaction on social media. Responses pretty much evenly split between “love it” and “hate it” (although I know of one person who said, “at least it’s different”). Many assumed that politics informed the reactions because, hey, everything is about politics these days. Right? Wrong, in my case. I voted “hate it” not because of political affiliation but because of—scary trees. I don’t think hip or trendy when I look at the photo of stark branches emitting an icy vibe. I think, “When are the flying monkeys going to attack?” “Where’s the Snow Queen hiding?” Jack Frost? The Abominable Snowman? Snow White’s wicked stepmother? The cast of an M. Night Shyamalan movie? Notice a theme? Forests, the woods, places filled with scary trees are places where evil lurks and bad things happen. They are not locations of holiday merriment. “Little Red Riding Hood”. The Princess Bride. “Hansel and Gretel”. The Blair Witch Project. The Cabin in the Woods. Deliverance. Do any of those stories stir the holiday spirit? Every time I pass a woods, I think of the news reports and true crime shows and episodes of “Law and Order” where a body was found in the woods by a hiker, hunter, dog walker, or Boy Scout. Don’t go in the woods. Add chilling darkness to the scary trees—as in the White House photo—and I cringe. When people talk about winter wonderlands I think “wonder” in the sense of “I wonder what I’m doing out here and I wonder where the nearest fireplace is”. I don’t do cold and dark. I can handle them each individually—cold or dark. Combined? No thanks. I moved from Alaska clear down to Texas to get away from a cold darkness that seemed to last forever. The dark is the worst. When it’s just cold, I can bundle up in stylish sweaters and fashionable coats, throw on a rakish scarf for some flair, and head outside to enjoy the bright winter sun. I’m a creature of light. I keep a light on the porch and a sting of fairy lights in my bedroom illuminated all night, to heck with the electric bill.  I’d make the world’s worst vampire. While some people bemoan it as a sign of light pollution, I think the sight of cities lit up as you fly over them on the red-eye is beautiful. Neon signs flashing over city streets are magnificent. I never fail to stop and marvel. My town illuminated all of its (not scary) trees around the train station and Market Square with thousands of miniature lights for the holidays. I love it. A forest of light is a forest where nothing lurks. I’m sure a folklorist or psychologist would explain how the forest represents our primal fear of the unknown and the danger that awaits those who dare venture away from the safety and security of the tribe/family/familiar. I’m not going to tell you any of that. I’m going to say there’s a reason, a reason that has nothing to do with holiday cheer, so many authors and filmmakers set their horror stories and cautionary tales in the woods—the colder and darker, the better. What’s the scariest place you can think of to set a story? What do you think of when you see woods in the winter?

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What's her name today?

 Every writer, and many readers, have heard stories about character names. One famous example is how Scarlett O’Hara was Pansy before the final printing. I’m not saying Gone With the Wind wouldn’t have survived this, but Scarlett certainly set the tone for the character in a way Pansy wouldn’t have.  I’ve working on names for book three of the Agnes Lüthi mysteries and I’ve already had a few naming issues. Since this is a continuing series the main characters are established. The Vallotton family plays a prominent role in each of the first two books and will in the third. So why did I think Veillon was a good last name for an important character in book three? To me, Vallotton and Veillon are two distinct names. To my Beta readers, evidently not. (To make matters worse, I hastily changed Veillon to Langren before sending to my writers’ group…. except I didn’t really. I substituted a misspelling. This meant that when I tried a auto substitution to the final name (Rochebin) I only had one instance to change. For a moment I thought: how is it possible I used the name of one of the most important characters one time in the entire manuscript.) For me, names carry connotation. My books are set in Switzerland which means the name can have a regional association. Do I want to emphasize their linguistic affiliation? Or the fact that they are a foreigner? (Smythe, for example.) Beyond a sense of historical place or ethnicity, names carry connotations that are personal or cultural. Trendy names, classic names. What does a nickname say about a person?  Any favorite or least favorite fictional names?   

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End of the year. Time for on-line presence and social media audit?

Soon people will start talking about New Year’s resolutions (which I don’t do). However I am a fall and spring clean out person. Closets, attic, you name it. Time to weed out things I don’t love. This seems like a bad segue into all things internet and social media – I don’t want to give the impression that I want it to all go away! However, I’ve recently realized that I’ve updated some profiles, but not others (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook…. my personal website…. where does it stop!) So…. I’m about to undertake an audit of my online presence prompted by the release of my newest book in early February.  Technically the prompt was the marketing department at my publisher….. a very nice email with links to every place in the universe where my books can be purchased. Wish I could just say Google my name and your favorite book seller, or visit the store, and order one! Apparently that’s not enough.  Anyway, prompted to update these links I am now working my way through with a checklist, making sure everything aligns and is current. Photo, current books with links to sellers, contact information, directions to other pages, links to…. you get the picture. I’m afraid that I run the risk of going down the dark hole of the internet and investing too much time. But I think that a thorough (clean out the attic but don’t repaint it) look is needed. Anyone else out there thinking about an annual audit?     

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With Songs in Our Hearts

Over the river and through the wood? Or leaving on a jet plane? What song describes how you’re spending the Thanksgiving holiday weekend? I’m thinking mine is “You’ve Got A Friend.” My parents opened our home to friends and neighbors every Thanksgiving and now my friends are doing the same. The blessings I’m counting this year are the human kind, including my fabulous Miss Demeanors posse! Cate: I’m doing Friendsgiving! Tracee: My song this holiday is anything by Edith Piaf or Charles Aznavour! I am in NYC with my husband and his French speaking Swiss friends so there is a strong French theme. The theme was nearly ruined when we were in a French Brasserie eating to the music of Simon and Garfunkle followed by The Beach Boys. Alexia: My song is “Alice’s Restaurant”. Not really Alice’s. Probably the Deerpath Inn’s Restaurant. Theonly thing I’m making for Thanksgiving is reservations. I’ll spend the rest of the day being thankful for the chance to sleep in and for time to work on my manuscript. I’m going home to visit my parents for Christmas so Thanksgiving is just me and the cat. And I’m cool with that. Susan: I’m thinking John Denver’s Country Roads, Take me home/To the place, I belong. I’ve been going to my uncle’s house for Thanksgiving almost every year of my life, and you have to drive on a lot of country roads to get there, and he has a huge window, and when we walk up to the house and I look in the window and see all my family there, I know I’m home. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I feel especially blessed to have the Miss Demeanors in my life. Tracee: These are each and every one a perfect plan. Paula: This Thanksgiving it will probably be just me and Michael, for the first time in a long time no kids will be here. But that’s OK. I love Thanksgiving and even if all of my children have abandoned me (no guilt there), I am content to light the fire and roast a turkey and drink all the Old New England Egg Nog I can. Old New England Egg Nog is made with, and I quote here right from the label, “Kentucky Straight BourbonWhiskey, Rum, Brandy and Blended Whiskey.”Happy Thanksgiving, all! Alison: Ooooh. There’s something so wonderfully wrong about that eggnog. Paula: Well let’s put it this way: Most people object to eggnog because it’s too thick. But this eggnog is not, thanks to all the booze. Also: My 82-year-old mother loves this eggnog, and the first Christmas we served it she got drunk. It was really awesome, because none of us had ever seen her drunk before. (Except of course my dad, when she was very young.) Getting my mother drunk has now become an annual tradition now LOL Cate: My song would be a mashup of Britney Spears’ Work, B**** and I Can Cook, Too, all sung by Pink, and remixed by Marshmello.I gave this a lot of thought. I think it encapsulates needing to finish a rewrite by the end of the month (I’ve had four weeks to do it in total) and preparing food for my family and friends. Michele: I’m traveling back to Boston after a week in hurricane ravaged St. John which got another dose of heavy rain while we were there. I’ll go with Bridge Over Troubled Water this Thanksgiving. Besides I still ❤️ Simon and Garfunkel. Paula: I realize I totally forgot about the song. Part of my ritual every year is to listen to Christmas songs while I prepare the meal. My favorite is I’ll be Home for Christmas, which I listen to while stuffing the turkey and drinking, you guessed it, Old New England Egg Nog. Alison: Okay, so I get to be the bittersweet one. My song is “Good Old Days” by Macklemore featuring Kesha. My brother, sister-in-law and adorable niece and brand-new nephew moved from Brooklyn to LA this summer. For years, Thanksgiving has been an amazing feast with both our families–and whoever else was around–at our place upstate in the middle of the woods. This year, we’re lucky my father-in-law is joining us, but it will be a small affair (and the last Thanksgiving before my daughter graduates from high school). I can’t deny I’m not missing my wonderful brother just a little bit…and thinking about the good old days. Robin: Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! 

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Reflections

This week marks my last turn at the Miss Demeanors wheel for 2017. I decided it would be a good time to pause and reflect. There were a lot of “firsts” for me this year: – My first panel as an author, at the Mystery Writers Conference at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA, where I participated in the “Cybercrime 101” discussion alongside current and former FBI agents. I had so much fun, I spoke at 2 more conferences after that. – My first high-5 by a NYT & USA Today best-selling author. J.T. Ellison was a fellow panelist at the above-mentioned conference who attended the cybercrime talk. She congratulated me on scaring the hell out of her. – My first profile piece. The Northern California chapter of Sisters In Crime featured a Q&A with me in the November issue of the Stiletta newsletter. – My first mention in Writer’s Digest with the Miss Demeanors making the list of 101 Best Websites for Writers. – My first recognition at a writers’ conference. The Miss Demeanors were included in the celebration at the New England Crime Bake banquet for making the Writer’s Digest list. I also got to spend time with a couple of my fellow Miss Demeanors in real life during that weekend. – And, of course, joining the Miss Demeanors. It’s been a banner year for this newbie. I can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store.   

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Where're You Going?

Having recently returned from a cross-country trip I was reminded of one of the ways I entertain myself on airplanes. I try to figure out which of my fellow travelers are going to the same destination for the same reason I am. Sometimes it’s easy. Flights to Las Vegas in late July or early August carry gamblers and hackers headed to Black Hat/DefCon. The latter tend to stand out – lots of black clothing, tattoos, and laptops with privacy screens. It’s not unusual to see business cards and vendor schwag exchanged among seat mates. The game is more challenging on other trips. The New England Crime Bake, for example. I ended up being the only person on my flight headed to Boston from the West Coast for that purpose although I did spot a couple of other writers. At least, I think they were. One person pulled out a notebook and wrote in long hand, curled up in her seat. The other had a laptop. They both had that faraway contented expression I get when I write, as opposed to the make-every-minute-count scowl of day job business travelers. I sometimes wonder if anyone else plays this game. I know at least one of my seat mates over the last year noticed something I do on long flights. I set aside my Kindle or pause movies periodically, pull out my laptop, make notes, then put my laptop away again. At the end of the flight he finally asked me if I was a writer. On this, one of the busiest travel days of the year, air travel will be stressful for a lot of folks. Making a game of it can help take some of the sting out. So, where’re you going?
 

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