Roaming Writer

As a writer, I’m always seeking a new, fresh experience — which can be as simple as leaving my house, my home office, and getting away from my computer. Routines, while effective, can tend to become ruts. It’s important to borrow a bit from Taylor Swift and “shake it off.” In this context, however, shake off the staid and mundane things once in a while. You don’t have to invest in a trip to Paris — although what an inspiration! Just get out and see with a different perspective — even if it’s only taking an alternate route home.

I spent Memorial Day 2015 returning from the land of cotton to the open prairies. I was driving a vintage pickup and pulling a trailer along miles and miles of lowest-bid built interstate highways, listening to whatever tolerable music I could tune up on the FM, non-satellite radio. Give me pop; give me bluegrass; give me R&B; give me funk, or give me Mozart, but I can’t abide most rap, and that seemed to be my choice other than modern country music or classic country. I chose the classic, because it was featuring a lot of boot-scooting and/or patriotic songs, and it reminded me of my childhood when I learned to listen to George Jones whether I wanted to or not.

My favorite tune of the day was Elvis belting out “Dixie.” It’s wonderful, but it also seemed right while I was driving along the top of a levee road and gazing across flooded fields, out-of-bounds rivers, and swampy woods that only ticks and chiggers could love.

Now I haven’t pulled a trailer since my teenage days of showing horses on the itty-bitty local saddle club circuit, so I was definitely rusty and taking extreme care with a twelve-foot U-Haul filling my rear-view mirror. I wasn’t sure how Ole Red would handle a big trailer either. Back in the day, this Ford could pull anything, but the pickup is four years shy of becoming an official automotive antique and hasn’t towed since its operation (emergency installation of a new engine). It did fine, especially once I crossed the state line and could buy real gasoline instead of ethanol. Since I was trying to scoot into central Oklahoma before the late-afternoon boil of severe thunderstorms, heavy rainfall, and/or tornado activity — the delays caused by wimpy fuel due to poor acceleration, struggling wallows over hills, and more frequent stops to refill — proved exasperating. Still, with real gas finally in the tank, Ole Red was able to zip out of range of a tornado roaming the east side of the state, and then there was only a severe thunderstorm to hunker through on the roadside shoulder before cruising on home.

In between these modest highlights of my day-long road trip, I had plenty of time to think about plot and characters.

Bing! I have a new protagonist for a new spin-off science fiction series.

Bing! I figured out how to simplify and shorten the storyline for my current fantasy project, in case I don’t want to write yet another trilogy.

Bing! In my head, I wrote a new scene to be inserted into my WIP.

So although it’s easy to pull my introverted-writer card and shy away from anything that might draw me from the comfort zone of my computer and imagination, I took on a physical challenge and vanquished it. I managed to thread my trailer through the hazards of fast-food parking. I met a delightful couple by sharing a table at a super-busy Braum’s where there weren’t enough tables for the crowd of holiday travelers. I even chatted with these folks and learned that there are no summer mosquitoes in Mount Nebo, Arkansas, which was where they were planning to spend a few days in a lake cabin. Who knew there were any mosquito-free zones in Dixie?

Now how could a day be more productive than that? I just wish I’d thought to attach a US flag on the truck to honor America’s fallen warriors.

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Plotting Plots

You can have story concepts and ideas all day long, and not have a plot.

Maybe you’ve been living with a character or a setting for years, ever since inspiration struck you, but have you ever gotten your story off the ground? Has the storyline ever completely come together? Or are you still mulling over the story world and never managing to figure out what should happen to your protagonist once he or she actually sets out on the great quest?

It’s not easy to make the leap from concept, dream, idea, or spark to an actual plotted storyline that spans beginning, middle, and end, but there are certain techniques in the writer’s toolkit that will make it possible.

Firstly, determine the moment of change for your protagonist. Yes, I know you’ve been designing the history, back story, and mythology of your story world, but what catalytic event does it all boil down to?

Consider the opening of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune. Herbert has obviously thought through a complex political situation, the world Paul and his family are leaving, the world they are moving to, the factions, the intrigues, etc. but instead of a massive info-dump he chooses instead to open his story with the last-moment preparations for the move off-world. This is the actual change in Paul’s circumstances, and it causes a visit from the Bene Gesserit witch that sets Paul on his path of destiny.

Secondly, examine the character you’ve selected to be your protagonist. Is this character truly suitable to play the lead role of your story? Or is this character a bystander, watching others engaging in conflict and adventures? How can you tell if you’ve chosen the best character to star?

By honestly assessing whether this character’s goal drives the story action and whether this character has the most at stake.

Too often, I watch students of mine contort their stories into Gordian knots in an effort to preserve the wrong character. They will cling stubbornly to a weak, vapid, reactive, passive bystander while ignoring the so-called secondary character that possesses drive, determination, stamina, and a defined goal.

Thirdly, what is the protagonist’s goal in light of the story situation, the stakes, and the catalytic event? Until you know it, you have no plot no matter how much world-building you may do.

Fourthly, who is the antagonist? Don’t shove forward some contrived dastardly no-good without any thought. Instead, take time to sort through your characters for the individual that most directly opposes your protagonist’s objective.

For example, I can cook up some mighty, evil super-wizard living in a remote tower as he plots the annihilation of all living things. But what has Super-wizard got to do with Young Farmboy living three kingdoms away in the dell?

Please don’t start rambling about how Young Farmboy has a destiny and someday, after Young Farmboy has gone on a thirty-year quest, he will meet Super-wizard in a cataclysmic battle to the death.

Go back instead to Young Farmboy’s goal. What, specifically, does he want? To go on a quest? To what purpose? Okay, sure, to find the Golden Casket of Treasures Untold. And what does that goal have to do with Super-wizard three kingdoms and thousands of leagues away?

Are you going to remind me that Super-wizard is evil and wants to annihilate everything? But is that intention directly opposed to Young Farmboy’s goal of seeking the Golden Casket?

No, it’s not. Beware the temptation to sweep past this glitch. Ignore it at your peril. For it will unravel your plot and leave you stalled.

There are three approaches to use in solving this plotting problem. Super-wizard’s purpose can be altered so that he has the Golden Casket in his possession and would rather see all living things annihilated than surrender it. Or Young Farmboy’s goal needs to change so that he’s seeking to stop the threatened annihilation of all living things, specifically his village and the sweet maiden he loves. Or Super-wizard can sit in his remote tower and you can devise a more immediate antagonist that can constantly oppose and trouble Young Farmboy as he seeks his goal.

Lastly, once you’ve solved the problem of goals that are actually directly opposed, think about the climax you intend. How will you wrap up this clash of opposition? How will the conflict be resolved? How will the protagonist prevail even when all the odds are stacked against him and his antagonist seems to have the upper hand?

Solve these problems and answer these questions, and you’ll have a plot. It may not be exactly what you originally intended, but what does that matter? You’ve made progress in moving from a concept – nebulous and not quite coming together – to a storyline that jumps into action from the beginning, holds together in the middle, and delivers a rousing good finish.

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Creativity Beyond Words

This past weekend, I took a break away from my newest fiction project and attended a vintage market show. I didn’t go to buy. I went to walk around and see what imaginative and creative people who aren’t writers are doing.

Now, I go to antiques shows a few times a year, but this was different. I expected to see painted furniture, but aside from that I found vintage doll heads stuck atop lamp bases with tiny crowns made of marbles. I found wreaths made of cotton bolls. I found handmade primitive dolls. I found rusty tractor parts, chairs with ripped seats, salvaged hardware bits and bobs, and light fixtures made from old galvanized roof turbines.

(Did I take any pictures? Alas, no. The crowds were thick, and frankly I was too busy ogling and goggling to remember to snap pictures.)

I wanted to observe what people bought and what they might use their purchases for. After all, I keep hearing about the trend of repurposing from blogs and television. So what exactly, I wondered, were people doing and with what?

I saw customers gravitating toward antique typewriters and wooden shipping crates. I saw them caressing rusty lamps, murmuring over whether they could find someone to do rewiring. I saw them pondering the selection of chalk-type paints in one booth. I saw them deliberating over whether to buy signage.

But mainly I saw folks fingering random pieces of hardware, playing pieces salvaged from games, odd forks in tarnished silver, clock faces, old apothecary bottles, and rusty industrial springs. They were curious and obviously fascinated, but booth after booth seemed to offer more items to make things with than pieces reflecting actual imaginative re-use.

Mainly, it seemed to be less a venue of artistry and craftsmanship, and more a supply source.

As I was picking out some outdoor faucet handles — things that used to be in every garage sale and have now practically vanished — the vendor was asking me what I would use them for. Surely, I thought, you should be showing new uses to me.

But perhaps my expectations were off-base. All I know is that the place quivered with possibility. On every shelf, and at every turn, I saw the capacity for inventiveness just waiting to be seized. Table legs and wooden spindles … what can be made from them? What might be done with them?

The feet salvaged from an old clawfoot bath tub … could they be turned upside down to become bookends?

Looking at things from different angles and new perspectives, what a terrific exercise in imagination! Can an empty clock cabinet become a display case? Can a bed be re-carpentered into a bench? Can a battered piece of industrial iron become a work of art?

It’s so refreshing to move away from the abstraction of words from time to time and consider other means of self-expression. Besides, you never know what might spark a new story idea.

For example, I collect old nineteenth-century photos, also known as cabinet cards. I particularly like wedding photos.

These are what I purchased:

couple 1

couple 2

couple 3

On one level, the clothes fascinate me. Who is the most stylish couple? Only one bride is wearing the type of wedding dress and veil our modern perceptions might expect to see. couple 1The other young women are attired in finery, but not what we would consider bridal gowns. Look at the grooms with their well-cut suits and fine cravats.

On another level, I like to study their faces. Body language is difficult to decipher because of the stiff poses required by photographic methods of the day. But one couple is holding hands.couple 2

One couple has linked arms.couple 3

And one couple is standing stiffly side by side with only their elbows touching.couple 1

Fashionable poses? Or can we surmise stories about them and their relationships?

My other treasure (besides faucet handles) is this green glass doorknob.green door knob Is it authentically vintage or a reproduction? I’ve seen clear glass knobs and those sun-turned a delicate lavender tint, but I have never encountered an emerald green one before. Real or phony, it’s beautiful. I have no idea of what I’ll do with it, but I love it anyway.

green door knob

Who knows? Perhaps one day it will inspire a story about the fabled emeralds of some magical kingdom.

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Read and Unread

Just as a quick update about my declared intention of reading 100 books this summer, the organizational idea of stacking the tomes in a tub isn’t going to work. I can’t find a tub or basket large enough, and even if I could I don’t want the behemoth taking up that much real estate in my living room.

So far, I’ve managed to fill a box and two smallish tubs, which are now stacked atop each other, and that represents a gathering of less than twenty volumes. As I set about pulling titles off a bookshelf the other day, it occurred to me that it was foolish to shift books around this way.

So, although I’m not fond of clerical work, I suppose I’ll just have to write the titles down on a list as I finish them. Now, record-keeping ranks right up there on my yuck list along with accounting, checkbook balancing, diary entries, and filing bills, but I can’t think of any other way to avoid fudging on my resolution.

Meanwhile, I’ve already gone through three good novels — stories by Brandon Sanderson, Marta Perry, and Emma Newman — and enjoyed them very much. I’m working on Holly Black at the moment.

And like the cottontail bunny currently living in the briar patch that’s overtaken the northeast corner of my backyard, I’m happy, happy, happy!

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Bring on the Sidekick

Which character role is your favorite to create and write about?

The protagonist?

The villain?

The mentor?

I love sidekicks. Something about them just makes me happy when I write. I don’t care if they’re good, evil, or somewhere in between. They are so useful in advancing plots.

They can be lazy creatures or as perennially busy as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. They can bumble and stumble, as comic relief. They can be smarter than the hero. (Think of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves.) They can think they’re smarter than the hero. (Think of Baldric and his “cunning plans” in the British TV series BLACKADDER.) They can be as loyal as Marshal Dillon’s deputy Festus. Or they can be shifty and unreliable, like the dognappers hired by Cruella de Ville. And, just as Darth Vader proves to his boss the emperor in RETURN OF THE JEDI, they are capable of changing their allegiance in a crisis.

Generally, sidekicks serve stories as the workerbees of the story. They possess skills and knowledge. Others gather intel or solve problems. If they are injured, kidnapped, killed, or incapacitated, the plot stakes go up because things become worse for the beleaguered hero.

The story role of sidekick can work for either the hero or the villain, because even the bad guys (and gals) need minions, too.

As a writer, I favor the sidekicks because I can relax with them and give my imagination free rein. So I like to assign quirks to the sidekick that might not be appropriate for a protagonist. Or make them grumblers, who argue, mutter, and disapprove of whatever the hero is about to do — while still pitching in and helping to make it possible. With that kind of personality, another — albeit mild — level of conflict can be injected into the story.

As a reader, I suppose I like best the sidekicks who are buddies. They have a history with the protagonist that reaches into the backstory. Maybe the characters grew up together. Maybe they forged a bond of friendship through a work crisis or in war’s dangers. But their relationship is stronger than a common cause or an employer/employee situation. They are not equals, but they are firm friends.

In the mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, the manservant Bunter works for Lord Peter Wimsey, but he’s more than a servant, more than an investigative assistant capable of taking photographs or carrying fingerprint powder. He served in the army with Lord Peter during WWI, and he best understands and knows how to cope with Lord Peter’s difficulties with shellshock. Although the two men live in two very different social levels, their bond is strong.

In Dashiell Hammett’s novel, THE GLASS KEY, Paul and Al have been friends since boyhood. Paul is a rough-around-the edges political boss, and Al is his trusty right arm. Even when the men’s friendship is threatened, Al goes to heroic lengths to save Paul’s neck.

Now, in the books you’ve read and the movies you’ve seen, who are your favorite sidekicks? Can you name the ones you’ve found most memorable? Why? What about them has appealed to you most?

Do they play only the sidekick role? Or do you prefer secondary characters who combine roles, such as sidekick and romantic interest or sidekick and confidant?

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Read 100

There is light at the end of my tunnel. I can look ahead past the stacks of student manuscripts and deadlines to a summer where my time is my own.

My imagination is presently staggering, malnourished and underfed. It craves vitamins and nutrients. It craves fun, creativity, good story, fast pacing, involving characters — all the elements it hasn’t been receiving in sufficient quantities lately.

Therefore, I plan to feed it by reading at least 100 books this summer. I hope the number will far exceed that, but we’ll see how it goes.

I’ve never been a bean counter. Any past attempts to document my reading through listing the titles and plot summaries in some kind of diary have usually fallen by the wayside. I know I read a lot, but I never know how much. As long as I’m getting through at least one or two novels a week, I’m happy.

However, I want to be better organized than this, so I propose to go through my house and gather up 100 novels that I haven’t read as yet. All those to-be stacks of books spilling off the tops of overloaded bookshelves and stacked beneath chairs … time to pull them out, dust them off, and crack them open.

I think I’ll corral them in a large plastic tub and park it in the living room. If I start a book and dislike it enough to toss it aside after the first few pages, then it won’t count toward my quota. If I should empty the tub before the end of summer, then I’ll refill it with another 100 books and keep going.

Too ambitious?

I have no idea. I keep thinking back to my childhood, when I spent most summer days reading one to two books daily. I don’t intend to shoot for THAT, but the well needs filling and I aim to do it the best way I know how.

Meanwhile, there are new books to be chased down and captured as well. John Sandford’s new Prey title was released today. And the latest Miss Julia offering from Ann B. Ross came out earlier this month. My fingers are itching to order heaps of tomes. I visited bookstores three times this past weekend, racing up and down aisles with a sense of joy and abandon, surrounded by books on all sides.

During the past few months, I have been restricted on book purchases. Nothing like paying off the bills for eye surgery to dent one’s bank balance. But although this weekend I meant to buy only one book because payday cometh soon, I couldn’t quite achieve such self-discipline. Let’s just say I managed to get out of the store with only two sacks full of reading material, my credit card groaning all the way. How I wanted more!

What are your reading plans for the summer? Right now, I’m heading for the bookstore with maybe a detour past the library.

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From My Bookshelf: THE LITTLE BEACH STREET BAKERY

Have you heard of Jenny Colgan? Better still, have you read her fiction?

I just completed her novel, THE LITTLE BEACH STREET BAKERY, a mainstream book about a young woman struggling to restart her life after bankruptcy and a breakup with her long-time lover. She rents a place in a rickety building in a Cornish fishing village and finds solace and healing in the baking of bread.

Over the years, I’ve read so many books along similar themes — often featuring a divorced woman embittered by the shattering of her comfortable existence who then drifts through a plotless series of encounters with new characters.

I call such books the “Plotless Wonders” because so many of them go nowhere and simply let the protagonist wallow in angst, dive into destructive behavior, and muddle through some kind of pointless love affair that renders her more miserable.

However, Colgan’s novel was a pleasant surprise. It’s mainstream but it does have a plot. The protagonist is unhappy at first, but she moves forward in a positive, life-affirming way. There are sad parts to this book, and there are happy sections. She is kind and generous, not bitter. She grieves. She accepts. She makes a new life for herself. She even manages to strike a truce — eventually — with her antagonist.

I must say that my heart will forever belong to the charming little character Neil, who stole every scene and thoroughly enchanted me.

If you want a refreshing take on women’s fiction for this summer’s vacation read, give this a try. If nothing else, enjoy the loving depiction of bread and baking that kept my mouth watering.

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